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Claiming my own Identity

I’m always discussing the theme of writing diversely, so I thought I might delve in it in a little more personal manner. By now, many of you know I’m Latina, bisexual and live in Brazil.

But here are some more things you don’t know about me.

I come from a fairly well-off middle class family. I attended private school during my early years, and my mother could afford to stay at home and take care of me and my sister while my father worked. My dad worked a lot when we were little and he traveled for his company, which kept him far all week. So when we were five, dad changed jobs and became a professor at the University. He got paid less, but he got to spend a lot more time with us.

I can’t tell you how lucky I’ve been in my childhood. I’m a white Latina, and in Brazil most people aren’t familiar with that term (Latinx). In fact, we don’t ever use it here, as in the sensus regarding race you can put caucasian/black/asian/indigenous. I only became familiar with the term when I was 16 and started looking for information on the USA and realized that it’s a term that’s used to describe pretty much everyone who comes from South and Central America. To most Brazilian, this is a concept we don’t even have in our country, but it’s something I’ve accepted in time and something I’m proud to stand for. As I said before, Brazil is the most diverse country when it comes to culture, race and religion in the world (fun fact: in the Black Market, Brazilian passports are the most expensive because you can stick any kind of face to any kind of name and it’ll be totally OK). But until I was about 18, I had come into very little contact with diversity in publishing and the diversity problem we have in the USA.

I grew up in a different country, with COMPLETELY different dynamics than the US, dynamics I can’t even begin to explain, because they’re very different interactions than what happens in the US.  But I finally started understanding a little more about race when I had interactions with people from outside Brazil. (Disclaimer: in Brazil, I identify as white, and I LOOK white. Here. When I step outside the borders, it’s something else entirely). The first experiences came from airport security — with my mother. My mother has olive/dark skin, a prominent nose and features that could be considered Arabic. That means that she gets randomly stopped at 99% of the airports we go to. When I was a kid, mom used to play a game. She’d turn to me and my sister and say “you want to guess? MOM IS GOING TO GET STOPPED” and damn, it was every time. I thought it was funny until I understood the actual implications of this.

And everywhere we went, when we were in Europe, I saw people give sideway glances at my mother, my sister and I. Clara’s a lot more white passing (I am as long as I stay out of the sun, basically). But everytime we’d come across someone, they’d look a little strangely, and ask where we’re from. Our surname is Pohl (German, from my dad’s dad side of the family) so it got a little awkward. My dad inherited the complexion of the German side, so he has green eyes and white skin, and his German is good enough that he can pass for European. And then one day, my mother told me a story about the time she lived in Germany – where my dad got beaten up by some other guys because he had ‘betrayed his race by marrying one of them’, them being someone from Arabic descent (my mother, assumed). I’d never thought about this because with all our privileges in Brazil, this didn’t seem like something possible.

And it’s true. When I traveled again, people would look sideways. Clara and I got asked if we were Mexican or Colombian and sometimes Brazilian. And I started carrying my Latina heritage a little more proudly, trying to understand what it meant to be Latina. In Brazil, I’m very privileged, but I can use that to lift other voices who aren’t.

All this intersections with other things – I “found out” I was bisexual when I entered college, I also started reading a lot more about being aromantic and where I indetified along that spectrum. My family has also had many cases of people who suffer from depression and anxiety, and I’m no different. All the while, I’ve been building my identity and trying to find who I am.

And most of all, I’m trying to find who I am inside my writing as well.

I’ve been writing since I was fifteen. At first, it was therapy — I had a really bad period in my depression when I was a teen, and writing kept me a little saner. I wrote fanfiction, I wrote mini-series and comedy fics. And then I moved onto my own original book. My first character, Hime, was a Japanese-English girl (highly influenced by my Anime phase, I admit). Hime’s world reflected my own in Brazil, which was very diverse but with which I hadn’t considered all the implications of racism and segregation that happened. I was 15, so I wasn’t extra aware of that.

At 18, I got into college and finished my second manuscript (spoilers: this one had only white people in it. That’s what I was reading at the time, and it naturally had reflected on my writing. I wasn’t seeing protagonists like me or Hime out there, just regular white Americans and Europeans). And then I wrote another draft of a book that is set in São Paulo, a city I love and cherish, and I included people that were a little more like me and the dynamics I saw here in Brazil. I ended up setting it aside.

It was after those books that I decided to draft in English for the first time, a book about a Latina pirate captain in the Caribbean trying to prove the treasue her father had spent his life hunting was real. The great thing about writing about a crew of pirates captained by a woman is that I could take my liberties and make the crew the people who weren’t accepted even between pirates, and it felt GREAT. Let’s do more.

I ended the book at 130k, and set the draft aside because it was simply too big for a debut novel. By then, I’d already started reading on how to get published in the US following the traditional steps, and started following initiatives like We Need Diverse Books to understand more about the world of publishing. I wrote another draft (contemporary fantasy, a humongous amount of 165k and set it aside once more).

Then came FIREBIRD, which felt like the novel of my heart. Still feels like the novel of my heart. I wrote it inspired by Russia and its myths, things I adored, and it took me 20 days to write a 110k draft. 110k was more manageable, so I revised and found CPs, and revised once more, and sent it to beta readers and revised it once again. In a way, even though I love it, Firebird is the least diverse book I have written in all aspects (no LGBT, but both the MC and the romantic interest are POC). In a way, FIREBIRD is also my ‘safe ticket’ — it’s a very “safe” book, which is a complicated concept in itself. What is “safe”? Why should I write “safe”?

And that’s when I came to querying, which was one of my biggest troubles. I wanted to identify as Latina — I AM Latina, even if I’m writing a book inspired by medieval Russia — but I didn’t want to seem too forward. My surname is NOT Latina (even though I have other three, and my name is actually Laura Maria), and I came from a very privileged place where I’m considered and treated as white. My experiences with racism have not been constant, but occasional, and I’m lucky that I pass as white and am white in the Brazilian enviroment.

Unless I step outside the borders of Brazil, and then the dynamics are completely different. I’m Latina, then, but it’s still very confusing to claim this identity because I’m still in fact very privileged. It’s still an identity that despite my best efforts, I’m struggling with. I see the “We Need Diverse Books” initiative, and books like #Ownvoices and the wonderful new hashtag #OwnYourOwn Kaye (@gildedspine) has created, and I want to participate but sometimes I feel like I don’t have the right to. Like I’m not enough Latina to be able to identify here as POC, to be able to put myself forward in this manner. When participating in contests such as #WCNV and #DivPit, I always feel like I’m a complete fake and stepping in and taking a space (which I’m not sure it’s mine. Is it? Is it not? Where do I fit in?). Sometimes, it does feel like I’m a complete fraud. That somehow, I have to keep proving myself because of the privileges I have had all my life.

I guess that’s OK. I’m so lucky not to have to face some of the struggles fellow POC/LGBT have to face. All in all, I’m extremely privileged in what regards to the aspects of my life. I’m still confused in what it’s OK to identify myself with, and how all the aspects have influenced my writing. But also, this is my individual experience as a person exploring identity, and nobody can invalidate that. It’s different and stranger than a lot of people’s, but it’s still my experience.

I still am not sure what I can claim as my culture, except Brazil, my home and the place I love. At the same time, I already wrote about how hard it is for me to insert someone who is like me — because it feels like I need to get it SO RIGHT that I can’t handle all that pressure. What if people don’t like my character? What if they think the book is ‘too diverse’? What if they tell me it’s not relatable? And all at the same time, I still have to deal with my identity, and trying to see where I fit inside this community.

It’s so great to feel welcome in these spaces, and I can’t tell how grateful I am. People have been embracing PitchAmérica, and I’m ever so thankful that I’m able to raise other Latinxs with this project. All I hope to do is that I’m lucky enough to be able to raise other people with my own voice.

 

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