I didn’t even really think of myself as particularly Asian
June 23, 2018 6:54 AM   Subscribe

And it’s sort of like — in my first fiction workshop, I wrote a story using Tagalog words, and I italicized them, because that’s what I was used to even back home, because I write in English. And it became a huge discussion for the class. Like, “why is she italicizing her words? Is that othering? Is that intentional? Is she writing for a white audience?”
Isabel Yap talks about writing Filipino speculative fiction and learning to write for an American audience when you don't necessarily feel like you're Asian-American.
posted by MartinWisse (11 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
Thanks for posting this. Isabel Yap has a lot of very interesting thoughts about writing.

From a speculative fiction writing perspective, it was very interesting to me that non-Filipino readers found her realistic depiction of a Filipino festival to be one of the more fantastical aspects of that particular story. It really makes me think about the importance of setting in speculative fiction -- not just in terms of world building, but in terms of a story's grounding in the real world/reality. It's so hard to convey a sense of "reality" in a (fantastical/speculative) story when "reality" itself is so culturally dependent.

I guess ultimately you may have to ground a story in emotional truths or in your characters' fundamental humanity, because so little about "reality" is actually universalizable. Of course, when you're a speculative fiction writer and writing about alien species, grounding the story in the characters' humanity might be a bit difficult!
posted by rue72 at 7:39 AM on June 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

"I identify as Filipino, and I grew up in — oh, here’s one thing she said that I strongly identify with. She said she hasn’t — she doesn’t have the same inherited angst that Asian Americans who grew up in America feel. It just wasn’t present for us. We were in our dominant culture for most of our lives thus far, so we don’t have the same feeling. The things that we worry about and stress about and inherited from our parents or whatever, are very different from people who grew up here."
This is a *very big thing*.

A common, constant Asian-American anxiety is being labeled "foreign." That makes one's Americanness conditional, questionable. In a completely diverse, egalitarian society, maybe that shouldn't be a problem, but even as we recognize that as an American ideal, we can see (and today, we can see even more clearly) ways in which being more "American" gives you more authority to declare what American values are and are not, and who should and should not therefore have a say on how the country is run.

We ask whether the whiteness of an ethnic group can be revoked, but we already know the answer of whether the statehood of an ethnic minority can be.
"I think also, in California specifically, I’ve had people comment on my accent, with everything from “you don’t sound Filipino at all” to “you sound Filipino.” "
Whereas yes, I would be offended by someone saying "you don't sound Chinese." The implication being that my genetics have some sort of bearing on my language.

I can't speak firsthand to how this question of nationality plays out between people who are descendants of African slaves brought to America and those who immigrated to America from African in the last couple of generations, but some writing suggests there's some resonances--though maybe reversed, since African Americans' *Americanness* is usually assumed by mainstream culture (even when their humanity isn't).
posted by pykrete jungle at 7:39 AM on June 23, 2018 [20 favorites]

Thank you for posting this. The different perspective of non-white spec fic authors is right up my alley. As a house style, we also don't italicize non-english words. First, I'd rather our readers (kids) figure it out. Second, I can't get the guitar from the Daniel José Older video to stop playing in my head when I see spanish words in italics.
posted by korej at 7:50 AM on June 23, 2018 [8 favorites]

I think most writing and most creative process is just trying not to be alone.

Like I don’t know about other people, but for that’s why I write. Because when you write and your story finds the right reader, then you make that connection.

I thought this was neat, how she's making connections and making people think and feel less alone.
posted by Margalo Epps at 9:24 AM on June 23, 2018 [5 favorites]

Liked this article a lot, and these comments. Thank you for sharing.
posted by jragon at 12:24 PM on June 23, 2018

Saving this to read later - I’m very interested!
posted by brilliantine at 12:32 PM on June 23, 2018

There was a recent book out of I think Princeton which sheds light the question of Filipinx (a term that Isabel Yap doesn't use) not inheriting the "angst" of Asian Americans, because of the particular colonial history of the Philippines and their assimilation into American culture. Thus an alternative reason she doesn't feel this apparent "angst", is because of the colonialist whitewashing that has rewritten the sociopolitical history of the Philippines and its peoples. The issue is that while it's true that being an mature adult immigrant means one's issues and experiences are different... it's precisely a colonialist narrative to suppose that > 1st gen Asian Americans have a localized angst associated particular to them; solidarity as well as the postcolonialist context are ideas that can be used to deconstruct that presupposition and to deconstruct the notion that this is "merely angst".
posted by polymodus at 1:13 PM on June 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

Thank you -- I really appreciated that interview.
posted by lazuli at 6:29 PM on June 23, 2018

Thus an alternative reason she doesn't feel this apparent "angst", is because of the colonialist whitewashing that has rewritten the sociopolitical history of the Philippines and its peoples

No, rather I'd argue it's simply the fact that Isabel Yap isn't American or thinks of herself as such, so therefore isn't Asian-American or Filipino-American. She has never had to think of herself as a minority in the way Asian-Americans have had to think about themselves in America.

Sort of the mirror version of people like Malcolm X going to Africa and finding themselves in a society in which they're not a minority, no longer the other, but the norm.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:05 PM on June 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

And I don’t want to have to think about the race questions every time. ... “I’m not going to feel bad about this. I have other stories where the characters are Filipino. So let me write my fairytale.”

I think this is so, so important. I'm Chinese-Canadian, I read a lot of speculative fiction in the space that Isabel Yap is publishing in, and I see this all the time — there seems to be this appetite, recently, for POCs writing fantasy and science fiction about their cultures. And in a way, that's great. I want everyone to read Ken Liu's The Paper Menagerie and Zen Cho's Spirits Abroad, which have a lot of true things to say about the first- and second-generation immigrant experience.

But I don't just want to present my culture for your consumption and enjoyment, either — I want Asian-American writers to be able to write wildly popular stuff that has nothing to do with race, to be able to tell all the stories they have inside of them. Zen Cho's Sorcerer to the Crown, for instance, is a Regency fantasy that interrogates British slavery and has nothing to do with being Filipino, and it's been wildly successful, and I love that.
posted by fire, water, earth, air at 3:54 PM on June 24, 2018 [5 favorites]

Yes, +1. (Even though I haven't read Sorcerer to the Crown yet.)

I remember reading some interview with a Chinese author who was asked in a workshop how some story reflected his immigrant experience. And the story was total fantasy. The main character was a demon, or something. If a Daughter of the American Revolution had written this story, would anyone have asked her how it reflected her immigrant experience?
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 7:08 PM on June 24, 2018 [6 favorites]

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