Today, I'm sharing some thoughts on Chinese literature in popular YA fiction.
While I applaud the increased diversity in young adult literature, I think that more often than not, authors can get it wrong. I outline some thoughts on how they get it wrong, and what we can do moving forward...
“I think that’s great. I think it’s important that we have Asian people working those positions, so we’re represented. We can’t let others speak for us anymore, especially when they’re doing it incorrectly.”
That idea has stuck with me since then, even in the non-career related spheres of my life. It’s filtered into how I examine my place and responsibility as a person of Chinese descent, especially when it comes to calling out how Chinese culture is depicted in popular cultural realms.
In the last year or so, I’ve noticed a growing trend of YA authors - particularly non-Asian ones - incorporating elements of Chinese culture into their stories. It spans the spectrum from the fantastic (e.g. Richelle Mead’s Soundless), to more historical tales and contemporary YA.
While I think it’s fantastic that authors are delving into cultures that have not previously received widespread coverage, I am as equally frustrated by the one thing that all of these books seem to have in common: the author often gets their cultural aspects wrong.
Sometimes, the mistakes are minor. Authors will occasionally get words wrong, because they can’t differentiate between the Pinyin of Mandarin Chinese or Cantonese. Or they’ll use half a word, as a result of poor Google searches.
Sometimes, the mistakes are major. I’ve seen instances in which authors seemingly overlook the fact that a Chinese name consists of three parts:
- The surname
- The two-character given name,
- With one of the characters of said given name, generally being a traditional family name that’s passed down through each generation.
Instead, said authors only use two characters as a first name, which is as maddening as it is ignorant. More often than not, the given name that they choose is also composed of random Asian-sounding words.
(Soundless, I am looking at you. Also, if this doesn’t make sense to you, watch this video of Ensign Ro Laren talking about her name on Star Trek: TNG. Same principle.
Also, some readers have reminded me that not everyone has a two-character first name; I know - I'm actually one of those people. However, the point is still valid, I feel.)
Sometimes, the mistakes are classic examples of white-person-viewing-Asian syndrome. I’ve seen several instances in which Chinese characters are admired for their “almond-shaped eyes” and “dark-haired beauty” or their "creamy skin." But at the same time, these characters inevitably end up confessing that they are bound by filial piety to a variety of things that they don't want to do. More often than not, their internal angst will likely either be academic related or relationship related.
Because fictional Chinese characters know little and can do nothing else, other than worry about grades and relationships, especially if you're female? Right. What about the genuinely bad ass Chinese women in history, who defied expectations? Or the contemporary women who are rocking the world?
In each of these cases, the author screwed up in multiple ways. But their most prevalent error remains that they clearly either didn’t ask for research help, or they didn’t listen to those who offered them help.
While Chinese culture is a difficult one to get right, it’s not impossible. There are hundreds of resources out there, ranging from historically accurate books, to professors, to even Mandarin/Cantonese-speaking bloggers who can probably present a better grasp of the language, than someone who doesn’t speak it.
But for whatever reason, it feels like these authors are choosing to believe that they know better, and their editors/copy editors/publishing houses aren’t calling them on it. It’s possible that said publishing house simply don't know better, but then that’s where editorial redundancies should come in.
Imagine if editors required books with diverse elements to be beta-read by scholars and research experts qualified in the field. It’s going to be a little more work on the part of the author, publisher and beta reader, but it’s worth it for not perpetuating either incorrect information and and/or Asian stereotypes that have long existed in literature. If diversity is to really occur in publishing, this is something that should happen.
It would have prevented issues like the Soundless cover. There were repeated instances in which individuals called out aspects of the story prior to publication, including the fact that the cover model was clearly Japanese, and not Chinese. However, nothing was done. Moreover, when I spoke to other Chinese-American bloggers about it, they just shrugged and said, "What can you do? The author has no control, and publishers don't know or don't care."
That's disturbing to me, as it should be to you. Publishers should care, and readers shouldn't be made to feel like they can't stand up against the publishing juggernaut. A beta reader could have potentially noticed the cover, and prevented such a glaring mistake from going out into the published world.
Authors who are guilty of all of my listed literary sins: I’m calling all of you to the carpet now. I know that I've only really cited Soundless in this post, but the truth is, there are a lot of examples out there, including upcoming titles.
First, try harder. I’m sure that most of you aren’t maliciously trying to get things wrong. But try harder. You owe it to your readers.
You owe it to the readers who want to learn more about said cultures, but you also owe it to the readers whose cultures that you're trying to depict. You owe to the young boy or girl who may feel different at school, and tries to find comparable characters to themselves in literature. They don't need to see themselves being viewed as a stereotype. They deserve to be championed, and in the right way.
But you also owe it to yourself. If you want to tell a good story, that's great! But you should also tell a good story that's accurate. Because what's the point in telling a story that isn't correct and will more than likely, upset people? You should strive to acknowledge the thoughts of author/We Need Diverse Books President Ellen Oh, who succinctly summarizes the issues with problematic representations in YA literature.
You should ask yourself if your version of a Chinese character is truly representative of the culture, and isn't just a secondary character being used to move the story along. Does your interpretation of Chinese culture harm or benefit both Chinese and non-Chinese readers?
Are you getting to the heart of a character and using their Chinese culture to add to their personality, or are you relying on stereotypical Asian race tropes? Does your character fulfill certain western stereotypes like:the Asian grandmother; the Chinese nerd; the beautiful Chinese girl who's rebellious (a.k.a. the Asian version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl), or anything along those lines?
Think about it. Consider it.
Also, if someone who is better informed than you on something like Chinese culture calls you out on your mistakes, your answer isn’t to justify your mistakes. Even if you think a person is wrong; it’s important you take the time to understand where the other person is coming from. I've seen authors try to justify their problematic representations before, and I'm sorry: that's just not acceptable.
I get that you're protective about your book, and you feel like you've put a lot of work into it. Criticism probably feels like a personal attack. But at the end of the day, if someone is calling you out, especially if they are from that culture and you are not, it's your responsibility to listen. It is your responsibility to get it right.
This is especially true, because problematic representations often are the books that are held up as examples of diversity, and or representations of certain cultures. There's a problematic 2016/2017 title which is already being marketed to librarians and educators, and I'm cringing at the idea that many young readers, who don't know better and don't necessarily have the where with all to research enough at the moment, will believe that this is what China is all about.
Be better than that. That’s the only way we can make improvements in diversity and in literature. That’s the only way we can move forward, and be better. As for me, I'm going to take my reference person's words to heart, and try and stand up for my culture.
What are your thoughts? How to you think Chinese culture, and any culture should be better portrayed in literature? How can authors/publishers ensure that they’re getting it right? Let me know below.
Several readers have asked who gets Chinese culture right in YA literature. Here are some authors off the top of my head:
*Stacey Lee (Under the Painted Sky; Outrun the Moon),
* Laurence Yep. Laurence is more old-school, but he's legitimate.
* Malinda Lo
* Cindy Pon
* Gene Luen Yang
* Gabrielle Wang
* Shirley Marry
Let me know who else should be on this list!
Also, it's important to note: By writing this post, I'm not implying that this is just a Chinese struggle. This is a struggle that ALL Asian cultures experience across the board in literature. I'm just specifically focusing on Chinese culture, because I've seen several versions of problematic depictions recently.
But I want to hear your stories. Tell me what you think. Tell me how you relate. Comment below. :)