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.)
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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?
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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?
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.