Thursday, May 7, 2009

More on being an Asian writer, I suppose.

Today I attended a lecture given by Gene Yang, author of American Born Chinese, a graphic novel. I read this book about a year ago, but recently reread it for one of my classes. The lecture was excellent - Yang was funny yet insightful, and really entertaining as he explained to a largely non-Asian audience about the source material for much of the book.

As a Chinese-American, his lecture particularly hit home for me. I am by no means an Asian-American "activist". I never participated in those protests against, say Abercrombie and Fitch's "Two Wongs Don't Make a White" t-shirts or whatever, and I've never necessarily been politically active. Nonetheless, I also am extremely conscious of my hyphenated status in America, and this is especially on my mind when I think about being a writer who doesn't want to be niched. I wouldn't say that I'm self-loathing to any extent - I simply want to be judged on a basis that excludes my ethnicity.

Despite the fact that I now feel very comfortable operating within a non-Asian world, there was once a time when I didn't. When all I knew was Asia-Americana which has its own brand of American culture. And being within this culture meant that most of the time I didn't have to deal with the question of my ethnicity because everyone around me was just like me. But upon graduation, I was thrust into a predominantly white world, and suddenly it felt like an issue. Suddenly I wasn't entirely sure how to fit in and how people saw me. I didn't actually know how to relate.

Yang's lecture today hit home for me because he brought up all the stereotypes that have existed - both far past during Exclusion Act days and more current events - and I found myself getting worked up over everything he said, and being able to relate so well to the choices he made in his graphic novel.

Yet at the same time, I wondered what it said about me, that I don't want to be part of that dialogue in that way. I don't want to write a book about an Asian-American trying to be part of society. I don't want to write a book where "identity" is an issue in that way. I don't want to have to talk about Chinese people being dogeaters or being good at math (or not, as the case may be). I appreciate and wholeheartedly applaud somebody like Yang for bringing up the difficult nuances of this topic, and in a comic no less, but I shudder at the idea of ever having to do that myself. I want to be loved as a writer despite my Asianness - and I wonder if that is a bad thing. It's not that I don't think these issues are important, it's just that it's not what I want to write about. I want to write things that appeal to everyone, that are relatable to everyone. I don't want to write for an Asian-American generation.

This post has less to do with the book I suppose than with my thoughts about being an ethnic writer. The book is good - it tackles questions of identity, of how Asians are perceived by outsiders, but also how Asianness is perceived by someone who just wants to belong. It's about embracing your own self and learning to accept it. And it's really fun and funny to boot.

I guess I just got a swarm of feelings sitting there in the audience because I wondered if there's supposed to be a burden of responsibility being an Asian writer, to open a dialogue about these sorts of things.

But I kinda think the opposite. I want to show that Asian people think about things other than being Asian. We think about all the things everyone else does - question of family, of love, of ethics, of honor, of courage, of morals. And I don't want to have to write about Asian people in order to do it.

Oh, I'm sure one day one of my protags will be Asian. And I'm sure one day I may even write something about China. But I never want my Asianness to be at the forefront of what I write. I want it to be just a fact, like if my heroine were red-headed instead of a brunette, or liked books instead of liking movies, or was a vegetarian instead of a carnivore. Things that are important, sure, but only in so far that they give you a better understanding of the character in their situation, and not the focal point of the entire book.

I keep digressing here. I really did admire Yang's book and his lecture. His anecdotes pumped me up and I felt my anger simmering and my defiance wanting to shine through every time he showed me something offensive. I take great pride in my heritage and the images and examples he gave made me unbelievably angry. So good on him. And good on this book.

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