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Writing Experiences Other Than Your Own January 1, 2020

I thought I'd said all I had to say in my previous post about the RWA dumpster fire. I wrote that post after reading the complaint and supporting documentation from a publisher against Courtney Milan. But I hadn't yet read the complaint from the author of the historical romance novel Milan criticized. Yesterday I thought I should take a look at it, because maybe it wasn't as bad as the complaint from the editor.

I was right, it isn't just as bad. It's worse.

I am not and never have been a racist. Rather, I am a scholar dedicated to factual history... [More quoted later.]

Ms. Milan is demanding that I not write about cultures other than my own, which is clear discrimination, and she is doing it with vitriol... She is assuming that my portrayal of China is negative, which is not the case. I refer you back to my study of history.

It seems that for her, innumerable things reinforce racist tropes. In addition to encouraging authors of color, holding them up as examples of success, she is searching with great energy for white writers to destroy with her rage.

I've seen this attitude over and over: "White people aren't allowed to write anything anymore without getting called racist by cyber-bullies!" Taking off my Chinese hat and putting on my German-Irish hat, I say to my fellow Caucasian writers: please put your screaming pride down for a nap and listen.

Criticism is not suppression of speech. Writers of all races are allowed to write whatever they please, and readers are allowed to complain when they're offended. The closest Courtney Milan ever came to "demanding" this author refrain from writing about other cultures was in this tweet.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Don't write books about how much a culture not your own sucks. Just don't. You're not going to get it right and you're going to sound like a fucking racist.

There's a vast difference between "don't write about other cultures" and "don't write about how much other cultures suck." For example, including Asian characters in your novels is awesome. Please do it more often! But using those Asian characters to portray Eastern cultures as backwards and oppressive is insulting.

We should all write about people from other cultures. How lame it would be if every fictional world were populated by characters from only one background. But we have a responsibility to write respectfully and well, in a way that makes the real world better.

Are you writing in generalizations?

The author asserts that nothing in her novel is racist because it's based on "factual history."

I studied Chinese history intensely for over seven years. Its culture was indeed oppressive and restrictive to women (bound feet being the most obvious example). To say that women were not oppressed in China in the 1870s is absurd.

Okay, fair enough. Confucianism taught filial piety. Foot-binding was a common practice. These are the facts the author picked up from her studies.

But then she applied these facts by writing in sweeping generalizations.

"I was no' askin' what your parents wanted, but what ye want for yourself."

"It is not important. It is not a question I ask myself. In China shun, compliance, is the rule for women."

"We remain inside the walls of the women's compounds; we are demure and quiet, as our mothers have trained us to be. We walk with eyes lowered politely, and may not look higher than a man's breast. Young unmarried women are even more modest and submissive, so they will make good wives."

In China, no woman was taught much more than cooking and sewing and the graceful art of pleasing her husband.

It's one thing to say in academic discussion that the treatment of Chinese women in the 1800s was oppressive by modern standards. It's another to write in a novel that no woman in China was educated.

By writing in generalizations, the author gave up any claim to accuracy. It's not true that no Chinese women were educated. It's not true that compliance was "the rule." Compliance was taught as a virtue, but believing all Qing-era women were actually compliant is like believing all Victorian Englishwomen were actually chaste and temperant. In classic Chinese literature and folk tales, idealized female characters are not submissive dolls, but vivacious poets and sensible household managers. Fabled heroines were lauded for their wits, their prudence, their courage and self-sacrifice.

Research is great. Research is necessary. If you deep-dive into a culture for many years before attempting to write about it, good for you! You're miles ahead of the people who write in ignorance. But research should be used to inform individual characters' thoughts and behavior, not to promote stereotypes and label them "historical facts."

In your imagination, travel back to a century before the Internet, before discussions of civil rights, before the word microaggression was in any dictionary. You're a young woman, and someone asks what you want to do with your life. Is your natural answer...

  1. I'm afraid of that question. My mother sacrificed so much for me, and I'd feel guilty disobeying her wishes.
  2. Well you see, in my culture women are taught the concept of shun, or compliance, and as a rule women of Han descent are expected to respect our parents' wishes in accordance with the teachings of Confucius.

The first response is both historically accurate and universally relateable. The second is a non-Chinese person's idea of the way a Chinese person thinks. The writer sees "the Chinese" as foreigners, so the heroine also sees herself as a foreigner who must explain her strange way of thinking to normal people.

Would you write the same way about your own culture?

The author of the historical romance had a very specific mental image of a Chinese person, so she felt comfortable writing this description of the heroine.

Lian was twenty-five, tall and lithe, with the thick black hair and bronze skin of the Chinese.

And this description of other Chinese characters.

Nonetheless, their thick blue-black hair and bronze faces, turned slightly yellow by the London climate, were unmistakably Chinese, as were their slanted almond eyes.

Imagine how ridiculous you'd look writing a similar character description below.

Susan was voluptuous, with the curly golden hair and freckled skin of the Americans. Her walnut-shaped eyes twinkled with intelligence. In America, all women attend public schools from an early age, where they are instructed in literature, math, and sports. They are bold and outspoken, as their mothers taught them to be.

Readers would laugh out loud at this. Obviously, "the Americans" don't all have curly blond hair. Our eyes come in different shapes that might or might not resemble tree nuts. Many children attend public schools, but many don't. And who in their right mind would think all 168 million women in the U.S. have the same personality?

Historical fact: "the Chinese" are diverse too. China is country of 3.7 million square miles inhabited by 1.4 billion people from multiple ethnic groups. Chinese people can have dark skin, reddish hair, body types and facial features that appear East Asian or South Asian or Turkic. Like in every other country, people can be wealthy or impoverished, highly educated city slickers or rural subsistence farmers.

If you find yourself writing about almond eyes, molten chocolate skin, exotic cheekbones, etc., turn your sentences around on your own culture and see if they'd be reductive, offensive, or just plain silly. (Who's up for a hero with a marshmallow creme complexion? No? How about skin like warm tofu?)

Are you reinforcing stereotypes?

Writers create fictional characters by emphasizing certain traits over others. When writing about characters from other backgrounds, you might unconsciously emphasize the traits that play into the stereotypes you've absorbed over your life.

For example, a heroine's best friend might be a Latina who loves tacos and Shakira, has enviable curves, practices Catholicism, and spends the holiday break in Mexico with her large extended family.

I've had multiple Latinx classmates and coworkers with these traits. The description is not inaccurate, as many would point out to assert there's no problem here. But there is a problem here. This character might not be unrealistic, but the specific traits chosen are stereotypical.

Why pick tacos and Shakira over the many other things that can make a person unique and interesting? The best friend could be a watercolor artist, an avid runner, and/or a Rubik's cube champion. She could have some of the many quirks given to characters who aren't wholly defined by race. Would you build a non-Hispanic Caucasian best friend by saying she loves pizza and Katy Perry? How dull that would be.

In a perfect utopia, you could describe a Latina as a taco-loving Catholic, and the portrayal would be boring but harmless. But we don't live in a utopia, and we can't be willfully blind to the fact that our readers have been absorbing stereotypes their entire lives, too. When we play along, we reinforce the idea that every Latinx person is the same. They're not individuals worthy of respect, but "those people."

When Milan brings up domestic violence against Asian women, it is willful blindness when the author responds with indignation:

Is she honestly saying that a fictional book describing Chinese society in the 1870s would inspire a contemporary man to assault her?

No, an upstanding gentleman will not suddenly get a hankering to rape a random Asian woman after reading one novel. But that one novel supports a longstanding pattern in many books with demure Oriental love interests, many movies with actresses in cheongsams purring "Me lova you long time," many thousands of men joking about prostitutes in Thailand and sharing porn of Japanese schoolgirls who sit still and cry while faceless actors humiliate them. Knowing all of that exists, do you really think it's responsible to write that Asian women are "modest and submissive, so they will make good wives"?

Do you identify with the character?

I feel a deep connection with China, as did my mother. I have always marveled at how far advanced their culture was intellectually, creatively, and scientifically.

Here's the root of the problem: this author thinks of her Chinese characters as people different from herself. She "marveled" at "their" culture. She didn't write about fully formed humans she identified with.

Maintaining the balance between cultural differences and self-identification is tricky. You don't want to write about a Chinese person who acts thoroughly American—then you end up with faux diversity. You need to understand how culture shapes personal beliefs and learned behaviors, and use that to inhabit the character without generalizing or awkwardly pontificating.

The hardest part of this is recognizing your own cultural values and overriding them. Values are invisible. People internalize them as facts "everyone knows" and have difficulty articulating them. An 1870s Chinese character would internalize that respecting your elders is important, expressing strong emotion is immature, and good women prioritize others' needs and feelings above their own. This probably conflicts with your modern American values of being open and honest, speaking truth to power, and asserting yourself. A certain situation might give you one gut reaction (e.g., "You go girl! Put that old misogynist in his place!"), but your character another (e.g., "What a horrible woman, disrespecting a grandfather like that.").

As evidenced by the complaint, self-reflection is not that author's strong suit. If it were, she would have written the book differently to begin with. Writing characters from backgrounds other than your own requires humility first and foremost. Demolish the idea that you're a perfect human who could never be racist. Do it gleefully with a sledgehammer, like those people on home renovation shows tearing down unwanted walls. You want an open-concept mind, so you can see your thoughts misbehaving from the kitchen.

Then do your best to write about people. Not mass-produced plastic action figures of people wearing native headdresses or kung fu costumes, but real, complex people. Don't reduce people of color to a handful of stereotypical traits. Give them your own emotions, quirks, and dreams. Regardless of culture, gender, or religion, we all love our families, sulk over slights, whine when we're hungry or tired, find amusement in strange things, and yearn for acceptance and understanding from other people. We're all individuals with unique tastes, interests, and ways of expressing ourselves.

Reflections on the RWA Dumpster Fire December 28, 2019

Yesterday I sat down to write a specific chapter in Kagemusha. In this chapter, my half-Chinese heroine, Rachel, attends an award ceremony for a national romance novelists association transparently based on the RWA. She meets an older lady who's kind, hip, and charming...at first. Then the lady starts to drop subtle sentences that make Rachel feel uncomfortable. The lady makes fun of the previous year's award-winner by butchering the pronunciation of her "funny" African name. She implies that name is the only reason the author won, because the characters in her book are "not relateable at all." The best books are about "normal" people, like us.

I've been afraid of writing this chapter for two reasons. First, I was afraid nobody would believe a kind, hip, charming old lady would be that racist, and the scene would feel forced. Second, I was afraid people wouldn't notice she was racist at all, and they wouldn't understand why Rachel gets so upset.

Before writing the chapter, I checked Twitter for the first time after the holidays. I found it blazing to the ground.

On December 23, the RWA punished half-Chinese author Courtney Milan for tweeting passages from a '90s romance novel that was re-released in 2014. The heroine is an "exotic" beauty with blue eyes and "the black hair and bronze skin of the Chinese." Other Asian characters have yellow faces and squinty almond eyes, and they and speak in "awkward" English. The heroine is quiet and submissive because in China, no woman ever raises her eyes higher than a man's chest, and her education is strictly limited to "cooking and sewing and the graceful art of pleasing her husband." She explains to the swoony Scottish hero that, "In China shun, compliance, is the rule for women."

Milan was insulted by these passages and complained about the book's racist tropes in the typically strong language of Twitter. The author and a publisher saw these tweets and were upset by the word "racist." In scathing complaints to the RWA, they said Milan's "claims of racism are nothing short of libelous vitriol" and Milan targeted the author "simply because [she's] white." The book absolutely isn't racist because the author studied Chinese culture and is a very nice person.

In contradiction to RWA's official policies stating they won't police social media disputes or honest book discussions, the organization asked Milan to resign from her position as chair of the ethics committee. They suspended her membership for one year and banned her from holding any office for life.

The internet exploded. RWA backpedaled. The president and half of the board resigned.

I shouldn't have been shocked by the number of people who said Milan deserved punishment, and yet I was. Here's a selection of representative comments on one blog post, edited for clarity and brevity.

I think what Milan did is something we are seeing far too much of these days: cyber signalling of how "woke" and virtuous one is with respect to an ever-expanding array of victimized and oppressed groups.
I would argue the word "racism" is often used as an ad hominem attack without sufficient backing. People were *murdered* because of real racism, not the kind of petty name calling that goes on today.
The quotes Milan selected really don't seem all that bad. A bit stereotypical? Perhaps. Hateful? Hardly!

"SJWs," "triggered," "virtue signalling." All of these hot keywords I saw over and over yesterday boil down to one sentiment: racism isn't real. And if it is real, it isn't that bad. And if it is bad, you're just too sensitive.

Racism and niceness are not mutually exclusive.

In So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo shares an anecdote about a conversation with a friend who objected to her use of the word "racist." That's a strong word, he says. Like his grandmother might be prejudiced against minorities, but it would be cruel to call a nice old lady a racist.

People who are afraid of the word "racist" seem to believe it's a label not for a single trait, but for a whole packaged deal. If you say their words are racist, you must be calling them an alt-right neo-Nazi with a confederate flag in the front yard. You're saying they're terrible people. But they're not terrible people, they're really nice!

The majority of people with racist views don't have swastika tattoos. They're beloved grandmothers who bake Christmas cookies while playing classic movies with "injuns" in the background. They're gregarious neighbors who offer to help you with a home renovation and assume the shoddy paint job was done by Mexican laborers. They're effervescent first-time dinner guests who see the wonton soup and exclaim, "Oh, Su Li, I was hoping you would do this!"

Nearly all of them are nice people. They would never dream of using a demeaning epithet. They're appalled by news reports of shootings at synagogues and mosques. But they are also racists.

I am a racist. I work hard to be the best person I can, but I've been absorbing racist comments and fictional portrayals for thirty-one years. Sometimes I'll read a book with marginalized characters and realize with shame that I have unconscious beliefs about that group. For example, when I read Persepolis I was surprised to see young Iranian girls acting just like young American girls. They're humans just like us—shock of shocks!

It's not my fault; I wasn't born a racist. The world taught me those beliefs. But it would be my fault if I refused to examine my biases and change. Good people are horrified to learn they have flaws, and they strive to fix them. If you refuse to even consider the possibility you have unconscious prejudices because you're "a nice person," well, you just proved you're not nice at all.

Stereotyping and name-calling are real racism.

The most common accusation I see leveled at Milan is that she deliberately raised a stink over nothing. The passages that offended her "aren't that bad." They're "a bit stereotypical," that's all. They're not hateful, and therefore they're not racist.

The same people who believe nice people can't be racist also tend to believe anything less than literal genocide isn't "real racism." They don't see any corpses swinging from trees, so racism isn't a problem anymore. The N-word is just a rude insult. An exotic, submissive Chinese heroine is just a tired cliche, not something to ruin an author's career over.

To a person who is not Chinese, those passages might not seem bad. That person's classmates never made squinty almond eyes in her direction and laughed. Her employers never passed her over for a leadership position because Asians are too unassertive and compliant. A stranger has never backtracked to define a word he used in conversation because he assumes she has a limited English vocabulary.

Like Courtney Milan, the heroine in that novel, and the heroine in my novel, I am half Chinese. Reading those sample passages made me feel belittled and threatened. To someone else the dumb China doll is a mere cliche, but to me it's a slideshow of upsetting memories.

Stereotypes can do more lasting damage than "real racism." People know lynching is bad. Duh. But as evidenced by the many defensive comments in the RWA discussions, they're blind to the harm done by stereotypes. They don't realize how unseen racial biases can chip away at a child's self-esteem, snuff out a "problem" teen's future, cap the career prospects of a person of color no matter how hard they work. They think a statement like "no woman in China is taught much more than cooking and sewing" is a well-known fact. Anyone who gets offended by well-known facts must be an internet bully on the hunt for a vulnerable target. Those virtue-signalling SJWs are trying to shame people with different opinions in to silence.

Examining your own racism takes courage.

"That book was boring" is an opinion. "I don't like the author's style" is an opinion. "These words hurt me" is not an opinion.

If you find yourself questioning the motives of a Chinese woman who tweets about reductive Chinese stereotypes in a book, consider turning that question inwards. Why do you assume people who say they were hurt are whining for attention? Or accuse them of having too many "triggers" and feeling hurt for no real reason? What's your motive for dismissing their concerns as "virtue signalling"?

The answer is probably to protect your ego. Maybe you thought that fictional portrayal of East Asians was accurate, or that joke about Mexicans was funny. Maybe you've told jokes like it before and thought it was harmless fun. Now people are saying that joke isn't harmless, which means you're a bad person. They're lumping you in with those confederate flag-waving neo-Nazis. They're attacking you, and it's not fair.

For you to be a good person, that joke can't be offensive. So it isn't. SJWs on Twitter are pretending it's offensive to bully you. Their concerns aren't real. You've never harmed anyone. And so you decide the "woke" agitators are the true villains, and you feel better. You can safely continue believing you're a nice person, without asking any distressing questions.

Asking distressing questions and answering them honestly requires courage. I hope the people mindlessly attacking Courtney Milan for speaking up can find that courage.

As for me, the whole RWA kerfuffle had two effects. First, it showed me my fears were correct: many people will violently resist opening their eyes to the fact that nice old ladies can be racists. But second, it showed me how much that scene of this novel needs to be written. Many people wrote vicious comments about Milan, but many more wrote supportive ones. They've been in my heroine's shoes. They've heard "nice" people say ugly things and get away with it. The only way to stop the behavior from repeating in the future is to put it under a harsh spotlight.

Decade in Review December 26, 2019

The last time I checked Twitter, it was fashionable to post your milestone accomplishments of the 2010s to count your blessings and celebrate the upcoming start of the '20s. Of course, the last time I checked Twitter was a whole week ago, so what was fashionable then has likely been subverted by witty cynics, criticized in an angry backlash, parodied with Baby Yoda memes, and then forgotten.

I'll play nevertheless, because Sweetie and I have a lot of blessings to count. In January 2010 I was a 21-year-old fresh college graduate looking forward to grad school. Now in December 2019 I'm a 31-year-old homeowner with a solid career and too many hobbies to handle.

2010

The decade began with adventure. In spring Sweetie and I traveled to Japan before I began my master's program in library science.

Outside a cat cafe in Odaiba
May 14, 2010: Outside a cat cafe in Odaiba

At Inari shrine
May 18, 2010: At Inari shrine

In the rain at Hikone castle
May 22, 2010: In the rain at Hikone castle

At the end of the year we drove to New York during the biggest blizzard in decades to celebrate New Year's Eve in Times Square.

At the Nintendo Store
December 28, 2010: At the Nintendo Store in NYC

Inside the Statue of Liberty
December 29, 2010: Inside the Statue of Liberty

In Central Park
December 30, 2010: In Central Park

At Times Square on New Year's Eve
December 31, 2010, 11:51 PM: At Times Square on New Year's Eve

2011

In summer we traveled to Philadelphia for the Special Library Association's annual conference. That December I completed my MLS and finished writing my first novel, Bubbles Pop.

Working on couch with Luna
April 13, 2011: Working on the couch with Luna

In front of the Liberty Bell
June 16, 2011: In front of the Liberty Bell

Eating Philly cheesesteaks
June 19, 2011: Eating Philly cheesesteaks

2012

I self-published Bubbles Pop in January, and then I started my first post-MLS job in web development and graphic design. I drafted more than half of a historical novel set in Victorian times, but I realized the book wouldn't work. The realization was both sad and fortunate—at least I didn't embarrass myself by publishing it!

Cover of Bubbles Pop
The book that probably shouldn't have been published, Bubbles Pop

Cover of A Heart Unspotted
The book that never was, A Heart Unspotted

2013

I landed a sweet full-time job as a systems librarian in Portland. After spending the summer by the lake with Sweetie's dad Who, we headed west to start our adult lives proper in a fancy-schmancy townhouse with two floors, a wood-burning fireplace, and pansies on the porch.

Outside our Portland townhouse
April 12, 2014: Outside our Portland townhouse (because we didn't take pictures in 2013)

2014

I completed and queried the original version of my comedic novel Kagemusha. My parents visited Portland and probably soaked in more rain than they'd seen in the previous thirty years in Southern California.

Gifts from my parents
June 3, 2014: Gifts from my parents

2015

With great courage and tenacity, I survived an introductory drawing class. I extensively researched and outlined a Chinese steampunk fantasy trilogy, which eventually became the plan for the visual novel that will be my magnum opus. (I'm still not ready to tackle it yet, but I'm working toward it!)

A self-portrait I drew in drawing class
March 5, 2015: A self-portrait I drew in drawing class

2016

The older of my two brothers visited Portland for the Chinese New Year. (More accurately, he visited the area for work, but the trip conveniently happened to be during Chinese New Year.)

A floating dragon at the Chinese garden in Portland
February 13, 2016: A floating dragon at the Chinese garden in Portland

In spring Sweetie and I bid farewell to gloomy Portland skies and relocated to sunny Central Oregon. To our excitement, our rental duplex had a garage and a grassy backyard.

Rainbows in our first backyard
July 25, 2016: Rainbows in our first backyard

Sick of shopping for ill-fitting clothes, I picked up sewing. I also wrote most of my cozy mystery Whacked in the Stacks.

My sewing buddy
November 5, 2016: My sewing buddy

Cover of Whacked in the Stacks
Cover of Whacked in the Stacks

2017

In April Who passed away. Sweetie spent two months in Indiana to settle his affairs and sell his manufactured home by the lake.

Who's house
May 26, 2017: Who's house

Fish in the lake
May 26, 2017: Fish in the lake

In June Sweetie returned for our wedding at Mirror Pond in Bend, where we were married by a judge holding an elaborate tome of The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide.

Our wedding ceremony
June 20, 2017: Our wedding ceremony

In August Sweetie built us custom PCs, and we watched the total solar eclipse from our backyard.

My complete custom box with RGB lights
August 12, 2017: My complete box with RGB lights

Watching the solar eclipse
August 21, 2017: Watching the solar eclipse

For Christmas that year Sweetie gave me a big surprise: a digital piano! I began my annual tradition of making holiday music videos.

2018

After ten years shackled to leases with ever-rising rents, we bought our first house. I spent most of that summer covered in paint.

Painting the kitchen
May 13, 2018: Painting the kitchen ASAP before our bamboo floors were installed

Free from landlords with a legal right to evict me for making excessive noise, I picked up the flute again.

2019

During an unexpected snow week in March, I finished what I consider my best novel to date, Lizzie Bennet's Diary.

Cover of Lizzie Bennet's Diary
Cover of Lizzie Bennet's Diary

In July I visited my family in Southern California, the land of ten million restaurants and unbelievable traffic. I came home with a suitcase full of new clothing and yummy candy.

My parents' xeroscape garden
July 5, 2019: My parents' xeroscape garden

In addition to my ongoing sewing, music, and house projects, I spent a good chunk of the year writing the second version of Kagemusha. It has the same basic premise as the first, but a radically different tone and plot. The draft is about halfway finished now, and I hope to complete it in the first few months of the new decade.

This brief overview in attractive photos doesn't fully convey the most significant change for Sweetie and me between 2010 and 2019: our vastly improved quality of life.

In 2010 we were poor college students playing video games on a fire-damaged couch in a one-bedroom apartment located in an increasingly unsafe part of town. We could travel to Japan only because of a generous gift from my grandmother. When we stopped by that cat cafe, we saw an early model of a Litter Robot and thought, "Wow, look at the crazy things rich people can afford."

Litter Robot in the Odaiba cat cafe
May 14, 2010: Litter Robot in the Odaiba cat cafe

A decade later, we are those rich people, playing video games on a made-to-order power-reclining couch in our colorful suburban ranch located in an increasingly desirable neighborhood.

Luna playing in her new Litter Robot
March 7, 2018: Luna playing in her new Litter Robot (the litter is fresh)

I'd like to say we clawed our way up to the middle class through hard work, strict budgeting, and tenacity, but that would be only partly true. We're comfortable now because Who was there to give us cars during school and a furnished room when my full-time job search dragged on and on, and because my parents were there to settle the debts I racked up in those difficult early years. Our home-owning dreams came true so quickly because we qualified for the USDA and Oregon Bond programs. Without support, we would have needed a second decade to earn the privilege of covering ourselves in paint.

Here's to another ten years of fun times and good fortune. Happy New Year!

Xmas toast 2012
December 15, 2012: Holiday toast in Bloomington, IN

Xmas toast 2019
December 26, 2019: Holiday toast in Redmond, OR