firefly

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

Good Example, Bad Example: Firefly, Language choices, and Admitting I Was Wrong

Last week I wrote a guest post for BookLifeNow where I talked about being aware of your language choices when writing stories set in the future. It’s a first step kind of post, covering a few different points, and encouraging writers to think more about the topic. One of the issues I brought up was writing a multi-cultural future:

 It’s terribly easy to slap on a few “exotic”** words and think you’re creating accessible multi-cultural characters but if you don’t know what the words mean or how language evolves over time, it sounds slapped on. It shows very quickly that you don’t know what you’re talking about. Mixing languages gives you a more honest feel, but that means you’ll either have phrases your readers don’t understand or you have to find a way to explain everything in context.

I gave two examples of this – Firefly, the popular but short-lived scifi television show, and Godzilla, King of the Monsters, the 1956 American reboot of Gojira (the Japanese-language production of the classic rubber suit monster movie). In one, the characters used two languages mixed together in the dialogue, and the other used the original Japanese footage cut together with scenes of a white guy, speaking English, asking “What did he say?” It was my way to help people visualize the difference between having “phrases your readers don’t understand”, or having to “find a way to explain everything in context”.

In that sense, I felt, it worked. But one of the readers rightly argued that Firefly was problematic in its portrayal of Asians (and, I agreed, its treatment of women). What “worked” as an example for my blog post didn’t work for the reader, who said:

I, the viewer, was very confused because I kept trying to parse the Mandarin they were speaking. Their diction was, on the whole, terrible. So, no, for me, I did not know what the inserted language meant. (And what’s so wrong with subtitles? If we had subtitles, we could have had a more realistic portrayal of the integration of English and Mandarin rather than the derogatory portrayal of Mandarin as being “that language you swear with.”) …. to me, the way it used Mandarin is symptomatic of those problems, not separate from them.

In that sense, no, Firefly doesn’t work at all. I meant it in a different way than it was taken, but there are times when intention doesn’t matter as much as what actually got said, and this is one of them. My motivation for writing the post was to get people thinking about their language choices, particularly as it pertains to race, and this is all part of that conversation. It’s a conversation we should be having, not just about a show that was cancelled a decade ago, but about how we write fiction now. A few places to start:

Mike Le asks some important questions in Frustrations of an Asian American Whedonite (there’s video of Le asking that question at Comic Con and Whedon’s response here).

You can download and read Jennie Fong’s paper “Stuck in a Blender: Genre and Racial Hybridity in Joss Whedon’s Firefly“, which suggests that:

Instead of a completely blended East-West culture, Firefly only persisted in detaching Asian cultural signifiers from their cultural significance. By blurring distinctions among the different Asian ethnicities and borrowing from Asian cultures without acknowledging the population, Firefly fell into the trap of cultural appropriation rather than cultural blending.

and that this actually influenced the network’s decision to cancel the show.

Thea Lim points out Whedon’s tendency to put Asian characters in the background in her essay for Racialicious.

And someone put together a brilliant Firefly recast showing the characters portrayed by Asian actors (found on tumblr). Very fine actors on that list.

Look, it’s easy to get defensive when our words get taken in a different way than we’d like, but do you want to be right, or do you want to be better? I’m going to keep working on my writing, and the way I talk about writing, which means getting a few things right and acknowledging when I don’t. Hopefully you’ll all stick around, and we can work on these issues together.