Today, I’m joined by Yeyu! She has a new book out today (Relics of Gods) but she has still found time to put fingertips to keyboard and pull together a very insightful, interesting piece for us. Enjoy!
This may sound strange to some, but despite writing English fictions set in ancient China with ethnic Chinese characters and strong Chinese cultural influences, promoting ethnic/cultural diversity was not a part of my goal. Sharing my culture was the goal, and it’s a profoundly different mindset.
I guess this is because I can read Chinese fluently and the Chinese online fiction community is MASSIVE. Just think about how many internet users there are in Mainland China + other Chinese speaking communities. We are NOT the minority in terms of global population. So, this means I can easily access countless stories with ethnic Chinese main characters and stories with strong Chinese cultural backgrounds, which makes me indifferent to seeing my culture/ethnicity represented in English fiction. I read about ethnic Chinese characters and stories with strong Chinese culture all the time… I don’t need to read them in English. Why would I want to read those stories in English? It doesn’t feel right. So, it’s sort of embarrassing to say, but despite writing a culturally Chinese story in English, I haven’t read any fiction of my kind in English.
Not as though there are many English fictions that have a culturally Chinese setting.
However, plot and perspective aside, the “genre” I write is actually so mainstream in the Chinese fiction community, you could be aghast by the lack of “freshness” within the genre. At the same time, in the English fiction community, the genre is so uncommon it’s practically non-existent, so no matter how lame the plot is, it’s probably going to be “fresh”. But niche, very niche. I didn’t write my story thinking it had the potential to become a best-seller. I’d be flattered if I even manage to sell 300 books. I know very well that what I write will have a limited audience, especially since it’s M/M and not even romance, per se—that makes my book the niche of niches.
Despite how many people are speaking up about wanting more “culturally diverse” fiction, sales figures tell authors that these voices belong to a loud, but small audience. I personally cannot imagine the effort it would take for a non-Chinese speaking and non-ethnically/culturally Chinese person to write a Chinese historical fantasy like the one I’m writing. Think about it: merely writing an English historical/fantasy takes enormous research effort for an author. To write one in a culture they aren’t familiar with will take double or triple the effort and time, and it’s even worse if they can’t understand the language. How are they supposed to research? I assure you Google Translate cannot handle classical Chinese. Hell, I can’t even really understand it that well. Therefore, I can’t blame Western writers who only speak English for not writing about culturally diverse fiction. I myself already spent a lot of time on research and checking my facts—I think the genre I’m writing is pretty impossible for an author who cannot read Chinese and does not have a deep, personal understanding of Chinese culture.
But wait, you say. There are so many ethnically and culturally different people in the world who are fluent enough in English to write fiction! Just in the States alone, there should be quite a lot of immigrants who are bilingual. Where are they? Why aren’t more of them writing books set in their culture?
First of all, I’m guessing culturally non-Western authors in general are probably more interested in writing culturally Western fiction when writing in English. (There are exceptions, but few and far between, not to mention most authors are assumed to be white for a reason). Some may even take a Western penname, so you’ll never know if the author of your book is truly white or male or whatever. Hey, these culturally non-Western authors are more fascinated by Western culture—that’s where their muse is, and that’s ok. An author’s muse is something you have to pamper to get more stuff out of. As for the bilinguals who are more interested in fiction of their own culture…well, I’m guessing they usually end up writing in the language they speak, if they write.
After all, why spend months toiling away on a story only for it to end up buried by the mainstream? Why write a fiction to an English-speaking audience—where it will be super niche—when you have a better readership if you publish to the language your culture speaks? Your culture may be minority in the Western world, but it would likely be the majority in whatever language you speak. I don’t know about other languages, but I know this should be true for East Asian languages at the least. Moreover, this meager readership also has to do with the language itself.
Culture is so deeply connected to language, it’s just not the same in another one. You lose at least half of the feeling you would have gotten if you wrote it in another language, especially if the language is not from the same cultural region. So, if some of the meaning gets lost if you translate from Japanese to Chinese, then even more things are lost if you take the leap from a Sinosphere to a Western cultural sphere. The culture is so different the language cannot even touch the same level of emotional understanding people from the same cultural sphere share.
For example, if you only spoke German and Chinese, would you read the Lord of the Rings in Chinese or in German? If you had no problem reading the original English version of the Lord of the Rings, would you read a translated version? So you see, even if some readers cannot write Chinese but can read it and are looking for fiction set in China with ethnic Chinese characters, I can bet you they will be migrating over to the Chinese fiction community. In turn, the readership and demand for an English fiction with the same kind of setting becomes even more dismal. After all, the biggest group of readers for the culture you are writing about is the people who belong to the culture itself.
This isn’t like M/M romance where straight women can enjoy gay romance, because in the end it’s still in a culturally Western setting. This has to do with the culture itself—culture is an extremely large part of someone’s identity. People have an easier time connecting emotionally to the culture they were brought up with. I’m not saying they can’t connect emotionally to another culture (of course I’m not, or else I wouldn’t be writing my story in the first place!), I’m just saying it is more difficult, especially if you don’t have interest.
“That’s not true,” you’d say. “People from all over the world love Japanese anime/manga.” Well, first of all, they are not the mainstream. Second of all, I estimate over half of those fans are East (and Southeast?) Asians, and they belong to the same cultural sphere. Finally, anime/manga have beautiful graphic visuals, and most people love anime/manga because of the visuals. Don’t talk to me about plot; most anime/manga suck at plotting (Yes, I am one of those cynical anime/manga fans now….) There were some great ones, but it’s all about “moe (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/Moe)” nowadays, and most of the time the plot is insufferable yet the anime/manga remains very popular if it’s drawn well. However, I must say, thanks to Japanese anime/manga, a lot of these fans are also more open to reading stories set in East Asia.
As for Japanese light novels or even Chinese wuxia novels…well, let’s just say a lot of things get lost in translation so you probably do don’t see a whole of them. Even if you do read a translated book, you’d notice they are somewhat awkward.
That is because the writing style is very different (I can only speak for Chinese fiction here but I imagine Japanese is the same).
“Show, don’t tell” is the golden rule in English fiction. Some readers feel disconnected with the story if all the author does is tell you, as English is quite jarring if used in the telling manner. Readers need to experience the narrator emotional state through something beyond words, people need to see the scenes happen, they need the details—not to be told. This is why readers who have really good English often have problems with books written “poorly”, i.e. the ones with all telling and no showing, while readers who don’t speak English as their first language have less of an issue. So, in a way, English fiction is much more difficult to write well than Chinese fiction because in my opinion it is very difficult to show, not tell. “Show, don’t tell” is a delicate skill I admit I have not been able to learn properly.
As you have guessed from what I’ve implied, Chinese fictions are always telling. There are very “elegant” ways you can “tell”, so you seldom read a story where you are “shown” things in detail. Chinese-speaking readers would feel disconnected to the story if the authors “showed” too much. They aren’t even going to understand what the hell are you getting at—East Asians can be indirect, but the like their books to be more straightforward. They want a faster pace. When I say straightforward, I’m not saying they don’t use purple prose or they tell in an uncouth way. I’m saying the same elusive and emotional state you’d get from “show, don’t tell” is easily reached through using stuff like proverbs, which could be very purple prose-y. However, since the reader already knows that proverb/existing term, they will “get” it.
Chinese is a very difficult language for non-Chinese speakers in that sense. It’s easy to learn because there is no grammar to speak of, no present/past/future/perfect whatever tense, no feminine or masculine terms, and you don’t even have to write characters in order for readers to understand what the hell you’re talking about. Even the word for “him/her/(animal) it/(god)” has the same pronunciation: “tā”. Just written differently. Yep, it’s so simple it’s probably confusing by itself. I imagine all those double meanings and puns are a headache for beginners to Chinese, since a lot of words sound the same, a lot of terms sound the same, and even the same sentence can mean different things depending on the context (which is inferred). We’re word-recyclers, that’s we are. There is a running Chinese joke about a Westerner who came over to learn Chinese for 4 years and had to answer 7 questions on how each two identical sentences differed in meaning, and the Westerner ended up returning a blank test paper. Google translate can’t even understand what the hell the joke is talking about, much less try to differentiate the meaning between two practically identical sentences.
What’s more, Chinese is a rather culturally exclusive language, where if you don’t have a better understanding of the culture, you’d be lost in the clouds half the time when you’re reading fiction. However, if you understand the terms and proverbs, the level of emotional closeness and synchronicity you can reach is simply something you cannot attain in English. I think East Asians understand what I’m talking about the most, but in general those who don’t have English as a first language likely feel this way as well. Imagine all those English idioms used by English speakers, and take that and multiply by 200+ and remove all the corniness. Chinese-speakers use the hell out of proverbs, idioms, and existing terms to get our points across. We capitalize on the shared cultural knowledge and implicit meanings when we use the language, so authors simply rely on the readers filling in the blanks themselves so they don’t have to describe the details too much.
In fact, in Chinese fiction there is a technique where you leave space for imagination. I don’t mean it in the “show, don’t tell” way. I mean it in the “let’s just give you a hint and let you imagine the rest” way, where the point is not the detail. Think of indirectness, where characters say one thing and mean another, and then a short description of how their actions contradict their words to hint at their emotional state. Done! Or simply just…mentioning a character feels an emotion but not bothering to explain why the hell they are feeling that emotion (the readers need to figure out the reason themselves. Yes, I can see the horror on your face). Thus, the most “refined” Chinese writing technique is practically the opposite of “show, don’t tell”, because “show, don’t tell” is verbose in detail while the Chinese language in general likes to be….environmentally friendly.[image: liu_bai.jpg, caption: since ancient times, Chinese paintings were always quite minimalistic….]
The name for this minimalistic technique is “留白”, or “leaving a blank canvas”, which originated from calligraphy and ink wash painting. This technique is often used when dealing with character emotions, but in general it reflects the Chinese writing and reading attitude towards details in their stories.
So, unlike the Lord of the Rings, you likely won’t see an entire page dedicated to the descriptions of an insignificant tree in a Chinese fiction (I forgot if it was a tree or whatever. I liked the Lord of the Rings for the beautiful imagery, but man that is an acquired taste). The most you’d on scenery descriptions in Chinese fiction is maybe 2 sentences, where the author is likely to either highlight just one object in the scenery and ignore the rest, or be reliant on existing, purple-prose-y proverbs/terms to paint the scene…in vagueness. All in all, the focus is simply not the same. I’m guessing English readers who love details will not be used to this style of writing.
However, if you change the writing style, the atmosphere of the story changes. This happens when I’m reading a Chinese fiction set in a Western world as well, where the atmosphere is simply wrong. Other than the overall culture that’s usually off and my difficulty with reading/remembering Western names written in Chinese (no doubt English readers would also have trouble with the names in my story), just from the writing style alone it’s not a Western setting anymore. It’s a Chinese-flavored Western setting.
Very similar to what you’d get with English-written “oriental” settings. It’s just not the same. It doesn’t feel right. This doesn’t mean Western-flavored oriental stories are going to be bad, of course. I loved Avatar: the Last Airbender, and so did a lot of people in Mainland China, since that’s how I uh…came across the cartoon. Yes, I watched it in English, but with Chinese subtitles underneath. Anyhow, at its bones, Avatar is clearly an anime-inspired Western-flavored oriental fantasy heavily influenced by East Asian culture in particular, and that’s ok. I enjoyed it very much. However, if I was craving for a culturally oriental fantasy, Avatar would not be my first choice, especially since I could read Chinese.
To further illustrate my point so it’s clear I’m not just picking on Western stories, think about those Japanese anime/manga/games that have Western settings and rely heavily on Western culture. Does it feel culturally Western to you? Are the characters behaving like Westerners? (Do the characters even look like Westerners sometimes?) Nah, they’re Japanese-flavored Western fantasy, and if there’s a novel version, I’ve no doubt the Japanese flavor would be even stronger because of the writing style.
Anyhow, the point of all my rambling is that, perhaps authors who belong to non-Western cultures and have at least bilingual proficiency with English aren’t writing English fiction set in their own culture because the language is off, their main audience is not reading fiction in English, and writing is too damn lonely to deal with those kinds of stuff. You can’t really blame them if you see things from their perspective, since all authors want to be read by more readers. It’s the reason authors write and share their work—for others to read, enjoy their work, and stroke their egos.
What about me? What the hell am I doing by writing these incredibly niche stories, then?
As I mentioned in my guest blog at Mythical Books, I am just jealous of Japan. Yes, despite saying Japanese anime/manga fans are not mainstream, they still have a lot of non-East Asian fans and gave them a lot of insight to Japanese culture. I’m jealous enough to have this lofty goal to spread Chinese culture since I don’t see a whole lot of material available to interested readers. What? A tiny percentage of non-Chinese-speaking readers are curious about what a Chinese Daoist fantasy would be like but can’t find a story with that kind of setting? Well, now there’s one.
Of course, my story is likely not as good as all the popular, epic and super-long works that are considered the shining examples of what a Chinese Daoist fantasy should be like, but it should give readers a taste. At least it’s something, no?
Truthfully, when I’m feeling dejected about my fiction and its dismal readership, I’d wish I could write Chinese better. You see, plot-wise, I’m somewhat more confident about myself, so sometimes I wish I could write Chinese better and publish my story in Chinese to an ethnically Chinese audience where I’m likely to get more readers. Mind you, I grew up in a Chinese-speaking family, spend a few years of my childhood in Taiwan (aka the Republic of China), and I’ve been living here since 11th grade. I competed with local students and suffered through those notorious East Asian College Entrance Exams, so I know how to write Chinese at a certain level. However, at the end of the day, I write and read English better than I write and read Chinese. Despite not being as skilled as authors who speak English as their first language, I feel more at ease writing in English.
Of course, this is not necessarily a bad thing, because I am able to share my culture with a small but interested audience. I get to write about a relatively “fresh”-to-the-Western-world genre. Adding diversity to the English fiction community was not my goal, but I ended up doing it, I guess. Hopefully, anyone interested in Chinese culture will enjoy my story and learn a bit more about the culture. Every reader counts as a small victory towards my grand ambition, lol.
Finally, thanks for reading this long-ass post and special thanks to Teatalks for hosting me!
About the Author:
Yeyu wrote her first story when she was 7, and she has been creating stories on-and-off ever since, be it writing fanfiction or drawing original manga. She finally ventured into writing original fiction in high school, and stuck with the form.
Most of Yeyu’s childhood was spent overseas, but by the age of 16 she moved back to the small East Asian island most commonly known as Taiwan, where she was born.
When Yeyu isn’t writing in her spare time, she is probably reading, gaming, or sleeping. No cats, sadly.
Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/QiuxiaoYeyu
The Relics of Gods : Between Heaven and Earth
ISBN Ebook – 978-1-62798-779-0
ISBN Paperback – 978-1-62798-778-3
What is worse: Being so broke you can barely afford food, getting hired for dangerous missions way out of your league, suffocating under mountains of unanswered questions—or wanting to sexually dominate someone who can kill you without lifting a finger?
Lu Delong is a mercenary who evaluates antiques most of the time, and deals with the paranormal on rare occasions—even though it’s supposed to be the other way around. When he joins a dangerous quest for an ancient artifact, he meets and becomes strongly attracted to a mysterious and powerful immortal named Cangji. Despite his friends’ warnings and Cangji’s icy, unsociable demeanor, Delong is unable to resist befriending him. However, Cangji is deeply involved in a matter beyond mortals, and Delong is drawn into a chaotic struggle by both visible and invisible forces.
Always the pacifist who wanted to live a simple human life, Delong never imagined he’d end up involved in a conflict that will affect everything from the lowest insects on earth to the highest gods in heaven.