Long time geek, fangirl, mother, and reader. I've got a lot to say, you might not like it all, but it will be honest and hopefully helpful.
[This was a post made by Malinda Lo on the Diversity in Ya tumblr blog. Warning: the post contains a small spoilers for Adaptation, but it's relevant to the subject of the article.]
Yesterday my novel Inheritance, the sequel to Adaptation, was published.Inheritance picks up minutes after the end of Adaptation, and I think of the two books as one big story cut in two halves. They’re X-Files-inspired science fiction thrillers about a 17-year-old girl, Reese Holloway, who has to uncover what exactly happened to her and her friend David Li while they were unconscious at a secret military base in Nevada following a freak car accident.
My first two novels, Ash and Huntress, were YA fantasies about queer girls.Ash was a lesbian retelling of Cinderella, and Huntress was inspired by Chinese and Japanese traditions. I am both a lesbian and a Chinese American, and the subject of my identity comes up often when I do interviews or panels. So, when Adaptation came out, I was known for writing YA about nonstraight, nonwhite characters. That’s fine — up to a point.
Last fall, I did several events to promote Adaptation. At one of them, someone in the audience asked, “Is Reese white and straight in order to make Adaptation more mainstream?”
(Talk about a loaded question!)
I answered, firstly: “What makes you think Reese is straight?”
The person who asked that question had only read the first paragraph of the jacket copy, which described Reese’s feelings about David: “Reese and her debate team partner and longtime crush David are in Arizona when it happens.”
She hadn’t read down to the end yet, when a girl named Amber is mentioned: “When Reese unexpectedly collides with the beautiful Amber Gray, her search for the truth is forced in an entirely new direction…”
The jacket copy didn’t spell it out because we didn’t want to spoil the plot (although personally I think it’s pretty suggestive), but let me tell you: Reese is not straight. This is an assumption you should never make — not in fiction, and not in real life.
But the question of whether I made Reese white in order to make the book more mainstream has a much more complicated answer.
Was I tempted to make her white because … well, everybody knows that books about white people sell more? To be honest, of course that thought crossed my mind. It probably crosses the mind of every author out there writing about people of color. And if it doesn’t cross their mind, someone will suggest it to them.
But let me ask you this: Should authors who have written about people of color in the past never be allowed to write about white people?
And here’s another question: Since I’m a person of color, should I only write about people of color?
The answer to both questions, in my opinion, is no. As a writer, I’m allowed to write about whatever the hell I want. As a writer of color, I’m allowed to write about people who are not like me. The same goes for every writer out there.
Also: It is not a crime to want your book to do well in the marketplace. Some writers write only from the heart; others write almost entirely thinking about the bank. I’m going to bet that most writers fall somewhere in between, like me. I need to be creatively inspired to write, but at the same time, I know that the creative decisions I make can push a book in various directions: literary, niche, commercial, somewhere in between. I’m lucky that I’m married to someone who has a “real job,” and I don’t need to depend wholly on the income from my writing to support myself.
Because of that privilege, I have the luxury of writing the books I want to write. In Adaptation, the main character is white. Does that make the book more mainstream? I don’t know, because not only is she not straight, she’s involved in a bisexual love triangle with another girl (Amber) and a boy who is Asian American (David).
And there are so many racist stereotypes about Asian men.
In Hollywood, Asians are rarely if ever leading men because Asian men are either kung fu experts (who still don’t get the girl) or nerds. Bruce Lee or Long Duk Dong. There’s no in between. And in real life, plenty of women — women of all races — embrace these stereotypes by saying they would never date an Asian man.
[Image: Bruce Lee (left) and the character Long Duk Dong (right) from the movie Sixteen Candles.]
I have a father who is half Chinese. I have a Chinese American brother. I’m married to a woman now, but my ex-boyfriend, whom I was with for five years, was also Chinese American. Those stereotypes about Asian men make me really angry. That’s why I wanted to write a book in which an Asian American boy was a romantic lead. I wanted him to be sexy and strong and smart.
And I admit I thought his desirability would be underscored if he dated a white girl. I would be flipping the established, often very racist practice of white men being with exotic Asian women. I was purposely subverting that stereotype.
For me, the decision to make Reese white was tangled up in all of these complicated things. It wasn’t a simple, white = commercial success decision. And while I do think Adaptation andInheritance are more commercial than my previous books, it’s not because the main character is white. It’s because the style I wrote it in is more commercial. It is, frankly, less literary thanAsh or Huntress. It’s a science fiction thriller, and things actually do explode in it. There are conspiracies, and men in black, and Area 51, and a love triangle that I think is pretty darn sexy.
Whether or not it’s “mainstream” is for the market to determine, not me, though I freely admit that I’ve always written more for the mainstream than for the experimental fringe. I know that mainstream can have connotations of blandness and whitewashing, but it can also indicate acceptance and success. I don’t think it’s wrong — especially not for an Asian American lesbian — to hope for some of that.
[Image: The book cover for Inheritance (left); the author, Malinda Lo (right)]