Marketing Asian America

Ken Liu

As a commercial writer in a capitalist society, I don’t spend much time thinking of literature as a sacred calling. It’s far more helpful to adopt the view that I make an entertainment product to be consumed in exchange for money. The commercial relationship between the writer and the abstraction of “the market” is fiction’s prime mover, and everything else—the formal qualities of the stories, the critical discourse around them, the political content written into and read out of them—is just epiphenomena.

(Do I protest too much? Of course I protest too much. That is the nature of self-reflective addresses like this one.)

So to the questions that interest me: what is the nature of “Asian American literature” as a product category? Who does it serve? Does it serve its consumers and producers well?

Because Americans of Asian descent are a minority, fiction that is classified (and sometimes marketed) as “Asian American literature,” like other “ethnic” literatures, must depend for its commercial viability on pleasing readers who are not Asian American.

Historically, this has meant that Asian American writers, at least in the mainstream “literary” market, are expected to produce fiction that hews to a certain model. As Betsy Huang writes in Contesting Genres in Contemporary Asian American Fiction:

Even before opening its covers, there is something always already very familiar about a novel by an Asian American writer. Its reception from both popular and critical audiences is likely to be preceded by presumptions about its writer, its subject matter, its prose style, and, most significantly, the information it will provide about the culture and history of the particular Asian group with which the author is affiliated…[F]or the reigning assumption of the mainstream literary market is that works by Asian American writers are de facto immigrant narratives.

Critically acclaimed authors, many of them now enshrined on college syllabi on “Asian American literature,” have been interpreted to be parts of this tradition: Jade Snow Wong, Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, Jhumpa Lahiri, Gish Jen. And beyond the campus, their commercial success suggests that the Asian immigrant narrative satisfies a deeply felt need in our collective psyche for affirmation of American exceptionalism, of our unique national myth of e pluribus unum, re-framed to accommodate an increasingly pluralist, diverse population that nonetheless subscribes to the faith of one nation, indivisible. The best-selling Asian American narratives are stories about becoming American; they retell this myth in the most satisfying manner.

More than sixty-five years after the publication of Fifth Chinese Daughter, is “becoming American” still the most commercially viable mode for Asian American storytelling? And what about particularly “American” genres like crime fiction and science fiction, where the connection between art and cold, hard cash is keenest felt?

The evidence is mixed. Certainly there are many more Asian American authors now writing and publishing genre fiction than six decades ago. They have apparently achieved some measure of success in the market by writing everything from noir featuring a non-Asian protagonist (see Vu Tran’s Dragonfish) to hard SF starring alien, mechanical creatures with no elements coded as explicitly “Asian” anywhere (see Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation”) to mathematical space operas, slipstream literary fantasies, mythic fantasies crafted with the precision of scientific speculation, time travel thrillers, and young adult lesbian fairy tale retellings (see works by Yoon Ha Lee, Alyssa Wong, Usman Malik, Wesley Chu, Malinda Lo, and many others). Surely the immigrant narrative is no longer the dominant interpretive framework or cause for their success?

But—and there is always a but—in genre fiction, where the Other is not only a metaphor but often the dominant storytelling trope (the criminal world with its own rules; the exotic, magical realm; the inscrutable alien…), contemporary Asian American writers continue to appear in a meta-narrative of immigration. Their works may no longer address immigration as a dominant theme, but the meta-interpretative framework for the commercial conversation around their work insists on treating them as permanent immigrants.

This is so regardless of the actual politics of the author toward the immigrant narrative—whether assimilationist, resistant, ambivalent, or apathetic—and regardless of the content of the books. At book festivals, Asian American authors are gathered into panels with titles like “Writing Between Cultures.” At pop cultural and science fiction conventions, we are invited to converse about topics like “Asian fantasy” and “Chinese science fiction.” We are profiled in print and on the web in lists that mix and mingle works by Asian American writers and writers from China, Japan, India, Pakistan, Korea, Taiwan…In Amazon and Goodreads reviews, our stylistic quirks are discussed as instances of “Asian” prose, and our works evaluated for their ability to illuminate the exotic nature of the “Asian American” experience. When we’re interviewed, the queries delve into our biographies for “Asian American” themes—even if we do not think there is anything particularly “Asian American” about our work. We’re questioned and probed for our opinions on the “rise of Asia.” The subtext and metatext are that biography is the most commercially interesting thing about us, and our biography is the immigrant narrative.

Asian America, as it turns out, is a cartographic projection of Asia in the imagination of the market, and our writing is inextricably linked, interpretively, to the other shore of the Pacific. “Asian American literature,” as a marketing category, is tied to a place where we do not live, and our writing is valued precisely for the extent to which it mirrors and magnifies American fantasies and fears about Asia, and also for the ways in which it assures the reader of our Americanness.

In the looming shadow of the immigrant narrative, Asian American writers are faced with a rather impossible choice. To escape the narrative by not writing about our families or histories or cultures feels like erasure, like singing without the full range of our voices. But writing about our families or histories or cultures can sometimes feel like pandering and a form of auto-appropriation, especially if it becomes the marketing focus. Identity-policing becomes both a communal hobby and a derogatory label to hurl at any attempt at articulating our common interests. “Authenticity” turns into a word that is feared as much as it is craved.

I suggest that it’s time to question whether the label of “Asian American literature” serves its producers and consumers well. I have no answers but many questions.

In an age of intersectional identities, why should we accept the dominance of a label premised on an arbitrary line drawn by European cartographers around the land of our ancestry, the largest continent on Earth with a commensurate diversity of cultures, populations, and histories? Conversely, why should we resist being identified with the cultures of our ancestry if that feels more satisfying? Do we feel supported or confined in our careers by these labels? In an age of fading national identities, growing mobility of labor, and procedural citizenship, why should any of us feel compelled to perform the immigrant narrative instead of the diaspora narrative, or some other narrative that we craft for ourselves? Many of us feel the pressure to inform and reassure our readers of our “Americanness,” but is this really necessary or even what readers want? What evidence do we really have that “the market” will not reward other meta-narratives? After all, the market for fiction is hardly efficient, objective, or even very data-driven, and the fact that our books have been promoted a certain way at conventions and festivals and by publicity departments is no evidence at all that this is the only way that works or even a good discovery tool for readers.

This isn’t to say that calling works written by writers who self-identify as such “Asian American literature” is not without value. Indeed, reclaiming the label as a site of community-building and celebration of our diversity of experiences and viewpoints and interests is empowering. The label, when used within the community, does not need to mean what it means outside the community.

We can choose to say no to panels that we don’t want to be on; we can choose to not answer interview questions that make assumptions about who we are. We can choose to read works from Asia or to write about Asia or to do none of those things. We don’t need to police a writerly identity imposed from without. There’s already plenty of outsider attempts to define what is “authentic,” and we need not play that game. The community is not the product, and authenticity—whatever it means to each of us—isn’t to be consumed.

We may be Asian American, but it doesn’t mean what we write must be sold as “Asian American literature.”

Ken Liu is an American author of speculative fiction. He has won the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards, as well as top genre honors in Japan, Spain, and France, among other countries.

This “literary address” is part of a series of 20 addresses commissioned by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center and the Association for Asian American Studies. Penned by leading Asian American (and in this case, Pacific Islander) poets, writers, playwrights, graphic novelists, and literary scholars, the addresses assess the state and future of Asian American literature and offer a wide-spanning re-imagination of its place and consequence.