2.16.2012

Avoiding stereotypes and the role of culture in Blasian Literature

Have you been reading Blasian Lit Thread #12? If not, I advise you to hop on over there and check it out. Despite the questionable covers and summaries, good discussions have sprung forth. A few things in particular have captured my attention and I'll address those issues today.

As evidenced by the existence of our current crop of 13 Blasian lit threads (thank you EccentricYoruba), there is a huge surge in the publication of Blasian-focused tales. While I commend the writers for bringing these stories to light and making them available to the general public, some of our members and I have some reservations. These are primarily in the area of cultural research and legitimate concerns about an Asian male character being mistaken for a Black or a "white" male one.

Instead of ranting about these things, I'd like to focus on how a writer can avoid these tendencies. Let's begin with research.


Many people would agree that a Black female writer should thoroughly research an Asian man's culture. Unfortunately, in paying so much attention to proving that they've done this research, they FAIL massively when it comes to researching a Black woman's culture and heritage.

Let's face it sisters, we're not all the same. We not only come in different shapes, sizes and colors, we also come from different countries, speak a variety of languages and have various religious beliefs. We are not a monolithic slab of Black womanness. Instead, we're complex, complicated and diverse. We can't allow ourselves to forget this.

Before you even start writing, get to know her. Find out what makes her tick, what makes her laugh and cry. Who are her people? What kind of upbringing did she have? What are her family's traditions? When is she flexible? When is she rigid? What line would she never cross? What are her hobbies and how do they relate to how she lives her life? What does everyone recognize as special about her? What are her strengths and weaknesses? Why is the world a better place because she's in it? Who are her friends? How does she interact with them? What does her presence in their lives mean? Where does she work? What kind of worker is she? If she reigns supreme on the job, don't just tell us she does, show us. The writer being a Black woman isn't enough. While she might share some of your traits, she shouldn't represent you.

Furthermore, there's no point in trying to prove an Asian man would have a Black woman. There's no doubt a specific man will meet a specific woman and fall for her in a heartbeat. He doesn't even need to specifically favor Black women. He only needs to favor HER! Blasian relationships, like all other relationships, develop every day and have been underway for centuries, especially where a large crop of Asian men are in the same space as Black women. With the existing Japanese men, the Chinese who left their DNA centuries ago and with their return in recent years, we should expect a Blasian explosion on the African continent. Unfortunately, I can't say the same thing is happening in Asia as single Black women still have no visible presence here.

On the surface, writing an Asian male is tricky. Some authors have resorted to using stereotypes instead of showing this character as complicated and diverse. There is concern that readers will read the character as "white." Sometimes, we have to accept that some readers are stupid or racist or both. A good man should not automatically translate as a "white" man. Rather than gripe about this, let's focus on ways to showcase who this man is.

Asian men, like Black women, live in various countries around the world. They, too, come in different shapes, sizes, and colors. Languages and religions are also varied. Just because a man has Chinese ancestry doesn't mean he's the same as a Chinese man who was born and raised in China. In fact, there's no guarantee he knows anything at all about being Chinese per se. His parents might have fully assimilated into the mainstream society. His grandparents might be dead. He might have been adopted. He could just be a plain ol' American who knows no more about China than we know about the individual African countries of our ancestors.

Therefore, establishing the SETTING is crucial.

While I strongly advise a writer to study as much as possible about a man's culture, more than likely, 99.9999% of this research won't be useful for the story you're currently writing and that's just fine. As a writer, you need perspective and this level of intensive study will give it to you.

The story shouldn't be a history lesson. Don't try to impress your readers with your knowledge of people or country XXX. Use what you've learned in the most subtle ways possible. Trust me. The readers will pick up on it. If they want a culture lesson, send them a list of books to read.

If an Asian man was born and raised in Dayton, Ohio, then you not only need to understand Dayton's mainstream culture, but that man's place within it. Does he live in a Chinese community? Does he live in primary culture with no connection to his ancestral roots? How does he feel about this? Is he shifting between the two? Does he speak marketplace English or does he speak in the local English dialect? Does he speak Mandarin or other Chinese dialects? After establishing this setting, then a writer should work hard to make him as well-rounded as possible, too. If readers complain he seems Black or "white," then that isn't your problem. This usually happens when a character starts off as one person and is converted to another one. Write your Asian man as himself from the beginning.

The same logic applies when a writer focuses on a man who was born and raised in his ancestral homeland.

I'll use Japan as an example because this is the context I understand the best. Japan has 127 million people and falling, but there is an impressive diversity among them. Some of you might scoff at this notion because you've probably met lots of Japanese people and they seemed very similar.

Well, let's just say the Japanese have mastered the art of presenting themselves in stereotype as a form of protection and exclusion. Until you have a deep and meaningful relationship with a Japanese person, more than likely, they'll only show you what you expect to see. In order to peer through this veil, you need to live among them three to five years and be an active member of the local community even if you never master the language.

Anyway, Japan as a nation is divided into large regions and then prefectures that are similar to states in America. People can differ as much as an Arab Libyan and a Black South African. Yes, that's right. There's no such thing as a Japanese "race." In fact, there are a variety of ethnicites here and there are full-blooded Japanese who have no continental (Chinese, Korean, Mongolian) ancestry. People usually marry within their own regions; thus, it's often possible to place a person within a region just by their features.

If you only research people on the regional level because you'll still run the risk of only ingesting the "mainstream face." Therefore, in order to make a Japanese guy more believable, write him on his prefectual level. Naturally, everyone can probably speak marketplace Japanese, but they also have their own dialects, some incomprehensible to the rest of society, and their own cultural norms. While you're at it, map out the place. Pay attention to the scenery and the landscape. Setting is truly important.

Though there are many books addressing the main Japanese culture, but prefecture-level books are seldom translated into English.

How then can you learn about a prefecture? You can watch dramas. Many Japanese drama writers are quite loyal to their prefectures and regions, so just watching a single drama can give you insight into how people in those areas live their day-to-day lives. If you want to learn about the primary culture, then watch another drama series and you'll immediately see what is common to ALL Japanese people in Japan. For example, eating with chopsticks and taking off shoes at the front door. You don't even need to EXPLAIN these things because it's so normal. Eating sushi every day is NOT normal.

I suspect the same will be true of the other countries in North East, South East and West Asia (commonly known as the Middle East).

Reading translated literature will also help immensely. Writers generally present the main culture and his/her minority culture, too.

I'd also advise you to give your characters decent names. Good grief, some of the names in the current literature are ridiculous. Stay away from Babynames.com. Instead ask for help.

Whatever you do, please be subtle with it. Don't hammer the anvil in our heads.

If you have some other ideas, please share them in the comments section below. Please make sure you leave a name, any name that isn't Anonymous.

I tried to make a short post and failed. ;)

25 comments:

  1. Had to delete the original because I can't type

    Setting became crucial for me after my NaNoWriMo experience. As I was hammering out those 50,000 words, I was quite upset that the research literature didn't even give me the one percent I needed. In December, two colleagues with contacts in the Ainu community introduced us to a lovely family and their friends. It only took one afternoon and one evening together for my Ainu male character to grow by leaps and bounds. He even got a true name that requires me to completely rewrite the entire story from scratch.

    The family loved Mr. H so much they wanted to keep him. Though my being Black didn't faze them at all, they were shocked that a young man from this island had traveled all the way to America and gotten himself advanced degrees and a wife.

    Next year, I'll be stateside again in order to finally get to Sapelo Island, GA. Cornelia Baily Walker is epic!!! My female character will never be complete without her.

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  2. Thank you so much for this post Hateya! It is truly necessary and important.

    I especially like what you said about dramas, it's so easy to watch dramas, as they are readily available online and you can learn a whole lot from them.

    And names! One thing I do is ask friends to suggest names (along with meanings) that I can use when I write. I'm lucky to have friends who are willing to help out in this respect.

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    1. @EccentricYoruba

      I don't know about K-dramas or C-dramas, but J-dramas are made exclusively for the domestic audience and it freaks me out that most of them have the exact same theme though presented in a variety of ways. Social control is fierce here. Anyway, each writer gives "real insight" J society as he/she sees it; hence, these dramas are a valuable source of knowledge.

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    2. I'll be honest, it's been a while since I watched a J-drama. These days it has been more K-dramas and anime. The last J-drama I watched was 家政婦のミタ and I enjoyed it a lot. Especially since it dealt with a some-what dysfunctional family and reactions to them. I can understand why you say social control is fierce. I can also see how the writers of that drama gave insight to Japanese society as they see it.

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    3. @EccentricYoruba,

      I suspect Mr. H and I were the only people in this country who didn't watch Mita-san. K-dramas are somewhat traumatic for me because I hear Korean and read Japanese. It scrambles the brain. There's no time to watch them online with English subs. K-drama seasons are also too long. British dramas are 7-8 episodes (?) and J-dramas span no longer than 12, so those are easier. American ones last 22-24 eps. and that's beyond my capacity.

      I prefer to read and to watch something about a culture through the eyes of their own people. That's not to say that I ignore external sources. I usually approach writing an ethnography from both angles. Admittedly, it's especially enjoyable to observe how people view themselves within their own society.

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    4. Korean dramas are long. I recently calculated the number of hours I've spent watching K-dramas in the past couple of months and I wasn't too happy (on average 20 episodes means you spend about 1100 minutes approximately). And a few times I feel some K-dramas were made for the international audience in mind because they spend so much time on Korean cuisine or on tourism by travelling to specific regions (mostly Jeju). You're right British dramas are usually 8 episodes long. The only USAmerican show I watch right now is 'The Good Wife', mostly because of Kalinda (played by Archie Panjabi).

      I feel that I've paid more attention to external sources on culture for a long time now. I'm very used to learning about other cultures by visiting a library and searching for academic works on them. It is enjoyable to observe how people view themselves within their own society which is why I make more effort to do this these days.

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    5. I honestly cant remember the last time I watched a J Drama. All I watch is Korean and jeez it takes me days to finish a series!I now use crunchyroll. :O. But i havent even watched any shows for the past few weeks. But you are right now that I think about it. Most of the shows are always focusing on tourism or food. Like on the show Scent of a Woman.

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    6. I posed this question in a K-pop/Kdrama forum and they noticed the same thing, especially wrt tourism but now you mention food, which is true/valid. On the one hand, I think it is great that dramas can be used as a means of attracting tourism, I've heard of 'drama themed' tours in Seoul...the only other country I've heard of that offers similar tours is Turkey (Turkish dramas are very popular in the Middle East and beyond).

      On the other hand, I recognise that this may make it more difficult for those trying to get an honest portrayal of Korean culture from Koreans.

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    7. I had no idea the Koreans were utilizing their dramas differently. Food and tourism, eh? Then again, I only see the K-dramas the Japanese import and I'm sure they are very selective about those. J-drama writers though seldom, if ever, take outsiders into consideration. For this reason, mistranslations are rampant in J-dramas because most translators don't understand the context.

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    8. J-drama writers though seldom, if ever, take outsiders into consideration.

      While I think this is awesome, mistranslations and lack of context do get to me.

      And this reminds me of Monononoke, I may have to spoil the series for you Hateya but...there's an episode titled 'Umi Bozu'. I read that as 'sea monk' but as the series progressed realised that the characters used 'umi bozu' to refer to the sea monster. It was towards the end that it was revealed that the monk who was part of that episodes' cast of characters was the sea monster. So 'umi bozu' was a play on this.

      I like it when subbing teams take the time to explain stuff. Those who hardsubbed Monononoke had explanations too at the end. Like essays explaining the episodes after the credits rolled. I thought this was great.

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  3. *applauds and passes the collection plate*

    This is very good, USEFUL information. I know the struggles I had with my book, and what I had to do in order to overcome them. What I didn't want was for Jordan to read as white, and if you don't take the time to learn your characters, that's what will happen. The key is RESEARCH, RESEARCH, RESEARCH...and TIME.

    But again, if an author gives two cents about her/his product, then this shouldn't even be an issue. Just sayin'. Researching is a critical part of the novel writing process, and things that may seem trivial to you may be foreign to others. You'll have to provide context.

    Anyhoo, great post. I'll be linking to it in the near future.

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    1. @Amaya

      You said it, the key is RESEARCH until your eyeballs almost fall out and TIME.

      If authors don't treat their characters with dignity and respect, readers won't either. We've got to prove that we've put in the blood, sweat and tears that come with breathing lives into characters. I know it's trendy and ecologically sound to upload books in e-book format, but I intend to go the regular print route even if it takes me three years to a decade to be satisfied with my final product. I can't stand wasting paper and I sure as hell won't waste it on my own product if I can't find merit in it.

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  4. Ooooooh...great article. Great advice. So good to see you back in form.

    I also recommend www.20000-names.com.

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    1. @Ankhesen,

      I love this site. I studied the Japanese names and saw a variety of existing character and idol names. Whoever compiled this did a good job. Only about 10% of the names sucked, but I believe the meanings of those names speak from themselves. No one in their right minds should name a character after a God.

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  5. Hateya! Good to see you back. I love your recommendations, esp. the point about understanding culture in the details: the little things.

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    1. @Lenovave

      Thanks! I'm glad to be back for this short spell. I honestly think culture is found in the details, the little things. Human beings are remarkably and often disappointingly the same. :D

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  6. 20000-names.com is a boss website. I use it regularly (Ankh turned me on to it). Great little resource.

    *plug over*

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  7. Excellent post. I always enjoy Hateya's perspective on things. Now off to rewrite my short story...heh!

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    1. I really don't know what we'd do without her.

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    2. @Guaria del Bosque and Ankhesen

      You both know I'm only rambling. :D!

      Guaria, good luck with revising your story. Please share a tidbit when you've finished. Just a peek... pretty please!

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  8. LoL, I have to do this research in reverse :D
    I love 20000-names.com.

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  9. This is a great post. It is really, really, REALLY helpful. I'm on a few writing boards. I think I'll pass this post around. All of the stuff you mentioned helps people out, including myself. Truthfully, I'd not like it if my characters are perceived as something else because good men translate to white men.(One question I always seem to ask myself is 'How will I say this or that character is this or that race?') I don't have anything against white men; in fact, I still write BW/WM. But white or black men aren't the only good men out there. I can only leave hints of what my characters are; if the reader ignores what I say, then that's their problem. But at the same time, I should give some relevant clues, of course, without over doing it

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    1. @Delicate Wisteria

      Oh my. If you pass it around, I might need to do a few revisions. ;)

      You're absolutely right about giving relevant clues without overdoing it. Usually, a character's name says a lot about him and you need not translate that name either. I have male character named Runs Along the Pond. I doubt anyone would suspect him of being "white" or Black.

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  10. As far as research and writing go, I think it really depends on experience level of the writer and determination. I mean I personally prefer to write about Americanized characters, not because I have anything against characters(or people for that matter) from other cultures or countries. But because that's my "comfort zone". I know that not all writing should be just in a lot of comfort zones, but at same time, I don't think you should try to get away from all of at same time. For example, my change is genre: even though I am sticking sticking with the romantic type of stuff, I decided to add a bit of an Urban Fantasy theme to my work. I hope what I'm trying to say is coming across. I'm not trying to offend anyone at all.

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    1. @Delicate Wisteria

      I don't fault you for writing in your comfort zone. After all, you've got a lifetime of experiences below your belt. You don't need to venture too far from where you can control the action. It is unlikely, I'll ever write a female character who isn't mated with a Japanese or an Indigenous man because these are the models I know. Even so, I must do research because I can't write the same people every single time. That would indeed limit me.

      I mentioned earlier, somewhere, that I'm also writing about an Ainu-Japanese man. Because he's Japanese and Ainu I have the mainstream face of his identity covered; however, I was drowning research about the Ainu until one simple visit. Now I understand, surface-wise, how different they are. In essence, they are a completely independent people, language and culture within another one. While I understand it, I haven't mastered how to present it. There's a long hard road ahead of me.

      I keep reading where the Gullah/GeeChee are so fundamentally different from other African-Americans and I'm somewhat baffled by these claims. Well, I suppose they're different from Blacks who live in large urban cities, but they're very similar to the Black people who live in isolated communities in my home state. The differences deserve to be explored on both sides.

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