“Small Asian Girl”

One summer in college, I came to campus early because I had volunteered to be a student leader for orientation. None of my friends signed up to be student leaders, so I was mostly alone outside of training sessions. I didn’t mind; I generally prefer to be alone and I’ve made most of my friends because they approached me, not vice versa. As other voluntary loners, probably know, though, this doesn’t mean you’ll be left alone.

I was in the dining hall for lunch, grabbing my food and getting ready to find a quiet table where I could eat alone. An Asian girl, an upperclassman I knew by sight, approached and asked if I wanted to eat lunch with her and her friend. I looked past her and saw her friend was another Asian upperclassman whom I knew by sight. I said ok. I was pretty sure they were both half-Japanese from the little I knew about them. I don’t remember if this factored into my decision to say yes, but I do remember thinking of it as I answered her. I do remember wondering why she asked me, since we’d never interacted before.

I turned aside to finish getting my food and heard her say to her friend, “I asked Small Asian Girl to eat with us.”

From the way she said Small Asian Girl, I realized instantly they’d already developed this label for me and had likely been using it for some time, given the ease with which it rolled off her tongue.

It was like a verbal slap to the face. It was realizing not only had the invitation been extended out of pity for my (perceived to be unhappy) situation, but also realizing how alienated I was from people I might have found community with. It was realizing other Japanese students chose to see and highlight my differences from them instead of looking for ways in which we might relate to each other – but that’s too black-and-white.

I sat down to eat with those girls anyway. I remember exchanging introductions and I think we talked about our Japanese backgrounds, but mostly what I remember is sitting there trying to figure out why I was sitting there. As I finished getting my food and joined them at their table, I was trying to think of how to back out without being obviously rude. Most of all, I didn’t want to say, “I don’t want to sit with you because of what you just called me,” even though it would have been the most honest and direct way of stating my feelings.

Eventually, we went our separate ways. I continued to see them around campus and occasionally we’d nod or wave or say hi, but we never ate together again.

To this day, and even then, I don’t believe the girls meant to be hurtful. I certainly don’t think she intended for me to hear her calling me, “Small Asian Girl.” In a twisted way, I think they did really want to reach out. I know this feeling because I felt the same when I saw Asian international students, especially Japanese ones, looking lost in the dining hall because their friends weren’t there. Unlike those girls, though, I would just go up and ask, “Do you want to sit with us?” And you know what? I made some great friends that way, including people who I still talk to, even though there’s an ocean between us.

I never forgave those two girls in the dining hall, but I think I understand at least part of where they were coming from. I’ve said some extremely ignorant things to Japanese nationals – including family and friends who, instead of calling me on it, let me figure it out on my own – so I know the learning process is different for everybody. I hope those girls know better now, as I do. And yeah, a tiny part of me does hope someone somewhere called them on it at least once.*

Now for a preface-type thing I’m putting at the end.

I got the idea for this post while browsing my alma mater’s website and realizing one of those girls is now the lead contact for the Alumni of Color (I hate that term) organization. Seeing her name and photo there was what told me I hadn’t forgiven her or her friend. It also pretty much guaranteed I’d never try to reconnect with my alma mater via Alumni of Color because I can’t stomach the thought of attempting civil interaction with this person.**

That said, I do wonder what kind of person she turned out to be. I wonder if she still refers to people with labels like, “Small Asian Girl,” or if she figured out at some point that this is not a thing she should do. I wonder if she works with marginalized groups and how she treats them. I wonder why she chose to become the lead contact for Alumni of Color. For the sake of my fellow nonwhite alumni who might try to reconnect via Alumni of Color, I really, really hope she isn’t the person she was in the dining hall that day.

All of this to say, prejudice doesn’t always come from outside groups. Sometimes it comes from the sources you (and I) least expect.

*It feels shitty to be called out, even if the person does it nicely, but I know I would’ve learned a lot more a lot faster if even one of my relatives or friends had said something instead of waiting (literally) years for me to get my shit together. Fortunately, Carl is pretty darn good at keeping me in check these days.

**I don’t know what would be worse – if she remembered our interaction, or if she didn’t and I’d have to relive the discomfort by explaining it to her. Either way, I’m not interested in finding out.

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#DiverseBookBloggers Twitter Discussion

The #DiverseBookBloggers discussion was organized by Naz at Read Diverse Books and occurred via Twitter on August 12, 2016. Use #DiverseBookBloggers to view the original questions and answers on Twitter. I wasn’t able to participate because I was at work, but the questions were so in line with the things I often consider as a reader and writer that I decided to try answering them.

Note: Questions were taken directly from Naz’s original tweets and have not been altered in any way. All credit goes to Naz for creating and moderating the #DiverseBookBloggers discussion.

Q1: #ownvoices has been widely accepted as a positive movement. But are we perhaps prioritizing #ownvoices stories over allowing marginalized people the freedom to write about whatever they want?

A1: I suppose this is a case-by-case thing, but as someone who identifies as both a reader and a writer, I’d say no. After all, the same rules apply to marginalized and non-marginalized writers here: if you don’t have a good reason for writing outside your lane, don’t do it. If anything, I think the #ownvoices movement encourages marginalized writers to interrogate themselves and their writing more deeply than they otherwise might if it didn’t exist. Even if they ultimately choose not to write an #ownvoices story, I’d hope exposure to the #ownvoices movement would lead them to make this decision only after prolonged and thorough self-reflection.

Q2: Are marginalized people inherently more qualified to write about other marginalized perspectives than say, white, straight, able-bodied people from middle class backgrounds?

A2: I think it depends on how you define, “inherently more qualified.” To use race as an example, nothing about being Japanese automatically makes me more qualified than a white person to write a Black character, so by that definition, I wouldn’t say marginalized people are inherently more qualified. Sharing certain experiences with someone of a different background doesn’t cancel out the fact that your backgrounds ARE different. Marginalized people are not monolithic. You can be marginalized and utterly ignorant of someone else’s experiences of marginalization, even if you share the same axis of marginalization. I know quite well how it feels to be discriminated against as a Japanese person or an Asian person, but I have no idea how it feels to be discriminated against as a Black person, even though both scenarios are instances of racism. Unless you are willing to superimpose your own experiences of marginalization onto someone else – which seems like a colossal act of ignorance and disrespect – your own marginalization isn’t giving you any kind of leg up in writing the other. You still need to do the research. You still need to acknowledge your position as an outsider and demonstrate this awareness in your work.

In the end, I don’t think it’s about being “more qualified.” It’s about realizing your own marginalization is not a free pass to write about someone else’s – because if you’re writing about someone else, the story is not about you. And if the story is not about you, the last thing you should be spending time worrying about is, “can I do this better than a non-marginalized person?”

Originally, my answer to Q2 ended with the above paragraph. But then I remembered Daniel Jose Older’s recent article about writing the other, especially the part where he says fear of critique should not stop you from writing the other. Below is my response to this point.

Writing and publishing are different, but sometimes they get used synonymously. I’m not sure in what sense Older is encouraging writers to write the other in spite of their fear of critique – whether he means write and shelve, or write and publish. If the first, I absolutely agree. Writing is a learning process. Planning your writing is a learning process. If you don’t do any of that, you won’t grow. So, by all means, write your story about the other. Put in those hours and that effort. Pay your sensitivity readers, if you have them. Hire an editor, if you’re so inclined. Have a polished manuscript? Congrats! Now, stop.

Before you hit “send” on the query letter or the email to your agent, ask yourself the all-important question, “if I send this out into the world, will readers from this group find my work preferable to something written by one of them?” Ask yourself, “if there is only one spot on the publishing list for stories about this group, and the other contender is someone FROM this group, will I be ok with it if my story takes that spot away from them?” If you’re not ok with it, you probably shouldn’t publish that project.

But wait, you exclaim, “I won’t get any critique from which to grow if I don’t publish!” No. Let me reframe your concern. You = one person. Your potential readers if you publish = many people, including multiple people from the group you wrote about. Say you publish your book and are criticized by multiple readers, including readers from the group you represented. Sure, that criticism may help you grow as a writer,* but do you think your personal growth was worth hurting enough people that they actually wrote to tell you about it? For me, this is the potential sticking point of telling people to write the other AND publish. It is the same as saying, one person’s unpacking of their privilege/ignorance/whatnot is worth the pain of many people who suffer because of that privilege/ignorance/whatnot. It is the same as saying, many marginalized people are expected to tolerate pain as a matter of course so a few outsiders can make themselves feel better. This is the message that is tacitly upheld when outsiders are encouraged to write the other in order to learn how to do “better.” It privileges the outsiders – the ones doing the harm in the first place – over those being harmed by them.**

Just in case it needs to be repeated, I support marginalized writers. I actively seek out books by marginalized voices, especially #ownvoices works. I didn’t write all these paragraphs to hate on anyone. I just think it’s more than a bit hypocritical for us to (rightfully) call out privileged writers for misrepresenting us when we turn around and do the exact same thing to each other. If we want the industry to stop marginalizing us, we need to set truly inclusive standards for everyone to follow. This means respectful representation across the board, regardless of who creates it. This means accountability for disrespectful representation, regardless of who creates it. This means every participant self-interrogating, self-reflecting, and unpacking their privilege(s). This means listening to participants who identify with axes of marginalization other than your own. This means backing off when those participants tell you a certain story isn’t yours to tell because they need to be the ones telling it. Being marginalized does not make you immune to creating bad representation; nor should it mean your work is held to lower standards than anything created by non-marginalized writers. I realize the opportunities for marginalized writers trying to break into the industry are thin, though slowly growing. But do we really want to sacrifice each other in order to be accepted by the so-called mainstream?

Q3: Why are #ownvoices narratives that are NOT about oppression, suffering, and other “issues” so vitally important?

A3: All readers deserve the opportunity to see themselves reflected in books. Just because a reader identifies as part of an #ownvoices group doesn’t mean the sum total of their life experiences equates to oppression, suffering, and other “issues.” For example, I don’t identify as someone with overbearing parents, so books about Asian Americans facing parental pressure are interesting to me but not reflective of my experiences of being Asian American. On the other hand, a book about an Asian American who loves reading, is antisocial, and grew up in a bilingual household would probably be easy for me to relate to. It’s important for #ownvoices readers to know that it isn’t wrong for them to have experiences that aren’t centered on oppression. One reason I chose to be a loner as a kid was because I didn’t see myself in the people around me. My non-Asian friends liked to exclaim over how I could speak Japanese, which was nice in the sense that I felt I could be interesting to them, but also made me aware of the gap between our experiences because most of them had no idea what it was like to be bi- or multilingual.*** My Asian/Japanese friends could relate to me in a cultural sense and sometimes knew how it felt to be bilingual, but we didn’t have much in common outside our heritages. In retrospect, I think this is why, later, many of my closest friends would be international students and/or people who had lived outside the US for significant portions of their lives. We knew how it felt to be outsiders, even among people who looked or acted like us, and bonded over our outsider-ness. As a kid, I was pretty much convinced I was an oddball, both among people who shared my interests (but didn’t look like me) and people who looked like me (but didn’t share my interests). Consequently, I spent a lot of time reading, usually books that no one else my age was reading. If I’d come across more books featuring characters like me, written by people like me, maybe I’d have made more of an effort to find people like me in real life. As it was, I assumed the friends I had were as good as it was ever going to get, so I ignored the things about them that made me uncomfortable and tried to forge ahead.

Ok, that ended up being a pretty melodramatic and self-centered story, but hopefully you get the gist. Marginalized experiences are not monolithic and the narrative of oppression doesn’t fully articulate the nuances of individual lives. When the essence of being marginalized is to be an outsider, it’s vital for marginalized people to know they aren’t alone, to be able to find support from people like them. It’s absolutely crucial to understand that you don’t have to “settle,” as I did. There are people like you out there and some of them are as confused as you are. Look for them. Introduce yourself. I promise, you’ll make friends.

Q4: Let’s say a healthy number of #ownvoices narratives are published and become successful over the next several years. What’s the next step? Are issues of representation in the publishing industry fixed at this point?

A4: Issues of representation in the publishing industry will be fixed on the day that #ownvoices stories about any given marginalized group outnumber and take precedence over outsider-written stories about that group. This will hopefully also mean the industry as a whole reflects these numbers – in other words, #ownvoices agents, publishers, reviewers, readers, etc. supporting these books every step of the way, from planning/drafting to post-publication. In this way, we can ensure #ownvoices stories are a permanent and significant part of the literary landscape.

Q5: In a distant and ideal future, is the goal for the #ownvoices movement to become obsolete? Or will there always be a need for it?

A5: In the most ideal future, the #ownvoices movement would become obsolete because it no longer needs to be a movement – because it has become the status quo. This is not the same as saying #ownvoices stories will become obsolete. For as long as there is a demand for reading material, #ownvoices stories will be part of the supply meeting that demand. There is no quota on #ownvoices stories. New writers with fresh visions emerge every day – just think of how many unpublished #ownvoices writers turned out for the WCNV contest! If anything, as we slowly start to break down and recreate the systems built and sustained by privilege, there will be a higher, louder demand for #ownvoices stories than ever before.

Answers end here.

A huge thank-you to Naz for organizing the #DiverseBookBloggers discussion! If you haven’t already, hop on over to his book blog, Read Diverse Books, for excellent reviews of books by marginalized writers. For other terrific book blogs run by marginalized readers and writers, check out some of the folks who participated in the Twitter discussion.

*For the record, there are SO MANY resources to help you with representation that are available BEFORE you even get to the publishing/submission/querying stage. So, it is entirely possible to receive critique of your work and to grow from that critique, from readers who know what they are getting into and are prepared for it. Don’t know what I mean? Google, “sensitivity reader database.”

**And no, I don’t think we will see – at least, not within the lifetime of anyone reading this post – a golden age where all outsider-created rep is good and respectful. Why? Because each person follows an individual path to unlearning prejudice and unpacking privilege. Advancing the understanding of a few privileged folks is not going to cancel out the up-and-coming generations who will need to be taught the same things. It will take change on a massive scale, occurring at multiple levels, spearheaded by various groups, for this cycle to break. Considering where we currently are with things like police violence and presidential candidates, I’m not optimistic.

***Confession time: most of my childhood friends were white or Asian. I had very few non-Asian POC friends.