On being an Asian American writer

Jessica Hills Photography

Tess Gerritsen is a best-selling romance and mystery writer.  She is of Chinese descent. Her recent novel features an Asian American character for the first time:

In terms of salability before, people weren’t that interested in it. Out of the U.S. population, Asian-Americans are not that big a group of readers. But this was a way I can easily weave an Asian-American character in the Rizzoli and Isles universe, and I can put in an Asian-American point of view through Johnny Tam.

Gerritsen also talks about what it is like to be an Asian American writer:

Q: Because of your high profile, have you been asked why you haven’t written about Asians before?

A: I have gotten that a lot from the Asian-American community. They question my judgment about marketability, but it’s just the way it worked out. I felt this was the story I wanted to tell. My mother’s health is fading, and I wanted to write a story of some of the folktales she told me growing up. She had the most amazing tales about how she grew up in China: The magic, the ghosts, the supernatural. (Laughs) Of course, where my mom saw ghosts, I reacted by becoming a logical science person.

Q: Do you feel this great responsibility as a public Asian-American?

A: I think every Asian-American feels that way. When an Asian-American goes crazy and kills somebody, we all feel collective guilt and shame. But there’s also collective pride. When an Asian-American scientist wins the Nobel Prize, it’s like, “Hey! That’s one for our team!” I think it’s collective because we’re such a small minority.

Story here.

3 thoughts on “On being an Asian American writer

  1. Interesting.

    She said people had asked her why she hadn’t written Asian American characters before. I think it’s worth remembering that authors of minority background don’t have a lot of influence over what their publishers consider profitable, at least not if they’re with a large publishing company. I guess Asian American characters are becoming more profitable.

    I’m often conflicted when I look at the increasing marketability of minority cultures. It’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand it’s really good to see our faces, our traditions and our identities starting to permeate the mainstream. On the other hand, it’s so easy for the mainstream corporate culture to misappropriate our cultures, turning them into a cheap, commercial thing, stealing our costumes, our religion, our traditions, our faces, and turning them into a kind of superficial entertainment for trendy white folks who want to pat themselves on the back for how hip and multicultural they are. It’s not a new thing, it goes all the way back to the Karate Kid and Bruce Lee and Swami Whatsisname and… well, two words: Black culture.

    Black Americans basically invented every form of popular American music since the 70s, and that popularity resulted in their culture becoming mainstream, being appropriated by the American masses. Sounds good, right? Except that it didn’t do anything to challenge the negative stereotypes of black people. The white folks took black music and black slang and black fashion, and continued to demonise black people, or fetishise them.

    In the same way, we see white folks these days going round saying Konnichiwa and Namaste and chatting about Anime and Bollywood and whatever the latest trendy ethnic thing is. They’re taking our cultures but leaving behind our souls. Being culturally appropriated doesn’t mean we’ll be accepted. It could end up hurting us more than it helps.

    One day I’m going to sit down and think and clearly articulate my thoughts on this. Why I feel conflicted when I’m sitting in the shopping mall and see a white lady going past wearing a sari, my Grandmother’s dress. There’s so much complicated stuff going on there, but they don’t realise it. To them it’s just a piece of cloth. To me, it’s my whole culture and ancestors and race that you’re wearing wrapped around your body… not that you care… I suppose it means nothing to you, just a trendy fashion statement… Namaste and Konnichiwa to you, too, lady! And I’ll throw in a Yo, wassup, dog, for free.

  2. Whoa, Naga, great comment!

    I was surprised by this interview because Gerritsen is a consistent best-seller. So I would think she could write an Asian American character, even an Asian American lead.

  3. “They’re taking our cultures but leaving behind our souls.”

    That phrase is reverberating in my head so loudly I can barely finish the last paragraph. I have to go think now.

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