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Heck YA, Diversity!: Are ‘Ethnic’ Heroines a Tough Sell?

Author May-lee Chai stops by to discuss the trubs she had with publishing her "ethnic" heroine book, Hapa Girl -- and how her following books (Dragon Chica and Tiger Girl) found a home with the YA crowd.

Heck YA, Diversity!: Are ‘Ethnic’ Heroines a Tough Sell?

For this week in Heck YA, Diversity!, we're pleased to be joined by May-lee Chai, author of Hapa GirlDragon Chica, and the upcoming Tiger Girl, who shares her personal experiences in getting books with "ethnic" heroines published.

A number of years ago, I was working on a memoir about the violence my family encountered when I was growing up. When I was twelve, we moved from the New York City metropolitan area to rural South Dakota where people used to stop their cars and pickups to stare at us as we walked together on the sidewalk. We were the first mixed-race family with a Chinese father and a white mother that people in that community had ever seen. It was a town of five thousand residents, ten bars, and a university. My parents had assumed because there was a university there, people would be more tolerant. But that wasn’t the case.

My parents had bought a small farm, and men took to driving by our house on the weekends to shout racial slurs at us. As this was the 1980s and the time of Japan-bashing in the media, many of those slurs were “Jap!” or “Japs!” Later men took to shouting at our property and over the years five of our dogs were shot dead in our driveway.

Adults as well as some of my classmates told me to my face that the Good Lord had not intended for the races to mix and that’s why he’d put them on separate continents. (This notion, by the way, was one of the reasons a judge in 1965 ruled that interracial marriage should be illegal.) I was seen as a sign of the End Times, of a coming Apocalypse when Satan would reign on Earth. Mixed-race people like me simply should not exist.

Well, that was a tough environment to grow up in, as you might imagine! But I thought it was very good material for a memoir. I’ve got inherent drama, conflict, and a survival story. Hey! 

I’d been working on the manuscript for a while when a literary agent with a list of very famous clients said she wanted to represent the book. I was naturally thrilled. However, I soon discovered her idea of the book was very different from mine. She told me she wanted me to focus on my father and mother’s marriage and to eliminate my brother and me from the book. (I just got removed from my own memoir! I thought. How the hell do I write that? Who’s going to narrate?) Then she said she wanted me to focus on “the good people of South Dakota” (rather than the racists who shot and stared) and write about my parents’ “cultural” differences and how they overcame them.

Well, how exotic, I thought. And I told the agent that I couldn’t re-write the book in that way. It just wasn’t my conception of the story.

The agent’s reaction was so alarming and upsetting to me that I didn’t try to contact another agent. Instead I ended up selling the book myself to an academic press (Temple University Press) who published books about Asian American history. Academic presses and small presses don’t need agents to send manuscripts to their editors; they will work directly with authors. The decision worked out well for me. My memoir, Hapa Girl,  received a great full-page review in the international edition of Time magazine and received a number of literary accolades. It continues to be taught in colleges and universities across America. Eventually, I also found a wonderful agent who understands what I’m writing about and knows how to represent my work.

But part of me wonders how many other writers out there get discouraged from writing the stories they wanted to tell by the same kind of sh*tty “advice” that had been given to me. And how many of these writers don’t persist and find another agent or don’t know how to approach a press on their own? What if they just take the rejection to heart and give up? Or worse, try to write the kind of bland story that they’re told to write?

I think part of the problem is that there are people in the publishing industry who underestimate readers. One of the great things about the YA field is that editors assume readers want a grittier kind of story. Adolescence sucks. It really does. Growing up is hard. School can be brutal. Families and community can let us down. And young adult readers know this. They’re not looking for a pretty, bland story that’s been watered down for mass consumption.

For this reason, I thought my novel Dragon Chica would work for a young adult audience. It’s the story of a young Cambodian girl, Nea Chhim, facing down adversity from poverty to gangsters to family fights as she grows up in the Midwest. I tried to tell the story in a way that the character and her family and their problems felt real to me, and so that the reader could get to know them. Dragon Chica (GemmaMedia) ended up doing very well with YA readers. The YA genre attracts so many people, young and mature, because readers have discovered this is where the gritty books get published.

My next novel Tiger Girl, which continues the story of Nea Chhim in America, is also going to be marketed as YA. In some ways, I think it can be easier to have an “ethnic” heroine in a YA novel than in a book marketed only for the adult literary crowd.

The problem is not readers. I know there are a lot of readers—of all ethnicities!—who want to read interesting stories with interesting characters and strong heroines. Perhaps because of what has historically been sold, perhaps because of what Hollywood continues to mass produce, some people in the industry are indeed afraid of “ethnic” heroines. They worry that they won’t appeal to a mass market. They don’t know how to market them. Then they worry when the heroine doesn’t seem exotic enough.

And bringing in a person of color means we’re also bringing up history and race in America. Those are tough subjects. They are not bland.

Sometimes when we talk about race and racism, (I know because I’m a teacher), people think the r-word means “I hate white people!” and they’re afraid to listen. White people don’t want to get beat up, figuratively or literally, any more than anyone else does. But acknowledging a character’s ethnicity allows us to talk about history and community and how power is constructed and how we have to fight against this power divide if we’re going to survive as individuals and as a nation. We shouldn’t be afraid because we really need to have this talk.

Besides, that’s what the best novels allow us to do: Enter scary terrain and emerge all the stronger for it.

Thanks for stopping by, May-lee! Check out her website or find her on Twitter (@mayleechai).