When Is A Book ‘Not Asian Enough’?
There’s been a lot of recent discussion about diversity in publishing. A lot of people lament the fact that there aren’t enough diverse characters in fiction and that there’s little inclusive language in books. There is diversity in the people who live in the UK and diversity in the subsection of those people who write books, so why the mismatch? As part of this discussion someone brought up the fact that books with BAME protagonists are judged by a different set of criteria – one of which is is this book Asian enough/black enough?
This question winds me up. What is the benchmark for a book being Asian enough? Who sets it? How often is it reviewed? What is the point of it?
I write romance, arguably the biggest-selling genre in fiction. I’m British/Sri Lankan. Asian is part of who I am. It’s not something I consciously work at. If you asked me to list the things that define me, my Sri Lankan background would not make it into the top five. As a kid, I lived in a regular house, went to a regular school, and read the same books, watched the same TV shows and listened to the chart show every week, just like the rest of my classmates. Of course, there was the odd Goodness Gracious Me moment, but mostly, my life wasn’t vastly different to my friends’. It wasn’t as though as soon as I shut the front door I was transported into another world of saris and spices. Yet, if you read mainstream fiction featuring Asian characters you’d think that was the case. No wonder everyone was so astounded that Nadiya Hussein chose to flavour her cheesecakes with fizzy pop on The Great British Bake Off (or that she even baked in the first place!).
My first book featured middle-class Sri Lankan characters. I wrote about people who were, basically, a bit like the Asian people I know. I submitted it to agents and small publishers, I had a few notes back, and a few requests for the full manuscript. ‘Asian Lit’ was popular at the time; White Teeth and Brick Lane were still riding high. The most useful feedback I got back was “I like it, but I don’t know where I’d place it”. It wasn’t Asian enough for literary fiction and not white enough for genre fiction.
Being the pragmatic sort, I wrote the next book with white main characters. Given that I write about middle-class people, the things that worry white characters would be pretty much the same as the things that bother Asian characters – job security, sexism, bullying, the quest for love. Besides, people are people, regardless of what shade they are, and white characters have the same range of feelings as brown ones. I placed this book with a small publisher relatively easily.
Why Diversity In Genre Fiction Is Important
If you want fiction to represent the experiences of a wide range of people, you need accept those experiences as they are presented – even if they don’t fit into your preconceived notions. Rich people face different challenges to poor ones. First-generation immigrants face different challenges to their children. No two Asian homes are the same, because no two families could be the same. So perhaps we should stop trying to pretend that they are. How can fiction show the reading public any variety in the Asian experience of life if the publishing industry insists that that very variety does not exist (or, more accurately, that the reading public won’t buy it)?
‘Diversity’ isn’t about showing Asian characters doing things in an ‘Asian’ way, or gay characters doing things in a ‘gay’ way or disabled characters doing things in a disability-adapted way all the time. That’s just pandering to stereotype. Diversity is achieved by showing characters of different backgrounds doing things in their own way and telling their unique stories. If it makes minority characters look less different than the majority expect them to be, that might even be a good thing.
In case you hadn’t guessed, I write under a pen name since my real name is difficult to spell, and it helps to keep my writing career distinct from my day job – but I have always submitted my work to publishers and agents under my real name. I think (although I have no data to back this up) that the ‘is it Asian enough’ question arises not from racism as such, but from a skewed assumption of what readers can stomach.
As a point of principle, I always have at least one Sri Lankan secondary character in each book. In my latest book (Please Release Me) the heroine is mixed race. I’m sneaking minority characters into mainstream genre fiction one book at a time. Interestingly, readers don’t seem bothered at all.