My friend Tayari Jones is featuring 8 Debut Novelists over at her blog, and this week’s writer is Marie Mutsuki Mockett, whose novel, Picking Bones From Ash, I blurbed. Tayari posted an essay of Marie’s struggle to publish. This quote leaped out at me for being both new and familiar:
An editor rejected me because she “already had a half-Asian writer.” I was devastated. Much as I loved this other writer’s work, I knew that our material was different. Would anyone else notice?
I immediately thought, is there an editor or agent who would say, Oh sorry, I have my white writer?
On my Facebook, where I posted this as well, a former student mentioned he was having the same struggle as an Italian American author. This is perhaps the most destructive outcome of identity politics I can imagine, albeit a byproduct—the treatment of writers as senators of a kind from a particular community, with space made only when death comes or when sales “vote” you out of office, as it were. My fear is that this incredibly reductive approach to the selling of literature is reverse engineering the work people write. It reduces us as writers to mere performances of ethnography, forced to write from inside a particular boundary, which is the least interesting idea of literature I can imagine. And for a “half-Asian” writer like myself or Marie, it becomes bewildering—where, exactly, is the country we are “from”? Put another way, which parent do I reject, and which one do I pretend I am the most like, and then perform that, waiting to be exposed as “inauthentic”?
I say “new and familiar” because during the submission of my first novel I went through an early 21st Century version of this, with editors asking “Is it a ‘gay novel?'” or “Is it an ‘Asian American novel?'” I was infuriated. “Tell them it’s a novel,” I said to my agent at the time. “I wrote a novel.” But there weren’t enough half-Asian writers back then for anyone to tell me what they told Marie—and now she and I, despite being from different ethnographic backgrounds, are a niche. There is no way our work would possibly cross over in terms of content or sensibility, and yet people are saying things like this to her.
When Picador brought out the paperback of my novel, and it was in the front of Virgin Megastores and sold as general literature, with a cover that lacked both a muscled naked male torso as well as chopsticks and dragons, an older, more established lesbian writer asked me “what I had done”.
“I don’t know,” I told her. “They did it.”
My first novel is neither a coming out story, which is what is typically meant by a ‘gay novel’—the central character, while gay, never is depicted coming out because it wasn’t part of the story—nor is it “about” being gay, nor is it “about” being an Asian American, per se. The character IS Asian American, half Asian, and so by these standards, it was not, despite my long-standing relationship to the Asian American Writers Workshop, an “Asian American” novel.
When I look at the Picador cover, I see a cover that reflects the books themes beautifully. They understood that it was a novel first.
Picador, to whom I’m eternally grateful, got me and this book at every level—not just my editor, but the publisher, the sales force, the publicity and marketing teams.
Terms that began as descriptors became an orthodoxy that we must now run from, and while identifications matter certainly, just as histories matter, and communities matter, I remain sad about the place this has all ended up. In conversations with a scholar who writes on my work last year, I told him about the role commerce plays in the creation of Asian American lit, a factor he hadn’t quite considered. I described for him the possibility that there was work he was looking for that had never made it past this kind of gate American publishers work with now. This kind of treatment reduces us all to the level of romance novel writers, producing something allegedly new along a formulaic series of lines that gives people people back to them an idea of themselves that is the real fiction in all of this. And in the meantime, a sort of shadow literature, of the rejected, books that don’t meet this ethnographic ideal of publishers, litter the desks of the country, unpublished.
This was never the point, to my mind. I just wanted to write stories as complicated as the people I knew, who were pretty complicated. I wanted, when I started all of this, to write books like the ones I found in the library when I was a child in Maine who was made to feel out of place everywhere he went for being neither of one culture nor the other. That is the only thing I ever wanted to do. I didn’t want to be a senator from the state of Half Asian or Korean American. Back then I fell in love with what Davenport defines as Ezra Pound’s American imagination: an imagination alive with the cultures that make up this country, the cultures of the world. We’re not quite there. But perhaps soon.