Diversity Panel - RWA Conference
Thanks to Elizabeth Rolls & Bronwyn Stuart for the photo.
Hi everyone, so last weekend was the Romance Writers of Australia annual conference.
I was asked to be part of the panel talking about Diversity in Fiction - or more to the point, the lack of.
I was joined by Renee Dahlia-Geelen, MV Ellis and Dr. Amy Mathews.
It was a big subject and we had a short amount of time.
Because of that , I thought I'd post my part of the talk.
So, here it is if you're interested.
I’m discussing the lack of ethnic diversity not just in romance, but in fiction and film as well.
Today I’m concentrating on the lack of Asian diversity (b/c me).
We are all on different paths. I’m drawing on my own observations and experiences and I’m aware that they could differ greatly from yours. Hopefully something will resonate.
Stories have from the beginning been used to help us explain and understand the world around us and our place within it. From creation myths to fairytales to the heroic code of legends – they’ve taught us universal values such as what it is to love, to hate, to hope and be brave and overcome adversity. They’ve shown us joy and sorrow and in many ways revealed to us what it is to be human.
Our world may have changed since the old stories were told orally around campfires but the essence is the same. Everyone of us here has our own voice to which we add to the ongoing narrative. In our stories we reflect on the universal themes, personal identity, belonging and again, what it is to be human.
People have an innate need to see themselves reflected as a positive part of a society and if it’s not there, that’s when things can get a bit twitchy.
The concept of windows and mirrors in fiction.
A window allows us to look inside and see a world or a culture we may not have experienced before. However if the glass is smeared with misinformation and stereotypes the picture we see is distorted. In a mirror we see a reflection of who we are, in a book or film we can see aspects of ourselves within a character and identify with them. When representation is constantly missing it can cause a sense of alienation – that we are not a valued part of society, that we are lacking; and this basically just messes with your head.
Some of us here have been racially bullied. The general gist is that you should go back where you came from because you’re not worthy enough to be here. Unfortunately, over time you may accumulate many of these little jabs or pinpricks as I call them. You can choose to let them infect your skin or toughen it up either way the memory of them is there. So when you take your personal experience and then add it to the broader problem of lack of representation – the idea of being excluded and invisible because you are lacking and not worthy can reinforced.
Growing up, with the exception of Mr. Sulu from Star Trek and reruns of The Samurai, I didn’t see anyone on T.V. that vaguely resembled me. To counteract that, as a teenager I spent a lot of time watching Asian cinema and I still do. Jump to now; it’s a bit better, but there’s certainly room for improvement. There are voices out there but not as many as there could or should be.
Goodreads – Under Popular Asian Romance Books there are listed 119 stories. Now of course this isn’t a comprehensive list of everything available but it does illustrate how few books there are in comparison to general romance as a whole.
Personally, I don’t like the idea of being shunted into a sub genre. For me, a character is a character and it shouldn’t matter what ethnic mix they are. Love is love, skin is skin and we all pretty much feel the same in the dark. I think dividing stories up into ethnic divisions only bring about more awkwardness.
Asian diversity in romance books is few and far between. Yes, we have some wonderful voices like Jeannie Lin and Kevin Kwan but there is certainly room for more.
In our quest of writing more diverse, well rounded characters we must also be aware of the time old stereotypes and try to avoid them. Again there is a long list but I’ve just pick out a handful.
Asian women are generally fetishized where historically men not so much.
Here are some old stereotypes that just need to go away.
Dragon lady – Clever, powerful, calculating, malicious and possibly evil incarnate.
China doll – young, delicate, naïve, submissive and subservient. She’s the fragile lotus that needs saving and protecting.
The flip side to the China doll is the Cheated Chinese Princess (at least that’s what I call her). She’s street wise, callous, tough and world weary. She’s the street kid, gang member or prostitute who is trying to survive.
Tiger mum – She expects her children to excel in their studies, even at the expense of their hobbies, friends and down time. She pushes them to breaking point.
The Guys -
He’s portrayed as the nerd or comic relief.
He’s academically brilliant but socially inept. This one can tie into the previous point.
He’s so rigidly bound to family/tradition to the point of self sacrifice. He will sacrifice his heart to do what his family expects of him.
He’s seen as emasculated and weak (a follower and never an alpha). This last point is one of the most problematic when it comes to romance heroes as most (not all) heroes are seen as alphas.
Thessaly La Force wrote a compelling article for the New York Times last year. It’s quite long but worth the read. I added a quote at the end of this but here’s the link to the full article.
Like me, Ms La Force is half white/half Chinese. Her article is concentrating on film and T.V. however; I believe that many of her points can be applied to fiction as well.
Whitewashing and Yellow Face
I just wanted to touch on this subject. If you Google you’ll find a depressingly long list of movies where this has occurred.
I just grabbed two examples -
In 1938, the German-American actress Luise Rainer won an academy for her portrayal of the Chinese peasant, O-lan in the adaptation on Pearl S. Buck’s – The Good Earth.
In the role in Rainier wore a black wig and “facial inlays” to camouflage her Caucasian features, and in which she allegedly was originally set to wear a rubber mask to better achieve the “Chinese look.”
Producers of The Good Earth allegedly decided to use a predominately white cast because they deemed that American audiences would be unprepared for a feature film starring an ensemble cast led by Asian actors.
2017 - Ghost in the Shell - From the Japanese anime
Protagonist – Motoko Kusanagi = Scarlett Johansson
The screenwriters take on it was that it was an artificial body therefore she didn’t have to be Asian.
The Asia Times wrote: "The original is about as Asian as things get: Japanese cult manga, ground-breaking anime, Hong Kong-inspired locations, Eastern philosophy-based story. Most of that's been downright ignored with its big-screen adaptation, and Scarlett Johansson's casting as the dark-haired, obviously originally Asian lead sent netizens into a rage.
When it comes to whitewashing in film I believe the backlash (which can be nuclear at times) comes from the fact that one of the few characters that you identified with or even loved has been taken away and morphed into something that is barely recognisable as often the source material has been ignored or tampered with.
From a New York Times Article –
Why Do Asian-Americans Remain Largely Unseen in Film and Television?
By Thessaly La Force
Nov. 6, 2018
And so it all comes back to how we are allowed to see ourselves on the screen: worker bees but not the inventor. Comical helpmeets but never the alpha. Filial sons and daughters who have abandoned emotional fulfillment in order to satisfy our parents.
These stereotypes are, not incidentally, the absolute inverse of the types and tropes celebrated in American cinema: the rebel, the bad boy, the iconoclast, the prankster. The people we worship in our popular culture — from James Dean to Steve Jobs, Marilyn Monroe to Princess Diana — don’t play by the rules. It’s a Western myth that those we love distinguish themselves by their differences, that their faults are their virtues.
Asians are seen differently: pathetic perfectionists who never got the meaning of life, who’re unable to live with abandon and therefore with romance. And that is why we will never be compelling enough to be the hero in your eyes.