I am half-Indonesian.
Strangely, this isn’t something I normally talk about. It has a lot to do with my repressed anger toward my Indonesian father for running away from my American mother the minute he found out she was pregnant, ‘lo those thirty-plus years ago.
My Uncle, my father’s brother, is one of the people I respect the most in my life. He’s my only connection to my heritage on that side of the family and, over the years, he has done everything he can to keep me in touch with my roots. This has been especially difficult for us because he lives on the other side of the country. In more recent times, I’ve been looking up things about my heritage on my own which, I won’t lie, consists mostly of recipes and cooking tips because Indonesian food is absolutely amazing. Food culture is just as important as any piece of history or tradition in my opinion.
My Indonesian roots have wound in and out of my life and have always remained a sort of side thing for me. Not that I am ashamed in any way – in fact, I’m proud to be an Acehnese Indonesian – but growing up it was not something that was often discussed. Quite honestly, when my Uncle would come around when I was younger, the cultural traditions he would attempt to pass on to me (especially in front of other people I knew) seemed embarrassing. No one else in my life, black or white, had this kind of deep ethnic thing aside from Pittsburgh Hunky traditions (my mom’s half of my ethnicity) which were common place.
In the environment in which I was raised, I really never thought anything of my brown/olive colored skin. I wasn’t raised to think I was different than anyone in my predominantly white school, church, neighborhood, etc. To my mind I was just another kid. To other kids (at least early on) I was just another kid. To my few close friends now that I’m very much into adulthood, I am just me. There was a long time, mostly during high school and part of college, where I most definitely felt like an outcast. I thought it was because I was the stereotypical alterna-kid with, at first, a grunge fashion sense and super-long black hair that put me just outside the norm. Eventually, that fashion sense evolved into a more metal/gothy thing which kicked me even further to the fringe. I was the weird, nerdy, mostly unpopular guy who, in your adulthood, you friended on Facebook just to see if he had actually become the serial killer you always thought he would be.
It wasn’t until recently that I realized how many of those ostracized feels were likely because of the color of my skin.
I am a brown person who was raised in a white situation. I am the large square peg to the small round holes of typical societal castes. My interests were varied enough that I could slide up along side and associate with most of the cliques in my high school, but never truly fit. Eventually, I found out (in a very hard way which I’d prefer not to discuss here ever) who my real friends were. Some of them were people I grew up with from pre-school, some were fellow misfits in high school, and some of them came from me socially reaching beyond the typical teenaged experience and joining my current table-top gaming group (I’ve been there since I was fourteen – eighteen years – and we’re still playing the same game once a week).
The people who stuck with me have never seen me as anything but me. They’ve taken me as I am and never asked a question nor looked at me sideways. These people know who they are and know that they are family to me. I state this because I don’t want you, dear reader, to think that I am some lonely sobbing societal outcast writing this to gain your pity. I am anything but. I am only using this first batch of words to qualify myself and show you where I’ve really come from to address a topic that has very recently become extremely important to me.
As you probably know if you read this blog on a regular basis (i.e., the once or so a month that I actually post new content), I wrote a book. If you don’t know, it’s called Unlucky Seven and revolves around a group of twenty-something nerds who gain super powers, realize they’re in the middle of their own origin story, and make fun of all the tropes and clichés that go along with it. They do all this while dealing with some of the more difficult aspects of having these abilities in a real-world setting and being pursued by a shadowy agency – Project XIII.
One thing you may not know about my book is that most of the characters are based on real people. I won’t tell you who those people are but some names were changed and no specifics were given specifically because I recently discovered how fandom treats people in those types of situations and I didn’t want to feed the trolls.
One name that remains unchanged is Justin. If you know me as nothing but J.P. Bidula, you should be able to connect the dots. I’ll give you a moment.
While I understand it is typically a literary no-no to name one of your main protagonists after yourself let alone having it actually BE yourself, if you read the book, you’ll find that Justin is no Gary Stu (that’s a Mary Sue for dudes – look it up if you don’t know the term). He is not an idealized version of me though most of his dialogue is based on things I would actually say in these situations. One reader went so far as to tell me that he “hates Justin” because he’s “too bitchy and whiny”. This was a friend of mine who knew the character was based on me and he wasn’t doing it just to bust my balls.
Like me, the character of Justin is over-analytical, overly-cynical, cautious near the point of cowardice, quick-witted, generally surly, intelligent, possessing of total-nerd-recall (able to reference pop-culture in a single bound), confused about his life, mostly unsure about the steps he takes, physically myopic, and overweight.
Also like me, he is a person of color.
This was something that had not come to my attention until another reader approached me, knowing the character was based on me, saying that they were so happy there was a person of color as one of the lead protagonists. They enjoyed knowing this detail even though I was not very descriptive of race in the book.
I never considered until that moment the kind of impact that “revelation” would have. I never considered it a “revelation” at all, to be honest. The real revelation that happened at that moment occurred in my mind.
There are not many protagonists in any kind of fiction that fit to me. I suddenly realized that by writing myself into this story and publishing it, my book now had a main protagonist who represented the nerdy, overweight, etc. etc. half-Indonesian people out there. I feel that I am a very unique person but was rapidly introduced via conversation to the idea that this uniqueness carries over to the character of Justin and that uniqueness makes him a potential icon for other people of color.
My mind was blown. What I, for a long time, had thought of as a just another middling sci-fi superhero story (albeit funny and brilliant, if I do say so myself – hurry up and buy) could be considered a rallying flag for people of color. I realized that I am a writer of color and it means something that I’ve produced a novel where characters of color are not just horrible stereotypes. I wrote a book where the dialogue is very natural, where everyone has a brain, where people – regardless of race or creed – are just people and aren’t defined by anything other than their desire to make sense out of and cope with an incredible situation.
This reader’s words touched me deeply. They really reinvigorated me to the entire Unlucky Seven universe. I spent most of my winter since Con (and some time prior) being burnt out and mulling around the first three chapters of the sequel, doing everything I could think of to market the first book and being very disinterested in putting hands to keyboard to meet my goal of a published Unlucky Seven Book 2 before the next Steel City Con in April.
When this topic was broached and I realized what an impact the diversity of my cast could have, I felt a sudden burst of energy. If nothing else, my book meant something to that one reader. If for no other reason, I would continue on for the sake of this wonderful reader who took something away from a brown/olive-skinned, (largely) imperfect and (apparently) relatable protagonist. As long as that one person would keep reading with satisfaction, I would keep writing if only for them.
The same reader applauded my inclusion of the interracial relationship between Zoey and Chaucer. They are some of the only characters in the book whose races were clearly defined. These descriptors were not added for the visual benefit of the audience, necessarily. Zoey and Chaucer are two purely fictional characters (as opposed to most of the U7’s group based on real people) and I defined them more for myself than anyone else. I didn’t feel I needed many descriptors for the real people because I knew what they looked like (even if the reader doesn’t). Chaucer and Zoey are visually defined, to me, by their descriptions in the book and the subsequent drawings that resulted from them.
I don’t use many color descriptors in my writing. For the most part, unless clearly defined, I leave the depiction of a character mostly up to the reader’s imagination. I do specify things like height, approximate age, hair color, eye color, mode of dress, etc. but never really skin tone. In Chaucer’s case it’s mentioned that his skin turns from brown to pale green. In Zoey’s case, it’s mentioned that she was pale and (somehow) got paler. Budda’s skin goes from white flesh to blue-gray stone. Other than these examples, not much else is mentioned in the book with any specificity.
Speaking of the walking rock garden, I was talking with the real-life Budda (a huge fan of the book) about how he pictured some of the fictional characters because I was curious if my visions of them came across in the writing. We went from Zoey and Chaucer (who he pictured as I do, thanks to descriptors) and then we moved to everyone’s favorite psychotic Superman analogue, Agent Moorsblade. I told Budda that I pictured him as a larger-than-life super muscular dude, kind of like a Joe Manganiello (a fellow Pittsburgher and good reference point). Budda said, “He can’t be Moorsblade. He isn’t black.”
I cocked my head at him and said, “Where did you get the idea that Moorsblade was black? He’s a giant white man with alopecia.”
Budda shrugged and said, “I always pictured him as black. Specifically, I pictured him as Michael Clarke Duncan with the accent from The Green Mile.”
It was interesting. I had never really thought of it, but I suppose it goes with the given descriptors. Large man, extremely muscular, intimidating, bald, speaks with a super deep southern-accented voice. Without re-reading again, I’m not sure I ever put a color descriptor on Moorsblade. It might break more hearts than just Budda’s to set the record straight, but Moorsblade is white.
Another character who needs some clarity is Agent Joey Briggs. She’s another of the fictionals on the Project team. The best descriptors I gave to her also did not involve skin color directly. I stated she had blue eyes, raven hair, and light skin. Most people will pull an image of Zooey Deschanel or Katy Perry into their minds when these are the only things mentioned. Joey’s light skin is, in fact, black.
To be honest, I’m not offended by anyone’s interpretation of my work. I’m not going to complain on the internet should fandom ever really kick in that people are getting my characters races wrong. If you want to picture someone who is white (either realistically or fictionally) as a different race, I will not judge you. I wanted my story to be that way. Characters are how they are in people’s imaginations, sometimes even with the proper “racial descriptors” in place in the canon. Your particular version of Justin, if you don’t know what I really look like, may turn out white or black or brown or purple et al. That’s ok by me.
The women of U7 have also been mentioned by more than one reader. They are strong and, really, they were written to either dodge or actively fight/rail against the negative tropes against women in fiction, specifically, women in comic books. While I know Marvel is taking some great strides towards breaking the mainstream glass ceiling for female heroes with books like Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel, and the canon female Thor and DC is slowly trailing behind with the new (old) Barb Gordon Batgirl (with whom I have problems once again being ambulatory, but I think I talked about that once), Harley Quinn’s role in Suicide Squad, and to some extent Wonder Woman, female characters in comics are typically support roles.
I like that my ladies kick some ass and do things on their own terms. Nary a damsel to be found in the bunch. Try that shit and they will END YOU.
In the end, my budding fandom, do not be upset at me should some kind of TV show or movie ever materialize because I WILL take an active role in the casting (if bureaucracy or whatever permits) and I WILL make sure that the choices fit my vision. Justin is going to be played by an actor who can most closely resemble me and my God-given skin tone. There is diversity in my cast. I am proud of that and I will not let that be white-washed away.
Keep fighting the good fight.