This is a brief note to say that Emperor’s Riddle by Kat Zhang (Aladdin, May 2017) fits the bill of my continuing search for fun stories set in contemporary China that features Asian American children and authentically captures both the modern day life familiar to western readers and the cultural flavor unique to China. Definitely a book that I will introduce to the Chinese American mother and child who came seeking books featuring characters that “look more like her.”
Tag Archives: diversity
Readers of this blog and friends & colleagues might have known that I am originally from Taiwan, growing up as a racial majority, upper socio-(but-not-economical) class, and never having to figure out my racial identity as a marginalized child, teen, or young adult.
When you grow up occupying only a small slice of the population pie (less than 1/16 for Asian Americans of varied country origins,) your self-image and self-worth must rely not only on your family’s heritage and conviction, but also on your school environment, your neighborhood, and media representation.
For the last few years, I have identified myself as a Person of Color so I could unite with my Asian American, Brown American, and Black American brothers and sisters to raise awareness of the institutionalized racism they (we) must confront and rectify together. However, I must confess the hesitation, the discomfort, and the sense of being an “imposter” in many of such groups that I insert myself in at work, at professional settings, and social gatherings. I attend the monthly Faculty of Color meetings to discuss and strategize how to make my school a more inclusive and just environment for everyone. I go to the annual People of Color Conference for educators to glean and share new knowledge and lesson plans. I read books and articles and discuss about all sorts of sub-topics related to the systemic oppression so many of my colleagues, friends, and students have to contend with on a daily basis.
Every so often, I say to myself, “But you have never personally experienced any of these, except for perhaps once in a while someone jokingly (or seriously) thinks that you can do math a little better or that you are probably quite docile.” The last point could be exasperating since I am so far from being docile or gentle but the misconception or stereotype never gives me an iota of emotional stress. My racial identity could be easily just part of my whole being: like that I’m short or I am near-sighted and that I am a mother and a librarian. I am more and more aware of how much a luxury it is that I can go about my day, moving in all sorts of spaces to not be keenly aware of my racial identity.
This is the kind of luxury (privilege?) that I imagine many of my white friends, colleagues, and students have. And I also imagine that this is why so many of them are still struggling to figure out why their brown/black/Asian counterparts cannot simply “let this racial identity thing” go, or cannot simply train themselves to not allow racial identity to dominate one’s self-image or as the main influence of one’s notion of self-worth.
The more I think about my own identity, the more I know that I cannot claim to be a Person of Color in 2017 America. Instead, I feel like I need a different category — a different label, perhaps. My socio-economic status, my immigration status (naturalized citizen by marriage,) my work stability, and my lack of external threats from law enforcement, etc., makes me, if not 100% equal to most upper-middle class white Americans, close enough to Being White. This explains why I often do not have the “ouch” reaction that many people of color have when encountering media misrepresentations, lack of representations, or grossly inaccurate stereotypical expectations — all because I have not experienced years of being misunderstood or being reduced to a “type” and not being seen and valued as a unique individual. If there is some sort of continuum of Racial Identities — then I would drop my pin (when it comes to how privileged and how socially resourced I am) somewhere in the “White” section. Since I cannot claim to be actually White, I will from now on think of myself as Off-White and hopefully can use this identity to help my White colleagues, friends, and students to figure out how we can help advance the anti-racist and social justice causes.
I welcome comments and thoughts — am I being completely off here? Am I usurping anyone’s identity to claim myself as Off White or is it somehow accurate and perhaps even rings a bell for other Asian Americans?
According to these two articles, one by the Guardian, Peppa Pig pulled: China cracks down on foreign children’s books and one on South China Morning Post, What does China have against Peppa Pig?, the Chinese Government has started to limit the number of picture books originally published overseas in order to both foster local children’s book publication and have a firmer control over the kind of ideology conveyed through the local picture books. (Thanks, Jeff Gottesfeld, for posting these links on Facebook!)
I am monitoring this progress and will report back for those interested in following this topic. But, right out of the bag, I’d like to point out that the number of translated books for children in China has always been huge and overpowering. Look at this screenshot of the top paperback picture book bestsellers on their largest online children’s bookstore: 2 from the Netherland, 4 from the United States, and 2 from France. Not a single title is by Chinese authors or illustrators.
Compare this to the top selling picture books on Amazon in the U.S. (There is no such category, only best selling children’s books.) There are eight picture books in the first twenty titles which are mostly Harry Potter books: First 100 Words by Roger Priddy, The Going-To-Bed Book by Sandra Boynton, The Wonderful Things… by Emily Winfield Martin, Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae, The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, Oh, The Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss, Richard Scarry’s The Gingerbread Man (Little Golden Book) by Nancy Nolte (Author), Richard Scarry (Illustrator), and Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. All of them are published in the U.S., by U.S. authors and illustrators. In fact, it has always been rare for foreign, translated work for children to thrive in the U.S. marketplace.
So, I imagine that the need for #OWNVOICE is real and urgent in China.
There is a reason I used this hashtag since I saw that someone invented this other hashtag on Facebook to stress that China Need Diverse Books: #CNDB (modeling after the #WNDB, We Need Diverse Books hashtag) as if the Chinese market is flushed with nothing BUT Chinese creators’ works. The reality is quite the opposite.
Let’s truly examine the full ranges of the issues of picture book fields in these two countries before making judgements regarding the nature and influence of this potential “government mandate.”
The fact is: the U.S. has no government mandate, but a free market, that dictates what gets published and sold. And what we have is usually an extremely U.S. or Western centric slate of titles year in and year out. Any publisher is BRAVE enough to bring a couple of culturally unfamiliar, translated books into the U.S. market is praised, patted on the back, but rarely sees monetary success because of such courageous move. (And why isn’t the Betchelder Award ever cites the Translator along with the Publisher. Or for that matter, why aren’t translators’ names always prominently placed on the cover or title pages? That’s another whole blog post to come.)
As some of you know already, I am working with Candied Plums, a new children’s book imprint, to bring contemporary Chinese books to the U.S. There is no mandate from anyone or anywhere, except for the publisher’s and my desire to bring more cultural understanding and accessibility to the U.S. readers. These picture books, in my opinion, do not promote the “Chinese/Communist Dogma,” nor do they convey any specific ideology except for displaying all ways that we can be human. These books should be as popular in China as all the imported books. So, perhaps, just perhaps, the publishers who have been working hard at publishing their #OWNVOICES would have a better chance at reaching their #OWNREADERS with this new, drastic mandate from the Government?
I’d like to draw attention to this thoughtful review of Erin Hicks’ graphic novel Nameless City over at Reading While White blog, I could not bring myself to reading most of the book, because of my own strong emotional (mostly adverse) reaction the raised concerns explored by Angie Manfredi in her review. I did not speak up about this title because I strongly believe that one cannot critique a book without reading the book in its entirety and closely examining its many components. (I felt the same about Ryan Gaudin’s The Walled City and Richelle Mead’s Soundless, both “inspired” and “loosely based” on an exoticized old China without the authors’ true understanding of the very real, and very much “living” culture or paying tribute to the long established literary tradition in this particular country.)
Whitewashing has been understood to mean film/tv producers casting white actors to portray minority characters — especially Asian American roles.
Doctor Strange, a highly entertaining and well reviewed new movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, stirred up heated discussion earlier this year over its casting of Tilda Swinton, a white actress to play The Ancient One, an “Asian” character from the comic books series. Given the exaggerated, stereotypical, and exoticized portrayal of the original The Ancient One, it is important that the character undergoes modification and updating to reflect more contemporary and progressed mindset.
However, Marvel definitely did not hit the mark this time.
The Marvel Studio, a superpower in the entertainment business these days, could have easily corrected the issues from the original comics (like they did with Wong’s character) to create a respectable, mysterious, powerful, and also flawed character. The Stuio would have then become a strong leader in providing Asian American actors better opportunities. Instead, they went with a casting choice that, after viewing the movie, I found completely unnecessary. The Ancient One stands mostly still to deliver lines in slightly archaic language and manners. I do believe that most working actors would have been able to give a solid performance given the script. Having one line stating, “Oh, she’s Celtic” and yet still set most of the movie in Asia (Kathmandu and Hong Kong) with much of the “training” in some composite Asian Martial Arts style is completely inadequate in their attempts to combat the original stereotypical rendition (as a statement defending the casting choice from the movie’s creative team) of The Ancient One.
I believe that most of the people (I imagined a mix of White and no-White folks) working on this movie did not mean to actively marginalize Asian American actors with any sort of ill intent. However, in their decision (casual or deliberate) to not cast an Asian American actor or actress in this role, they perpetuate the systemic oppressive practice of taking away opportunities from working Asian/Asian American actors and thus effectively further the marginalization of such group.
What a shame! What a missed opportunity!
Here are some other articles circulating online that just came out after the movie’s release:
‘Doctor Strange’ is a really fun, whitewashed ride! by Gene Park, from The Washington Post.
Doctor Strange ‘whitewashing’ row resurfaces with new criticism of Swinton casting by Alan Evans, from The Guardian.
‘Doctor Strange’ Director Owns Up to Whitewashing Controversy by Jen Yamato, from The Daily Beast.
This post, meant to be published on May 16th, never got posted on the 16th Day of APA Heritage Month. I have since read (listened to) the book and edited slightly my responses to Shliesman’s review. Since this is a book eligible for Odyssey Award and I am currently serving on the committee, I am not going to discuss the quality of the writing, nor the technical merits/flaws, etc. of the recording.
This post is about a bigger issue, with the review as a springboard.
Megan Schliesman, in her Reviewing While White: A Tyranny of Petticoats, points out that there are fifteen stories in this short story collection and eight of the stories feature characters of color and one of them is about a Chinese American.
The more than a dozen contributors include four women of color: three of them are of Asian Pacific heritage. Marie Lu wrote a story about an Inuit girl in Alaska. Caroline Tung Richmond and Y.S. Lee both wrote stories about white protagonists and the one story about a Chinese American girl is written by a white author.
This is not surprising since Asian American children’s and YA authors have not been known to write only about Asian American experiences. Marie Lu’s Legend and the Young Elites trilogies all feature predominantly non-Asian characters. And both Y.S. Lee and Caroline Tung Richmond write about European girls.
Schliesman also pointed out that the one story featuring a Chinese American character portrays a girl who can see ghosts and commune with spirits. (And several other stories featuring POC characters also include ghosts or spirits.) She wrote,
Surely there are plenty of “badass girls” who can be imagined throughout and across U.S. history and authentically grounded in a variety of cultures without resorting to the fantastic. What am I to make of these stories? Are they grounded in any authentic cultural beliefs, or simply spun from their authors’ imaginations?
I’d like to think that this is a true question and that perhaps either the authors or cultural experts might be able to offer a satisfactory answer. However, this could also be an accusation: perhaps Schliesman already decided that the authors have not grounded their stories in authentic cultural beliefs and by “resorting to the fantastic,” they have either exoticized the cultures or rendered them “backwards.”
The only thing I can offer here is based on my own singular experience as a Chinese girl growing up in Taiwan. And from there, perhaps readers of A Tyranny of Petticoats can make up their own minds about whether this Chinese American story’s allusion to ghosts/spirits seems authentic.
Re-reading part of Maxine Hong Kingston’s wonderful memoir The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, I was reminded how my own girlhood in Taiwan was tightly woven with the beliefs in the spiritual world: my mother had lucid dreams and could tell us about immediate future events with quite a bit of accuracy; my father’s soul was raised to Heaven by 49 days of continuous Buddhist monks’ chanting in our house; fortune-tellers are consulted by most people to find the best day to open a business, to have a wedding, and the best match for one’s daughter or son; the many offerings at various temples from parents to secure their children’s high marks on the college entrance exam… these are things we routinely did (and most likely still do.) As recently as just a couple of years ago, after a really frightening nightmare when we stayed in a hotel in central Taiwan, I asked my older sister, who sometimes serves as an exorcist to “clean houses (eject ghosts)” for her friends and clients, to perform a ritual involving clean water and a bowl of beans. I slept soundly after that ritual. I definitely have a strong sense of pre-destined fate and still clench my fists in a particular pattern to ward off evil elements when passing a cemetery or encountering a funeral procession. (Actually, an upcoming book written by a debut Taiwanese American author will explore Taiwan “ghost culture” deeply, and authentically.)
Will I take offense if someone out of my culture takes these elements and insert them clumsily and stridently into a tale without truly understanding where all these beliefs and sensibilities came from? Probably. I imagine that it is not easy for an “outsider” to grasp or present accurately my strong fear of ghosts or my sense of comfort when smelling incense – both have roots in my own self and also my connection to the tradition passed down through many thousands of years. This probably explains my inability to finish a well received book such as The Walled City by Ryan Graudin — I simply couldn’t get past her descriptions of the Chinese Constellations and how they are used in her tale and found her supposedly in-depth research, from afar without actually living through or experiencing the culture, lacking. This is also perhaps why I have yet to be able to read past the first segment of The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks — when the location in this Graphic Novel is so glaringly a superficial copy of a Chinese traditional city.
That said, is including ghosts/spirits in a story about a Chinese American girl automatically the mark of “exoticism” or “keeping the culture in the backwater days”? I’d say no — not automatically at all. It all depends on how the tale is told and the world is built and whether there is a true understanding of from where such elements came. Just because I, a 50 something Chinese/Taiwanese woman feels a certain way about a text featuring “my culture” does not mean that mine is THE way or THE ONLY way that such text would be or should be viewed by other Chinese/Taiwanese or Chinese/Taiwanese American readers.
I hope that we can all accept that, since People are complex and Cultures and Histories are complex, Books about People and Cultures the Discussions about such Books are also unavoidably complex. We do have to keep digging and thinking and sometimes even changing our minds.