I made a Facebook post recently, admitting that I have come to feel unable to incorporate People of Colour into my fiction the way I used to; that I no longer feel safe doing so. It got some upset reactions from other writers who called me a coward – not an inappropriate reaction in the least – but the platform I chose to make the statement on was also probably not optimal, so I wanted to expand my thoughts on this here.
It is both the happy reality and the sad limitation that we can never fully know the mind of another. In a way, all writers are thieves. We don’t pull characters out of the ether, they’re usually based at least partially on people we know, or an amalgamation of a few of them. We mix and match. We try, hopefully, to be faithful to that new, fictional person. If you’re a plot-driven writer, there’s more latitude. But if you’re a character-driven writer, like me, the crafting of the characters – with all their complexity – comes first, and that complexity itself will begin to show you where the plot needs to go.
But, for me, part of the writing process was a process of discovery. In writing, the character revealed more and more of themselves to me. Part of the process was essentially subliminal. I might have a rough plan of how I thought the story would go, but often, as I got to know the character better, I’d realize – no, now I know this character better, I can’t force the story it this direction – it would be a betrayal of the character.
But of course, that process of discovery is the process of discovering an essentially fictional character. If there’s no possibility of knowing a living human being completely, it’s even dicier when it comes to a fictional one. It will never be perfect.
Living in Southeast Asia, I wanted to write about Southeast Asia. The people I lived around were the fabric of my life, and I wanted to take them into my writing, to give them a place and a voice. At the same time, I’d read Edward Said’s Orientalism and Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak’s essay Can the Subaltern Speak? before I wrote my first character of Colour, I knew where the ethical minefield was. I knew that especially in the erotica genre, writers have used ‘the other’ as an object of sexual desire while denying them agency, voice, full beingness.
But I also knew that at the core of erotic writing, we are always walking the line by the very real way our desire makes an object of what we desire, reduces it to a projected fantasy. I didn’t want to write aspirational, ideal stories of well-behaved desire. I wanted to write about the way desire really happens, in the real world. At its most complex, erotic desire is always a state of flux – that desired person is both subject and object – like the particle/wave duality of light. Sometimes the desired other is so much a subject, it’s impossible to take them in, and the next minute, they’re a cock, or a thrust, they’re a taste on your tongue, a groan, a scent of musk, the curve of a buttock or a breast.
When I was a younger writer, I wrote stories like River Mother that were all about that intensity of subjectivity. I wrote stories like Motorcycle Hug, that examined the lure of the exotic on both sides. When I wrote Karaoke Night (Him), I wanted to explore, in the first part of the story, the very real phenomena of how desire’s otherness becomes unintelligible and frightening, and we rush back to more familiar ones, out of cowardice. I wanted to be faithful to what I saw, what I felt, and what I knew.
I’m not an activist, I’m a writer. I don’t feel driven to portray erotic desire the way I wish it played out between people, but the way I saw that it does play out. It isn’t that the social me doesn’t wish we were better behaved, more ethical, kinder, intersubjective in our desires. But the writer me knows we’re not. And, perhaps, the writer me believes that we’ll never stop being the way we are with each other until we really understand what it is that drives us to reduce the person we desire to something less than a fully actualized human. Writing is the way I examine those mechanisms and the way I try to understand them.
But writing is also play – serious play, but play. And when I included an ‘unnamed native informant’ in The Waiting Room, I did it very purposefully. The novel is about two foreigners traveling through Cambodia, who see nothing but each other, believing their experiences to be the only reality that matters – the curious bubble of it. Because I’ve been there and watched foreigners do it. In the grip of that eroticism, everyone else becomes, at best, a prop in their erotic diorama.
In Gaijin, I will admit I probably took on too much all at once. I wanted to get under the hood of old bodice-buster trope of the Sheik of Araby. I’ve always been puzzled about why some women find the fantasy of being captured and used sexually by some culturally unintelligible other so compellingly erotic. What does that fantasy afford, what does it serve? But I also set out to examine how we romanticize, indeed pornographize, other cultures for our own consumption. Finally, I wanted to explore dream myths and the ways in which, for all their power, we can’t always follow in the footsteps of those more powerful women of our dreams. In retrospect, I was trying to go too many places in too short a piece.
Gaijin earned me a lot of flak. For eroticizing rape – which I freely admit I did, being interested in the narrative mechanisms behind why 40% of women have fantasies of non-consensual sex. But it also earned me the accusation of being a racist – because the antagonist is Japanese, and the protagonist is white. The fact that the man who saves her is also Japanese didn’t seem to mitigate the situation for the accuser.
But when it comes to misrepresenting the other, I would like to note that historically and globally, Japan doesn’t really top the list of oppressed minorities. Yes, they were treated terribly in the US during WWII, interned in camps, stripped of their rights and their possessions. But they gave as good as they got in Nanking and in Korea. They’ve their own history with racism and oppression of minorities.
Is it a mark of my racism that this one criticism, more than any other, bothered me so deeply? Maybe my over-defensiveness to that accusation reveals the fact that the ‘lady doth protest too much’. I’m willing to entertain that notion. None of us is completely free of prejudice.
But it did make me shy about writing characters of other cultures, other races, other ethnicities. I didn’t stop, but I began to notice that I felt uneasy about ever making someone non-white the antagonist. And that is an artificiality. That’s a product of self-censorship.
When the case of Rachel Dolezal came up, I was in the middle of writing a story I’ve wanted to write for a long time. It’s based on the story of someone I know very well. A man who was one of the Vietnamese ‘orphan’ babies flown out on a jumbo jet, as Saigon fell to the North. He was adopted into a very white, very wasp family. As he grew older, the need to seek out his roots became almost unbearable for him. So at the age of 30, he came back to Vietnam to try and find his birth family. The results were… ambiguous, fraught with desire and pain and disappointment and guilt. I was interested in amplifying all those things, fictionally.
And the spectre of appropriation has come back to haunt me with a vengeance. I’ve got a good story and I’m paralyzed by the fear that I will tell it wrong. That I’m stealing someone else’s pain, that I’ll be accused of being a racist again because this story is twisted and strange and perverse. It’s literally Oedipal, it’s about a driven need to be absorbed by the place that made you, the people you come from, and the perverse fictions we craft to live with the gap between what we wish and what can be. It’s a good story. A strong story. I know it is. But there is agonizing jouissance in this story. It’s dark and deeply profane.
If the only risk I ran was having the story culturally critiqued, of being told that I did not write the characters with enough singularity to overcome the gulf of culture, or convincingly enough, that I haven’t constructed the underlying conflicts convincingly enough, I’d be comfortable with that. But to face the accusation that I’d appropriated a racial anguish that I had no business writing about because it wasn’t my own? That I’d exploited it, fetishized it? No. That’s an accusation I don’t want to face.
Let me be absolutely clear – it’s not criticism I fear, it’s the form it now takes. I look at social media today and I know that, if someone with a platform takes umbrage with this story, it won’t be a negative critique I’ll get – I’ll have not only my writing persona ripped up, but my integrity as a human also, publicly, virally demolished. And I just don’t know if it’s worth the risk to do it.
Most likely not.