My Semi-Rant about Writing Other Cultures (and Your Own) on Lisa Yee’s Facebook

It takes a lot for me to even semi-rant.  I have a limited amount of energy and I prefer to try to keep things fun.  However, when semi-rants happen, I let them flow.

#WeNeedDiverseBooks has been a great catalyst to get conversations about diversity flowing.  I supported this movement from the beginning by incorporating statements in my book party last Sunday and collecting statements from my friends throughout the week like this one:  “We need diverse books because we are all readers.  Diversity IS Reality.”


About 20 hours ago, Lisa Yee posted this on Facebook:  “What do you think? Yesterday, more than three, but less than twelve, writers asked me if a person could write about a race/ethnicity they do not belong to. I have an opinion about this, but before I state it, I am interested in yours.”

I like Lisa.  She’s funny and smart.  I usually try to comment on her posts because I find her funny and smart.  Yesterday when I saw her Facebook post, I needed to be at Hicklebee’s to put up posters for my book party (TODAY, Sunday May 3rd from 3-5 PM).  With limited time, I going to write a brief, succinct “Yes. Just do your research.” answer.  But this spilled out (edited & expanded for clarity):

My short answer is YES, everyone should be able to write about any characters or any culture. HOWEVER, AUTHORS, DO YOUR RESEARCH so you can WRITE WELL & WITH RESPECT.

When people learn about my book Summoning the Phoenix: Poems & Prose about Chinese Musical Instruments, many people assume that I can play at least one of the 15 Chinese musical instruments in my book.  I wrote it, after all, and I am of Chinese heritage. Well, I AM a classically trained musician…in Western music…10 years of piano lessons & 20+ years singing in a cappella groups singing American pop songs and choirs that sing predominantly Western choral music. A few years ago, when I decided to write a picture book about Chinese musical instruments, I knew very little about traditional Chinese music, so I researched a ton.  I read several books cover-to-cover in order to write my 3,000 word picture book.

One huge issue is when people who belong to a population of power (aka white) try to write about people who are marginalized (fill-in-whatever-non-white-peoples-here), there is a large possibility that the writer coming from powerful, “popular” perspective will miss and/or not be able to see/comprehend/understand issues/challenges/obstacles that minority populations have to deal with on a daily/regular basis.

10269546_10152336813925772_3794758690386116354_nFor example, Mike Jung posted on Facebook “#WeNeedDiverseBooks because my daughter was 3 when she first said she hates having brown eyes & hair.”  I totally got it and it also broke my heart.  I understand her issues b/c I grew up in Texas and knew that my appearance is Other in my own home state, in my own country, where I was born and had lived my entire life. At school, I was constantly got teased as “China girl” when I was a kid. I love China, but China is not my country; China is the country of my ancestors. Children figure out quickly in the United States that blonde is beautiful, that blue eyes are beautiful. Therefore, by default, the majority of Asian American kids are NOT beautiful because they have black/brown hair and brown eyes (Yes, there exist a very, very few Asian American kids, usually mixed race, who have blonde hair and/or blue eyes). But not all of Mike’s Facebook friends understood the cultural context behind his daughter’s hatred of her brown hair and brown eyes.  They did not understand the racial implications and self-hatred that results from the fact that American non-white children are bombarded with messages that “You are Other.”

When I was a freshman at Rice University, in Houston, Texas, everyone was marveling how very diverse we were as a class because we were 10% Asian/Asian American, the highest percentage at the time.  But we were not diverse compared to my high school classmates who attended Berkeley, which was nearly 50% Asian/Asian American.  The only places Asian Americans might not see themselves as Other are Hawaii, San Francisco Bay Area, and Los Angeles. That’s because there’s a HUGE population of Asian Americans living in those American places & a lot of them don’t even realize that they are Other until they leave the area and get treated as such.

Plus, I had hope held firmly in my heart that ideals of beauty change, that now the mainstream no longer adhered to the definition of beauty that I knew while growing up (that very narrow and mostly white ideal of the blonde-haired and blue-eyed beauty). I had hope that beauty standards are changing to include more diversity in the United States because the United States is so much more diverse than it was when I was a child.  My heart was full of this hope because I am seeing more and more representations of people of color in movies, on film, in books.  My main #WeNeedDiverseBooks statement is “Diversity IS Reality.”

So when Mike Jung’s biracial daughter, who is growing up in San Francsico Bay Area, one of the most liberal, diverse, and highly Asian American populated areas in the country, when a little half-Asian American girl who is one entire generation younger than me and growing up in a much more diverse environment where there are so many Asian and half-Asian kids running around, when she is STILL facing the same issues of Other-ness that I had encountered as a child…this is when my heart broke.

My heart broke because I realized there is much more work left to be done.  Could we ever reshape the world so that little girls like Mike’s daughter would learn to love themselves just for who they are?

Several people on Lisa Yee’s Facebook answered her question with (and I’m paraphrasing not quoting even though it’s in quotes), “Why not write diverse characters?  Minority races write white characters all the time.”  I understand this attitude because it was my same attitude over five years ago, before I started educating myself about such issues.  Now I can clarify the difference: It’s easier for minorities in the United States to write about majorities because: We all (including minorities) in general understand the majority viewpoint. We are taught the majority history in school, and history of Native American Indians and people of color are at best marginalized in sidebars. We’re exposed to the majority viewpoint in popular culture, media, mainstream narratives, including books.  The majority populations already have numerous narratives about them out and available for everyone to read and consume.  That’s why they’re the majority population.  In contrast, an underrepresented population is that there are not enough stories to truly represent the people.

Finally, year ago when I had first decided I would be serious about getting published, I thought long and hard about whether or not I wanted to write diverse characters, specifically Asian or Asian American characters. Because I didn’t want to deal with the backlash. Because, even though I look Asian, even though I am of Chinese American descent with my own Chinese American experience, even though I devote a huge amount of my writing time to research, I know I’m going to get it wrong for someone who is also Asian or Asian American. Yes, even we who look like insiders will get backlash for writing about a marginalized culture that is supposed to be our own.

But there’s a reason for this backlash. The readers of underrepresented populations are starving to find characters that not only look like them but also FEEL like them. And because we are individuals, we all feel a little differently, too. For example, while I enjoyed reading Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, I completely did not relate to that book.  I found Amy Tan’s Chinese American culture rather foreign to me at times b/c I grew up in Texas (not San Francisco), my parents are white collar who attended graduate school in the US (not blue collar), and I grew up in the US almost an entire generation after Amy.  We are both Chinese American women with completely different narratives that are both valid, yet the majority population only understands one of our narratives.

And now a quote from my all-time favorite TED Talk, a gorgeously brilliant talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called The Danger of a Single Story.  Adichie says, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.  They make one story become the only story.”

I think it’s important to write more and more and more stories, so that the stories about underrepresented populations are no longer marginalized, so that readers are no longer starving.

And this is why, whenever my heart breaks, I pick up the pieces, fit them together as best as I can, and keep moving on, as best as I can. My story might not matter to the entire world, and that’s okay.  I just need my story to find my ideal reader, My Audience of One.

How do you write diverse characters?  Research as much as you can, until the facts are truly a part of your psyche.  Then write with compassion.  Write with sensitivity.  Find wonderful beta readers who can give you the feedback you need.  And be prepared to get a lot of it wrong during your first, second, third, twentieth attempts, perhaps even after you’ve published.  Just keep working because you’re doing important work, and if you do get it wrong, please do not defend yourself or your work.  Please listen with your mouth closed & treat your critics (not the same as trolls) with respect.  Rewrite your stereotypes to make your characters real individuals.  Because in the end, if you need to tell that story, go and tell it, with a heart full of compassion, love, and hope.

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