Organic Diversity Done Right: North Surrey as a Setting in Fiction

Years ago, I was praised for the organic diversity in one of my manuscripts.

I took the compliment, but I’ll be honest: I didn’t see it as an especially rare way to have written the story of a bunch of teenagers.

Growing up in a place where Mrs. Wong was as likely to be my emergency contact as Mrs. Knight, and where I ate shrimp chips at the Cho’s, Yorkshire pudding at the Beanham’s, and made curry as a cooking lesson in my fourth grade French immersion class, the kind of diversity I’d written into that manuscript wasn’t anything special.

It was just, you know. My life.

Don’t get me wrong. I know that I grew up in a diverse place. I know that not everyone celebrated Diwali at school in the fall, and Christmas in the winter. I know that not everyone spoke French with the Malhame boys’ Grandpa, or carpooled to cheerleading practice with the Magtoto family. But it never struck me as particularly rare that I did.

It wasn’t until a sensitivity reader for a since-abandoned YA project featuring bi-racial sisters questioned why I had the characters’ mom speaking the language of 20,000 of my neighbours – implying I had perhaps carelessly picked one at random – and commented that I “may have once met” a person from this minority community that it really started to click.

That it truly sunk in how unique my hometown may be in the grand scheme of experience.

On a scholarly level, I understood that the various languages, accents, races, religions, and all the things that don’t even make most people in my hometown blink may cause some eyelids to flutter elsewhere. But I took in this critique and was hit with how I’d never seen something quite like my hometown represented on the page. How I’d never seen a suburb where where sixty percent of the population check the visible minority option on the census. Where nearly half the residents speak a wide range of first languages other than French or English, and nearly as meany speak that language daily — at home, in public, wherever. A suburb where diversity is as natural to the city as its parks, and trees, and beaches.

It’s a city that has had a profound impact on who I am and how I see the world and, because who I am is so wrapped up in how I grew up, it occurred to me then, sitting there, reading this critique and seeing how others might view me, that I’d never seen my experience on the page.

Yes, even though I’m white. Even though I’m reasonably healthy. Grew up on the working-end of middle class. Am university educated. Because regardless of all those things, I’d never once picked up a book and thought, “Yes! This is it! This is the world I know!”

Until I did.

I’ve seen the city I know and the kids it produces on the page, and I’m still nerding out over it. Pretty massively.

Michelle Kim’s RUNNING THROUGH SPRINKLERS is set in North Surrey, in the neighbourhood where I not only grew up, but where I spent seven years of my adult life.

And I was already recommending it to anyone who would listen before I was a quarter of the way through – not because it’s an adorable middle grade read with such a relatable theme as evolving friendship, which it is, but because it’s the world I know.

It’s a world of diverse characters where diversity isn’t a thing…it just is.

Yes, it’s fun for me to see characters traipsing around a city I can visualize without trying, but it’s not the place itself that resonates – it’s the overall atmosphere of it. It’s the way that RUNNING THROUGH SPRINKLERS is diverse without calling attention to the diversity, because there isn’t anything to call attention to. Not because everyone wears the same clothes and eats the same things and speaks the same words, because they don’t, but because it’s not “diversity” juxtaposed with “the norm.”

It just is.

And it’s every North Surrey kid’s experience, right there on the page.

As diverse as the reality we know.

So, check out RUNNING THROUGH SPRINKLERS. It’s not what I’d call a kick ass representation of organic diversity, though I’m sure others would.

Me? I’d just call it life.