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.

#SFWAPro

#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. 

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10 Things You Should Never Say Before Your First Book Is Actually Written, and 3 Things You Should

I get it. I really do. Writing your very first* novel, travel guide, collection of short stories**, how-to text, or any other long form work is exciting. You think ahead to how it will be received, how much money you’ll make, and it’s tempting to jump forward to the good parts… especially when the act of writing it can sometimes be slow. Or painful. Or, impossible, at that particular moment.

So much more fun to talk about it as if it’s a real thing, with potential!

But there are 10 things you should never let yourself say out loud, online, or to other humans, before at least a solid first draft of the project is complete. Some are cardinal sins, some are merely pointless, but all should be avoided (caveats noted):

1. How do I get my book published?

Variations include: Do you have any advice on how to make my book sell? What do think I need to do to make my book popular?

The shortest, truest, answer is: “How would I know?”

Authors, editors, agents — none of us can tell you the “secret” to getting published because there isn’t one. “Write the best book you can” is standard advice, because it’s true, and because each book is different. If you’re writing exactly the same novel as I did, sure, maybe I can tell you who loved mine and wanted to buy it, but why would you want to write a book that’s already been published? Unless it’s the same all the way down into its bones, I couldn’t tell you for certain who would buy it. Acquiring editors base their decisions on the quality of the work, but also on marketing trends, what’s selling now, what’s already been bought but isn’t yet published, how long it will take to get your book out compared to how current/trendy it is, and so on. Generally, a book takes a year or more to see the light of day, and if you’re offering a work “just like that new book that’s selling so well!” by the time a buyer accepts it, gets it edited, laid out, proofed, printed, and distributed, you’re too late. Readers will have moved on.

Once a book is finished, edited, revised, and ready to be shopped around, then you can ask for advice. Once you have a tangible item that your mentor can actually read, it’s so much easier for them to say, “I think XYZ House would love a book like this because their editor was just telling me she wanted the [specific bits] I see here” or “I’ve seen two or three of these exact books out last year, but none of them had your chapter 11 — I’d expand that section to make your work stand out”.

Until then, you’re basically saying: “I’m going to make cookies with lemon juice and ginger in them. Can you tell me if they’ll be delicious? How many people will buy them? I don’t have any for you to taste, but can you tell me what I need to do to make them better?”

Exception: Certain types of non-fiction publishers will hire writers to create books that fit a pre-established line (like the “For Dummies” series). If you want to write specifically for them, you need to first contact them and pitch your idea. This isn’t true for most types of publishing, and if you’re planning to write the book your way, and find a publisher who won’t want to have strict control over every single aspect of it, you need to write it before you worry about publishing.

Your unhatched chickens? Do not count them yet.

Your unhatched chickens? Do not count them yet.

2. How do I get an agent?

Variations include: Will your agent read my book? Hey, agent, my book isn’t finished yet but do you want to read it?

You get an agent by submitting a cover letter about your book. Sometimes they’ll want a sample as well, but mostly it’s the cover letter. Sure, you can write that before your book is finished, but if the agent likes the letter, they’ll want to see a sample. If they like the sample (often a complete outline and the first 3 chapters), they’ll want to read the whole book. This process could take months, giving you time to finish the project — or it could take a week. What do you think will happen when the agent finds out you don’t even have a first draft done yet?

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What I’ve Been Reading: Rickert, Burstein, Sharma, Tobler

This week’s reading was a collection of stories I randomly discovered online, either because someone recommended it, or because I stumbled it across it while looking for something else.

The Mothers of Voorhisvill”  by Mary Rickert, Tor.com (novella)

5 out of 5 stars

There is a grandeur to Rickert’s work which is almost immediately obvious but not overwhelming. You begin to read the tale she’s written, sentences unfolding simply, with hints of strangeness, until a few paragraphs in you start to see the edges of the world she’s created — and it hits you. It’s never “let me tell you about every aspect of this setting for three pages before anything happens”. It’s not “this happened and then this happened and then this happened”. She understands her characters, where they live and how they move about in that place, so well that when she writes the story, it’s just you (the reader) and them (the fictional characters), having a dialogue.

Reading Rickert is like listening to the chatty neighbors you’d never noticed until they happened to be the most fascinating people you’ve ever met. You’ll find everything you’re looking for by the time it’s done.

The shape of this story is as a series of interviews conducted with various women who’ve, they admit at the beginning, done something terrible, or wonderful, and now they’re explaining why. There’s contrast between the things they’re admitting, the events they’re saying didn’t happen quite that way, and and the moments of “well, sure, it did happen, but she’s completely wrong about the way she describes it”. We read how the women see not only the events of the story but their own worlds so differently from one another. All the pieces of “Mothers”, not disparate but simply not the same, weave together until what you finally have is so large, so monstrous and beautiful and greater than you’d imagined, that “grandeur” is the best word to describe it.

There are definite hints of Witches of Eastwick, and Nightvale, but there are sensual details — the hundred scents, the beauty of light, of women, of creative arts — which swell as the women do, breaking free from other influences. Those details carry on as the story changes, gets darker and more desperate, breathing life into individual moments with the names of board games, the color of jam. It’s real without being weighted down; terrible in the way that it makes perfect sense. I continue to be in awe of Rickert’s ability to tell a complete story, full without going on for too long, like a ripe peach on the last day before it’s plucked and eaten.

Kaddish for the Last Survivor” by Michael A. Burstein, Apex Magazine.

2 out of 5 stars

A SF tale about Holocaust deniers? You might think it would be preachy, pointed, too invested in its message, and Burstein’s story is all of those things. It was also nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula awards in 2001, and it’s worth figuring out why. Continue reading