Have you ever embraced what makes you special or shied away from it? It can be difficult to be different when you’re growing up. Aiden Yang has a new take on that. The Spineless Porcupine is a beautiful story about diversity, inclusion and why differences should be celebrated. It’s a fable that follows a porcupine, Mattie, who was born without spines and immediately shunned from her clan. After she becomes discovered for her unusual appearance by a circus, she is confident that she has found her new home. She becomes the star of the show with her new identity, Juniper the Spineless Porcupine, and encapsulates the audience with her newfound tricks.
However, the circus isn’t all that it seems and she quickly begins to lose herself to please others. At the circus she finds a new friend, Pearson, an albino creature who convinces her to escape their caged life and re-enter the wild. Although terrified of the unknown, Mattie knows that she would rather go out into the world and find adventure for herself rather than constantly following the orders of others. Mattie and Pearson’s homeward bound journey is a heroic depiction of self love, breaking free from social norms and encouraging everyone to be excited about their quirky qualities.
Growing up with my first language being Farsi, having two immigrant parents from Iran and starting to have a unibrow from a ~very~ young age (welcome to Middle Eastern life), I had moments where I wished more than anything that I could blend in. I wanted to be just like everyone else. I didn’t want to speak a different language, have darker features than my peers or eat food that no one else seemed to have. I wanted to wear the same clothes. I wanted to speak the same language. I wanted a normal PB&J for lunch like everyone else. When you’re in elementary school, it can be very hard to be proud of what makes you stand out. But when you’re older and learn to love your individualistic qualities – your whole life changes. As I have grown up I have not only embraced but absolutely cherished the parts of my life that make me unique. Being Iranian-American has become the most important part of my identity and I wouldn’t change it for the world. The Spineless Porcupine is a touching story that does a fantastic job of showing people that you should not only accept what makes you different but fully celebrate it. It’s a sweet and easy-to-read book that every person should check out if they want to learn how to be more inclusive.
After reading The Spineless Porcupine I was able to connect with Aiden and ask him a few questions about why he wrote the book and how it connects to him. Thank you Aiden for writing such a charming story and inspiring everyone to live as the truest and most authentic versions of themselves. Check out the interview below:
1. What inspired you to write The Spineless Porcupine?
In 2014, I was processing my journey growing up as a queer, transgender first-generation Asian American and Christian in a diverse part of Los Angeles. The experience was like being born into a warrior clan of porcupines focused on protecting and keeping to our own kind but I was missing the quills everyone else seemed to have. The Spineless Porcupine is an allegory of growing up rejected and ostracized for being “spineless,” to then going into the performative “circus” of performing, producing, and perfecting as a commodity in the evangelical church, to now living in the wilderness befriending communities that I once thought were my enemies. A core message is about how we can move from fear of rejection and “the other” into inclusion and belonging, which isn’t efficient, predictable, and something we can control. It’s especially poignant now given the anti-Asian hate crimes and Black Lives Matter movement.
2. What characteristics of Mattie do you see in yourself?
Her journey is based on my journey so we share a lot in common. The characteristics we share are her sensitivity and forgiving nature. Her courage, tenacity, and strength to do what’s right, discover the truth, and win others over. Her love, affection, and kindness to those who have both wounded and loved her. Her desire to prove herself to others, though we’re both starting to care less about this. 🙂
3. How do you think companies could incorporate more diversity and inclusion initiatives?
I lead workshops at companies like Cisco, Oracle, Twitch, Workday on how to create a SAFE Space for Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) to abound. And what I mean by SAFE is that it’s an acronym for Sharing Acceptance, Fairness, and Empathy for everyone. One key way for companies to do this is to create initiatives that promote psychological safety.
A 2017 Harvard Business Review study found that in order for diverse teams to be successful, it requires all to feel safe to be themselves a.k.a. psychological safety.
This is fostered through:
1) Accepting differences of opinions – the next time you’re faced w/ a new, complex situation, and all agree on what to do, find someone who disagrees & cherish them. For example, in Grammarly’s hiring process, everyone keeps their evaluations confidential until the debrief to avoid bias. We specifically establish ground rules that when we meet to share our perspectives, we are respectful and open-minded to those who disagree with us & actively listen to them. This helps to create a culture that encourages those who stick their necks out and challenge the status quo, which is what you need to foster diversity. It also aligns with our EAGER values, which stand for Ethical, Adaptable, Gritty, Empathetic, and Remarkable. This process is ethical, because it’s our goal to ensure we evaluate our candidates fairly and mitigate bias.
2) Accepting the new – we need to feel safe to try new things in new ways without fear of repercussions. We don’t create diverse, innovative solutions unless we step out of the familiar. IDEO, the world-famous design firm’s, mantra is “fail early, fail often.” For more on how companies can create a SAFE space for all to comfortably share their perspectives, please check out my blog on this topic.