Leonard Chang’s Rejection: What Publishing Gets Wrong About Diversity

Leonard Chang’s Rejection: What Publishing Gets Wrong About Diversity

Originally Published on Medium

“You’re not Greek,” my husband laughs and takes a sip of Red Bull. I know he’s teasing, but it’s true. Three generations in, my Greek genes are all but obliterated. spanakopita and baklava were holiday treats. What I grew up calling Yiayia’s spaghetti is really just depression spaghetti. As far as speaking the language — I can count the amount of words I know on two hands. It’s hardly what you’d imagine after seeing My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

As enjoyable as the film is, can you think of any Greek-American narratives that aren’t tied to identity? Or escaping poverty and war?

Writer Leonard Chang recently revealed a rejection letter that criticizes him for not being ‘Asian’ enough. In light of the recent YA scandals, including the American Heart fiasco, this is hardly surprising.

White writers and readers need to support their fellow POC writers and readers. We need to have serious conversions about how perceptions of race, ethnicity, and nationality affect the industry.

A little about diasporas

White people, like myself, tend to bristle at being called white. It’s not actually descriptive. The term herds us into a group. Those of us who believe in justice and equality, tend to associate the term with white supremacists. That’s not a far off association. We prefer prefixed terms. Italian/German/Irish/Russian-American. That’s better. Language may be forgotten, but sometimes Aunt Emma says Gesundheit after you sneeze. Maybe your mother has an excellent kale soup recipe for when your sick. She learned it from her mother, who learned it from her mother in Italy. But as white Americans, we also grew up with Cartoon Network and Kraft mac-and-cheese.

And while there are a multitude of identity stories from POC and white writers, that’s not the case for all POC. Or whites.

After all, many white Americans don’t care where they’re from. Many POC where raised as Americans. Period.

As we can see from Chang’s rejection letter, POC authors are often expected to ooze exoticism. Even if that’s not the case in reality. Take this line for example:

We get too much of the minutiae of [the characters’] lives and none of the details that separate Koreans and Korean-Americans from the rest of us. For example, in the scene when she looks into the mirror, you don’t show how she sees her slanted eyes, or how she thinks of her Asianness.

Tell me, does your Greek-American character look into the mirror and grow frustrated at her huge nose? And how that nose makes her different from everyone else?

That’s how ridiculous this mode of thinking is. But it’s common in the industry.

POC authors are looked at critically in this regard. Not only do they have to stress about representing their community, but they have to worry about getting rejected for not being ‘ethnic’ enough. These worries appear as POC authors are vastly underrepresented. In Sci/Fi fantasy, POC authors may make up as much as 8% of books published. That is not just African Americans or Asian Americans or Native Americans — and all the included cultures. That’s everyone. For children’s books, the number is 22%. Better, but not great.

Just for scope, 43% of the millennial adults are people of color.

Ethnicity vs. Race

But it’s not just that Chang’s characters aren’t “Korean enough”. They also aren’t “Asian enough”. And that’s a big issue.

Why do we understand distinct European identities and heritages, but not those of POC? In part, it’s because its our own heritage as white-skinned individuals. But it’s not the sole American heritage of experience.

Over the last several years of reading POC narratives — both from the disapora and abroad, I have started paying more attention to ethnicity.

Race deals with skin color. Ethnicity deals with culture groups. It’s about specificity.

Race is broad, burdened by stereotypes. It gives you physical attributes, and how people react to them.

Ethnicity offers daily life. Culture. Village and city names. Quirky colloquialisms, alliances and rivals.

And ethnicity is not one thing. Like race, there are shades. It’s being Greek-German-American. Or Azeri-Iranian. It’s a Bengali from West Bengal growing up in Maharashtra, a Marathi locality.

Think about US interactions and commentaries on Southwest Asia and Northern Africa (the Middle East). How often have you heard Arab instead of Palestinian, Bedouin, or Berbers?

Race is important. Many of us only have the color of our skin. And how we look impacts our daily life. But it isn’t everything.

After all, there are still many white Americans who don’t care where their from. They even have the privilege to ignore their skin color, because it doesn’t affect them. White is considered the standard.

When editors reduce POC authors and their characters to racial groups, they ignore the story at hand. They ignore a possible high-quality narrative for lack of expected stereotypes.

Ethnicity vs. Nationality

It’s important to note that Ethnicity is not nationality. Nationalities are legal designations. They can rarely be mixed.

Nations are set apart by legal boundaries that pay little to no attention to language, culture or religion. In the US, a person’s identity shouldn’t matter. If they are a citizen, they are a part of the US. End of story.

Realistically, immigrants have assimilated. Sometimes aspects of their culture becomes ingrained in the national heritage. Most of it is forgotten.

In place of it, their children have integrated into the local culture. A girl whose parents came from Venezuelan will celebrate her Quinceañera, as well as prom. She’ll watch the super bowl, loves getting a Starbucks latte, and romantic comedies. A Vietnamese-American teen may aspire to be the next Tolkien or Tarantino. Maybe they’ve seen their parents’ homeland. Maybe not.

And we can’t forget our black writers and readers. I say black, because there is a difference in recent African immigrants and those who have lived here since slavery. Black Americans who have had their heritage stripped from them by racist and inhumane institutions? Those whose only nation is the US, even though they have remnants of their ethnicity.

Black Americans, too, want characters that represent their community. Their heritage, their dreams, their hopes. Realistic characters, and not though cardboard cut-outs that show white perceptions of “blackness”.

What Editors Need To Know

Because publishers care about making money — let me address that first. The market is there for real characters. For Chang’s characters — regardless of their “Korean-ness”. As a white reader and aspiring author, I love works by POC, LGBTQ and religious minorities. So do my friends, many of which are white. You aren’t trading white readers for POC readers, your expanding your reach.

By giving POC authors what they deserve and POC readers what thy want, you are also offering white readers what they need. And raising the standard of POC representation by white authors.

Editors and traditional publishers — you market yourself as the “Gatekeepers”. Only with you will readers find quality. No system is perfect, but there are obvious systemic issues with the selection process.

No one is asking editors or the publishing industry to become experts on ethnicity, race, religion, or LGBTQ. But editors do have a responsibility to read for the story, putting their preconceived notions aside.

    Some steps to improve the industry are:

  • More sensitivity readers (taken seriously!)
  • Professional training on minority literary forms and traditions.
  • Professional training on how to read for what matters in a book.
  • Polling audiences
  • Reading reviews from books with POC characters (even written by a white author! I’ve done that in my own research. Many are not satisfied.)
  • Hiring more POC (and LGBTQ!) staff. There are plenty of capable editors, marketers, sensitivity readers, proofreaders, advertisers.

Of course, if you look at what POC authors have been saying, you’ll find a more concrete list. Listen to them when they speak.

At the end of the day, writing is a complicated profession. A good story hinges on detail, strong characterization, interesting plot. Whether a character is “ethnic enough” — that’s a detail most likely better left up to the author. We don’t just need identity narratives — we need characters that are affected by their background, but not bound to them.

We need to be aware of what we are writing, reading, and publishing. Not for censorship or even equality, but for the sake of quality.

If you would like to support Leonard Chang’s book for which he got this racist rejection, you can buy The Lockpicker on Amazon.

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