Tuesday, May 21, 2013

My Name is Not Amy Tan

When I write, I always hesitate putting in my character's ethnicity.  Sometimes, I've specifically imagined my character being white, Asian, etc., but I never include that information in the story.  I tend to keep the hair and eye color pretty generic; they vary between different shades of brown. They never have a last name.

I am American-born Chinese, and though I've never specifically had someone tell me this, I feel like if I do mention a character's ethnicity in my story, then its automatically about race.

I started this short story (more like autobiography) about a newly married wife who didn't speak Chinese and couldn't speak to her in-laws.  I didn't finish it.  I felt like I would be labeled if this story were ever to be published.  I would be stuck in this hole; I could only ever write stories on the life of an American-born Chinese after that.

To be honest, most of my characters are white.  I grew up culturally American.  While I definitely identify myself as Chinese, I cannot identify with the cultures of many of my friends whose parents (or themselves) were born in Taiwan or China.  They grew up going to Chinese school, learning brush painting, and being pressured to go to an Ivy League.  My parents don't speak Chinese fluently, we don't eat Chinese food every day, and I don't get gobs of money for Chinese New Year.

I found myself desiring to be more like my "fob" friends.  I took to chasing after what I thought was my cultural identity.  I cut my hair in similar styles, I took Chinese in college to learn Mandarin (even though I am Cantonese), and I observed and took note of the cultural differences between my friends' parents and my family.  I wanted to be a part of this immigrant Chinese American culture.

But in my writing, I wanted to stay uniquely separate from all of that.  I have even considered a pen name so people won't know my ethnicity from the name on the front cover.  I wanted to be able to write as an Anglo-Saxon writer, to be absorbed into the throng of writers without a specific cultural identity.  I wanted my writing to be just "white".  Not Italian or British or Asian.  Unlabeled.  Uncategorized.  Unaffected by who I was as a person.  I wanted my writing to stand alone without me.

I remember when I read The Joy Luck Club for the first time.  I was so excited that Amy Tan, a Chinese American, was published.  In the beginning it was encouraging to know the publishing world wasn't dominated by white people.  Then I read Laurence Yep, author of Dragonwings (great book, by the way), and I remember wondering if there were any other Asian fiction authors in the library.  I remember walking my school's library shelf, looking for a writer with the last name of "Wong" (my maiden name).  I couldn't find any. It made me incredibly sad. 

As a writer, I feel threatened by my own cultural identity, etched permanently into my last name

In middle school, I wrote a set of three novels set in a fantasy medieval setting.  I felt safe writing in that time period.  There was no question of race because everyone was Anglo.  I continue to feel safer writing in that setting as opposed to present-day.

Yet I have so many ideas based on life experiences or things I've observed that I'm dying to write about.  I start writing them, but when I come to the question, "What is my character's ethnicity?", I tend to shy away from having to commit to specifics.  I know a character is very much affected by their cultural upbringing; it is really silly to be scared, but I am.

Is this something I'm just imagining?  Or do others feel the same way?

I guess in the end, it is the quality of the writing that should matter.  I shouldn't feel tied to a certain genre or category.  Even though our publishing industry tends to force writers to stick to what they became famous for, us writers should be braver.  We should rise above what is "marketable" and just write good stories.

Soli Deo Gloria.