Ana’s Advent Calendar, Day 22: Why it took me so long to write an Asian heroine

FB-CoverPic(1)

Scary Tara. Be afraid!

Scary Tara. Be afraid!

Tara Quan came to me last month and said, “Could I write a guest post?” I thought about it and said, “Make me an offer, and I’ll consider it.” She replied, “My firstborn?” I didn’t understand what she meant and asked, “Wait, what?” Her reply: “Well, it will take a few years for him or her to cook.”

Yes, ladies and gentleman, welcome to Tara Quan. You probably recognize her from Spank or Treat 2014. She creates adorable comics for her books, and she’s a genius at getting people to remember her. She’s also a kindred spirit. After we teased Kate Richards endlessly about the Evil Mistress Kate routine for the Spank or Treat online roleplay, Tara returned her latest manuscript with the note, “Yes, Evil Mistress Kate” (okay, that wasn’t exactly it, but close enough!). And thus a movement was born: we create trouble and give each other credit for it.

One topic close to my heart is diversity in fiction. “Diversity” is a catchword that can mean nothing, and yet we hear acquisitions editors asking why they don’t receive enough ethnic diversity in the submissions they receive. I’ve asked before why the heroines of spanking fiction are always white (or, in the few occasions otherwise, that they are fetishized). A year later, I supported the petition to include a doll with disability into the American Girl line. I championed Jean Little’s Mine for Keeps, a lovely children’s book about a girl with cerebral palsy.

And yet, I still hear about the need for diversity. I don’t mean a two-bit player, an African American receptionist who makes dentist appointments for our white heroine, but an honest to goodness protagonist is portrayed in his or her own right. Where skin color is not a shorthand for chocolate references, and “Asian” is not characterized with the single line, “They were Asian, which was different.” (True story. Read the review here.) I write book reviews for the various HarperCollins subsidiaries, and the quickest way to invoke my censure is to throw in a token bit of diversity without doing it justice.

When I meet authors of color, I’m always interested to see whether they write characters of color. Some do; some don’t. Sometimes the risks of characters being objectified are all the more fraught when the author risks objectification, too. I’ve watched Tara’s career with interest, partly because I love her sense of humor (and respect her genius at marketing), but partly because she navigates a diplomatic interspace between taking a stand and erasing herself as an author of color. I hope you’ll enjoy Tara’s article as much as I did. She’ll be around all day to answer your questions and comments. Behave!

 

 

Why it took me so long to write an Asian heroine

When Ana suggested this topic for my contribution to her Advent Calendar, I warned her that, unlike her example post “Why are all the spanking fiction heroines white,” my public persona has a tendency to take a rather diplomatic approach to all controversial issues. Lack of diversity in romances has been a hot-button topic on the blogosphere of late, which is why I’m going to sidestep the subject just a bit.

I can neither speak for all romance writers nor all romance readers, so the scope of this post is limited to my journey—the personal experiences, motivations, and reservations that led to the sequence of books I published over the past two years. This isn’t a commentary on the publishing industry, but rather, an introspective recounting of why it took me so long to write an Asian heroine.

I contracted my first manuscript in October 2012. I will have ten titles to my name by the end of 2014. It wasn’t until my sixth book that I wrote a heroine who wasn’t Caucasian.

Why am I bringing this up? I’m a naturalized Asian American. I grew up in Thailand, and most of my schoolmates there had been Thai, Indian, Taiwanese, or Korean. I went to university in Massachusetts, which is known for it’s diverse student population. My group of friends in college included a Pakistani American, a half-Taiwanese-half-Indian American, a Vietnamese American, an Indian, a Filipina, and the token white guy (as he occasionally described himself).

Though I eventually moved out of the multicultural bubble that is Boston’s collegiate community, my social circle is still ethnically diverse. Do you remember the 2014 Coca-Cola Big Game Commercial: America Is Beautiful? That’s an apt reflection of how I view my adopted country.

If my writing were a reflection of my perception of the world, then, from the get-go, I should have written interracial couples, as well as heroes and heroines who belonged to ethnic minorities and/or countries other than America. But five releases went by, and the idea of writing a non-white heroine still hadn’t occurred to me. Why not?

My writing is heavily influenced by my reading. I’m romance junkie. My favorite authors are Judith McNaught, Linda Howard, Suzanne Enoch, Julia Quinn, Kresley Cole, and Nalini Singh. Aside from Ms. Singh’s characters, the heroines in the romances I’ve read are, for the most part, white women in their late twenties to early thirties. This is an observation, not a criticism. I adore all of the listed authors. I wouldn’t have become a writer without their influence, and I can always be counted upon to buy their new releases.

I, of all people, understand that writers are very much influenced by their own environment. In the 1950s, ethnic minorities made up about 13% of the population in America. By 2000, this number increased to around 28%, and Asians made up less than 4% of that slice. Putting aside whether or not the New York-driven publishing environment resulted in an underrepresentation of ethnic minorities within the pool of published authors, it was probabilistically far less likely to find an Asian, Hispanic, African, or Native American author than it was a Caucasian one. Those published authors, regardless of background, would have also come into contact with ethnic minorities far less frequently than a typical author would today (as of 2010, ethnic minorities made up 36% of the U.S. population, with projections predicting a 50-50 split before 2050).

As someone who grew up reading romances from the 70s, 80s, and 90s, it’s not surprising that I didn’t stumble upon an author who wrote about interracial or multicultural relationships until the last five years or so. Since I’m far more firmly grounded in the fictional world than I am the real one, I followed in the footsteps of my favorite authors with respect to casting (without really thinking about it, to be honest).

When I did decide to deviate from my conception of the romance novel mold, I remember being paralyzed by an irrational fear of offending people. I modeled the heroine in my sixth release after my roommate in college, and Operation Owl’s Maya Jain fits the stereotype of a nerdy South Asian college student to perfection. (By the way, the real-life version holds a doctorate from MIT.) And while my character has traditional parents, she wasn’t bound by the doctrines of any particular culture and, well, goes on to have sex with my equally nerdy hero.

So I was faced with several potential issues. I feared some readers might think I’m perpetuating the stereotype of the “the Indian geek,” which had become somewhat prevalent in TV shows and movies. And then there were those who might take offense over me writing a “desi girl” who doesn’t put much stock in tradition. And then there’s the issue of her hooking up with a “white boy” out of wedlock.

The list of possible offenses goes on. I admit—I almost sidestepped these (perhaps imagined) problems by making my main character white.

Then I took a deep breath and asked myself this question: Had I first imagined my heroine as a Caucasian woman, would I have gone out of my way to make her a different ethnicity?

The resounding “no” following that question opened a creative doorway. All the heroines I’ve written and intend to write will break a few rules and decide for themselves what is right. They won’t meekly bow down to outside forces, or wait around for Prince Charming to sweep them off their feet. They’ll set out to bring the world to heel, to fight for their dreams even if it means opposing societal and cultural mores. I would write them that way regardless of their ethnicity, nationality, physical location, or age.

As for stereotypes—they exist. My way of combatting them is to write well-rounded characters, ones who are far more than the caricatures painted by popular culture. But I refuse to ignore realities of population dynamics, or pretend that culture and ethnicity don’t play a role in shaping a person’s social circle, choice of employment, speech pattern, and worldview. I’m a geeky Asian woman (who watches anime and Chinese dramas, plays video games, and has spent many stints as the de facto IT person). I’m friends with nerdy Indian, Caucasian, Hispanic, and African Americans, as well as members of countless other nationalities, all of whom enjoy video games, know their way around computers, and watch Japanese animations (I’ve yet to find someone who shares my Chinese drama addiction).

Since I wrote Operation Owl’s geeky Indian heroine, I’ve gone on to write Asian, Caucasian, and Hispanic American heroines. I am currently in the process of writing an African American heroine. The settings I describe are inspired by the places I’ve visited. The stories I tell, and the characters that bring them to life, are a product of who I am, the people I’ve met, and the way I think. The real world isn’t monochromatic. My friends are accepting, but not colorblind.

Tomorrow, I turn thirty years old, and I’m proud to say I’m no longer bound by my perception of what a romance should be, nor am I concerned about who I might offend. It has taken me two years to reach this stage as a writer, and it’s been a fun and fulfilling journey.

TQ_Frosty Relations_MD

 

 

About Tara Quan

Globetrotter, lover of languages, and romance author, Tara Quan has an addiction for crafting tales with a pinch of spice and a smidgen of kink. Inspired by her travels, Tara enjoys tossing her kick-ass heroines and alpha males into exotic contemporary locales, paranormal worlds, and post-apocalyptic futures. Her characters, armed with magical powers or conventional weapons, are guaranteed a suspenseful and sensual ride, as well as their own happily ever after. Learn more at www.taraquan.com

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Google+ | Goodreads | Pinterest | Amazon

 

 

Advertisements

94 thoughts on “Ana’s Advent Calendar, Day 22: Why it took me so long to write an Asian heroine

  1. Tina S says:

    I never really thought about the diversity in the books I have read, I enjoy reading almost anything and never really paid any attention it. Thank you for sharing, and happy early birthday

    Like

  2. Tracey.Gee.393 says:

    Back again! I’ll take kick-a$$ in any colour. Bring your Asian tush kicking to my site any day. I can only say that I, for my part, can only write white heroines because I feel it’s wrong for me to appropriate voice. My reading, I will follow any protagonist and actively seek variety. And a crop-bearing woman, well the goes without saying. Come with me to teach the Elf a lesson.

    I remember some of my friends raising eyebrows when I reviewed on of Ana’s books, or read KT Grant. It’s difficult for me to imagine feeling obliged to write in another voice. I am glad you have broken free of that.

    Interestingly, I reviewed a book a few years ago by Shirley Hailstock. She rocks, by the way. Her publishers decided to white up the cover. I think they’ve changed it back. Unfair to her, and the readers. We need to hear every voice.

    Like

  3. Leigh Smith says:

    I never thought about diversity in books. I write what I know but if I read a story of another diversity, I love it if i learn some of the traditions and cultures. I would be afraid of offense otherwise if i wrote another color or culture and got it wrong. I have to applaud you and wish you an early Happy Birthday.

    Like

    • Tara Quan (@LaylaTarar) says:

      Me too! I try to work around the problem by grounding my characters in American culture, and I only work in a few cultural details if I don’t know it well. Luckily, my husband’s job allows me to interact with people from lots of cool places, so I can run stuff by them if need be.

      Like

      • Anastasia Vitsky says:

        How cool! The problem I find is that writing a character needs a lot of references. I mean, if I write a Jewish character I need more than one Jewish friend or beta reader. Some things are personal preference. I wish we had a network to find beta readers to help us with certain things.

        Like

  4. sassytwatter says:

    Happy birthday!! 30 is great it’s the new 20!! Beautiful cover! Congrats on the books! Great post! Here’s to your dirty 30’s enjoy!

    Like

  5. ruthshulman says:

    My family lived in Hawaii for a few years when I was young. At the time, Caucasians were in the minority (with lots of what that entails) so I got a different view of who sits in what place at the social banquet. I seem to remember reading a lot of literature from Asia. Later, back on the mainland, I would just picture the characters as my friends… the writer’s description didn’t soak in. (What an odd and terrible thing to say to writers *gasp*… But I think a lot of readers do that. Or maybe not. Maybe I am just *that* big of a weirdo.)

    My point here is that I am glad to see characters from everywhere. Much more like the real world, even in the paranormal genres. 😀

    Thanks for today’s post, Tara. I’ll be looking for your books. 😀

    Like

    • Tara Quan (@LaylaTarar) says:

      Thanks, Ruth! I’m guilty of the “too close to home” thing too, actually. In high school, everyone ranted and raved about Amy Tan. She’s an awesome author…but the whole culture-clash in Asian families + Mother-Daughter issues was a bit too “real” for me, so much so that I didn’t enjoy her books. I appreciated them, but I didn’t have a lot of fun reading them 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. lara estes says:

    I never really paid much attention to diversity in characters with in books that I have read. However I do read books which are diverse them selves. My fav is “Parting the Waters”. However after reading this post I have an new author to follow. Be gentle though as I am very innocent despite what Ana May tell you.

    Like

  7. Chickie says:

    Happy birthday! I’ve never thought much about the ethnicities before. Sometimes a character’s name forces who they are, but even with a good description of what they looked I tend to picture something entirely different. I guess I tend not to pay much attention to ethnicity in general so it isn’t at the forefront of my mental picture. I find myself more drawn into the context of what’s in that person’s world, the time period, local customs, etc. Then I end up surprised when I finish the ebook, flipping back to the cover and seeing what the author imagined they’d look like.

    And the crops… LOL. I’m not a fan, though threats dont slow me down either. I do have a shockingly large collection of crops and whips. Most are in the barn or horse trailer!

    Like

  8. Holla Dean says:

    Being in my sixties puts me in the older crowd here. I read anything but only write about Caucasians. It’s what I know, it’s all I know. While I did grow up in Chicago, it was the far north side and it was not a diversified neighborhood at all. There was one elderly black couple who lived across the street and we rarely saw them. There were no blacks, Hispanics, or Asians in elementary school. In high school, it wasn’t until my junior year that there was one black male student. The following year there was also a black female student. There were a few Hispanics and a few Asians. So not until I was grown and moved away from the old neighborhood did I even have any real interaction with people of different races. I wouldn’t be comfortable writing about cultures I have no experience with. But I do enjoy reading them. I’ll be looking up your books and checking them out.
    I believe I’ve been a good girl with my comment and there’s no need for you to dig out your crop. LOL!

    Like

  9. SH says:

    Great post Tara, I am gonna go check out your books now 🙂 Oh, and if you read all of the stories that were written over the last two days here you will notice a common theme……..naughty elf Ana….just sayin’ 🙂 We are all angels don’t ya know 🙂

    Like

  10. Amy says:

    You’ve hit on something that is huge for me–the fear of offending someone. I tend to write mostly white characters, with secondary characters (important to the plot, not random throw-in tokens) who are ethnically and racially diverse. I’ve never written a main character of color. I want to, but I’m absolutely paralyzed by worry that I will get it wrong. I grew up in the whitest suburb ever, though I now live in one of the most ethnically diverse parts of my town and my kids’ friends (especially my son’s) are largely not white. I will need to think deeply about this as I continue to write.

    Like

  11. P.T. Wyant says:

    I think there are probably a couple of reasons that I tend to write Caucasians. One is that I never thought about it. Another is that I write fantasy so my other races tend to be non human, although I do explore issues of prejudice with them. Plus, I’m having a hard time describing one of my human characters who is of a different color. I have him pictured as looking very Indian (as in from India, not Native American), but I’m having trouble conveying that in words that fit the story. (Fantasy writers have whole worlds of different problems…)

    And happy birthday. I hope the birthday elf is good to you!

    Like

    • Tara Quan (@LaylaTarar) says:

      Thanks P.T.! And descriptions are definitely hard. I still remember this one day when someone posted an article about “describing Asian characters” on Facebook. The blog post in question went on and on about how it’s offensive to use “almond shaped eyes” to indicate Asian features. I didn’t get it…being Asian myself, I think my eyes are pretty almond-y, so I didn’t know what the big deal was (but I decided to take almond off my descriptor list just in case).

      Another weird thing is that my husband, who’s of Pakistani origin, would describe himself or his brother as “brown” all the time. He doesn’t see anything wrong with it. But he used the word “brown” in front of one of our more politically correct friends once, and she was absolutely mortified. (Lately, I’ve started using food. I figured not much can go wrong with caramel and fudge…)

      Like

  12. JC says:

    I guess I have never really thought about it. When I am reading a story I guess I just assume the character is white. Does that make me a bad person? I don’t have a problem with reading stories with characters of different cultures and races, but I guess it had never occurred to me how much of what I read has only white main characters.

    Like

  13. Mary M. says:

    I do not write, but I guess I pay more attention to whether the character fits in her story as written and not what color or ethnicity she is. I appreciate the research that the authors put into achieving that fit. On the other hand, when I spoke with Jade Lee, who writes romance and romantic fantasy, she told me that when when started to write in the light contemporary genre for Harlequin, they told her that with her name on the books in that genre, they would not sell as well. After the first book, they changed her name on those books to Kathy Lyons, and the sales figures shot up. I guess some folks still judge a book by what ethnicity they feel the author is.

    So, where is that crop again? 🙂

    Like

  14. Joelle Casteel says:

    Okay, I’m back now to comment after being led away to Amazon to add your “Frosty Relations” to my Amazon wishlist 🙂 Thank you for sharing your story, Tara. In a way I can relate around gender identity- I’m cisgender, but I regularly (now) work with transgender, genderqueer, bigender, intersex, and gender variant characters. However it was a process for me- one of my favorite characters I avoided working with because I was too worried about offending someone. It took an intersexed friend saying “What gender does Lady Audrey claim?” for me to get really writing. I also, as a white person, worry about working with characters of color; currently I live in a city where minorities truly are that- I can count on my fingers the ethnic minority people living in this city- I’ve been most comfortable living in far more diverse areas. I do have some characters who are of color, but I sometimes struggle to work with them because like the differently gendered characters, I worry so at causing offense.

    Like

    • Tara Quan (@LaylaTarar) says:

      Aww… Thanks Joelle! And I’m glad you can relate 🙂

      And yes, causing offense is super scary. My first book had spanking in it, but the cover looked pretty tame, so I offended a ton of people without meaning to (I was in tears after the first couple of reviews). On the bright side, the experience helped me develop a thicker skin (though I’ve veered away from BDSM fiction since then).

      Like

      • Joelle Casteel says:

        heh Ana might have to give you corner time, Tara 😀 BDSM fiction is such a thing though; having 21 years experience in offline BDSM, I struggle with how much BDSM fiction is focused on the “new to BDSM” character. For me, so much of the offense worries are around identities that I don’t have. Like I worry less of offending someone who is also non-monosexual or polyamorous because with either I can say “That’s how I understand them from my lived experience.” Reviews can be tough; I’m not sure I’ll ever quite have a thick enough skin for them.

        Like

  15. laurellasky says:

    I read almost ever think. Not to much non- fiction but do read bios. And auto bios. In fiction I read and have read everything. I read Lisa , about the two girls from Shanghai,, Amy Tan,
    Richard Wright, and just about anything that is well written. I got into Ana’s books and loved them and read m/ m and enjoyed it.

    Thank you for sharing your story, Tara and a very happy birthday and healthy, peaceful new year.

    Like

  16. pieclown says:

    Hello Tara, I hope you have a great birthday tomorrow. Being a clown I guess it is sort of stereotyping, that clowns like birthday, For the most part, it is true. I liked how you say that you use well rounded characters. I grew up in the 70/80’s. I have seen on tv change as well as the movies, for the most part when it comes to diversity, It is true, you will see an Asian working in Asian restaurant. Same for Latino, but this as you does not mean to limited them from being an type of character. Disney has tried to be more open with Mulan and Princess Frog, but still there is a way to go. I was lucky. I grew up in small town in the mid-west. We had 2 Vietnamese move in. One of the gals was in my grade, yes I had a crush on her. So I did get a little multicultural experiences. I got more in the Army. Well I running on at the mouth. I will say I have not been a fan of “romance” novels, to be honest I have not even read 50 Shades. But I do like your use of of other settings(sci-fi/magic). I may have to check out your books more.
    OK I behaved today.
    :o}

    Like

  17. Kyra says:

    Happy Birthday in advance Tara.
    I too love most of those authors you mentioned and for many years are their books we’re what I mostly purchased. As a child all of the books I read had Caucasian protagonists. I saw nothing unusual about that. Well maybe now…because I am of mixed race ( Caucasian and Black). I only started recently to branch out into different reading genres and cultures. I am ashamed to admit that it took me a very long time to read about a black heroine. I don’t know if it was because of lack of exposure or something in my subconscious.
    Now I do not judge a book or rather choose a book basedon the race or culture of the protagonists but on the content….though sometimes I am excited to see a racially diverse cover.
    Thanks so must for your post💖💖

    Like

    • Tara Quan (@LaylaTarar) says:

      Thanks Kyra! And I don’t think there’s anything to be ashamed about. It’s the law of numbers, really…. It just takes one more time to accidentally bump into a good book with a non-white protagonist (especially when you’re the “loyal reader” type, like me, and stick to favorite authors until their entire backlist has been exhausted :P)

      Like

  18. Laura says:

    I never really paid attention to the ethnicity of the characters that inhabit my books. I buy whatever happens to catch my fancy on any given day. What does bother me a lot is when the author feels the need to let the reader know that the heroine is not a stick figure ad naseum. Once an author has done that I am very careful about buying their books. I really don’t care about race, gender or creed, if you write a good book I’m in. Happy Birthday Tara.

    Like

  19. Shannon Love says:

    I hope you have a very happy birthday tomorrow. I hope your friends and family don’t try to combine birthday and Christmas gifts. They are separate holidays and you should get a pile of presents on both days 😀
    I guess I never thought about diversity in books that I’ve read. I don’t spend a lot of time caught up on what people look like in my mind’s eye, I feel I really get to know a character’s soul. I guess I envision good characters as great looking and antagonists as ugly (thanks a lot Hollywood). I read so many different genres that there is a lot of ethnicity. I really like it.
    I first read your writing in the Spank or Treat 2014. I really enjoyed “Snowbound”!! I’m looking forward to reading more of your work.
    Happy Birthday!!

    Like

  20. minellesbreath says:

    Happy birthday Tara!
    I think writers and non- writers always begin with what they know. Then as we are exposed to ‘more’ in life, we embrace those differences. Many of us begin to assimilate change in our voice. This could be in any type of art….. Writing, fine art, music…. Etc.

    I hope to read your work soon!

    Like

  21. Katy Beth McKee says:

    Adding a Happy Birthday as well. I loved your article and since I will be going to Thailand in March that caught my attention as well. And I love the book cover.

    Like

    • Tara Quan (@LaylaTarar) says:

      Thailand is awesome. Bangkok can be a little crowded and overwhelming (unless you like controlled chaos), but it’s much more relaxed outside the city.

      And the food…is sigh…pure heaven. Not even Italy can compare. I remember dropping 15 lbs (in lieu of the Freshmen 15 gain) when I left the country because of the difference in food options (given, college dining hall food isn’t exactly haute American cuisine)

      Like

  22. Renee says:

    Diversity is an important part of life. I do think about diversity on many levels. I have found that running a small private school in the south leaves one with a mainly Caucasian student body. I have worked hard at promoting ourselves to different cultures and ethnicity’s. Our children need to understand that we live in a world that contains many cultures and not just their own. I have thought about what I read but more on the level that most heroines are young and trim. As an older reader I tend to seek out older and more full figured heroines. As a reader, I can say that I will not be offended by different cultures, ethnicity, or practices unless they strike me as abuse. Thank you for writing and sharing your gift with us your readers. Blessings. R.

    Like

  23. catrouble says:

    Thank you for sharing your thought process for writing your stories Tara. As long as characters are well written and the story engages me, I don’t care what sex, color, nationality, or sexual preference a character is. Your “Frosty Relations” just got added to my TBR list…thank you!

    Hugs and Blessings…
    Cat

    Like

  24. thelongbean says:

    Fascinating that someone of your background had difficulty in creating an Asian character.
    I know that in some ethnicities, matters surrounding relationships and sex are not often talked about, so I wonder subconciuosly you refrained from using Asian characters at the outset.

    Like

  25. Roz Harrison says:

    This was great and interesting Tara, thank you for sharing. I never really thought about diversity in books either. Wishing you a very Happy Birthday! Hope you have a wonderful day 🙂

    Hugs
    Roz

    Like

Thank you so much for joining the discussion! Please play nicely or you may be asked to stand in the corner. ;)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s