#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.

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What #ownvoices means to me

If you follow this blog, you’ve probably noticed I use the term “#ownvoices” to refer largely to nonwhite people writing their own cultures. This is because these are the stories I am personally most interested in reading and supporting, especially in light of ongoing, harmful (mis)representations of many nonwhite cultures by white writers. My life experiences have been and are directly impacted by stereotyped, insensitive representations of Japanese culture by white people. Any and all countermeasures in the form of Japanese (especially diaspora Japanese) speaking up for ourselves goes a long way toward dismantling the white-is-right ideologies I’ve been bombarded with for most of my life.

When #ownvoices started, I was still relatively new to social media. Seeing a highly visible movement supporting nonwhite people writing ourselves helped me realize how social media can create communities across socioeconomic, cultural, and geographic borders. While #ownvoices is now “old” by Twitter standards, I continue to discover and learn from other nonwhite folks who use it – and to find out about upcoming #ownvoices releases.

My above reasons for supporting #ownvoices and the way I choose to utilize the term on this blog are NOT the same as saying these are the only stories which qualify as #ownvoices writing. For those unfamiliar with its history, #ownvoices was actually created by a white writer, Corinne Duyvis, who writes about disability from an #ownvoices perspective.* Below is a screenshot of a screenshot (haha) from Duyvis’s website:

Duyvis

I am grateful to Duyvis for starting #ownvoices. While I can’t say someone else wouldn’t have created a similar hashtag if Duyvis had not, the fact remains Duyvis did create this one and it has proven enormously useful to many nonwhite people, including me.

#ownvoices is at its heart about the importance of people writing stories based on their own experiences, including but not limited to experiences with race, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, and intersectionality. These lived experiences can never be fully replicated or “known” by an outsider. In other words, #ownvoices stories are inextricably linked in some way to the identities of their writers.

In several discussions on book reviewing, I’ve seen arguments for evaluating a book without evaluating its author. I don’t believe this is possible. In terms of semantics, yes, we can leave an author’s name out of a review, or avoid directly attacking the author’s character – in the world outside of that review, though, the book did not spring into being by itself. Someone wrote those words. Someone made decisions about which words to use, and when, and how. Books are human creations – it is impossible for them to exist without humans standing behind them. The words an author chooses to put on a page open up questions, not just about the book, but about the person who created it. While the reader cannot know an author’s personal beliefs and history merely by reading their work (unless the work explicitly cites these things), the reader can question the author – directly or indirectly – about why the author made certain choices in their work. Readers should ask these questions, especially if the work in question contains harmful representations of a group with which the reader identifies – and authors should respond.**

If you follow online discussions about “diverse” books, you probably know the above sentiments are often directed toward people writing outside their lanes. However, the same principle applies to #ownvoices stories: you cannot evaluate the book without evaluating the author. The very essence of #ownvoices precludes this – the point of having #ownvoices stories is about HOW the identities of the people writing them SHAPE the work itself. This is not to say #ownvoices writers restrict themselves to purely autobiographical work. Rather, I’m saying who wrote the book matters as much as what was in it.***

Here’s a personal example to illustrate:

Whenever I pick up a book pertaining to Japanese culture, written by a Japanese person, my mindset shifts into one different from the one I’m in when I read other books. Before I even turn to page one, I’m already wondering how many cultural markers I’ll find inside – words, turns of phrase, aesthetics, ways of thinking – which will make me smile and think, yes, this person knows. If the book is in English and the author is bilingual, I’ll pay extra close attention to how they present Japanese terms, ideas, aesthetics, etc. I’ll also look at whether the author spent the majority of their life inside or outside Japan (again, diaspora Japanese v. Japan-based Japanese are different, etc, etc). If the book is in English and the author does not appear to be bilingual, I’ll still pay extra close attention to the things I listed above, but I’ll also see if I can discern whether/how the author’s diaspora experiences shape their writing.**** If the book is in Japanese, I don’t generally wonder about finding cultural markers – the author’s use of language often speaks for itself – but I do pay attention to how the author handles any US or English-language references, if they even appear. Always, I’m looking for authors whose backgrounds closely parallel mine. I live for the moments when I find something in the text that makes me go, THIS – this is me – this is us.

By contrast, when I read non-Japanese, nonwhite people***** writing about Japan, my mindset is not the same as when I read #ownvoices work. Before even picking up the book, I look at the author’s background. What is the nature of their connection to Japan? How did they prepare for this work? What are the chances I will get hurt by reading their work? If the chances seem high, I don’t read it. If I do start reading, I pay close attention to how the author presents Japanese terms, ideas, aesthetics, etc. I also consider the author’s background in relation to their representations of Japanese culture – if something seems jarring, I try to see where they might have been coming from. This isn’t a foolproof method and sometimes I still get hurt, but sometimes I also learn about how other nonwhite cultures intersect with Japan.******

When I read these works, I am not expecting to find myself in the pages. I am not expecting to have moments where I go, this – yes, this is me, this is us. I doubt the non-Japanese author expected their work to be a mirror for Japanese readers in the first place. Also, I do not expect someone without the lived experiences of being Japanese to utilize, much less be aware of, the cultural markers I find in work by Japanese writers. Some things cannot be learned. I do expect non-Japanese, nonwhite authors to put in the work necessary for respectful, nuanced representations of Japanese culture, just as they ought to expect any outsiders writing their cultures to put in the necessary work – but even so, I will never approach these works in the same way I approach #ownvoices Japanese work.

#ownvoices matter because research is no replacement for lived experience. Writers cannot wholly remove themselves from their work. Even if they choose to adopt an alternate “persona” while writing, the choices they make in the creation of said persona will inevitably reflect their own life experiences. People writing outside their lanes don’t and won’t have the life experiences of insiders. This is not something that can be changed. They do, however, have life experiences of their own, from which I’m sure they could craft some kickass #ownvoices stories – but for some reason, they choose to imitate other people’s perspectives instead.*******

The level of arrogance commensurate with this choice – especially by those folks who claim to write so [insert race/ethnicity/culture] readers will see themselves represented – staggers me. Either these writers truly (and wrongly) believe they are capable of writing these stories as well as or better than #ownvoices writers – or they understand their work will never take the place of #ownvoices and do it anyway. I won’t waste time calling the BS of the first reason. The second is just – why? If these writers truly believe their readers from [insert race/ethnicity/culture] would be better served by #ownvoices stories – then where does their own work fit in? If these writers truly believe #ownvoices stories should be elevated above their own – why are they bothering to write their versions in the first place? I fail to see the logic from either a moral or capital perspective. If these writers truly believe #ownvoices stories should be privileged above their versions, are they truly encouraging readers to buy #ownvoices books over their own? Are they truly calling for their sales to decrease? If so, sure, that’s fine – but then why write a book for publication in the first place if they’re just going to discourage people from buying it? Or are they just saying #ownvoices stories should be elevated but secretly believing their versions are interchangeable with #ownvoices? – in which case, I cite the abovementioned BS.

I’ve also seen outsiders trying to write insider stories because “diversity is the real world” or some such reason. Ok, sure – but newsflash: in the real world, you are YOU, not someone from [insert race/ethnicity/culture]. I find this reasoning much more believable – even if I still approach these works with caution because you don’t need to inhabit someone else’s POV in order to create a harmful representation of them – if the POV is #ownvoices but the world is populated by characters of varied backgrounds, i.e. white writer writing from white POV but including nonwhite characters. I’d like to think that writers who understand the difference between “diverse” worlds and “diverse” POVs are at least a little less arrogant and prone to creating harmful rep than writers who jump headlong into a POV that isn’t theirs and splash around in it because it’s pretty or exotic or trendy or moneymaking.

So, why did I just take a giant tangent to rant about outsiders taking on POVs that aren’t theirs and the issues therein? Well, I do think these writers should deeply consider the problems inherent to writing outside their lanes, but more importantly, the existence of these problems is yet another reason why #ownvoices is so relevant to today’s writing scene. #ownvoices writers are already part of the communities they write about. They already understand ways of connecting with #ownvoices readers. They have the background and the experiences to create yes – this is me – this is us moments for #ownvoices audiences. They don’t have to craft a POV from scratch – sure, their work may not be autobiographical, but their real-world experiences help lay the foundation. They know their own preferences re: representation and can choose how to place them in dialogue with their community’s perspectives. In short, their lived experiences as a member of the group being represented inform their representations of that group at macro and micro levels, in ways outsiders will never access or understand.

As a kid, I learned early – so early I only remember knowing it, not actually learning it – to be wary of non-Japanese representations of Japanese culture. It probably helped that I spoke Japanese from the get-go and grew up in a household strongly influenced by beliefs and practices my mom brought with her from Japan, as well as the diaspora Japanese beliefs and practices of my dad’s side of the family. I knew the correct pronunciations of sushi, Tokyo, karate, samurai, etc. – but I didn’t think of them as “correct” – I thought of them as “the pronunciation” because they were what I learned first. I still remember hearing westerners say those words in English and not understanding what they meant because the pronunciation was so badly butchered. I remember a white classmate thinking my last name (my real name, not the one I use here) was pronounced the same as a country in Africa. I corrected him and he asked if he could keep using the name of the African country because it was easier to say. Given this and many other experiences, I’ve never really had faith in the ability of outsiders to get anything “right” about Japan or Japanese culture because they have demonstrated time and again that they can’t – and they don’t care.

Looking back, I wish I had had more exposure to #ownvoices media by diaspora Japanese during my school years. I had plenty of exposure to #ownvoices media by Japan-based Japanese – in fact, probably just as much as I had to western (white)-based media – but I also knew from my time in Japan that Japan-based Japanese relate to Japanese culture very differently than diaspora Japanese. The only diaspora Japanese books I remember reading during that time were Yoshiko Uchida’s books and Shizuko’s Daughter by Kyoko Mori. (There were probably a few others, but I don’t recall the titles.) I was dreadfully disappointed when I realized the writer Lensey Namioka was Chinese, not Japanese – because her books were the first ones I found in English that even came close to showing some understanding of samurai culture as I knew it from Japan-based media – and I so badly wanted Japanese people to communicate this information to western audiences, instead of the stereotyped representations I saw by non-Japanese. For the record, I’m still a Lensey Namioka fan, but I’d also love to see diaspora Japanese create something similar to her Zenta and Matsuzo series. A collaboration between diaspora Japanese and Japan-based Japanese on this topic would also be super awesome!

Suffice to say, there are a lot of reasons, both personal and more wide-reaching, that I support #ownvoices stories over outsider representations. If you’re interested in other perspectives on #ownvoices, I recommend checking out the Resources page. As always, I speak only for myself on this blog, unless otherwise stated. My views aren’t representative of the Galactic Federation of Japanese, or Asians, or nonwhite people, etc, etc. Thanks for reading!

*For the record, I do not hate all white people. While a great deal of harm has been done by white people attempting to represent nonwhite cultures, especially my own, I appreciate how some white people have spoken against such acts and demonstrated awareness of their own privilege. We still have a long way to go re: decolonization and respectful representation, but seeing even a few white people with the potential to work with us toward these goals gives me hope. While it would be nice to see fellow nonwhite people fully in charge for once, short of supernatural means I don’t see us dismantling white hegemony without at least some cooperation from white people. This is not to say I condone white privilege and racism. I do, however, believe in not ignoring white people who indicate via their words and actions that they support equity and inclusivity for nonwhite people. (Note: This is not the same as “diversity” and I give no cookies to white people merely for treating nonwhite people like human beings.)

**If you have chosen to be a published author, don’t pretend you live in a vacuum every time a reader addresses your work, ESPECIALLY if the reader says, “your book hurt me.” Any author who refuses to acknowledge AND make amends for any harm they have caused to readers through their work does not deserve the privilege of having their work circulated to the public.

***#ownvoices writers should also be prepared to respond to readers, if they choose to circulate their work to any audience other than themselves. If an #ownvoices work hurts you, the reader, and you also belong to the group represented, I’m sure the author wants to know so they can do better next time (I know I would, at least). Readers always have the right to speak up about books that cause harm to them. I hope my fellow #ownvoices writers feel the same way about receiving critique from #ownvoices readers. It helps none of us if we made it this far, only to cut ourselves off from insights that are very likely more useful and nuanced than what we might receive from outsiders.

****I have yet to meet a Japanese person who has spent all of their life in Japan but can speak/understand only languages other than Japanese. If they exist, I’d be interested in talking to them, though.

*****I don’t currently read white people writing about Japan. I’ve explained why in other places on this blog, so I won’t elaborate on it here.

******As a Japanese person, I believe there is value in hearing non-Japanese perspectives on Japan, especially with regard to topics like Japanese imperialism. For example, I feel it is absolutely relevant for me to have some understanding of Chinese and Korean perspectives on Japanese imperialism when interacting with my Chinese and Korean friends. Not because we’re necessarily discussing Japanese imperialism, but because, if some passing reference is made to historical tensions between China and Japan, or Korea and Japan, knowing something about Chinese and Korean experiences may reduce the chance I accidentally hurt my friends with a comment from my Japanese perspective.

*******I am referring specifically to outsiders who write from the perspective of something they are not, i.e. white writer writing from Japanese POV.

“One of these things is not like the Other,” or the problem with choosing ‘sensitivity’ readers

I’d like to start off by saying I am excessively proud of the bad pun in the title of this post. I came up with it in the shower and was about to discard it when I realized, why do that when I could INFLICT IT ON THE WORLD instead? So, there it is.

I’ve talked in various places on this blog about how Japanese, Asians, and nonwhite people are not monolithic. Today, I’m thinking aloud (in writing?) about why it is especially important to know this when writing as an outsider.*

In course of drafting and revising my own works-in-progress, I’ve had a number of conversations with fellow Japanese re: representation. One of the most common topics in these conversations is specificity – specifically (see what I did there?), the importance of knowing what your readers can and can’t contribute to your work, versus what you (the writer) want or need readers to contribute. For example, my dad is Japanese, born and raised in the US. He has not lived in Japan for an extended time, nor does he speak Japanese. One of my MCs has a dad. He is Japanese, born and raised in Japan, speaks Japanese, etc. That being said, can my dad vet my representation of my MC’s dad?

Well, yes and no. Yes – they are both dads, they are both Japanese, they both have daughters. No – my dad’s life experiences are mostly contextualized by diaspora Japanese/dominant “American” cultures, while my MC’s dad’s life experiences are mostly contextualized by Japanese culture. In short, my dad has not experienced being a dad in Japan, just as my MC’s dad’s experience is not reflective of being a dad in diaspora Japanese/dominant “American” culture. This doesn’t mean my dad has nothing to contribute to this discussion – I can still ask him for his opinion of my MC’s dad – it just means, I will also need to solicit opinions from Japanese who have experienced being a dad in Japan. My end goal – for my MC’s dad to be a character reflective of Japanese fatherhood in Japan – thus requires vetting from a specific group of Japanese.

I bring this up because I’ve seen a lot of online discussions re: “sensitivity” readers lately. It seems more folks are catching on to the idea their sensitivity reader(s) cannot and should not be expected to be a foolproof method against critiques of representation. I’d like to pull back a level by asking, are writers considering “best fit” when approaching potential sensitivity readers? It’s great to acknowledge your sensitivity readers are human, to be sure, but it’s even better if you choose wisely in the first place and avoid wasting your own and your reader’s time when it turns out they aren’t the best fit for your project.

Confused? Let me rephrase: do you see your sensitivity reader(s) as human first, or as [insert culture/race/ethnicity] first? Just because someone self-identifies as [insert culture/race/ethnicity] does not mean they want to or need to vet your representation of that culture/race/ethnicity. Just because someone self-identifies as [insert culture/race/ethnicity] does not mean they are the best fit TO vet your representation of that culture/race/ethnicity, even if they agree to do so. Maybe they are being nice. Maybe they think they know more than they do. Maybe they fear being called out for lack of “authenticity” if they say no. There are many reasons why someone might feel pressured into being a sensitivity reader for you. As a writer, it’s YOUR job to be as clear as possible about what you need from a sensitivity read – and to be RESPECTFUL of where your potential sensitivity readers are coming from if they express discomfort with reading your work.

But wait, why am I writing about my experiences as an #ownvoices writer in a blog post ostensibly about people writing as outsiders? Well, precisely that – based on outsider representations of Japan I’ve seen, there are levels of nuance of Japanese culture and experience which seem to be simplified and/or overlooked by non-Japanese. I don’t think this is necessarily something outsiders can help – you can’t be expected to know everything about something you have never personally experienced – but at the same time, this fact does not justify misrepresentation.

Every person is unique.

The above statement doesn’t magically vanish because of someone’s racial/ethnic/cultural background. Writers who view their sensitivity readers as representatives of [insert culture/race/ethnicity] first and everything else second are missing the point of having these readers to begin with. From what I’ve seen, writers who are writing outside their lanes are more susceptible to this fallacy than #ownvoices writers.** Writers who play musical chairs with their sensitivity readers – as long as the checkbox for “sensitivity reader” is ticked off, who cares who filled it, right? – have already failed at respectful representation. They are utilizing their readers to validate their insecurities about their work, while completely ignoring and oversimplifying the varied experiences their readers have to offer. In short, they are seeking absolution for their perception of [insert culture/race/ethnicity] as Other, rather than recognizing and attempting to unlearn their privileged perspectives. This is the writer’s version of, “well, this person from [insert culture/race/ethnicity] said [insert racist thing] was OK, so I’m going to ignore everyone else from [insert same culture/race/ethnicity]!”

I chose to share a personal example above because it illuminates one instance of the wide spectrum of Japanese experiences. I am Japanese and I write Japanese stories. But I don’t use my “Japaneseness” or the “Japaneseness” of other Japanese I know as an automatic catch-all for any errors I may make. To ask a Japanese person to vet your representations of Japanese culture purely because they are Japanese is to unfairly and unrealistically expect them to represent your idea of Japanese culture. This is not the same as saying they will have nothing to contribute to your work. If a Japanese person agrees to vet your representations of Japanese culture, they will of course have some insights – but whether those insights match up with gaps/errors on your part is not their responsibility.

As the “diverse” writing scene shifts toward increased emphasis on respectful representations and how to achieve them, I hope writers – particularly outsiders – are thinking deeply about WHY they need sensitivity readers. Simply having a sensitivity reader to tick off a box is insufficient and disrespectful to the reader and the race/ethnicity/culture being represented, not to mention any insiders who may invest in the finished product. If writers are truly committed to respecting their sources, they will recognize the human experiences underpinning their work and actively seek out voices who can speak to these experiences, not merely those who are tangentially related by dint of a label imposed on them by systemic Othering.

Thanks for reading! Other people have discussed sensitivity readers in other places on the internet – please check out the Resources page for their perspectives.

If you already knew all of this because you’re a fellow #ownvoices writer – yay! I’m glad you’re here and I appreciate you taking the time to read my blog. I’ve probably read your blog, too, and/or followed you on Twitter – but if I haven’t, please let me know so I can!

On a final note, I’m not completely satisfied with this post – some of my thoughts on the topic are still developing, so I’ll probably revisit it in the future.

*If you’ve followed my scattered references to my own work, you already know I write #ownvoices stories. I’m writing this post as a member of a culture that gets frequently (and badly) depicted by outsiders. It’s not intended as a lesson – as I’ve said before, I’m not in the business of encouraging outsiders to write Japanese culture to begin with – instead, it’s the latest part of the ongoing conversation I’ve been having with myself and with other #ownvoices writers about representation. If you’re writing outside your lane and you’re reading this, well, I can’t stop you, but know it isn’t for you. There are plenty of places online where you can talk to people about writing outside your lane; this isn’t one of them.

**No, #ownvoices representations are not “perfect” – because even within a race/ethnicity/culture, there will always be differing opinions about how things are and should be. However, I trust #ownvoices writers to be more conscious of these differences and to find ways to acknowledge these differences in their work – much more so than I would trust outsiders to do the same. This goes for both “realistic” and SFF representations – I think outsiders too often fall into complacency by writing off their errors/lack of research/privileged perspectives as, “it’s just science fiction/fantasy/fiction.” Easy for them to say – because at most, they will only ever experience the consequences of their poor representation in the form of a one-star book review. They will never endure the lived experiences that result from such poor representation – slurs, whitewashing, fetishizing, assimilation, etc. When a white person alters a Japanese myth in the name of “fiction,” they perpetuate the westernizing, colonizing, white-supremacist framework that sanctions/creates/encourages/consumes such representations in the first place. When a white person alters a Japanese myth in the name of “fiction,” they are saying the importance of elevating their (white) voice to tell this story is worth the real-life repercussions it will have for Japanese people whose experiences within the western, colonial, white-supremacist culture are shaped by representations like these. This is why, “it’s just science fiction/fantasy/fiction” does not justify misrepresentation. “Fiction” does not exist in a vacuum, no matter how much the (white) writer might wish it. There is a different power dynamic at play when a white writer alters a Japanese myth versus when a Japanese writer alters that same myth. The white writer is much more likely to reveal cultural ignorance in the choices they make about what/how to alter the myth than the Japanese writer because the white writer lacks the cultural perspectives informing the original myth. And yet, white writers continue writing Japan, choosing to ignore or insufficiently interrogate their own privileges in the process. For this reason, I will always support #ownvoices writing Japan over white voices writing Japan.

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?

Dear Academia, Part 1

I’d better preface this post by briefly outlining my educational background, since educational experiences are far from universal. All of my academic education has taken place in the US, from preschool through college. I currently hold a Bachelor of Arts from a west coast liberal arts college. I have no plans at this time to pursue additional degrees. That’s probably all you need to know for the purposes of this post.*

Today, I’m back to wrestle with a question – or a series of questions – which I started to consider during college and to which I continue to seek satisfactory answers as I navigate post-academia life. While I think anyone with an interest or stake in the US education system might find this post worth a read (inasmuch as any of my posts are worth a read, ha), my questions will be directed primarily at professionals in US academia.

Until I reached college, I hadn’t thought much about the origins of the education system I was being put through. It was simply there, a seemingly eternal and immovable framework, meant to guide me from a state of not knowing to a state of knowing something. I didn’t consider who defined “not knowing” or “knowing something,” or how, when, and why they did it. When people I knew talked about volunteering overseas with their church groups, or teaching English in other countries, I accepted both as unquestionably “good” deeds. If “we” had resources and knowledge that “they” didn’t, it was only fair and right for us to share, wasn’t it? “We” would feel good about ourselves; “they” would feel grateful for the opportunities.

Sophomore year of college, those of us in my major were strongly advised to choose an area of specialty. I chose American Indian cultures and histories.** In keeping with the tenets of our methodology course, I sought out books, articles, interviews, oral histories, visual media, websites – basically anything tangible that was not a cultural artifact that I could get my hands on – for my research. I paid close attention to the creators of these source materials and tried to locate Native voices wherever possible, but it wasn’t until I shifted from materials generated BY academia FOR academia to materials generated by NON-academics that I started to question myself.

It was easiest to see in historical, primary accounts – things spoken (and transcribed) and written by people who had lived in eras far different from the one I knew. Sometimes it was how the passage of time was described, or a geographic location. Sometimes it was a cultural practice. Sometimes it was doing a side-by-side comparison of two accounts of the same battle, one from a Native perspective, one from a white perspective. As someone who grew up bilingual and often encountered questions about translation, I started to wonder how much was being distorted or lost in these primary accounts, especially when it was an English transcription of an oral account originally given in a Native language and filtered through an interpreter. If you’ve ever attempted live translation or a multilingual conversation involving parties who only know some of the languages being spoken, you know what a hassle it can be trying to communicate certain points in a way that everyone understands. While I can’t presume to map my personal experiences with translation onto the experiences of Native people who have had their words transcribed and/or translated, I did wonder if any of them had experiences similar to mine. And if they had, then – was there a chance this “primary” source I was analyzing so heavily wasn’t so “primary” after all?

We had, of course, been warned to review every source with a grain of salt, because people distort, omit, forget, embroider, or otherwise record things in a variety of ways for a variety of reasons. But this felt different, somehow. Why?

I went back to my secondary sources and looked for material written by Native scholars. It didn’t take long to find answers.*** I quickly realized certain Native perspectives on colonization differed significantly from how the topic was covered in my classes. Discussions of land usage, reparations, historical trauma, artifact custodianship, tribal governments, reservation life, language preservation, and cultural appropriation (and more) drove home not only the extent to which colonization affected Native peoples, but the fact that it never ended.****

For the next two years, this notion of ongoing colonization floated around in my head. It wasn’t that I was unwilling to acknowledge I, too, was a colonist – for some reason, I never had the knee-jerk NO response to this that some people had when I tried to broach the subject with them – but rather the sense that my understanding of the concept was still missing giant chunks of vital information.

One of these giant chunks fell into place in my senior year, when I chose American Indian boarding schools as my thesis topic. These schools have been written about in-depth from both primary and secondary perspectives, so I won’t elaborate on them here, but suffice to say, it wasn’t a giant leap from looking at the assimilationist tactics used in these schools to looking at the US education system today and seeing some troubling parallels in the ideological frameworks governing both. Below is a partial list of examples:

  • Lessons taught in English
  • ESL lessons
  • Western-centric research methodologies
  • Western-centric academic evaluation standards
  • Western-centric behavioral standards
  • Western-centric “culture” of academia
  • Topics pertaining to nonwhite peoples/cultures taught by (white) outsiders
  • Non-English languages taught by (white) outsiders

If you aren’t sure why these things can be problematic, here are a few specifics. Recall my previous example of an oral account given in a Native language, translated by an interpreter, and transcribed in English. I’ll make a flowchart to illustrate.

Oral account (in Native language) –> oral account (in English) –> written account (in English)

At every transition in the flowchart, there are opportunities for distortion. The number and nature of opportunities also depends on the language level of everyone involved – for example, if the original speaker has some knowledge of English, they may correct the interpreter or the written account. Or, if the interpreter has a low understanding of English, the transcriber may end up omitting or improvising sections of the oral translation that are unclear. Or perhaps the speaker describes a cultural practice or belief system that has no parallel in the interpreter’s culture, so the interpreter makes an inaccurate cultural comparison to try to clarify things for the transcriber. And so on.

Here’s another example. A non-Japanese lecturer is teaching a lesson on Shinto in a US school. He draws a comparison between roadside Shinto shrines in Japan and Christian churches in the US. A student asks what kind of preparation he did for the lesson; he answers that he read Japanese textual sources on Shinto, interviewed Japanese Shinto practitioners, and visited several roadside Shinto shrines in Japan. Let’s do a flowchart.

Primary sources on Shinto – texts/interviews/shrines (in Japanese/Japan) –> lecturer’s translation/analysis of sources (in English) –> lecturer’s lesson (in English)

Again, there are opportunities for distortion at every transition in the flowchart. Did the lecturer correctly translate the Japanese texts? When interviewing Shinto practitioners, was he cognizant of his outsider status and how it might affect the answers he was given? When analyzing his findings, what kind of methodologies did he utilize? Did he account for the fact that western-centric ways of thought do not perfectly map onto all aspects of Japanese culture? How did he account for the resulting “gaps,” both in his analysis and in his accountability as a credible source for his students? What was his reasoning for comparing Shinto shrines to Christian churches?

I am not saying the lecturer in the above example is bad at his job. He could be outstandingly qualified to research and communicate academic information – from a western-centric perspective. The problem arises when he and his fellow academics attempt to fit the source materials to their methodology – and this is where I see fractures in the current US education system. For those of you who choose to work in (US) academia, I have a few questions.

  • What methodologies do you utilize in your research and/or when preparing lessons?
  • If someone challenges your methodology, how do you respond?
  • How do you feel about the methodologies you utilize? Are you satisfied with them? Do you find they fit your needs, or do you constantly reevaluate them?
  • If you are researching or teaching a subject from an outside perspective, how do you acknowledge your outsider status? How do you respond when insiders critique your approach and/or findings?
  • How do you feel about the current US education system? What changes would you like to see? Do you contribute to effecting these changes?

From what I’ve seen, if people in US academia are asking questions like these, they are doing it quietly, in places I mostly can’t seem to find.***** Very few of my college professors ever explicitly asked any of the above questions, at least in my hearing. Instead, we were given the tools to do the very best we could – within a western-centric academic framework. Marginalized perspectives were important – but ought to be evaluated by the same standards used for the “mainstream” narrative. If a source was not documented in a way considered “reliable” by our methodology, we were to consider it suspect. So.

I am not saying that western-centric academic frameworks are fundamentally “bad.” I am, however, saying that western-centric academic frameworks have, in the context of US academia, created a colonial institution designed primarily to favor the dominant (white) culture. The result is a kind of tunnel-vision, but one so thoroughly worked into the foundations of the US education system that many people fail to recognize it as such. All that talk about my college days wasn’t just narcissism – it’s a real-life example of how long it took me to get to where I am now, in terms of understanding both the legacies and ongoing issues of colonization in US academia. And I don’t assume I know it all.

If you’re thinking I hate the US education system – no, I don’t. I’m a product of that system and its effects on me, for better or worse. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post (I know, that was a lot of words ago), I have questions I haven’t found answers to yet. I’d like to know how many professional academics recognize the colonization inherent to US academia. I’d like to know how many professional academics acknowledge their role in this colonization. I’d like to know how many professional academics are actively trying to decolonize their institutions.

A final quick clarifier – I’ve used the term “colonization” broadly in this post, not just in the context of what was done/is being done to American Indian peoples and cultures, but also in reference to the ideologies that underlie the unquestioning (or insufficiently questioned) application of western-centric methodologies to non-western-centric information.******

Thanks for reading! Is it just me, or are these posts getting longer? Next time, I’ll have Part 2 of this series, where I reflect on the connections between what I wrote here and the world of fiction writing.

*In other words, this post will be written in the context of US academia, because it’s the only academia with which I have personal experience. Other people in other places on the internet have discussed their experiences in non-US academia – I highly recommend checking them out if this topic is of interest to you.

**There will be a post explaining this choice, sometime in the future. It’s a bit too long for a footnote or an in-text tangent.

***Unfortunately, I no longer recall the exact individuals whose work I read, but check out the Resources page for links to Native voices I’m currently following. Also, if you ARE researching Native issues from a western-centric standpoint, consider that some of the Native-produced sources you label as “secondary” might also be “primary,” depending on the circumstances. But before you do that, you might want to take a second look at your western-centric perspective to see if it’s really the “best fit” for the material you’re trying to cover. Is it something that might be more accurately represented by an insider perspective? Will there be “gaps” if you try to map your methodologies onto this topic?

****I’m not qualified to discuss these topics from anything other than a colonist’s perspective, so please read what Natives are saying about them.

*****I HAVE found a few, mostly through Twitter. But where are the others? Are they speaking up? Do they choose to stay silent? What motivates their choices?

******The colonization of indigenous peoples on this continent is not the same as the colonial experiences of nonwhite, non-indigenous peoples on this continent. Nonwhite people – both indigenous and non-indigenous – have written about their experiences with colonization on this continent at length in other places on the internet. Please look them up for firsthand accounts. This post is not comparing the colonial experiences of various groups; instead, it is a brief exploration of the colonizing nature of the current US education system, filtered through the lens of my personal experiences.

This Is Not For You

I’ve noticed most writers, though not all, have at least one post on their website/blog about why they write. I enjoy reading these posts, so I decided to do one of my own, in case anyone asks me the same question.

I started my first story when I was in fifth grade. The book that inspired me was Tamora Pierce’s Alanna, The First Adventure.* I loved many things about Alanna – her stubbornness, her work ethic, her no-nonsense approach to life – but at the end of the day, when I tried to imagine myself in her shoes, the only thing we had in common, appearance-wise, was height. No matter how hard I tried, I could only ever imagine being Alanna’s friend, not Alanna herself – and even when I imagined being her friend, I knew on some level I wouldn’t fit in with her world, where no one else looked like me. So, I came up with a solution: I’d create my own story, with a heroine I could imagine being, in a world filled with people who looked like me.

Thus began a story called “Magic,” about a warrior princess who lived in a world curiously similar to that of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.** I was still many years from having my own computer, so the first draft was written in pencil, on binder paper – all 100+ pages of it. I didn’t really think I could ever be a Real Author like Pierce, but I liked my characters and the world I created for them, and I wanted to see what would happen to them, so I kept writing.

Fast forward to today. “Magic” and its sequels and spinoffs have long since been shelved, but my reasons for writing haven’t changed much. My writing patterns are largely defined by the same parameters I used as a fifth-grader: I create some characters and a world, and stick with them until we’re done with each other. Along the way, I’ve learned a lot about the “how” of writing, including research, cultural context and representations (both my own and that of others), publishing and querying processes, reviews, and writing communities. At the end of the day, though, my belief in a story is what keeps me writing. As long as I feel I have something to say, I will continue finding ways to say it. As long as my characters and worlds hold my interest, I will continue to invest time and effort in them. As selfish as it may sound, at the end of the day, I write my stories for me.

But, you say, what about all the social justice-esque, activist-esque posts on this blog? Don’t you care about #ownvoices and resolving inequities for marginalized writers and tackling issues of representation?

Yes, of course I do. And this blog (and sometimes Twitter) is where I express my opinions on these topics. You may notice I don’t post excerpts from my WIP on here. This is deliberate. My fiction writing should not be conflated with my activist-esque writing. Don’t get me wrong, I fully stand behind the views I express on this blog. You may have read the series I posted on writing about Japan from various perspectives – I hold myself to the same standards. But I also believe not all writing by marginalized writers needs to be written with the intention of advocacy – and telling marginalized writers otherwise is merely another form of marginalization. My fiction writing is not a mouthpiece for my activist-esque views. It is informed by my views, but it does not exist to disseminate them to the world. It exists because I enjoy doing it – because I like trying, over and over, from different angles, incorporating different types of information, to write my own story.

I realize my reasons for writing may set me outside mainstream publishing parameters. This is ok. Given the current state of the US publishing industry, I’m not confident it contains spaces for writers like me. I’ll still do what I can to effect change so that marginalized writers who do want to go the mainstream publishing route will have better chances of achieving their goals. I’ll also do what I can to effect change so that marginalized writers who opt out of the mainstream publishing route will have better chances of achieving their goals. These are voices worth hearing, and it doesn’t matter to me how they choose to get heard.

Well, ok, you say, but assuming you ever get an agent and/or publisher, someone will probably ask you about the intended audience for your book. What will you say?

The honest answer is, there is no intended audience, unless you count me, but I’ve always felt being the author of a work puts one in a different space from being a reader of a work, even if one is reading one’s own work. To me, the idea of an “intended audience” requires some expectation on the author’s part that their work will be of value to someone else. Coming from a writing-for-myself-perspective, it’s difficult, if not hypocritical, for me to presume my work will mean something to anyone other than myself. I’m not trying to create windows or mirrors for readers; I’m not trying to convert people to my activist-esque views. Sure, I want readers to have windows and mirrors, and I think it’s past time for change in the areas I advocate for, but this is not why I write.

I’m not saying that if people read my work, they won’t find windows or mirrors, or notice echoes of what I write on this blog – I’m saying, this is not why I write. I don’t mind if people find these things in my writing. I can’t control how people respond to my writing. I just want to be clear on where I, the writer, am coming from.

On a final note, none of the above is meant to undercut writers who write for reasons other than themselves. Although I’m always interested to learn why someone writes, the reason won’t necessarily affect my opinion of their writing.*** People write for all kinds of reasons beyond themselves. I’m not saying writing for yourself is inherently better than writing for other reasons. Just look at the spectrum of writers out there and you’ll see it’s impossible to make any such generalization.

Thanks for reading! Check out the Resources page (links in progress), for additional perspectives on why people write.

*Although in retrospect, I have noticed some problematic cultural representations in Pierce’s books, I still enjoy her work. Other people have written about how to be a fan of problematic things – go check them out if you’re confused by what I said. And yes, I am breaking my general habit of not naming specific authors or books on this blog.

**Full disclosure: she ended up looking nothing like me – instead, she looked the way I would want to look if I was a member of the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon cast trying out for the movie version of Alanna. (I didn’t know the term “fanfiction” at this point, but safe to say I was headed in that general direction with regard to both works.) The story itself was not meant to be Chinese – even at that age, I had a vague sense that writing about things I didn’t really know about was somehow not good – so I created a fantasy world called Khasmai and tried to use non-culturally-specific names for everything. The result still looked a lot like China and I ended up stopping work on the series when I realized I was unwilling to do the required research. (Hint: If you’re writing about a culture different from your own, it’s ok to quit if you realize you’re not up to the task. In my opinion, it’s preferable to proceeding with a half-assed manuscript and then dealing with the backlash when you hurt people with your misrepresentations.)

***Notable exceptions include writers who jump into “diversity for diversity’s sake,” without considering the #ownvoices they are erasing, silencing, or obstructing. This is NOT an ok reason for writing.

10 Reasons I Won’t Be Your Japanese Beta Reader

Hello reader of internets, it’s time for your bi-weekly-ish dose of JA attitude, courtesy yours truly. Today’s post is directed at non-Japanese folks writing about Japan/Japanese culture, but may also be useful if you’re a Japanese person who has been or is considering being a cultural beta reader.*

Generally speaking, if you’re a non-Japanese person writing about Japan/Japanese culture and you ask me to be your cultural beta reader, I will say no without a second thought.** Below are the top ten reasons why:

  • I am not your token cultural insider

o   I will not be the person you point to and say, “SHE approved it and SHE’S Japanese!” when your work is criticized for its cultural representations

o   Nor will I consider being the ONLY cultural beta reader on any project

  • I am not an expert in the area(s) you want feedback on

o   My knowledge of Japan/Japanese culture is a combination of my lived experience and research I have conducted for my own purposes – your work is unlikely to map onto these areas point for point – and even if it did, apart from being creeped out, I’d still tell you to get more than one cultural beta

o   I do not possess an advanced degree from the hallowed halls of colonial academia – if you care about these things

  • I am not a researcher-for-hire

o   This blog and the occasional tweet are about as much investment as I’m currently willing to make in your work

o   Do not use me to verify things you did not first try to verify on your own – I will ask for evidence of research. If I feel you tried insufficiently hard, I’ll tell you so – and I won’t offer any feedback until you do your part.

  • I am not your scapegoat

o   I will not be the person you blame to avoid your own accountability

o   If you are truly committed to writing about Japan/Japanese culture, you are also truly committed to accepting criticisms about your representations of Japan/Japanese culture. If you disagree with the second thing, might I suggest finding something else to write about?

  • I am not your faceless POC robot

o   I will not be the person you enlisted so you or your publisher could tick a box

o   If I agree to be a cultural beta reader for you, it is a two-way road. I will expect to be able to get to know you and I will expect you to do the same for me. And I will reserve the right to terminate the agreement at any point if I feel you are not honestly representing yourself or your intentions with regard to my culture.

  • We have differing ideas about the parameters of the writer/beta relationship

o   In other words, you won’t be getting any extra labor out of me for free. Chances are, you won’t be getting any extra labor out of me for any price. See the bullet point about not being a researcher-for-hire.

  • Your reasons for writing about Japan/Japanese culture don’t hold up

o   Anime/manga fan with little to no idea of what Japan is like outside of these mediums? Tend to use “-senpai” and “kawaii” in your otherwise all-English daily vocabulary? Yeah no.

o   You “feel” you are Japanese – when you aren’t. Yeah no.

o   You “admire” Japanese culture. Do you admire white culture? Yeah no.

o   You want to write “diversely” – take a look at the “diversity” you are representing in your work. For example, if you are writing from a JA perspective – are you JA? How much time have you spent in JA communities? What can you tell me about JA cultures and communities without looking at any external sources? Now tell me about the external sources you did consult. In detail.

o   And the all-important question: what exactly is this story that only you can tell?

  • You fucked it up too badly for me to even want to read your work

o   I will not commit to being your cultural beta until AFTER reading sample pages. And by sample pages, I mean you will send me your entire manuscript and I will randomly read selections – so don’t think you can get away with polishing chapter one and keeping the racist garbage in chapters two through whatever.

  • Your social media accounts/other public persona indicate you are a racist asshole

o   No, following me on Twitter will not endear you to me, especially if I go to your feed and it is full of white people whitesplaining life.

  • You are not worth my time/emotional investment/mental health

o   This reason is probably at the core of the other reasons listed in this post – to be a beta reader is ultimately to be in a position of greater knowledge but lesser power.

o   In other words, even if I’m right and you’re wrong, you’re the one who decides what goes on the page. At the end of the day, YOU are still the one with the power to hurt ME.

o   Other people have said in other places on the internet that it takes WORK to be a beta, especially when you are beta-ing because you have an inside perspective on something. This is entirely true.

o   So then, to see subjects that form the core of your being and the foundation of your identity, carelessly thrown at the page like a drunken dart game is – well, how do you think it feels?

o   Here’s where history sucker-punches you. In my personal reading experience, non-Japanese authors have an atrocious track record when it comes to depicting Japan/Japanese culture. The racism I have encountered is partly perpetuated by depictions like these. So, sorry-not-sorry, but I’m not going to be your Japanese beta reader today.

You may have noticed I used “you” a lot in the above list, rather than “your work.” This is because I believe writers need to be held thoroughly accountable for their representations of marginalized peoples and topics, especially when writing from outside those experiences. That book did not just wink into being. A human wrote those words, another human repped them, another human edited them. I don’t believe in pulling punches or sugarcoating. If you did wrong, you did wrong, and I am going to tell you so. You, not your book. And I will expect you to do better next time, if you choose to write again.

This post is just one JA’s opinion. It by no means applies to all Japanese people or even all JAs. WE ARE NOT A MONOLITH. But do remember, no matter what your stance on cultural betas, YOU as the writer will ultimately be held accountable for any and all cultural (mis)representations in your work. (In other words, regardless of whether I or other Japanese people were your cultural betas, I’ll still call you out if you screw up.)

Thanks for reading! Check out the Resources page for thoughts in a similar vein!

*If you’re a Japanese person writing about Japan/Japanese culture and you want a beta reader, talk to me! (Yes, it’s totally a thing to have beta readers from your own culture because none of us know EVERYTHING ALL THE TIME EVER ABOUT JAPAN. I have trusty Japanese betas inside and outside Japan. That said, depending on the scope of your work, I think it’s probably possible to be a Japanese person writing about Japan and not consult cultural betas, though I imagine you’ll still have to do some degree of research. For example, Murakami Haruki’s novels strike me as the type of work he wouldn’t necessarily need cultural betas for, but I would be surprised if he also did zero research. I did hear – but haven’t confirmed – he was criticized for stereotyping the residents of a certain Japanese village, so, if true, just goes to show you don’t – and shouldn’t – get a free pass regardless of your background/status.)

**Possible exceptions: if I know you personally AND I don’t think you’ll make a total hash of it; if you’re a nonwhite writer WITH a social media history/other public persona indicating you are not a racist asshole; if you’re a white writer…sorry, find someone else.