On Identity, Performing Marginalisations and the Limitations of OwnVoices; or “Why I can’t just repeat my uncle’s favourite joke about eating dogs”
Every time I show my uncle a photo of my dogs, he’d unfailing make a jokey threat about eating Twist and Moo. Regular as clockwork.
It’s one of things I find frustrating about my own life, that there are times when it seems to conform to and confirm awful stereotypes about Chinese people.
The crude racial stereotype isn’t just a thoughtless punchline, though. It is part of a larger narrative that paints East Asian people (or specifically Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, etc) as monstrous and their culture as exotic and evil. The underlying logic is simple: dogs are man’s best friend and therefore a people that eat dogs are inhuman heartless monsters.
It’s the same trope as having your villain kick puppies or propaganda that says your enemies eat babies.
This isn’t to say that every single person who repeats or alludes to this joke believes in that logic (my uncle certainly doesn’t) but it is what underpins the stereotype. Even a thoughtful evocation can amplify that racist narrative in our cultural landscape.
I bring this all up because it is illustrative of how selective telling of the truth can create a misleading narrative. The racism isn’t created through a lie, as each of the stories themselves are true, but in how the incomplete picture they paint confirms certainly underlying prejudices and feed into dominant cultural narratives.
This is not an OwnVoices 101 sort of article. I expect you to have done all that reading and be thoroughly on board with the concept. This is not a refutation of the sheer importance of ownvoices art. I cannot stress enough how much we should raise up all marginalised voices, even when they don’t always reflect our personal experiences, viewpoints or even aesthetic or artistic tastes.
But I want to spend the next few thousand words confronting the uncomfortable way our very true, very authentic stories can be framed by the larger dominant cultural landscape and the selection pressures around the stories we tell. Which ones get published, which ones get the spotlight. That there are structural biases against all marginalised writers telling their own stories is often discussed, but my focus here is on which of our stories make it big, and how they get read when they do get big. The narratives that our stories reinforce in aggregate.
Or to put it another way: stories that reference something the mainstream is already familiar with will gain more traction; stories that confirm or conform to the dominant cultural narratives will find it a little easier to make it big.
My problem is that these stories are not themselves incorrect. As I said at the beginning of this, my uncle really does seem to love that dog-eating joke, despite himself being owner of a stray dog he adopted off the street. He has also almost certainly eat dog at some point in his life (or so he likes to claim).
And I stress that these themes that echo the dominant cultural narrative aren’t even necessarily within the work themselves. Or if they are, they weren’t put there intentionally by the marginalised writers themselves, who may be just trying to tell their own unique, personal story.
These themes are all too often imposed by the dominant culture as it reads and folds the story into itself. I am talking about how our work can end up feeding these racist themes because of how they are read and the dominant cultural narratives feed into.
These are very much dynamics that lurk under every single trope, every unit of storytelling that we have. Even ones that seem superficially unrelated to such topics. I’ve written, for example, about the Winchester Mystery House, which appears to be inspiration for almost all American haunted houses and its “spooky” strangeness comes wholly from viewing the house through an ableist perspective.
Growing up, the only Chinese women published in English I had access to were ones telling the story of their brave grandmothers and mothers facing down sexism in China, usually ending in their emigration to America. Teenage me was not really in a position to appreciate these stories of intergenerational female relationships, but there was a certain fear sparked within me, that I too had to write like that. About Chinese women suffering under the patriarchy, their stubborn, yet saintly mothers and going to America. All things I had remarkably little interest in when my head was full of elves and swords and space ships.
The thing about those books wasn’t that they were inauthentic trauma porn. They were beautifully written and heartfelt, grounded in true experiences. Many were meticulously researched. They were written by Chinese women and I have no reason to doubt their work or their motives for writing. I’m sure for many of them, this was what they wanted to write, what spoke to them, the themes and characters and topics that inspired. This isn’t me trying to decry the pressures to perform one’s marginalisations or trying to say that they’ve all been boxed in by the expectations of their publishers.
But all the same, in aggregate, these books fed into a larger story about Chinese womanhood and American immigration. In aggregate, the details of individual stories fall away and the larger dominant cultural narrative takes hold. China itself features as a sequence of regressive and repressive regimes, all of them silencing and sexist. It’s all bound feet and downcast eyes. Chinese men were inevitably sexist monsters to be fled. America was thus positioned as a land of hope and freedom, with the promise of equality, even if along the way the protagonists have to fight no small amount of racism to get there.
Chinese sexism is being used to justify American imperialism. The same dynamics are at work when the American or European right periodically scaremonger about how Islam is oppressing women, often with the most grotesque and simplistic of caricatures. The purpose isn’t to call out sexism so much as to portray a culture as barbaric, the antithesis of their own enlightened civilisation. It’s about validating acts and attitudes of supremacy.
My point is not that these books are bad. They are stories that absolutely deserve to be told, to be shouted, to be shared.
It is simply that by themselves, they do not (and perhaps even cannot) tell the whole story.
If I tried, I could probably contort the story of my grandparents and parents into the shape of the Good Immigrant, though that would mean abandoning the bits I find the most interesting.
I was always told that my grandmother was a heiress in Vietnam, that she ran away to join the revolution in China. She became a nurse and met my grandfather, who had injured his leg in battle. They married without telling her parents, only phoning them to tell them after the fact. She and my grandfather fled to Hong Kong after the war and they kept pigs. She became a Christian missionary and was so devout that she missed the wedding feast of one of her daughters because they had it on a Sunday.
I could join up these scattered anecdotes I know into the familiar constellations. I could impose meaning. I could emphasise her defiance against parental expectations or perhaps I could use life as a frame, that it’s all be building up to my move westward.
But I’m also profoundly uncomfortable about doing that.
There’s nothing neat about her story in my mind. The point is that it doesn’t fit those simple parables.
This goes back to the dangers of A Single Story as described by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her TED talk. This flattening of complex cultures and nations and peoples into single, simple caricatures isn’t unique to any given culture. It is depressingly ubiquitous.
Adichie asks us to share in her epiphany, urging that “when we reject the single story, when we realise that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”
But where does that leave us as writers?
There are no simple fixes to this; it isn’t something a lone voice, however heroic, can solve. One voice looking to reshape the literary landscape would only create another Single Story, after all.
Simple refutations containing the opposite all too often create something of an entrenched cultural dichotomy. These pairs “Opposites” have a way of being frustratingly persistent and often warp all nuance around themselves. The Madonna/Whore Complex being one of the all time classics. See also the misogyny that underpins the trope of the one female character who is “not like the other girls”.
All I can do is to know more, to understand better. It means knowing not just what stereotypes exist but also how they feed into racist dominant cultural narratives, how they can amplify them unintentionally. The Single Story doesn’t just flatten; it reduces and enforces certain relationships with the dominant culture. True stories are reframed and co-opted, and new meaning is wrung from them.
Take how Ben Carson’s own life story is unchanging but the moral and the audience has shifted over the years. His inspirational personal tale becomes a political one, and he goes from being a hero who succeeded despite systemic oppression to proof that the system is fine, that it can be overcome with sufficient grit and willpower.
Personal stories are powerful but they are not the same as political analysis. Lived experience of oppression is not the same as understanding the underlying systems and structures that enforce it.
But the last thing I want is to ask more work, more knowledge, more research of my fellow marginalised authors.
I am all too familiar with the way diaspora voices are self-censoring themselves, worrying about “getting it right”. The popular discourse, all too often driven and shaped by the calling out of appropriative and harmfully inaccurate works, something that is extremely necessary, seeds in many marginalised authors the feeling that they must be perfect.
The anxiety of not being “enough” does not need to be further fed.
Ultimately, I feel it is less about any individual writer, many of whom can only really write what is within them, and more on those who are doing the selecting and framing: the publishers, the editors, the marketing teams, the reviewers.
And it’s also in how we read that story, the meaning we give it, allow it. After all, a harrowing tale can be reframed as an “uplifting” one with just a single choice cover quote. What faces are allowed on the cover itself.
Book club discussion questions, reviews, listicles, think pieces all contribute to how a book is framed. Is this book a fluffy tale of childhood misadventure or is it a serious one, like a Very Special Episode? Should you read it because it’s So Very Important or should you read it because it’s Fun?
Which stories succeed and which stories fail, which stories get published or get adapted into films, all that isn’t random. What appeals, what sells, what resonates all that goes back to what what has come before and what people find comfortable. Numerous authors of colour have been told that they shouldn’t write characters of their own race or background, or that an agent or an editor just didn’t find their main character sufficiently “relatable”.
It is inescapable, the feeling that the industry is sifting through our stories to find the ones that conform most to their expectations, their prejudices, the Single Story that is told about us.
There seems to have been a recent flurry of YA written by Chinese American women about growing up in takeout restaurants. It is something that feels easy to side-eye as an entrenched stereotype. And yet, it was also a very real part of Chinese American history. Chinese immigrants did run a lot of restaurants and the reasons for this was rooted in systemic oppression. They were legally barred from many professions, after all. Even within my scattered family, I have uncles and aunts who have run Chinese restaurants and takeouts in North America. I’m told there’s an advert for one such restaurant still out there, still featuring the faces of my cousins.
Which leaves us in that frustrating position where each of us want the stories marketed as “representation” to represent us wholly, a task that they are simply unequipped to do. No single story can.
We need more stories.
It matters hugely which books the publishing machinery throws its weight behind, which books get the marketing push and the huge print runs. It’s not that no story can deserve that spotlight, just that we need to be aware of our own biases.
We think that space is full of bright objects because we are very good at seeing bright objects. Seeing more, seeing further is hard.
But we can do, together.
 Not technically my dogs. I regularly dogsit for my friends and they have one perfect dog and one utter monster. I love both of them beyond all reason.
 There’s a lot more that can be said about how the culture around dogs and dog ownership, as well as the cultural archetype of the dog, evolved differently in Western cultures compared to East Asia. But that isn’t really what this blogpost is about.
 Also common in my family and in my acquaintance are tales of those who became dissatisfied with life as immigrants and moved back. The aforementioned uncle spent years in Canada, raising his children there, but he and my father both now live a stone’s throw from where my grandparents kept pigs.