When I’m skimming descriptions of books on blogs or back covers, the mention of a Chinese or Asian protagonist immediately catches my eye. The fact is, they’re a rarity in Western literature, and I’m incredibly glad that campaigns like We Need Diverse Books have promoted diversity, so I get the chance to see myself represented.
Yet sometimes the discussions around representation in the online writing community have left me with mixed feelings. Amongst all the advice posts out there on how to write diverse characters, the statement ‘avoid stereotypes’ is a common reiteration.
Surely, though, writing holistic minority characters involves something deeper than outright rejecting stereotypes? Often stereotypes – especially cultural ones – emerge from a common philosophy, an underlying truth, and it’s important for writers to acknowledge this without letting it define the character.
Preloved by Shirley Marr is a book which showed this beautifully.
The story begins with Eighties Theme Day at Amy Lee’s Australian high school. A mishap on the way leads her to find a cheap silver locket. When she manages to open it, in steps Logan – a ghost no-one but Amy can see. Logan doesn’t remember anything of his past, but he does know he’s in love with Amy’s friend Rebecca – whom Amy is convinced the locket was originally meant for.
How did Logan die? Why is he really here? And what is Amy’s role in all of this?
Shirley Marr’s ending answers all of these questions with an intriguing twist. She provides a story that anyone who enjoys contemporary Young Adult fiction, ghost stories, humour or pop culture references will find likable. However, it is the characters and their journeys that I found the most profound. Marr addresses cultural nuances and shows the hidden depths within each of them.
Amy, our sixteen-year-old, Chinese-Australian protagonist, starts off the story with a host of insecurities. She doesn’t know who she really is, nor does she feel that she fits in anywhere. She doesn’t even think she’s ‘good enough’ for her mother, directly asking her at one point whether she would prefer to have had someone else as a daughter. In comparison to Rebecca, she thinks of herself as the “short, awkward, Asian best friend. Which did have its advantages, because everyone instantly believed I was O-Ren Ishii from Kill Bill, with martial arts skills.”
I may not have ever felt like an ‘Asian sidekick’ myself, but in popular culture it’s clear that the media insists on reinforcing this idea. Numerous actors of East Asian descent have talked about their unique challenges in the Western film industry, where the majority of their roles only allow them to be in one scene or a background character, or as Daniel Henney stated, “nothing aside from martial artists and sidekicks with accents.” When writer Suey Park wanted to build support for Asian(-American) feminism, she came up with the Twitter hashtag #NotYourAsianSidekick. Even if it’s a story about Asian cultures, Hollywood sometimes decides that Asians aren’t good enough to be more than background deco: when the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, set in an Asian fantasy world, was adapted to film, the casting calls specified a preference for Caucasian actors as leads.
Yet Amy Lee in Preloved is different. Reading about this character didn’t incite me with any of the frustration the above examples did.
The key difference is that Marr develops Amy holistically, rather than using one trait – her insistence on delegating herself to a sidekick role – as a superficial shortcut. As Amy grows into self-acceptance, additional aspects of her identity and experience come into play. Amy displays her overt anger at her father for leaving their family, and her relationship with her mother is fraught with cultural clashes while is also deeply loving. We also see her rekindling her childhood friendship with fellow student Nancy; her fear of being in a romantic relationship; her irreverent sense of humour; and a hidden longing which she suppresses.
Tying these various threads together in Marr’s depiction makes Amy a fully fleshed-out character, where each aspect informs her identity rather than defining it. Marr also places universal themes within the lens of Amy’s experience, making her relatable to the reader: is there a single teenager who’s never felt the same way as Amy, of not fitting in anywhere or not being good enough?
Nancy Soo, Amy’s childhood friend, was another character whom I found well-rounded rather than stereotyped. Interestingly, though, this is the first impression we get of Nancy – through Amy’s eyes – at the beginning of the story:
Introducing Nancy “Fancy Pants” Soo. Top student. Plays the piano and the clarinet. Stereotypically good at Maths. Would probably get into Pharmacy at uni next year. Exactly the sort my Chinese mum would love to have as a daughter.
There’s no doubt that reading this description on its own would have made me cringe. Honestly, if you replaced only a few of the words above, it could very well be a description of me or a number of my friends. When I think about all the times my own dedication to academic achievement has been linked to the fact that I’m Chinese/Asian, I’ve always felt at a loss for what to say, and disliked the fact that I was being associated with a stereotype.
But being high-achieving isn’t a bad thing, is it? The problem with the ‘model minority’ stereotype, though, is not the positive trait in itself (which is linked to underlying cultural factors and is hence realistic for some Asian characters). It’s the way it reduces and dehumanises people of Asian descent based on one label.
So that’s why I found it so refreshing when Marr addresses this stereotype explicitly, but shows there is more to Nancy’s character. It’s slowly revealed that Nancy cares deeply for Amy, and their relationship is integral to the story. She, too, has insecurities, as shown when she’s trying to get a partner for the school ball. Her candid attitude and her skills as an investigative journalist also add to her personality. And Amy’s own assumption that Nancy is “every mother’s dream daughter” is shown to be incorrect when Nancy’s own family issues are hinted at. Nancy fulfils some stereotypical traits without being a stereotype herself.
Finally, let’s look at Amy’s mother, Ivy Lee. From the first page, Amy makes her exasperation at her mother clear, calling her out for doing “the Chinese mother thing. The emotional blackmail thing.” She treats Ivy’s superstitions with derision, saying “Where does this stuff even come from? The secret Big Book of Chinese Superstition that all Chinese mothers refer to?”
I’d always found the idea of Chinese people as superstitious a particularly frustrating stereotype. I remember one time when I expressed a dismissal of superstitions, almost identically to the way Amy does. My friend (who isn’t Chinese-Australian) looked mildly surprised and said, “that’s not very Chinese of you.”
I instinctively replied, “I think of myself more as Australian.” As soon as I said that, I felt a rush of guilt. Both cultures have shaped me as I am – the one that has a stronger influence varies from situation to situation, rather than being a stagnant, statistical divide – and despite some challenges along the way, I’ve always felt genuinely proud of that. Yet my friend’s statement made me to want to completely disassociate myself with being Chinese, the same way the high-achiever, model minority stereotype often did.
That’s what stereotypes do when they are used to label people. At that moment, I’d failed to remember that there are underlying cultural factors and genuine reasons for every belief. I’d forgotten that as with every stereotype, being superstitious is a trait which only skims the surface of a person.
Reading Preloved helped me to reconcile this, because Amy and Ivy’s relationship involves a similar growth in understanding. Ivy’s fascination with the antique and vintage – “how she believed that if she found something broken and lovingly put it back together, that someone would come along and love it again” – defines the book’s core thematic appeal. And by the end of the story, Amy has come to a greater appreciation not only of this idea, but of the complexity of her mother, underneath her beliefs. She reflects, “I thought about Mum, and how under the layers of superstition and fear lay her beating heart.” This was insightful for me to read, especially since I also have relatives who are superstitious. Preloved helped me to understand them – and Ivy Lee – the same way I already understood Amy and Nancy.
In her 2009 TED Talk, ‘the danger of a single story’, Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie emphasised the multiplicity of narratives and experiences that make up all people, and how reducing one to ‘a single story’ can be damaging. One quote, in particular, has always stayed with me:
“The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
For me, this is a reminder that no one should be afraid to be high-achieving, to identify themselves as Chinese-Australian and acknowledge the influence of their culture, or to participate in any other activities that may be associated with an Asian stereotype – regardless of how other people like to label others this way. Because as Preloved shows, the problem of stereotyping is not in the traits themselves. It’s the way they’re used to generalise a group of people, rather than seeing each individual as complex; as more than just a single story.
And that’s why writers and readers should remember that this problem can’t be solved simply by raging a battle against stereotypes. It’s not an issue of individual descriptors, and it never was.
It’s an issue of understanding.