The very first book I ever wrote was a space adventure. I was 12, going on 13. I'd recently discovered the delights of sci-fi (thanks to the Wishbone book Unleashed in Space, an adaptation of Jack Williamson's classic Legion of Space, which led me down a rabbit hole of old school sci-fi). I wanted nothing more than to partake in the intrepid journeys across the stars, so I did what any creatively minded tween would do: I wrote self-insert fanfic. Except in my head, it was original because, of course, my ship had a different name, and my crew was unique. The main character was, of course, a brave renegade of a commander. And the second most important character? His clever tween daughter, along for the ride. Hence the self-insert.
Except something funny happened on the way to sci-fi-land: I whitewashed the character who was supposed to me... I whitewashed myself. The commander, of course, had to be a chisel-jawed white guy who bore a strong resemblance to Kevin Sorbo (I'd also recently discovered Hercules on TV). And his daughter? A dead ringer for a tween Natalie Portman. I cast a white girl as myself (yes, I know that Natalie Portman is Jewish... at the time I thought she was white-white, and that's part of the point of this post). Heroes were white. Protagonists were white. So if I wanted to come along for the space ride, the fictional version of me had to be white. I thought nothing of it... This was just the way things were. Girls who actually looked like me? They had no place on starships, and I accepted it. I didn't even realize I was accepting it... it just was.
Fast forward a decade or so. I'd just graduated college and wanted to try the whole writing thing again. And once again, I wanted to write a space adventure (because space adventures are AWESOME). I got into the whole thing because a good friend of mine, who'd studied creative writing in college, wanted to dive into a new book project, but missed the community (and motivation) that her classes had provided her. So I volunteered to be her one-woman critique group. She thought it'd be more fun to swap writing, and I thought, "what the heck." Since I was doing this whole writing thing purely for fun, I was gonna compose yet another out-of-this-world adventure across the stars... except I'd work a bit harder to be original and, you know, write an actual book instead of another thinly veiled self-insert fanfic.
And once again, something funny happened on the way to sci-fi land: every primary character ended up white. Not because I was consciously deciding to make them white, but because that's just the way things were. Sci-fi characters were white. Maybe black now and then. Definitely not Asian. Never Asian. (I'd only watched Star Trek: The Next Generation at this point, so no Sulu or Kim in my memories to show me otherwise). There wasn't any blatant self-insert this time, but my main character was loosely inspired by people I knew, almost all of whom were Asian, and had a background as a musician that drew upon my own experiences.
So naturally, she wound up a dead ringer for Anne Hathaway.
My friend, meanwhile, was writing a dystopia starring an Asian teen girl. I remember thinking, "Well, that's kind of weird, but okay, it's her book." And when I read her manuscript, it felt... almost unnatural... to be reading a pretty general YA dystopia (not one set in post-apocalyptic Beijing or anything) with an Asian girl as the lead. Somewhere in my subconscious, tucked so deep it never even occurred to me to consider, I believed that you could only have Asian protagonists if you were writing an Asian book... something specifically about the Asian experience (like Joy Luck Club).
My friend joked that her main character physically resembled me. So I thought I'd get her back by having one of my characters physically resemble her. Not the main character of course--that would involve making her Asian, and Asian girls don't go to space!--but a secondary character who'd originally been written as a blond bombshell. The character was an interstellar pop star, and her attractiveness was often remarked upon.
So how did I describe her? "Exotic." Of course. Didn't you know that's how you describe Asian beauties? Especially when you're writing a space book with no recognizable geographies, and you need some way to signal "Asian" to your audience?
I had no idea that by using that word, I was perpetuating a colonialist stereotype that fetishized Asian women. Just like I had no idea that mentally casting Anne Hathaway as my main character was a way of erasing my own Asian-ness. It just was. You breathe air, you drink water, you cast white people as sci-fi protagonists, and you describe attractive Asian women as "exotic." That's how the world works.
Except it's not. And on some level, I knew that. It started bugging me more and more... why was I using the word "exotic"? And if my friend, who was East Asian like me, could write a sci-fi book with an East Asian lead, why couldn't I?
I ended up taking out the word "exotic" and replacing it with more descriptive adjectives (what the hell does "exotic" look like anyway? Everything is exotic from someone's point of view). As for the main character... It still felt weird, almost unnatural, for her to be Asian. Especially since there was nothing explicitly Asian about the book. It was a space adventure with evil robots and faraway planets and dogfights between the stars, inspired by a hundred other space adventures, written mostly by white dudes. In other words, it "reads white."
Except... I wrote it.
So I compromised with myself... I'd make her biracial. Half me and half white, because she has to have some grounding in what's acceptable. I realize now that this line of thinking is super insulting to actual biracial people, and for that, I apologize. I honestly didn't know any better.
Now, this was back before #WeNeedDiverseBooks trended. This was before I was even really on Twitter. Diversity wasn't a topic that ever crossed my mind.
Having my main character's celebrity lookalike be Chloe Bennet instead of Anne Hathaway changed nothing about her personality. Or the way she was described, really. The only signifier of her ethnicity was her mother's Chinese last name. Meanwhile, her name twin is an Englishwoman.
By the way, I'm talking about Jane Colt, protagonist of my first published novel, Artificial Absolutes. The stock photo model on the cover is a white girl with dark hair--a photo I approved because I figured, "close enough." It's not like stock photo libraries are teeming with Eurasian models. I suppose we could have gone with a model-less cover, but I have a thing about faces on books... I've always loved them, and I wanted one badly... for all I knew, this would be the only book I'd ever publish (HAH!), and I wanted a face (to me, it speaks to the character-driven nature of the story). So I compromised. Again. Also, the pop star character is Sarah DeHaven, described as East Asian but still bears her blond-bombshell name.
What a mess.
The next book I wrote was a YA dark fantasy. My sister and I were joking around one night, and we decided that I should write the main girl character to look like her so she could be cast in a movie version. The main girl character wasn't the main main character (who was an "All American" white boy)--she was the Hermione to his Harry--so I was like, "haha, fine." It felt weirdly subversive, writing a central character who resembled my own sister.
I took it to the next level with the thing I wrote after that. The protagonist and narrator would be East Asian. I was really being subversive this time! How sad is it that writing a character who shared my ethnicity felt revolutionary? And yet, it still felt weird, almost unnatural. The book was just a regular ole teen sci-fi novel, after all. It was set in Future United States, not Future China or anything. There were no tiger moms or concubines or anything.
That book eventually became Starswept, which one reader implied wasn't Asian enough to count as
"diverse." I beg your goddamn pardon. And what's sad is, I'm sure this person wasn't alone in thinking that. They were just the only one boneheaded enough to put it in writing.
All these things I just talked about were written before diversity became "a thing" in publishing (especially YA publishing). Just using the name my mother gave me instead of a pen name felt like a risk. I still wonder if I should have gone with initials and an English-sounding surname.
Looking back just a few years later, I realize just how much colonialism's history affected my writing. Colonialism depended on the idea that white was superior, and that if you wanted to be worthy but weren't lucky enough to be white, at the very least, you should act white. And in my case, that meant writing white. Or feeling like not writing white was some freakish thing to do.
The writing, of course, was just a manifestation of a mentality that speaks of the world I grew up in. My parents were Chinese immigrants, but I was born here. And as a kid, I wanted to fit in--like every other kid. I was the only Asian person in my class. I was the weird, exotic one. I quickly learned to hide the Chinese snacks my parents packed me so no one could wrinkle their noses at them. I didn't want to take Chinese lessons because I didn't see the point... I was American. And if that meant whitewashing myself, so be it.
It wasn't until my mid-twenties that I realized how screwed up that way of thinking was. De-colonizing myself and my own way of thinking has been an ongoing process. Just the other week, my mom brought me a large box of green tea and lychee pastries from China. I protested, saying I couldn't possibly finish them, and she said, "Bring them to your coworkers!" I immediately balked. They'll think those snacks are disgusting, I thought. Just like my classmates did. They'll think I'm disgusting. But she'd met me during my lunch break, and I had no choice but to go back to the office with all these snacks in tow. And since I couldn't exactly hide them, I reminded myself that I wasn't a little kid anymore and shouldn't fear sharing my weird Chinese snacks. So I put them out on my desk. And they were a total hit--my coworkers thought they were awesome and delicious.
Of course they did. Our office is in NYC, where new and different foods are celebrated.
Yet I couldn't shake that lingering fear of being seen as weird and gross. Just like I still can't shake that lingering fear of being seen only as an Asian author, not as, well, just an author. Who sometimes writes Asian characters, and sometimes doesn't. Who sometimes draws upon Asian experiences, and sometimes just wants to write a Western-style space adventure, because she grew up with the same Star Wars movies as her white peers.
Now, with every new project, I always question myself at the planning phases. What am I writing because I made a conscious decision, and what am I writing because that's just the way things are? Because nothing's absolute; despite how it feels, nothing just is. And if it feels that way, that's because it's the dominant narrative--the narrative put in place by colonists generations ago. A fish doesn't feel water, but that doesn't mean water's absolute.
I'm doing my best to see the water. It's an ongoing challenge; it's not one with a set endpoint. I'm doing my best to reflect that awareness in my life and in my writing. Of course, I'm far from perfect. I still make mistakes, most of them because I don't know what I don't know. But I hope, that by continuing to try, try, try, I can keep chipping away at the colonialist attitudes that once had me erasing and whitewashing myself.
It still feels odd to read a sci-fi book with a non-white lead. Odd in a good way, but still. I'd rather it be mundane. I'd rather there be so many sci-fi stories with non-white leads that it just isn't a thing anymore. It becomes natural; it becomes part of the water you don't see. But we still have a long, long, long, long way to go until we reach that day.