Across the Board

Ken Liu’s The Hidden Girl, science fiction/fantasy, and exoticization in literature

Whether intentionally or not, author Ken Liu’s work has been set apart within the mostly-white science fiction/fantasy genre for a while. When steampunk, that genre romanticizing Victorian England and taking the widespread thought of that era as “pure science,” was repopularized, his short story Good Hunting from 2012 defined steampunk’s industrial aesthetic as British colonialism which is racist and sexist. The alternate Hong Kong is so full of churning gears and coal-burning hearths exactly because British colonists forcibly industrialized Hong Kong for their own profits, and the characters adapt to the industrial order and are subjected to British dehumanizing racism and British perverted sexism. Full-length novel Grace of Kings from 2015 was marketed as the Asian equivalent of steampunk. This “silkpunk,” says Liu, is based on classical East Asia and traditional Pacific Island seafaring cultures. But notably, Grace of Kingsdraws on Western traditions as much as it does on Chinese traditions;” Western publishers often categorize Liu’s work as Chinese-inspired, but Asian history and Asian aesthetic is not an “alternative” to Western canon in this case. Liu’s work typically juxtaposes the two and therefore implicitly questions the latter’s dominance of the genre. 

The Hidden Girl and Other Stories, released February 2020, is a compilation of short stories from 2011-2019 that were mostly published originally in various magazines or websites. It was preceded by the 2011 collection The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, whose titular story’s success—it won the entire triumvirate of famous English-language science fiction/fantasy accolades: the Nebula, World Fantasy, and Hugo awards—along with his popular Dandelion Dynasty trilogy, established his prerogative to, in his second release, “stick with the stories that most pleased [him]self,” as he writes in The Hidden Girl’s preface. Publishing, like all industries, suffers from a bias towards white creators. Within this framework, writing for yourself can be a pretty subversive act.

From the Netflix adaptation of Good Hunting. 

In an interview with Tochi Onyebuchi (author of Riot Baby) in March, Liu stressed, on the question of “representation,” that you have to write your own story. It seems the publishing world is happy enough to designate token “minority writers” as the voice of whichever ethnicity merely to satisfy the audience who wants to read something “exotic.” Thus, the internal diversity of these groups is totally overwritten by contrived debates of who the “better” representative is, argues Liu. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s famous Ted talk accounts for how “a single story” badly and reductively represents heterogenous experiences to white people, but Liu believes its real danger is to writers of color themselves, who will as a result either fit their narratives to how their “otherness” is typically perceived, or just give up. When asked “When did you first read a book that made you feel seen?” Liu instead recounted feeling disheartened when a creative writing teacher said “your life would make an interesting story.” For him, it solidified that people of color’s experiences are never considered “universal.” Minority authors are less often praised for their invention but for “authenticity,” which is a euphemism for when something is exoticized enough to become a novel commodity for white people. The point is that your life stories are for yourself, not for others’ consumption, and one of the most powerful ways to self-realize is writing what you want to write, not necessarily what you think you should write. 

Liu emphasizes that there is no “right way” to represent any identity, and to continually demand certain types of narratives, or to write exclusively to such expectations, does PoC literature a massive disservice. To some, poeticizing your ordeals and pain is cathartic, but often, it feeds the white gaze by providing the lyrical trauma that white readers find “moving,” and is therefore a self-orientalizing endeavor. The trauma that has come to be expected of Asian American authors is different from the familiar “subjection” of black bodies it is argued copious literary depictions of violence under slavery desensitize readers to. Emotional trauma exists too, and spiels on the sadness of estrangement, of irreconcilability, of cold and demanding parents who nurse deep, historical wounds, of legacies rejected in childhood and unclaimable as an adult– all that is trauma that is damaging and abnormal, and deserves attention, for sure, but suffering is not synonymous with the condition of Asian American-ness and should not be perceived as such. 

Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to not have to deal with racism when your characters are Asians from the past or Asians in the present. Furthermore, the trauma that is centered in the stories that fit this narrative is often attributed to Asian cultures’ backwardness and intolerance, instead of implicating Western orientalism, racism, cultural hegemony, or imperialism and its aftereffects. The famous Paper Menagerie is essentially about a second-generation Chinese American and his mother who are victimized by American racism, but even so, offers not a word of criticism of the white father who canonically ordered a teenage mail-order bride from a magazine. However, Maxwell’s Demon, from The Hidden Girl, elaborated on the dynamics of discrimination and marginalization between the Japanese, American, and Okinawan citizens, diaspora, and governments.

Most significantly, however, none of these are non-fiction or personal narratives; the genre of science fiction/fantasy, Liu emphasizes, is where writers can source from their imaginations rather than their upbringings. You can imagine whatever you want, including the end of racism and colonialism, if that’s what you want. In Ghost Days, in The Hidden Girl, the descendants of Asians and Asian Americans who experienced dispossession and displacement are a spacefaring human diaspora bioengineered to live on an exoplanet, and they reject “colonizer” history and hegemony. While they’re not mutually exclusive, future Asian Americans communicating with aliens or computerizing their brains is a wholly different type of “representation” than realist depictions of being sad and being Asian, because they take place in a universe where these kinds of trauma and melancholy are not presumed to exist.

Images: 1, 2

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