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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.


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