Congratulations to Cecilia Too, one of the recipients of the 2022–23 Ooligan Press Diversity Scholarships!
We are honored to share Cecilia’s application essay here:
I immigrated to the U.S. before I was five years old and grew up in San Jose, California. My family is of Chinese descent and my parents took great pains to pass on their Malaysian Chinese culture and heritage to us children. This is why I call myself Chinese American. I usually leave out the Malaysian part because it’s too confusing to describe without going into an extended narrative of my family’s immigration that stretches back to my ancestors.
Growing up, my mom would regularly take me and my sister to the local library. I would stuff the designated canvas bag with upwards of thirty books each visit and return them weeks later, most of them read. In the early 2000’s, there was children’s literature available that featured Asian girl protagonists whom I could relate to. I remember reading Silk Umbrellas by Carolyn Marsden and Spilled Water by Sally Grindley and loving them. I read scores of novels and series featuring white American girls across a variety of genres, from realistic fiction to fantasy. I read Amelia’s Notebooks, Fairy Realm, Junie B. Jones, Judy Moody, Beacon Street Girls, Zenda, and many more novels and book series than I can count. But there were so few volumes of middle grade fiction about the Asian American experience, I can only recall one or two volumes of Asian-American-specific books I read as a kid.
In fact, there was very little representation of Asian Americans on mainstream American media channels as a whole. In middle school, I discovered the channel Wong Fu Productions on YouTube. It was the first time I saw video content that was created by and for Asian Americans. Asians in American TV were typically cast as martial artists like Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee, or relegated to a sidekick role. It was gratifying to watch these short, relatable videos about navigating love from the perspective of fellow Asian Americans.
Recently, I watched Turning Red, an animated film released by Disney. Turning Red is a coming-of-age story centered on Chinese Canadian Mei as she goes through puberty. Two opposing forces create internal conflict within Mei. Mei loves her Mom and wants to make her happy. She demonstrates her love for her mother through dutiful obedience and living up to the expectations her mom has for her, whether it’s helping out at the family temple after school or getting straight A’s. At the same time, Mei is growing up and becoming her own person, which means some of her ideas and interests are disapproved of by her mother, especially her love for the boy band 4Town.
Turning Red is the first piece of mainstream media I’ve ever watched that addressed this specific theme of the internal tug-of-war that many immigrant Chinese kids experience. Just as Mei experiences internal conflict over duty to her parents versus doing what she wanted to do, I also experienced the same relational dynamic with my own mother growing up. I smiled through nearly the entire movie because the authentic portrayal of a Chinese family in the U.S./Canada context felt so affirming. Yet at the same time, I wondered why I had to wait until I was twenty-five years old to watch an animated film that I could relate to. If the books, movies, and TV shows I watched as a child showed more accurate depictions of the experiences of immigrant kids like me, it would have gone a long way in helping me feel that I was not alone in my struggles.
The U.S. claims to be a multi-racial, pluralistic democracy. However, if the book publishing industry continues its trend of publishing books that implicitly feature white protagonists and characters, all it is doing is upholding the racist structure of our country. Publishing should live up to its progressive values by publishing books that illustrate the diverse experiences of individuals in America, especially non-white peoples. In order for America to function as a truly multi-racial, pluralistic democracy, we need to foster mutual respect and understanding of the various communities in our nation. Publishing diverse books can help the populace learn more about people groups they don’t have direct experience with or imagine what it’s like to live another person’s life. The dissemination of diverse stories and experiences can actually counter the evils of racism and white supremacy that plague our nation. By revealing the inherent humanity of a group that is “othered,” books can help people from entirely different backgrounds find common ground.
My dream is to someday run my own publishing house. I want to go to undergraduates in college writing clubs and ethnic-specific clubs and encourage them to submit manuscripts. I want lots of hopeful young writers to submit their work to me so that people who never considered that traditional publishing could be for them can get their voices heard. I want to connect with the communities I grew up in and encourage young people to write and create art and claim their voices and learn their history. In this way, we will transform our nation, shaping it to be closer to the more perfect union it was meant to be.
Asian Americans have been in the U.S. for centuries, and yet their stories and voices are little known and forgotten. Asian American representation is about highlighting the myriad stories and experiences within the community and bringing them to the attention of the broader public. It is about being wholly accepted by our own nation. I am excited to be part of the movement to help usher in more Asian American stories in book publishing and to witness even more dramatic progressive changes to the industry in the coming years.
The 2022–23 Ooligan Press Diversity Scholarships are awarded in honor of Indigo: Editing, Design, and More and poet Wopashitwe Mondo Eyen we Langa. Scholarships are awarded annually to incoming students to the Ooligan Press Master’s in Publishing program at Portland State University. Learn more here.