Wednesday, October 20, 2010

my long-winded rant on why I will continue to write about shy Asian characters

Even though it takes me a while to answer, I do like to read the reader letters I receive as soon as I get them. Most of the time they are encouraging, which is always very appreciated when I am struggling with projects (authors have very fragile egos, recently I had a nightmare that the publisher published the advanced copies of my book using my horrible first draft). So, I admit I was a bit taken aback when I received a letter that was more concerned than complimentary about my book "Lissy's Friends."

Here is part of the letter:
Although the children love the book, I am writing you out of concern for how the character Lissy was portrayed. I recently read the article Not for Sale by Tracy Lai where the author write how racism is perpetuated on Asian American women through having them described as "being desirable" (in the work place) because they are cute (as in doll like), quiet rather than militant and unassuming rather than assertive...I read your press about being a multicultural book author, and in the end there is a paragraph that states you write about the Asian American experience, and that you believe books erase bias. In reading your book to children, I feel that I may unjustly perpetuating a stereotype that has been used to subjugate Asian American women; no matter how innocently it was portrayed. I do wonder if this book was written about a shy white boy or girl, if I would feel as strongly.

I admit, the grumpy part of me felt just like throwing the letter away (now that I think of it, this whole blog post is more on the grumpy side, which I apologize in advance for) and chalking it up to another learning experience. The truth is being a "multicultural" author/illustrator is always a slippery slope. Authors are human. We create books and characters with the hope that our words express our true intentions. Sometimes we succeed. Sometimes we make mistakes. I'm willing to admit to certain books of mine have even failed; I just have to live with it and try harder the next time around.

But the more I thought about the letter, I began to feel that, in this instance, I wasn't sure if I agreed that the character of Lissy was a failure on my part.

In the book, Lissy is very shy and creates friends out of her imagination with origami. When her origami blows away and is discovered by other children, she is able to make real friends. The character of Lissy is actually based on my niece, who used to be extremely shy among strangers, often hiding when addressed by one. In fact, most of the characters in my books are based on myself and I was definitely more shy than outgoing as a child (and still am). And one of the books I have swimming in my mind for the future features a shy, Asian protagonist. Should I change her because of the fear of perpetuating a stereotype?

And my answer is no. Because before I am a multicultural author/illustrator, I am an author/illustrator without the adjective. I am aware of the adjective, I am sensitive to it, but I also know that I need to write a story that is authentic to myself first. I'm not saying I won't write about a boisterous Asian character, but I do have to write the voice of the character that is true to me. To me, it seems unfair (and not to say stifling!) to think that I have to be limited to what kind of characters I wish to write about because of my/their race.

And it also seems to be asking a lot of any author for the character in their book to be indicative of an entire race. As I mentioned in my booktalk of Little Pear, No one book is supposed to be representative of a culture.

So this was my response:

To address your concerns about perpetuating stereotypes--personally, I only feel that the book perpetuates the stereotype if it is the only book with an Asian character in your library. Just as there are shy white children, there are shy Asian children (I was one of them). One book should not and cannot define an entire race. My suggestion is to include other books with Asian characters in your children's reading--which would then show Asians with a range of personalities. Just like how it is in real life.

I didn't have the time, but if I did I would've included a list of books with unshy Asian characters, like Jenny in Uncle Peter's Amazing Chinese Wedding, and books with non-Asian shy characters, like Disappearing Desmond. That is a great book, by the way. If "Lissy Friends" offends you, please go get that one instead. Unless shy cats offend you too.


Jennifer Morian Frye said...

This was a great post. I feel that you handled this very well. The author knows the character, and race should have little to do with it.
Thanks for sharing. : )

Laura Resau said...

Really interesting and though-provoking post. Well-expressed!

anne said...

Personally, I think that people are so busy being "sensitive' that they are ...not. If the child had been any other race, she might or might not have noted the shyness as a "stereotype". She even says that, sort of...BUT if you'd written it about a cat (Siamese? Persian? Himalayan?)who was shy, and did origami etc, or a dog or a fairy, no one would think anything about it. It's the politically correct "thing" to point out perceived stereotypes...
your rant was concise and well-written and spot on. Don't let this cause you to second-guess yourself!

purple glasses club said...

Way to go, Grace! Your response was just right, as is the book in question.

It must have been a difficult letter to read, and unhappy thing to think about, but you have shared it in a way that is inspiring.

Please continue to write your characters true to your vision.

Ms. Burns said...

I enjoyed this post too... Thank you for sharing Grace! A great response in my opinion :)

yamster said...

Very diplomatic response, Grace! As an Asian who grew up in a community full of Asians, I was a shy one, but I knew plenty of Asians who were not (cheerleader, class officer, homecoming queen, drill team). There was no way to label all of them/us with a specific personality trait.

Alas, animal characters aren't always exempt from this kind of overthinking. We once received a review about a book featuring two naughty chickens... the reviewer felt the book was portraying a racist stereotype because the naughtier of the two chickens was brown and the other was white!

Andrea and/or Jeff said...

Your response was great, and I very much appreciated the thoughts behind it. I agree with Anne that the sensitivity thing can be pushed into insensitivity. And I'm just guessing that the writer is white - as am I - because, well, because who else goes around judging other people's cultures and whether they live up to them, right? Sure, it would have been just fine for the character to be white, because that is just "normal" and white people aren't representatives of their race. But all characters of color (and people of color) had better be perfect or else it is perpetuating a stereotype. Oh, but wait, that's a stereotype of Asians too, isnt' it? Sigh.

As mama to a shy Asian girl, we love Lissy just the way she is - both before and after! (especially since my mom is something of an origami fanatic) I think of her as a bit of an example for my daughter - and shy kids need examples like this - and if they look like them, well so much the better! (though we have several other favorites about shy characters, and I will look for Desmond) Just keep on writing what is in you, and it will find the right readers - more and more of us!

Grace Lin said...

Thanks, Everyone for your support and kind words! Stereotypes are always something to be aware of and even though the letter did make me grumpy, I did appreciate that the writer spent a lot of time and thought into the issue.

Kjersten said...

What a thoughtful response you gave that reader, Grace. Also a thoughtful post on the letter and the way it made you feel. Thanks for sharing.

John said...

You're right. This is a grumpy post.