Nina Subin Kathy Wang
Writing in a white space and for a predominantly white publishing industry isn't new for Family Trust author Kathy Wang. But she was still surprised when a fellow writer encouraged her to feature only Asian characters in her upcoming spy novel so it could sell better. "The friend, a novelist, is also Asian American like me, and I understood exactly what she meant," Wang writes in an essay for PEOPLE. Impostor Syndrome, which will publish on May 25, follows Julia Lerner, who uses her position as COO of one of the most popular technology companies in Silicon Valley to gather information for Russia. A company employee, Alice, who is a first generation Chinese American, catches on to Julia's strange behavior. Here, Wang delves into the pressures she faced to rewrite Julia as an Asian woman — and why she didn't do it.
In January 2019, I became obsessed with the topic of spies in Silicon Valley. They were all over, according to my fast-rising stack of non-fiction books and printed magazine articles — toiling as optimization engineers at social media companies, obtaining research grants at prestigious universities and sitting in on board meetings of famous technology companies as investors. At some point in my obsession, I started to write a novel about a spy in the Bay Area and the young American technology worker who strives to catch them. My spy, named Julia, was Russian. And the observant technology worker, Alice, was Chinese. Though I myself am Chinese-American, the race and backgrounds of my characters wasn't a conscious choice. Right from the start, these were my characters; it was simply how they appeared in my head.
It wasn't until I was almost done with the initial revisions of my novel, and had started describing the plot to others, that I encountered resistance. "Are you sure you shouldn't make all the characters Asian?" remarked a friend. "It'll probably be way easier to sell." The friend, a novelist, is also Asian American like me, and I understood exactly what she meant.
When you're a minority author, as I am, who writes with an Asian last name, as I do, and once you begin to better understand the dynamics of the traditional publishing industry, you face the pressure to make your story a "minority" one, designed to appeal along specific, predetermined lines. I am writing a novel about spies, and I am Chinese, thus the book should be about a Chinese spy. Otherwise, the story behind my book (who I am, what I choose to write about) becomes more complicated, and thus more difficult to sell. Asian American writers write about Asian characters, engaging in appropriately Asian things: being cartoonishly wealthy, struggling under extreme poverty, practicing mysticism and overall suffering (to be clear, I have read and loved novels with all these themes). Your minority protagonists should not do bad things, or — that most damning of all traits in commercial fiction — be an unlikeable narrator. The antagonists, if they are white, should be drawn as purely evil, every devious laugh or thrown racial slur an opportunity for your reader to shake their heads: not I. In such a way, you can appeal to the broadest possible audience.
I went home and thought about how I might make my spy Chinese. A Chinese spy versus a Chinese-American tech worker, both of them women in the United States; it was sounding better and better. But when I actually started to write, nothing flowed. I read the few sentences I wrote back to myself and they landed flat, with no feeling or energy. After a while I physically almost felt ill trying to do more, and stopped. The spy remained as she'd first been imagined. A white woman, and thus easily able to assimilate within the highest echelons of power without the author (me) having to explain all the racial dynamics she had to slog through to get there. And equally important, the employee who sought to uncover her remained Chinese. Not just American born Chinese, as I am, but an actual immigrant born in China. Because women with Asian faces and nationalities can be and are American patriots; because there are millions of us in the United States who hold a great affection for the countries we and our parents came from, while also working, thinking and simply being dedicated Americans.
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In the past decades, there has been increasing discussion about the rise of China and the risk of war between China and the United States. There have been multiple novels released on the subject, penned by former diplomats, military flag officers and seasoned thriller authors. I am interested in the topic and often order such books when I hear about them. Yet when I actually start reading I often feel a sense of dread. The Chinese characters quote Sun Tzu (a lot) and have flat, robotic personalities. They think of nothing but their jobs and death and destruction to America. You come away with the impression that the authors view such characters as a monolith, the young naval officer or the aging member of the Politburo Standing Committee no different than the endless sea of Asian factory workers who I can only surmise the writers imagine stoically assembling their phones and laptops. Even from a national security standpoint, if your belief is that China's ascent is a danger to the United States, and that it must be checked: shouldn't this begin with the understanding that the 1.4 billion people currently residing in the country are individuals, capable of expansive thought and personality?
One day, I hope to write a story with a Chinese person as the antagonist. As an author, I know that villains are often the most fun to write. They can have elaborate back stories, issue all the scathing remarks we'd get in trouble for saying in real life, and even have a redemption arc (if we feel like it). For now, however, there still remains within me an element of caution and fear, that to write the character of a Chinese intelligence agent would be to contribute in some way to the broader creative universe in the West that Asians are to be regarded with suspicion and hatred and thought of as "other." So the spy in my novel, Julia, will remain white, as she has always been. In many ways Julia is actually the central character of my novel — her head is even on the cover! I truly love her, as only an author who has labored over a creation can. And, as is often the case with such stories, by the end it isn't really clear whether Julia is the antagonist, or if there is even a villain at all. I'll leave that question for the reader to decide. What I do know is that there is a clear heroine in the novel I wrote, named Alice, who I chose to make Chinese.