Mike Guest's Blog: Honeyed Badger Feet

June 7, 2019

Are 'Identity Categories' Really Helping Marginalized Authors?

The Aggrieved Parties

Ok, so I took the plunge and entered 'The Aggrieved Parties' in a handful of book award contests. And, as any reader who has carried out similar schemes will know, in almost all such cases the entrant is required to choose a category for their book and, no, not just between fiction and non-fiction, but also between various fiction categories, such as historical, science fiction, romance, mystery/thriller etc. (The Aggrieved Parties comes closest to ‘action and adventure’).

And, for an additional entry fee, you can even enter the same book into two or more categories.

But, it’s when perusing the categories that things become a bit… well... strange. For example, most awards have prize categories for LGBTQ fiction, black fiction, women’s fiction etc. If you don’t feel a little cognitive dissonance here you should – and no, it’s not because you are about to read some liberal-baiting neo-con screed but rather because these categories raise genuine questions even for such traditionally marginalized authors.

Let me explain. Mystery, romance, sci-fi are genres, right? They therefore refer to the content, and to some degree, the style of the book, correct? But, as far as I am aware, texts do not have races, genders, or sexual orientations. So, what the hell exactly does ‘Black Literature’ mean?

I present this as a genuine question. Does it mean that the author is black? Ok, but surely that in no way precludes the book being a mystery, a romance, or a historical novel etc. does it? Or does it mean that the content focuses primarily upon black characters or such a community? If so, and the author was of another race, could it still then be considered to be ‘Black Literature’?

Does it refer to the target readership, such as the category ‘Children’s Books’ obviously does? Or, like ‘Christian Literature’, does it refer to both the author, audience, and the presumed ‘message’ of the work? If so, what are the implications of categorizing a well-written piece of fiction as being 'targeted' for black people, as opposed to readers in general? Racial profiling anyone?

I suspect, however, that the reality is something even more pernicious, something that most definitely does not aid or advance the cause of traditionally marginalized writers: the unstated belief that a black writer’s inherent ‘blackness’ permeates the text to such a degree that the text itself somehow must be indelibly imbued with the author’s racial DNA.

Change the race, gender, or sexual orientation in question and the same creepy vibe still holds sway. Can a transgender person not write a worthy piece of fiction without their gender/sexuality somehow underscoring the piece?

I certainly believe they can (and, incidentally, so did the sexually ambiguous Paul Bowles). Does a gay woman always have to present a ‘gay woman’s perspective'? Could she not just write a good work that refers explicitly neither to her gender nor sexuality? Aren’t all these latent author colour/sexuality categorizations limiting, if not actually belittling?

This applies to straight white men too. I’ve had comments come my way assuming (conveniently after learning of my identity) of my white maleness somehow permeating the very keys on my computer. Such commentators are using one identity as a divining rod to uncover nascent manifestations of race and/or sexuality, you know, like the McCarthyites did to root out commies and degenrates.

I once met an American artist of Vietnamese ancestry who told me how she bristled when reviewers and commentators inevitably referred to an ‘Asian’ motif in her work when she had in no way consciously utilized any. She wanted to be viewed as an artist who simply made interesting stuff, not as an ‘ethnic’ flavoring. Commentators and critics weren't letting her.

But, it may be asked, what right or ability do I have to write from the perspective of a gay Cambodian woman (as I do in ‘The Aggrieved Parties’)? Well, I have some imagination and empathy for one thing. Surely we can credit writers with those qualities. I’ve also traveled very widely and have lived in Asia for 30 years as a minority ‘outsider’. So yes, I have creds.

But even if I didn’t, if a writer is not ‘allowed’ to assume characters very different from him/herself almost every piece of worthy writing in history would have to be consigned to the scrapyard. Fiction would essentially collapse into mere autobiography or degenerate into prolonged solipsism. After all, the whole point, the inherent challenge and interest, of writing fiction is to convincingly assume the roles and perspective of others!

Unfortunately, an entire cottage industry of books (both fiction and non) that are little more than collections of virtue signaling has emerged. No, I’m not going to link or name names but I’m sure you recognize the type – those with telling sub-titles like, ‘How One Wheelchair-Bound Woman Took Control of Her Life’. I’ve tried to read a few of these items but gave up quickly, for several reasons.

Why? For one, it seems that the point of the entire book is already made in the sub-title. The text inside is just a prolonged extension of that theme – all surface, no substance.

Two, the marginalized character seems to serve merely as a (virtuous) model for whatever identities he/she/they carries – meaning that the characters become caricatures. And no, being made to look ‘less like us’ does not advance the status of the marginalized, as I argued in my previous blog post.

Three, such books are clearly geared towards readers who have a similar identity or status – they might as well come with a cover sticker warning saying ‘Not suitable for cisgender white males.’ A lot of preaching (to the converted, it would seem) and finger-pointing punctuate the text. The tenor of victimization is pervasive. The morality is simplistic and binary.

Kudos, then, to those writers who create marginalized characters who are, first and foremost human individuals, people who all readers can identify with – not merely slaves to their own identities.

With that in mind, in ‘The Aggrieved Parties’ I strove to make Phany Som impulsive and controlling, eager to take action, manipulative and yet warm-hearted. Her sexuality is integral to the plot development but it is not included as a novelty, nor is it the core of her existence. I feel like I developed a character first and foremost, one who just happens to be a gay Cambodian-American woman.

One reason I enjoy reading Paul Theroux's work is that in many of his books set abroad we see the white western male out of place in the foreign milieu (in which, more often than not, they become the marginalized character). Often they are buffoons or mad men, but they are, first and foremost, characters.

But, so too are the locals that Theroux portrays – and while he presents them as behaving and speaking within a recognizable cultural/local context (for authenticity), they are rounded and completed - with individual foibles and peccadillos.

They are individuals, not primarily generic ‘Asians’ ‘Africans’ or 'Indians’ - but actual characters who just happen to have a marginalized identity. And if any readers could point me towards marginalized fiction writers who create compelling characters who supersede virtue signaling or avoid victim narratives, I'd be more than happy to read them.

The revised version of 'The Aggrieved Parties" is available at: The Aggrieved Partieshttps://www.amazon.com/gp/product/109...
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March 13, 2019

The Trouble with Marginalized Characters

"We run the risk of focusing on the marginalized identity instead of the character him/herself."

In my recently published novel ‘The Aggrieved Parties’ the protagonist, Phany Som, a gay middle-aged Cambodian-American woman says, “If I were a character in someone’s novel the last thing I would want is for the author to waste time thinking, ‘How does a middle-aged gay Cambodian- American woman talk? How does she sit? What would she eat?’ Like there’s some sort of typology for it.”

Not surprisingly, this author agrees with Phany's assessment. In drawing up marginalized characters we run the risk of focusing on the marginalized identity instead of the character him/herself.

In the story, Phany also responds to praise offered by a self-proclaimed progressive for her sexuality with disdain, “… as if my sexuality were some sort of political statement.” Reductionism in its plainest form.

"Identity is an attribute, not an indelible, overriding cause of Who We Are."

Phany Som is a complex character of numerous virtues and flaws. She also happens to be sexually attracted to other women. And although this does affect the narrative, it does not determine or dominate Phany's entire narrative structure. Identity is an attribute, not an indelible, overriding cause of Who We Are.

In my previous novel, ‘The Little Suicides’, the protagonist was a cisgender white Western male. It’s rather easy to write from such a perspective since that happens to matches my own extant identity. So, in order to spice up his world, I tossed him naked into Japan and the Philippines, despite his having never traveled outside the west in his life. In that story, his own identity becomes challenged and, ultimately, altered. Identities, including those of the traditionally marginalized, are fluid, not static.

For ‘The Aggrieved Parties’, I tried to write from the perspective of someone completely unlike myself, doing so not only through Phany’s extant identity, but also from her perspective as a 6-year old child in 1975 Cambodia, and moreover, as one who has been traumatized by having witnessed something horrible. This represented a real challenge to myself. It is up to the reader to decide if, as a writer, I could see through the eyes of someone so inherently different from myself.

"I would be very interested in seeing which actress could play Marika convincingly."

In fact, the character in The Aggrieved Parties I enjoyed writing the most was Marika Machida, a troubled, awkward Japanese female assistant investigator who suffers from several debilitating mental issues, including OCD. Beyond being Asian and female, Marika is psychologically marginalized – and this becomes her dominant quality. Yet, despite her struggles, Marika proves to be closest thing to a moral ‘hero’ in the story.

If the book were ever to be made into a movie (touches wood) I would be very interested in seeing which actress could play Marika convincingly.

"...a singular monolithic identity hive mind, a template, one that will surely produce a caricature rather than a human being."

The bottom line is that we are all made up of multiple, often competing, identities. As borders fade and mobility increases, these identities are becoming even more increasingly hybrid. Simply asking oneself a banal question such as, ‘How do transgender people feel?’ is not sufficient. The very question assumes a singular monolithic identity hive mind, a template, one that will surely produce a caricature rather than a human being (identity politics achieve the same thing – even for those who advocates claim to be defending). It denies those murky, incalculable psychological qualities that make characters fully human and enticingly complex.

The so-called 'marginalized' qualities of marginalized characters are thus better left… in the margins. Although they may be essential to the character's overall identity, these are nonetheless peripheral when trying to construct or understand the person/the novel’s character as a whole.
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Published on March 13, 2019 18:38

February 6, 2019

Faded Exotica - The Westerner's 'Asia' Novel

I hold two deeply entrenched images of standard Westerner 'Asia' fiction. These became indelibly stamped back on my consciousness back when I did the obligatory white human's backpacking trip through Southeast Asia in the mid 80's. You know what I mean, the 10-hour bus rides, the 14-hour overnight slow trains to whocareswhere. A traveler needed something thick 'n pulpy to indulge in as a means of marking the passage of time.

These were invariably scrolled in calligraphic red, likely to suggest blood-spatter.

This usually manifested itself in the form of those 800-plus paged novels with titles such as, 'QINGDAO' emblazoned across the cover. This was usually accompanied by some 'Oriental'-looking weapon, such as a sword (even if the locale wasn't a place renowned for swordsmanship), hinting at violence, and finally, the quintessential silhouette of an Asian woman's face, finger-to-lips. You know, Asian love secrets and all that. Authors were invariably males, with names like ‘Robert Fortress’. Usually, a character/kanji adorned the jacket too, giving it that necessary 'inscrutability' quotient. These were invariably scrolled in calligraphic red, likely to suggest blood-spatter.

These War and Peace-sized tomes inevitably covered the same thematic ground, as most were clearly cut from the same template -- the sum of neo-colonial motifs. This required a heroic, if morally flawed, Western male protagonist, an 'exotic' Asian female love interest whose mysterious ways are both beguiling and flummoxing. A brutally violent setting, populated by bloodthirsty Asian men (one of whom is destined to become the Westerner's sole local confidante), and the inevitable culture clash, in which the love interest, exotically and mysteriously, escapes his clutches.

...a mixture of the starry-eyed and the smug

Later, a very different genre took hold on the Banana Pancake trail. These were much thinner semi-fictional accounts of 'authentic local encounters' with titles like, 'The Viang Catcher: My Year as an Apprentice with a Laotian Shaman'. These were accounts of Westerners having oh so authentic encounters with very rural villagers. Rural, as in 'YOU haven't been there'.

These works tended towards a mixture of the starry-eyed and the smug. Great pains would be taken to argue that, say, the ontology of a Laotian shaman was just as legitimate as that of the entire History of Western Civilization. Take that, reader!

In these accounts, the author took pains to learn a sprinkling of the language, which she - most such authors tended to be female - procedes to liberally sprinkle throughout the book, continually reminding us just how incredibly authentic and rural the whole escapade was - unlike your superficial Asian trip, Buddy!

The writer also came to absorb the 'ancient' local culture - although this process was inevitably punctured by the required 'cultural clash', usually resolved by the writer absorbing the wisdom of the locals, despite her inner conflicts.

The skewered vision of 'oriental' exotica faded as my daily world became populated by people with standard human virtues and vices

I never quite connected to either of these two genres, for obvious reasons. As I spent longer traveling and living in Asia, the skewered vision of 'oriental' exotica faded as my daily world became populated by people with standard human virtues and vices, only slightly filtered through the flimsiest of 'Asian' veneers, significant things happening to people who just happened to be Asian.

More frequent and significant in my daily 'exotic Asian' encounters were the increasing numbers of third-culture characters, multiethnic, multilingual, and multicultural boundary pushers, and Westerners like myself who had stayed 'too long' and had become effectively stateless poly-culturalists. These people too, I thought, should be a part of the Asian story. And then there are those who do belong, but are suddenly forced out of a monocultural or linguistic comfort zone. They also attract my interest.

Such characters form the basis of my recently published novel, 'The Aggrieved Parties'. This novel is an attempt to depict Asia not as a source of exotica, but rather Asia as the backdrop for disparate characters of multiple backgrounds and experiences living complex lives.

Their lives... are increasingly intersecting with our own

East Asia deserves to impinge more on the Western consciousness. And not merely because of China's economic ascendance, Korea's pop cool, or Japan's distinctive touch, but because hundreds of millions of Thais, Indonesians, Vietnamese, and Cambodians also lead rich lives, lives filled with stories that we can all connect to, lives and stories that are increasingly intersecting with our own.
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Published on February 06, 2019 06:03

Honeyed Badger Feet

Mike Guest
This is a blog about writing from the inside about Asia, as a veteran Asia expat. Kickass fiction, biting commentary, and Pulitzer-worthy social and literary insights.
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