Soft Power: Chinese YA novelists are redefining the genre

Juliet Wimpfheimer | Daily Trojan

Earlier this month, Korean American novelist Jenny Han did a great interview with NBC Asian America, where she talked about the significance of Asian American representation in her “To All the Boys” trilogy. What touched me the most in this interview were Han’s words about Asian American storytelling being more than about struggle.

It was possible, Han said, to write about an Asian American girl falling in love, a universal process for many young adults, and not emphasize the difference. It was possible to normalize aspects of Asian American identity and culture without struggle as the primary goal.

I don’t have much to add to Han’s words; she articulated everything I had struggled to say. So, in true Zoom University discussion forum format, I want to center Han’s words by responding with my own experiences.

But first, I want to preface with some context: I love young adult novels. In the 2000s, I was like “Hush, Hush”, “Fallen”, and “The Mortal Instruments”, and I would read any book with a mystery woman in a ballgown on the cover – that’s- that is, almost half of the young adult shelves of the local library. My fondest memories of my youth come from sitting in that little corner of the library, listening to Taylor Swift’s “Fearless” album through headphones, and devouring the latest installment in the futuristic “Matched” series. ‘Ally Condie.

So it was only natural that I wanted to start writing young adult fiction myself. When I first started writing, I mostly wrote about white protagonists in dystopian settings because I thought that was the norm.

As I grew and took more ownership of my identity, being a young adult felt a little different to the kind of stories I read. Instead of writing these stories, I started to focus more on Chinese Americans in typically Chinese-American settings — my version of a young adult novel.

Like Han, as I ventured into the writing community, I began to feel that there was pressure for my work to be a work of struggle. Once, in what looked like an extended hateful comment on my writing, a white workshop instructor claimed that my topic was not what he believed to be Chinese identity. Until that moment, I had never really thought about being Chinese American as a market experience for white consumerism.

I felt like the only time my voice as a writer was valued was when I integrated my Chinese identity in a way that felt artificial to who I was and exploited trauma. I felt like I needed to write about my parents’ struggle and struggles to be seen as important. They were parts of my identity, but that was not all. I stopped writing for a long time because I always wondered if I had unwittingly locked myself into the category of Chinese writers.

(Disclaimer: Many Chinese writers write about immigration and hardship in nuanced and illuminating ways. These stories should be valued as much as any other story. I would never claim that my experiences are universal because they are not.)

In reality, I just wanted the freedom to write about Chinese people having supernatural powers or having banned romances with hot fallen angels or worrying about concerns other than their pursuit of the elusive American dream. To put it bluntly, I wanted to write young adult novels without necessarily incorporating co-opted ideas as part of a Chinese writer’s identity.

Recently, I’ve been dipping my toes into young adult fiction. I’ve been reading Chloe Gong’s “These Violent Delights” for the past few weeks and absolutely loved it. It was the first young adult novel I had read that featured discussions of Western imperialism and Chinese history and a protagonist implicitly grappling with Chinese and American identity without it becoming the focus.

Moreover, “These violent delights” is a reinterpretation of “Romeo and Juliet”, and I think that’s what makes me love it all the more for what it represents for me: that it is possible for Chinese writers to pay homage to the works that shaped them while interpreting these stories in our own way.

There are so many other Chinese authors redefining the young adult genre. Katie Zhao’s upcoming young adult novel “How We Fall Apart” is described as a mix of “Crazy Rich Asians” and “One of Us is Lying.” It’s about the competitive school environment of Asian Americans, but it’s also a thriller and a dark college murder mystery. After reading Katie Zhao’s previous work on Wattpad, I can already tell it’s going to be amazing.

Xiran Jay Zhao’s young adult novel “Iron Widow” is also a story that excites me immensely. As a reimagining of Chinese Empress Wu Zetian that combines mythology with all the makings of a young adult novel, it’s the kind of premise I loved reading. It’s also the novel that I subconsciously think I’ve been waiting for for a long time.

Just watching these authors redefine what it means to be a young Chinese novelist makes me want to start writing again. I’m still afraid of a lot of things – mainly the hateful comments that burn my face – and I’m afraid of being labeled as a Chinese writer. Still, I think Chinese young adult novelists are doing so much amazing work in the genre and, like Chinese writers before them, are paving the way for more Chinese stories to be told.

More importantly, these stories make me believe that one day the young adult genre will be full of stories Chinese writers want to write about. They make me believe that one day we will be able to redefine the experience of young adults and show the wide range of narratives that Chinese writers have to offer.

It might be a little futuristic, but that’s the kind of future I want to see.

Valerie Wu is a sophomore who writes about arts and pop culture in relation to her Chinese-American identity. His column, “Soft Power,” airs every other Monday.