Hi friends! Do you remember the first 2018 APAHM post we had? Ekaterine Xia was our guest and I talked about how I’d messed up? So I found the emails from 2014 – she agreed to let me use the first post as a comparison, since she piggybacked off of it to write the May 5th one! (Are you confused yet?) In 2014 she said she’d tell me which book covers she wanted me to use … but that didn’t happen so I’m going with my picks. 😀 The most important thing though, is of course the post. Enjoy! N.B. I came up with the ~title. Because I think it’s accurate.
The Flatness of [Western] Romance
So it all started when Limecello tweeted with:
New quest! Any African American, Asian American, Hispanic, or Native American romance readers around? 😀
So I responded with: “Chinese person who reads romance over here. …I think I qualify as As-A?”
The thing is, it isn’t that easy. It’s the short answer.
The long answer is that I’m a third-culture-kid, aka global nomad, aka syncretic mutt of a first-gen fresh off the boat kind-of Asian American.
I was born in Taiwan, but we moved to the US when I was two. So technically Mandarin Chinese is my first language, but not by much. I grew up mainly in the US and it’s where I call home, no matter how much border control seems to disagree.
I grew up on Little Women and Little Men; Dickens and Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys instead of The Romance of the Red Chamber and the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. My hero was Caddie Woodlawn, not Monkey, king or no king.
I moved back to Taiwan when I was about nine and discovered a whole new world of romance novels after I exhausted the more accessible reading options. Note to the wise: Romance of the Red Chamber is probably not an appropriate read for a ten year old. You should know, back in the day there were pretty much not a whole lot going on in the fiction scene as far as I knew. There was the hardcore sci-fi, the kong fu novels, literary fiction, and everything else was kinda lumped into romance.
Wanted to write fantasy, elves, dragons, time travel, space ships and so forth without committing to trying to break into the male-dominated world of sci-fi and kong fu novels with a mandatory million word tome?
You wrote romance.
So I read a lot of romance, even though I was more interested in the non-romance bits at that age.
All of this meant that when I came back to the US for college when I was eighteen in 2004, it was very jarring to go from reading exclusively †about girls who looked like me and who had a cultural background I could relate to — to reading almost exclusively about blue-eyed blondes and emerald-eyed redheads. At one point I think I looked in the mirror and was surprised to see my face because I’d been reading so much that the me in my mind wasn’t quite matching up to what I was seeing.
And it wasn’t just that. †It wasn’t just the outside packaging.
It was also the odd insistence that a girl who was strong-willed, who had more than two thoughts in her head and who could fight simply had to be a lousy hand at anything feminine. It was the very prevalent notion that a heroine had to be brash, rash and almost stupid in her stubbornness.
It was also disconcerting to realize that the romance section was much more narrow than I had grown used to. We had chatelaines, princesses, duchesses, governesses, farm wives, and all the shades of contemporary but I couldn’t find the queens, admirals, captains, generals, dragon speakers, ambassadors, and saviors that I’d grown used to.
Turning to fantasy didn’t prove fruitful either. Most of the heroes were white males with an all male cast.
Things have gotten better, but not good enough.
When I attended a panel at Arisia a couple years ago, one where the panelists were discussing lesser known mythologies and how they were trying to tap something else other than vampires and werewolves, I had a bit of a nasty shock. Their idea of a lesser known mythology was the Norse pantheon and when I suggested that the Asian sector had barely been touched except for the ubiquitous ninjas and kitsune, they said I should write what I wanted to read.
Possibly true, but it wasn’t what I wanted to hear. It wasn’t what I needed to hear.
I wanted some confirmation, some validation that my culture, my ancestry, that four thousand years of history was worth more than a “we can’t be arsed to, but you should feel free to write about it if you really want it so badly”.
To be perfectly, brutally honest, it’s white privilege to be able to dismiss someone so easily and cavalierly as that.
I can’t be the only person who perks up when I come across a name that reminds me of my culture in a book. I can’t the only one who cringes at yet another blowsy overblown stereotype of the docile, demure Asian girl with good grades or the diffident, nerdy, short, not-hot Asian guy who just keeps getting friendzoned. I seriously can’t be the only person who gets tired of how incredible it is that the romance and fantasy world seems to be overwhelmingly peopled with people that are actually becoming a vanishing population in real life. Real life occurrence of redheads is less than 2% of the total human population, guys.
Almost everyone who is a immigrant knows the shtick. You forcibly, often unhappily, identify with that other chick in the classroom, that screaming fishwife on the street, that guy shooting up a college campus — because you know that as other you get judged for the sins of everyone who looks like you. Your mother hisses in your ear about not shaming the country and your family name. Your father reminds you that they are always watching, that we are essentially (forced) ambassadors of our race.
So it’s hard reading about Myong in Ilona Andrew’s books. Dali almost makes up for it, but not really.
I latched onto Holly in Nalini Singh’s books because she sounded Asian.
Hence the obsession. In a way, it’s not fair. It’s not fair to anyone, including the authors.
Ilona Andrews are an incredibly gifted writing team. They are on my auto-buy list. They are some of the most gracious and sane people I have ever had the pleasure of witnessing online. But I will admit to having shards of rage because of Myong. Poor Myong. Demure, quiet, fearful and every single negative stereotype I associate with Asian women.
I get it. Someone had to be Myong in the story and she probably simply was because she was and not because of anything special. But part of me couldn’t let it go. It’s not fair to them and it’s not fair to me but it’s how it is.
Something else to add to the mix: I don’t deliberately search out interracial fiction or Asian American romance.
I can almost hear the outrage. “What, you complain that you can’t find anyone like you in books and yet you cripple yourself in the looking?”
The answer to that is, at this point, in 2014, it’s trying too hard.
I don’t dispute that there must be gems in that category, but I’m tired of being other and having to deliberately search out tags to describe myself is othering. I’m just like any other person. I just also happen to look Asian. Interracial is not how I primarily think of myself and my boyfriend and so I’m hardly going to pick up a book where that seems to be a main theme. We’re human and our foibles and struggles are filed under human, not interracial.
I want to see people of color as MCs in the New York Times bestseller books. I want to be able to open a random book placed on display in the bookstore and find a person of color in a prominent position in the cast. I want people to acknowledge that America isn’t as white as people seem to think it is and that the definition of beauty is wider ranged than people give it credit for.
In the meantime, I’m going to keep working on my novel. Just one more pebble on the stone dike, but I will keep hope.
Reading this was like a gut punch. I’d like to note that this was sent to me back in February 2014. Yes four years ago. And … only now is more of Romanceland talking about these issues. So, while we’ve moved from where we were – maybe even a long way – we’ve still got a long long way to go. Thank you for letting me share this, Ekaterine. <3
love the post. baby steps can lead to long strides. I love reading diverse stories because it teaches me about other cultures.
Yes! I think we’re all better when we encounter more! <3
This post was like a gut punch – thank you so much for writing it, Ekaterine! … I think it’s a huge wake up call – what with even now contemporary romances people saying they’re all so progressive, strong, independent, etc … but if you compare them to wuxia heroines for example … like – wow.