Adopted from South Korea and growing up in New Hampshire, it wasn’t often that Marisa Cleveland saw another Asian person, and she was the only one at her school. Even in fiction, no one looked like her.

“I never found an adopted South Korean girl on TV,” says Cleveland, now 39, a literary agent and author living on Marco Island. “I didn’t find anybody that I could relate to.” And she had to contend with the subtle racism of Middle America. Once, a teacher told her she didn’t have to be pretty because she was smart. “Well, what if I’m not smart enough?” Cleveland thought.

The lack of diversity takes a toll.

“I might’ve felt like I could’ve done more and been more at an earlier age,” she says. “It took me a long time to realize that I could be whatever I could dream.”

In her work as a Naples schoolteacher for six years and now as a gatekeeper in the publishing world, Cleveland has helped children realize what she never did until heading off to George Mason University. After college she taught language arts at Palmetto Ridge High School, which has a large population of Hispanic students, and coached the cheerleaders.

After Cleveland switched to a literary career in 2010 and began publishing adult romance novels, a former student, who’d since moved to Spain, got her hands on one of Cleveland’s books. Cleveland had taught the girl eight years before and coached her on the cheerleading squad. “I read your book,” she wrote to Cleveland, “and it changed my life.”

In her own writing and in the manuscripts seeks at The Seymour Agency where she works, the characters of Cleveland’s prose aren’t a polished ideal. They’re flawed. They don’t have everything. Often, they didn’t grow up in traditional families.

Lately, Cleveland and her husband have been working on publishing books under a new venture by the Global Heart imprint. When the books are available later in 2015, some of the revenue will go toward fighting hunger and homelessness in Southwest Florida.

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