Chinoiserie is just another way that racism sells fiction.

I saw a comment on a Facebook thread which asked, “why do we have so many Japanese and Chinese science-fiction protagonists and authors featured, and fewer Indian ones?”

My response, built off my many years studying the history of art, and speculative fiction, along with my experience in the industry as a writer and publisher, and conversations I’ve had with many, many, authors and readers:

Because Chinese/Japanese authors and stories fall into the currently acceptable version of the same recurring Chinoiserie* that Western audiences have been buying since the 1600s. It’s Orientalism, really; the idea that certain kinds of Asian culture/fiction or writers of specific Asian descent share an aesthetic which is more “delicate”, more “refined”, more “exotic”, than Western styles but not too much so. We’re allowing an archetype (of that highly educated, polite, non-politcal, poetic, Asian, the one who would have counted up on your gold on his abacus or played soft music for you while another one poured a perfect cup of tea) to be bought, promoted, and win awards because it makes us (the Western, white, “us”) feel more diverse, while still not being threatened. Some Koreans or Singaporeans are okay, depending on the tale. That’s why only a certain kind of story is being bought by most publishers right now. The other type of Asians, the ones writing about the culture and stories of people from the Philippines, Vietnam, India (especially outside the cities), Laos, and so on — well, that feels too “tribal” to most Westerners. Too “other”. Too much like Mexican or African stories, and so it doesn’t get published.

Look at the award lists for the Hugo, Nebula, Andre Norton, Campbell, or even the Science Fiction and Fantasy Translation Awards… where Asians are nominated or win, what percentage are Chinese/Japanese? Can you think of an author of Asian descent who’s won a major SFF award who wasn’t Chinese or Japanese? (The few Asian authors we’ve lauded, that I can think of, are either Korean, which most Westerners think of as China-lite, or are women, because we expect them to be more delicate, more respectful, more graceful, more Oriental, and so, more acceptable.)

The long-form winner of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Translation Award was translated from Chinese in 2013. And 2012. Including it’s inaugural year, 2011, no Asian work was even on the long list that wasn’t Chinese or Japanese. No Asian author has won, or made the shortlist for, the Best Novel Hugo, but we’ve recognized white authors writing about China: McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang, Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, for example.

Look at the sort of stories we read, buy, and will only accept from even authors who aren’t of Chinese or Japanese descent: retold Chinese myths, dragon/carp/phoenix tales, Emperors, concubines and geisha, martial artists… We buy imagery that includes tea ceremonies and lotuses, cherry blossoms and samurai swords, jade, silk, kimono, brush-painted letters, origami, rice paper screens. Set it in the future, set it in space, retell it in the Singularity, sure, but it’s got to hold on to that classic Chinese sensibility. (Firefly, anyone?)

As the objects which were originally prized made their way, as descriptions or depictions of those objects, into art and literature, that commodity fetishism eventually (and now) implied cultural and historical significance into the imagined lives of those objects — and by extension, those people. After all, Chinoiserie was about collecting the “curios” of a place when importing the people (as servants, slaves, exotic mistresses) wasn’t always affordable.

I’m not saying that those authors don’t deserve to be recognized. Of course they do. It’s so rare we give out the big SFF awards to anyone who isn’t white that pretty much every one else is a victory for diversity. Yay! But let’s not kid ourselves that we’re truly celebrating the range of humanity.

I can’t blame the Asian authors, who try to write other things and get told it won’t sell, or who submit other types of stories only to have them rejected in favor of the “popular” tropes. I can blame the readers who don’t look for anything more, or worse, don’t realize their error when they assume this is what all Asian fiction must be like. I can blame the publishers who profit off racism by catering to this illusion.

But instead of looking for who to blame, I’d ask you to seek out those who’re getting it right by writing and publishing more than the expected/accept tropes. Find stories about American-born Asians who’re struggling with the disconnect between their middle-class life here, and their grandfather’s upbringing in a jungle. Find stories about Mongolian settlers raising lizard-horse hybrids on a faraway planet, or Cambodian techs programming a new utopia. Seek out Sri Lankan authors, and Filipinos, and Laotian. (Start here. Or here. Or here. Or here.)

They’re out there, and they’re amazing.

* Not sure what Chinoiserie is? It’s defined as “a style in art (as in decoration) reflecting Chinese qualities or motifs; also :  an object or decoration in this style” and “reflecting fanciful and poetic notions of China”. This is a Google image search on the term; here’s the Getty’s 2004 exhibit “Imaging the Orient“. Read “Chinoiserie is Clearly French for ‘Hella Tacky’“, this post about Anna May Wong/Chinoiserie in 1920’s Film, “Imperial Glaze on China“, for a quick perspective. For a longer read, check out Ma, Sheng-mei, Deathly embrace: Orientalism and the Asian American identity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

“A key point: chinoiserie as not just a european appropriation and adulteration of chinese imagery and artistry, but also a form that is produced by chinese people/chinese-americans to appeal to and satisfy the palates of whites. chinoiserie also relies on stereotyping china and on racializing art forms.” – notes in a diasporic tongue

Writing Process Blog Tour

Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam invited me to join this blog relay on writing craft. Her post is here.

1. What am I working on?

I’ve got three big projects right now, as well as a couple of short stories I need to revise, and my editing work. I’m concurrently writing two novels and compiling a mosaic novelette of SF poetry. The working titles are:

  • Sonnets for the Rocket Queen – 144 Shakespearean-style sonnets about love, loss, and space ships.
  • Shades of Gray – first person, female protagonist, modern day, ghost story. Urban fantasy without the tramp stamp. Miéville noir with a female lead.
  • Caudal Ballad – third person PoV, multiple protagonists, surreal/interstitial. Borges meets Nabakov, with traces of Burroughs and Poe.

Shades and Caudal are set in the same universe, same town, at the same time, and explore a series of events from very different perspectives. They don’t need to be read together.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

No one else has read what I read, in exactly the same way, or lived my life, or shares my exact sense of humor. That’s true of all of us. For that alone, I’d like to think what I write is different. When you add to that mix that I write because I have a story in my head I want to get out — instead of for fame, money, respect, or notoriety — and that if I’ve read the same story elsewhere I no longer want to write it, then what I do produce fits into a small space occupied by not much else.

3. Why do I write what I do?

Have you ever read something and thought, “Oh, yeah, that is true”? You learn some fact you didn’t know before, but based on everything else you know, this thing makes sense. I love to read fiction that has that resonance of truth, and I don’t want to put any of my own writing out into the world unless it speaks to me in the same way. It has to answer a question, or provide a viewpoint which clarifies a confusion you didn’t even know you had. I want to feel more alive, more knowledgeable, when I’ve finished a piece of reading. Even if the knowledge is sad.

I’m also interested in mixes of genres or the places where multiple genres lean against each other. I think that when you work in solid, simple, mainstream, genres, whether it’s literary or epic fantasy or hard science fiction, you’re more likely to be retreading the same old ground. There are stories which slip between the cracks, tales that don’t quite fit, and are therefore told a lot less often. Those are the stories I want to tell.

4. How does my writing process work?

My current writing process was developed over years of failing to produce consistent work. Ideas, I have. Ideas are easy. They’re everywhere. I’m lucky that my subconscious, what I call my lizard brain, is strong enough that I can decide I want to work on a story, spend a little time thinking about it, and then move on to another task, another piece of writing. Meanwhile, my lizard brain will keep writing, until one day, it taps me on the shoulder and says, “Here you go.”

The hard part is always writing it down. I’m chronically overbooked, overworked, and exhausted. I don’t have time to read for pleasure, be with my family the way I’d like. So, how do I find time to write?

I carefully manage what I have, and the rest I need, I steal. The managing comes from being organized — two white boards at home, online spreadsheets, Field Notes books in my bags to scribble down thoughts, post-it notes on the wall, documents saved to Drive so I can work on them anywhere. I manage my time like I structure my writing, so I’ve got spreadsheets for how much time is spent on each freelance project, to do lists, and even my daily word count.

Doing that means I’ve got everything I’ve written down whenever I want it, and knowing whether I’ve spent enough time on other projects that day tells me how much I have left for writing. If it’s not enough to get out the part of the story I’m ready to write down, I take what I need from other places. I write instead of going out. I write instead of getting to bed on time. I write on my lunch breaks, before work, while watching tv, during dinner. Not all of those times every day, but whatever I need to make sure that every day, I am writing.

I’m a better writer because of it, and I think that I more fully enjoy the times I spend with my family, partner, friends because I know what I give up to write, and what I give up to be with them. I cherish everything. To me, making time to write feels like having it all.

* I was supposed to tag two more writers who’d then complete this meme and pass it on. Instead, I am tagging all of you. Write your own posts, and leave me a comment with the link so I can go read yours too.


#YesAllWomen, Because

When the UCSB shooting happened on May 23, and it became clear that the Elliot Roger acted not because of racism, or political terrorism, but out of misogyny and hate which no one else successfully cured him of, people began to use the #YesAllWomen hashtag on Twitter to talk about why not all men are awful, but yes, all women experience some form of sexual harassment.

I didn’t join in, not at first, even though it’s a subject we should all talk about. I have talked about it, a bit, in posts like this one, but that’s not enough. As long as there are still big groups of people, men and women* both, who think a woman owes something to the men around her simply because she’s female, this is a conversation that we need to have.

And, it is dangerous to have this conversation, when you’re in a female body. For the last week, men have stood up and said, “No more”, and whether the people around them agreed or not, they generally were insulted but not threatened. When women have said, “No more, and here’s my experience,” they have often been not only insulted, but threatened with violence, and with rape. Because, how dare they, some men think. We should be so flattered, so lucky to have men find us attractive, that complaining is offensive to them. When I posted last year about sexual harassment at cons, some of the reactions included people talking online about how I must have invented my experiences, because (those men thought) I wasn’t nearly attractive enough to be the kind of girl who got sexually harassed. My friend Mercedes wrote this post about the reaction threats she got after using the hashtag to make two comments on Twitter last week.

Two comments. Two.

I won’t link to everyone else who’s written eloquently about their own experiences. You should go find them, and read them, and see a little more clearly how our world works. This post is about sharing mine, because I respect the others who have spoken up, and I don’t want them to be standing up alone.

I’m putting the next part behind a cut, and warn you that it’s triggering, for all the things you can imagine might be next. 


Editing Sale!

I’ve got to get Issue Two of Lakeside Circus out, which means paying our contributors. We’re not yet fully funded through our subscriptions, so I’m running a brief sale on my editing services.

50% off any single project up to 40,000 words and 25% off any project over 40,000 words

This is a first-come, first-serve, sale. To take advantage of it, you must book and pay the deposit on your project. (Projects under $100 are payable in advance; all others require a 50% payment before the project begins, with the remainder due on a schedule agreed to by both parties.)

You can learn more about my services and usual rates here, which includes a contact form. Want to know what others think of my work? Today’s praise from a client:

I have enjoyed working with Carrie Cuinn, tremendously.  Her work ethic, professionalism and editing skill are second to none.  When presented with extremely tight deadlines, she came through and provided us with exactly what we were looking for.  I look forward to working with her again in the future on many different projects! – Howard S., Animal Media Group


Current State of the To Be Read Pile, May 2014

I spent part of the weekend sorting and assembling my current reading list. I’m limiting myself to actual print books at the moment because my backlog is enormous, and because my ebooks tend to be fiction: short story collections and novels. Right now, I want to focus on reading to fill in the gaps in my education, support my academic research, and finish a bunch of reviews for books I’ve already read (which means going over them again).

Some of these are books I’ve had for a couple of years; a big group of them are from my recent excursion to the annual library book sale. I’ve sorted them by my goals, not by the order in which I expect to read them.

Literary Studies (aka, Carrie’s Build Your Own MFA Program)

The Aleph and Other Stories, Jorge Luis Borges
The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer; trans. by Frank Ernst Hill (1932 edition)
The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain, ed. by Charles Neider
Alan Moore’s Writing for Comics, volume 1
The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics, Dennis O’Neil
Moby Dick, Herman Melville
Virtual Unrealities, the Short Fiction of Alfred Bester
12 Classics of Science Fiction, ed. by Groff Conklin
The Best American Noir of the Century, ed. by James Ellroy and Otto Penzler
Bradbury Stories, 100 of his most celebrated tales
Colonial & Postcolonial Literature, Elleke Boehmer
A Treasury of Great Science Fiction, 2 volumes, ed. by Anthony Boucher
Black Noir, mystery, crime, and suspense fiction by African-American writers, ed. by Otto Penzler
Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Wilhelm
Ficciones, Jorge Luis Borges
English Literary Criticism: The Medieval Phase, J.W.H. Atkins (1943)
English Literary Criticism: The Renascence*, J.W.H. Atkins (1947)
English Literary Criticism: 17th and 18th Centuries, J.W.H. Atkins (1951)
An Age of Criticism, 1900-1950, William Van O’Connor (1952)
The Complete Adventures and Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle
Future Imperfect, James Gunn
The Best of Judith Merril
Orbit 2, ed. by Damon Knight
Strangers in the Universe, Clifford D. Simak
The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing, ed. by Tara L. Masih
Ellison Wonderland, Harlan Ellison
Deathbird Stories, Harlan Ellison
The Female Man, Joanna Russ
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick
Mindswap, Robert Sheckley
Stories From the Twilight Zone, Rod Serling
The New Weird, ed. by Ann & Jeff Vandermeer
The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler
Horror, Filipino Fiction for Young Adults, ed. by Dean Francis Alfar, Kenneth Yu
Demons of the New Year, an anthology of Horror Fiction from the Philippines, ed. by Karl R. De Mesa, Joseph Frederic F. Nacino
The Best of Lady Churchill’s Rosebub Wristlet, ed. by Kelly Link & Gavin J. Grant
My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, ed. by Kate Bernheimer
Other Worlds, Better Lives, a Howard Waldrop Reader
War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells
On the Beach, Nevil Shute
Watership Down, Richard Adams
So Long Been Dreaming, ed. by Nalo Hopkinson & Uppinder Mehan
The Age of Fable, volumes 1 to 4, Bullfinch
The Golden Bough, Frazer
Stars Fell on Alabama, Carl Carmer
French Realism: The Critical Reaction, 1830 – 1870, Bernard Weinberg (1937)
A Treasury of New England Folklore, ed. by B.A. Botkin (1947)
The Rise of The Novel, Ian Watt
The Art of the Novel, Critical Prefaces, Henry James
Beowulf and thee Finnesburg Fragment, trans. by John R. Clark Hall, preface by J.R.R. Tolkein (1911)
Intersections, ed. by John Kessel, Mark L. Van Name, Richard Butner
Lost in the Funhouse, John Barth
Edmund Spenser’s Poetry, ed. by Hugh Maclean and Anne Lake Prescott

(and about 100 lit magazines)


Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography, Douglas Keister
Old Books & New Histories: An Orientation to Studies in Book and Print Culture, Leslie Howsam
Book History, Volume 14, 2011
An Introduction to Book History, David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery
All In Color For a Dime, ed. by Dick Lupoff & Don Thompson
The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, David Hajdu
How Pathogenic Viruses Work, Lauren Sompayrac
The Circus Age, culture & society under the America big top, Janet M. Davis
The History of Japanese Printing and Book Illustration, David Chibbett

To Review

The Future is Japanese, ed. by Haikasoru
Interfictions 2, ed. by Delia Sherman & Christopher Barzak
SuperNoirTural Tales, Ian Rogers
North American Lake Monsters, Nathan Ballingrud
Manila Noir, ed. by Jessica Hagedorn
MIND MGMT, volumes 1 and 2, Matt Kindt
Asimov’s Science Fiction, April/May 2014
Project 17, Eliza Victoria
Now, Then, and Elsewhen, Nikki Alfar
Demonstra, Bryan Thao Worra
Mockingbird, Chuck Wendig
Blackbirds, Chuck Wendig
Through Splintered Walls, Kaaron Warren

*spelled as titled

Note: the DIY MFA list isn’t meant to be a recommendation, or all-encompassing. It’s the place I’m starting to read through a wide range of material. When I’ve finished a text, I’ll review it here, and if it’s something I’d suggest you read, I’ll add it to my DIY MFA page.