Writing My Culture for Fun and Profit

Question

Here’s how the question goes, more or less:

Do you think you would be as successful if you didn’t write about Asian/Malaysian characters/myths/folklore/beliefs/spirits?

I don’t blame people for asking. It’s a natural question, in a way. It’s one of those questions white Westerners don’t get asked, though. (“You’re American, do you think you would be as successful if you weren’t writing about American characters?”) And to be totally honest, it is annoying, because the lurking question it implies is:

Are you writing about your culture because it sells?

Here’s what I ask back:

What’s the alternative? What else would I be writing?

But I know what they mean. They’re asking about the fact that I’ve strayed outside the unmarked default. In English-language fiction, this is writing about white Westerners — if you’re a fantasy writer, drawing on their ideas and images of vampires, fairies and ghosts. If you do that you’re just writing fantasy. Throw in a bunian or pontianak and suddenly it’s Cultural Heritage Day.

I always struggle to answer, partly because I want to flip the question over and examine its insides, but also because the answer is complicated. Here’s an attempt.

An answer

Yes. I think I’m quite a good writer. If I was persevering and worked hard, I think I could have written exclusively about non-Malaysian characters in non-Malaysian settings and eventually been published and slowly built up a readership, as I am doing now. (Sorcerer to the Crown is set in Britain and primarily about non-Malaysian characters, of course, but I suppose it’s outside that unmarked default and so doesn’t count for the purposes of the people who ask this question.)

There are plenty of examples of non-white people who write (or wrote) successfully about white people. To take just a few:

Here’s a post by bestselling thriller writer Tess Gerritsen about why she spent much of her career not writing about Asians: “Your English is so good!”

Sherry Thomas writes hugely popular historical romances set in England in English, her second language.

The majority of successful romance author Courtney Milan‘s backlist features white people on the covers. She’s talked on Twitter about realising she could write about people of colour like herself, but I haven’t found a blog post to link to on the subject.

One advantage of doing it this way is that people would probably ask me about things other than diversity once in a while. (Don’t get me wrong, it’s something I think about a lot and am genuinely interested in, but it’s not my ONLY THING.)

Another advantage is that it might be, well, easier to sell stuff. Consider, for example, YA author Natalie Whipple‘s experiences trying to sell books with PoC main characters: Diversity As Trend? Please. Or Cindy Pon’s Guide to Writing Non-Commercial YA Fantasy (tip #1: put in too many Asians).

But here’s another answer

No. For two reasons:

1) Writing, for me, is not about selling books or being popular. (Both of those things are great. I wouldn’t say no. But they’re not really what it’s about.) It’s about doing something that feels important with the limited time I have on this earth. It’s about articulating a worldview. It’s about cheering, soothing, uplifting, enlightening — all those great things art can do. If I wrote only or mostly about white people, Western settings, Western mythologies, etc. I would feel that I was not really doing the best I could do.

I’m not nearly as successful in this regard as I’d like to be, and of course my writing will never be as good as I would like, but I am trying.

2) I think readers recognise truth when they see it. For me, to write using local myths and beliefs is a form of accessing a deep truth. Something like the Regency voice is pure performance — I am doing something sort of serious with it, but it’s mostly play. Writing in Manglish is something else.

I think a book that captures truth is going to be better than one that doesn’t. And I believe that better books have a better chance of being read, of being loved, of helping people, of lasting.

People always talk about wanting universal stories. I don’t think universal means mainstream (meaning white or Western). I think the universal lies in the specific, and we each have our own specific truth. It’s the best resource we’ve got as writers — so we should use it.

Thanks to Tade Thompson for the post title. Check out his awardwinning tropical noir thriller Making Wolf!

My publishing journey: The Year of No

I’ve been fairly quiet on the Publishing Journey front as I’ve been busy, er, journeying. But epic fantasy author Juliet McKenna kindly invited me to write a guest post for her blog, so I wrote about identifying with Jonathan Strange for the first time and learning to say no:

My year of saying no

It’s nice to be wanted, of course, and it was a refreshing novelty. As with most writers, rejection is the backing track of my life, so it was nice for once to hear “please will you?” instead of no, thank you”. But it meant I had more demands on my time than ever before, when I had less time than ever before.

Come to think of it, it follows on quite nicely from my last Publishing Journey post on love and resource. Unplanned thematic continuity \o/

On a totally separate note, Sorcerer to the Crown is in the first round of DABWAHA! If you vote for it it might WIN and BEAT THE OTHER BOOKS (or at least it may not FLAME OUT and DIE A DEATH instantly). Vote, vote!

Diverse book clubs & meetups in London

A Twitter query following my panel at Bare Lit made me think there might be more general interest in this information. If you’re based in or near London, here are a few book clubs/meetups to check out if you’re looking to read more “diverse” literature* or hang out with like-minded bookish people.

African Fantasy Reading Group

The African Fantasy Reading Group discusses “all things AfroSFF”, including science fiction, fantasy, comics and movies. I think there is the occasional in-person meetup but also plenty of discussion on the Facebook group.

African Reading Group London

Breaking the bonds of genre restrictions, ARG! London meets monthly at Book and Kitchen to discuss recent books by writers from Africa and the diaspora. Check out the Book and Kitchen events page for upcoming meetups. There’s also a Facebook group.

Asian Book Club Meetup

I have foolishly never attended this, not least because I have forgotten my Meetup.com password, but this is a monthly book club run through Meetup to discuss books about Asia and by Asian authors (including diaspora): Asian Book Club – Asian Authors/Books about Asia.

What’s really nice about it is that in addition to regular book club meetings, there are lots of ancillary events — author events, joint visits to literary festivals, social meals, etc. Here’s a nice blog post about the book club by one of the organisers.

Super Relaxed Fantasy Club

I confess Super Relaxed Fantasy Club is the only meetup I attend (sort of) regularly out of these, because it’s so suited to lazy people. It takes place on the last Tuesday of every month on the top floor of a Central London hotel. There are two author readings, a bar and plenty of chat. It’s attended by SFF industry people, fans, readers and aspiring writers, and conversations I’ve had at meetups range from cats to the delights and horrors of the Stucky tag on Tumblr to the peculiar pressures of the dreaded second book.

It isn’t focused on BAME books the way the other groups are, but they do care about equality — they insist on gender parity in their readers and until the group of attendees grew unmanageably large everyone used to introduce themselves. It was a bit like the first day of kindergarten! (Or AA, I guess.) The organisers talk about the genesis and principles of the meetup here (but, like, in a really relaxed way).

Join the Facebook group or follow the Twitter account for updates. I’m reading in September!

Feel free to suggest more in the comments!

* The “diverse” is in quotes because it’s terminology I’m not totally comfortable with (on which see Kavita Bhanot’s great article, Decolonise, not Diversify). That said, it’s a useful shorthand.

Upcoming events, March 2016 – North London Literary Festival and Mancunicon

In case you don’t get my mailing list updates (they have an annoying tendency to go to spam), here’s a couple of things I’ll be at this month!

North London Literary Festival

Panel Discussion: Science fiction and diversity
Date and time: Tuesday 22 March, 15:30-17:00
Venue: Middlesex University, London

I’ll be on a panel about science fiction and diversity with Pat Cadigan, the Clarke Awards’ Tom Hunter and Kurt Barling at the North London Literary Festival, run by Middlesex University students. Admission is free, but register for the panel here.

Mancunicon

I’ll also be at Eastercon this year, after insisting I wasn’t going. /o\ I’m not doing any panels as I am attending as a lady’s companion, but I’m hoping to do lots of barcon so do say hi if you’re there. Of course, very happy to sign copies of Sorcerer to the Crown if anyone wants me to. I’m also planning to return here for amazing grilled cheese sandwiches. *____*

Fantasy novelette THE TERRACOTTA BRIDE out now!

I’m self-publishing an ebook reprint of my novelette THE TERRACOTTA BRIDE, which first appeared in Torquere Press’s Steampowered 2: More Lesbian Steampunk. Check out the gorgeous cover, commissioned from Likhain!

z-terracotta-azI love the vivid colours, the interplay of light and dark, the red hellscape, the melancholy white chrysanthemums, and Yonghua’s face, beautiful and stark. If you were to accuse me of self-publishing THE TERRACOTTA BRIDE largely to have an excuse to commission art from Likhain … well, I won’t deny it!

As for the story, it takes place in the Chinese afterlife and was a good faith but unsuccessful attempt at writing steampunk in a setting that isn’t Victorian England. (It’s really a vaguely gothic queer fantasy with retrofuturistic flourishes.) It’s one of my coming of age stories where the protagonist is already dead. It’s mostly about loneliness and love. Here’s the summary:

In the tenth court of hell, spirits wealthy enough to bribe the bureaucrats of the underworld can avoid both the torments of hell and the irreversible change of reincarnation.

It’s a comfortable undeath … even for Siew Tsin. She didn’t choose to be married to the richest man in hell, but she’s reconciled. Until her husband brings home a new bride.

Yonghua is an artificial woman crafted from terracotta. What she is may change hell for good. Who she is will transform Siew Tsin. And as they grow closer, the mystery of Yonghua’s creation will draw Siew Tsin into a conspiracy where the stakes are eternal life – or a very final death.

It’s 11,000 words, so a quick but not insubstantial read. Here’s where you can get it:

Amazon US
Amazon UK
Smashwords
Kobo
Apple/iTunes
Nook
Google Play

Bare Lit 2016: in retrospect

I had a spectacularly good time at Bare Lit, the UK’s first literary festival celebrating the works of BAME writers. It was SUPER fun.

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At least I was having fun

I was on the SFF panel, (Re)writing Pasts & Futures, along with authors Tendai Huchu, Haris Durrani and Tosin Coker, moderated by Patrick Vernon. I really enjoyed it — entertaining readings, engaged audience, great questions. And while it was definitely what I think of as a “diversity panel” — we weren’t talking about a general topic, like how SFF draws inspiration from other genres, or Epic Fantasies We Have Loved — it made a big difference talking about being a non-white writer of SFF not only on an all-PoC panel but to a majority PoC audience. I felt like you could go more interesting places with the discussion.

I could go on and on about it … but I won’t, because you can watch the panel online!

All the panels/talks were recorded and are being uploaded to the Bare Lit site. You can check the videos out here: Past Events.

Here are some more photos of the festival!

My crap iPhone pics of the amazing performances at the launch:

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Khairani Barokka teaching the audience the meaning of seronok

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Peter Brathwaite singing degenerate music

And some rather better pictures by Wasi Daniju:

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I’m not totally sure what’s going on here, but we look like we’re enjoying ourselves

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Haris Durrani reading his awardwinning and very funny short story Forty-Two Reasons Your Girlfriend Works for the FBI, CIA, NSA, ICE, S.H.I.E.L.D., Fringe Division, Men in Black, or Cylon Overlords

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Talking to people \o/ I met so many cool people at the festival!

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Geoff Ryman and Tosin Coker saying interesting things to each other

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The fabulous poets panel after ours

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The super entertaining talk by Catherine Johnson and Peter Kalu about writing for children/YA (sudden drop in quality of photo due to fact that this was, again, taken by my phone)

I was kind of worried before the festival because I didn’t really know anyone there and was scared I’d be too uncool for anyone to want to talk to me. But in fact it was simultaneously relaxed and exhilarating — I had lots of nice conversations with strangers, from geeking out about Hamilton to discussing books to recommend to children. I’ve been to arts/cultural events before where the performers and attendees were all/majority non-white, of course, but it felt different and special to be part of a festival like this in the very heart of London.

I felt incredibly privileged to be there and am very grateful to the organisers for creating such a great space.

All the nice photos in this post were taken by Wasi Daniju and are shared with her permission. The video recordings of Bare Lit were filmed and edited by founder and filmmaker Samantha Asumadu — information about commissions can be found here.