Thursday, March 15, 2012

Where are the Asians in Contemporary YA?

I hope you all had a chance to read Ellen Oh's post about Why the Pretty White Girl YA Book Cover Trend Needs to End.

And I hope you all entered Adam's and Victoria's book giveaways to support ethnically diverse book covers.

This issue is important to me, too. A lot of you know I grew up in Hong Kong, which was an amazing place to live and grow. Hong Kong is an incredibly diverse city. My best friends in middle school were from all over the world: Holland, Australia, Burma, India, Sri Lanka, Portugal and England. Of course I experienced a good dose of Chinese culture, too, even though my family culture was American.

I grew up as a minority. Maybe that's why I can relate to this struggle and why it makes me sick to my stomach that we would still be trapped in this "covers with white people on them sell books" mentality.

Add to that, my oldest daughter is ethnically Chinese and, at ten years old, she's about to plunge into the world of Young Adult fiction. She's an avid reader. What is she going to find when she gets there?

Middle grade novels have been great. I love the diversity in middle grade. One of my daughter's favorite authors, Grace Lin, just came out with DUMPLING DAYS, and my daughter ate it up (pardon the pun). She was delighted with this book.

But where are the YA books like DUMPLING DAYS? Not that we can ONLY relate to books about people of our same ethnicity, but I find the "white-out" disturbing. And that my daughter might think the only heroines  allowed to be Asian have to carry a sword and possess Ninja skills. (I'm definitely NOT against Ninja skills or Asian protagonists having them. It's awesome. Ninja skills are always wonderful.)

I guess I'm speaking to my own genre here: Contemporary Young Adult. That is, realistic stories with teenaged protagonists. Where are the Asians in contemporary YA?

I was racking my brain for YA novels I've read with Asian protagonists. I haven't read either of the books Adam's giving away: Cindy Pon's SILVER PHOENIX or Malinda Lo's HUNTRESS, though PHOENIX has been on my radar for awhile. But neither of these are contemporary YA. Don't get me wrong, I'm still so glad they exist. If anything, I'm just frustrated with my own little section of the book store.

(Note: I love that BESTEST. RAMADAN. EVER. has a Syrian-Iranian American protagonist. That's movement in the right direction!)

Now I'd like to hear from you (really, I do!):
  • Can you think of any other YA books, especially in the contemporary group, that feature Asian protagonists? (Let's stick with YA. There are a lot of adult books and middle grade book examples.)
  • What can we DO about this lack? 
  • My knee-jerk answer to this question is, since we're writers, WRITE with more diversity. The covers can't reflect diversity if, in our mind's eye, all we see are blonds and red-heads. Here's my humble attempt: My WiP's main character is half-Asian-- her mom is Vietnamese-American-- and my currently-resting WiP has a Chinese protagonist. Obviously, there's no guarantee either of these books will ever see the light of a bookstore shelf. Still, there's the effort to make a change, right?
  • But here's another weird spin-off question related to my last point: I'm not Asian. I may feel Chinese in some ways because of my upbringing, but is there a problem with non-Asian writers writing Asian characters? I've considered using "Lin" to replace my middle name "Lynn" in my pen name, just to give myself some instant credibility ... but I decided that might be slightly deceitful. *blush*
Tell me your thoughts, please. Don't hold back. We need to talk about these uncomfortable issues if there will be change, and honesty is the first step. I realize I've been all over the place with this post. I hope you can find my pulse in it, though.


  1. Great post! I struggle with this, too, as a parent of a (part) ethnically Chinese child. I did buy my son the graphic novel, American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, but it's probably a bit adult for a 10 year old. My son even pointed out that there was a lot of swearing, so he realized it wasn't a kids' book. Oops. We love Grace Lin. Jake read Year of the Dog and Year of the Rat. I've been meaning to get Dumpling Days. He also enjoyed Marie Lu's new novel, Legend, but it doesn't have Asian characters.

    I once bought a novel by Pai Kit Fai and was excited to read something in English by a Hong Kong Chinese man. But then I found out it was a pen name for a Caucasian man who lives in HK. You could change your middle name to Lin, though. That's not exclusively Chinese. It might get people to stop and notice.

  2. Susan, that is so interesting about Pai Kit Fai. I guess changing my name to Lin isn't such a hair-brained idea after all. LOL! Thanks for the heads up on these other books. Maybe when my daughter is like 18 or something, I'll let her read American Born Chinese. ;)

  3. You bring up a good point. I would love to see more books that aren't about white girls. I'm sick of reading about white girls, and I am one. :P

    Which brings me to a point similar to the one at the end of your post: my next WIP will be told from the perspective of a young black girl adopted by a white family. I didn't choose that to be "diverse" -- the character came to me on her own, and she happens to have a different skin color than I do. Wonder how this will be received by readers (if I have any)?

  4. Amy - thank you so much for this wonderful post! And I want to address your point about not being Asian and yet writing Asian characters. I think that is wonderful! I want more people to feel empowered to do that without worrying about getting it wrong or offending people. The only thing I would ask of them is to do their research and not treat us as stereotypes. And given your background and your daughter - that will never be a problem for you. I want to see your book in print! We need more books like it!

    And one good contemporary YA with an Asian character is Subway Girl. I really loved that book!

  5. I read that post and thought she had some really great things to say. I know one of the problems I face is the fear of doing it wrong, of writing the character wrong. I did come across a quote recently from Mitali Perkins, who said something to the effect that it was far, far better to try to include minority characters and make a mistake doing it than not to include them at all.

  6. This is a really interesting issue, Amy. First of all, I don't think there's anything wrong about writing a story where the main character is a different race than you--as writers, half the job is putting yourself in the shoes of the OTHER, anyway. Yes, you're going to have to work a little harder to make that authentic--unless, like in your case, you know the others better than you know the normals. (Is my turning adjectives into nouns making any sense?)
    My dad works for Yale; he has many Asian coworkers and volunteers with an English conversation group for Asian students. The stories he tells me about the racism directed against Asians, even in that environment, are astounding.
    Sadly, I have no answers, except to write great stories representing these characters if you feel able to do so, and to support writers who have already accomplished this. You know I'll be at the head of the line to buy your book, Amy!!

  7. " there a problem with non-Asian writers writing Asian characters?"

    I sure hope not!

    I was going to say more, but Ellen Oh's comment already addressed all of it. Great post, Amy!

  8. I don't think I've read ANY, sad to say! Not with main characters anyway! Though in Lola and the Boy Next Door, Lola's best friend was Asian :)

    We know a mutual writer who's working on a story set in China! The MC is American, but she's pretty much the only one (I've been critiquing it and I've got to say, it's amazing, and I hope hope hope it makes its way to bookshelves).

    My dad's middle name is Linn, he's not Chinese! (yes there's an extra N in there hahaha).

  9. Amy, we have similar challenges. I am not Chinese, but my YA novel is 85% set in China in the 21st century. The main two characters, Shui Ying nad Liang, are Chinese teenagers and the third, Emily, is an American teenager. I'm don't think that Chinese teenagers living in Shanghai are different than American teenagers living in San Francisco. Their surrounding is different, but they want the same things from life and react similarly to events. Hence, I respectfully submit that non Asians can write Asian novels. In the book "The Help", the author wrote about main characters who are white and black. I didn't hear anyone complaining that she can't write about an African American maid, because she isn't one.
    Changing your name is misleading, and while at least two people suggested me to do the same, I advise against it.
    Publishers think about the bootom line. So far there isn't a successful Asian YA novel, so publishers don't see the market for it and prefer other YA novels. What will change their attitude is one best selling YA Asian novel that can open the market. When this novel will start selling ...the 17 million Asian Americans should rush to buy it making it into a book that everyone is talking about .. and then publishers will publish more books. Best wishes with your YA novel.

  10. Really interesting post! You know about my WIP, which is set in China, but my MC is white so I'm not sure my book would fall into the category of books you're talking about - I was interested in opening up Asia to the reluctant reader, I think, via the eyes of a white protag who experiences it for the first time.

    SHOOTING STARS, by Allison Rushby is the only contemp book I can think of with an Asian protag, and she's half Japanese. There are many more fantasy books with Asian protags, like SHADOWS ON THE MOON by Zoe Marriott and THE SPIRIT PRINCESS by Esther M. Friesner, as well as the ones you mentioned.

    And I also hope ppl aren't offended by non-Asians writing about Asians. That would suck for me. haha

  11. Mexican middle grade and YA books on the way. Oh yeah, first I have to get published.
    Verbal Vato.

  12. You're right...trying hard to think of a YA Asian protag...there may be an Asian MC in the Pretties series, but I could be wrong. Maybe I just visualized her as Asian!

    I would love to see more Asian covers everywhere, from magazines to books. It drives me crazy how under-represented they are (and I'm not Asian!).

    Well, at least we got some Native American worked into the Twilight series! That might be a step forward.


  13. I've read a number of YA books in which the hot love interest is possibly Asian (but not the protagonist). They don't dwell on that part because he race isn't the key point of the story. Unfortunately I can't remember the titles, other than North of Beautiful.

    Diversity in Canada isn't the problem it is in the US. At least not to the same degree. Over the years, I've had a number of friends who family originally came from Hong Kong (we have a large Chinese population in my city, and thus we have China Town).

    It is a shame, though, that most girls on YA covers are Caucasian. Even teen magazines show more diversity than that.

  14. The only book I could think of off the top of my head has already been mentioned. There definitely aren't enough. I'm one of those people afraid of 'getting it wrong'. I shouldn't let it stop me trying though.

  15. Really great post. You're right--we need to have more ethnically diverse protagonists. I can't wait to buy your books, Amy. <3

  16. I did read Ellen Oh's post. Both your posts reminded me... Not long ago I went into our local book store and there was a wall of YA novels and all the covers looked the same. Pretty white girls looking a bit to seductive.

    There's a double problem here. The covers are not only predominately of white girls, they ooze sex. We are so image conscious these days... and the girls on those covers do not look real. Sad...

  17. I will confess, I don't read a lot of YA, so I don't actually know.

    My thoughts on the writing outside of our race . . . why not? We write outside of our gender and experience all the time. I think the trick is being authentic in the way we write it. Research would be a must. Perhaps the big concern is that we can't be authentic if we didn't really live it, but there are so many other things we didn't live that we write anyway. And I think it will show if you did your homework.

    Truly fascinating topic!

  18. Has someone already mentioned Justina Chen Headley? She has some great YA books. NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH AND A FEW WHITE LIES, I believe, has an Asian protagonist. I am glad you wrote this post, Amy. I am always paralyzed with fear when I try to write characters of different ethnicities than my own--even in fantasy! I just get scared of getting it "wrong". I must get over it.

  19. My (white)family has a close, 35 year long friendship with a Chinese friend. He introduced all of us to culture, food and traditions over the years. I feel certain our circle of Chinese friends is responsible for the deep attraction I had to adopting a Chinese child. When I adopted my daughters from China my friend gave me lots of instructions about my interactions with people in China, about raising a Chinese child, etc.

    Years later, we consider ourselves a Chinese/Canadian family. I catch myself sometimes, saying hello to Asians in the grocery store like I would anyone in my small town but I get the feeling that my blonde hair throws them off and its not usually acknowledged. They don't sense my "Chineseness"-lol. Or they simply aren't into small town ways which I could also be accused of.

    Amy, I totally can see how you could write an Asian character. How you might have an inner Chinese identity that few others recognize :)

    Your post prompted me to look for an Asian character in our local library. I found this book called, "The Happiness of Kati" by Jane Vejjajiva The book jacket sounds dark. My daughter enjoyed the Dear Canada series, a Canadian historical fiction series. Ofcourse, the Gold Mountain, "Asian" book was likely accurate but revealed harsh truths about the first Chinese Canadians.

    I know that every good story needs a crisis but so much of Chinese literature of every genre is sad. Can we not just have a happy tale about some Asian guys little adventure that has a happy ending? Probably not, suffering in any race is likely what sells...