Writers resist selling out happily ever after

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 August, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 August, 1997, 12:00am

Call it the Amy Tan problem. The Chinese-American author has been so successful that every publisher wants their own Amy Tan - and no other style of Asian-American writing will do.

Oriental eyes, foreign food and language plus some mysticism or even barbarity about their origin country are needed, Asian-American writers say. And those who want to move on from that get short shrift from publishers.

Heinz Insu Fenkl thinks of himself as a patient man, but he was getting to the end of his endurance after 10 years spent trying to get his first novel published.

The problem with Memories of My Ghost Brother, which was finally published this spring, was that it did not 'fit' the Asian-American stereotype. In other words, it was not a cheerful, accessible immigrant novel where quaint, plucky characters go to the United States from somewhere in Asia and after some initial difficulties with the language and curious local customs, live happily ever after.

'It's a Korean-American novel but it's not the typical assimilation narrative. Most said 'the writing's good but we don't think we can sell it',' says Fenkl, who lectures in Asian-American literature at Vassar College in New York.

'It didn't fit into the Asian-American category because it doesn't address identity, immigration or assimilation issues in the way that most successful Asian-American books do. I do address those issues but from a different angle - in a way that is a problem for the genre.

'Also, it's set in Korea, not the US. Some publishers said it would be 'richer' if it was narrated from the US looking back on Korea. By the time I had finished the book I had taught Asian-American literature for three years and I noticed that almost all Asian-American novels were US-centred, and I wanted to add something to that catalogue that was not. I didn't want it to be an immigrant novel.

'I also didn't idealise Korean culture. It was not made romantic or quaint or exotic in any way. I was not writing to be especially accessible to an uninformed reader.

'So, having seen all this it was important for me not to participate in it but do a counterpoint and that's why I very clearly did certain things so the book could not be [stereotyped].' For refusing to write by the rules, Fenkl had to wait a long time to see his autobiographical novel about the coming-of-age of an Asian-American boy growing up in Korea published. It went on to be one of three short-listed - from about 400 entries - for the prestigious PEN/Hemingway Award for a first novel.

Unfortunately Fenkl's experience is not unique. He is just one of many Asian-American writers who, even in this golden age of Asian-American fiction when more of it is being published and awarded literary prizes than before, have great difficulty getting their work published because of ethnic stereotyping.

Many publishers, in particular the big houses, according to Asian and Asian-American writers, only want novels by Asian writers that fit their market-driven expectations with regard to style and content. If they do not fit, writers say, their books are not published unless they are remodelled.

Asian-American writers lay much of the blame for this state of affairs with the work of Amy Tan. Nothing personal, but the Chinese-American writer had such a huge success with The Joy Luck Club, the short story collection which sold millions of copies and was turned into a major movie, and then The Kitchen God's Wife, that she prompted just about every publisher to start looking for their own version. Tan's latest novel The Hundred Secret Senses had a first paperback print-run of 1.7 million copies, so no one should be surprised that commercial publishers want more of the same.

'She triggered this search under every rock for new Amy Tans,' says Walter Lew, former editor-in-chief at Kaya, a publisher of Asian literature.

'It became a joke. Agents were not looking at the quality but at the possibilities of repackaging a writer's work into Amy Tan's work. One writer I know went through three complete rewrites with the editor saying 'you are going to be my Amy Tan'. These editors talk young writers into doing these multi-generational sagas.

'Meanwhile, many of the most outstanding figures in Asian-American writing, the ones making advances in style and the treatment of the subject matter, are missing out. They are not the ones getting the big contracts. There are many writers and poets who have really pushed the envelope who will have to be happy being celebrated by a few graduate students.' Tan also unwittingly set the standard, in terms of content of style, for Asian-American fiction which other writers now must meet, in many instances, if they want to be published.

Fenkl says: 'It's a shame Amy Tan's books became bestsellers because they almost single-handedly created the genre of Asian-American literature with its own rules and regulations.

'Now Asian-American novels must have certain things about family and story-telling and oral tradition, you must show how women are oppressed by this Asian heritage, you must talk about the issue of language and eventually highlight the joys of assimilation. They are the models held out by publishers.

'It's not Amy Tan's fault; it's the market and those marketing her books. There is a lot of pressure to co-operate with editors and agents to produce that marketable book.' Korean-American writer Leonard Chang has felt that pressure. In rejection letters, Chang has been criticised because his characters were not Asian, or exotic, enough. One prominent literary agent told him: 'The characters . . . just don't seen Asian enough. They act like everyone else. They don't eat Korean food, they don't speak Korean . . . we get none of the details that separate Koreans and Korean-Americans from the rest of us. Elaine acts like every other American mum . . . in the scene where Elaine looks into the mirror, you don't show how she sees her slanted eyes, or how she thinks of her Asianness.' Chang says: 'That was the worst letter I got, it was really disturbing.

'That kind of thing is out there and consciously or subconsciously, it's in the writer's mind. I wouldn't have minded if it was the writing that was the problem, but to be told it didn't fit into a certain idea was terrible.

'If my characters don't display the requisite quaint Asian characteristics, if they speak grammatical English, if they have a lot of sex with both men and women, if they eat with forks instead of chopsticks, so be it. The editor, the agent and the critic who wants chopsticks know what they can do with them.' One editor even told Chang he should read the works of two white writers - David Guterson and Robert Olen Butler - for tips on writing about Asians.

'I know what the editor and the agent wanted. They wanted the experiences of Asian-Americans as they have been portrayed in the mainstream media and other best-selling novels. They wanted characters who must experience the pain of acculturation, of transition from the exoticised homelands to the US and be found quaint and enchanting by the reader.

'It makes me uncomfortable. I feel pigeon-holed and resentful and I find myself resisting it.' His first novel called The Fruit 'n' Food was about racial strife between blacks and Koreans in a depressed New York neighbourhood, and his second Farrell Gordon, out next year, is about an angry white man who hates his Korean-American boss.

'It's about really violent racism, very unpleasant. I wanted to write something as different from what's out there as I could. It was in response to so much Asian-American stuff that's been published.

'It's not a snapshot of pretty Asian-American lives in exotic settings. The novel takes place in rural New Hampshire in the winter in a grimy apartment near a train station. The characters don't eat Asian food, they don't tell Asian folk tales and the only community here is a community of hatred and bitter racial division.' The pressure to idealise Asian culture in fiction is one of the more offensive aspects of the recurring vogue - also popular from the 1930s until the 1960s - for Asian-American fiction.

'Even when you show bad things about Asian culture, in most Asian-American works they are referred to as the exotic other,' says Fenkl. 'There is an effort to make those cultural features non-threatening and accessible. It's a way of writing about your own culture as if you were writing for tourists. More contemporary writers are objecting to that.' Frank Chin, the Chinese-American playwright and novelist, is one such objector. Chin, famous for his hostile views on popular Asian-American writing, says household names like Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston, Gus Lee and others have indulged in opportunistic falsification of Chinese tradition in their work.

Chin, who is published by four presses, says these writers have sold out to mainstream tastes for the exotic which he calls 'white racist love'. These writers, he says, pander to what white America wants and they do this by falsifying Chinese myths and traditions, by not using certain terms and beliefs correctly but for effort. In so doing, he says, they are falsifying Chinese history.

'This is a white racist country and the white racist writers get published and those who are willing to falsify Chinese culture get published and those who are not have a more difficult time of it,' he says.

'These [Chinese-American] writers write in a particular way and a particular form which is the autobiography, which is not a Chinese form, and the cookbook. In the 50s I had a novel kicking around that it was suggested by a publisher I turn into an autobiography to make it more saleable. I said no.

'Basically, the publishers will publish the writers who inspire white racist love.' Gish Jen, the popular Chinese-American author of Typical American and Mona in the Promised Land, says the public has certain tastes for which writers like Amy Tan should not be castigated.

'It's not Amy Tan's fault; it's the fault of the market place. I think the American public likes to see certain things [in novels] . . . they still like the exotic, they want a book that makes them laugh, a book that makes them cry.' Making China more palatable to readers was not the intention of Chinese writer Wang Ping. Her gripping autobiographical novel Foreign Devil, about growing up during the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath, is a realistic - meaning realistically bleak - story. But Wang worries that Foreign Devil is too gloomy for American readers more attuned to the comparatively cheery narratives of Tan and company.

Her book was published by a small publisher, Coffee House Press, and certainly her sales do not match Tan's.

'I think my story might be too depressing, too rugged for American audiences,' says Wang.

'This story would definitely not have been published by a big publisher.

'America is a country full of immigrants so immigration will be a theme forever. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as you represent the truth, as long as you don't sell out to fit into white tastes.

'Writers should fight, it's part of their responsibility.' Daniel Menaker, senior fiction editor at big US publisher Random House, agrees that writers should complain about being pigeonholed, but adds that local publishers obviously cater to American literary sensibilities.

Fewer British books are making a successful transition across the Atlantic, Mr Menaker says, because of these differences in taste. The same theory applies to books from China and from the Asian-American community.

Mr Menaker says while it is natural for a successful model to be emulated, 'it's pretty unimaginative to lock into that . . . but someone has to break the mould'.

Chang says he is heartened that 'many Asian-American writers are saying, 'Not another migrant story about assimilation in America'.

'Eventually that way of thinking will infiltrate the big publishers.' And publisher Mr Menaker is hopeful for the future: 'I think Asian-American writers are on the brink of a wonderful new era where their Asianness is just part of the book.

'Writers who want to write another kind of book, and not just the immigrant novel, are on the right track.'