I’m still not sure what I want to be when I grow up. At the moment, I’m a graduate student in the sciences. And yet, I never was a big reader of science fiction when I was still a speck of a grade-schooler.
I was convinced from the age of eight, when I first read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, that what I wanted to read when I grew up (and for the rest of my life) was fantasy fiction. Just as I knew, at age ten, that I was Going. To Be. A Veterinarian.
I always loved Star Wars, but if my passion for a Galaxy Far Far Away didn’t burn as brightly as that for Middle-Earth, then that was OK. Spaceships and lightsabers — cool! But nothing similar in book form ever caught my interest. In high school, I picked up the first (chronological) entry in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga, which she’s been writing since the ’80s. The book was Shards of Honor, and someone recommended it on the basis that I would enjoy the planetary space opera and the amazing female protagonist, Captain Cordelia Naismith. It didn’t take. Huh. I set it aside, convinced I’d obliterated my spec fic reader’s credit like a nerve disruptor to the head.
Then one July day, years later, I sat in an air-conditioned theater watching Guardians of the Galaxy romp across the screen. I was having fun! Watching this sci-fi epic lite!
I thought, “I need this in book form.”
So I went back to Bujold. I trusted Bujold, because her fantasy novels were and are incredible little slices of magic and humanity (read The Curse of Chalion for one award-winning example). I picked up the third Vorkosigan book, The Warrior’s Apprentice, the one that starts the story of Miles Vorkosigan, Cordelia’s son, from his perspective.
And it was so much fun.
I couldn’t believe what I had been missing for twenty-two years. Could I get that time back? The universe said no, but I would make up for it. I closed The Warrior’s Apprentice on the last page and immediately went back to read the two Cordelia books, Shards of Honor and Barrayar. Those two books have been in publication longer than I have been alive, and I had missed them. I devoured those books. I think I managed to read all of the published books, fifteen at the time, in less than three weeks. Someone probably should have fired me from my job (I made up for it during the other forty-nine weeks of the year, promise).
This was amazing space opera. It was more than fun. It was about politics and military antics, of course, but also about biology. Genetic engineering. Reproduction. Living with our disadvantages—physical, biological, social. Feminism, sexuality and gender, polyamory, what constitutes a family unit. It’s about Barrayar, this weird “sword and spaceship” planet that looks like what eighteenth-century Russia might have if it met wormhole travel and Cordelia Vorkosigan néeNaismith.
It’s about Barrayar, the book. I can understand now that I would never have gotten this book as a teenager, because now I can see that Bujold is writing just this most loving portrayal of motherhood, albeit wrapped in awesome space opera trappings. The Vorkosigan books came to me at the perfect time in my life. Like Cordelia in Barrayar, I was alone in a strange new place. I hadn’t really started to speak the language yet— the real language or the social, cultural one. College and the familiar trappings of home and the people I’d known there were behind me. I was re-evaluating everything I knew about the world so far. What adult friendship looks like. What an adult’s long view looks like. What love looks like.
The universe that Bujold creates is very much what I will now dub “biological sf.” Cordelia herself is a scientist—which might be part of the reason why I empathize with her so strongly. She introduces the uterine replicator, a sort-of artificial womb, to her adopted planet of Barrayar. That critical human need to reproduce underlies the whole series: it’s there in the Barrayarans’ somewhat-antiquated obsession with patrilineage and in Cordelia’s own maternal urges. The uterine replicator is poised to change Barrayaran society, but it has no effect on what’s embedded in Cordelia’s own DNA: her desire to protect her unborn son, a conflict that drives the major action in Barrayar.
Looking back at my own younger forays into the sci-fi genre, I see that the elements that piqued my interest were not the physical mechanics of a fictional world. Not faster-than-light travel; not all the warping of relativity required to make such a thing possible, despite the fact that my own interests as a scientist have always been much closer to physics than to biology. At the end of the day, I want to read a tale where astrodynamics and quantum mechanics are cool aspects of worldbuilding, but still just the window dressing. As one of Bujold’s characters says (in one of my favorite Vorkosigan saga quotes of all time), “All true wealth is biological,” and so are all great stories.
For me, space opera is all about people pushed to the frontiers of their experience by technology, space, and circumstance.
Bujold’s latest book, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen (which came out earlier this year), brings Cordelia’s story more-or-less full circle. Cordelia has lived on Barrayar for over thirty years at this point in the series’ chronology. She has watched her son grow, has seen Barrayar change due to her actions in championing the uterine replicator (which has imploded the Barrayaran woman’s traditional role as baby-maker), and has gained power in her own right as the appointed ruler of one of Barrayar’s colonies. But Cordelia’s home planet is and always will be Beta Colony, a sexually liberal and technologically advanced society. Straddling two worlds, Cordelia lets us explore not just reproduction through her story, but also sex, sexuality (a fluid concept on Beta), and how both are linked to or divorced from reproduction because of technological progress.
Things that were only hinted at or lightly touched in Bujold’s earliest books— the bisexuality and polyamorous relationships of a major character included— are truths baldly discussed by Cordelia and her fellow characters in Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen. It’s tricky to say if this is because the earlier novels were more action-packed space opera adventures, while this is an introspective look at middle adult life in a sci-fi future. I think the goalposts certainly have moved since Bujold started writing these books thirty years ago. I also think it’s because of authors like her, even coming sideways at these issues in the 1980s, that a new generation of writers can discuss sex, sexuality, gender, and feminism with heightened levels of rawness and complexity.
And I’m happy to be one of those young writers ready to pick up the torch (albeit with unworthy hands). I came to it late, but I’m so glad I did, and at the time that I did. And I’m excited to watch the world grow, too—is the uterine replicator really that much of an outlandish notion for our own (near) future?
These books opened a whole new window into writing and reading science fiction for me. Bujold still does it best, in my opinion (and she has the Hugos to prove it). In speculative fiction, in sci-fi fiction, we can press the limits of biology and evolution. And that’s where we can get those little pearls of wisdom, at those extreme ends of our conceptions, about what the human condition looks like.
The best I continue to have, to enjoy, and to love is Toni Morrison. But I don’t read her: she reads to me.
The power in her narrative, the pain she digs out of your insides, the metaphorical genius that cuts through the literal mind and forces you to search for her meaning, the unmatched concision of her speech—with not one misplaced thought or misdirected angle, not a single sentence overrun or a phrase understated.
She is the reason I write. She is the reason I embrace my own pain and attempt to transcribe it into words.
My relationship with Morrison began in my freshman year of high school, over a decade ago, when I was required to read The Bluest Eye. I had never read anything so figuratively convincing before. I had never read something that addressed the most intensely personal situations and deep-rooted conflict from the eyes and mind of an eleven-year-old girl.
Upon reaching the conclusion of Bluest Eye, I remember having a tiff with a classmate about whether the color of Pecola’s eyes changed. My argument was that the color of Pecola’s eyes changed because she believed it, and no further explanation was required. A “what is real to me versus what is actually real” debate commenced ,and it was fantastic. Morrison’s style is so poetic, symbolic, and majestic that she eliminates the distinction between the two, and as a result, what is real to me is actually real.
Morrison transformed my way of looking at the world. She changed the lens with which I viewed my surroundings, and this transformation felt incredibly emancipating.
I began to delve past the façade of pasted-on facial expressions and rehearsed laughter for that deeper meaning behind closed eyes and mute tongues. I am that person who wants to hear your story from beginning to end: I gasp, ooh and aah, I tear up, I become angry when you become angry, I smile when you pour your heart out, I feel the love you declare.
I always enjoyed listening to people’s stories, especially those of the elderly and the traveled. Morrison taught me to find the pain and struggle in the untold parts of their stories, to piece together the meaning of their incredible journeys, and, finally, to tie it all back to the unbelievable strength of the individual.
I am a bit of a history buff. Even now, my DVR is overrun with History Channel pieces. This interest in history led to my discovery of sociohistorical fiction. When learning about the sequence of events that led up to major conflict across borders, involving key political figures and nations, I wanted to travel back in time to ask the people of that time and place how they felt. I wasn’t solely interested in the decision-making process: I wanted to have a lengthy conversation with a layperson and his or her family. Sociohistorical fiction allows an inside view of the social impact history had on families, kids, lovers, and leaders. Although some literature and personal reflections have been preserved, we don’t have social media, blogs, and limitless creative expression from people of other time periods. Without these sources, it is nearly impossible to fathom the feelings and sensations of a people through uprising, turmoil, political upheaval, famine, disease, and loss. These unknowns spark such an interest in me. I want to do the research and be the historian. I want to be able to feel, somehow, or get even the slightest glimpse into those minds.
Although I read some historical fiction prior to Morrison, her style was unlike any HF I had encountered to that point. What is magnificent about her way of writing is her ability to tell a story within a story. This is where metaphor meets sociohistory. The exploitation and dehumanization of blacks throughout history, and still to this day, is the backdrop of her novels. She presents perfected characters with their socially labeled “imperfections,” an underlying civil issue sets the tone, and she brings in perspectives from the old and young, the brave and the forgotten, the now and the then. It is literary brilliance the way she agilely impels the reader to come face to face with the grueling catastrophes of black history, from slavery to torture to rape to liberation, seclusion, domination, and debasement.
For me, the literary agony in Beloved was unbearable. I’ve cried many times during a good read, but this was the first time I actually had to close the book about halfway through and put it away. I was solemn for days and could not get myself to pick it up again and finish. Never before had words stabbed at my soul so deep. I tried finishing it later that year, yes, I tried many times that year. Peeking at the next page, skimming it over to see if the bad was gone and some good was on its way. I read a few lines but felt the wounds reopening. I had to close it yet again and reshelve it until I was at a different, more mature stage in my life, about eight years later—at a point when I had seen and experienced a little too much, but enough to solidify my spine.
My familiar tears resumed, my heart stiffened and clenched through to the very last word. It almost felt like I was holding my breath through the remainder of the book. Upon concluding this masterpiece, when I could breathe again, I was ready to write.
It’s extremely difficult to put into words exactly what Morrison did for me. She awoke a silent, creative part of me. She encouraged me to unscramble a not-quite-perfect sentence to make it right. She pushed me, in a complex, tenderly firm manner—she pushed me outside my comfortable boundaries and stood me up to face, internalize, and express. She navigated me to the darkest corners of my inner self and helped me find peace with everything hiding there.
Most importantly, she has taught me to embrace all that is good and all that is me.
In 2010, I was zealously playing an action-adventure Wild West video game called Red Dead Redemption by Rockstar Games.
The game follows ex-outlaw John Marston, on a quest to atone for his past and save his family from a shady government agency during the early twentieth century. It is deep, moving, engrossing, and a helluva lotta fun…everything I wanted my own stories to be.
I’d just published my debut contemporary romance under my other pen name, Vicki Essex, when the thought came to me: Why weren’t there more fantasies set in the Wild West? Why were so many magical worlds set in feudal fairytale kingdoms with castles and kings and wizards?
And so The Devil’s Revolver was born. I’d always been a reader of YA fantasy and aspired to publish in the genre. Fueled by hours of playing through bloody gunfights and long horseback rides across a seemingly endless, beautifully rendered landscape, I set out to write my story about a cursed cowgirl and a magic gun.
The question was, would anyone want to read a Western, even if there was magic in it? Despite the number of successful cross-genre stories like the Joss Whedon show Firefly (another inspiration) and Cowboys vs. Aliens (who doesn’t love Daniel Craig?), I realized that getting an audience hinged on two things: characters and world building.
I knew from the start that Hettie Alabama would have a long journey ahead of her. She was hardworking, family-centered, hard-headed—a product of her sometimes harsh surroundings with both boots planted firmly on the ground. She was “mundane,” bearing no magic gift of her own, and her only concerns for the future were ensuring the safety and security of her parents and little sister, Abby. She was also coming of age in a world where women’s roles were still limited, where brutal violence was commonplace, and where justice didn’t always mean fairness or satisfaction.
And then I handed her a legendary long-lost cursed weapon everyone was after.
Building the magical world around Hettie was more challenging than I’d anticipated. The world of The Devil’s Revolver started as one that was basically turn-of-the-century American, “but with magic.” History happened as it had, “but with magic.” Science and technology kept pace with real-life timelines for the most part, “but with magic.” It wasn’t a tough stretch—when you can imagine a spell to make something happen, you can imagine a counterspell to stop it from happening.
I kept the use of magic sparse and practical. When I started, I knew that magic had a price, that it was as precious as gold, nearly as scarce, and dwindling in intensity and supply. Sorcerers didn’t waste magic on frivolities—spells had to be as pragmatic as Hettie herself was, but also life-altering in the same way indoor plumbing might be in a rural household.
What I hadn’t really considered until well into the first draft was just how complex the system of magic would be in this world, and what it would mean to various characters and cultural groups. I couldn’t just appropriate rituals, beliefs, and ceremonies to fit into my story. To some groups of people, these magical traditions were real.
So began my own journey to decolonize my writing. As a result, “magic” in Hettie’s world, as I conceived it, couldn’t be a single overriding tradition, nor could it necessarily all come from one single source as more rigorous standards for world building might require. Every culture has its own forms of magic, whether it’s fortune-telling, prayer, conversing with otherworldly beings, healing, manipulating others…the list goes on and on. In short, “magic” allows us to trust in what is and what can be achieved through various customs or rituals without qualifying its value. Some people call this faith.
The journey’s a long one, for myself and for Hettie. I hope you’ll enjoy The Devil’s Revolver and come back for the rest of the series, coming soon from Brain Mill Press.
The first part of Al Davison and Yen Quach’s Future Echoes — the debut release from BMP’s Liminal Comics imprint — releases today in a digital edition.
We are excited to present this interview by Liminal Comics editor Alisa Kwitney with Future Echoes creators and collaborators Al Davison and Yen Quach, who talk about working together on Future Echoes, the origin of the story’s concept, and their perspectives on contemporary comics and issues of disability and representation.
Alisa Kwitney (AK): Al, when did you first get the idea for this project?
Al Davison (AD): Sept 3rd, 1988. I recently found my original notes and sketches. I was suffering a temporary bout of blindness and increased paralysis, the onset symptoms of M.E. (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis). I woke up blind and unable to walk in my third-floor flat. I started to hallucinate as a result of fever and later malnutrition. So the idea came from that situation: What if a disabled man was trapped in a building and couldn’t trust his senses? The notes and sketches were done whilst still blind.
AK: Yen, how did you get involved?
Yen Quach (YQ): I had been working with Al on the pre-press work for Spiral Cage and just around the studio space quite a lot once I graduated from university, so I guess you can say pretty organically, as Al asked if I’d be interested in working with him and Alisa on the Future Echoes project. We had previously collaborated on a mini-Sandman series of illustrations, trading off ‘stages’ of drawing on the same page, so working on Future Echoes feels like a nice step beyond that. It’s fun, and such an honor to be asked aboard this project.
AK: Al, what are the benefits of working with a young newcomer to the comics industry?
AD: I find it hard to think of Yen as a newcomer! Yes, she’s only been working a couple of years, but apart from her talent, which is self-evident, she is extremely well organised, knowledgeable, and hard-working. It’s like working with an old, long-established fellow professional, just without the ‘old’ bit. Oh, and yes, ridiculous amounts of energy. People often wrongly assume Yen is my apprentice. She assists me, yes, but we are an equal partnership and learn from each other. We both enjoy trying out new drawing techniques, new art materials, and like to challenge ourselves and each other.
AK: Yen, what are the benefits of working with an experienced artist and writer?
YQ: I’m picking up a lot of invaluable experience through being able to see how Al works his craft. He doesn’t work from a written script, so I can’t exactly pop the top of his head off and pick his brain (haha!), but I do end up asking questions about why Al has chosen to have [x] words or [y] shot in the panel, and we have a nice conversation about the process. It’s back-and-forth and we’re on equal ground as creators, so it’s pretty relaxed. Well, for me at least! I realise I’m depending on a lot of Al’s experience, which is a privilege.
AK: Al, what do you think about the role of disabled people in comics, books, film, and TV? How has it gotten better over the past three decades? How has it remained the same?
AD: I think there has been definite progress, but sometimes it seems there is one step forward and three steps back. There are still very few prominent disabled characters in comics, or in other media, and most of them have get-out clauses: Charles Xavier can walk when it fits the plot; Oracle, the most important disabled character in mainstream comics, has been cured. Daredevil can see better than a sighted person… Appropriate casting is the biggest issue. American TV was way ahead of Britain in that regard, then they jumped back ten years and cast an able-bodied actor as a wheelchair user in Glee, which seemed to legitimise ‘cripping-up’ again as a valid option. The same is happening in terms of race and LGBT-themed work, with whitewashing on the increase once again in films like Ghost in the Shell (2017) and Exodus and the casting of a cisgender man as a transgender woman in The Danish Girl. On the plus side we have creators like Yen, Gail Simone, and Marjorie Liu, amongst others, creating wonderfully challenging and inclusive work. So I’m an optimist while aware there is still an awful lot of work to do.
AK: Yen, how has your role on the project changed over time?
YQ: The division of work, as much as you can say for a collaboration that mixes our work in traditional and digital space, was pretty clear from the outset. I like to be organised so that what needs to be done is clear, and that has helped to keep things from being confusing.
In addition to being the principal artist for Amelia’s segments, I’m also lettering the comic, which has been a nice skill to develop and helping to wrangle all the files. Being able to collaborate remotely thanks to the Internet has been a great resource, too, and has been a good way to make sure that the project can run smoothly. But to get back to the question: I think my role on the project has stayed more or less the same!
AK: Al, you were very outspoken on social media about the problems with the movie (from the novel) Me Before You. Do you feel that this project is a creative response to some of the issues you raised?
AD: Yes, even though it was originally conceived much earlier. There are still very negative views on disability: for example, the Me Before You film, and the book it is based on, epitomise what has become known as the ‘better dead than disabled’ mentality in Hollywood and other media. I wanted to challenge that. I also wanted Yen on board, partly because there is an intersection between my experience as a disabled man and Yen’s experience as a woman and as a person of color, I knew we’d be on the same page. We’ve had many discussions about our various experiences dealing with prejudice and discrimination.
Having also been lucky enough to attend numerous conventions and other events with Yen, travelling together, it has been interesting and upsetting for me to see her facing different but equally difficult challenges than I do as a wheelchair user, and both of us having to deal with ignorant comments and assumptions on a regular basis.
All this has certainly informed the work.
AK: Yen, you have been illustrating the Victorian female protagonist’s story. Even though society has changed a great deal since the 1800s, are there ways you identify with Amelia’s struggle as a woman and an artist?
YQ: It’s absolutely true even now that being female-presenting is more difficult in society. as it is still very patriarchal. Looking at it intersectionally, I’m also a person of color (POC), and that has an additional layer of challenges, though I do have the privilege of being cisgendered and able-bodied. I’m still only a fledgling, but I’m optimistic since social media and the Internet have made it that much easier to get myself out there and connect with others. The future is promising as attitudes shift to become more open and accepting. ♥
AK: Al, a similar question for you: how much do you see of yourself in Harlan?
AD: Well, I see aspects of myself in both Harlan and Amelia. My background is closer to Amelia’s in terms of circumstances, being from a lower-working-class family, as someone who didn’t own a pair of shoes till I was eleven. Though she’s definitely more physically confident than I was at her age. My experiences of being viewed as a desexualised non-physical being who was only considered valid on any level because I had a ‘talent’ is certainly in line with Harlan. Having a ‘talent,’ yet on the one hand being continually told I wasn’t good enough to compete with my able -bodied peers, while on the other hand still being expected to perform like a circus animal to justify my existence, probably resonates with both characters. I mean, I’ve had an art director tell me that he didn’t hire the disabled because they smelled bad. I’ve had one comics editor say he wouldn’t consider any projects featuring disabled characters because he didn’t want to be remembered as the editor who labelled me a ‘disabled creator,’ and another who said he wouldn’t consider me for any superhero books because obviously as a wheelchair user I couldn’t possibly understand how to draw action. When I suggested that would mean no one could draw Superman since no one could fly, he said I shouldn’t be so bitter, and might be better off going into portraiture! So the cliche of working twice as hard, often to get half as far as an able-bodied person, is true to my experience. But the Internet and the increasing affordability of self-publishing is levelling the playing field to a degree. Still a ways to go, though.
Al Davison is a comic creator who has worked extensively for DC/Vertigo on such titles as Vermillion, House of Mystery, The Dreaming, and The Unwritten. He has also drawn Doctor Who comics for IDW, but is probably best known for his graphic memoir The Sprial Cage, which explores his experiences growing up with Spina-Bifida, a condition he was born with and was not expected to survive. He is currently working on the sequel, Muscle Memory: A Survivors Tale, which is being supported via Patreon. Al also has a comic book shop and studio, The Astral Gypsy, in Coventry, U.K., which he runs with his wife, Maggie, often — and always ably — assisted by Yen Quach.
Yen Quach is an award-winning freelance artist, illustrator, and comic artist who works in both digital and traditional media. Reflecting the world with curiosity and creativity, she began the #draweveryday challenge in 2013 and has not missed a day yet. Yen holds a degree in Illustration & Animation. When not drawing, she moonlights as the Astral Assistant for Al Davison and records her forays into the real world through urban sketching. You will rarely find her without a sketchbook of some form.
My mother claims my reading accelerated my short-sightedness, and I’d like to think that my ability to read a book while walking has allowed me to flourish when it comes to texting or tweeting when I’m on foot. I read and reread my mother’s collection of Enid Blyton books, lived through the release of the Harry Potter series, and devoured as many high fantasy novels I could get my hands on. I then become enamoured with the classics, before settling comfortably into a diet of literary fiction.
Somewhat ironically, I never really read much Australian fiction. I was convinced that most, if not all Australian literature waxed lyrical about the outback and the bush, and that really wasn’t something I was willing to spend my time on. I subconsciously resisted reading anything that identified as Australian literature until I was forced to – in the second semester of my fourth year at university. By a strange twist of fate, I had to take two Australian literature courses, and I was mentally preparing myself for a boring semester.
Boy, was I wrong.
Hsu Ming Teo’s Behind the Moon was the first text on both of my reading lists that caught my eye. Quite honestly, I was probably just excited to read a piece of writing by an Asian-Australian author. Indeed, Behind The Moon turned out to be the first novel containing characters I could truly identify with. Justin Cheong is the son of Singaporean-Chinese parents, and Tien Ho the daughter of a Vietnamese mother who fled her home country during the Vietnam War. There are snippets, here and there, of cultural commentary – innocuous to those who don’t know of their significance, but monumental to those who do.
Justin’s father, Tek, doesn’t speak of his son’s transgressions. In reciprocation, Justin is the very embodiment of filial piety, afraid of disappointing his father any further, a hotbed for problems to come. Tien, enamoured with the film The Wizard of Oz, always “felt as if there was a Tien-shaped treasure box inside her that she could never quite manage to open” (24). Their friend, Gibbo, to his friends’ chagrin, desperately wants to be Chinese. It is a novel about identity, about family, about desperate attempts to just belong.
At their very core, isn’t this what all novels are about?
I love the slips of Chinese, secrets shared in plain sight. After years of British and American popular culture references, there is an uncanniness in seeing references to Woman’s Day, the shortening of McDonald’s to “Macca’s”, the HSC. But perhaps most importantly of all, Behind the Moon verbalises the internal struggle of being Asian in Australia – of not being seen as Australian by white Australians, in addition to not being seen as Asian by Aunties and Uncles, of the older generations.
If we are not Australian enough for Australians, and not Asian enough for Asians, then who are we? Where do we fit?
Teo has also written about the amputated self, of an identity where “the intellectual, cultural, social, spiritual, familial, emotional and psychological do not align. There are awkward gaps everywhere” (“Amputations of the Self” 137). These gaps may be uncomfortable, but arguably, necessary. They facilitate a fluidity of identity that is freeing and confusing, all at the same time. These gaps are the places in which our true selves – whatever they may be – lie.
Encouraged by my experience with Teo’s novel, I eagerly set out to find writing from other Asian-Australians – in particular, South-East-Asian-Australian women. This enthusiasm was doused when I realised this would be no easy task. The Australian fiction section in my local Dymocks store took up a whole aisle, and yet I could only find The Boat (Nam Le) and Questions of Travel (Michelle de Kretser). Call me cynical, but I’m pretty sure the only reason they were even in Dymocks was because they had won awards. I ended up resorting to an Australian second hand online bookshop – even the Book Depository didn’t have most of the titles I wanted. I looked for one particular novel, Simone Lazaroo’s The World Waiting to be Made, for a whole year, even emailing Lazaroo to ask if she had any spare copies. I finally found it on a dusty shelf in a second hand bookstore in Sydney while I was on holiday.
The scarcity of Asian-Australian writing is frightening, and for me, deeply upsetting. When the 2011 census was conducted, 2.4 million people, or 12 percent of the population, identified as Asian-Australia. More up to date figures will be available after this year’s census, but I would not be surprised if this number is now even higher. Most importantly, there is no way this figure was, or is reflected in the percentage of Asian-Australian novels in the market. Behind the Moon didn’t just introduce me to characters with whom I felt a strong cultural connection – it also gave me some kind of confidence that there was space in Australian dialogue for people with names like “Hsu-Ming Teo”. It was something of a guiding light amongst the murky waters of my parents’ quiet disdain at the career I had chosen to pursue.
Peering behind the bamboo screen, or indeed, completely tearing it down, presents its own unique set of issues. Promotion and reviews of Asian-Australian writing often fall into the trap of Orientalism, of exoticising the author, their characters, or possibly even both. These books might not sell well, perhaps because they are attached to an author with a “weird looking name”, or because they confront issues people don’t want to read or think about. It is easy to be ensnared by stereotypes, especially if they have been framed as part of everyday life. And then there are the slight but significant differences between Eastern and Western cultures, especially as they pertain to the value of education, obedience, and racism.
In spite of such obstacles, there needs to be space in the Australian literary vernacular for Asian-Australian writers. We have stories to tell. These are our stories, and our parents’ stories. They may be painful and disconcerting, but they are just as important – if not more important – than those written by middle aged, middle class white men. Australia seems awfully well versed in the practice of ignoring or denigrating anything that would tarnish our rich, just-over-200-year-old history. Doing so doesn’t do our country any favours. It simply gives us licence to repeat previous mistakes, over and over and over.
Wresting the pen away from white males will always be an uphill battle. Awards for female writers like the Stella Prize are beginning to make headway in the industry, but there is still a long way to go. Australia’s most prestigious literary prize, the Miles Franklin Award, has only been awarded to a writer of Asian descent once in its 59 years. Of course, these issues cannot be resolved by a single person or organisation, let alone a young student with a considerable lack of credentials to her name. At the same time, I don’t want my children growing up in a world where they are 20 years old before they are even aware that they have access to stories with characters and stories to which they can truly relate.
The Australian arts industry is currently under a huge amount of stress, what with the threat of parallel importation restrictions and increasingly drastic cuts to funding. However, Asian representation in many, if not all forms of art in Australia has been considerably lacking for an even longer period of time. The conversation has only recently shifted seriously to tackle such issues, and I can only hope that we will continue on such a trajectory. Until then, I will be doing all I can to champion Asian Australian writing, both old and new. I might not be able to influence a whole country, but if I go about it one person at a time, maybe – just maybe – I might be able to start the process of tearing down the bamboo screen.