Should Ethnicity Limit What a Fiction Writer Can Write?

By Susan BarkerJuly 30, 2015

Should Ethnicity Limit What a Fiction Writer Can Write?

“YOUR BOOK is an interesting perspective on China […] but just a Western perspective. You can never understand the Chinese.”

The man in the audience was Chinese, in his mid-40s, and in a polite, non-confrontational manner, had just dismissed my recently published novel, The Incarnations. I was in a bookshop in Chengdu, halfway through my first event to promote the book, and the microphone seemed to amplify my hesitation as the audience waited for my response. Throughout the six years I spent writing The Incarnations, the authenticity of the Chinese characters had been a primary concern. I am British — mixed-race English and Chinese, but linguistically and culturally British. Did this lessen the legitimacy of my fiction about China? I responded that people are the same everywhere, and what differs between East and West are cultural differences that with enough time and research can be understood. The man listened, his arms folded. He hadn’t read The Incarnations, but that didn’t matter to him. He was basing his judgment not on the contents of the book, but my identity as a British author.

Over the following weeks, at events to promote The Incarnations in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, I encountered questions such as, “How can you write about the Chinese when you aren’t fluent in mandarin?” “How can a Westerner know what it’s like to be Chinese?” “Isn’t your novel just a British opinion of China?” Many of these questions seemed based on the belief that the mainland Chinese are of a shared national mindset — a homogeneity of psyche outsiders are incapable of understanding. The questions also suggested that the demographics of a writer’s background, such as ethnicity and nationality, are limiting factors in the fiction they can write.

These were viewpoints I disagreed with. The longer I spent in China the more diverse its citizens seemed, and any distinct “Chinese psyche” impossible to define. I also believe fiction writers should have artistic freedom to write what they want. However, the further the creative leap beyond the perimeters of our own identity, the more challenges there are, and the greater the chance of missteps and errors. My own approach to writing a novel set in China was to move there, stay with local families, enroll at language school, and research by experiencing everyday life in Beijing. As Yu Hua says in his essay collection, China in Ten Words, “Daily life may seem trivial and routine, but in fact it contains a multitude of incidents, at once rich, expansive, and touching. Politics, history, society, and culture, one’s memories and emotions, desires and secrets — all reverberate there.” The neighborhoods I lived in, the everyday street scenes I witnessed, the Beijingers I met, and the insights I gained into their lives all informed my novel in progress. When I sat down to write, I had to reorient my way of looking at the world too. In the case of my protagonist, a Beijing taxi driver called Wang Jun, I had to consider how the sociological landscape of late 20th century urban China had shaped him, and to what extent growing up under Communist Party rule influenced his worldview, political beliefs, and personal values. I also had to be attentive to the rhythms and habits of his everyday life; what he eats for breakfast, the brand of cigarettes he smokes, the clothes he wears, where he reads the news and so on — seemingly minor and insignificant details that were vital for characterization. The objective was not to construct a fictional Chinese everyman, but a main character that was original and idiosyncratic, but still convincingly from Beijing.

However, research doesn’t eliminate the risk of errors, and the controversy that can arise from these errors should they occur. When a character from a similar background as the author seems inauthentic, this is often attributed to weakness in the writing. When a character of another gender or nationality or ethnicity fails to convince or reinforces lazy stereotypes, this is interpreted as misrepresentation — and sometimes justifiably so, for when we write stories about characters from a different background to us we are writing stories about our own perceptions and prejudices. There are occasions however, when the discrimination arises from within the readers themselves. “I have to be honest, I don’t think women writers ever write realistic male characters,” a male friend (and avid reader) once told me — dismissing, a priori, the credibility of any male protagonist created by a woman writer. This interweaving of the author’s identity (in this case, gender) into the work and assessment thereof occurs when a fiction writer crosses national and ethnic boundaries too. For some critics, a work of fiction about Asia by a Westerner will be, a priori, lacking in legitimacy.

Exoticism, or subjecting Asia to an exoticizing Western gaze, is another critique leveled at Western writers. “Aren’t you just sensationalizing Chinese history?” I have been asked about my book, “Isn’t that just Orientalism?” The Incarnations is set in contemporary Beijing and interspersed with stories spanning 1,000 years, from the Tang Dynasty to the era of Chairman Mao. One historical tale takes place in the Forbidden City during the Ming Dynasty. The story, based on the 1542 plot by 16 concubines to assassinate the sadistic Emperor Jiajing, is steeped in intrigue and the lavish milieu of the imperial palaces — themes and settings that are, according to some critics, Orientalist. This interpretation, however, fails to take into account how widespread this “Orientalist” imagery is in TV and film productions in China today. Turn on the TV any night of the week and you’ll encounter a historical drama on one channel or another, set in the imperial court of a bygone dynasty, with emperors and empresses in extravagant robes and wigs, embroiled in Machiavellian conspiracies (most recently the hugely popular Empress of China, starring Fan Bingbing). Looking at works distributed in English-speaking countries alone, there are the novels of Su Tong (My Life as Emperor) and Shan Sa (Empress), and the films of Zhang Yimou (Hero, Curse of the Golden Flower). Critics may say Zhang Yimou’s “clichéd” imagery of ancient China is an attempt to pander to Western audiences, but then how do they account for the “clichéd” imagery in dramas produced in China for domestic audiences? When these representations originate from within China, from Chinese directors and screenwriters and novelists, the charge of exoticism is more ambiguous, and that of Orientalism similar to accusing the BBC of “Occidentalism” in their production of historical dramas such as Wolf Hall.

Orientalism is also alleged when Asian fictional characters veer to the darker end of the spectrum of human behavior. One reason I write fiction is to investigate the psychological and moral complexities of being human. Subsequently there are characters in The Incarnations who lust for power and exploit others. There are manipulative and devious characters, and some who are lascivious and sexually motivated. Are these characterizations (or the presence of these darker psychological facets) an Orientalist depiction of the Chinese? There’s no dichotomy between East and West in The Incarnations, and no thesis of Western superiority over an inferior East. The characters are not dehumanized and posited as “other,” but their consciousnesses and complex interiorities are entered into. Yes, there are characters who are cruel, irrational, and egotistical, but the intention was to make a statement about what it is to be human, not what it is to be Chinese. Should fiction writers steer clear of writing Asian characters with predominately negative characters traits, so as not to appear maligning? Should bleak depictions of Asian history or society be avoided, or counterbalanced with more positive narratives? If literature must be bowdlerized in this manner, then this begs the question: what is literature for?

Whether or not Western fiction writers can write legitimately about China is contingent on many factors — the strength of the writing, the thoroughness of research, and the skill in combining the culturally relative aspects of character with the innate. The identity of the author shouldn’t be of much significance, but in a media age where there is disproportionate focus on the writer behind the work (their upbringing, education, and life experiences and so on) this is seldom the case, and the author’s identity can become integral to the interpretation of the text and the determination of its validity. Though the variables of identity can be superficial, the impact can be substantial (for example, if I had my mother’s Chinese surname instead of my father’s English surname, would my work have been vulnerable to the charge of Orientalism?). When the author is vastly dissimilar to their characters, the presence of the author in the reader’s mind can undermine their ability to suspend disbelief (which is vital for inhabiting any fictional world). Therefore whether or not fiction “works” is also contingent, in part, on the reader’s willingness to judge the text on its own terms.

Though writers are born into certain social classes, religions, ethnic groups, and nations, we don’t have to be confined to these demographics in the fiction we write. The further we leap beyond our own identities however, the more the likelihood of encountering preconceived notions, based on identity politics, of what you can and cannot write. In a best case scenario, what should determine the legitimacy of fiction is the writing itself, and though this is not always the case, fiction writers should not be deterred from writing from other cultural perspectives. One of the reasons we write fiction is to deepen our understanding, and to write about people who live in different countries, speak different languages, eat different foods, worship different gods, and are governed by different political systems is an attempt to dissolve the barriers — geographical, cultural, and psychological — between “them” and “us.” Broadening the range of our storytelling is, by and large, a positive thing, enriching literature and reflecting the way the world is changing so people in other places are no longer so remote.

Returning to the man in the audience in the bookshop in Chengdu, was he correct in his statement (voiced with resounding finality) that I would “never understand the Chinese”? Is The Incarnations “just a Western perspective” full of Asian stereotypes, or are the characters convincingly Chinese? Every reader is welcome to come to their own conclusions about my book. My only hope is that readers will focus on what is written in the pages, and put out of mind the author biography at the back.


Susan Barker grew up in east London. She studied philosophy at the University of Leeds and creative writing at the University of Manchester. Her two novels, Sayonara Bar (2005) and The Orientalist and the Ghost (2008), were both longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize. Her third novel, The Incarnations, will be published in the US on August 18.

LARB Contributor

Susan Barker grew up in east London. She studied philosophy at the University of Leeds and creative writing at the University of Manchester. She is the author of the novels Sayonara Bar (2005) and The Orientalist and the Ghost (2008), both published by Doubleday (UK) and longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize.

Her third novel The Incarnations (Doubleday, July 2014) is about a taxi driver in contemporary Beijing and interwoven with tales from the Tang Dynasty, the invasion of Genghis Khan, the Ming Dynasty, the Opium War, and the Cultural Revolution. While writing The Incarnations she spent several years living in Beijing, researching modern and imperial China.

She has received grants from the Arts Council England and the Society of Authors, and has been an artist in resident at the Corporation of Yaddo, Hawthornden International Writers’ Retreat and the Red Gate Gallery in Beijing. In 2010–2012 she was a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Leeds Trinity University. Follow her on Twitter: @SusanKBarker


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