As a writer and reader, I’ve long felt that there was something missing from the conversation about likability, whether in fiction or life at large. The issue crystallized for me in 2016 when my first book, Islanders, was published, and I found myself in the curious position of watching a volume of poems about the Angel Island Immigration Station during the Chinese exclusion era move from “History” to “Current Affairs” as the year went on. In short: The Chinese detainees wrote poems on the barrack walls, but none of the women’s poems were preserved because their barracks were damaged in a fire. So I imagined what the women might have said. I also expanded their stories to the husbands and lovers waiting for them in San Francisco, as well as to the staff, both white and Chinese, who were tasked with enforcing the exclusion laws. Not long after the presidential election that year, an interviewer asked me, “In a book like this, some writers would have portrayed these women as angels, but I liked that you didn’t do that. Why did you choose to write flawed, messy characters?” This part of our conversation did not make it into print, but I am still thinking about it.
I was not consciously thinking about the likability of my characters when I wrote the book. I wrote them in the only way I knew how, which was to depict them in all their chaotic humanity. I have joked that the book is really about sex, drugs, and violence: men visit brothels as they wait for their wives and children to land. Women long for past trysts as they wait to join the men they were arranged to marry. A cook who helps sneak messages from the Chinese in San Francisco to their loved ones on Angel Island spends his days off at opium dens trying to forget his culpability in this misery. These women, husbands, and lovers betray each other. They keep unforgivable secrets. They are unable to be truly there for one another. They are, in current literary parlance, unlikable characters.
Now I see that I was also trying to depict the effects of trauma and injustice on the individual psyche. One of the central themes of the book is how political decisions can impact our intimate lives. The Chinese exclusion laws first enacted in the late 19th century separated families and inflicted pain on immigrants and citizens alike. People subject to such toxic stress tend to act out in ways that hurt the people closest to them; their behavior is far from virtuous, but these are human responses to suffering. And I drew many of the most harrowing stories from the historical record; I could not have made them up if I tried. In one story, a woman attempted to hang herself after her infant son died in custody and her husband’s request that she be allowed to attend the boy’s funeral in San Francisco was denied by immigration officials, who cited “No unusual hardships found.” I wouldn’t know how to make any of the people in this story likable.
The literary conversation about likable characters has largely focused on whether we read books to make friends and the lack of prestige accorded commercial women’s fiction. In 2013, Claire Messud snapped at a Publishers Weekly interviewer who said of the protagonist of her then-newly published novel, The Woman Upstairs, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.” Messud’s response in all its brilliant rage:
For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?”
In response, Good in Bed novelist Jennifer Weiner pitted the warm and funny female protagonists of chick lit against the snobbery of literary fiction, arguing in a piece for Slate that deriding likable characters is just another way of dismissing women who write commercial fiction. On the other hand, Roxane Gay declared in a 2014 BuzzFeed essay that she’s “Not Here to Make Friends”: women should be allowed to be as bad as they want to be, as ruthless and callous as men. Not long after, the subhed of an article Willa Paskin wrote for Slate posed the question, “And if we like an unlikable woman, doesn’t that make her likable?” On a New York Times Book Review podcast, Messud later clarified, “I couldn’t help but feel that it was a gendered question. I don’t think we as readers expect to identify with or admire male protagonists, and I suddenly had a feeling that there was this expectation of a woman protagonist by a woman reader.”
In many ways, likability is a gendered issue. Lacy Johnson writes in her brilliant essay “On Likability,” which began as a talk she gave at the 2018 Tin House Summer Workshop, about how she used to acquiesce to men’s demands, even at age 14, because she “had been taught somewhere along the way that it was a blessing to be liked by a man.” Later, she endured an abusive relationship in which she was kidnapped, raped, and almost killed when she tried to leave. Johnson writes, “Stories are how we know ourselves, how we understand our relation to others; stories are the lenses that allow us to look at the chaos of the world and see with clarity and wisdom.”
The story she once felt was safe enough to tell was about female obedience. But she began writing a new story for herself, one that put truth above the expectation to please others. “At some point,” Johnson writes, “we must acknowledge that the question of likability is not one about craft, but about sexism, racism, homophobia — it’s about bigotry.” The story that women should be likable — small, compliant, uncomplaining — is a cage that puts their lives in danger.
The argument over whether we read to make friends reveals a larger problem. That a woman can either be likable and superficial or unlikable and serious is a false dichotomy, but it has taken root in ways that appear natural and inevitable. I am not the first person to notice that the 2016 presidential election was a contest between an unqualified, willfully uninformed man and an exceptionally accomplished woman many branded unlikable, and we have seen how that turned out. (To further underline the double standard: The boorish, raging man in question is, by most people’s measure, odious in the extreme.) I am also not the first person to note that, to this day, women who accuse men of sexual assault are shamed for what they wore or how much they drank or who they have slept with; their inability to live up to some fantasy of perfect womanhood — their unlikability — is reason to dismiss their credibility. We tell ourselves that we don’t have to heed women we label unlikable.
But it is not just women who bear the unreasonable burdens of likability. Now I also see that I did not want to make my characters in Islanders “good” victims. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was made possible by demagogues who dehumanized the Chinese by saying, in effect, that they were not “good” people. We are in the third year of the presidency of a man who opened his campaign with a pledge to build a wall on the Southern border to keep out the “rapists.” This same man has overseen gross human rights abuses, such as the separation of children from their parents when seeking asylum. At the same time, he is trying to do away with family reunification policies, insisting that we should let in immigrants based on merit only — that is, well educated, highly employable, likable. This rhetoric of “good” versus “bad” immigrants still resonates with many Americans, and I did not want to buy into it.
Under the Chinese exclusion laws, which aimed to keep out laborers, only certain classes of Chinese and their immediate families were allowed to enter the United States. Most of the Chinese detained at Angel Island claimed family ties to US residents; in the absence of reliable documents, immigration officers questioned them and their settled family members about the minutiae of home life in the old country, from the location of the rice bin in the house to the cardinal direction of the village square. If the answers matched, the relationship was considered valid and the immigrant was allowed to land.
Most of the Chinese women at Angel Island were coming to join their merchant husbands. Infidelity, then, was not just a moral failure or an understandable response to trauma; it went against the letter of the law. In portraying my characters — both men and women — at their worst, I was in a way asking, at what point do we deem them no longer deserving of human rights?
Our culture’s propensity for rationalizing the stripping away of human dignity — and even human life — by judging a victim unlikable goes well beyond immigration. When black teenager Michael Brown Jr. was fatally shot by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, those defending Wilson leaned heavily on the fact that Brown had just robbed a convenience store. That same year, Alex Nieto, a longtime resident of San Francisco’s Bernal Heights, was killed by police after a verbal altercation with a white newcomer to the neighborhood when a bystander thought that Nieto’s red 49ers jacket was gang-related and holstered taser was a firearm. At the wrongful death trial Nieto’s parents brought against the police department, the district attorney highlighted Nieto’s history of mental illness. When police choked Eric Garner to death in Staten Island in 2014, authorities pointed to his extensive arrest record, much of which entailed minor crimes such as selling untaxed cigarettes and marijuana possession. It is like clockwork: after every incident of police brutality against black and brown people, the victim is framed as a hoodlum, mentally ill, or, most of all, a criminal, his purported unlikability all the justification needed for, in effect, the death penalty.
The list is long. Beneath all of these stories is the notion that if we are not “good” or “likable” enough, we deserve the injustices perpetrated on us. And by characterizing victims as unlikable or undeserving, we protect the systems of power and privilege that make these atrocities possible in the first place.
I am not saying that we should all write about serial killers who crucify kittens. But likability hinges on respectability, which is another way of saying a “likable” character is one whose presence and portrayal does not make us uncomfortable, does not rock the status quo. When we privilege likability, whether in literature or in life, we limit our emotional range to that which is agreeable and repress the most compassionate parts of ourselves. We fail to see the humanity in people who are unlike us. We disengage from all the rage, trauma, and injustice, embracing a silence that will eventually consume us, too.
Teow Lim Goh is the author of Islanders (Conundrum Press, 2016), a volume of poems on the history of Chinese exclusion at the Angel Island Immigration Station. Her work has been featured in Tin House, Catapult, PBS NewsHour, Colorado Public Radio, and The New Yorker. She lives in Denver.
Featured image: "Central American migrants find quarter in southern Mexico" by Peter Haden is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Banner image: "Poetry on the wall at the Angel Island Immigration Station (1)" by Rhododendrites is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.