When I checked Marie Lu's Legend out of the library, I hoped that the main girl character would be Asian. After all, Lu herself is Chinese, born in China and influenced, as a young child, by the 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests. From the age of five, she lived in the U.S. and, unless she lived in an alternate U.S., probably also didn't see herself reflected in the books on her library and school shelves. So wouldn't she use this opportunity to add one more Asian girl to YA litdom?
First, a little about the book: In this future world, floodwaters have washed away good portions of the eastern coast of the United States. The remaining portion of the country has divided into two countries, the Republic and the Colonies, which are perpetually at war with one another.
Main character June comes from one of the Republic's most elite families. The other main character, Day comes from a slum ravaged by various plagues. Unlike the elite families, slum families are not vaccinated. Anyone found to have the plague during military's regular inspections is taken away, never to be heard from again.
In the Republic, every ten-year-old child must go through a test known as the Trial. Those with high scores are allowed to continue onto high school and then onto one of the Republic's most elite colleges. Those with middle scores go on to high school and then are assigned to a less elite college. Those with even lower scores are barred from high school and work tedious dangerous jobs. Those who fail are killed without even a chance to say good-bye to their families. "It's almost always the slum-sector kids who fail," notes Day, who was herded onto a train and experimented upon after failing his Trial. He escaped, becoming, by age fifteen, the Republic's most wanted criminal.
Details in Legend reveal Lu's Chinese heritage. For instance, street vendors in Los Angeles sell boiled goose eggs, fried dough and hot dogs. (I've asked people who live in this Los Angeles if they can buy goose eggs or fried dough from street vendors. No, they tell me. Not even in Chinatown.) When Metias and June visit their parents' graves, they wear white clothes and bring white flowers, embodying the color of mourning in Chinese culture.
But the ethnicity of the characters is mentioned only in passing, if it is mentioned at all. And, in Lu's futuristic world, ethnic characteristics are often erased: Day, who is partly Asian, has white-blond hair and blue eyes. So do both of his brothers. On her website, Lu clarifies that Day is a mix of Mongolian and Russian with his Mongolian father carrying a blonde-haired, blue-eyed gene.
Throughout Legend, June remains ethnically ambiguous, although Lu notes when other characters are part Asian, making Asianness something to be commented upon. She mentions her dark hair, but readers have no idea what she looks like. When Day first encounters June, he can't tell what ethnicity she is, which he shrugs off as not unusual for that part of the slums. In the sequel, Prodigy, Lu reveals that June has brown hair and brown eyes.
I spend a lot of time thinking about the race of characters in YA literature because as a mom, a former tween, and (forever) a reader of color, I wish there were more identifiable characters of color. Yes, we can expect to see more mixed race people in the future (while hopefully avoiding Legend's dystopic scenario), but I wish that readers of color had more opportunities to see characters who look like them in main roles.
I posed these questions in my last post but they're worth repeating here: How much does growing up in the United States (and not seeing yourself in books) influence an adult writer of color? How much does the publisher influence (or pressure) a writer to downplay race and ethnicity? And what does the continuing absence of identifiable girls of color in YA dyslit, even in books penned by women of color, mean for not only current readers but future writers?
Read the rest of Girls of Color in Dystopia, our blog series about race in dystopian YA.