Content warning: the following essay touches on racism, discrimination, assimilation and misogyny.
As writers and readers, it’s important for us to enjoy the literature we read. Where would we be without it? Books can take us to new worlds, bring us new experiences and help us experience joy at the turn of a page. However, it’s equally important that we can examine the different aspects of a book that are problematic. For example, the way dominant cultures and assimilation can influence an author’s writing.
An example I’ll use is Sarah J. Maas. I’m a fan of her writing, she has a penchant for spectacular worldbuilding in both her Throne of Glass and A Court of Thorns and Roses series, and it's one of the reasons her books are so successful. However (spoiler alert), it doesn’t necessarily make it okay that a character such as Nehemia (one of the only dark-skinned characters in Throne of Glass) was killed off to further a white protagonist’s – Celaena Sardothien – character development. This illustrates how Maas’ viewpoint as a cishet white woman influences her writing. We can enjoy her books for the worlds she creates while remaining critical of her implicit biases (a product of Eurocentricism).
Authors like Sarah J. Maas are incredibly talented and successful. Moreover, female voices are beginning to dominate the young adult genre. This allows for women’s marginalised perspectives to gain more visibility. However, biases against race, class and sexuality still exist within the young adult genre.
I don’t think it’s possible to entirely remove art from the artist. When creating, our biases and understanding of the world influence what we create whether we like it or not. However, can we flip this argument on its head and apply it to authors who are people of colour and write in a white-dominated space?
What does that look like? What do we end up creating? Is it more of a discussion as to whether we can separate art from artist? Or perhaps, can we look at it from the perspective of how the Western literary canon, largely dominated by cishet white men, influences the way minority cultures write and represent themselves?
In an attempt to showcase what I’m talking about, let’s take a deep-dive into my . . . history with the wonderful world of Wattpad.
Wattpad describes itself as ‘an online social reading platform intended for users to read and write original stories’. I think it really hit its peak between the years 2014 and 2016. You just had to be there. I remember being in high school, hearing all the hype about Wattpad, with its tropes about falling in love with vampires, dating your brother’s best friend, dating your best friend. There were the Watty Awards, and you didn’t have to pay for stories or sit through ads. While the website still seems to be popular today, I don’t think we can recreate the era that was One Direction fanfiction and the birthplace of Anna Todd’s After.
As an aspiring writer, Wattpad piqued my interest. I wanted to be an author! If writing on Wattpad meant I’d . . . published a book, why not? Not only did I read plenty of stories, but Wattpad was a place where I could write my own stories just to have fun. The stories I’d published, under the titles A-Z and Timeless, were stories I wanted to read. The characters were like me, in places I’d never read about, with people that were just like my friends. It was fun, it was fantastic.
Wattpad was a place where marginalised groups who may face discrimination in the formal publishing industry could create stories that represented people like us. Realistically, there were little to no barriers against writing myself on the page.
How wonderful, right? Wattpad was a place where a girl like me, severely underrepresented in the publishing world, could create stories where I felt represented. It wasn’t exactly commonplace to see an Asian girl (specifically Southeast Asian, and more specifically, Filipino) as the main character in a YA romance. Don’t even get me started on how few YA romances are set in Australian high schools and universities (maybe it’s kind of nice to read Australian fiction, too).
But Wattpad gave my 15-year-old self the space to dream. If I couldn’t pick up a book where the main character was Asian, I’d write one. If I couldn’t pick up a book where the characters went to school in Australia, I’d write it. If I couldn’t pick up a book where it felt like I could spot myself in the pages, I’d be the one to create it.
However, here is where the issue lies.
Growing up in the early- to mid-2010s, bookstores and libraries rarely ever had racially diverse fiction. Whether you were looking for authors who were POC or decent representations of the minority experience, it was a struggle. I was constantly looking for Asian authors, Asian characters, anything I could get my hands on. But alas, back then there was hardly any demand for Asian-focused YA books or meaningful representation. Ergo, without any demand, why write it? If no one wanted it, then no one would read it.
Unfortunately, the Wattpad writing space mimicked the publishing industry in this regard. There was still little to no meaningful racially diverse representation, so it was always a matter of compromise when choosing what stories to read and write. I’d take my representation breadcrumbs. That One Asian Character in that One Book wasn’t great and maybe it was a little problematic. On the page, we were one-dimensional, reduced to our stereotypes (unbeknownst to my younger self, that’s actually called a ‘microaggression’, but I digress), but it was something, you know?
Ultimately, this mentality led me to write two novels. Between 2015 and 2017, I wrote A-Z and Timeless. Both were contemporary YA romances set in Australian high schools.
However, there is no way to tell that these stories I wrote were written by someone like me. Asian, female, growing up in a predominantly white neighbourhood in a predominantly white school, and facing microaggressions left, right and centre. Therefore, it is important to acknowledge that this very environment is what produced my writing.
Sure, there was my desire to be seen, understood and represented, but deep down, I knew I was more or less invisible. I never saw myself in books or movies. Most of the time, my race was reduced to the Silent Asian Character or the Smart Asian Character because those one-dimensional representations were the only way largely white publishers (and even authors of colour) were prepared to acknowledge people who were Asian. I didn’t know what it meant to be visible in a community that disregarded my identity, and as a result, I didn’t know how to create a Filipino character that could rightfully take up space within their own narrative just because they could. Unlike white characters, who could exist in narrative without any justification, BIPOC characters needed a reason to exist. Even in fiction, we had to have a justification for being there.
In both novels, I wrote what I saw would bring success, essentially mimicking the market – what sold in bookstores and had the highest reads on Wattpad. Don’t try to make any characters people of colour. Don’t mention racially or ethnically diverse culture. Don’t bother mentioning religion, that doesn’t matter. Despite writing from a fundamentally Filipino-Australian context, I ‘whitewashed’ all my stories. I stripped my characters of any physically-defining Asian features, gave them Anglo-Saxon first names and last names, and I was careful not to mention anything too out of the Eurocentric norm for fear that people wouldn’t understand, or would lash out at my writing for being different or trying too hard to be unique.
All books and pieces of creative works are a product of their time and the same can be said for A-Z and Timeless, which were the product of the homogenous literary culture of the early-mid 2010s. Unfortunately, both novels lack any sort of meaningful representation, the kind I both enjoy reading and strive to create in my current work. I was essentially writing ‘white’ characters. However, I’m never going to know what that feels like. I’m never going to know what that looks like. There is no way I can truly write something that isn’t me because that is not who I am, that is not what has informed the way I (and others like me) see the world around me.
Despite this, at their heart, both A-Z and Timeless were created by a young Filipino girl growing up in Australia. No matter what, this fact isn’t something anyone can take away from this story and its substance.
While I can acknowledge that race plays no part in the development of my early stories, my context as a woman of colour has always manifested in my writing. It’s me I see on the page, with my own biases informing the narrative and my own worldviews influencing the characters. I am not white. I just found myself writing alongside the Western literary canon. I catered to that audience by being careful not to show too many aspects of my race and culture so I wouldn’t be attacked or made fun of for being outside of the norm. Doing so is part of the way I’ve had to assimilate and downplay my own racial identity within predominantly white environments. If I had to do it to survive this life, then I had to do it to survive in that writing space.