Jennifer Hillier

All Asian, all the time

Dec 5, 2011 | Uncategorized

The one question I’ve been getting a lot since CREEP was released last summer is, “Is your main character, Sheila Tao, really you?”

To which I always answer, “HELLS NO.”

Allow me to bullet point the ways she and I are alike:

  • She’s of Asian descent, and so am I. (But she’s Chinese, and I’m Filipino.)

Allow me to bullet point the ways she and I are NOT alike:

  • She’s a sex addict.
  • She’s a psychology professor.
  • She had an affair with her psychopathic teaching assistant.
  • She’s engaged to an ex-NFL player who’s now an investment banker.
  • She’s American.
  • She’s a sex addict. (Yes, worth repeating.)
  • She’s not real.

I think people ask if Sheila Tao is me because in readers’ minds, she looks like me. A friend of a friend read the book, and said, “I’ve never met Jenny, but because her photo is at the back of the book, it’s her face I imagine saying and doing all those nasty things.”

Grrrreat. Maybe I should have written Sheila as a blue-eyed blonde!

But here’s the thing: I never set out to make Sheila an Asian character. I never set out to make her a version of myself. Authors have been known to do that (Lee Child’s Jack Reacher looks an awful lot like him, as does Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware), but Sheila started out as a minor character in early drafts, someone who was floating around in the background. I didn’t realize until the second draft that she deserved to be in a starring role, and of course by then it never occurred to me to question whether her being Asian mattered.

I didn’t set out to make Morris, her love interest, white. That’s just how he turned out. And I didn’t set out to make Jerry, the retired cop, black. That’s just how he turned out.

And in hindsight I’m really glad it turned out this way. I’m happy to contribute to ethnic diversity in fiction, especially in mainstream thrillers, where I don’t see too much of it. I’m also happy to contribute to sexual diversity, which my book addresses as well.

I’m certainly aware now that my characters had to be influenced by my own life, because my life is very multicultural. I guess this is where the “write what you know” adage comes in. I was born and raised in Toronto, one of the most multicultural cities on the planet. My grandparents have Spanish and Chinese roots. My maiden name is Spanish. My father’s mother was half-Chinese. My brother married a Portuguese girl and they have three cute kids. I have a cousin who’s half-Latvian and a nephew who’s half-Italian. I have friends of all races – my three best friends are Chinese, white, and black. And that’s just the tip of it.

Not that it really matters. Because my family is just my family, and my friends are just my friends.

It’s not that I don’t notice other people’s ethnic origins. Of course I notice. I’ve got eyes. But rarely does it occur to me to ask someone “what they are”. Because growing up the way I did, everyone is “something”, and you stop being curious after awhile. But I do get the “What are you?” question myself all the time.

Here’s a conversation I had a few months ago with a man who’d called to interview me about CREEP:

“So, are you half-Asian?” he asked.

I was totally caught off guard. I wasn’t sure what my ethnicity had to do with my writing process. Finally I said, “No, I’m all Asian. All the time.”

Long pause. He said, “Was that a stupid question?”

I just laughed. I honestly wasn’t bothered or offended. I get that inquiring minds want to know. It’s not a stupid question at all.

Do people ask you what you are? If so, what are you? 🙂

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