Thursday, June 19, 2014

Speaking Out On Diversity: Why I Wrote a Chinese Protagonist

Hi! That person in the photo is me. I'm a white writer who wrote a book with a Chinese protagonist.

I've read a lot of great blog posts by different writers with opinions on whether writers should write from the point of view of a character whose race is different from their own. Can a non-minority author write with integrity about a minority character?

Most recently, SCBWI Executive Director, Lin Oliver, added her voice to this debate. She made excellent points in her article here.

I'll start by saying I agree with her entirely.

At the same time, whenever I read a post like hers, I start feeling a tiny bit defensive. Not because anyone has told me to my face that I shouldn't write what I do (everyone has been nothing but kind and supportive about my book RED BUTTERFLY so far!), but because, on the surface, it seems like I'm flying in the face of all Lin Oliver's excellent points.

The key word in that last sentence is on the surface.

Let's start with a story, because stories are fun.

A few months ago I was in Seattle with my daughter and we went out to lunch at the awesome Taiwanese chain restaurant, Din Tai Fung. There's always a huge wait time there because the food is so ridiculously delicious. So, there I was, a white lady sitting with her white daughter in the waiting section of the restaurant, watching the crowds go by.

I'm not sure how you all feel when you're in a Chinese restaurant, but I blinked back tears. Happy tears. You know why? Because I was surrounded by mostly Asian people, most of whom were speaking Asian languages. There were familiar smells in the air--tea and steaming dumplings. Familiar sounds--the joyful loudness of Chinese restaurants, the clink of porcelain bowls and chopsticks. I felt so AT HOME and so HOMESICK all at once. Which is not something I get to feel very often living on the eastern side of the Cascades where there is no Din Tai Fung or any authentic Asian restaurants. (WAHHHH!)

I found myself wishing something, probably for the billionth time. I wished I looked as Chinese as I felt inside.

A very wise man (Dr. David Pollock) coined the term Third Culture Kid, and that's what I am. It means I was raised by a family of one culture within another culture. I was raised by American parents (first culture) in Hong Kong (second culture), which gave me some weird mix of the two (third culture).

So, there I was in the Chinese restaurant, feeling so at home and happy with the smells and the sounds and the people, and at the same time grieving that nobody in that restaurant would ever look at me and instantly know how much I belonged there.

I grieve this for RED BUTTERFLY, too, that people might pick up this book and glance at the jacket photo, see a white author's face, and put it back down, assuming it will be inauthentic. Will anyone do that? I don't know. I hope not! But that's a fear I have.

So, how does being a Third Culture Kid qualify me to write from the point of view of a Chinese protagonist?

Even though my main character, Kara, and I aren't exactly the same, we have some important experiences in common. She was raised by Americans in China, I was raised by Americans in Hong Kong (which is now technically part of China. If you're confused, watch this excellent video). Her struggles in China--looking like she fit in, while feeling so different inside--are struggles I have with living in America. She feels like an outsider in both the cultures she interacts with--her "home" culture in China, and her "new" culture (which was her parents' culture) in America. Like Kara, I have a hard time fitting in perfectly anywhere, too.

No, I'm not Chinese. But I can relate to my Chinese character's heart. And I think we'd all agree, that's what matters most.


  1. I completely understand! Great points! Can't wait to read your book!

  2. What a beautiful post. This is how I feel about the time I spent in Russia too. I always feel at home when I hear Russian.

  3. It is all about the story in your heart--

  4. Oh, Amy, I have so much to say! First, I haven't visited here in soooo long, I didn't realize you have A BOOK DEAL!!!!! That is so awesome. Huge, HUGE congratulations on such a monumental milestone.

    As to your blog topic, I've never, ever looked at a photo of the author and wondered, "How in the heck could THEY write about THIS?" I don't think you need to worry about that at all. Heck, Nicholas Sparks is a dude who writes women so beautifully and I never thought "He CAN'T do this," because he does. Most people don't care how the sausage is made, they just care about the dang sausage, and how savory it is. Right?

  5. Amy, I can just imagine you sitting in that restaurant and knowing you belong. But of course, the rest of us wouldn't think that.

    I remember Donna Jo Napoli tells us at a workshop to not let anybody ever tell you what you can or cannot write. I think she was dealing with some fallout from her Chinese Cinderella story. But she has studied and visited and she has the heart for this, so the color of her skin should not matter.

    I think people will read your jacket flap and say WOW!

  6. Interesting post. Best wishes with your book.

  7. First, congrats again for having your book published in such great book publisher, and the cover is artistically beautiful. Now, to your question. Authors can and should write on whatever they wish to write, as long s they make some research about their characters and locations. Let's focus: Can an older female author (J.K. Rowling) write about a boy? Can Shakespeare, who never been to Italy, write about young Italians? The answer is yes, and that's why you, Amy, wrote your book. I respectfully submit that for a book about minority to do well commercially it is better if it is written by someone from the majority who know better what the majority of readers want to read. If you wrote your book for the majority of readers who are non-Chinese Americans, then your writing can connect better with them. S & S was wise to publish your book, because as an author you can better connect with more readers. Looking forward to read your book next year.

  8. Oh, I am so getting this for my Chinese daughter. Thank you for a wonderful post! And yes, to paraphrase Maya Angelou, "We are human beings, and therefore, nothing is alien to us." We all have feelings like this at some time and it's so important to address them - especially so in children. And speaking as a white woman raised in a pseudo 3rd culture (Native American) who writes in just about any culture but her own, I am a human being. That's what I write about. Which doesn't mean I won't someday write from the POV of a dragon or alien. Just watch me. ;D

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  10. Thank you for this post. I'm writing a subplot in which a Chinese man is the main character. Good luck in all your future endeavors!