Can I Trust You? – Reflections on the US Publishing Industry

Recently, there has been a surge in pitch/query events for “diverse” books. Some of these were specifically aimed at marginalized* writers; some were open to anyone writing “diverse” stories. I did not participate in any of these events, but I did observe some of them. Below are some thoughts I had in the aftermath. I’ve organized them around a few broad statements for the sake of clarity, but they’re pretty interrelated.

Nonwhite agents/editors continue to call for “diverse” stories over marginalized voices.

  • I’m not in the publishing industry, so I can only speculate, but I imagine many factors go into how/why agents/editors select their clients. I imagine at least some of those factors don’t necessarily align with the agent/editor’s personal beliefs.
  • I wonder if there are any nonwhite agents/editors out there who would prefer to receive material ONLY from marginalized voices, but are prevented from doing so by factors beyond their control.
  • I wonder if there are any nonwhite agents/editors out there who KNOW it is bullshit to privilege white voices telling nonwhite stories OVER nonwhite voices telling their own stories, but go along with it anyway.
  • I wonder how many nonwhite agents/editors out there are thinking of ways to destroy the abovementioned bullshit practices.
  • I don’t expect nonwhite agents/editors to be paragons of anti-racism. Like nonwhite authors, bloggers, advocates, and artists, they are human – and susceptible to prejudices, white supremacy, ignorance, etc. If, like me, you follow a lot of nonwhite voices online, you’ll see we call each other out from time to time – because none of us are perfect. A nonwhite person doesn’t become the be-all, end-all arbiter of race representation simply because they have “agent” or “editor” attached to their name. At the same time, BECAUSE they have “agent” or “editor” attached to their name, they do become holders of privilege. Gatekeepers is, I think, the popular term these days. They have at least some power in determining who gets published – or even who makes it past the slushpile. And, as we all know, with power comes responsibility. In this case, the responsibility isn’t to be the All Knowing Super Creature regarding race representation, but rather to constantly expand the borders of racial/ethnic/cultural understanding and to encourage those around them to do the same. In other words, the industry cannot and should not stagnate at the level of understanding of the “most” racially aware among its nonwhite representatives. Nor should it stagnate at the (sometimes staggeringly low) level of understanding of the “most” racially aware among its top (mostly white) people. The industry needs to expand its boundaries – and to do so, it needs people to lead the way. We’ve already seen the consequences of letting white people be those leaders. Now it’s time to see if nonwhite people can do better.**

White agents/editors continue to call for “diverse” stories over marginalized voices.

This does not surprise me (nor should it surprise anyone familiar with the state of US publishing today). I have yet to see a white agent/editor say outright, “white writers should drastically cut back on/stop writing [insert nonwhite culture] and make room for #ownvoices instead.”

I have seen a few white agents/editors say they recognize #ownvoices should be privileged over white voices in the telling of nonwhite stories – but this is NOT the same as actually telling white folks to step aside and stop erasing nonwhite voices.

While no one can (legally) prevent someone else from writing whatever they want, simply saying, “write what you want” is both privileged and naïve. Here is why:

o   Consider the audience of this statement. If they are white (and privileged in other ways as well), they have probably already spent their entire lives in environments largely supportive of and governed by some iteration of this statement.

  • Example: Be yourself and don’t let anyone stand in the way.
  • Example: You can do whatever you want with your life.
  • Example: No one can stop you from achieving your goals.

o   On the face of it, good advice for anyone of any background, right? But add to that a system already designed to privilege you and everyone who looks like you (institutionalized racism, cough, cough, white supremacy, cough, cough), and the result? Entitlement.

o   And not simply entitlement, but entitlement so deeply ingrained into every aspect of your life that you probably don’t realize it’s there. Entitlement so cleverly, unintentionally taught to you by your parents and the other white people who taught you how to be white, likely without saying the word “white” more than a few times, if at all. Entitlement fed to you through all five senses, thanks to the white blanket of dominant “American” culture. Entitlement that causes you to look nervously at your nonwhite friend whenever a race-related joke comes up, to see if they’ll teach you whether to laugh or not. Entitlement that teaches you TO look at your nonwhite friend, instead of figuring out for yourself where you stand on the joke and how you contribute to the sociocultural forces that spawned it. Entitlement that makes you ask your nonwhite friend, in a low voice, when no one else is around, “do you think I’m racist?” Entitlement that encourages you, if your nonwhite friend answers, “no,” or “not really,” or “maybe sometimes,” to take that answer and throw it in the faces of other nonwhite people who call you out for your racism. Entitlement that doesn’t require you to think beyond the validation of one or two or a handful of nonwhite people because you have now earned the Good White Person card. Entitlement that keeps you from seeing the ridiculousness of the Good White Person card – how much do you think the credit card of that nonwhite person standing over there affects THEIR understanding of race? Being an ally is not something you whip out to pay your toll when you reach the Race Bridge.

o   Entitlement is what causes white people to continue writing nonwhite stories with the expectation they will be heard. Entitlement is what causes white people to continue writing nonwhite stories with the expectation they can “get it right” – while never realizing or acknowledging their actions erase insider voices from the very place they are struggling so hard to “get right.” Entitlement is what causes white people to discuss this struggle at length – rather than questioning whether they need or should be engaged in it to begin with. You should not be asking, “am I getting this right?” Instead, try asking, “why am I writing ‘this’ in the first place?” FYI, the answer, “because I can write whatever I want” is circular logic – you are right back in the entitled place you started from.

Unfortunately, when you have white agents/editors with the same entitled perspectives offering advice to entitled white writers, the status quo remains. White writers continue to “write what [they] want” – i.e., nonwhite stories, and white agents/editors continue to acquire them. Nonwhite voices continue to be erased.

White agents/editors, I think a little rephrasing is in order here. Instead of encouraging your white clients and prospective white clients to “write what you want,” might I suggest one of the following:

o   “Write a story only YOU can tell”

  • Hint: If it’s a nonwhite story, there are LOTS of nonwhite folks to tell it. And FYI, that “retelling” of a Japanese myth has already been done several times over by #ownvoices, so no, that’s not a story only YOU can tell, either. If you feel the need to “bring” a Japanese myth into western readership, I recommend BOOSTING Japanese voices, not just jumping in and whitewashing***/westernizing the story to make it “accessible.”****

o   “Write YOUR world”

  • As in, the world you inhabit on a day-to-day basis. If you do not interact with Asian folks on a daily basis, on more than a surface level, and if you have never been to Asia or have only gone as a tourist/student, I don’t recommend writing Asian cultures or characters.*****

o   “Write what YOU know”

  • Yes, white people can write about race. But instead of trying (and failing) to inhabit nonwhite perspectives that seem to be beyond comprehension for most of you (or is there some other reason you fail so spectacularly?), why don’t you just write it from YOUR perspective? Uncomfortable? Good. Let’s talk about it. Better yet, why don’t you write about it?
  • Remember when you talked to your nonwhite friend about whether you were racist? Maybe you felt kind of uncomfortable. Maybe the conversation ended, but you kept thinking about it. Maybe you talked to some other nonwhite folks, or did some reading about race. This is you. This is your experience. This is your race-related experience. So why not write about it? Too scary? Too close to things you’d rather not consider? Congratulations, you are confronting your white privilege. Don’t worry, it’s good for you.
  • I would actually like to see MORE books by white folks written from the perspectives of white characters confronting their white privilege – but without the whitewashed/stereotyped nonwhite “friend” character whom the MC uses as a sounding board for their own development. I think interracial/intercultural collaborations could be a highly effective way to achieve this, with the book becoming a conversation between its creators. I’ve seen a few examples of this, but we need more! (And considering white folks tend to listen to other white folks first and nonwhite folks second, hopefully this might pave the way toward broadening reader perspectives.)

Some white agents are extremely vocal about supporting “diversity,” but their words indicate they aren’t or don’t know how to be allies of marginalized voices.

Even though I’m currently not considering querying, I still read agent interviews/blogs/FAQs here and there. Back when I was seriously considering querying, I read them all the time, with an eye to agents who openly supported “diversity.” Sadly, most of what I found contributed to my ultimate decision NOT to query at all. Below is a breakdown of some problematic trends I observed – again, specifically regarding white agents.

o   Their clients and the queries they identified as “diverse” were mostly white – some who identified with other forms of marginalization, like disability or sexual orientation, others who were not marginalized but were simply writing “diverse” stories.

  • Why do you feel white folks writing nonwhite stories is an appropriate substitute for #ownvoices stories? (because it most certainly fucking well is not)
  • Why, in your world, is it only white people who can be marginalized in ways not pertaining to race/ethnicity? Why are there no disabled Japanese people? Where are the LGBTQ+ Black people?
  • Do you believe nonwhite folks feel comfortable submitting their work to you? If not, what might be stopping them?

o   Their lists of recommended reads were white, white, white – again, sometimes including marginalized white writers, and sometimes not.

  • Why do you champion “diversity” and that white author writing (a much critiqued) China but no ACTUAL CHINESE authors writing their own stories?
  • Who are the last three nonwhite authors you read, when did you read them, and how did you hear about them?
  • If nonwhite folks submit their work to you, can they feel confident you are well-versed in the existing body of published nonwhite work? Can they feel confident they will not be treated as unicorns or universal narratives?

o   Their responses in the FAQ section of their website or on their blog strongly reflected a, “write what you want” attitude toward white writers.

  • See my above remarks re: entitlement.
  • If nonwhite folks accept representation from you, can they feel confident you will not then turn around and support a white writer who represents nonwhite cultures in disrespectful ways? If a Korean writer accepts representation from you, can they feel confident you will not also sign a white client who writes like a Koreaboo?

o   Their recommendations of resources on “diversity” – assuming they had them at all – consisted of only a few, big-name websites and organizations. More often than not, most of these websites/organizations were centered on marginalized white people.

  • Did these agents actually make an effort to look beyond We Need Diverse Books?
  • Do these agents know a number of Published Nonwhite Authors (seeing as “Published” seems to be an important standard in these situations) maintain social media platforms containing insightful critiques on race representation in writing?
  • Even going by their (seemingly) limited standards of What Is A Good Resource, I think they could do better.
  • If nonwhite folks accept representation from you, can they feel confident you will sign other nonwhite clients in the future? Can they feel confident they are not just filling the single “Asian” slot on your list?

o   Their comments on social media reflected white privilege, white supremacy, and lack of understanding about how to connect with nonwhite communities.

  • Yes, you will get the side-eye if I see you promoting the shit out of nonwhite stories written by white people.
  • Saying nothing and doing nothing is still political. It sends the tacit message you are OK with the status quo. It shows us nonwhite folks you are not willing to stand up and say something about all the wrongness in the industry. If you’re silent now, I have to wonder if you’d continue to be silent if you signed me or one of my peers as a client.
  • Funny how you can promote “diversity” while hardly using the word “race.” Very funny indeed.
  • If most of your RTs are of other white people championing “diversity” – no, you get no cookies.
  • If you revert to the “quality” argument to “justify” why all your clients are white – nope.
  • If you encourage nonwhite folks to attend predominantly white events organized by white people in order to promote their work – don’t. Instead, see if you can receive an invitation to a nonwhite event organized by nonwhite people. If you don’t know how it feels to be a minority, I don’t think I trust you to represent me. And yes, my work is inextricably linked to my identity. You don’t get one without the other.

As a final point of clarification, the purpose of this post is to outline some of my doubts regarding the US publishing industry. I don’t expect this post to encourage or discourage anyone’s decision to query (seriously, if you can be swayed by a single blog post, you might want to rethink your commitment to writing). I personally feel that, in its current state, the US publishing industry is too uncertain for me to try to break into it. I don’t know who is an ally. I don’t know who can be trusted. I don’t know how to go about determining who is what.

I have always supported and will continue to support #ownvoices in writing, whether they choose to get published or not. These are stories worth having in the world. These are voices worth hearing. Good luck to my fellow #ownvoices writers. I hope you find what you are looking for.

*If you’ve read my previous posts, you know I use the term “marginalized” in various contexts. For the purposes of this blog, my use of “marginalized” will predominantly be associated in some way with race/ethnicity. It may also be associated with other forms of marginalization, including, but not limited to, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, and religion. As previously stated, this blog focuses on issues of race/ethnicity because these are areas with which I have personal experience. I am not qualified to discuss most other forms of marginalization from a firsthand perspective. If you’re interested in blogs which center forms of marginalization other than race/ethnicity, please see the Resources page!

**And hey, white folks in publishing, taking a backseat should NOT equal sitting back and waiting for change to happen. SUPPORT your nonwhite colleagues. We already know you-all have power and resources. We would like to know if you can leverage them without centering yourselves in the process.

***In this situation, I use “whitewashing” to mean, retelling a nonwhite story through a white lens – this does not necessarily mean changing the race/ethnicity of the characters. A white writer writing nonwhite characters is still doing so through a white lens. If you’re white, this is unavoidable. You can’t stop being white. That’s not your fault. But don’t use the “I-can’t-help-it-so-what-the-hell-I’ll-do-it-anyway” excuse to erase nonwhite voices or to market your work as “diverse.”

****I have more thoughts about outsider “retellings” of cultural stories and the power dynamics at play in these situations – not sure if there’ll be a post.

*****Full disclosure: I’ve seen shitty (as in, horrendously horribly horrible in the cultural rep department) books with Asian settings/characters written by white folks who DID live in the country/culture they depicted for multiple years, so…I’m not your market if you’re a white writer writing Asian cultures/characters. Don’t worry, I’m sure the weeaboo crowd thinks you’re hot stuff.

“Well, as long as it’s not MY culture…”

Last time, I mentioned I have thoughts about why non-Japanese Asians comment on books about Japan written by outsiders. Today I’m here to explain those thoughts, hopefully with some degree of coherency.*

Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, especially as I observe various “diversity”-themed query or pitch events, is whether I’d make it in mainstream publishing, even if I got in. I don’t mean in terms of sales – as previously mentioned on this blog, I don’t write to make money – but in terms of personality and character. When I look around at nonwhite, traditionally published authors whom I admire, I see them achieve some really fantastic shit – but I also see them doing things I’m not sure I could do. Some of these things elicit only a momentary cringe, but others make me sit back and wonder, what the fuck is going on here?

Maybe their agent or editor told them to do it. Maybe a friend or family member encouraged them. Maybe their kid begged them. Maybe it’s on that piece of paper they signed. Maybe they did it of their own volition, again for any number of reasons – money, personal belief, etc. Or maybe it was some other reason altogether.

Dear fellow nonwhite authors, I don’t know you. I don’t know why you do the things you do. I do know they aren’t things I’m willing to do. What I’d like to know is – do you all truly believe in these things, or do some of you silently question yourselves even as you do them?

Many of you blog or write articles about the inequities of the (US) publishing industry. I enjoy reading most of your pieces, I really do. But why are the majority of your pieces written in “us vs. them” terms or “us and them” terms? I don’t see many pieces written in “I/we” terms; in other words, I don’t see much self-interrogation. For folks with an amazing knack for articulating marginalized experiences at macro and micro levels, you-all seem remarkably silent when it comes to yourselves and each other. I can’t confirm whether your silence is unintentional or deliberate, but I can infer from the intelligence and perception you’ve demonstrated elsewhere that it’s very, very unlikely to be unintentional. So, then, why so quiet?

I can think of a few possible answers. Fear of declining sales. Fear of criticism from readers, fellow authors, and industry professionals. Fear of not getting another contract. Fear of losing your current contract. Fear of losing your agent. Fear of being cut off from the things that enable you to fulfill your passion for writing (and being published). As many of you have already pointed out, the (US) publishing industry is a tough place to make it if you aren’t white. As some of you have pointed out, to be nonwhite in a space of institutionalized whiteness is to be constantly engaged in negotiations, with yourself, and with others. If I go along with X, will I be able to do Y? Is the cost to me of going along with X worth the fulfillment of then being able to do Y? If I yield to whiteness on point A, will whiteness yield to me on point B? Is the loss of point A worth the gain of point B? These negotiations aren’t limited to publishing, as any nonwhite person who has had to operate in a white framework can probably attest. Most of us have experienced the fear of consequences if we speak or act up against the (white) majority. Some of us have experienced the actual consequences of speaking or acting up against the (white) majority. It’s ok to be afraid and to admit it. But it’s not ok to let your fear harm others.

Here is one reason why:

For a long time, there was a nonwhite agent whom I seriously considered querying. The tidbits they posted on social media suggested they might at least better understand my manuscript than a white agent, even if they were still unlikely to know the full cultural context. I started paying attention to the agent’s clients. Then the agent took on two clients whose books felt like a punch to the gut. Both clients were white. Both were writing Asian protagonists. Both were lauded for their work. Both were prominently featured in online venues dedicated to “diversity.” I remember looking at the agent’s page and thinking, how could you?

Eventually, I got over it (sort of). I stopped being hurt and angry and recognized I couldn’t judge the agent when I didn’t know them as a person or why they took on those clients and pushed those books through. I also started to question the (US) publishing industry more critically than ever before. Agents across the board sign clients with manuscripts they think they can sell. In that case, what does it say about the industry if these are the clients and manuscripts that are being signed and sold?

Next, I looked up some big-name nonwhite authors to see who stood behind them – and discovered most of them had white agents. WTF exactly was going on?** I cut back on following agents and publishing blogs after that. It’s not to say I’ll never decide to query an agent, but I’d been left with the proverbial bad taste in my mouth and I wasn’t really eager to go chasing after it again. Instead, I sought out information about the authors themselves – who were the people behind the names on the spines and would any of them share my concerns about the industry? I found great things – articles, websites, conferences, scholarships – many created or organized by nonwhite authors.*** But I also found disturbing instances of erasure, (conscious or unconscious?) white supremacy, and (unintentional?) hypocrisy.

Initially, I was confused. How could an author be so strident in that article about the need for #ownvoices, then turn around and promote a white author writing POC? How could an author give such a deeply personal interview about why they write #ownvoices stories, then turn around and include a bunch of white authors writing POC on their recommended “diverse” reading list? I started looking more closely at the white authors who were apparently so worthy of acclaim – and noticed something odd. None of these white authors were writing the culture of the nonwhite author who praised them. But if that was the case, how did the nonwhite author know these books were worthy of recommendation? And then I thought, maybe they don’t know.

POC are not a monolith. We don’t know everything ever about each other’s cultures. We don’t know everything ever about our own cultures. We are individuals. We are human. This means: we are allowed to not know. Moreover, we are expected to not know. I don’t expect a white person to be able to recite all of European history to me. Nor should you expect me to recite all of Japanese or US history to you.

The problem isn’t with us not knowing. It’s when we don’t know but we conveniently ignore the fact. This is what happens when a nonwhite author from X culture recommends an outsider-written book about Y culture. Nonwhite author from X culture isn’t responsible for knowing anything about Y culture and no one should expect this of them. BUT, nonwhite author from X culture IS responsible for owning up to it by saying, “please ask someone**** from Y culture if THEY would recommend this book” instead of jumping in with their own opinions.

But why, protests nonwhite author from X culture. It’s not my responsibility if this outsider wrote some book about Y culture. Actually, it is – if said nonwhite author is actually committed to #ownvoices and equity in (US) publishing. Why? Well, dear nonwhite author, suppose it is YOUR culture in question. Suppose the book is about X culture – your culture. Do you feel comfortable seeing it go out into the world with a gold star stuck on it by fellow nonwhite author from Y culture? Are you ok with it not being vetted by yourself or anyone else from X culture? Didn’t you write an article/give a speech about the importance of respectful cultural representation and thorough vetting by insiders? Yes, you did, because I read/listened to it. Now ask yourself – who was your audience? Why did you do it? Were you doing it because you had yourself and your culture in mind? Were you doing it because you had ONLY yourself and your culture in mind?

If you answered yes to the second one – because you were thinking only of yourself/your culture – sorry to say, you aren’t actually committed to #ownvoices and equity in (US) publishing. If you don’t care about respectful representations of any culture but your own, you are actually only committed to #ownvoice and equity for yourself in (US) publishing. I’m not saying it’s on you to ensure the representations of Y culture are respectful – that is something which members of Y culture should decide – but it IS on you to speak up if you see the members of Y culture being silenced/erased. It IS on you to make space for them at the table when it’s their turn to talk, just as they should make space for you when it’s your turn.

Accountability doesn’t just disappear because it’s not your pan in the fire; it only changes forms. When it’s your culture in question, yes, your voice should come first. But do you want the audience to turn their backs and plug their ears while you speak? If not, then treat them as you want to be treated. Listen when it’s their turn and they’ll extend you the same respect when it’s yours.

There have been many, MANY outsider-written books about Japan promoted by non-Japanese, nonwhite authors – so many that I have to believe at least part of what I’ve written above is true. On some level, in some form, there is complacency. It’s not my culture, no one will be expecting a close cultural analysis from me, so I can recommend my heart out with no consequences to me! But this is neither respectful nor inclusive. “It’s not my culture” is NOT a valid reason to throw your opinion around in an effort to appear supportive of “diverse” books. Ask yourself who you really want to support – white authors writing POC, or #ownvoices stories? Then ask yourself if you are actually supporting your group of choice. If your reading list tends toward #ownvoices for stories concerning your culture, but outsider works for stories concerning other cultures, you might want to give it a second look. What, really, does it say about your attitudes toward cultural representation?

I’m a firm supporter of #ownvoices. I’m also a firm supporter of mutual respect within and among nonwhite communities. Fellow nonwhite authors, we know how it feels when our cultures are misrepresented, appropriated, and erased by outsiders. We know how hard we’ve fought, are fighting, and will fight for our #ownvoices to be heard. We will make space for all of us at the table. We don’t need to trample over each other on the way there.

Thanks for reading! Check out the Resources page for other #ownvoices and, as always, if you self-identify as an #ownvoices writer and you want your website/blog included on my list, please let me know!

*I don’t know about the rest of you social justice-esque bloggers, but I find it harder to write stuff that hits closer to home. Lots of emotions to juggle. Hard to keep a clear head sometimes. In Avatar-speak, I’d be a firebender for sure – in case that wasn’t clear from the other posts on this blog.

**Rhetorical, in case you needed the clarification. Statistically, it makes sense why most US-based nonwhite authors have white agents. See the Lee & Low diversity baseline survey if you need context. Also, I hope there are more up-and-coming nonwhite agents waiting in the wings. If readers need stories from writers like them, writers need representation from agents like them.

***See the Resources page for my findings!

****Several people, ideally. None of us speak for our entire race/ethnicity/culture.

Dear non-Japanese Asians talking about books on Japan

Today, I noticed an AsianAm author* whom I admire gushing on Twitter about a non-Japanese, non-Asian author** writing Japanese-inspired fantasy novels. I went to the author’s blog/website to see what she had to say about writing Japan – and noticed some disturbing trends.

First and foremost, this author has an academic background (graduate level) in Japanese history. While this in and of itself doesn’t particularly matter to me, as I read through her blog posts on writing about Japan, I noticed she continually referenced her academic background as both the basis of and source of research for her Japanese-inspired novels. From the photographs included, it looks as if she has visited Japan at least once and has some level of Japanese literacy. However.

Nowhere in the posts I skimmed (I did not read the entirety of her blog) did I see any mention of her ethnic/cultural relationship(s) to Japan. In other words, nowhere does she state whether or not she is Japanese and (as I believe from contextual clues) if she is not, nowhere does she acknowledge how her outsider perspective influences her representations of Japanese culture. Nowhere does she discuss any research she conducted outside of an academic context. Nowhere does she acknowledge the limitations of approaching Japanese culture purely through a western, academic lens.

This worries me. While her academic background perhaps qualifies her to conduct (western) academic research on Japan, I see no indication she has attempted to step outside the academic box in writing her Japanese-inspired novels. I don’t even see any indication she is aware of the box. As I’ve discussed at length in previous posts, I don’t believe the western academic lens is the only – much less the most appropriate – approach to Japanese culture. Nor do I believe anyone approaching Japanese culture solely through a western academic lens can hope to end up with anything other than a western academic product. Yet, I don’t see this author or any other non-Japanese, western authors writing about Japan marketing their novels as “western academic products.” What I do see is these novels being marketed as “diverse reads” by big names in writing/publishing – both white and nonwhite. I see more novels produced by outsiders writing about Japan ON “diverse” reading lists and blogs than novels by Japanese people writing about Japan. I see more works produced by outsiders writing on Japan IN anthologies and venues dedicated to “Asian” literature than works by Japanese people writing on Japan – even in cases where most of the other contributors are #ownvoices. Some of these (English-language) spaces are created by Asians and/or non-Asian, nonwhite folks – but I’ve yet to see any created by Japanese people. The message is clear: those in power put more market value on Japanese stories told by non-Japanese (especially white) people than on #ownvoices telling Japanese stories.

At this time, I have no plans to read the work of the author mentioned above. I do not believe someone truly conscious (and conscientious) of the complexities and nuances inherent to writing outside their culture would fail to acknowledge their outsider perspective when describing their work. By the same token, I have no plans to endorse or participate in spaces where I feel non-Japanese voices are privileged over #ownvoices in the telling of Japanese stories. I’ve had enough. My time and resources are limited and I will utilize them to experience and boost #ownvoices.***

But I’m not done yet.

There is also a second issue at stake here, one which I feel in some ways is more concerning than what I described above, namely because it seems to perpetuate the trend of outsiders writing Japan (and believing they are doing so competently). In this author’s case and that of many other non-Japanese (and usually white) authors writing about Japan, I have seen, time and again, endorsements from non-Japanese Asians, including some very prominent voices in online writing communities. Here is the problem: you can’t have it both ways. Many of these same prominent, non-Japanese Asian authors/agents/editors, etc. have eloquently and vehemently advocated for equity in (mostly US) publishing. They have slammed publishers and agents alike for paying lip service to “diversity” while continuing to represent/commend mostly white authors. They have created and participated in organizations, blogs, conferences, and other vehicles of activism to promote and support marginalized voices. This is great work, and not to be dismissed or taken lightly. But.

When these same advocates endorse outside writers for writing cultures that neither the writer nor the endorser belongs to – this is a problem.

For example, do I, as a Japanese person, tell non-Chinese writers I think their representations of Chinese culture(s) are “well-researched” or “respectful?” Yeah no. Because why in the world should my non-Chinese voice take precedence over Chinese voices in vetting representations of Chinese culture(s)?**** Why would I, a non-Chinese person, presume to know MORE about what constitutes a “well-researched” or “respectful” representation of Chinese culture(s) than a Chinese person? I’m not saying every self-identified Chinese person is responsible for knowing everything ever about their culture. No one person of ANY culture is responsible for knowing everything ever about their culture. I’m saying, it’s not my job, or any other non-Chinese person’s job, to jump in with our non-Chinese opinions to silence, deny, or erase Chinese voices vetting representations of their OWN culture(s).

Just because someone self-identifies as Asian does not qualify them to vet representations of all Asian cultures. It does not even necessarily qualify them to vet all representations of their own culture. I do not evaluate the “accuracy” or “authenticity” of representations of cultures outside my own because I believe it is disrespectful to the members of the culture in question. By the same token, I cannot and do not state someone did “thorough research” on a culture when, as an outsider, I don’t know what “thorough research” means in the context of that culture. To position myself as any kind of “authoritative” voice on the representations of someone else’s culture makes me no better than the people who write outside their cultures without ever interrogating their own identities in relation to their subject.

I don’t believe I’m making a complicated point here. I don’t believe it’s a point that is beyond the grasp of the prominent, non-Japanese Asians in writing/publishing. I’ve read their work – it’s insightful, nuanced, eloquent, and smart as hell. So, then, why does this happen? Why do they continue to give the green light to outsiders writing about Japan without apparently realizing they are erasing Japanese perspectives on that same work? Why do they slam people for stereotyping Asians as “all the same” yet perpetuate some of that “sameness” by offering their not-Japanese-but-still-Asian opinions on representations of Japanese culture rather than finding actual Japanese people and asking for their opinions?*****

I believe in solidarity. I believe there is value in Japanese, Asian, and other nonwhite writers creating spaces for themselves and with each other to overcome institutionalized white supremacy in publishing. But I believe we can achieve this WITHOUT speaking over each other. I believe we can do this in ways that don’t leave me feeling as if my opinion and other Japanese opinions aren’t heard simply because those who create harmful, uninformed representations of us fail to look beyond the non-Japanese Asian folks endorsing their work. I believe all of us Asians can do better when it comes to representations of each other’s cultures. We KNOW we’re not all the same. Most of us probably know how painful it is to see outsiders misrepresent our cultures in one way or another. So, let’s not silence, deny, or erase each other in the same way. If it’s not our culture in question, let’s not offer an opinion on how “well” it was represented. Instead, let’s find a fellow member of our community who DOES belong to that culture and ask them for their opinion.

Thanks for reading! Next time, I’ll discuss why I think Asians endorse outsider representations of other Asian cultures. (And I’ll be speaking for myself only, not Every Asian Ever or Every Japanese Person Ever.)

*She is not Japanese.

**There is no mention on this author’s blog/website or in interviews with this author of her ethnic/cultural background. On her blog and in interviews, she describes herself as a student of Japanese history. I will assume she is white until/unless otherwise shown. I have yet to come across a nonwhite author whose ethnic/cultural background is never referenced on either their personal website or in interviews.

***Don’t worry, you privileged outsiders you. The stats already show there is a market for your work. Your sales won’t vanish just because you aren’t worth my time. If you don’t believe me, can you name more than three Japanese people writing on Japan – who are not based in Japan? Now name more than three non-Japanese people writing on Japan – who were published in the last year. Was one of those easier to do than the other?

****Apologies for the semantics here. I realize there are many cultures and ethnic groups in what westerners refer to as “China.” If any self-identified Chinese people can point me to alternative terminology that is more preferable from a #ownvoices perspective, please let me know!

*****So, I have what is probably going to be a fairly unpopular opinion on why this happens, but since this post is getting long, I’ll write about it next time.

Dear Academia, Part 2

In Part 1 of this series, I talked broadly about my experiences with the colonizing forces of western (US) academia and some questions I have for the folks who choose to work in it professionally. Today, I’m back to discuss my concerns about what happens when the worlds of colonial academia and fiction writing collide.

When I first encountered online discussions of “diversity” in literature, I read a LOT of book reviews, amateur and professional alike. I especially enjoyed reviews by insiders – in other words, readers belonging to the marginalized group(s) represented in the book – maybe because, after years of seeing so many [insert unfavorable adjective here] outside representations of Japanese culture, I no longer trusted outside perspectives when it came to vetting cultural representation. Give me #ownvoices any day.

At the same time, I noticed a troubling trend in these reviews. Often, whether the review was favorable or unfavorable, the reviewer would discuss the author’s “research.” For favorable reviews, there was often praise for the number of sources the author seemingly utilized, sometimes accompanied by a quote from the author, to the effect of, “I read X number of books and employed Y number of beta readers!” For unfavorable reviews, there were often comments about the author’s “lack of research,” or “Wikipedia-esque” (read: lazy) level of investigation, sometimes accompanied by an incriminating quote from the author, along the lines of, “oh, this is just [insert culture]-INSPIRED fantasy – so I made stuff up to fill in my knowledge gaps!”

Obviously, one of the above scenarios is less desirable than the other, but beyond that, notice any similarities between the two? It’s probably easier to spot if you, too, read insider reviews. What I want to emphasize is this: in most reviews, favorable or unfavorable, the reviewers didn’t appear to question the word “research.” A number of them suggested research sources – books, articles, blogs, interviews, multimedia, etc – but the ideological framework governing the use of these sources was never discussed. In other words, no one came out and said, “but if you utilize these sources in a purely US-based, western-based context, you will still be missing a lot.”*

If you aren’t sure what I’m getting at, here’s an analogy to help. Have you heard of Haruki Murakami?** Maybe you’ve read his work? If you haven’t, he is a Japanese author who has been widely translated in English and other languages. Have you read his work in Japanese? If not, do you ever get the feeling you are “missing out” by reading a translation? Do you wonder if there are puns, references, or other cultural nuances in the original Japanese text that have been omitted from the translation for whatever reason?***

Now consider this: translators are folks who have trained SPECIFICALLY to navigate and reinterpret cultural differences through language. The average fiction writer? Statistically, they probably aren’t professionally trained in any kind of cross-cultural communication. And yet, every year, there are tons of books churned out by folks writing cultures not their own. What DO most of these writers have? In the US, probably some kind of exposure to the US education system – probably at least ten years of it, most likely more. Ten-plus years of increasingly rigorous and nuanced ways to view the world – through a (white) western, US lens. On top of that, however many additional years of navigating a (white) western, US professional world, if they have finished school. And yes, the above applies to both white and nonwhite US-based writers.**** By the time these folks get around to writing (and publishing), they’ve been immersed in western-centric, US-centric ideologies and practices for a long time – and from what I’ve seen, most of them don’t even realize it.

Think about it. If you are a US-based writer and you are reading this, do you self-identify as “American?” Have you ever questioned what that means? Have you ever wondered if it is problematic?

If your answers to the above questions were “no,” consider this: if you can’t/haven’t/won’t interrogate the nuances and problematic aspects of your own national/cultural identity, what makes you think you are adequately prepared to represent someone else’s?

If you are a US-based writer who self-identifies as “American” without seeing anything problematic in your choice AND you are preparing to write about a culture not your own – check your privilege. If you think you have “American” all figured out to the point where it is not as “interesting,” or “diverse,” or “underrepresented” as the culture you are planning to write about – think again, because you are missing something. I’m not saying you can’t write about that other culture – I can’t stop you from writing anything. But recognize that if you ARE looking beyond national/racial/cultural borders because you don’t think there is anything “interesting,” “diverse,” or “underrepresented” left to explore in what you call, “American” – stop and look back.

Unfortunately, as a quick look at recent YA releases in the US reveals, many US-based writers are unaware of or ignore the problematic implications of their western-centric perspectives. The standard remains “thorough” and “respectful” research, but no one questions whether the base definition of “research” as it is defined in US academia might not be the most appropriate way to approach another culture. This is especially important to keep in mind for writers utilizing the POV of a character from a culture other than their own. Assuming you make it as far as actually talking to people from the culture you are representing – and judging by insider reviews, this happens far less often than it needs to – if you are really LISTENING to their words, ideally your takeaway is along the lines of, “wow, there is a lot I don’t know and can’t know because I’m not an insider – and I need to figure out how to acknowledge this in my writing” – as opposed to, “wow, I know so much now and I am totally qualified to write from this character’s POV!”

The bottom line is, there are things you can’t learn – not because you didn’t read enough books, or visit enough locations, or interview enough people, but because you are not them. There is no methodology to get around this. There is no high-tech button or magic spell. Your research will get you farther than people who didn’t do any – but it is not and never will be a substitute for insiders telling their own stories. If you can’t acknowledge this, write about something else. Writing as an outsider without acknowledging how your perspective dissociates your voice from those of insiders is privileged, disrespectful, and harmful. Be aware of yourself. Be aware of the frameworks that shaped your perspective. You are part of something larger than yourself. You do not operate in a vacuum. Individual accountability is also cultural accountability. If you are writing as a self-identified “American” with no reservations, I can guarantee your work will reflect the same ignorant privilege and colonial mentality. You can’t vet something if you don’t even realize it’s there.

Fellow writers, we can do better. Creativity is a formidable weapon – and we all have arsenals packed full of it. If we can bring characters, worlds, and stories to life merely by typing words onto a page, we can apply those same imaginative skills to our roles as writers. We can create POVs that acknowledge how our perspective differs from that of the character/culture in question, or plots and themes which address the outsider/insider dilemma. We can develop character attributes and settings which don’t stereotype, exotify, or otherwise harm the people we write about. We have vast imaginations – we just need to utilize them as learners, not colonists. Let’s open our minds to what others have to say, not take their words and try to fit them into premade boxes.

People smarter than me have already challenged the institutionalized prejudices inherent to terms like “literature” and “craft” – now, we can also push the boundaries of “research.” We can find the courage to reject the safety net of our US education***** and seek guidance from #ownvoices. Ask them, what does “research” mean to you? What should I do in order to gain what you would consider a thorough understanding of x topic? Is it appropriate for me, as an outsider, to write about x topic? If the answer is, throw your Ivy League book learning and PhD out the window and do y thing instead, do it. If the answer is, come to our community and live among us and practice our customs for z amount of time, do it. If you aren’t prepared to do what is asked of you, reevaluate your commitment to your topic. If you cut and run when things get uncomfortable and/or unfamiliar, you aren’t the best person to tell this story.

Thanks for reading! Check out the Resources page – links are getting ever closer to being fully live – for assorted opinions on similar topics. There may be a Part 3 of this series, but no promises. Until next time!

*Some of these reviewers also self-identify as “American” or “[insert culture] American.” While I don’t begrudge them the ability to call themselves whatever they want, I do wonder if they’ve considered ALL the aspects of claiming an “American” identity. See my post on “Japanese American” identity for an explanation of what I mean by this.

**I mostly use first name-last name on this blog for consistency, but occasionally you’ll see me use last name-first name if I feel like it. In Japan, it is last name-first name.

***I have yet to read Murakami in Japanese, but I can confirm these losses occur when manga is translated from Japanese to English. I highly recommend reading the original Japanese whenever possible…because TWITCH. (Don’t get me started on dubbed anime.) I chose Murakami for the analogy because I often see readers of the English translations of his work praising his use of language – which erases both the original Japanese text and the translator’s role. More on translation and language in a future post, I think.

****Nonwhite writers, with the knowledge gained through their lived experiences, probably have at least some idea of what they are getting into when they choose to write about a culture not their own; however, nonwhite people are not immune to white supremacy. As I’ve said before, we don’t get a free pass on cultural rep just because we’re not white.

*****Something that greatly interests me but that I haven’t been able to speak to many people about is the globalization of western-based practices, from education to economics to aesthetics and beyond. As a US-based, nonwhite writer looking outward, I feel that what I refer to as “(white/western) colonization” has had certain similar effects around the world as it has had in the US – and not all FROM the US, either. (Insert your semi-regular reminder that white/western colonization was happening long before the US came into the picture. As much as we – fellow US-based writers – acknowledge the past/present/future effects of colonization in the US and our roles in it, let’s not forget the rest of the planet. Acknowledge your role, but don’t center yourself in a discussion that actually has global scope.) But, I don’t have the lived experiences of being non-US-based to back this up. I’d like to hear more from non-US voices who DO have these lived experiences – what do you-all think about the effects (if any) of westernization on your nation/ethnicity/culture?

Alice in Workerland

If you’ve seen Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, you might remember the scene where Alice is trying to find her way and encounters the brush-headed dog erasing the path. Lately, I’ve experienced similar issues at work which have made navigating my professional life somewhat tricky, so I decided to spew some thoughts about labels, affirmation, erasure, and honesty.

I previously noted on Twitter that my workplace is predominantly white. I can count the number of nonwhite colleagues I’ve met thus far on one hand. Granted, I’ve been there just over a month, but since there are probably only a few hundred of us, if that, I’ve at least said hi to most everyone. I’m the only nonwhite person in my department – there are only three of us, so statistically, this is not unexpected for Portland, Oregon – and here’s what I’ve noticed: my white colleagues do NOT use racial or ethnic markers when identifying people.

Since I’m a newbie, I hear unfamiliar names and see unfamiliar faces every day. Later, when I ask one of my colleagues to help me match names and faces, the answer is generally along the lines of, “[person’s name]…uh…older, silvery hair…”

Ok. This is not helpful. There are multiple people who fit that description. I still have no idea whether we are talking about the same person.

I think I know what is up. Someone somewhere told my (white) colleagues that mentioning race is taboo. What that person – or people, or training pamphlet, or whatever – apparently failed to do is give this statement any sort of nuance.

Yes, if you are using a nonwhite person’s race as the ONLY thing differentiating them from the (white) norm, it is problematic.* But, not mentioning race at all? Just as problematic – and dangerously close to the erasure perpetuated by those who advocate for “colorblind” practices. Race doesn’t just stop being part of someone’s identity because you choose not to mention it. I am Japanese regardless of whether you and/or others acknowledge it.

I’m not sure if my colleagues know the meaning of “colorblind” in terms of race. Nor do I believe they are inherently “bad” people. I really like most of them (so far). What I do believe is that no one has sat them down and said, “hey, IT’S OK to mention someone’s race – just acknowledge that race is not the be-all, end-all of their identity.” Look at the world around you. People are different races! Wow! This is reality. It is OK to call it such.**

I’d like to know where my colleagues picked up this way of thinking. Did they get it from a white person making assumptions about how nonwhite people like to be treated? Or did they get it from a nonwhite person who believes in “colorblind” practices? Regarding the latter possibility, yes, I suspect some nonwhite people may disagree with me. We are not a monolith. (I wish I didn’t feel the need to say this in almost every blog post, but there you are.)

Personally, I feel skirting the semantics of race is both privileged and lazy. If you believe “equality” in principle = equality in practice, I highly doubt you have been on the receiving end of the equation. You cannot treat people of different backgrounds the “same” and expect everyone to feel respected – because no one definition of sameness will fit every culture. You can’t magically bring about racial equity by saying you “don’t see” race. Plus, guess what? You’re taking an easy out. By adhering to “colorblind” or “diverse” practices, you absolve yourself of the need to further interrogate the issue. You have done your due diligence and now everybody should be happy because it says on paper that they’re all being treated the same. Wrong.

Erasure is not respect. Denial is not respect. Erasure is not equitable or inclusive. Denial is not equitable or inclusive. Really, what it boils down to is this: we don’t need you to tell us how we want to be treated. Let US tell YOU. Stop erasing. Stop denying. Stop. Listen. Reflect. THEN – respond. And remember – we are not a monolith. The more you listen, the more variety you will hear.

On a final note, some of you may have seen the recent social media posts about identifying the race/ethnicity of ALL book characters, including white ones. If you find my post or blog not to your liking, I recommend reading these posts instead. Same ideas, different voices.

I haven’t yet decided how I want to address the erasure happening in my workplace. I suspect the conversation may be an uncomfortable one for some of my colleagues. Diplomacy is hardly one of my strong suits, so this should be interesting. I wonder how other nonwhite people in other predominantly white workplaces have handled these situations. Is there a handbook for this stuff?

Thanks for reading! Apologies for a rather surface-level handling of a complicated topic. I wanted to spit out my first impressions before I forgot how they felt, but I imagine I’ll have follow-up thoughts (and maybe posts).

*In the same way that conflating nonwhite peoples/cultures with the concept of “diversity” is problematic. We do not exist “in contrast” to the (white) norm. There is one planet Earth and everybody lives on it. The problem lies in assuming and accepting whiteness as the default.

**If you aren’t sure how someone wants to be referred to, ASK. Seriously. It is more honest and respectful than superimposing your outsider notions of how we “want” to be identified. Stereotypes, fetishization, exotification, discrimination, and many other harmful behaviors directed at nonwhite people on the basis of our race/ethnicity are created and perpetuated in large part by ignorant outsiders. So, ask.