Back in the Stone Ages, I attended grad school for Writing & Consciousness at a schoool that was several years afterwards stripped of their accreditation*. It had its positive and negatives, and the best thing it did for me was made me write every day. Prolifically. Anyhow, I wrote a short story (more like a novellla) about a young woman who was sickened by all the serial murders and rapists (how apropos) who weren’t prosecuted for their crimes for one reason or another. She decided she was to be the avenging angel, and she tortured and murdered several of them (all men) in particularly brutal ways. She mimicked their behaviors to torture them, and I’ve never written anything like it. It was so brutal, I had a hard time reading it myself.
My adviser, who was Mexican himself and was well aware of racism in America, suggested I make the protagonist white so that people wouldn’t get hung up on the fact that she was Asian. Which she was. Did I forget to mention that? I make most of my protagonists Asian queer women for obvious reasons, and this one was no exception. I’m not sure I made her queer, but she definitely was Asian. He said that if I made the character Asian, that was all people would talk about, and the meat of my story would be lost.
I get that. He’s not wrong, and it’s still a pervasive idea that if you have a minority as a character, you need to highlight all the differences over and over again. Recently, Leonard Chang, a mystery writer (whom I’ve met in real life once back in the same Stone Ages) discussed how he had’s had editors in the past who’ve told him to Chink it up with his characters (my words, not his). One editor wrote in rejecting Chang’s novel, The Lockpicker (which has since been published):
What fails for me is that it [that] virtually nothing is made of the fact that these guys are Koreans. I suppose in the alleged melting pot of America that might be a good thing, but for the book it doesn’t lend anything even lightly exotic to the narrative or the characters.
Emphasis mine. The implied thinking is that why one earth would we want a novel with Korean characters if they’re not going to act Korean? They might as well be white guys, amirite? From the same link, which, by the way is Teen Vogue. They’re doing great things socially and politically, and how I wish they existed back when I was a teen. Anyway, Chang also said a different editor had this to say about his characters:
The characters, especially the main character, just do not seem Asian enough. They act like everyone else. They don’t eat Korean food, they don’t speak Korean, and you have to think about ways to make these characters more ’ethnic,’ more different. We get too much of the minutiae of [the characters’] lives and none of the details that separate Koreans and Korean-Americans from the rest of us. For example, in the scene when she looks into the mirror, you don’t show how she sees her slanted eyes, or how she thinks of her Asianness.
Again, emphasis mine. The first part is the same as the other, but the bolded part adds yet another wrinkle to the othering grossness. Because being Asian is foreign to them, it’s of utmost interest. For those of us who are Asian, it is but one aspect of our personalities. I can guarantee you that I don’t stare in the mirror, pondering my ‘slanted’ eyes** and think about how Asian I am. It actually reminds me of a quote I saw about how if you read a book and all the women are talking/thinking about their boobs, it’s probably written by a guy. Same principle. Those of us who have grown up having boobs for most of our lives, it really isn’t a day-to-day topic burning the forefront of my mind.
Margaret Cho talked about her seminal show, All American Girl, and how she wasn’t deemed Asian enough. They hired an Asian expert to follow her around and inform her how real Asians did this or that thing. Margaret told it as an amusing story, of course, but I could tell it cut deep. I felt for her because it’s not an easy thing, living in the diaspora. Not being Asian enough for Asian people and being too Asian for white Americans. It’s gotten better lately, but there are still traces of this mentality as evidenced by Chang’s difficulty in getting his novels published.
Back to my story. While I understood what my adviser was saying, I strongly disagreed with him. I am not interesting in presenting Asians in a consistently good light. In fact, the title for this post comes from the stereotype of Asians as the model minority, and some people don’t understand why it bothers me. “It’s a positive! It’s saying Asians are hard-working and smart, so where’s the harm in that?” First of all, Asians are not a monolith group. We are a diverse people, and it’s not seeing us as individuals. Secondly, there are plenty of people in the group who don’t fit the stereotype and don’t need it thrown at them. Thirdly, it’s often used as a cudgel against other minorities. “The Asians have applied themselves, so why can’t you.” Fourthly, it’s usually only means East Asians, and our reasons for coming to this country are very different than those of other Asians. Fifthly, EVEN A POSITIVE STEREOTYPE IS FUCKING IRRITATING. Lastly, it may be meant as a compliment, but it sounds more like a warning to me. “We will tolerate you as long as you’re a ‘good’ minority person.”
I understand that as a minority, the impulse is not to air your dirty laundry in public. However, as a writer, I don’t want to write characters who are saints. They’re boring to me, even if they’re of my same race. For example, I don’t like Superman because he’s nigh-on perfect. His only weakness is Kryptonite, which is an external thing. He’s, in a word, boring. Oddly enough, it’s why I don’t like pure narcissists and psychopaths. Boring. I like my characters to be multifaceted and complex, which means sometimes showing their asses. My characters swear, have relationship problems, engage in unwise behavior from time to time, and don’t always get along with other people, especially their family. I don’t want to read about The Brady Bunch, and I certainly don’t want to write about them.
I think the recent call for diversity in popular media is a good thing (obviously). But. And you knew there was a but coming, didn’t you? I don’t like the tendency to consume media through an increasingly restrictive lens. It’s natural, I imagine, to want art to reflect your own views and beliefs, but it’s becoming prohibitive with the bubbles we tend to create around ourselves online. Another thing I remember Margaret Cho saying about her show was that a Korean girl wrote to her saying she (the writer) was so ashamed of Cho for representing the Korean community in such a bad light. I’m paraphrasing, but I think that’s the gist of it. So, yes, it’s a thing that has been happening since the beginning of time, but it’s so much easier to yell at a creator with the invention of the internet.
It seems that not only are people looking for representation, they want exact representation. So, if the character is, say, gay, but doesn’t act in a way THEY think is authentic, then they are scathing in their response. Or, they want to read about some mythical world in which everything is exactly as they would want it. I remember a queer site eliciting subscriptions for YA fiction. They specified that no homophobic content could be included, not even in the mouths of bullies or anything like that. I understood their goal, but I most stridently disagreed with how they were trying to reach it. I’m not bagging on them because it’s their site and they can do as they wish, but it’s not the way I write.
Art is dangerous. Art is disturbing. Art should push you out of your comfort zone, not simply reinforce it. In addition, creators should create whatever they want, and let the public be the judge. Art is not created in a vacuum, of course, but I don’t like the trend of being proscriptive before the art is produced. And, I’m being somewhat of a hypocrite because I have judged many things before they’ve come out for many social justice reasons, but in my mind, it’s clearly different. I can’t entirely explain why, so I’ll just think about it more and write another post on it on another day.
*Mishandling of funds. Sigh.
**Granted, I have ‘good’ eyes, but still.