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Gaskins, Pearl Fuyo 1957–

Gaskins, Pearl Fuyo 1957–

PERSONAL: Born May 5, 1957, in Maryville, TN; daughter of Albert and Ikuko Gaskins; married. Education: University of California—Berkeley, B.A., 1980; New York University, M.A., 1991.

ADDRESSES: Home—Oak Park, IL. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Henry Holt, 115 W. 18th St., New York, NY 10011. E-mail[email protected]

CAREER: Worked as a computer programmer in Hawaii, 1983–88; Scholastic (children's book publisher), writer and editor for Choices, 1988–2000; freelance writer, 2000–.

MEMBER: Authors Guild, Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, Hapa Issues Forum.

AWARDS, HONORS: American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults, Booklist Editors' Choice citation, New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age citation, and Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People citation, all for What Are You?: Voices of Mixed-Race Young People; Educational Press Association of America awards for writing and editing articles for young people.

WRITINGS:

What Are You?: Voices of Mixed-Race Young People, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 1999.

I Believe In …: Christian, Jewish, and Muslim Young People Speak about Their Faith, Cricket Books (Chicago, IL), 2004.

Author of feature articles and educational materials published by Scholastic, Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, Time, and the San Francisco Chronicle.

SIDELIGHTS: Pearl Fuyo Gaskins did not follow the path she originally thought she would take in life. A gifted student throughout school, particularly at Dr. James J. Hogan High School in Vallejo, California, where she grew up, Gaskins intended to pursue her interest in biology and the bio-sciences. But her mixed-race heritage led her toward a career in writing.

The oldest of five children in a working-class family, Gaskins realized that writing was not the most practical of professions. When she entered the University of California at Berkeley in 1975, however, she encountered the racial and cultural diversity on the college campus that was unknown to her a few short miles away in the other San Francisco Bay-area town where she was raised. By the end of her sophomore year, Gaskins's experience in an Asian American studies class had opened up a new possibility, and she switched her course of study to sociology. She also discovered something else about herself during her last two years there: she enjoyed writing and seemed to be good at it. A student-run campus newsletter, Asian Directions, became a new voice for Gaskins.

As a child of a Japanese-American mother and a European-American father, Gaskins needed to solidify her own identity. Her first book, What Are You?: Voices of Mixed-Race Young People, heralded what would come to be the most pronounced historical change the U.S. Census Bureau had seen in America's population since 1920.

In post-World War II America, hostility toward Asian Americans was reflected in the way people treated the author and her mother, Ikuko. As Gaskins describes in the introduction to What Are You? and through personal interviews, she was "called a 'Jap' and a 'Chink' by black and white kids in grade school," and she "dreaded the anniversary of Pearl Harbor in history class because someone always made a crack about 'those sneaky Japs.'" After graduating from college in 1980, Gaskins became involved with I-Pride (Interracial-Intercultural Pride), a Berkeley-based organization for mixed-race families and individuals. In 1983, she moved to Hawaii for five years and worked as a computer programmer. It was in Hawaii that Gaskins, for the first time in her life, was among thousands of people who, like her, had more than one box to check on a census form.

Gaskins's interest in writing led to a master's degree in journalism from New York University in 1991. As a writer for Scholastic's Choices, a magazine targeting teenagers, Gaskins received letters from mixed-race adolescents who, like she had twenty years earlier, often endured negative comments about their heritage. Therein she found a mission to educate parents, teachers, and young people who were not racially mixed toward an understanding of what it felt like to be discriminated against because of it. From 1995 until 1998, Gaskins interviewed eighty people scattered throughout the United States—primarily teens and young adults between the ages of fourteen and twenty-eight. They lived in small towns, cities, and suburbia from New Jersey to Alabama to Hawaii. The interviews provide a backdrop for "the contemporary voices," that a Booklist reviewer found "disturbing, frank, witty, and heartfelt. [The youths'] words are intensely personal, but they also capture the universals of coming-of-age as an outsider."

What is unique to Gaskins's book is that each chapter provides a theme. "Check One Box," for instance, reminds the outside observer that these young people are from varied cultures and are not comfortable with simply checking "Other" in the category of racial identification. They relate their experiences through poetry, essays, and the interviews themselves. Gerry Larson, writing in the School Library Journal, noted, "While underscoring the complexity of the mixed-race experience, these unadorned voices offer a genuine, poignant, enlightening and empowering message to all readers."

Gaskins chose her title because of an incident that took place during a benefit dinner held just before 2000 census forms began appearing in mailboxes across the country. A man at her table asked the "what are you?" question, one that she has been asked many times. In the previous three decades, the number of mixed-race young people eighteen and under had quadrupled. Approximately four million children in the United States come from families where one parent is white and the other parent is Latino, Asian American, or Native American. Following the results of the 2000 census, Gaskins—a resident of Oak Park, Illinois, where 2.2 percent of the population indicated a mixed-race background—told Jonathan Messinger of the Oak Park Oak Leaves that "when you're growing up racially mixed, a lot of experiences tell you you don't fit in."

Gaskins participates in workshops around the country that examine the mixed-race experience. One of those events was the fourth Pan Collegiate Conference on the Mixed Race Experience of April, 2000, where Gaskins was featured as one of three keynote speakers. As a freelance writer, she admits she is inclined toward the adolescent market due to the vibrancy and pressing questions that group continually has to offer. Gaskins's endeavors as a journalist will continue to address the questions of youth. By her own description in the introduction to What Are You?, "adolescence was the time when I wrestled most deeply with the issues of race and racial identity. It was the mid-1970s. I was living in Vallejo, which was then a small, predominately white working-class city sandwiched between the northern reaches of San Francisco Bay and the California foothills…. For myself and many of my peers, racial identification determined the music we listened to, the clothes and hairstyles we wore, the slang we used, who our friends were, and whom we dated. As teenagers trying to carve out identities for ourselves, we found in race and ethnicity instant self-definition and a sense of group belonging. And for many nonwhite teens, this ethnic awareness was a way of coping with the racism they experienced in their day-to-day lives."

In I Believe In …: Christian, Jewish, and Muslim Young People Speak about Their Faith, published in 2004, Gaskins focuses not on race, but on religion. The book contains excerpts from interviews she conducted with nearly one hundred teens living in the Chicago area. The interviewees share their thoughts on religious issues, including customs, values, women's roles in religion, and their personal views on faith, and each of the entries is accompanied by a small black-and-white photo of the speaker. They "sound like kids," wrote Ilene Cooper in Booklist, "yet the ideas that they are thinking and talking about are quite complex." Larson also reviewed this volume in the School Library Journal, describing it as "a balanced, sensitive, contemporary look at world religions."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

BOOKS

Gaskins, Pearl Fuyo, What Are You?: Voices of Mixed-Race Young People, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 1999.

PERIODICALS

Booklist, January 1, 2000, review of What Are You?: Voices of Mixed-Race Young People, p. 820; October 1, 2004, Ilene Cooper, review of I Believe In …: Christian, Jewish, and Muslim Young People Speak about Their Faith, p. 340.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, October, 1999, Janice N. Harrington, review of What Are You?, p. 52.

Horn Book Magazine, July, 1999, Michelle Martin, review of What Are You?, p. 482.

Newsweek, May 8, 2000, Lynette Clemetson, "Color My World: The Promise and Perils of Life in the New Multiracial Mainstream," pp. 70-74.

New York Times, September 12, 1999, Brent Staples, review of What Are You?

Oak Leaves (Oak Park, IL), March 21, 2001, Jonathan Messinger, interview with the author, p. 9.

School Library Journal, July, 1999, Gerry Larson, "Gaskins, Pearl Fuyo," p. 107; August, 2004, Gerry Larson, review of I Believe In, p. 136.

ONLINE

What Are You?, http://www.whatareyou.com/ (February 20, 2006).

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