Being Published in Asia Changed Everything About My Asian American Writer Experience

From Electric Lit:

Last spring, I was flown to Seoul to launch the Korean edition of my debut novel, Dark Chapter. My publisher Hangilsa Press had astutely monitored the growing public response to #MeToo in Korea and had decided to not only bring forward my novel’s publication date, but also set up a full promotional “tour” for me with multiple TV interviews, public talks, and a press conference. In some ways, it was every debut author’s dream: a round-trip flight halfway across the world, five nights in a luxury hotel, guest of honor treatment throughout. It was also completely exhausting, requiring nonstop eloquence and enthusiasm about a difficult topic (my own rape)—and all this while jet-lagged, surrounded by translators. (I am Taiwanese American, not Korean American, and I don’t speak any Asian language fluently, but my Korean publisher, media, and audiences were unfazed by the language gap.)

. . . .

But throughout most of this, a question popped up, the inverse of a more familiar one: Would my Korean publishers have done this if I were white?

. . . .

I imagine most people of color living in the West have internally teased a question like that at various points in their lives: Would I have been treated like that if I weren’t Black? Would those strangers have said that to me if I weren’t Asian? Would I have gotten the job if I fit more easily into the mainstream culture—i.e., if I were white? Writers of color are accustomed to this question, too, and indeed, I asked it of myself many times while trying to find a U.S. publisher for Dark Chapter. Would this be so difficult if I were white, I wondered, or if I conformed more stringently to the narratives that white readers expect of Asian stories?

. . . .

Dark Chapter struggled to find a U.S. publisher. In 2015, when it was on submission, many publishers were disturbed by its portrayal of sexual violence, which some editors considered “too real” or “too unflinching.” (An ironic comment, given how much some genres rely on sexual violence as a trope.) But the exact opposite happened in Taiwan in Autumn 2017, after my novel won The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize. There, a five-way auction for Complex Chinese rights led to my biggest advance thus far. The Taiwanese edition of my book has just been published in April 2019. Rights for a mainland Chinese edition sold for more than twice the Taiwanese advance. Why this difference between U.S. and Asian publishers’ reactions to the same book?

You could argue Dark Chapter still falls within a tradition of “pain narratives” expected of writers of color by Western readers.

. . . .

It seems to be a very different experience for Asian American writers in Asia. While on my Korean book tour, I encountered a very unfamiliar notion of privilege: in addition to losing out on opportunities because I wasn’t white, I was also getting new opportunities precisely because I was Asian American. The total advances from my three Asian publishers exceed the total advances from my nine Western publishers. And like my Korean publishers, my mainland Chinese publishers are hoping to fly me to Beijing to promote the novel. I can’t help but notice that the only publishers to have invested in a promotional tour thus far are Asian.

The cynic in me focused on the “optics” of marketing authors, but when I got to Seoul, I realized there may be some deeper emotional truth in promoting an Asian American female author to other Asian women. Since my book deals so directly with the painful, often private trauma of rape, I believe it meant something to potential readers in Korea—specifically female readers—to see an author who looked like them. As if our shared experience of womanhood, gender inequality, and (for some) sexual assault, somehow felt closer to theirs, because we were the same race.

. . . .

But my experience in Korea raised another question. Because sexual assault is so deeply personal, do people naturally feel drawn to someone whose experience seems closer to theirs—because of how they look? If I were white and talking about my rape, would Korean readers have thought my life experience was too different from theirs to relate to, despite also being a rape survivor?

Strangely, I, too, found myself being more honest about being an Asian American author in the West, when Korean audiences asked me about it. I said that writers who looked like me were often expected to write about “being Asian,” rather than a more “universal” experience like gender or sexual assault.

. . . .

I am glad my Korean publishers recognized the value of promoting an Asian American female author to Asian women readers, but our readerships shouldn’t be limited by race.  It is truly a shame if Western publishers perceive a problematic gap between the race of an author and the race of a book’s intended readers—because there are readers of all ethnicities in the West, and we are all capable of empathy.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

While reading the OP, PG was sad to hear the author had been the victim of such a terrible crime.

On the other hand, for PG, the OP reflected an obsessive focus on race.

While PG understands that it is supposed to be impossible in 21st Century America, PG thinks he’s pretty much race-blind in his dealings with other human beings.

Perhaps it is because his best friend during his formative years was of another race and he regularly played with children of still another race. Both of his parents modeled race-blind behavior. PG never heard even a hint of a racial slur from either parent nor any type of racial stereotyping.

In college and his after-college working life, PG regularly associated socially and occupationally with those of different races and can honestly say, he was never aware of treating or thinking of these friends and associates in any way differently than he regarded those whose race was the same as his.

On a philosophical level, PG sees little benefit and great potential harm from keeping racial issues front and center all the time and everywhere.

16 thoughts on “Being Published in Asia Changed Everything About My Asian American Writer Experience”

  1. It’s revealing that the author capitalizes Black but not white.

    White supremacists do this in reverse–capitalizing White but not black.

    Ironic that those most obsessed with race, whether left or right, reveal their own inherent racism by such desperate attempts to conform to their own social base. Racism doesn’t disappear merely because it’s directed at a historically advantaged race (Caucasians).

    (“Asian” is, of course, derived from a proper noun, like African or Caucasian, and so should be capitalized. That’s consistent and correct.)

  2. I wonder if there is a nationalistic aspect to this story as well. Because America is a world power, people in other countries pay attention to what we’re doing. Consequently, anyone who looks like them who “make it” in this country gain higher status in their own.

    I’m thinking of Psy, whose “Gagnam Style” video blew up into a monster hit, and the Korean actors who starred on “Lost.” Chinese basketball players in the U.S. are also the object of adoration and news coverage at home, precisely because they’re successful in America.

    I know the author is Taiwanese-American, but perhaps the same incentive is operating here, in addition to what she perceives.

    • It goes back a long way. In “Dragon: the Bruce Lee Story,” Lee discovers that phenomenon at work when he returns to Hong Kong after starring in “The Green Hornet.” Producers who wanted to work with Lee told him that in China, they call it “The Kato Show” or something like that. His being on an American show was huge deal in China.

      because there are readers of all ethnicities in the West, and we are all capable of empathy.

      It’s weird that tradpub needs to have this spelled out for them, when they’re allegedly so much more sophisticated than your average bear.

  3. Did you know she is Asian? And an American? And she’s not white? And she’s not Korean? And she’s Taiwanese? And she’s a writer? And she’s published in Asia? And that makes her a non-white, non-Korean, Taiwanese, Asian-American writer who’s published in Asia?

    That’s really a lot to think about.

  4. I am a white American male. My first novel was set in Hong Kong and Bangkok and it was published in Asia, but not in the west. My second was, too. And my third. And my fourth. I’m up to twelve novels now, a mix of crime and espionage tales all set in the cities of contemporary Asia, and not one of them has ever attracted the slightest interest from a publisher in the US in spite of them all being published in Asia and becoming big sellers in Asia and Europe (although a couple were eventually published and quite well distributed in the UK). This odd set of circumstances produced what is unquestionably my favorite review blurb, one which appeared in a review in the Bangkok Post: “Jake Needham is probably the best known American writer no one in American has ever heard of.”

    I’ve had three high-profile New York literary agents over my career, and all of them eventually discovered the same thing. American publishers have no interest in anything with an Asian connection. It won’t sell, they told all my agents consistently over nearly twenty years, because Americans don’t like Asia and they don’t like Asians. Seriously. They have literally said that. Over and over.

    From Manhattan, the whole world looks like… Manhattan, with maybe occasional vague flashes of Europe and LA. Asia is a far away place that is meaningless to Manhattanites, a placed populated with odd little people who aren’t white and have funny eyes. That is the problem the writer you cited here has had, a problem I battled for years until I gave up trying to solve it.

    My books are still published all over Asia, but they are now available in the US as well through the good offices of Amazon where they sell brilliantly. I’m unquestionably a happier man for finally having written off Manhattan publishers and their myopic, narrow-minded view of the world. I suggest she does the same.

    • Hush you, that’s not the message Electric Lit is trying to signal.

      And signaling seems to be all a lot of these companies can do now – fearful that the beast they’ve help create will turn on them next.

      Thank Dog for the internet, where no one needs to know your race/color/sex, political/religious leanings, or that you’re just a god. 😉

    • It’s not just Asian settings and themes that the Manhattan Mafia deprecates. It’s most of the planet. It’s entire genres.
      Consider, what’s the biggest money-making subgenre in Hollywood Today and for the last decade? Superhero fantasies.

      Go to Amazon and search for those: 10,000 will popup.
      Sort by price, high to low to see how many come from the BPHs. They don’t even try.

      They entire genre barely registers on the radar of the self-styled “guardians of culture”.

      A while back, Author Earnings reported that over 90% of Black literary fiction, something that should be right in the wheelhouse for Manhattan publishers, specialists in LitFic, was instead self-published.
      All the while, the establishment press bemoans lack of diversity in publishing.
      And those are but two examples.
      Plenty more can be found all over.

      They’re just not interested in anything they’re not already familiar with.

      It leaves the field clear for the entrepreneurial, though.

      • I’ve mentioned this type of thing before, but I can’t help but wonder about it whenever I read things like this. A few jobs ago, I worked on the website marketing for a long-time print-catalog company. On the face of it, it should’ve been a great opportunity since the Web was a new way to get the company’s products in front of a whole new audience since those who shop via print catalog are literally dying off. But it never worked out that way.

        The company had figured out that every bin in its warehouse cost X number of dollars to keep full, so whenever a given product didn’t sell out, it cost it money to store that stuff. So the guy who ordered from the factories every cycle was evaluated based on how much was left over after a given product was deemed to have gotten in front of all of the potential customers. Therefore, it was in his best interest to err on the side of shorting the order.

        So we’d launch new campaigns and drive lots of traffic to popular and promising products, only to have them show up as sold out in no time at all, even when we could look in the inventory system and see that it wasn’t sold out at all.

        Eventually, we figured out that the print-catalog customers skewed old enough that most of them paid via paper check, and processing refunds for them was costly, so the game was to make sure there was always inventory to cover those paper-check sales. Which meant declaring stuff sold out online in order to both cover those customers and make sure this guy looked like a genius when there was nothing left in the bins.

        When I showed him all of the traffic we were getting to products marked sold out and tried to make the case that we could’ve been making a lot more money for the company, he just gave me a smug grin and said, “We’re not changing a thing.” And since I didn’t want to be the type to rat him out to the company owner (just one guy whose family had been running it for generations), and since I knew the owner was very nervous about this newfangled Web (this was only 10 years ago, mind you), I did the only thing I could.

        I looked for another job. And landed at a major online player who’d been in the business for some time, in Web years. And found that it suffered from some of the same problems, given that it had been around long enough for its thinking to calcify.

        I have no data here. It’s just the experience of one person. But I wonder how much of that type of thing is what’s dooming the BPHs. There are just too many similar situations and people ingrained in their structure to ever take a different approach.

        • That same kind of thinking was on display here, a couple months ago, about the horror story of a botched book launch.

          In the tech world it’s called “flip it over the wall”: each part of the chain only worries about their piece oftbe puzzle with no regard to how it impacts the rest of the company or the final outcome.

          There’s a classic story about how GM bungled one of their more brilliant ideas in decades, the story of the Pontiac Fiero. The original idea was to do a cheap sporty two seat car to bring in young buyers who might be considering foreign coupes and build brand loyalty as they aged. It was meant to have a light plastic body and a decent v6 to go fast but be affordable.
          Then the “managers” chipped in.
          The Chevy guys didn’t want it at all because they thought another two seater would eat into sales of tbe much more expensive Corvette. When they couldn’t kill it outright, they offered up “massive” costs savings by convincing corporate that instead of tooling up for a new platform, the car be built by using the front axle of a CHEVETTE and flipped around for the rear) the drive train of a low end 4 cylinder X-car (Chevy Citation).
          Big savings on paper.
          Bonuses to tbe Chevy guys.
          The Pontiac guys were disgusted but it was the FrankenCar or nothing. So they did their best. Instead of a cheap pocket rocket for young guys they ended up with a pricey but great looking commuter car for middle age white collar guys.
          Handling at speed was poor, acceleration mediocre, and even fuel economy which was supposed to be a plus was middling.
          Sales were, of course, dissapointing. They tried getting a V6 in but tbe X-car V6 was heavy and it unbalanced the car. Worse handling, worse fuel economy. Only late in the car in its four year run was it allowed a tuned suspention but by then its reputation was shot.

          This from a company that into the 90’s swore the best $10,000 starter car for young buyers was a three year old used Buick sedan. They never considered that once young buyers grew older and more affluent, they’d stick with the foreign brand they started out with. We all know how that story ended.

          So, anyway, your experiences are not unique. Unless upper management instills a wholistic product culture, every company will end up feudalized and warring with itself on the way to the scrap heap.

          It’s happening even as we speak.

    • It won’t sell, they told all my agents consistently over nearly twenty years, because Americans don’t like Asia and they don’t like Asians.

      I wonder if they remember EM Forster, James Clavell, Pearl Buck, or Richard Mason? I suspect their answer would be, “Who?”

      Maybe they watched Netflix Marco Polo?

      • Their subconscious view of their fellow Americans who aren’t upper-middle- or upper-class Manhattanites or from similar circumstances in Los Angeles is that we’re all a bunch of inbred racist hicks who might not even know what a book is for.

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