Zetta Elliott: I Read Asian and Pacific Islander American Books

Several people I contacted were interested in the project but didn’t have the books they wanted to read from available. I began to think maybe it wasn’t such a good to ask people associated with youth literature to proclaim their anti-racism by reading from works by Asian or Pacific Island Americans. But, there’s always something that gets in the way of best laid plans. Besides, writers are creators, are capable of improvising and making another way.

One, a teacher no less, said they didn’t know of any Asian or Pacific Island Americans who wrote for young people and that’s a whole other issue.

But, libraries and offices are closed with books locked inside. So, we make another way. Diversifying what we do brings richness, right? Zetta Elliott, a Black Canadian woman, connected with her friend and colleague, Neesha Meminger, A South Asian Canadian woman, for the following thought provoking interview.

cr=w-1200,h-600Neesha Meminger was born in Punjab, India, grew up in Toronto, Canada, and lived in New York City for 25 years. She currently divides her time between Toronto and NYC. Neesha holds a Bachelor’s degree in Film and Media Studies from Ryerson University in Toronto, and a Master’s degree in Creative Writing from The New School For Social Research in New York City. Her independent films have screened at international film festivals, she has taught literature and creative writing courses to undergraduate students in New York and Toronto, served as a board member for many arts and cultural organizations, and counseled women and youth in crisis.

SHINE, COCONUT MOON, her first novel, made the Smithsonian’s Notable Books for Children list and was selected as one of the Top 100 Books of 2009 by the New York Public Library’s Stuff for the Teen Age. The novel was also nominated as a Best Book for Young Adults by the American Library Association as well as the online CYBILS award. WHAT GIRLS KNOW (See It Be It Books, 2019) is her most recent book.

Get your wine or your tea or your coffee and savor this. It will make you feel whole.

In terms of what makes a country or community safe for Asian youth, I think it is, ideally, grown-ups and leaders who value children and childhood.

ZE: You were the first YA author I met who boldly addressed terrorist acts committed against South Asians. Could you talk about Shine, Coconut Moon and its lasting relevance in the field of children’s literature?

NM: I started Shine with a memory from my childhood: standing outside our home as it burned, under one of the first snowfalls of the season. The Sikh temple next door to us had been fire-bombed by a group of neighborhood boys, and they’d splayed racist epithets on the walls. I couldn’t read the words, but I got the message loud and clear at the time.

Sadly, much of the same is still going on in both the U.S. and Canada, and other parts of the world where South Asians have migrated to. The recent backlash against Asians with the Covid pandemic is a reminder that vulnerable groups are always prone to targeting in a system that “others” us at its foundation.Screen Shot 2020-05-08 at 11.58.50 AM

My first novel (Shine, Coconut Moon) was specifically addressing the events of September 11th, 2001, but I used my experiences of growing up in Canada in the 1970’s and 1980’s, to flesh out the scenes of racism and the targeting of immigrants and Muslims, in New York and New Jersey in 2001.

Unless we look at the root causes of these issues, we will simply be playing the same soundtrack over and over, every few decades. Anti-immigrant sentiments and violence against vulnerable “otherized” populations is not new, and these aren’t things that are about to go away any time soon. And, as long as those exist, books like Shine, Coconut Moon will always resonate for people on the receiving end of this type denigration and terrorization.

ZE: After the 2016 election, you decided to move your family from NYC to Toronto. Long before the pandemic started, comparisons between the leaders of Canada and the US made plenty of USians think about crossing the border. What makes a country or community safe for Asian youth?

NM: I had very personal reasons for making the move from NYC to Toronto. I’d just come out of a brutal divorce, and was solely responsible for raising my two girls, and we’d just lost the only home the girls had ever known. I had no family in the U.S. and no social support network. My job was not unionized and I was perpetually terrified of losing it and not having healthcare if anything happened to either of my children. So, moving back “home” to Canada was on my mind every single day once my marriage exploded.

Still, I couldn’t figure out a way to make it happen without completely destabilizing my girls, who, at the time were 10 and 7 years of age. Once the 2016 election results came through, however, I realized I was not in a stable enough position to handle what could quite possibly be in the pipeline with the new administration. But what I did know, from the president elect’s platform, was that he very clearly and boldly espoused an anti-immigrant and anti-“outsider” perspective. I had had first-hand experience with that type of rhetoric in the past, and the only other people who knew that same experience were my family, and other South Asians of my generation in Canada. So, that decided it. I came up with a plan, and made it happen.

In terms of what makes a country or community safe for Asian youth, I think it is, ideally, grown-ups and leaders who value children and childhood. This is shown through policies, social safety nets, funding for arts and education, affordable and quality childcare, etc… the kinds of things that feminists and labor activists have been fighting for forever. It is the responsibility of adults to provide safe spaces for young people. When it’s not possible for the adults to provide that kind of safety, because either the adults themselves are under siege, or because they are unaware of what the young people in their midst are having to contend with, or they just simply don’t have the resources…then I know that young people do what they can to survive. They find ways to make life tolerable. They use art, they find each other, they rebel, they try to heal in the only ways that are available to them.

ZE: In your body of work I see a refusal to represent South Asian girls as victims who are only acted upon–why is it important to you to demonstrate the agency of your protagonists?

NM: When I was growing up, I needed to see representations of girls and women determining their own fate. I saw lots of films and TV shows depicting girls and women as tragic victims and I always felt awful afterward. I felt incredibly disempowered. I needed to see the kinds of girls and women you didn’t usually see on TV or in the movies, and I needed to see them being fully human. I needed to see girls like me, living lives that were full of joy and possibility. But girls and women like me didn’t hold the reins of power in offices where these kinds of decisions were made, so the representations I needed were rare. Because of that, I clung desperately to anything that even remotely resembled those representations: white girls who were feisty and rebellious (like some of Judy Blume’s characters); working class boys who bucked the system (like in S.E. Hinton’s books, for example); any Black, Indigenous, or Latinx author who wove themes of race into their work; any queer themes anywhere. They were incredibly few and far between, but they were like hidden and precious gems to me.

Writing about South Asian girls and women has been like writing myself whole again. It’s about coloring the world with my own brush, and filling in the holes of my own youth and childhood. And, hopefully, providing wider possibilities to a new generation, including my own girls.

Photo credit: Bianca Cordova


Zetta Elliott is a Black feminist writer of poetry, plays, essays, novels, and stories for children. Her most recent books include Say Her Name (Disney/Jump at the Sun, 2020) a young adult poetry collection illustrated by Noa Denmon and  A Place Inside of Me: A Poem to Heal the Heart (FSG, July, 2020) and Awesome Chevonne! (Flyaway Books).