Originally published on September 27, 2016
Earlier this month, I announced the title, synopsis, and release date for my forthcoming novel, AN ABSOLUTE MIND. Set in an optimistic future, it tells the story of a college student named Sonya Ogino, as she has her life changed forever when she learns that she has a cognitive ability called Absolute Memory. Making her a target for underground gangs who are out to kill people like her, she is whisked away to a secret island for her protection, before learning an unforeseen reality regarding her residency there. As a result, Sonya must summon her inner endurance to take action against inaction.
In a time where diversity is being much more demanded for the mediums of storytelling, it’s wise to note that the protagonist, Sonya, is mixed race Japanese American. As a mixed race Filipino American writer, I didn’t have too vast of an agenda for making her ethnicity different from mine, apart from the following:
1. Without revealing the reason why, there are references made throughout the novel to the incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans on both Angel Island and later in the internment camps during World War II. It was important to me for Sonya to have ancestral ties to those significant points in American history, especially in regards to how they play a role in the story.
2. I also felt that if I made her Filipino American, it would probably hone too much resemblance to who I am, via the perspective of the reader. However, I still made her mixed race, especially since a) there aren’t a lot of books out there with mixed race characters to begin with and b) it’s a way of showing how diversity has evolved, for in the era the book is set in, 25% of the United States identify as mixed race.
It wasn’t until within the last month or so that I realized that by making my lead of Japanese descent, I’m actually breaking from old attitudes that have been held by various family members of mine who loathed Japanese people.
During World War II, Japan took control of the Philippines. Chaos and war broke out throughout the country, and many of my family members were caught up in it all. My great aunt worked as part of the Philippine Resistance and my grandpa was involved in both the Philippine Scouts and guerilla warfare. I also had several family members, including my great-grandfather, who were held in concentration camps; the same kind that survivors of the Bataan Death March were also imprisoned in. (For the record, if this is the first time you’re hearing about any of these events, unfortunately it’s not unusual. These are a handful of facts about World War II that are rarely discussed in schools).
After the war, family members such as my grandpa and great aunt greatly despised the Japanese; and this attitude even extended out to Japanese Americans as well. They didn’t care too much that thousands of Japanese Americans were incarcerated against their will.
I get why my family members would hold such anger. To have your country invaded like that is a scar marked in your memory. At the same time, it’s not right that they held such prejudices as that. You can’t blame a whole race and/or ethnicity for what certain individuals did. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself with such a narrow outlook on the world. At a time where, fifteen years after 9/11 happened, Muslims are still dealing with discrimination and prejudice for a terrorist attack they’ve had nothing to do with, it remains to be a lesson that needs to be learned now more than ever before.
With the release of AN ABSOLUTE MIND on the horizon, it now means more to me that my protagonist is Japanese American. It’s not about disregarding the traumatic experiences my family members went through during World War II. It’s about breaking ties from their discriminatory attitudes, finding common ground, and exploring the universal journey. Besides, in the cases of both the Japanese Americans and the Filipinos, they both dealt with incarceration during World War II. While the circumstances, conditions, and reasons differed greatly, the fact that they were imprisoned at all is a shared experience.
As far as identity goes, Sonya could have been anyone. She could have been a man, a woman, non-binary, white, black, Latino, straight, gay, bisexual, and so on. But with her family’s history and the journey she goes on, it was very important to make her experience one that many people can recognize as being not only different, but also both significant and, in a lot of ways, timelessly relevant.