What It Means To Be An Asian In Publishing
(First posted on Path2Pub May 16 2022)
It’s AAPI Heritage Month in the US, so I figured there’s no better time to discuss what it means for me to be an Asian in publishing. It’s no big secret that BIPOC have been struggling against the biases in the traditionally white western publishing machinery, and while there has been plenty of progress made in recent years, it is still barely a drop in the ocean. Here are some of my reflections as an Asian in Asia, navigating the publishing space for the past two years:
1. Context Matters
I think it’s important for everyone to constantly remind themselves that it’s a BIG WORLD out there, BIPOC included. Much of publishing discourse tends to be highly US-focused, and as a result, many people habitually use the “US lens” to view writing by BIPOC authors, even if these authors are not in fact American. Case in point, Malaysian author Hanna Alkaf should not have to remind you that she’s not American—that should not be a default assumption.
When I first joined the online writing community, I was told off by some Asian-American writers for suggesting that I, as an ethnic Chinese, did not share the same experiences, views and emotions about marginalisation as they did, and hence wasn't comfortable joining in their "fight". To them, it was inconceivable. (Bro, I was so mad then.) But I was born in Singapore, where Chinese are the racial majority. That has given me significant privilege growing up, something that minorities in our country might not have. Across the Causeway in our nearest neighbour Malaysia, the tables are turned. Malays are the racial majority and Chinese are in the minority. Ask any Malaysian and they’ll tell you that the privilege struggle is a whole different matter there. Our countries are only separated by a bridge that takes ten minutes to cross, yet our contexts are so vastly different, what more when compared to the US or UK, half a globe away? Ask any Singaporean or Malaysian how they feel about their diaspora struggle, and they’ll probably ask you “Wtf do you mean? What diaspora?”, because that’s such a western-centric concept tbh. These varied experiences influence our writing in vastly different ways. Try to understand that, instead of judging everyone’s work by the same lens. In fact, don't judge. Appreciate.
2. There is no single universal template for storytelling
We are all familiar with the storytelling “template” that publishing so loves. Three acts, big inciting incident, rising climax, character agency etc. When we veer away from these so-called conventions, we get tons of rejections. Many BIPOC authors have tweeted about this before—the inability of the white-dominated industry to appreciate and understand different storytelling norms that are otherwise widespread in other parts of the world. Personally, I've struggled with wanting to tell my stories in my own way, and fearing that this "way" will be rejected and that my publishing dreams will be squashed because of it.
Once again, we go back to context. Agency in a character looks very different across different cultures, but I don’t think any single one is more/less valid than the other. There’s no need for a character to be always actively making decisions and raring to go take down their enemies like a Marvel superhero. There’s no need for there to only be one major conflict—there can be many small ones. Look past stereotypes, and look past your own limited field of view—not every story and experience has to align with yours in order for them to be acceptable.
(This is just me screaming to be allowed to write a long-form book that’s like a Chinese historical palace drama, which would very likely be pissed on by western gatekeepers.)
3. There is room in the library for ALL our stories
So for my final point, what I mean to say is that I hope for readers, fellow writers and publishing professionals to understand that context matters, and that across this damn big world context differs, but our stories are STILL VALID. Allour stories, including the fun and fantastical ones that are not tied to any Big messages. They do not have to fit into a western-centric mould for them to be worthy. Our characters don’t have to look and act in a certain set way for them to be “relatable”. Our plots don’t have to follow the same rise and fall for them to be compelling. And there certainly should not be a “quota” on our stories because think of all the markets you could reach out to if you just take the leap, Publishing!
The whole point of books should be to help diversify your world view, not to pigeonhole yourself even further. Books are transportive. They give you a glimpse into worlds and lives you wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to experience. That’s an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed if you ask me :)