I’ve never been much of a fangirl. Or a teenybopper. Or shipped my name with a fictional character. My celebrity crushes have been few and far between and fleeting at best. But there is one notable exception, my lifelong (well, since I was ten) adoration of Spock and the man that brought him to life, Leonard Nimoy. Clearly I am not alone in this, as evidenced by the recent outpouring of love and acclaim in response to Nimoy’s death earlier this year.
For some, it’s Spock’s cool composure and his unerring devotion to logic that’s so compelling. For others, his unspoken depths coupled with his pointy ears that inspire. For myself, though, it is his inherent contradictions, his very Otherness that caused my ten-year-old soul to soar with recognition and my heart to flutter with tweenly adulation. Spock was the first character I’d encountered who, like myself, was mixed race. He embodied similar struggles and desires and his Otherness, like mine, was physically visible in the world–a constant source of commentary, curiosity, and derision. And though Nimoy himself was not mixed race, he clearly understood the tensions of that identity as he so movingly illustrates in his 1968 letter to a biracial teen fan.
Arguably, Spock’s half Vulcan/half human heritage is what makes his character so enduring and endearing to millions of fans. In this regard, Spock can be seen as the predecessor and inspiration for a number of contemporary YA sci-fi/fantasy characters whose otherness is based in their mixed race (or mixed species as the case may be) identity. From the Half-blood Prince to Percy Jackson to Seraphina, YA abounds with sensitive souls alternately emboldened and embittered by their uncommon parentage. Considering the popularity of these books, the appeal of these characters extends far beyond the mixed race readers who can relate to them. So, what is so universally appealing about these “hybrid” characters?
Rick Riordan’s wildly popular Percy Jackson series can give us some insight into the matter. The son of a mortal woman and the Greek god Poseidon, Percy Jackson’s demigod status provides no end of excitement and adventure as he must learn to understand and control the powers he’s been born with. This, of course, is an obvious reason why the series is beloved to so many, it’s quite simply a riveting read. But delve deeper and there’s also an emotionally arresting message at the heart of Percy’s mixed race identity: namely, that your curse can also be your gift. Fans will know that Percy suffers from both ADHD and dyslexia. For most of his young life, these were a curse getting him kicked out of multiple schools and negatively impacting his sense of self. Only after finding out that he’s a demigod does he understand both the origin of his problems, as well as the fact that they serve to make him stronger and more respected in his newfound community. And who doesn’t need to learn that those aspects of your existence that most plague you can also make you stronger? And that you will find others in life who not only share your experience but value you for it?
The Harry Potter series offers some similar lessons while providing a more in-depth exploration of some of the complexities of the mixed race experience. What I loved about J.K. Rowling’s treatment of half-bloods (characters with a pure or half-blood parent and a Muggle or Muggle-born parent) in her novels is the range of experiences she provides, as well as the focus on what is essentially race-based discrimination. On one end of the spectrum, we have the self-hating half-blood, Voldemort, who obsessively calls for blood purity. On the other, the half blood Professor Dumbledore who aims to protect Muggles, half bloods, and purebloods alike. And somewhere in between, lie Harry Potter and Snape, each coping with the tragedies of their respective childhoods.
What we learn from Harry Potter is that while on the surface, one’s identities may appear to be the same, we each experience the world differently and make different choices even if our experiences may be similar. The universal truth here is twofold: one, there is no single story that defines an entire group, and two, we all possess the free will to shape our lives for better or for worse. Furthermore, none of us can choose our parents as much as we might like to, particularly for those born into a world of discrimination. That said, the powerful message at the heart of the series is that although you cannot choose your parents or change your upbringing, you can transcend and transform the hand that’s been dealt to you. And do so in a way that neither sacrifices parts of yourself nor negates someone else but rather honors your whole self.
Rachel Hartman’s recently completely duology, Seraphina and Shadow Scale, is perhaps the most nuanced depiction of both otherness and the mixed race experience described here. Seraphina also reminds me most of Spock in her struggle to reconcile both halves of herself. Born into a society where her half human/half dragon existence is not only taboo but grounds for imprisonment or worse, Seraphina must hide her identity from all. When conflict between the dragons and humans escalate, Seraphina is thrust into an all too familiar scenario for mixed race people, the bridge-builder. It is a role often required of those who blur society’s boundaries and necessitates a certain resilience born out of hardship.
Both novels do a superb job of detailing the hardships of constantly hiding who you are, not the least of which are living under the strain of both fear and loneliness at all times. Hartman also explores the tragedy of discrimination and its emotional effects on those that are its victim. Indeed, more than any of the other YA novels I’ve read, Shadow Scale counters this discrimination by addressing the falseness of forcing a choice between two sides when there really an infinite number of options beyond the binary. In fact, it’s when Seraphina allows for the possibility of one’s identity being fluid, adaptable, and non-binary that she is able to triumph and make peace not only between dragons and humans but within herself.
The lessons from these novels are clear and compelling and offer good reasons why mixed race characters are so appealing to a YA audience. Nonetheless, in thinking of the many other sci-fi/fantasy stories I could have written about, I feel like there is something even more fundamental that connects them all. From Hex Hall to Vampire Academy to Guardians of the Galaxy, the characters constantly struggle with the knowledge that they do not belong in the society they live in. And really, is there any more quintessentially teenage feeling than the one of not belonging?
Regardless of class, race, gender, or sexuality, teenagers grapple with many of the issues discussed above. They wish they had other parents and battle soul-crushing loneliness; they are asked to build bridges between adolescence and adulthood; they long for families that will love and accept them and societies that will see past their exterior to what lies beneath; they are constrained by expectation and closeted by fear; and ultimately, viscerally, they want nothing more than to belong to themselves, to another, to a world that exalts and accepts them. Don’t we all?
~Alegria Barclay, currently reading Bone Gap by Laura Ruby