New short story: "Don't Speak" at New York Times

New short story: "Don't Speak" at New York Times

A couple of months ago, the New York Times asked me if I’d be interested in writing some flash fiction (that is, a very short story) inspired by a photo from their archives. This story would be part of a collection of flash fiction written by Asian American young adult authors. You don’t get this kind of invitation every day (!) so of course I said yes.

The Times then sent me a selection of photos from their archives, and I chose one of them that inspired me. It was, I admit, the strangest and quirkiest photo they sent me. I knew that the flash fiction collection was aiming to explore Asian American identity, and because I’m a contrarian and delight in pushing against identity boxes, I chose the photo that seemed to be the least connected to popular concepts of “Asian American identity.”

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The Woman Warrior and the complexity of Chinese American identity


In 2010, I guest posted at Justine Larbalestier's site about Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior. In that post I began,

"Recently there has been a lot of discussion about race and representation in young adult books. Justine's blog has become one of the centers for that discussion, and because of that, when she asked me to guest blog I jumped at the chance to share one of my experiences of encountering race in the pages of a book."

Fast-forward three years, and we're still having that discussion on race and representation.

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, and over at Diversity in YA we've been highlighting various APA authors and books about Asian Pacific Americans. They reminded me of the post I wrote on Woman Warrior, so I looked it up and reread it, and it still seems relevant today, so I'm reposting it. Let's continue:

Many of the posts about this subject have focused on the importance of putting people of color on the covers of books so that people of color can see themselves represented. Reading these posts made me remember my junior year in high school, when my favorite English teacher gave me a book to read because she thought I might identify with it. I am Chinese American; the book was The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, an autobiography subtitled "Memoirs of a Childhood Among Ghosts."

She meant well, but the book made me feel like a total foreigner. I hated it.

It made me wonder: Was this the way white Americans saw my family? Did they really think that I came from a family that believed in ghosts and treated their daughters like property?

I remember being distinctly disturbed by the book, and when I decided to write this blog post, I went back and re-read the first chapter. In retrospect, I'm stunned that my teacher gave it to me, because that chapter alone includes sex, rape, misogyny, and suicide.

I was probably 16 years old when I read it, and while I'd like to think that my teacher thought I might be mature enough to handle the content, I wonder if it was simply the only book she knew of that involved a female Chinese American main character. I have to give her points for attempting to find me a book that mirrored my life, but the fact is, The Woman Warrior made me cringe.

It's not that the book is poorly written. Reading through it again, I find much to enjoy in Kingston's prose. It's that the book seemed to have nothing to do with me or my background, and the idea that my teacher thought it did shocked me. I thought: Was this what being Chinese American was supposed to be like?

(Notably, the book has been criticized as much as it has been praised, with some Asian American writers arguing that Kingston uses Orientalist stereotypes to present an exoticized vision of Chinese America for white readers. Kingston herself has asked why she should be required to represent anyone but herself.)

I was born in China, but I moved to the U.S. with my family in 1978 when I was 3 years old. I come from a long line of intellectuals, and some of my family were persecuted for their political backgrounds by the Communist Party. In addition, my paternal grandmother was white. She was one of the few Westerners to actually live in China during the Cultural Revolution, and when she returned to the U.S., she wrote a memoir about it (In the Eye of the Typhoon by Ruth Earnshaw Lo).

Because of all this, I grew up thinking my family was special. I'm pretty sure it made me (as a teen) a bit self-important and defensive about all things related to China.

On the other hand, I also grew up as one of only four Asian American kids in my high school class. The four of us knew each other and we had overlapping friends, but we did not group together out of any shared "Asian American" identity. There were too few of us. Instead, I think we all tried to blend in as much as possible. We didn't advertise our different cultural traditions; we didn't speak foreign languages at school even if we did at home; we did our best to be normal — to be white.

But Woman Warrior — and the fact that my teacher gave it to me specifically — forced me to acknowledge that I was not like everyone else, and it was an awful feeling.

In high school, we have a lot of chains on our feet. The way you dress; the street you live on; the group you belong to. I didn't want another one. I was happier ignoring the fact that other people perceived me as different.

It took many years for me to accept that other people will see me through their own preconceptions, regardless of my wishes.

I joined (and left) Asian American student groups at college. I majored in Chinese Studies, then got a master's in East Asian Studies. I went back to China. I dated Asian Americans. I attempted to become part of the Asian American community. But I never felt like I really fit in. The ghost of Woman Warrior, I admit, has been difficult to dodge.

In addition, I'm a lesbian. Being queer and Asian can be problematic, because many Asian American families are quite homophobic. There wasn't much room for queerness in the Asian American community when I was coming out, and I felt as though I had to choose between identities.

Sometimes, it's still a struggle, especially when meeting new people who only know what they see on my face. They see Asianness, but they don't see my white ancestors. They see a feminine woman; they don't understand how I could be gay. As recently as last fall, I've gotten the comment, "You speak English so well."

For those of us who occupy the spaces between identities — because of our personalities or because we have a foot in more than one subgroup — finding representation anywhere, in any form of media, can be extremely rare. It can be tempting to hand a person a book and say, "This is where you fit in," but in many, many cases, that won't be true. It may end up alienating the person more than making them feel welcome.

Sometimes, we don't find ourselves represented exactly in any books, TV shows, or movies. (Some of us will wind up writing those books ourselves.) I have always identified much more with Jo March or Anne Shirley than any of the people in Woman Warrior. But that doesn't mean that I didn't appreciate — eventually — my teacher's suggestion that I read the book.

After all, twenty years later, I'm still thinking about it.

Asianness (or the lack thereof) in ASH

Since Ash was published last fall, it's been brought to my attention that some readers have gone into Ash expecting to find Asian characters in the book, and clues that Ash's world has Asian influences. This is because back in 2008, I blogged about race in fantasy novels and noted that I personally have always seen Ash and Kaisa as looking Asian. However, this has led to something of a misunderstanding, and I'd like to try to clear it up. This is part of what I wrote in 2008:

I’ve always envisioned both Cinderella and Charming, in my book, as Asians. For the few people who have read a draft of my book so far, this might come as a surprise, because that is never explicit in the story. But why should it be?

I do agree with Mitali Perkins’ third point when it comes to the specific case of Ash: Respect your readers’ right to cast the story. I do describe my main characters’ physical appearance, but not terribly specifically. I want readers to imagine the Charming that they would fall in love with, because everyone has different tastes.

So, let me break this down. 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. In addition, Ash's country and culture have only very distant ties to Chinese cultural tradition, and I'm pretty sure nobody except anthropologists would pick up on that link. So if you're looking for signs of Asian influence, it's unlikely that you'll find them.

When bloggers list Ash as a book that includes people of color, that's very kind of them, but honestly, I don't think it deserves to be in that category. That takes away from books that truly are are about race and ethnic diversity, or that engage overtly with those identities.

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.

The problem is, now we have the internet (not to mention the rest of the media!), and I have this blog. Many people are interested in "behind the scenes" details, and frankly, it can be extremely gratifying to be asked and very tempting to answer. However, I've learned that it's risky for an author to put their own beliefs about their work out there, and it has to be done consciously and deliberately.

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.

But that doesn't mean you, the reader, have to read it that way. The book is out there. I hope readers will consider it independently of others' opinions, including my own.

If you have questions or feedback, I invite you to email me directly at mlo [at] malindalo [dot] com.