‘Make this book more Chinese’: My writing wasn’t ‘Asian enough’ to be valued

By Paige Clark

The first story I wrote that explored my Chinese identity became the title story of my book, She Is Haunted. In the opening, a woman who has died from cancer haunts her mother to better understand her and their family history. The daughter meets other ghosts along the way including the ghost of astronaut Neil Armstrong and the ghost of her Cantonese grandmother.

Debut author Paige Clark says she was told to make her writing “more Chinese”.Credit:Marcelle Bradbee

Initially, I wrote She Is Haunted for a university course. The day we workshopped it in class, I felt exposed, vulnerable in a way that I’d never been before in my writing. I was one of the only writers of colour in the classroom. I wondered if the other students would be able to relate to my work. The feedback from my classmates was positive, if not bland, an experience I would come to understand was typical when sharing a story of racial identity with a white audience. They could, on the surface, appreciate the story but they could not fully connect with the themes – in this particular instance, the theme of shame. “Should it not be embarrassment?” one student asked. “Shame is such a strong word.”

When it was the teacher’s turn to give feedback, she praised the story and then said: “but this story needs more ghosts. It needs to be more Chinese.”

“What I know about being Chinese is in this story,” I replied.

“You could research what it’s like to be Chinese,” she said. She recommended books by Asian diaspora writers: Hunger by Lan Samantha Chang, The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen and In the Country by Mia Alvar.

The teacher was well-intentioned and well-versed in Asian-American literature. I read all of the books she suggested. They were all excellent. Every single one was about the immigrant experience and racial trauma. I’m a third-generation Chinese-American and a first-generation Australian. While I appreciated the work of these authors, the stories had no resemblance to my writing. We didn’t have the same – well – ghosts.

I suspect the teacher suggested these stories because they were representative of those being published and those she’d read. As an unpublished author herself, this teacher was doing her best to advise me on how my work might break into a seemingly impenetrable industry. I don’t fault her for this because in many ways she was correct. These books were depicting a different facet of the Asian diaspora experience than I was.

For the record, I did not research being Chinese. Instead, I wrote stories that, on the surface, weren’t about race. I wrote about a widow who attempts to transform into her husband, so she does not have to grieve. I wrote about a woman who is afraid to bring a baby into the world because of a rise in natural disasters. I wrote about myself. But were these women Chinese like me, or were they, like the teacher suggested, not Chinese enough?

I contemplated whether my writing was regarded because of the writing itself or because I was a Chinese writer.

The answer: no, they were not. Years later, my book was complete. I had interest from a publisher and decided to show it to an agent. After reading the manuscript, the agent made the suggestion I’d come to dread: make it more Chinese. The agent had ideas about what might make the book more publishable. I could write a story about Kung Fu, reference the I Ching, title a story “Chinese Whispers” and add more ghosts (again).

I replied to the agent, much like how I replied to the teacher. “I don’t know anything about Kung Fu or the I Ching,” I said. “Those things don’t have anything to do with my lived experience of being Chinese.”

“Well,” the agent said. “You’re a fiction writer, aren’t you?”

This feedback led me to question my worth to the industry. I contemplated whether my writing was regarded because of the writing itself or because I was a Chinese writer. If it was the latter, then the only thing that mattered to publishers was my experience of diversity and how I could depict that to a presumably un-diverse audience. If it was the former, why did the agent suggest I make the book more Chinese?

Paige Clark says she considered changing her book after suggestions she make it “more Chinese”. Credit:Marcella Bradbee

It is not news that Australian publishing has a diversity problem. The extent of the problem is difficult to quantify. We are still waiting on a diversity count, similar to the Stella Count, to be published. But what a diversity count cannot do is look at the content of these books. It cannot tell us about the writer’s pathway to publication. It cannot tell us about suggestions made along the way by teachers, agents and publishers to make the book more X, more Y, more Z. More palatable, more recognisable, more consistent with white publishing’s idea of how stories by First Nations and other writers of colour should read.

Paige Clark’s debut book is a collection of short stories.Credit:Marcelle Bradbee

Perhaps it’s not all doom and gloom. In her Beatrice Davis Editorial Fellowship report It’s Hard to Be What You Can’t See: Diversity Within Australian Publishing, Radhiah Chowdhury notes: “the past few years have seen an uptick in First Nations authors winning major literary awards, and, one hopes, a resultant acknowledgment that First Nations stories from across the spectrum– not just focussing on trauma and pain – are culturally valuable and marketable.” So there is hope. But it is important to note here that Chowdhury still introduces two kinds of value – cultural value and market value.

This hope is mirrored in my own publishing experience. Eventually, I shopped the book around and found an agent, Grace Heifetz at Left Bank Literary, and a publisher, Kelly Fagan at Allen & Unwin, who believed in the book exactly as it was. I am sure others have not been as lucky. We will never know how their narratives have been recast, retold and revised until they were better understood to have cultural value and market value by publishers, most of whom are white.

As an emerging writer, any mention of book publication is alluring, intoxicating. A carrot that dangles. I wish I could say I dismissed the agent’s suggestions on the spot, but I didn’t. I spent over a month thinking about how I could edit my book to meet her demands before deciding I wouldn’t be able to in a way that was in line with my artistic practice.

I wasn’t willing to research being Chinese when it was something I already knew by heart.

Paige Clark’s She Is Haunted (Allen & Unwin) is out now.

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