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Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much in February. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.
Today we have one of my favourite YA lit bloggers, Ah Yuan, whose blog, GAL Novelty, should be on your blogroll if it isn’t already. I love how no-holds-barred her reviews are. Thoughtful, smart and conversation provoking. If you want to know a bit more about Ah Yuan before you read this moving post check out this interview on Reading in Color.
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Ah Yuan, also known as wingstodust, is your average Asian-Canadian female blogger tolling away as a liberal arts undergrad. When not being bogged down by school or work, she spends her spare time thinking, breathing and talking about fictional stories: anything from novels to manga to to movies to tv shows. The only thing she finds more enjoyable than a good yarn is to be able to talk about stories with others. She can be found on her book blog called GAL Novelty, her general/fandom blog on dreamwidth, and her twitter feed.
The Importance of Diversity
There’s been recent talk about race in fiction, and the predominance of a white-as-default cast in English-language novels. All in all, I’m pretty happy that we’re having this discussion because diversity in the stories I consume is very important to me. There’s the basic reason, because I believe stories that show worlds with diverse characters is just more honest, and then there’s the other reason, long-winded and messy and personal, which I tried to put into words for y’all today.
Growing up in a predominantly English-speaking part of Canada, I tried my best to seek out Asian representation in my novels. I would look for covers with East or South East Asian faces, squint at last names shown on the spine and trying to guess whether or not that this time, I’ll get lucky and find a story with a protagonist that had a physical resemblance to myself. Sometimes these methods would work, but more often than not I would turn up with absolutely nothing. The years went by and I mostly stopped trying to look for these novels. For a moment in my high school life, I ended up trying to replace my desire for East Asian faces in novels with East Asian movies and dramas, anime and manga. And I loved these shows, these comics—always will. But somewhere down the line this stopped being enough for me. I wanted more—but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted, nor how am I to get what I couldn’t name.
You may find it bemusing then, wherein I hereby confess that I fail to buy into an argument I hear about ‘relate-ability’. The white audience won’t buy POC covers! White people are reluctant to read about a Protagonist of Colour because they’re afraid that they won’t be able to ‘relate’! In fact, if I must be perfectly honest, I find it quite laughable.
Because—no one would ever make the vice versa argument. No Person of Colour is ever going to go “Gee, I’m afraid I can’t read this novel because I don’t think I can relate with a white protagonist!” Relating to a white protagonist is expected, not just out for the white audience that the English-language publishers dominantly cater to, but to the rest of us POCs in the audience as well. POC are expected to relate to a white protagonist, but we can’t expect the same the other way around? Really?
At the same time, I do to a certain degree understand the whole ‘relating’ thing. As I’ve mentioned earlier on, I constantly searched and searched for a story that I can ‘relate’ to. Note that even while doing so, I was never averse to reading about characters who didn’t share my physical resemblance (If I was, the amount of novels I would have read would be an abysmally low count). Stories with non-Asian protagonists probably made up more than ¾ of what I read, even with my younger self’s dedication for Asian representation. What’s available on the library shelves influence and/or limited what I could read, after all, and I remember my elementary school shelves being predominantly whitewashed.
Then you may go, why aren’t you satisfied with your East Asian stories then? Look—Asian faces! You got what you wanted! Why are you still not happy?
See, those stories too, they don’t have room for someone like me either. My hyphenated background is as follows: Malaysian-Chinese Canadian. Tell me, can anyone think of a story with such a background for a protagonist? I’ve searched high and low and to this day I still only know one singular title (and I didn’t even enjoy that story. Representation doesn’t always equal reading enjoyment). In China my ancestors were too poor and low-class to make even a footnote in its history. In Malaysia my family is segregated by law for being ethnically Chinese. In Canada I am invisible. There is no voice for me, for my experiences.
The Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese shows I love so much, they still mean something to me. They showed me that you don’t need Awesomely Coloured Eyes and have Blond or Red Hair to be beautiful. They showed me that Asians can have adventures too and be awesome, the hero of the day. But they also showed me that I don’t quite fit with this picture. Being an ethnic Chinese is different from being Japanese or Korean, and in China there is no voice for the Diaspora population. Getting Malaysian media in general is extremely challenging for me and even when I do find ones that feature Chinese-Malaysians, they may come sans subtitles and I would only half-understand the story with my garbled, faint understanding of Cantonese and Mandarin, never mind other Chinese dialects or Malay itself. The day Canada uses a POC protagonists, never mind even just Chinese-Canadian protagonists, in their narratives, is the day hell freezes over and the dead decides to come back to the living. And even with stories that do have the hyphenate identity of being a Chinese-American doesn’t quite hold. A Chinese-American is similar but NOT the same as a Chinese-Canadian, and a Chinese immigrant who came from the Mainland is different from a Chinese immigrant who came from Hong Kong is different from a Chinese immigrant who came from Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnan . . .
I’ve stopped holding my breath for characters that will be representative of my heritage. In my entire lifetime I do not expect to come across any more such protagonists and/or stories than what I can count on one hand.
There is no voice for someone like me, but I thought and thought about it, and a few years back I realized that all I really wanted was a story that said it was okay to have a diverse population. That everyone around you didn’t have to come from the same monolith culture in order to have a story to tell. Stories in English language novels that have a white default, stories in Japanese/Korean/Chinese shows that show a monolith culture, all these stories don’t have room for me in them. But a story that features and even stars a character that isn’t part of the dominant race default, wherein minorities of the country have a voice, that’s a kind of world wherein I have a possibility of existing. I am not saying that I read diverse books in order to find a Malaysian-Chinese Canadian within it, because I’ve long since stopped believing in such a story. What I am saying is that in stories that show a world wherein marginal voices are given centre stage and deemed worthy of a story, I as a jumble of hyphenates, a marginal group in every country my family have ever been part of, can have room to dream. I, in this world, can only carve out a space for myself as myself in a world that acknowledges the existence of people that don’t fit in the dominant fold. A diverse population is the only place wherein I as a marginal voice can exist, and that is why stories that reflect such diversity is important to me.
And I guess, this is the closest I’ll ever get to understanding what it means to ‘relate’ to a world that is reflective of my own.
Posted by Justine at 18:39, 8 February 2010 under Guest post, Reading, State of the World, Young Adult literature | 17 Comments »
I <3 you! what a great post. It makes me so sad that you've given up looking for characters that match your background. I used to think I would NEVER find a YA/MG with a Panmanian in it but I did, both MG and YA (A Wish After Midnight). So don't give up! Or write the story yourself, I love reading your blog and this post was awesome, you have a great way with words.
I have some friends though, who don't think they could relate to a white person. They have gone to all-black schools (or Latino) and they've never had to really interact with a white person. And none of them like to read (I'm sure at this point you're wondering why we're friends, but they are hilarious and loyal) so they don't relate to the white male classics we read in class and they would never consider getting a YA book. Which is sad, because they are missing out. There is a small percentile of POC that feel the same way. This is wrong and sad, because as you stated everyone's story needs to be told and we are all hyphenates! African American-Panmanian-With some other stuff. lol
And people forget that representation does not mean I will like the book, just because you wrote about POC, doesn't mean I'll give the book a positive review. I always thought that was a given (integrity, anyone? haha) but apparentely not always.
Sorry for such a long comment. But please, don't give up on the dream of seeing a Malaysian Chinese Canadian story being written (or at least a Chinese Candadian, Malyasian may be tough. And thank you for shedding a bit of light on your background/how Malaysians are/were treated). I wish I could write because I would totally try and write one for you!
February 8th, 2010 at 8:05 PM
February 8th, 2010 at 8:11 PM
Maggie Desmond-O'Brien Says:
Wow. Being white, green-eyed and blond with a fairly bland cultural background, I can’t say I’ve ever had to deal with your specific problems, but I also can’t say I’ve read a book about a POC and come away thinking, “I can’t relate to that character!” In fact, I enjoy reading about as many kinds of characters as possible, of as many backgrounds as possible, whether they’re like me or not, because isn’t reading about broadening our horizons? You’re spot on!
February 8th, 2010 at 8:22 PM
Is there some reason you didn’t tell us you were going to be here, Ah Yuan?
I empathize with you wanting more. Change is going to come because young women like you and Ari and the ones you recruit are going to demand until the publishers join us in the 21st century.
February 8th, 2010 at 9:02 PM
Ooh, good post, Ah! As a hyphenated ethnicity myself (Burmese-American—ha! I never even bothered looking for a protagonist with my ethnic background~), I understand what you mean about the whole “I identified with America, but America didn’t identify with me thing.” Even today, all my favorite characters on TV, in novels, etc, are all white. Most of the Asian-American characters portrayed on TV (which is like a grand total of 3) or in our specially sectioned-off cult of “Asian-American literature” (ugh) are all so different from me in personality, dreams, way of thinking, etc, that I can’t relate to them half as well as, say, Detective Beckett from the TV show Castle or Tiana from Disney’s The Princess and the Frog.
That’s an interesting point, though—even though Beckett and Tiana don’t share my ethnic background, we really “get” each other. Not 100%, true—Tiana has probably never had anyone say how surprising it is that I speak perfect English (I mean, come on—I was born and raised here, but some folks can’t seem to get their heads around that). But then, I’ve never had anyone doubt that I could work a white collar job the way they doubted her ability to own her own business. Every lot has its own challenges.
The point is, though, I CAN relate. And I know that lots of non-Asians will be able to relate to me and the characters I create/stories I tell when I finally get myself published (err, hopefully. ::fingers crossed:: ). I think the biggest reason I want to see more diversity in media is not so much so I can find a protagonist to relate to, but so that others who have NOT had exposure to Asians, will discover that they can relate to us too. (and then we can all be the big, happy YA family we are~~ W00t~!)
To that end, I am really thankful to those authors who believe the same thing I do and go out of their way to cross ethnic lines like Scott Westerfeld in EXTRAS and Jaclyn Dolamore in Magic Under Glass. They’re white, but they wanted to tell the stories of POC because they realize we’re not so different, and to me, that was incredibly gratifying. Here’s hoping more authors will do the same (and, of course, more authors of color will be joining the mix in greater numbers in the future). Even if it’s slow, I’m really happy we’re moving in this direction.
February 8th, 2010 at 9:29 PM
This is a beautiful and thoughtful post that I can wholeheartedly relate to. Thank you for sharing what is true for so many of us Asians by descent only. Everytime I hear someone yell “go back home to China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, etc” I feel a terrible sadness that they can’t recognize that we are home. I’m Korean American – and like you I can no more relate to being a Korean from Korea. I’m too American. But this place I call home and that I’m so proud of doesn’t necessarily share its pride and pleasure of being a diverse community of different races and cultures. When the movie version of Avatar: The Last Airbender is completely whitewashed so that the rich culture of Asia that made the television series so wonderful is now represented by white actors, I can’t help but wonder what this really means. I’m sad for my children who were schocked to hear that Asian faces weren’t good enough to portray an Asian character. I’m sad for this culture that devalues the contributions of their Asian citizens. They did exactly what you condemn here. They believed that to make Airbender more relatable to the majority, they needed to put white faces in Asian roles. But they are not solely to blame. For what the Bloomsbury fiasco made clear was that this has been happening for a long time. And until publishers recognize the value of POC on their covers, this will always be a problem. Thanks for your post. I think I will also talk about this on my own blog.
February 8th, 2010 at 9:44 PM
thank you for this post!
i love that you point out that it’s never stated that POC wouldn’t be able to relate to white characters. yet the reverse is supposedly true, which is ridiculous.
i’ve lived in San Francisco all my life which has a thriving asian population & i’m chinese american. more and more i find that people i know have multiracial backgrounds, yet there still aren’t enough books that reflect this experience.
February 8th, 2010 at 10:27 PM
Julie Polk Says:
Thanks for sharing this great post! Long-winded, messy and personal has never read so beautifully.
February 8th, 2010 at 10:37 PM
In Which a Girl Reads Says:
Ah Yuan, you’re amazing. Just thought I should let you know, haha. This post is awesome-so thought-provoking and spot-on. I really admire you for your commitment to diversity in YA. You’ve motivated me to start reading more diverse YA
February 9th, 2010 at 1:50 AM
Ah Yuan // wingstodust Says:
*grins* I ♥ you too! It’s not so much that I’ve given up (I never fail to pick up a book if I know it’s set in Malaysia or has characters from Malaysia) but I stopped trying to actively look for them. The lack of titles is just too depressing. =/ lawl, I’m flattered that you think I have a way with words (I try, am not as good as I wish I were) but I’ll confess that I do have difficulting realizing a Malaysian-Chinese protagonist. It’s far easier for me to write from a perspective of, say, a white character, or even a Hong-Kong/Mainland/Taiwanese Chinese-American/Canadian because it’s just so, so difficult to imagine such a protagonist when you’ve spent your whole life absorbing that such a narrator/protagonist doesn’t exist in fiction. I can’t even tell you how hard it is because I don’t think I have the words in me.
Oh yes, I do know what you mean. I have Hong Kong Chinese Canadian friends that I befriended when I lived in a predominantly (Mainland/Hong Kong) Chinese immigrant section of the city, who simply are not interested in consuming media/stories outside of their Hong Kong shows or movies (it’s all about the 8 and 9 o’clock weekday dramas! Those who lived in Canada and got the Fairchild channel on their cable/satellite’s gonna know what I mean. >D). And I can totally see why your friends and my friends like such are disinclined to these white male classics (I’m pretty sick of them myself, to be honest), and I imagine it’s much more fun to consume entertainment that is representative of yourself. But I guess the point I was trying to say is that, say, in a class situation, if you tried to go up to the teacher and say, “hey, I don’t want to read or study Romeo and Juliet because I don’t feel I can relate with their white lives”, I imagine said teacher is not going to take this very well. In other words, this statement would not be considered as a legitimate excuse to not read works by white people that feature only a white cast. Or, I guess, if we want to apply this to publishing industry, I highly doubt that publishers in Asia are going to go, “Hmm, we can’t translate books like Time Traveller’s Wife or Harry Potter because we feel that our audience can’t relate with white protagonists!” Doesn’t really work that way. (Er, feel free to prove me wrong. I do not claim to have any extensive knowledge in how the translating publishing industry works, after all.)
LAWL yeah, it’s funny when people assume that. LOOK! I WROTE A BOOK WITH POC CHARACTERS! LOVE ME AND GIMME COOKIES! Er… no.
haha, I had more success finding non-Malaysian Chinese-Canadian narratives, it’s true. And it’s so sweet of you to say that’d you’d write one for me. *HUGS X100* Psh, and I love long comments. No need to apologize! =D
*blushes* Well, I didn’t want to come off as bragging or in over my head or anything. I imagined a scenario wherein I’m like “hey, I’m gonna guest post on Justine Larbalestier’s blog!” and people go “Psh, yeah right.” Which would of course make me really sad and so I just thought I’d work quietly on the post and announce it after it’s been published or something. =D Haha, clearly you found this guest post without my advertising though. 8D
Okay, totally a tangent, but HOW AWESOME WAS PRINCESS AND THE FROG?! OMG SO GOOD, MY CHILDHOOD SELF WENT ALL STARRY-EYED AND I WAS TWO AGAIN IN THEATRES. TIANAAAA.
*coughs* But yes re:relating. Yes, it’d be nice if non-Asians would pick up a book with an Asian protagonist and then go ‘oh, how cool is that! Totally relatable characters!’ Which of course makes me sad whenever I see that people won’t even touch a certain book with a different ethnicity from their own because of their perceived ‘relating’ issues because, it’s like, you’re not even giving it a chance, ya know? =/
I do want more portrayals of ethnic diversity, and I do appreciate reading a book by a white author that has a POC protag that actually feels real and not stereotyped or whatnot, but there’s always that risk that there will be stereotypes, which is of course, a whole different debacle all together so maybe I should just stave off on that particular commentary. But yes, more diversity in my fiction please! And I wish you luck in getting published. =D
*scowls* Oh man, I hate how there’d be that angry white person who feels entitled to say shit like that, or about “immigrants stealing jobs”. And YES, that completely inrecognition, that alienation of “us” vs “them”, it’s just so frustrating, to be in a country you love that doesn’t love you back quite the same way. And OH MAN re:Avatar. It was a total blow for me because I *love* that show!! All my siblings love that show! So the whole yellowface thing was such a smack in the face. And I’ll be looking forward to checking out your post when I have available time.
more and more i find that people i know have multiracial backgrounds, yet there still aren’t enough books that reflect this experience.
Truer words have never been spoken. 8D There is a clear disconnect with the representation of race in media and the actual diversity amongst the consumers that the publishers are supposed to target. *sadface*
Long-winded, messy and personal has never read so beautifully.
Thank you. =D
@In Which a Girl Reads//choco,
Yay I can haz diverse YA reader convert! 8D
February 9th, 2010 at 8:30 AM
Shveta Thakrar Says:
*smile* May many people read this and be inspired both to check out diverse books but also to write them. You deserve that character you’ve always waited for.
February 9th, 2010 at 11:07 AM
Great post, and there are many who know exactly what you’re feeling, like me. That’s one of the reasons I started not one, but two webcomics with diverse characters and inter-racial couples. In the process I’ve tried to learn as much as I can on other cultures besides my own.
After reading Ari’s blog I decided to continue work on a historical novel featuring diverse protags. There need to be more diversity, and I hope as time goes on bookshelves reflect that.
February 9th, 2010 at 11:49 AM
I was so upset about Avatar, I like the show (don’t really watch it anymore but I don’t have much time for TV)
And i totally agree then, of course I could never say I didn’t relate to Our Town or any other novel (which is totally true, I don’t understand why Our Town is a clasic, it bored me to death and I’ve never liked the small-town happy idyllic mindset, ugh) because the main characters were white. I’m laughing just thinking about what a teacher would do if I said that.
@Sheveta-I agree! Whose going to write it? lol
@Mythica-So glad to hear my blog post inspired you *goofy grin on my face*
February 9th, 2010 at 10:31 PM
sorry this won’t be an uber-long response as you wanted, but I’m actually writing up a pretty long post of my own for the DW comm. later =D
I love that you made the distinction between different Asian communities, and I’m sure you’re as annoyed as I am when people ask a Chinese person about wearing kimonos or being ninja.
I do have to admit I’m not as adamant as you in just reading about any form of diversity. A book on the black slave trade for example would probably not hold my attention, just as those Golden Mountain books of Chinese immigrants won’t. It’s more so due to my lack of fondness for recent-history (ancient is another matter) than my unwillingness to read about a PoC character.
I am also able to identify myself more readily within Asian media than you since I am far more exposed to it first-hand (I practically spend 1/3 of every year in China), and so I don’t really have the need to look for other forms of identification (ex. through minority status).
I am all for stories where minorities take center-stages though, and perhaps that is what fuels my love for social minorities (ex. criminals, geniuses, glbt) as protagonists. It’s not the same thing as racial minorities, I know, but it’s an alternative to the middle-class white heterosexual. I’ve nothing against them, because while I don’t hate “ignorant white” individuals, I hate “white ignorance” as an oppressive system.
This turned out rather long in the end lol, and disorganized…we can talk over more points during Reading Week when I come over =D
February 10th, 2010 at 12:57 AM
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