I don’t celebrate my Indian culture. I never have. I don’t know how to, because I was raised around it, not in it. Growing up, it was as if I was front and center in a dark theater watching my Indian relatives and family friends on the big screen like a Bollywood film. I didn’t feel Indian. Instead, I felt worthless.
Behind closed doors, my family’s way of life, our secret culture, was that of isolation, conflict, and abuse—a culture of dysfunction. My family’s culture of dysfunction was the lens through which I saw everything Indian. There wasn’t a single day of my youth that I experienced my Indian-ness independent of the culture of dysfunction, therefore the two became inextricably linked for me and transformed into a strange blend of otherness and pain.
I’m not alone. Many of the diverse teens I treat live in unique versions of cultures of dysfunction—innumerable combinations of abuse, neglect, parental drug use, parental mental illness, and/or other severe adverse childhood experiences. These teens become trapped in negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, a result of the medically proven brain changes that can result from trauma of all types. In addition, alienation from and repulsion by their birth culture(s) can become ingrained because they’re raised in cultures of dysfunction.
As a child and adolescent psychiatrist, I can tell you it’s difficult, sometimes impossible, for these teens to move past their traumatic struggles when their brains are hardwired by it. They can become stuck in a survivor mode of poor decision making as a culture of dysfunction becomes the blueprint for future relationships, leaving them prone to an endless cycle of repeating and recreating with others what they’ve endured at home. This is largely why the buffering effects of their birth culture(s), such as positive extended family relationships or participation in traditional activities and practices, can remain beyond reach.
This brings me to YA fiction. Some of my diverse teen patients enduring cultures of dysfunction find solace and temporary escape in YA fantasy, dystopia, or paranormal books. There are some, however, who seek to find themselves in diverse, realistic YA. But they usually can’t because, currently, most of it celebrates different cultures. Most of it includes at least one functional parent or family member who protects against the occurrence of a culture of dysfunction and thus makes it possible for the birth culture(s) to be appreciated, a tremendous advantage when it comes to rising above adversity.
When I was a teen, I couldn’t find any Indian or Indian-American YA novels. Thankfully there are some now, but the thing is, I can’t relate to any of them besides the ones I’ve written. More importantly, enough teens living in the complex dynamics of a culture of dysfunction have told me that they can’t see themselves in diverse YA fiction, including realistic bestsellers, that happen to be by or about people of their same background. From my point of view in the mental health trenches with vulnerable youth, to think that we’ve come far enough in YA diversity is shortsighted, minimizing, and insulting to those teens in the midst of survival and in desperate need of empathy from sources outside of the family.
YA fiction needs to expand its boundaries beyond safe, popular stories that only affirm and praise different cultures. It needs to push past the expectation that all diverse teens can conquer adversity in a tolerable way. It needs to depict the ugliness of when a culture of dysfunction hijacks birth culture. It needs to represent the unpalatable perspectives of teens who don’t have the luxury of enjoying their cultures and working through typical adolescent concerns. It needs to embrace painful reality, not just what’s convenient. It needs to champion these types of troubling diverse stories the way it does those stories that make people feel comfortable, content, and less guilty. After all, vulnerable teens are worth it, even if they themselves can’t feel worth yet.
Sonia Patel is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and the author of three YA novels. Her most recent book, Bloody Seoul, was released August 20.