“Asian American”

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.


  1. I’m totally feeling this post. One of the things I like best about your book (well, among many things) is the fact that while it features a protagonist that is gay and half-Asian, the book is never ABOUT these things. It’s just part of what makes the character a more complex, three-dimensional person that of course will affect who he is, but in no way is the book centered around these things. I love that, because I don’t think there is enough of that out there.

    As a writer of Asian descent, I’ve always been preoccupied with this idea of not being an “Asian American” writer, in the sense that I don’t want to be niched into writing a story about Asian-American issues. I want to write about *people* and if my characters are ever Asian, I want that to be the background of the very human conditions that they face, and not have to write about strict parents and sushi and chopsticks and Chinese New Year and words like “chink” and “gook”. I think that’s why so far I’ve stayed away from specifying the race of most of my characters, because I don’t want it to become a focal point of anything. Though I worry sometimes that having an Asian last name alone will be enough to make it difficult for me to sell anything to people who aren’t Asian.

    In any case, great post.

    1. Many of my students face the same fears. And I think making ethnicity invisible is not the answer. The answer is to work with it, to look into the very real complexities in it.

      Oddly, during my graduate work at Iowa, I found models for how I wanted to work in the works of Gregor Von Rezzori and Mavis Gallant, who wrote about European characters from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, and with complex political ideas that they lived out, and they did it without the lead-footed treatments and without making those backgrounds invisible.

  2. I have always pondered what you’ve said here and in a previous interview with Kartika–that as Asian American writers, we should write the complexity of our lives. Your post, highlighting the landscape today of being “Asian American” in publishing…makes me think we have a long ways to go yet and furthers the point that we should continue to investigate complexity. And makes me want to thank you for pioneering.

    1. Thanks. That’s very good of you to say.

      Wendy Lee’s new novel, Happy Family, is an excellent example of something that is not ethnography, but firmly situated inside the complexity of her narrator’s situation—that of a Chinese immigrant au pair to a Chinese girl adoptee, and working for her white adoptive parents in their attempt to provide their daughter with authenticity of some kind.

  3. I’m an Irish/Australian living in Viet Nam so, of course, I get asked many questions about Western culture. Recently someone asked why they rarely see people with Asian backgrounds in Western films and television when they know how many Vietnamese expats alone live in America.

    I floundered around for a reasonable answer, but came up short. There is a troubling lack of ethnic diversity in Western media, be it literature, film, television.

    1. Mass media depends on the masses to support it. Guess what? In America the mass is straight people of Western European heritage. We don’t care about the lives of half Asian Gays. Blacks have a lot of disposable income but few read so targeting them as a writer doesn’t pay well either.

  4. Thank you for a thoughtful post that covers an issue I hadn’t really zeroed in on yet. It’ll give me lots of food for thought. I write and any prospective editor will have a tough time labeling me and what I write, what with my multicultural background and life.

  5. That is one of the silliest things I have heard. A book should stand on it’s own merits not have anything to do with origins or orientation of the author. You book sounds interesting I might add it to my to read list.

  6. I MUST get your book ….love the sentiments read so far ….I am a single Mum living in the UK just trying my best to raise my mixed race sons to be confident, follow their individual aspirations in life, reach their potentials yet negotiate the obstacles and complexities along the way 🙂

  7. Great post! I think it’s really all about how people define what it means to be “Asian American” or even “American”. It’s difficult to know where the lines are blurred and where it’s not. It’s odd to me how much of America and the American landscape is so diverse, yet nearly every corner of media simply tells only one side of the story. In my own writing, I personally like to write stories of both the “Asian” and the “American” rather than excluding one or the other. I don’t feel the need to have to separate the two experiences completely because I feel like this kind of narrative is more reflective of people’s experiences– this idea of mixed and multicultural experiences. Some people are adopted into families that are of a different culture from them. Other people come from mixed backgrounds and cultures. However, most Western media often times portrays “Asians” and “Asian Americans” in such a stereotypical way. It’s tiring to see this kind of portrayal. It would be nice to see a tv show for once that reflects “Asian Americans” in a positive light that shows them going through the same issues that everyone else in the world goes through like an “Asian American” teen living in the U.S. who is dealing with high school issues and the insecurities of being a teen.

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