Guest Post: The current state of asian representation in LGBTI+ romance (spoiler: it’s not great)

Hi, let’s talk about asian cultures and LGBTI+ romance publishing.

 

In particular, let’s talk about asian main characters and love interests written by white authors who might have an interest in the culture but will have never lived it or understand it. The character names aren’t even always names but rather phonemes from an asian language strung together (and not even always from the same language as the character’s ethnicity), the title refers to at least one stereotype, and the cover invokes anything generically asian from imagery to font. It seems deliberately designed to offend anyone with any degree of racial sensitivity. 

 

Now, off the top of my head, I can think of four or five novels/novellas that fit the bill. And I’m betting that there are tens morel I haven’t run across yet.

 

These authors and publishers claim to respect the culture they represent, but do they? These are more acts of exploitation. Is this what’s meant to pass for diversity?

 

LGBTI+ romance publishing community talk the big talk about equality and diversity, but there is very little evidence I’ve seen of that. I can’t talk for other ethnic minority groups and their representation, for obvious reasons, but at least when it comes to asian characters I frequently end up salty as fuck.

 

What exactly is the problem, some people might ask. Isn’t it great just to have these asian characters living their lives as anyone else would? Sure, I love the idea of people being treated like anyone one else (aka the white american dude that is the baseline apparently) but culture and skin colour informs our lives in a thousand of small ways. It’s the smell of our homes and the way we relate to others in our community. It’s our childhood names and the little habits we develop because of those folklores and beliefs. And even second generation immigrant kids carry some of that with them through their lives.

 

And if you think all of that can be conveyed by making the character eat kimchi/noodles/sushi and throwing a few korean/chinese/japanese words in there, well then, let me politely say, fuck you very much.

 

Remember this? [Source]

As Jasmine Hong rightly points out [Source]

Yeah, lemme tell you, it’s great to see asian authors being told “you need to make them more Other” while poc characters by white authors (who are basically white characters with white childhood but asian names) get published without drama.  

 

And hey, let’s not even touch on how many of these characters are actually half-white, which seems to be a convenient way for authors to write Other without them being too Other. And its often done without understanding or respecting the position of mixed race individuals in culture and society.  

 

I think what bothers me most about all of this, is that there are popular LGBTI+ authors and boutique publishers happily producing these stories, and no one is calling them out. I’ve seen PoC authors I respect promoting these authors and these books. I’ve seen respected reviewers call the books “amazing” and “unique” and “diverse.”

 

No, they aren’t. And the sooner we acknowledge that the better.

 

I’m a believer in providing solutions along with pointing out an issue. So here are some solutions. If you are a writer, get a sensitivity reader/consultant. Make sure it’s someone who will tell you the truth. Consider whether this story is one that needs to be told by you. Ask yourself why you’re writing this story. Is it to get the pats on the back? Is it because asian characters are hot right now? And if you’re a publisher, seek out and publish PoCs. Think about what you’re putting on covers

 

Just. Make the effort. Please.

 

Added note:

1) God do I hate that I have to even use the word ‘asian’ as if we’re all one homogenous culture.

2) Notice how many of these books are about Japanese culture and characters? Because I guess that’s the only asian country worth noticing and fetishising.

Peace out,

M. Sithu

On Writing Diversity

While I write, my main question is always: “What will make this story more interesting?” It’s not like I’m trying to meet a quota or anything; I just find diversity more interesting than a lack thereof. That’s from my own experience. And, of course, I do always have the option not to. But diversity is interesting to me.

There’s merit in narratives about people struggling with their identity, but those aren’t the kinds of stories I want to tell. Which doesn’t mean identity is absent from my stories, it just isn’t the main conflict. This reflects my own experience. I also think narratives about people who aren’t straight/cis/White/able-bodied and -minded/skinny/etc. should not be limited to conflict over their identities.

Because, to be frank, I’m tired of Asian characters’ conflicts being purely about their heritage. Like the age-old microaggression, “Where are you from— no where are you really from?”, requiring that all Asian American narratives be about their origins, and struggling with their heritage, is like saying “you must feel like you don’t belong here (because you aren’t white).” Which is patently untrue. We have every right to feel like we belong. And part of that is being able to read fiction about ourselves, and not being shoehorned into the role of the perpetual foreigner.

It’s hard to find fiction with Asian characters that’s #ownvoices—I’ve found more than a fair share of Asian characters written by white people, whether they “do it right”* or not. There’s also the difference between literary, upmarket, and commercial fiction. While it’s not exactly easy to find stories about Asian Americans, it’s a sight easier to find literary (see: Joy Luck Club, The Samurai’s Garden) and upmarket fiction (see: The Ghost Bride, Shelter) with Asian protagonists than commercial genre fiction (I can’t think of any, but if you have recs I’m all ears). Which doesn’t mean it’s hopeless; there are writers like Zen Cho, Aliette De Bodard, Ted Chiang, and Ken Liu, all of whom are excellent. But the fact of the matter is, I can name all of them and count them on one hand whereas there are countless white writers of commercial genre fiction.

*According to Ellen Oh, “Libba Bray, Laurie Halse Anderson, Shannon Hale, Martha Brockenbrough, Miranda Paul” and “Ryan Graudin and Leza Lowitz”. I have not read any of these authors and so cannot comment.

In commercial genre fiction, the plot drives the story, not the characters and their inner conflicts. I’ve seen hardly any genre fiction starring Asian American characters. When I was writing Witchstone, in which the protagonist, Cal, is Chinese American, I could have written about feelings of isolation with regard to being American born Chinese, or the fight against cultural or familial tradition as so many others have written. Instead, I decided to write a story about a more external conflict: A hunt and a murder mystery. Cal’s identity conflicts don’t drive the story. Cal’s biggest concern is the world around him, not anything internal.

I chose to write Witchstone this way because characters are more than their identities. It’s reductive to write diverse characters whose only conflict or effect on a story is related to what they are. It’s another form of stereotyping. The point is, their goals and motivations should be as many and varied as characters who are white/straight/cis/able-bodied and -minded/skinny/etc. The point is, craft your characters with intent, knowledge, and sensitivity. The point is, diversity is important—not only the diversity of the characters but the diversity of their narratives.

Guest Post: What to do when you’re an alien in a culture you belong to by M Sithu

This post is written by a friend of mine. A spec fic writer, genre mixer, and all around excellent writer, she struggles with similar feelings originating from diaspora. This is her post regarding that subject.


I’m an Australian-raised Burmese Buddhist who went to Catholic primary and secondary schools. Now, there’s a mouthful. To complicate matters, although I was born in Burma, I identify as Shan (an ethnicity from Eastern Burma). To be more precise, Northern Shan. My family came over when I was nine and, as is usually the case when you’re a PoC in a primarily western community, I’ve lost touch with my heritage. I had the choice of giving the other kids even more fodder for mockery or being as Aussie as possible. I went with the route of least resistance.

About three years ago, I became interested in writing a novel set in Burma, or rather, set in a silkpunk world that has elements of Burmese history and myths. To that end, I started archive diving. I got my hands on every academic article and books (mostly written by western academics but I took what I could get) on the subject. Hounded my parents with questions. Haunted blogs.

The trouble came when I started writing. Despite all my research, whatever I wrote felt very much like a westerner’s interpretation of things. The more I learned about my culture the more questions I had, and the more I worried about doing it justice. Worse is that the myths and legends of Burma are intricately tied into the country’s religion, which is another minefield to traverse. (Honestly, you can’t go a mile without encountering a shrine to Buddha or a stupa or a sacred objection in Burma. That could be a fun and lethal drinking game if you ever travel through there.)

Eventually, I started to wonder if I had any right to my culture, not only to claim it but to write it. I suspect this isn’t an uncommon attitude in immigrants who came over as children or the children of immigrants. I claimed to be Shan but I could neither speak the language nor understand it. Not only that, the little things that come under the umbrella of culture like food and childhood nicknames and playground games and toys and deep rooted prejudices about other ethnicities, the little things, were missing in me. If anything, I was more Burmese than Shan–and, trust me, that is an insult given the history between the Burmese Kingdoms and the Shan States throughout time–and I was more Australian than Burmese.

As a writer, I felt as if there were even more of a responsibility on me to present a perfect microcosm of Burmese culture in my novel. For good or ill, the western world’s view of Burma is very much centered around the Junta and Aung Sang Suu Kyi, and ye olde colonial times of Kipling’s poem ‘Mandalay‘. I wanted to show that there was more to my home country than corruption, and to showcase the glory of Burma before the British invasion. I wanted to write about the belus with their monstrous appetites, the nats who guarded home and hearth and treasures, the weikzas who swam through the earth, the wise Princess Learned in Law, the keinayyas and the nagas and and and…

But how was I meant to do any of that when I didn’t even have a grounding in the most basic of things?

I don’t really have an answer to that. I don’t know how to recapture the connection to my culture I’ve lost by immigrating to another country. I don’t know if I ever can. In lieu of going back in time, I research and read. I’ve found books by Burmese authors either written in or translated to English that give me a window into their experiences in Burma. There are thoughtful and well written blog posts by current and former residents of Burma. There are more and more academic articles emerging about the history of Burma. I’m trying to teach myself the language again. 

In the meantime, I continue to work on my novel because diversity is important. I would rather this story be written by someone with a personal stake in it, for whatever it’s worth. When it’s done, I hope to find Burmese sensitivity readers because, as I have learned, writing based on research is different from writing based on experience. Further, experiences differ.

I’m going to miss the minor details and accidentally westernise ways of life or use western aphorisms and proverbs. I might accidentally use a very Shan sounding name for a Burmese equivalent person in my story. Do I have to take every critique on board? Of course not. But in writing about a community, any community, I think I owe it to them to do everything I can to get it right.