• Davis’ descriptions in her books of Chinese people include they spoke English “stiffly, unnaturally” and of their “yellow” skin tone. (Getty Images)
When American romance writer Courtney Milan took aim at her colleague's book, labelling it a “racist mess”, it started a literary feud that re-opened questions of racism in publishing.
By
Yen-Rong Wong

10 Jan 2020 - 11:21 AM  UPDATED 10 Jan 2020 - 11:21 AM

OPINION

There’s been something of a revolution brewing in the romance world over the past few weeks.

Courtney Milan, a Chinese-American romance writer, bravely called out Kathryn Davis’ Somewhere Lies the Moon for racist descriptions of its half-Chinese protagonist. 

Davis and her publisher Suzan Tisdale filed a formal ethics complaint resulting in Milan being issued with a suspension from Romance Writers America (RWA) for a year, and a permanent ban from holding any leadership position in the organisation.

An ensuing online backlash forced RWA to retract Milan’s suspension and cancel their annual RITA awards – the highest honour in American romance publishing.  

So what did Milan object to? It was Davis’ descriptions in her books of Chinese people. These include descriptions they spoke English “stiffly, unnaturally”, their “yellow” skin tone, their “slanted almond eyes”, “thick black hair”, and one girl who “rarely spoke a word, and kept her eyes lowered always”.

Milan labelled it a “racist mess” saying the “book is like a bingo card of DID YOU REALLY”, reaffirming Orientalist tropes of Asian women as submissive, obedient and foreign.

So why does it matter? Men write women badly, some will say, and women don’t make a huge fuss over it. Here, again, is white privilege at play; it matters because negative portrayals of non-white people can lead to serious real-life consequences for underrepresented groups.

When I was younger, there was next to no representation of Asian women in the books I was reading or the television shows I was allowed to watch - let alone someone like me, a child of Chinese immigrants who had grown up wedged between opposing cultures. I ended up reaching for books like Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, simply because the protagonist was of Asian descent. 

It wasn’t until I was much older I realised it was hugely problematic to have a white man write about Japanese culture in such a way and co-opt a real geisha's (Mineko Iwasaki) life for profit and the voyeurism of Western readers.

This lack of representation meant I normalised whiteness as the norm. I automatically assumed a character was white if I hadn’t been told otherwise. I only ever saw Chinese characters in my Chinese picture books and Chinese school textbooks. I will always remember a picture book called "Mum goes to buy mung beans"  媽媽買綠豆, where a Chinese girl accompanies her mum to buy mung beans.

I was in my early twenties before I encountered a character with whom I truly resonated - Tien Ho, a Vietnamese teenager in Hsu-Ming Teo's novel Behind the Moon. She shared the same anxieties as I did as a child of Asian migrants, and had a similar, complicated relationship with her mother that was unexplainable to her white friends. 

Even then, she was Vietnamese, not Chinese. Thinking about this makes me both angry and sad – non-white kids should be able to see themselves represented in the same way white kids are.

Asian women aren’t a monolith. In America and Australia, “Asian” tends to actually mean “East Asian” – but even then, there are big differences between Chinese, Korean, and Japanese people.

Some will respond with a smarmy “so does that mean men can’t write women characters, or white authors can’t write about people of colour?” This is a wilful misunderstanding of the point. Of course writers should be free to write whoever or whatever they want, but they should approach other cultures with respect, and be open to criticism.

Davis’ incredible insistence that Milan should be the one apologising to her is just one example of the ways in which whiteness continues to stand in the way of realistic representation of non-white characters. Not only is there a refusal to take feedback, but aggressive punitive measures on those who offer it. 

 This is a clear wake-up call to the literary industry.

Tisdale’s complaint claims Milan targeted Davis "simply because Ms. Davis... happens to be white", and noted it was unfair to criticise a book for racist tropes because it was published more than twenty years ago (keeping in mind something that’s racist in 2020 was still racist in 1999).

This is a prime example of what Luvvie Ajayi calls “weary weaponising of white women’s tears”, or, as Ruby Hamad summarises, “the tactic white women employ to muster sympathy and avoid accountability, by turning the tables and accusing their accuser.”

The literary and published worlds as a whole are still overwhelmingly white-dominated and this disparity is even more pronounced when it comes to romance.  According to a 2018 report, only 7.7 books out of every 100 published by leading romance publishers were written by people of colour. 

Publishing isn’t a one-person operation, and Davis’ book would have gone through the hands of editorial staff, all of whom found no problem with her racist descriptions.

But for now, the repercussions of Davis’ and Tisdale’s actions continue to roll in. RWA board members have reportedly resigned, and publishers have pulled out of their conference.  Questions have also been raised of RWA’s membership diversity and award system  – with more than 80 per cent of their membership white, despite the fact it was formed 40 years ago by a black woman (and no black woman was awarded a RITA until 2019.)

As the controversy forces an overhaul of the organisation this is a clear wake-up call to the literary industry. To call out powerful colleagues in a networked industry is not easy, but Milan represents so many of us struggling to find our place in creative industries rife with racism.  It’s unclear how this will end, but at the very least, I hope it means zero tolerance of harmful, lazy racist tropes and more writers of colour flourishing in the creative world.

Yen-Rong Wong is a freelance writer. You can follow Yen-Rong at @inexorablist. 

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