Archive for October 16th, 2014

Thoughts on Heart of Fire and on the difficulty of writing

I saw a tweet proclaiming that Heart of Fire was released today with the hashtag WeNeedDiverseBooks, so I clicked over to Amazon to check it out.

Heart of Fire:

Jan Xu, wolf and pack leader, faces more dangers when she saves a foreign male wolf in love with one of her ancient enemies, a jiang shi, a Chinese vampire. Throw in a love-struck drake—and Jan finds her situation suddenly precarious, with her reputation and health at stake. How much is a wolf going to take when everything is out of control again and her world thrown into disarray? How is she going to navigate the complexities of Myriad politics while keeping her pack and family intact without losing her mind? The third book of the Jan Xu Adventures will see Jan Xu’s continual fight as pack leader, her clan’s Eye (seer) and mother of three young children. Her mettle, courage and love for her family will be tested to her utmost limits.

What I found frustrating was my inability to let go and enjoy.

A torrent of thoughts blurred through my mind, all them nitpicky, some of them unreasonable. I’ll be the first to admit it.

I also know that I said before that I would rather see a million different portrayals of East Asians rather than see none and I stick by it. I still believe that it is better to see a hundred thousand reflections of possibilities of the self, even if they are slightly distorted by the nature of the reflective medium than to hover in sensory deprivation, uncertain of one’s own existence.

So this post is more of an exploration of my self and my perception and my preferred reflection rather than a critique or dismissal of Joyce Chng.

That said, shall we?

Trouble in paradise started with the name. Yes, I did say this was going to be nit-picky. Jan Xu. I wasn’t sure if she was rendering the name in the Asian fashion, with the family name first, or in the Western fashion, with it going last. It didn’t help that Jan isn’t a word in Romanized Chinese pingyin. I pushed the thought aside because I know that there are many ways to Romanize Chinese, some of which make no sense.

Then werewolves were mentioned and I got yanked right back again. For one, wolves are not at all the first animal I would think of if I thought Asian fantasy, especially with the Chinese sounding name. I’d have gone with monkeys, tigers, dragons, phoenixes, even turtles, bats and horses if you really wanted to do something out of the ordinary. For a second, if you take a look at most of the idioms in Chinese, it is clear to see that wolves were really not held in any sort of esteem that culture. Unlike the tiger who is just as often used as a symbol of royalty and/or ability as it is used to indicate ruthlessness, I can’t think of a phrase referring to a wolf that is complimentary. At least not within the boundaries of the usual Han Chinese mythology. Things might be different when you move further west. For a third, I didn’t think that wolves ranged into where Singapore is located.

Then a jiang shi was called a Chinese vampire and a potential love interest of one of the characters and I was pretty much done. Yeah, I know the wikipedia page calls it “a vampire or a zombie” and it’s as easy a way to describe it as any, but… really, it’s an reanimated corpse. It’s not a vampire. I prefer not to call it a vampire because that implies that it works the same way as Western vampires when they really don’t share much of anything in common with them. They are pretty much universally portrayed as mindless, ravening, animated flesh that will bash themselves to bits trying to get at their prey. Not sexy. No. Just no. Love interest? Hell no.

But I felt kinda guilty for not giving it more of a chance because…well, I prefer not to be a hypocrite. So I picked up the sample and tried my best to keep my mind open.

The beginning didn’t really draw me in. In fact, I was bounced right back out because of the first line: “In Taiwan, sky lanterns are released into the night sky during Mid-Autumn Festival”. I looked up, blinked, and went: “Do we? Huh?”

You see, my parents are Taiwanese, all of my relatives were Taiwanese, and I spent about 4 years in Taiwan in my eary teens and never once did we do the whole sky lantern thing. So that first sentence popped me right out and onto Google to see if we did. Well, turns out the city will do events like that. Cool and all, but…

The rest of the prologue felt a bit like an info-dump and since she was telling me about her emotions, I didn’t really get invested in them as much.

Then there was what felt a bit like a “don’t abandon your pets or abuse them” PSA in the middle of the narrative, which kinda derailed me again.

Joyce wavers back and forth between calling a character “Lang” or wolf. Personally, I find it irritating to use Chinese words when there’s an easy English word for it. It doesn’t pull me further into the narrative, it pulls me out. This is possibly because I kind of switch between an English-main OS and a Chinese-main OS when I think and that method bounces me back and forth. She also sometimes clarifies “wolf” after using “Lang”, after enough mentions that really, the reader should know already, which just drives me batty.

At this point, she mentioned the Xu pack. So okay, Xu is the last name, good to know. Except her father calls her Xu Yin, so Jan isn’t her name, it’s something else. I drop out of the story to ponder this and to wonder what the hell “Jan” is and why it would be connected with her last name. A title? Maybe meaning alpha? What? Since it wasn’t a word that exists in either the Taiwanese or Mainland China Romanization of Chinese, I was completely at sea.

At this point, I felt a bit like I was yo-yoing in and out of the story and nothing had really even happened yet.

And I had yet another question. Why was she alpha instead of her parents? At some point she calls the unknown wolf she picks up a “foreigner” and then later she says that he’s a Chinese man. So here I’m wondering what the Xu family is, if not Chinese.

She says “Mandarin Chinese” on a couple of occasions and it rubbed me a bit the wrong way because …well, it’s like tacking some other sort of identifier onto Portuguese or Italian rather than simply saying Italian/Portuguese. It’s simply not a way I use the word as a Chinese person. Yes, nitpicky to the point where it’s almost unreasonable, I know.

It didn’t help that it felt a bit that the narrative was sprawling all over the place. Instead of feeding detail on a need to know basis, there would be a brief spate of info-dump when someone came up, like her sister, or something she felt needed to be clarified, like the fact that Han Chinese sometimes did naturally have blue or green eyes, which resulted in the narrative feeling chopping, disorganized and the tension was just nonexistent for me as a result.

……

So that’s me. That’s my interaction with the sample available to me.

I’m pretty frustrated with myself. I just couldn’t shut down my brain for long enough for the story to take root and sweep me away.

I originally wasn’t going to write this post since the last thing I want to do is to write something that’s discouraging when there really isn’t enough E. Asian stuff out there already. But then I thought about it and I thought that it was something worth sharing because it illustrates and supports my stance on why I think people should just try to write whatever they want to write, so long as they approach it with the appropriate respect. By appropriate respect, I mean both not placing it on a pedestal and being a culture apologist or being disdainful/contemptuous of it. I’ve read things where the author’s loves and hates of the culture came through bright and clear and it was unpleasant. Portray things as they are, let the chips fall where they may and you should be good.

Joyce Chng lives in Singapore. She calls herself diasporic Chinese. She grew up writing in Australia. “Worthy” of writing an E. Asian character in Singapore? I’d say hells yes.

Yet the way she writes and uses and incorporates Chinese culture into her novel just doesn’t do it for me. If I were to be brutally honest, it even rubs me against the grain a bit.

Nalini Singh wrote a short involving an Asian American girl that I really enjoyed. Even though I cannot remember her name for the life of me.

Laura Florand wrote a character of Asian descent that spoke to my soul and yanked on my heart till it bled a little.

I say all this to point out that it is silly to set restrictions on who may or may not write a character or a situation. … I am one Chinese person in a sea of many.

What I love might not work for others. Some might hate how Americanized Sarah Lin is, how her Asian heritage is simply one of many lines that composes her sketch rather than shadows painted on with a heavy brush. Some might cringe at how the character in Nalini Singh’s short has parents who are trying to arrange her marriage and scream about stereotypes.

So?

Any reader is one out of many. As they say, the sea is vast and the fish are many. If there are more writers who release more fish into the sea, eventually everyone will find what they want, which is as it should be.