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.