Writing Excuses 13.24: What Writers Get Wrong, with Piper, Aliette, and Wesley, with Special Guest Ken Liu
Key Points: The Asian Diaspora, or the Great Diaspora, refers to the fact that people who claim an Asian identity or Asian ethnic origins no longer live in the cultures and lands of their origins, they are spread around the globe. Pet peeves? The limited set of roles often occupied by Asian characters in popular media, especially torn between their two identities. These characters are not a symbolic background where cultures are fighting. Who should play what characters? Make a decision, and be ready for the meta-conversation that will happen around it, because you are doing it in a community. Beware of trying to have one character represent all of Asianness. To write better characters, don’t think of your Asian character as having an identity that revolves around being Asian. Write characters who are individuals first, and their ethnic identity is secondary. Do talk to many people in the ethnic group you wish to use for your characters, and ask questions. Be aware that Asian is a huge umbrella. Drill down 20 steps, where are they from, what are the details of their lives that informs who they are. Do the research, get the names right.
[With apologies if I have confused the speakers for any of these segments. Sorry, sometimes it’s hard to tell from the recording just who is talking.]
[Mary] Season 13, Episode 24.
[Piper] This is Writing Excuses, What Do Writers Get Wrong About Asian Diaspora Characters, with Special Guest Ken Liu. 15 minutes long.
[Aliette] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Wesley] And we’re not that smart.
[Piper] I’m Piper.
[Aliette] I’m Aliette.
[Wesley] I’m Wesley.
[Piper] And we have a special guest today, as I maybe slightly stuttering mentioned, guest Ken Liu. Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself?
[Ken] Hello. I’m Ken Liu. I’m a writer, translater, lawyer, and programmer. I’m the author of a collection of short stories called The Paper Menagerie, and Other Stories, and a soap punk epic fantasy novel series whose first book is called The Grace of Kings.
[Piper] Thank you.
[Wesley] So, in other words, by Asian parent standards, an underachiever?
[Ken] A disappointment, really.
[Aliette] Writing is not a proper career.
[Piper] It is not. It’s not. You need to have a real career. [garbled lawyer].
[Ken] My dad is still trying to get me job interviews.
[Piper] My dad still just tells people, “I don’t know what she does.”
[Ken] Which is actually supportive.
[Piper] Well, kind of. In that whole… Well, she’s also single.
[Aliette] But we had kids, at which point my mum was like, “Oh, I have grandchildren.” And turned to my sister and it was like, “What about your love life?”
[Piper] Oh, goodness gracious. Okay.
[Piper] So. Let’s us get started, and I’m going to ask Ken to do this because he nodded yes. Could you please define diaspora?
[Ken] So I’m not going to define the word so much as describe it. So the diaspora refers to the fact that people with Asian ethnic origins no longer live in the cultures and lands of their origin. As a result of history over hundreds and sometimes thousands of years, many folks who now claim an Asian identity of some sort are no longer living in their cultures and lands of origin, but spread around the globe. This is referred to as the Great Diaspora, the Asian Diaspora. So when we’re talking about Asian characters or Asian culture, we don’t refer to just the culture and people who are in Asia in their lands of origin, but also potentially descendants who have migrated around the globe. I mean, I think part of the problem is the whole Asian umbrella, because that’s a big umbrella.
[Piper] It is.
[Ken] That like saying somebody who is European, that like a Spanish… Somebody from Spain is the same as somebody from like Poland.
[Piper] True, true. I mean, but… At the same time, I think it’s also funny because they’ll just say, “Well, Asia is a big continent. Aren’t you all Asian?”
[Ken] So is Europe.
[Ken] I mean, we’re all human.
[Wesley] Can you stop for a second? Can somebody explain to me why Europe is a continent?
[Piper] No. Let’s not follow up on that, because I’ve gone past it.
[Wesley] I’m sorry, I ramble a lot.
[Piper] [garbled] All right. So, pet peeves? What you seen in common media today that probably… like actually gets to you?
[Ken] Can I start on this? Because I have a list of these, I can go on forever. But I’ll just do only one. I think it’s very, very interesting how in this age where people who claim Asian ethnicity really cover just every possible diverse range of thought, of position vis-a-vis their own culture or language or profession, there’s still just a very limited set of roles that characters who are quote unquote Asian may occupy in popular media. I don’t mean just jobs they can do or the sidekick position they can take, I mean something more fundamental. When Asian characters are portrayed, if they’re a part of the Diaspora, they’re often portrayed as caught between two.
[Aliette] Oh, God.
[Ken] This is a very common theme. The hyphenated identity of Asian-American or Vietnamese-French or what have you is often seen as a kind of slash, a wall, and your identity is cut in half. I actually don’t know anybody who claims an Asian [ethnic] identity who views themselves that way, as caught between two spheres or acting as an in-between bridge between two spheres. That just not how people experience it. Nonetheless, the idea of you’re perpetually at war with yourself… Are you American or are you Chinese? The idea that that somehow is the experience of identity of the Asian Diaspora just won’t die. That seems to be the vision, the way to create dramatic conflict for these characters.
[Aliette] [Ooo] Don’t… I mean… It’s… This like gets as well like into mixed-race people, and like, it’s even worse with mixed-race people, because like somehow your father and mother are like at war with each other, and you don’t know if you should choose your mother’s culture or your father’s culture. I’m like, “My parents were in love. They got married. They raised us in both cultures. We’re not on the verge of like committing suicide because we’re really depressed about not fitting in. Which is not to say we don’t have problems fitting in, but… Hey, we deal with it, like the way we do with everything.
[Piper] I think…
[Wesley] I’m sorry, go ahead.
[Piper] I think we’re all… A lot of us find ways to adjust, and actually it’s more of that merging of cultures, and having spheres of people who get the one aspect, but there’s this other stuff that they don’t really talk to you about because they don’t get it or that food that they don’t try or that language that they don’t understand, and then there’s another sphere that doesn’t get that other side, and then you have this wonderful Venn diagram that is you that gets them both, and you have a concentrated area that you’re most comfortable in. Like I’m a very big fan of Venn diagrams.
[Aliette] Venn diagrams are cool.
[Wesley] That’s… It’s not like we walk around with the concept of the Asian-American experience. Right? I mean, that… Are you saying you don’t think there really is a tugging between cultures?
[Ken] I don’t believe that’s how most of us actually experience, or how we deal with it. I don’t believe most of us view ourselves as being torn apart by two cultures and there’s one… Because I don’t believe most of us believe the position… I’ll speak about Chinese-American experience solely, because that’s the one I’m going to comment on. I’m not speaking for the wider Diaspora, but I don’t believe most of us actually who self identify in some ways as Chinese-American view ourselves as not American. To accept the position that your identity is a conflict, perpetually at war with itself, is to accept that Americanism is whiteness. I simply don’t believe that’s what most of us either believe or want to believe or accept. So I don’t agree with the idea that the way to portray a Chinese-American character, especially given the politics between China and the United States, is to portray these characters is somehow a symbolic battleground on which cultures are fighting, and they are being torn between two spheres. It’s a stupid old cliché. It satisfies a certain colonialist attitude about civilizing influences. It’s this idea that in order for somebody to be fully American, they must reject the Chineseness or whatever it is.
[Piper] I can say that personally, having grown up Thai and American in the United States, I never felt fragmented. I never felt that I had to be Thai in the summer when I was in Thailand, and I never felt that I had to be American in America. I was always ready to answer questions, no matter what age I was. I was always very proud of my name that my parents gave me. I was very proud of my language. I did feel resentful to elementary school teachers brought my parents into parental teachers conferences to tell them that I would get confused if they allowed me to continue bilingual, and that I should focus on English. So I never felt fragmented, and in fact, felt very whole, and very much wanting to force people to acknowledge me as being much more than what they were trying to box me into.
[Piper] Now, I am going to pause us here, and I’m sorry, but we do need to stop for the book of the week. That’s Ken, again. So. Ken, please give us the book of the week.
[Ken] So, the book of the week is my book, which is called The Paper Menagerie, And Other Stories. This is a collection of short fiction, collected over out of my total publication over a period of more than a decade. There’s 15 stories in it. They cover a range of genres from science-fiction to fantasy to magic realism to historical fiction. A lot of them do explore the idea of the Asian Diaspora experience and they may be of interest.
[Piper] Thank you. Now, I’m going to pop over to Wes and ask a little bit more about this idea of diaspora, and where do you see it in media, where you think it’s interesting? Like, another example of…
[Wesley] I think a really good example of this is… I really did not want to use this example. The show on Netflix, Dragonfist? The thing is, when the news first was announced that they were going to make Dragonfist, we were all like, “Oooo…”
[Wesley] It’s a very problematic character. It’s a white dude that goes back to China and learns kung fu and suddenly is a master of…
[Piper] Is it Dragonfist or Ironfist?
[Wesley] I’m sorry. Is it Ironfist?
[Piper] I think it’s Ironfist.
[Wesley] I’m sorry. I saw parts of it. The thing is, though, there’s a big argument going on about should the character be Asian? Or should they be true to character and just keep them white?
[Piper] They also did that with Ghost in the Shell, right? Because they picked a good actress that’s really good for action characters, but they asked, “Should it be an Asian character?” Because there were Asian actresses that could perform equally as well, and should this character be Asian since it’s inspired from a Japanese anime? Or manga.
[Wesley] I saw a documentary about Ghost in the Shell where they interviewed a bunch of Japanese people in Japan and they go, “Well, what did you think of the fact that Scarlett Johansson is the Ghost in the Shell character?” They were all like, “Well, in the anime, wasn’t she white?”
[Piper] That was one of the things, where Japanese anime, a lot of the characters, the character designs, are supposed to be Western imaged characters. That’s a whole nother topic for a whole nother podcast. But when it came to the movie, that consideration was there. I thought that was a good sign, that people were thinking about it critically, even though maybe the directors and the Japanese creators really didn’t mind, because of reasons. But I thought it was good that the conversation was had. Right? Like there’s an awareness of Hey… For example, another media, Hawaii Five-0. Two of the Asian characters that were intrinsic to the show from the very, very beginning, hit a salary and a quality thing, and they stepped off the cast. Right? So is that something where… I’m waiting to see how they explain it in the show.
[They’re going to kill them]
[Aliette] They’re going to kill them off.
[Piper] They’re going to end up in an explosion. Calling it now.
[Ken] But… I mean it sounds like… The thing that we find interesting to talk about here is the fact that there is a meta-conversation happening around it. I mean, it’s not so much… I guess this is something that I think writers can all sort of take away from, which is that it’s not about getting it right, quote unquote, because getting it right for whom, and for what community, and for what subsection of a contested cultural concept? There’s no single right right answer. But often, what happens here is that there is… You make a decision and you have to figure out what the reasons for making that decision are. Then you just have to be ready for the conversation to happen around it. I mean, people are not going to agree with your decisions, and you have to make sure that your decisions are made in an ethical way that you find to be artistically as well as culturally sensitive and appropriate. If that’s the case, then the conversation will happen around it, and that’s how we move forward. You’re not doing it alone, we’re doing it in a community.
[Ken] Do you guys find that you’re very suspicious every time you see an Asian character on television? Like, do you hyper analyze the reason why there’s an Asian character there?
[Aliette] Not really, but I kind of like start expecting like how long is it going to be before they’re going to revert to cliché or how long is it going to be before they kill him off?
[Aliette] I’m kind of like… I’ve been burnt too many times. It’s not that people who are not Asian cannot do a good job of like putting Asian characters or writing Asian characters, it’s just… There’s been like… 90% of the ones that I see on screen are like end up dead or [inaudible] the mystical Asian inspiration that also ends up dead. I’m like…
[Aliette] “We need to talk.”
[Piper] One of my pet peeves is the Asian hero. You can have a sexy Asian hero, a heroic awesome man. He does not have to be a large… Unusually large physical specimen of an Asian man. He can just be an awesome Asian hero. I write those into my characters, and I’ve actually had some pushback like, “Do you think this is going to sell? With your hero being Asian?” I’m like, “Watch it.” Not only that, but I made him the beta character. The female was the bodyguard. She’s the kick ass, bodyguard sniper/I’m going to keep us alive. You know what? Reviewers liked it. Reviewers and readers embraced it, and said, “Hey, we didn’t realize that you could do this.” I’m like, “Why wouldn’t it have occurred to anybody that was possible?”
[Ken] Well, I mean, isn’t the key here that we do have more voices trying to do representation? I mean, I think the problem comes from trying to do one character and have her represent all of Asianness, whatever that means. I mean, it’s just… First of all, the wrong problem to pose, and the wrong answer to the wrong problem.
[Wesley] Well, let me ask you guys this. Stepping out of media, do you find yourself representing Asians everywhere, no matter what you do?
[Aliette] Yeah. I mean that’s…
[Wesley] I’m going to use a very simple example, okay. I tip usually pretty well when I go to restaurants. Even though the service sometimes can suck. The reason why I tip well is because I’m like if I don’t tip well, they’re going to think all Asians suck at tipping.
[Piper] I don’t think I’ve ever done that, honestly.
[Wesley] Do you get that, Ken?
[Ken] I’ve done that. I’ve definitely done that. I mean, I sometimes in the sort of public formal events, I’m extra careful because I view it as everybody here is white. So if I do something, it’s going to get blamed on all Chinese people. I’m just going to have to be super careful. I mean, when I was a lawyer, practicing corporate law, there were countless instances where I had to be hypervigilant about how I behaved and what sort of jokes I could make and what sort of things I could say. It still didn’t work. I got… There was one particular instance where I was asked not to work on a case. The situation… There was no real explanation given until, in the end, it came to me that the client felt uncomfortable with having an associate who was not white be the face of the particular transaction with the clients in that case. That sort of thing does happen. You feel like you have a burden, however unjustified that is.
[Aliette] Well, but, you end up being the only one in the room, so you’re like, these people are going to judge whichever… Like whatever their ideas of Asianness, they’re going to judge by like how I behave. It’s… actually, I find this terribly stressful. I’m like, “Okay. I’m just like one person. It’s a huge bloody continent, so…”
[Piper] I have to admit, whether in my day job or in my writing, I’ve been in the room and I’ve often been the only Asian in the room and I’ve simply said, “This is my personal response.” Or this is my… And I just proceeded forward on the strength of my knowledge, my subject matter expertise, and my experience. I’ve qualified it as such, and hope that that’s enough for them to realize that I am not representative of the entire Asian continent or the Diaspora. Really, I don’t think I’ve ever felt that pressure per se so much as I just stepped forward and done it. Perhaps that’s an interesting thought for me the next time that I put in that position, because I think it’ll be interesting to take it from that perspective. But we’re running out of time.
[Piper] I’d like to ask one more question, even though we’re running long. That’s what piece of advice would you give to writers who are trying to approach this more sensitively, or with a more… A broader perspective? Like you said, you can’t get it right. But how can they do a good job about taking it into consideration as they write their work?
[Ken] This is for everyone, or…
[Piper] This is for everyone, but everyone’s looking at you, because you’re the special guest.
[Ken] Okay. I mean, I do have one standard piece of advice that I think people have found really helpful, which is to… Not to think of the Asian… The fact that your character is Asian as the core around which her entire identity revolves. Most of us do not walk around all day and think, “How can I be more Asian?” And “Am I doing Asianness correctly?”
[Aliette] All the nods going on over here…
[Ken] That’s just not how that works. Also, so try to put yourself in the position of trying to write characters who are individuals first, and whatever identity… Ethnic identity you want to put on them as a secondary issue. But there are specific things you can do. One of which is to not just talk to one person and say, “This is all my research. That one person’s experience is the source of all truth, I’m going to rely on that, and if anybody says I’m not doing it right, I will point to my friend and say, ‘Hey, I got it from her. So, there. Argue with them.'” That’s not how you do it. I really do think it’s incredibly helpful to talk to as many people in whatever ethnic group you wish to create your characters as to get a wide diversity of experiences and voices, and to hear about… To ask them questions. Useful questions, like the questions we’re asking here, like what do people get wrong about being Thai that you wish they would do right? What do people get wrong about being Vietnamese that you wish they would do right? What does it mean to be Chinese, and is that really even one identity or 30, 40, 50? And what does that mean? These are all questions that you should ask to people, either over the Internet or in life, and try to get answers. There’s no substitute to primary sources. The very people who lived those experiences.
[Wesley] I guess I’ll go. I mean, if you’re going to write Asian characters, you gotta realize that Asian is not really… It’s kind of a general term. So if you’re going to write a specific character to be Asian in a way, you really got a drill down, you know? 20 steps deeper. 20 feet deeper, and talk… Is he or she Thai? Are they from northern China or southern China? What dialect do they speak? Somebody who is Korean is very different from somebody who is Indian.
[Wesley] I’m sorry. What part of India, because there are 100 different dia… Sects in India. So really, if you’re going to write an Asian character, you really have to nail down the details of their lives that kind of informs who they are.
[Aliette] [garbled] Don’t use like regions of countries interchangeably. I mean, I regularly have like, “This is not Vietnamese. I don’t even know what language this is supposed to be from.” Or like, “These are Korean names.” I mean, you would think this is simple, but actually, it is not.
[Piper] Yeah. Do research. Even names can be a tricky thing. For example, Thai names are really hard to nail down, because Thai surnames only came up very recently. So that’s a research thing.
[Piper] So. All right. We’re wrapped up. We’ve gotten our tips in. We do need to apply homework.
[Ken] The homework will be easy and pleasant. If you’re interested in more about Asian Diaspora issues, a lot… I cannot recommend more than to read actual books by Asian Diaspora writers. One of these, it’s less well-known, is Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men. Everyone knows about The Woman Warrior because that’s on college campuses all the time. China Men is one of her books that I think is the equal of The Woman Warrior, and perhaps even better in some ways. I told her that when I met her, and she smiled at me and didn’t say anything. But I really think it’s a beautiful book, and reading it will give you lots of insight.
[Piper] Okay. Thank you, everyone. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses.
[Chorus] Now go write.