Using Asian-Pacific Pride to Promote Representation in Literature
by Tori Eldridge
I can’t imagine a better place to grow up as an Asian-American, Pacific Islander than Hawaii. Our island community is predominantly Asian and mixed-race, so most of the kids I went to school with had dark hair and lovely shades of brown skin. I fit in perfectly.
My mother is Chinese-Hawaiian, my father is Norwegian from North Dakota, and they met and married in Tokyo, where my sisters were born. I came along over a decade later and was born and raised in Honolulu. There weren’t many full-blooded Hawaiians, even then, so being part Hawaiian was and is a source of pride. And with over 50 percent of the population identifying as Asian, being almost half-Chinese was common.
Things were quite different when I moved to Illinois to attend Northwestern University. I didn’t see anyone who looked like me. In fact, less than 4 percent of the student population was mixed race and less than half a percent were Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander.
Fortunately, my self-image had been set in Hawaii, and I carried my Chinese, Hawaiian, Norwegian heritage proudly with me when I moved to Chicago, New York, Boston, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles, where I’ve lived for 36 years. Rather than feeling isolated by my extreme minority, I’ve felt kinship to everyone because of my mixed race.
I was able to share my heritage and mixed-race experience while writing my debut novel, The Ninja Daughter.
The protagonist, Lily Wong, is a Chinese-Norwegian modern-day ninja in Los Angeles with Joy Luck Club family issues. I drew heavily from my own Chinese-Norwegian culture and experience as a fifth-degree black belt in the Japanese art of the ninja to write her story. But I also drew from the experience of my Chinese-American friends and fellow ninja.
Although my character and I are undeniably close, Lily is definitely not me. She is her own powerful person, plagued by doubts and demons, defined by family, and fueled by purpose.
That said, family and heritage are also deeply important to me.
I can trace my Hawaiian roots to 1783, during the reign of King Kamehameha. The kānaka maoli—native Hawaiians—are generous, beautiful people with a culture rich in song, dance, and storytelling. Hawaiians are our own race of people with native language, customs and ancestry. But modern Hawaii culture is an amalgamation of many, especially those from Asian countries.
My Chinese ancestors were early pioneers on the island of Maui and, along with all the other first-wave Chinese settlers, contributed to its modern culture, language, and commerce. The people of modern Hawaii are a mixed plate. This is evident in our fusion of food, clothing and our Hawaiian Pigeon English. Unlike other forms of pigeon English, Hawaiian Pigeon is a legitimate creole language—fully developed and taught to many children as a primary language. Although it incorporates many words from the native Hawaiian language, they are not at all the same. Although both have their place, I am happy to see a resurgence of our beautiful aboriginal language.
In the midst of this deeply ethnic environment, my father infused me with stories and wisdom from his own North Dakota upbringing and Norwegian heritage. Naturally, I wanted to celebrate this with my protagonist, Lily Wong.
It meant the world to me that my parents lived long enough to know I was writing a novel—and now a series—that would celebrate their heritage.
Asian and Pacific Islander representation in literature and media matters. Not only is it vital to see ourselves and identify with positive role models, but it’s important for everyone of all ethnicities to expand our awareness of each other. This is how people learn to appreciate and connect with one another.
I love that Lily Wong’s mother is an immigrant from Hong Kong, that her father is Norwegian from North Dakota, and that her ninjutsu teacher was born and raised in Japan. I love that my son fell in love with a woman from Hong Kong—after I was well into writing the first draft of The Ninja Daughter—and has married this wonderful woman into our family. I love how my art has not only become an expression of my life but a means to delve even more deeply into my ancestry and identity.
This piece was originally published by Books Forward under the title “Books Forward author Tori Eldridge uses Asian-Pacific pride to promote representation in literature.” Tori Eldridge is the Lefty-nominated author of “The Ninja Daughter,” which was named one of the “Best Mystery Books of the Year” by The South Florida Sun Sentinel and awarded 2019 Thriller Book of the Year by Authors on the Air Global Radio Network. Her short stories appear in several anthologies, and her screenplay “The Gift” earned a semifinalist spot in the prestigious Academy Nicholl Fellowship. Before writing, Tori performed as an actress, singer and dancer on Broadway, television and film. She is of Hawaiian, Chinese, Norwegian descent and was born and raised in Honolulu, where she graduated from Punahou School with classmate Barack Obama. Tori holds a fifth-degree black belt in To-Shin Do ninjutsu and has traveled the U.S. teaching seminars on the ninja arts, weapons, and women’s self-protection.