My friends. This post. Please read it – and … I don’t usually say this, but please share it. Hudson Lin is a first time guest at ALBTALBS, and (definitely) hopefully will be willing to guest again. I have nothing to say other than … please read and share.
Rambling Treatise on Identity, Diversity, and Why I Write East Asian Characters
By Hudson Lin
I am Canadian. I am Taiwanese. I am Chinese. That’s typically the order in which I would identify myself, but that can change depending on the situation. Sometimes I’m all of them, sometimes I’m a particular combination of two to the exclusion of the third. It’s always complicated and never easy to explain.
My racial and cultural identity is something I’ve wrestled with my entire life, but it had never inserted itself into my writing. All the stories floating around in my head were about white people and I never thought there was anything wrong with that.
Imagine my surprise when I stumbled my way into the writing community and realized that diversity was a thing, and not only a thing but something that was being championed. Imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon stories with characters who looked like me, written by authors who looked like me. Huh. That’s new.
Until recently, 100% of the romances I read were about white people, written by white people. I didn’t know romances existed that featured people of color, or that there were authors of color writing them. I didn’t know that was allowed.
Not that there’s some sort of romance police screening bookshelves or anything. More like the unspoken convention to leave an empty seat between you and a stranger: it’s not a rule, no one actively enforces it, but everyone knows and everyone complies. Romance was for white people, and that was that.
Which was why I’d only ever written stories with white characters. And why I initially wanted a white-passing pen name. I wasn’t afraid of not fitting in, I didn’t know that being not-white was an option.
Why did I think the world of entertainment and fiction were for white people only? How did I come to internalize belief so thoroughly? Because I had never seen otherwise.
And that realization made me very sad. The stories I’d read satisfied the part of me that was Canadian, living in a white-dominated society, while the parts of me that were Taiwanese and Chinese had to make do without. It was like two-thirds of me were starving and I’d just gotten so used to the feeling of hunger that I didn’t know any better.
But not anymore. The more I consume diverse content in books and on the screen, the more I crave it. It’s become the most important criteria when deciding what I want to read or watch. So much so that I can’t even watch a news broadcast where all the anchors are white. And I will suffer through sub-par acting and questionable storylines because at least the cast is diverse.
I also wanted to feed this hunger through my writing, but there I discovered another layer to my internalized racism. The first non-white character I wanted to write was supposed to be Black. But what the heck do I know about Black people and Black culture? I’ll be the first to admit: not very much.
Writing a white character felt relatively easy—I’d been told a million stories of white people that I could borrow bits and pieces of those stories to craft a character of my own. Could I take those same bits and pieces and apply them to a Black person without defaulting into stereotypes? Probably not. But the more interesting question is this: why didn’t I think to make the character East Asian?
Because despite having seen very little entertainment content featuring Black people, I’d seen even less content featuring East Asians. East Asians are the “good immigrants” to North America, we work hard, get good grades; we’re mostly invisible. To write about an East Asian character felt a little ridiculous to me—what kind of story could I possibly tell that would be interesting?
That is exactly the problem, isn’t it? People like me, who have first-hand experience of being an East Asian immigrant, who have myriad funny and tragic stories, don’t tell these stories because we don’t think they’re worth telling, which perpetuates the assumption that our stories are irrelevant, so others with stories don’t tell them either. It’s a vicious cycle, and once I recognized it, I couldn’t sit by and not do something about it.
So now I include at least one East Asian character in every story I write. And it’s hard, so much harder than I imagined it would be. I want to give an honest portrayal of what it means to be East Asian, to show the nuance of cultures in their many variants: Japanese and Koreans and Chinese; recent immigrants versus those whose families have been in North America for generations; Chinese people from China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan.
There is so much diversity within the larger East Asian culture, and mine is only one lived experience. If my character’s background does not match mine exactly, how much authority do I have to write their story? What if I get something wrong? What if it doesn’t match someone else’s lived experience? These questions plague me while I write, and yet they are not an excuse not to write.
My debut novel, Inside Darkness, comes out on June 11 and one of the main characters is an East Asian American journalist. His family is originally from Singapore, but he did not grow up in an East Asian community, and does not identify as Asian or Chinese beyond the obvious color of his skin. And yet, he is still asked where he comes from as if he couldn’t possibly be just American, and he is relegated to cover the Chinatown beat because he blends in.
These are examples of micro-racism that I and many other Asians have experienced. Most of the time we brush it off and move on with our day, but it’s a real thing, and it affects how we interact with the world around us. These are the types of things I want to incorporate into my writing to shine a tiny spotlight on what it’s like being Asian in North America, to show a little solidarity with those who are like me.
I can only wonder what younger me would have thought, how younger me would have changed, if I’d read something like that in a book. Would I be a different person today? Would I have had an easier time reconciling my different identities? Who knows? But I think I would have felt a little less alone in the world.
Bio: Hudson Lin was raised by conservative immigrant parents and grew up straddling two cultures with often times conflicting perspectives on life. Instead of conforming to either, she has sought to find a third way that brings together the positive elements of both.
Having spent much of her life on the outside looking in, Hudson likes to write stories about outsiders who fight to carve out their place in society, and overcome everyday challenges to find love and happily ever afters.
This post broke my heart a little. To be honest, I teared up. Thank you so much for writing this and sharing it with us, Hudson. I’m glad you’re writing these stories. And congratulations on your upcoming release!
Here’s the information on Inside Darkness!
After a decade as an aid worker, Cameron Donnelly returns home jaded, tired, and with more than just a minor case of PTSD. Plagued by recurring nightmares but refusing to admit he has a problem, Cam quickly spirals into an alcohol-infused depression, and everyone around him is at a loss for how to help.
Journalist Tyler Ang met Cam on a reporting assignment in Kenya, and their first encounters were rife with hostility and sexual tension. Back in New York, their paths continually cross, and each time, Cam’s brokenness reminds Ty more and more of his own difficult childhood. Letting Cam in goes against Ty’s instinct to live life autonomously, but the damaged aid worker manages to sneak past his guard.
Their relationship is all sharp corners and rough edges, and just as they’re figuring out how to fit together, a life-threatening accident puts it all in jeopardy. If they want a future together, both will have to set aside their egos and learn to carry each other’s burdens.
You can pre-order the book here.