Friday, August 10, 2012

Part 2: Asian by Authorial Decree

This is my second post about some thoughts I had about YA Asian fantasy while I was half-asleep during last week's typhoon day. You can find Part 1 here if you haven't read it already. Also, quick warning: this one is LONG.

Part of my last post was about how to help readers identify characters in a fantasy as Asian without sticking to a mythical Ancient Asia as the setting. And when I was thinking about this instead of sleeping in like I'd planned to, I recalled a blog post by Malinda Lo that talked about race and Asianness in her lesbian Cinderella fantasy, Ash, which doesn't sound very Asian as far as the world-building. (Disclaimer: I have not read Ash. Curse you,  my sleep-addled brain, for prompting me to write blog posts about books I haven't read.)

Let's start out with some quotes from her post:
It’s been my experience that most humans in fantasy novels are white, and when you think about it, the descriptors that we Americans (or people of Earth) use about race simply do not apply in most fantasy fiction. There are no African Americans in fantasy because there is no Africa (usually). So what do you do?
I must disagree with what she's saying here about fantasy and race. Yes, most humans in fantasy novels are white. But just because everyone is white in most fantasies, that doesn't mean it's right or desirable. And I don't think the main reason for the overwhelming whiteness is because there are no useful words for race in fantasy fiction (for example, N.K. Jemisin does an awesome job writing about black people in fantasy). I think it's obvious that you don't have to use the word "African American" in your fantasy in order to include black characters, and I'm a little surprised she would think so.
So I guess I have two different rules. In a fantasy world where there is no racial distinction, describing race is unnecessary, although I see my characters through my Earthbound eyes as being Hapa. In Earthbound fiction, race cannot be left up to the reader’s imagination, because I believe it is fundamental to a character’s identity.
I absolutely do not buy her claim that there is no racial distinction in fantasy; there is no racial distinction only because EVERYONE IS FREAKIN WHITE. So yes, I agree, it's hard to do things differently from the way we've seen them done, and it's hard to figure out how to write PoCs in fantasy when there hasn't been tons and tons of precedents to draw upon, like there is for fantasies about white people. But that doesn't mean it's not possible. It just means it takes more work, and thought, and trial-and-error. (And I'm really glad that she did write PoCs into her second book, Huntress, which I'll cover later in this post.)

I also do not agree with her distinction between how things work in fantasy and how things work on Earth; fantasy is written by and for people who are "Earthbound." Which means there are real-life implications of how race is (or isn't) described in a work of fiction, and why I think it's so important that there are more characters in fantasy that are identifiably PoCs.
I want readers to imagine the Charming that they would fall in love with, because everyone has different tastes. But for me, she’s Asian. Except she has green eyes, because, frankly, I’ve always liked green eyes and she’s Charming, you know, and that’s how I see her. So I guess to be specific using terms we are familiar with, she must be biracial, or Hapa. And so is Cinderella, because she has brown hair.
(Aha, so here's where the green eyes start sneaking in.) In this paragraph, she's saying that she wants readers to cast her characters themselves, and that for her she sees Charming as Asian. But, you know, biracial — because of the green eyes. Which makes no sense, because how am I supposed to cast Charming as an Asian with brown eyes if that's what I'd want? So the whole "let readers imagine whatever they want" thing doesn't really work because the text still gets in the way (although some people, it must be said, have no problem reading characters as white no matter what the text says). And I find it interesting that she says the characters must be biracial due to brown hair and green eyes, since it IS possible for Asians to have brown hair or green eyes, even if not biracial, as a reviewer points out later in this post (though it's certainly rare).

Honestly, the whole "up to the reader to decide" thing is problematic, because we read so many fantasies in which everyone is white that most readers, even PoCs, will assume everyone's white as the default. Which is why the solution is not to just leave out all descriptions and let it be completely up to the reader, because colorblindness = no racial distinction = everyone is white, and we already have more than enough of that.
Can you imagine how bizarre it would be to insert the term “biracial” in a fantasy novel? 
Actually, no, I do not think it would be bizarre at all. It's better than "half-breed," which is not all that uncommon in fantasy.
(In case anyone is wondering, I am also of a mixed-race background, which may be why I started out with that as the default option for my characters. There are other characters in the book who are distinctly Caucasian, though.)
Huh. How nice that there are characters who are distinctly Caucasian, so we don't get confused and accidentally cast them as PoCs in our minds. How about characters who are distinctly Asian? I know there are Asian characters in Huntress, which is supposed to take place in the same world as Ash, but hundreds of years before. Are there any distinctly Asian characters in Ash or did they all disappear by the time of Ash, à la Firefly? From what she says about the lack of racial distinction, though, I'm not optimistic; but maybe someone who's read the book can tell me what's in the book.

Although that blog post was the one I thought of that morning, Malinda Lo actually wrote an updated post on race in Ash, which clarifies some of her points. Though I have to say I'm still not fully on board with the newer version:
When I wrote Ash, I had a mental image of what my characters looked like. In my imagination, they appeared to have Asian features. However, there is no Asia in Ash’s world (it’s a fantasy world), so there is no way they could actually be Asian. 
I fail to follow the logic here. What, people in Ash's world can't be Asian because there is no Asia, but they can be "distinctly Caucasian"... uh, because the Caucus mountains exist in Ash's world? What? That makes no sense. Why can there NOT be any characters who share physical resemblance with people who, on this world, would be termed Asian, but there CAN be characters who share physical characteristics with people who, on this world, would be termed Caucasian, when it's a fantasy world without either Asia or Europe? It is totally unfair that all fantasylands that are not explicitly modeled off a particular time and place somewhere in Europe still tend to have all white characters, since that's the fantasyland default, whereas the only way to get Asian characters is to specifically model your world on somewhere in Asia (or an amalgamation of everything you can think of that sounds semi-Asian, which is even worse).
But also — and this is very important: My opinion is only my opinion. I think that sometimes readers tend to give too much credence to an author’s thoughts about her own work. Every reader brings his or her background to a book, and a book’s meaning is always a negotiation between the reader (and her experiences) and the story itself. What the author says outside the pages of the book is largely irrelevant.
Oh good; I'm in full agreement here. Yay! :)
For those who are still confused about why I see the characters as having Asian features, though, I will say this: It probably stems from the fact that I’m Chinese American and I live in a diverse place (California). There are Asian American faces next to Latinos next to white people next to African Americans, and yet we are all (mostly) Americans. This is the world I live in, and it makes sense to me that this is also the world I envisioned in my fiction.
Can someone let me know if the characters in Ash can actually be read as racially diverse? Or are they just racially diverse by authorial decree? Because that, to me, still wouldn't fly. Racially diverse in the author's head but not in the text = white in everyone else's heads. Which is really sad, and says a lot about our culture, but it just means that not talking about race in fantasy is not the answer.

Just look at this AMAZING review of Ash by an Asian-Canadian, Yuan. Unlike me, she's actually read the book (XD), and here are some excerpts:
I’m not sure how much I was affected by the fact that I read this post by Malinda Lo wherein she said that she imagined her cast as Asian before having read the novel. I tried, and I tried to buy it, that the cast were Asian but I just couldn’t. I wrestled with this in myself and wondered why can’t I imagine this fairy tale world with people who look like me. It’s most definitely not because one of the girl has green eyes and the other girl is a brunette because I know Asians who have such features and they are most certainly not mixed. And I think, after reading Zetta Elliott’s review of Ash, a large part of it had to do with the way beauty is described in this novel. It felt to me like a very white standard of who is considered beautiful, from the “jeweled” glittering, awesomely coloured eyes to the “golden” silken hair to the “ethereal” paleness of the skin, all used as examples of beauty. This, plus the European-inspired pseudo-medieval setting made me equate the general populous of this novel as white. I’m so resigned and used to medieval fantasy excluding all non-white persons from their stories, and this novel failed to show a “medieval” fantasy that can include non-white characters. 
Though, as an aside, if I streeeeeeeeeetch my imagination, I can kind of picture Kaisa as Asian, due to her name and the bit about her being from the “South” which I may be reading too much into it. (Even I feel like I’m grasping at straws over this.) Though, any of these tiny little hopes were largely crushed by the eyes thing; her Very Awesome Green Eyes of Awesome is off-putting. (Not that I don’t think green eyes are nice, but it’s such a white beauty standard thing, to emphasize Awesomely Coloured Eyes.) 
YES YES YES, especially about what she says regarding green eyes and white beauty standards. ([spoiler alert] That's going to be the main point of Part 3 of my series, so keep that in mind, and stay tuned!)

So yeah, Ash is kind of a fail on the Asianness front, at least for me, based on her blog posts on the subject. But I kept looking for other mentions of race and fantasy on her blog after I read the previous two, and, believe it or not, read this awesome post on Huntress AFTER I'd written Part 1 of this series on my blog. (Good thing I found it, too, or I'd look like an idiot for criticizing her for Ash without giving her any credit for Huntress.) It's scary how much her post talks about the same things I talk about in mine.

I mean, look at this paragraph:
The Kingdom in Huntress is influenced by Chinese and Japanese culture, but it is not China or Japan. It is a fictional fantasy world that also must eventually become the fantasy world in Ash, because Huntress is set several centuries earlier. So it simply could not be the kind of “Asia” that exists in movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.1Also, there were elements of the fantasy world in Huntress that were simply not Chinese: there is no homophobia, for one thing, and there isn’t nearly as much sexism as there was in imperial China.
And that's exactly what I said I wanted! A world that's not China or Japan, but still has Asian influences, and not so strictly that it makes it difficult to tell the kind of story you want to tell. (Although I do wish she hadn't made it set in the same world as Ash because of the problematic issue of all the Asian people somehow disappearing.)

But I'm not sure how I feel about this:
I know that if the cover had depicted a white girl or even no girl at all, probably even more readers would never have guessed that the characters look Asian.
Hm. I don't know if the characters were specifically described as Asian-looking in the book (since I didn't read all of it — shame, I know) and she's making a statement about how easy it is to whitewash characters in our heads, or if she purposefully didn't emphasize the Asianness of her characters and this is exactly the effect she was going for. I have mixed feelings if it's the latter. On one hand, sure, it's good not to make Asianness super obvious by exoticizing it. But on the other hand, if the only reason people realize the characters are Asian is because of the cover, then is the author somehow failing to convey her vision through the actual text? Or is it the fault of our white-centric culture? How obvious should Asianness be?

And also, what influenced her thoughts on race in fantasy? (And in a direction I can get on board with!) How did she come to change her mind about people being allowed to look Asian in a fantasy world that doesn't have Asia in it? What happened to her "let readers cast the characters how they like" idea — can they still do that with an Asian girl on the cover?

Lots of questions, as you can see. But I'm mostly just happy that there's another fantasy with Asian people in it and an Asian girl on the cover. Because that is AWESOME and necessary (regardless of my personal feelings for the actual story).

And I love what she says about exoticism:
What makes something exotic? It can certainly be philosophy or beliefs, but more often, I think exoticism resides in things you can actually see or hear. Clothing, food, music, architecture: these are the external markers of difference. So I decided to minimize, when possible, the descriptions of these things in Huntress, except when I was making a point. For example, when Taisin visits the royal palace, I describe some of the palace to show how luxurious it is compared to what she’s accustomed to. When Taisin and Kaede dine with the king, he has a very grand feast of delicacies that ordinary folks don’t get.
Otherwise, the things that might seem “exotic” to an outsider are actually considered “normal” to an insider. Kaede is an insider in her world, so she’s not going to find most of it terribly exotic. The clothes she wears and the way the students at the Academy do their hair are pretty ordinary to her. The spiritual and philosophical beliefs that provide the backbone to the magic that Taisin practices aren’t going to seem unusual to Taisin.
That's a great point about writing descriptions in general. It should be in your character's PoV, and people don't usually pay a lot of attention to things that are normal and ordinary for them. This is awesome advice about bringing in Asian influences without making them too exotic.
Hopefully, they don’t seen too unusual to the reader, either. This can result in a few different reactions, of course. There are readers who won’t see the Chinese influence at all because it’s presented as entirely normal, and besides, they’re reading a fantasy novel where magic happens — maybe it’s all made up. 
I'd have to disagree a tiny bit here, though. Just because something is normal to the characters doesn't mean it's going to be normal to the readers, since sometimes authors use this technique to shock readers with how desensitized or accustomed characters may be to situations that are disgusting or horrific to the reader.

However, I love the idea that Asianness doesn't have to feel exotic, because there's so much made-up and strange elements in fantasy anyway that readers are more accepting of unfamiliar concepts and influences, which definitely helps when you want to work in concepts or world-building that aren't already known to the majority of readers — which can be Asian-inspired.

But hands-down, here is my favorite excerpt from all three of her blog posts:
Ultimately, I think my project with Huntress was a fairly Asian American one. I am Asian American, and I move through the world as an Asian American. Kaede’s world has elements of both Asia and America in it, and I like that. 
And that is EXACTLY what I want for myself, too. I love that she's writing fantasies as an Asian American and admire her for the evolution of her thoughts regarding race in fantasy. I hope that I'll also be able to write fantasies that reflect my worldview and experiences as an Asian American. It's not easy, as there isn't a whole lot of precedent, but I'm excited that Asian-American fantasies featuring Asian characters have been growing in number, and I can't wait to read more of the novels in this category. And one day, maybe, I'll add my own to the number.

What are your thoughts about race in fantasy? Do you automatically cast everyone as white when you read, unless (or maybe, regardless of whether) race is otherwise specified/suggested? Or do you try to read all characters who are not specifically described as white as PoCs because that's how much you're hoping for PoC representation?


  1. "Are there any distinctly Asian characters in Ash or did they all disappear by the time of Ash, à la Firefly?"

    Oh man. Don't get me started on Firefly and the supposedly Asian component of the worldbuilding. Like, I really loved that show, but... dang.

    Loved what she said about reading being a negotiation between the reader and the text -- the author has done their part and in a way should no longer be involved.

    Also love this: "That's a great point about writing descriptions in general. It should be in your character's PoV, and people don't usually pay a lot of attention to things that are normal and ordinary for them. This is awesome advice about bringing in Asian influences without making them too exotic."

    Good notes for me as I work on my ms (which is set in Asia).

    To answer your question, I tend to assume the race of the protagonist matches the race of the author (which I usually assume based on the author's name). If I don't know the author or their race, I suppose I assume white until I have a reason to think otherwise. Right or wrong, that's just my inclination.

  2. Ooh, I used to think that way, too! And I'd get so disappointed when a PoC writer, particular an East or Southeast Asian one, wrote white protagonists. I can't blame them since most of the stories I wrote as a kid also had all-white casts, but somehow I still expect PoCs to write more PoCs, whether that's fair or not. And when I saw a story about Asian characters by white authors, one part of me would be glad there are more Asians in books while part of me would be disappointed it wasn't by a PoC. I don't think there's wrong with either of the things that disappoint me, I guess I'm just greedy and want as much PoC representation as possible. :P

    Nowadays I don't really assume the race of the character will match that of the writer. Mostly just "white unless otherwise specified." Sigh.

  3. "I'd get so disappointed when a PoC writer, particular an East or Southeast Asian one, wrote white protagonists. ... And when I saw a story about Asian characters by white authors, one part of me would be glad there are more Asians in books while part of me would be disappointed it wasn't by a PoC."

    Sometimes I still get those same feelings. And as a writer myself, it makes me think long and hard about what types of characters I'm choosing to write. (Although being biracial, I feel like it's just as "legit" for me to write white as it is to write other.)

    Also, when non-Asians write Asian, I'm less disappointed that it wasn't written by an Asian, and more skeptical that it was done right (and more critical if I feel that it wasn't). Particularly with biracial heroines. Not sure that's fair of me, but... {shrug}

  4. I've been having difficulties thinking about my characters, but your blog post solved them all. I also used to wonder why all the characters in my favorite fantasy novels were white...did that mean my characters had to be white as well? If they weren't white, would anybody like them?

    Every time I tried to describe my protagonist the way I wanted her to look - similar to my own ancestry - I had the niggling doubt that she'd be accepted in the fantasy world because she was, well, asian. My second protagonist, her love interest and a dark skinned indian man, also gave me the same doubts and I was soooo close to changing him into the conventional blue/green eyed caucasian...but now that I've read this, I've realized that there's nothing wrong with an unconventional character. It's not their appearance but their personality that attracts readers.

    So, thanks for this post. I'm so much more excited to finish writing my novel, because I don't have these annoying doubts anymore. It's about time that we show the world that fantasy isn't all about white people. We as the human race have so much more to offer than only one variation, and maybe one day, more authors will see that too.

  5. -yes! fully agree! i like evidence of character's ethnicity,thank you.

    i think part of the fear here is that the white audience/publishers relate more to white and thus by that,people fear writing non-white characters would have a bad outcome .examples :remember when everybody found out that very handsome and very awesome blaise zabini from harry potter was black? and how rue from the hunger games was black?

    -yeah...this is why you should implicitly make it obvious (though I suspected rue) what we're looking at.then,we won't have to clean up messes like that.