Earlier this month, Korean American novelist Jenny Han did a great interview with NBC Asian America, where she spoke about the meaning of Asian American representation in her “To All the Boys” trilogy. What resonated with me most about this interview was Han’s words about Asian American storytelling as more than about struggle.
It was possible, Han said, to write about an Asian American girl falling in love, a universal process for many young adults, and not emphasize difference. It was possible to normalize aspects of Asian American identity and culture without struggle as the main focus.
I don’t have much to add to Han’s words; she articulated everything that I had been struggling to say. So, in true Zoom University discussion board format, I want to center Han’s words by responding with experiences of my own.
First, though, I want to preface with some context: I love young adult novels. Back in the 2000s, I was a “Hush, Hush,” “Fallen” and “The Mortal Instruments” kind of girl, and I would read any book with a mysterious woman in a ball gown on the cover — which is to say, nearly half of the young adult shelves at the local library. My greatest memories from when I was younger stem from sitting in that little corner of the library, listening to Taylor Swift’s “Fearless” album over headphones and devouring the latest installment of Ally Condie’s futuristic “Matched” series.
It was only natural, then, that I’d want to start writing young adult fiction of my own. When I first started writing, I wrote mainly about white protagonists in dystopian settings because I thought that was the standard.
As I grew older and into my identity more, being a young adult felt a little different from the kinds of stories I read about. Instead of writing those stories, I started focusing more on Chinese Americans in distinctly Chinese American settings — my version of a young adult novel.
Like Han, as I ventured more into the writing community, I began feeling like there was pressure for my work to be a work of struggle. Once, in what felt like an extended hate comment about my writing, a white workshop instructor griped that my subject matter wasn’t what he believed Chinese identity was about. Until that moment, I had never really thought about being Chinese American as a commodified experience for white consumption.
It felt like the only time my voice as a writer was valued was when I was integrating my Chinese identity in ways that felt artificial to who I was and became exploitative of trauma. It felt like I needed to write about my parents’ immigrant struggle and hardship in order to be considered significant. These were parts of my identity, but they weren’t all of it. I stopped writing for a long time because I was always considering whether or not I had unintentionally boxed myself in as a Chinese writer.
(Disclaimer: many Chinese writers do write about immigration and hardships in nuanced, illuminating ways. Those stories should be valued just as much as any other story. I would never claim that my experiences are universal because they’re not.)
In reality, I just wanted the freedom to write about Chinese people having supernatural powers or having forbidden romances with hot fallen angels or worrying about other concerns than their pursuit of the elusive American Dream. To put it plainly, I wanted to write young adult novels without necessarily incorporating ideas co-opted as part of a Chinese writer’s identity.
Recently, I’ve dipped my toes back in young adult fiction. I read Chloe Gong’s “These Violent Delights” these past few weeks and absolutely loved it. It was the first young adult novel I’d read that featured discussions of Western imperialism and Chinese history and a protagonist implicitly struggling with Chinese and American identity without having that become the central focus.
Moreover, “These Violent Delights” is a retelling of “Romeo and Juliet,” and I think that’s what makes me love it all the more for what it represents to me: that it’s possible for Chinese writers to pay homage to the works that have shaped us while interpreting those stories in our own ways.
There are so many other Chinese authors that are redefining the young adult genre. Katie Zhao’s forthcoming young adult novel “How We Fall Apart” is described as a mix of “Crazy Rich Asians” and “One of Us is Lying.” It’s about the competitive Asian American school environment, but it’s also a thriller and a dark academia murder mystery. Having read Katie Zhao’s previous work on Wattpad, I can already tell it’s going to be amazing.
Xiran Jay Zhao’s young adult novel “Iron Widow” is also a story I’m incredibly excited about. As a reimagining of Chinese empress Wu Zetian that combines mythology with all the makings of a young adult novel, it’s the kind of premise that I loved reading. It’s also the novel that I think, subconsciously, I’ve been waiting for a long time.
Just seeing these authors redefine what it means to be a Chinese young adult novelist makes me want to start writing again. I’m still afraid of many things — mostly the hate comments that make my face burn — and I’m worried about being labeled as a Chinese writer. Yet, I think Chinese young adult novelists are doing so much incredible work in the genre and like the Chinese writers before them, are paving the way for more Chinese stories to be told.
Most importantly, these stories make me believe that one day, the young adult genre will be full of stories that Chinese writers want to write about. They make me believe that one day, we can redefine the young adult experience and show the wide range of narratives Chinese writers have to offer.
That might be a little futuristic, but it’s the kind of future I want to see.
Valerie Wu is a sophomore writing about the arts and pop culture in relation to her Chinese American identity. Her column, “Soft Power,” runs every other Monday.