Saturday, August 14, 2010

Guest Post: Let Us Write Our History

Today I am super excited to host Ah Yuan from Gal Novelty. She is beyond amazing. Her reviews always bring a new insight to the book blogging world (A great example is her review of Eon. Everyone loves it but she points out some troubling things about the Asian fantasy aspects of it). A great introduction to Ah Yuan (besides her blog) is the Blogger Spotlight interview I did with her. Enough of my ceaselssy chatter, take it away Ah Yuan!

As any reader passing by this most esteemed blog by Ari will figure out, we all know that she is very dedicated to promoting YA/MG POC books. A long-time reader may also discern the fact that Ari’s favourite genre is historical fiction. She has in fact already written a brilliant post on the lack of POC in U.S. history, which everyone should of course read immediately if you have not yet done so. In honour of this, I thought I would give some of my thoughts on this historical fiction discussion.

Here is one thing I ought to confess right off the top of the bat: I am not the biggest fan of the historical genre. I will not bore the readers here on my long-winded reasons for my general distaste of the genre as a whole, but I thought I would at least admit this bias before delving further into my post. I mean, I do enjoy learning history, how people have lived in the past and, more importantly, how it connects with our future, but short of it is that I’ve often been let down by how historical fiction and how it chooses to depict the past and the people of its time.

I’ve been particularly disillusioned by how the English (language) Literature has chosen to depict the past of Asian people and our history in our ancestral lands.

I’ve struggled with articulating all the reasons for my distaste, and I think, I will start with a cover image of a fairly recent book out in the YA market called Spirit Hunter by Katy Moran

This book? Is set in Ancient China.

I have contacted the publisher (@WalkerBooksUK) through twitter before about this, and I was assured that the female lead in the story was of European descent. Thus as it’s showing a female on the cover, who would quite logically supposed to be depicting the female lead, no foul has been done….???

Now, you may be wondering, but Yuan! The cover girl is supposed to be European! No whitewashing here. What is the problem here?

If we see this book in a vacuum, then sure, no foul done. The publisher has every right to make the decision to put a female white lead on the cover as oppose to the Chinese male lead in the story, it is all perfectly legitimate. But here’s the implicit consequence of this cover decision: the face of a white person is once again considered to be capable of representing the histories of Asian people.

No story exists in a vacuum. This novel is only singled out for the simple fact that this is the most recent example I can think of, to show that privileging a white perspective on Asian cultures and histories is not a thing of the past, but that of an ongoing problem that still rears its head in 2010, and probably will continue to be the trend year after year unless the attitudes of entire book industry changes.

For every copy of Memoirs of a Geisha made widely available in the stores and winning award after award for the author’s (white, male) achievement in masterfully depicting the ‘way of the Geisha’ and praise lauded for his supposed sensitivity towards the female sex and otherworldly culture, the real story of Mineko Iwasaki is left by large unheard and unread, no awards, no offers of movie adaptations for her story from her own mouth. Because a white man can always, always tell our stories better than ourselves, see? Don’t you see?

For every story like The Painted Veil and Empire of the Sun, for every movie like The Last Samurai, Hildalgo, The Conqueror and Lawrence of Arabia, we are told over and over that same damnable narrative, that our histories are convenient backdrops and stage props to draw out the white lead’s story, that we can not star in our own stories, that we are deemed to have nothing worthy to say beyond serving the needs of our white hero, teach him or her valuable enlightening exotic ways of our culture and have them speak for us.

In essence, these stories which chooses to use a white person as a stand in, a representative of a historical context in whatever exotic Asian country’s locale of the day, rob us of our own abilities to tell our own stories.

When we engage with these stories we are robbed of our voices.

I have seen praise for a new recent turn in the dominant historical regency romances, as the new 21st century Regency authors start branching out their settings outside of London, England to the vast colonies of the British Empire. But I cannot rejoice when I am told to cheer for the memsahib entertaining her romance with the latest British visitor under the heat of the Indian sun, I cannot rejoice every time I see the ladies and gents of Great Britain sip their damn tea with their damn sugar without the text ever acknowledge the blood shed for their happy consumption, I cannot rejoice when we can have movies like Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland wherein our lead can find emancipation from the restrictions of a 19th Century British woman’s life by making trade with China and we the audience are supposed to cheer the fact that our lead essentially will win her fortunes in her glorious future through the ruinations of a country in the remote exotic Far East. I cannot be satisfied with these stories insistently repeated to this day that refuse to acknowledge the ugly parts of their history, the devastation their colonizing ways wrought upon numerous Asian countries, I cannot be satisfied when there is blood on the ground and no one will acknowledge the deaths of millions for the simple fact that we are Other, we are not part of that shining white umbrella, our stories, our histories are not worth the acknowledgement we ask for.

No, if our stories must be told, they are loudly told in those wretched stories you call musicals like Madame Butterfly and Miss Saigon, stories set in an exotic Asian land wrought with war and a forbidden tragic love we Asian women have towards the white men, those soldiers who come bringing war to our shores. Because we can’t help but love the white colonizer, and we will die tragically for it and all the audience will cry and mourn and go back home telling themselves what a great story that was without ever having to think about any real true consequences of war and what it means to the people of that distant land. In the popular girl’s series The Princess Diaries starring princesses all over the world, Kathryn Lasky can wax poetic about how Repressed and Confined our princess Jahanara suffers from a Muslim dominated Moghul India without ever giving Jahanara a glimpse of a future beyond confinement and no thought of her own agency until she meets a white man and falls in a tragic unrequited love that can never take off. As if this narrative of our backward culture repressing our womanhood and needing the white hero to come save us from our backward men is not tired and beaten to hell and back with a stick, and if I never ever have to see this crap of a narrative troupe employed ever again, it wouldn’t come close to being soon enough.

Engaging in the English language literary canon will always mean that I am participating in a literary phenomenon that mostly erases my ethnic identity, and when the rare piece of fiction that comes along that does engage with some form of any Asian culture or history, I will often find it descends into caricature making and stereotypes that make me recoil from the book in disgust. I must learn to pick and choose, to ask myself how much fail I must accept in order to enjoy a what is otherwise well written or engaging story, I must learn where to stop when a book goes too far for me to emotionally handle, and I must learn to get used to the idea that if ever I drop a book or a story because it offends me to the point of sickness, voicing this opinion may well and have indeed already invited me ridicule, accusations of just Not Getting It, because a body of work being offensive is never ever a good enough reason to stop reading, my feelings be damned. I have learned all these things, I have thought hard about these acquired lessons and I will speak out and insist on my right to say that these types of works offend me anyways, and you will have to forgive me about being sceptical on the latest widely touted Asian!historical novel because if your hand has been burned too many times, you become weary, you do not jump towards what experience has taught you that this may give you great pain. If I am judged to be irrationally judgemental against this genre for these feelings of mine, I can only say that experiences have helped shape my perceptions and will make do with shrugging off criticisms of my character.

I have spoken on and on in this soapbox not to say zomg Asian!Historicals suck--because despite bad experiences I have indeed enjoy the rare Asian!Historical that manages to not hurt or demean, and besides, such statements are hardly conductive to a public discussion—but to lay out narrative troupes of this genre I find distasteful and anger-making, and ask, no, demand for a representation that doesn’t demean or dehumanize us. For people who choose to write in such historical contexts to think about all the implicit messages within their works, that when you create fiction on a historical time period not familiar to your own that there is history in that, years and years of others telling our stories for us and hurting us for it. How many times has our histories been distorted, maligned, silenced, and continue to be so, there’s a history in that too.

We cannot strive to make changes for our future without recognizing the wrongs of our past, the persistence of the harmful status quo in our present, and I truly want change for the historical depictions of Asian peoples. I do, I truly do. It is for this--underneath all my rambles, underneath all my words fuelled by cold rage and hurt and pain in my heart--that I speak now.

I say all this not because I truly expect change to occur from these words of mine, when so many times I tried whispering my discontent I’ve been shut down and my concerns drowned out by the laughter and indifference of others, but because I am not okay in remaining silent. Even if no one listens, I will not be deemed as complicit in my approval of such bullshit narrative troupes by upholding silence on my part.

I will end this post linking to an elegantly written blog post, far more eloquent than what I have said here, by a blogger I deeply respect and admire. (I do highly, highly encourage everyone to read the whole of the article though, and to please think carefully about the topics presented, checking your privilege in your responses to these articles before choosing to engage, please.)

ephemere’s haunting No Country for Strangers is an article that speaks directly to white authors wishing to depict the Philippines in their works.

So (and I address this now to the theoretical audience of those on the other, privileged end of the inequality) if you, as a white person, are afraid of writing about us: then be afraid. Carry in your heart the fear of doing further injustice to a people into whose blood oppression has become so incorporated that our institutions and our media echo with the dual strains of self-loathing and adulation for those who are not us. Live with the anxiety of questioning your assumptions about a people that is not more American than America, not a race composed only of tourist guides and call-center agents and overseas foreign workers and shoe-crazy society matrons and celebrity politicians, not your "little brown brothers and sisters"; whose richness and diversity and pursuit of individual identity all too often escape the surface view to which most observers are confined. Confront your blind spots and your privilege in having the luxury of overlooking this inequality because you aren't disenfranchised by it. Cast away the viewpoints that tag our similarities as proof of the good points of the Philippines and relegate our differences to the status of "disadvantage" or "compensation for..." in those instances when you do choose to acknowledge that we aren't "just like you". Grasp the difficulty that comes with having to ask yourself whether you are condescending, whether you are offending beliefs that are not held without reason, whether you are perpetuating a mindset that plays at well-intentioned assistance while diminishing fundamental freedoms to choose our own goods. We've had 'well-intentioned assistance'; the Americans called it benevolent rule. Delve into our history, the blood of our politics and our wars; soak yourself in it, in the grit and the grime of our daily living, until you understand why we rage and why we have cut out our tongues.


  1. *cheers* Great, great post! I was reading a book for a (white, male, Oxonian) English literature scholar, who said that he "would not have any of" calling the canon an instrument of oppression. The dude is plainly an amazing scholar, and I love his work, but that made me really angry. He's not having any of that because he's not the one it's an instrument of oppression TO. HE is amply represented in the canon.

  2. Even more flawed, more damaging is the nonfiction that readers accept as truth.

    "He who controls the pen controls the his/tory."

    I'd love to see a reading list of articles and text on examining literature from cultural perspectives.

  3. A great post/essay and the topic is definitely worth further discussion; even though nowadays there are officially no colonizers still people from Asia, South America and Africa are by many WASPs/white Europeans etc. considered worse. Their culture and history is used as just an exotic backdrop, a condiment. Utterly silly. Once you start notice it, there are plenty of examples.

  4. OMG Ah Yuan, if you haven't already, you must read essays by Edward Said on Orientalism, as well as Elaine Freedgood's on fetishization in Victorian literature (it's about black slavery, but, as I argued in a paper I wrote for my class last semester, it can be applied to Orientalism and Asians as well). I've read both multiple times, and they provide countless fascinating points for thought with each reread. Not dry literary analysis at all. Brava, you, for continuing to support this, and for continuing to write about this!

  5. Ah Yuan - I had my finger crossed you'd do a post like this sooner or later. So thank you and very well said.

    With all these great examples you have a reason not to be a fan of historical fiction

  6. Everytime I wander round a bookstore since I read your post on covers for books about Asian women all I see is cover fail. Cover fail and white authors names and forbidden love. Thanks for changing the way I look at books and making me more observant.

  7. excellent post, Ah Yuan! just heard this on NPR and thought I'd share:

  8. Wonderful post, passionately stated, and all the more effective because of it! One could argue which type of media is worse, which is perhaps equivalent to arguing about angels on a pin, but I would vote for visual media. When kids, many of whom are preliterate, see those egregious images in Disney's Aladdin, those images adhere in their minds and start shaping their perceptions before they even know they are thinking about it.

  9. Beautifully said Ah Yuan. These are sentiments that I've felt far too often. I go in anticipating learning something about Asian culture, only to see the characters that I could learn most from relegated to the background.

    Being vocal, especially as eloquently as you've done here, will hopefully be the much needed catalyst for change.


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