“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.