I attended the kick-off of the Diversity in YA tour this Saturday. Diversity in YA is the brain-child of two talented YA authors, Cindy Pon and Malinda Lo, and is a celebration of the portrayal of diverse cultures in young adult fiction. This Saturday’s event was focused on Asian American authors (Malinda Lo, Cindy Pon, Gene Luen Yang, and J.A. Yang), though the entire tour features books from a wider range of ethnicities and cultures. I’ll post a write-up of the topics discussed in the panel, but to start things off, one question from the audience made me reflect upon my early reading habits.
The question was regarding what each of the authors read growing up and almost every single author, with the exception of Gene, spoke about not reading any book with Asian characters. Cindy Pon mentioned that she was writing the books with the adventures she never got to read. Malindo Lo remarked that a teacher passed her Maxine Hong Kingston’s Warrior Woman and she wasn’t able to connect with the book at all! J.A. expressed that he similarly didn’t read books with Asian characters growing up because he liked books with warriors and protagonists that were quite different from him. Only Gene, with his background of comic book reading and early childhood growing up in Asia (I forget where, sorry Gene), had a wide range of Asian stories available.
This made me realize that I have always been in search of dragons. I would literally, look for covers with Asian looking art or titles that sounded Asian. Perhaps this is why I ended up reading so much fantasy because the dragons I usually found were from those books.
I don’t know if it was necessarily because I wanted protagonists that I could identify with. I felt I identified with all the Caucasian protagonists I was reading just fine. I shared their adventures and felt all their angst. Reading about Japan or China (never Vietnam unless it was about the War!) felt like reading about a foreign and exotic place for me too, so it was as more my desire for vicarious exploration and adventure than my need to read about characters with similar backgrounds as me.
When I read Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, I was very deeply moved. I mean, yes, they were deeply emotional stories, but they struck a chord with me, not only because they expressed some very core elements of being Asian American that I hadn’t seen in writing in this way before, but because I knew that other people were reading it too. Non-Asians were reading it. My high school friends were reading it.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon gets knocked by a lot of wuxia purists because they say it’s a poor example of the genre. That it was watered-down for mainstream audiences. I don’t agree at all. And when I saw the trailer for that movie, I became so incredibly excited and showed it to everyone. It was a wuxia film like the ones I grew up with, but it was being shown to mainstream audiences. It was the absolute joy that something I loved could finally be shared with other people who had never seen a Jin Yong film. And it could be shared in a way that I couldn’t explain with words.
So I’ve always been in search of dragons, but not only for myself. Not to find Asian heroines that look like me, but to find something that could be shown to people who don’t look like me. Who have no idea about the stories that I enjoyed.
I remember Taye Diggs once corrected a reporter who called one of his films a “Black film”. He said it’s not a Black film, it’s a film with Black actors. And people didn’t seem to understand what the big deal is. I believe Enrique Iglesias has made similar comments about his music not being Latino music, but music with Latino influence. They’re not rejecting their own race or getting nitpicky — I get it now.
Media is about connecting to a wider audience. It’s about reaching out to people who have never been somewhere, experienced something, thought of life in this particular way. When a work becomes marginalized as an Asian work for Asian people, it feels to the artist that they’re being dragged two steps back from their real goal.
So, I’m rather tickled pink that after searching for “Dragon” books for so long, I have my own Dragon title coming out in September: The Dragon and the Pearl. Ha, ha — stereotypical Asian title. Whatever. I’m so proud that maybe someone in search of dragons will find my book and be pleased that it’s not about Western fantasy dragons or Vlad Tepes or European warriors. I do hope that Asian women will read the story and identify and fall in love with the romance, but I’m also hoping many of those people searching don’t look a thing like me, or come from a similar place that I do, at all. And I hope they’ll identify just as much with the characters.