Stealing from other cultures

Ever since the whitewashing controversy earlier this year, I’ve been thinking more about issues of non-white character portrayal in film and books. I know the controversy didn’t start with Ghost in the Shell, and Lionel Shriver’s infamous speech certainly kicked up quite a fuss in 2016, but it’s only recently that the smattering of feelings I’ve had about this seems to be taking shape.

See this tweet: https://twitter.com/jennyhan/status/888475968112803840

Admittedly, if I saw an ad for this film without having seen this tweet, I probably wouldn’t have batted an eyelid about the Asian representation thing. Maybe it’s because there’s so much racially charged emotion in the debate that I find it hard to take stock of my own feelings independent of external influences.

But this recent post by author Elizabeth StevensWhite Writers Writing Non-White Characters: Why I Vote Yes, For Commercial Fiction, hit very close to home, and helped me find some structure for my own feelings on this.

I am Asian. Chinese, to be specific, maybe with a little indigenous Southeast Asian thrown in the mix too (one time I was told yes, another time I was told no, so who the hell knows). As a reader, I consider myself somewhat colourblind (“colour agnostic” might be a better term), in that I don’t often think about fictional characters in terms of their race, though I have often felt a sense of novelty or piqued interest when presented with non-white main characters – maybe because it’s unusual, I don’t know.

Recently, my partner and I compared notes on how we would cast the characters from The Quantum Thief in our ideal hypothetical movie. While we agreed on Orlando Bloom or Luke Evans as Jean Le Flambeur, we had very different ideas for Mieli. For starters, he pictured her as a ScarJo type, where I’d always thought of her as more of a Tessa Thompson – quite different, huh?

I don’t tend to read character descriptions in fiction, so his depiction is probably more accurate than mine. But how someone looks has always seemed less interesting to me than how they behave.

So, personally, I don’t mind white writers writing non-white characters. Just having a variety of characters, cultures, issues, turns of phrase, etc. makes a story so interesting. That’s not to say white characters and their problems are uninteresting, but that they’d be even more interesting when contrasted against colourful elements.

But Stevens highlights an interesting point in her piece: respect.

Are you a white author trying to tell the story of a disenfranchised Mexican immigrant? Maybe reconsider.

However, are you a white author of erotica looking to cast a dark-skinned black woman as your leading lady? Please, write on!

If someone who’s never walked in my shoes started telling me what it’s like to walk in my shoes and how I should feel about it, I’d find it hard to stay immersed in the story. That’s the kicker for me. If an author has done their homework well enough, such that any racial/cultural elements in the story don’t clash with what I know from experience, then I couldn’t care less what race they are. At the end of the day, people all experience the same frustrations and feelings. As a reader, I just want characters I can relate to.

I don’t mind a little cultural appropriation. To use a non-fiction example, if a friend showed up to a costume party in a black bob wig and a cheongsam, I don’t expect I’d get offended. Cheongsam dresses are nice on the eyes, and I like seeing them around (even if it’s just a costume). If they pinned their eyes back and did yellowface, though, I’d start wondering about what they were trying to accomplish.

It’s not that I’m offended by yellowface. It’s that it’s kind of cringey and tacky. So if the rest of their costume was overtly tacky, and I knew that person to have a cringey sense of humour, I’d probably find it in character for a well-executed joke. Context is important here, I suppose.

Where I grew up, we laughed at our own little Asian eyes and accents and penchant for haggling. It was all part of appreciating our own culture in a multicultural society; all part of coming together and sharing a joke. So, I’m OK with non-Asian cultures doing it too, cos why shouldn’t we share funny moments together when we care about each other?

If the joke fails, though, all bets are off. I know it’s harsh to expect everyone to nail comedy, but jokes are a gamble. Every joker knows this deep down; if they don’t, I’d wonder if respect was ever on the table to begin with. I agree with Lionel Shriver’s point about writers being cultural pickpockets, so if someone’s going to pickpocket something for a joke, it better be hilarious to make the theft worthwhile!

What makes me uncomfortable is when a stereotype is laid on real thick and laboured like no one’s gonna get it unless you beat them over the head with it. That’s not only disrespectful to the people you stole from, but disrespectful to the audience you’re presenting it to. That poor delivery makes the joke unfunny. Who’s coming together then? Was it worthwhile?

Well, that’s just me as a reader. As a writer, I have more thoughts, but this post is long enough already and I really need a cup of tea.

Playlist — You and I

Music plays a big part in my writing. Good tunes set the mood and get my head in the zone to make words happen. Here’s my mood music for You and I. You’ll need a Spotify account to tune in!

Catching up

I’ve been so busy lately, I didn’t think I’d have time to update this blog. But I’ve just submitted the finale for “You and I” to Noveltrove Erotica, and can now take a breather before getting on with the rest of my to-do list.

Update on the publishing thing: I have signed a contract with Siren-Bookstrand, written blurbs and summaries, and hoped to high heaven that someone will tell me if I’ve done a crap job! I still kind of can’t believe it and am trying hard to keep my fears and doubts at bay. I really hope you guys enjoy my first novel. Will share more as things progress.

This week, I’m setting up a newsletter and hope to goodness you’ll enjoy the updates, new reads and other goodies I’m putting in it. It’s short, sweet, and only once a month so it doesn’t clog your inbox. The first issue goes out in August!

I’ve been reading a lot of fiction prompts lately, and have been thinking about sharing stories on this blog. When I was in school, first learning to write essays, we’d be given a topic and have to write 150 words. Now, 150 doesn’t sound like a lot, but I remember when it felt like heaps. I love flash fiction for that reason – you can do so much with so little.

I love soup and simple recipes for that reason too, but that’s a story for another day.

Anyway, what do you think? Would you read romance and erotica on a person’s blog, or do you prefer story sites like Noveltrove and Literotica? Or do you prefer grabbing whole ebooks and reading away from the computer? What about getting short stories emailed to you directly?

Inspo: Hugh Jackman

I wanted to share some inspiration today. Hugh Jackman is one of my favourite badasses. He smashed his training regime for years, staying fit to play Wolverine. And he can sing and dance and act. Watching him makes me feel like I can achieve my goals if I just keep working hard.

Hats off to you, Hugh Jackman.

I’m sure this is obvious, but none of these pictures/videos are mine.

I’m getting published!!

I’m so excited. I signed a contract with a publisher earlier this week. My futuristic thriller novel will see the light of day at some point later this year.

My friends have been incredibly supportive. From beta reading the manuscript to going out of their way to try a genre they wouldn’t normally touch, to reviewing my flash fiction, nudging me about a newsletter, and even asking to include my work in their monthly book club. I’m so grateful, I could cry.

I haven’t cried yet. It all feels so surreal and, I admit, there’s a cynical and insecure part of me that’s bracing for something going wrong. It’s seriously making me reflect on my attitude. I know when it comes to writing, fear has caused me to hesitate a lot over the years. I don’t want that to be the theme of my whole life.

When I was younger, I used to write a heap of fiction. That was back when you could still be anonymous online. I could be a different person. Writing and sharing with people who know me in real life is completely different. It makes me nervous.

So, sharing my work like this lately has been a big step. I guess even if something does go wrong, I feel relieved to have made it here. I feel inspired to work hard and keep going.

Thank you to everyone who’s supported me so far — even though I haven’t told most of you that I have a blog haha. Whenever it is you find this post, know that I love you. 🙂

Rambling in a post-beta world

There was an unexpected theme in the feedback I got from my beta readers. They said they wanted “more”… More scene setting, more background; essentially, more words.

I was surprised. The whole time I chipped away at my novel draft, I was scared to death of boring my readers with too many words. Come to think of it, I’m pretty much constantly scared of it. It’s a monkey on my back.

Earlier this year, I read Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others. I loved it. As a storyteller, I found myself in awe of the surreal and imaginative worlds he conjures with his words. As a (sometimes) technical writer, I marvelled at how his composition was so precise yet so emotional. Seeing that made me see how I struggle to resolve that difference in my own writing.

I write non-fiction for a living. Usually feature articles and blog posts about science and digital marketing, but sometimes professional profiles, business emails, documentation and copy. Because most of my work gets published on the web, there are certain styles and guiding principles I have to adhere to.

Succinctness is one. A big one, in fact. Huge. Being wordy is considered taking the piss with the reader’s time. It’s considered indulgent.

After so long, I feel guilty when I ramble. Don’t get me wrong, I still ramble, but I feel guilty now, where I didn’t used to before. I suspect it shows in my writing. I’m hesitant to describe things too thoroughly, too scared to dwell on a scene for too long. Because shit, isn’t that what you skip over to get to the good bits?

Recently, a friend told me that she loves detailed descriptions. She loves reading in-depth nuances about a scene. It blew my mind. I’d never heard anyone say that before. Perhaps all this time, I’ve been living in a bubble of rushed, “just get on with it” types who don’t want to stop and smell the roses. (Or, read about how the roses smell.)

So I’m in the midst of my edit now. I’ve been told the editing process should take as long as the writing process, so I don’t feel bad that it’s going at a glacial pace. I also don’t feel bad that I’m adding so much more context via so many more words. I’m being indulgent and I’m trying not to care, because my readers have asked for it. And shit, it’s fiction. Isn’t indulgence kind of what fiction’s all about?

Fresh Find: Mated to the Jardan Warrior by Aria Bell

This isn’t meant to be a book review blog, but I wanted to share one novel that really got me fired up about writing for this genre: Mated to the Jardan Warrior by Aria Bell

The writing style isn’t what I usually go for, but I was impressed at how smooth the storytelling was. Seamless from beginning to end. Every line had a purpose, which you probably know is the way good writing should go. I’m terrified of rambling too much in my stories, and boring my readers with meaningless drivel. But writing mostly non-fiction in my day job, I’m also terrified of not rambling enough, and boring my readers with dry walls of text.

So it was great to pick up this novel and find myself excited to get to the juicy bits, content to read the non-juicy bits because they were still told in a nice way, and reach a satisfying HEA ending. I just wish I could find the author on Twitter so I could give her a high five!

My rating: ★★★★☆ (4 out of 5)

The next 15 minutes

Phew! I’m halfway through my edit. I’ve been chatting with a fellow writer (one who’s actually been published in the romance genre!), who’s given me plenty of advice about writing and publishing. So there’s a lot swimming around in my head.

I have many questions and, while I know you’re supposed to ask questions when you’re just starting out, part of me feels inclined to just shut up and put my head down and get my work done. Ask with my body and actions instead of with words, you know?

Well, today my body says we did good for getting to halfway, even though I started the week intending to finish by this afternoon. Whether I’m taking a break for today or for the next 15 minutes, I need to just enjoy it and not feel guilty. Even Chuck Wendig says so.

So, *raises teacup*… Here’s to you.

Late night bravery

It’s so late, but I’m on my last couple of scenes for this first draft and can’t stop. It’s strange. I’ve spent months working up to this point, and now that it’s here, I feel so anxious.

I guess it’s because once the first draft is done, the editing process begins. It means I can no longer dismiss the things that are wrong with my plot and prose. I have to confront them, fix them, instead of saying, “Oh, I’ll deal with it later.”

While I don’t advocate drinking on the job, I’ve had a dram of single malt liquid courage tonight. It’s helping. Another thousand words to go. Hopefully the final thousand. Wish me luck!