Issue 20: On narrative plenitude
Although hate crimes against Asian Americans have risen dramatically since the start of the pandemic last March, there have been a spate of particularly visible and vicious attacks on Asian elders in the last month or so. As one of the cofounders and coleads of my company’s Asian employee resource group, I’ve been working with others to hold open forums and urge our executive team and editorial networks for more meaningful responses and increased coverage. While it has felt like a valuable push for equity, the nuances of some of these conversations have also reminded me of the weight of representation.
There’s a phrase coined by comedian Jenny Yang called the #repsweats, or the idea of sweating over representation in a particular piece of media because it’s the only one of its kind. Consequently, there’s immense pressure for it to do well. Novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen identifies this as a result of a desire for “narrative plenitude” after a lifetime of “narrative scarcity.” Since there have been so few opportunities for us to tell our own stories, audiences often have high expectations for a single book, film, or TV show.
I remember this playing out most intensely in the conversation around Crazy Rich Asians. It was recognized as a landmark film that Hua Hsu wrote was “largely untroubled by the questions of authenticity and foreignness that dogged previous generations.” It was criticized for portraying Asian Americans through white standards of respectability and for the wealth porn and erasure of Singapore’s Malay and Indian populations. While those were valid critiques, there was also an underlying fixation on what the book/movie wasn’t about, which felt a bit unfair because a single piece of art can’t be all things to all people. There were moments where I just thought, oof this is a lot of responsibility for one romantic comedy.
Around the same time, I also watched To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Articles lauded the fact that Lara Jean, the half-Korean protagonist, was not solely defined by her Asian-ness but that aspect of her identity was still present. Since her debut, Lara Jean has been heralded as a classic teen heroine alongside Samantha Baker and Cher Horowitz, coping with the regular rituals and relationships of American public high schools. That, too, was seen as revolutionary.
Does the world need another story about X? is a question every writer has to contend with. But as an Asian American writer, I also get caught up in these #repsweats. As much as I’d love to write some fantastically researched intergenerational family drama like Pachinko, that’s not realistically the kind of story I want—or feel equipped—to tell. I’m currently working on a YA novel that takes place in an insular and predominantly wealthy expat community in China. Without even revealing more about the characters and plot, I sometimes question not just if the story is good and should exist in the world, but whether or not the premise itself is bad representation.
Maybe my issue is that I like to devour thinkpiece after thinkpiece after consuming a piece of media, to see things I missed and understand different perspectives. I worry as much about overthinking and playing into stereotypes as I do about coming off careless and ill-informed. But when it comes to writing, the thought of anticipating The Discourse around what I write makes the very act of it impossible. (I also feel wildly presumptuous that anything I write could spark discussion at all.)
I don’t think it’s a bad thing to be aware of the history and context in which you’re creating art. But as Jenny Han, author of TATBILB, says, “I don't think I can create with representation first on my mind. I think that the stories have to come from within and be organic.” Just as common writing advice tells you not to edit as you write, I don’t think writers of color should create with the #repsweats in mind. Hyper awareness of one’s identity can make that difficult, but it shouldn’t prevent you from letting your creativity flow.
I’m also trying to hold onto Nguyen’s concept of “narrative plenitude,” that the only way for a story about Asian Americans to just be a story—and not the barometer for whether more of our community’s stories get told—is to get more stories out there. After all, stories vary widely in their telling and execution. The work is in the specificity. And perhaps, the true end point of representation is for us to feel free to create mediocre art, or as Hsu writes, “you simply want the opportunity to be as heroic, or funny, or petty, or goofy, or boring as everyone else.”
So while I frequently talk myself out of writing, I can also talk myself into writing. There is room for us all. Let us step inside.
Please consider donating to one of these organizations to support Asian communities or to World Central Kitchen which is providing meals to Texas residents.
- Novelist Jasmine Guillory on the importance of reading Black fiction, not just anti-racist nonfiction: “I want the world to know not just about our pain, but the whole of our lives, and especially our joy.”
- Jaime Green on writing, laziness, and how to believe both "I did my best" and "I can do better next time."
- Writers with Faces seems like a cool Zoom writing get-together for people who miss the vibe of writing with others in coffee shops. Sign up for their writing sessions here.
- An insightful Twitter thread about non-Western and non-conflict-driven storytelling structures: “What you want in a story is drama. Conflict does not necessarily equate to drama. Conflict is driven by two or more forces colliding. If a protagonist decides to let the force wash over them instead, that does not mean the protagonist is inactive.”
Recent reads & other media
I read an advance copy of Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel Klara and the Sun courtesy of The Cosmos Book Club and will be writing a mini review for their newsletter in the coming weeks. Reminiscent of Never Let Me Go, it takes a sci fi premise—an Artificial Friend named Klara who takes care of a girl named Josie—and examines it exclusively at the level of individual relationships with quietly devastating effects.
I loved Minari, which follows a Korean immigrant family as they try to start a farm in Arkansas in the 1980s. It’s interesting to see this movie heralded as “universal” when it tells such a deeply specific story, but gives me hope that there’s space for more stories that don’t seek to explain themselves to white audiences. As a Midwest Asian American whose parents immigrated to North Dakota, I was really pleased to see an Asian American story set somewhere else besides the coasts.
E and I continued our Valentine’s tradition of watching the new To All The Boys movie, which was thoroughly enjoyable but I found to be lacking in real stakes. I loved seeing emotionally mature characters talk about their relationship in such a healthy way, but it didn’t have the same kind of anticipation or energy as the first movie. I rewatched Pushing Daisies, available on HBO Max, which is one of the TV cancellations I’m most mad about. It’s a whimsical murder mystery series starring Lee Pace, whose life can be summarized by one line: “I bake pies and wake the dead.”
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~ meme myself and i ~
Me eating while watching murder/crime documentaries. I laughed too hard at this impression of a Keurig. If Asians acted like white people in Asian restaurants. My only contribution in work Zoom calls. Ted Cruz is in Cancun. Sisyphus was actually a wet floor sign in the DC metro.