Paula Chase’s Del Rio Bay series helped launch Kensington Books YA line in 2007.
It’s among the first of a growing number of pop fiction YA targeted to multi-culti suburbanite teens.
Briefly describe the impact racism had on you as a young person.
It might be easier if I snatched a few memories from childhood so you can get a feel for how I grew up. I remember my parents and I going out on a friend’s sailboat, one day, enjoying the wind, sun and sea air. The friends were White. We used to go camping with my cousins all the time, sometimes in the nearby Shenandoah Valley, once as far as the Smoky Mountains. A bunch of Black folk in the woods, sleeping in tents never seemed odd to me until I’d talk about it with some of my Black friends. Until I was in middle school, every one of my closest girl friends was White. Some of my friends in my predominately Black neighborhood teased my “proper” talk and snickered that I was a “White” girl because I’d bring my friends home for sleepovers. In the fourth grade, this boy called me a nigger. It was the first time I’d ever been called that. I remember understanding that he meant harm by saying it, but still not really connecting myself to the word because it was a word only adults used. My entire childhood was about the duality of living in a predominately Black suburb and going to a predominately White school. I grew up in virtually two different worlds, simultaneously.
The bulk of my experiences with racism were subtle – being followed in stores by a sales rep when I was a kid, the way certain sales people treated you when you shopped in the White working class areas, the way my classmates in a high school Current Events class seemed shocked that the city we lived in had low income housing. My intimate knowledge of racism came primarily from very safe places, books and TV. The images from books by Mildred Taylor Toni Morrison and Alice Walker made racism a horrible reality for me. And the epic mini-series, Roots probably gave me the most food for thought on the topic than anything I actually ever experienced first hand. So, as a result, racists are alien to me. I don’t get them or how they think. I know they exist, but I focus more on working around them then paying them any mind.
Has your personal experience of racism impacted your professional work as a writer?
I’ve always lived in color. So, I tend to create worlds that mirror the one I was brought up in. Those worlds aren’t devoid of racism or ignorance, by any means, but they’re rarely the focus. Instead, I focus on the myriad of other issues that prevent folks from seeing eye-to-eye.
The casts in my books are always diverse and I know that’s a direct result of my view on racism. The worlds I create, the diversity of my casts are both ways I thumb my nose at racism. Yet, the make-up of the characters aren’t a conscious thought. I don’t sit and think – Ooh this person will be Black. This one White. This one Asian. I just naturally see the world in color. If anything, my characters all suffer from terminal suburbanism, which often leads them to a wake-up call of sorts when they realize there’s a different life beyond their sheltered space or view.
In a way, that’s what happened to me with getting my first book published. I came into it determined that race would not be the focus of my book. My protagonist is African American but any teen, regardless of race, can relate to the experiences she has. Through my rose-colored glasses, I saw a world of readers who would bond through Mina’s high school triumphs and turmoil. But publishing doesn’t work like that. It’s still very much, pick a race box. It reminded me that while I’ve lived my entire life in color, a lot of the world still lives in black or white and sometimes you simply must choose a box.
In what way can literature be used to combat the effects of racism and promote tolerance?
My grandfather used to say, I can show you better than I can tell you. What he meant was he wasn’t going to waste a lot of breath trying to prove one thing or another to a person, he was going to go about his business and do what he had to do. His actions would speak for him. We could keep shouting down racists, but most are too immersed in their beliefs to hear us. As long as books continue to show the many slices of life, readers will see that people share more similarities than differences. Literature always has the potential to show a person what you’ve been trying to say all along.
The author lives in MD with her husband and two daughters. For more, visit Paula’s website at www.paulachasehyman.com