Hi friends! We’ve got first time guest Cecilia Tan with us today to celebrate APAHM! Ms. Tan just won the RT Career Achievement Award for Erotic Romance – so anyone who attended RT15 and went to the awards ceremony would have heard her speak. How cool! I’m really glad she agreed to be a guest here, so everyone please give her a warm welcome!
When They Said Multicultural, It Wasn’t Me They Meant
by Cecilia Tan
I have been a professional writer for several decades now–all the way back into my teens if you want to count the columns and articles I wrote for magazines like Superteen and Teen Machine. But fiction has always been my passion and I sold my first short story in 1992. In the ensuing 23 years, I’ve often gotten this question: “why don’t you write about Asians?”
Sometimes the question comes couched in compliment–“You’re so good, you could be the next Amy Tan.”–or in misguided advice–“Asian women’s lit is hot right now. You could have a bestseller if you market your identity.” Other times it stems from flat-out racist assumptions: “You should write what you know.”
The problem with all these versions of the question, actually, is that they all depend on my “Asianness” being the thing that defines me as “other,” and in all cases that “otherness” trumps my individuality in the mind of the person asking the question. (Even Asians other me with this question, because they do it within the assumed context of book publishing being white-dominated. Which it is.)
The reality of my otherness is actually a lot more complicated than me being “Asian.” What I actually am is a Chinese-filipino Irish Welsh bisexual. I don’t have a cute acronym or a club to belong to or a telegenic marketable identity. If I’m supposed to write “what I know” then what I know is about being ambiguous, about being mistaken constantly for the wrong ethnicity, wrong sexuality, even the wrong gender. (I’m short and I’ve got hair down to my waist yet I get called “sir” in public all the time. I assume it’s because people are so confused about identifying me that the whole part of their brain that categorizes people into strict boxes just goes haywire when they see me.)
So really, the only thing it makes sense for me to write is fiction about “others,” literally. Vampires, beings from other planets, angels, mermaids, gods. Paranormal romance, science fiction, fantasy: these are the genres where I “fit.”
Believe me, I thought long and hard about whether I wanted to pursue being “the next Amy Tan.” I was graduating from college right when The Joy Luck Club was first published. I received several copies of it as graduation gifts, in fact. Here’s where I confess never finished reading the book. I read part of it and didn’t feel I needed to read the rest. Why? I felt I knew the book already. I was surprised by nothing in it. I didn’t have the vocabulary or the mode of thought at the time to express what bothered me so much about the book.
Ultimately I came to realize that the reason I could not be the “next Amy Tan” was two-fold. One, Amy Tan was already occupying that “slot.” Just as Tiger Woods did not open the door for hordes of black athletes to enter the sport of golf, the success of Amy Tan did not create a new genre and create a new shelf to be filled with Asian-American women writers. Two, that “slot” in particular irked me: it felt to me like what was so imminently marketable about Amy Tan was that what she did was so palatable to the mainstream (i.e. mostly white) reader. Don’t get me wrong: Amy Tan is a talented and wonderful writer. But her Chinese generational story hit a note to me that rang like an expectation: she met white readers’ expectations very exactly about what a Chinese-American woman’s book “should” be.
I knew I could not pursue that path: I could not turn my Asianness into something expected, because my identity is never what people expect. And if identity is muse, then the only direction it made sense for me to go was into the realm of “other.” Paranormal romance in particular has been a rich vein to mine because it both acknowledges the mainstream’s fears about the other (vampires and werewolves ARE monsters) while at the same time embracing the others–whether we have a vampire love interest or even a paranormal protagonist. (Or both, as in Nalini Singh’s Psy Changeling books.)
The genres of sf, fantasy, and paranormal are also rife with tropes that turn questionable origins into virtues. High fantasy is rife with half-elves; Mr. Spock is half-Vulcan, half-human. Superheroes have alter egos, while demigods and shifters are just another metaphor for changeability, for the fact that we–or at least I–contain multitudes.
But of course I do: I’m a writer. Ultimately any writer has to write about characters who are not themselves–when characters are too obviously a self-insert we label that a “Mary Sue” and an amateur gaffe. But maybe that’s the secret: when a writer does it well, all her characters may be her, but there are many many facets of her. Okay, I won’t be coy: all my characters are me in some way, the heroes and the villains, the love interests and the spear carriers. I don’t know if that’s because my “identity” couldn’t be easily labeled with one simple word so I always had to have many masks and many hats to wear, or if–really–all writers have a small army crowding their heads. I can only write what I know.
Author bio: Cecilia Tan is the winner of the Career Achievement Award in Erotic Writing given by RT Book Reviews Magazine and was inducted into the Saints and Sinners Hall of Fame for GLBT Writers in 2010. She is the author of many books including Slow Surrender, The Prince’s Boy, The Velderet, Black Feathers, and the Magic University series. She is currently at work on a paranormal series for Tor Books entitled The Vanished Chronicles.
Thanks for sharing, Cecilia! So, my question to you is … what makes you “just like everyone else” … and then what makes you “other”? Did you ever feel like you fell into a niche … or that one just didn’t seem to exist for you?