"Why should we be anything but writers?" – What We Represent When We Talk About Representation
by Jennifer Kwan
(From left to right: Jennifer Kwan, Krishna Udayasankar, Noelle Q. de Jesus, Jinat Rehana Begum)
Our month of #intersections ended with a wonderfully honest and open dialogue last Friday, where authors Jinat Rehana Begum, Krishna Udayasankar, and Noelle Q. de Jesus sat down together to talk about 'Asian women writers'. The trio broke down the label, offered sharp and diverse opinions about what it implies, and made us think a bit more about what representation really means. Here are some highlights from the session:
Should bookstores categorise their books by region (e.g. 'Southeast Asian literature') or specifics (e.g. 'women's literature')?
KRISHNA: Sometimes when we walk into a bookstore and we say Southeast Asian literature, the literature is very, very specific to a kind of experience which is considered another experience – an alternative experience. At times when I want to destress, when I don't want a serious read, when I want a mindless adventure read, can I read something like that by a Southeast Asian author? If I walk in and I say I want to read something by someone in the region, do I have to necessarily soak into a unique cultural experience? It's not going to be a mindless entertainer on some level, but sometimes I just want to read a mindless entertainer.
JINAT: I think part of the problem is a problem of not reading, and when you do read, what are you reading? Self-help books, popular fiction – which is fine, I read lots of trashy fantasy novels when I feel like relaxing – but at the same time, you need a space somewhere for other kinds of literature and we don't. Our current literary diet is a bit 'fast food' I think.
KRISHNA: I think the problem is that we either see books as trashy and entertaining, or literary and high quality, and I strongly believe an entertaining book can be well-written. I agree with Jinat that it's not the norm, and it ought to be, but it isn't. I try to write books that are entertaining, I do not aspire to be high-brow literary but that doesn't mean they're badly written, I hope they're written reasonably well.
Now where I'm going with that is that I would much rather somebody find my books under the 'Fantasy' or 'Thriller' section because then I would have equal chance of getting picked up as Game of Thrones. I'm telling you it's as fascinating and there's as much blood and gore in it, there's some awesome battle scenes in there – for which I had to break my arm quite literally – but you will not pick it up unless you are there with Game of Thrones as your reference point and looking at what's next to it. I want to be next to it, I don't want to be on a shelf which says Southeast Asia, local literature, women's writing.
NOELLE: At least you're with Aaron Lee, O Thiam Chin on the local literature shelf. I'm not there – I'm somewhere with the Js or on the Ds on the Literature shelf – but that's still hard to find. It's just a big, big, big section. Maybe readers are looking for it – probably not, and I have to tell people exactly where it is… so I don't know what's better.
The authors called into question the idea of rigid categorisation of their texts on particular shelves on bookstores: is demarcated shelf space really 'representative' if all it does is limit and restrict who reads your book, or confine in to a particular sub-category when it in fact should be placed alongside the New York Times bestsellers? What kinds of titles are found on these shelves, and do they create a particular imagination of what 'Asian writing' should be, rather than what it actually is?
Despite this, Noelle's own experience having her book placed in the general literature section rather than on the Singapore shelf, also speaks of the difficulty it can be to get readers to discover your book and pick it up. Which books are more likely to come into our field of vision or get featured in bookstores? More often than not, they are books written by authors from the West (Asian or otherwise) who have received critical and international acclaim. Because of that, good books that are written by authors from Southeast Asia will never get the eyeballs, unless we actively promote and feature them in some way. However, it was broadly agreed that such books should be on the basis of the content of their story, and not simply because their authors are Asian.
What kind of baggage comes with the term 'Asian Women Writer'?
KRISHNA: I think one of the reasons I personally read is that sometimes it's another point of view but you can still relate to it. And sometimes what happens when I'm picking up a book that is very 'Asian' that is (a) Asian and (b) by a woman, it just seems too similar to what I already know. It feels like my mum's story, it feels like my aunt's story – I know this story, I know where it's going to go. Okay you have a beautiful way with words lady, but I'm sorry, I want something new and so maybe I'm going to end up reading a US/UK author because regardless of whether that story was written by a man or a woman, it's about murder and I want to know who did it.
NOELLE: Or sometimes, you don't know.
KRISHNA: Yeah, so there's much more than the uniqueness of context which is the book. There is something in the story which is a hook and that's why I read it, along with the uniqueness of context like Kite Runner, regardless of the gender of the writer. But when we talk about Asian writing in that sense there is nothing very new about that context. Unless you're going to read about a women from India, from a completely different region that people can't even name – then yes, it's a different context. And again, I'm reading it not because she's a woman, not because she's Asian, but because of that context.
JINAT: I think you're turning the 'Asian women writer' category into some kind of dirty word by saying these things, because you're assuming that Asian women only write genre fiction like the Asian memoir or the Amy Tan-type of book. There was a slew of that in the 90s. Yes, when it came out it was exciting and I read a whole bunch of things, including a search for a particular identity, growing up in that particular culture.
What you're saying Krishna is that I've been there, I've done that, I don't want to read the same thing. I think that's something people are beginning to realise that we don't see that much of genre fiction anymore – because people don't want to be pigeon holed – but at the same time we're Asian, and we're women, and we write, so you know. We're going to be called Asian women writers whether we like it or not.
KRISHNA: Why do we need to be called anything but writers?
JINAT: I guess because you need categories. Again, I'm sitting between categories – as a writer and teacher. I think there are people who only want to read certain types of things (such as books written by women), or that certain types of things appeal to them more.
NOELLE: There's also taste, both Krishna and Jinat are interesting in fantasy and science fiction, but for me, not so. Speculative fiction is a huge thing with the Philippines contemporary writers, everyone is rushing off to write about UFOs and magic and all that. But my taste tends to be more old school, literary blah-blah-blah, so there's also taste that dictates what you read.
I'm always scolded by good writer-type friends: "You're always reading men, you're always reading Western…". I understand that, it's just that it takes all kinds. You read what you like. I think that the story has to jump out and grab you.
The question why aren't we reading books by Asian writers is almost a construct because I don't read that way. I don't say I'm going to read Asian writers now. And also, what I find with Asian women writers is the tendency to exoticise and I know it because I'm writing and I feel myself go "Oh… let's throw a mango in there" and it's a real thing. Would you ordinarily eat a mango? I don't know how to describe that experience, you realise that you're writing as a writer, and it's fiction, and you realise that you're trying to appeal to this idea of Asia as you know in a certain way, a certain time.
If 'Asian women writing' has been assigned with negative implications, what then? There might be a need to reclaim the term back – we need to see it not as a restrictive, categorical label that refers to exoticised or stereotypical genre fiction. Instead, acknowledging that there are women who happen to be Asian, from Asia, who are amazing writers, is a reminder that good writers exist beyond the US and UK. It's about recognising that writers beyond the West are also doing exciting and interesting things, writing from unique contexts and perspectives that we've never come across before precisely because we've never bothered to read what authors in Southeast Asia have been writing. At the same time, everyone has their own preferences in what they read, and we should respect them.
But hey, we're glad that we shared diverse stories written by women from around Southeast Asia this month on our Facebook page in line with #intersections and #micronarratives. We hope that more can be done to close that gap between what we think Asian women's writing refers to, and what it actually represents.
What We (Really) Represent When We Talk About Representation
KRISHNA: Don't read me because you're trying to be representative, read me because it's a bloody good book! I’m a writer, I’m supposed to be able to write like a caterpillar if I wanted to. That’s my job. And if I can’t convince you of it, I’m not doing a good job. It’s got nothing to do with who I am.
JINAT: If I didn’t 'appropriate', I would be writing from very singular perspective which I didn’t find particularly interesting. I didn’t want to tell my story, but to tell a story which I felt needed to be told because we’re talking about a community which doesn’t usually get a voice.
The authors ultimately shared that writing shouldn't be restricted or defined by one's gender or ethnicity. A good story is a good story, regardless of the identity of the writer. Writers also have the ability to present untold stories from different perspectives, and that's what writing and telling a good story is about.
The session ended off with a great discussion on the validity and meaning of 'representation' in terms of who we ask to talk or 'represent' certain issues on panels and dialogues:
KRISHNA: There is a difference between representation in fiction writing and on a panel.
NOELLE: This is not the first women’s thing I’ve been to, you do it because you’re asked! It’s always an honour to be asked but you have to gear up for it because you know there are certain expectations that you don’t necessarily feel yourself.
KRISHNA: When we say “Do we have a reality where women as a category are underrepresented, are oppressed, they face issues unique to their gender?", the answer is a resounding 'Yes'. But putting me here is not really the solution to talking about this issue because what do I know about it? I have as much privilege and chances as anybody in this room regardless of gender. And I only have myself to blame if I didn’t take those chances or stood up for myself.
You are asking a privileged, empowered woman to speak on behalf of disenfranchised, disempowered women, and when I stand up to say look I’m the wrong person for the panel, I actually get shot and told I’m anti-feminist. Those with voices are being made to stand as role models for those without voices.
Who do we ask to speak about certain issues, and are they the right people to do so? We were reminded that we need to stop asking speakers onto dialogues for 'token representation', and instead really dig deeper and think about who would be the best person to speak about a certain subject matter, and our intentions behind organising such dialogues.
Ultimately, representation – at least for those who have not been given the chance to see or read about themselves in fiction – remains an important aspect for readers, especially younger readers.
JINAT: I'm thinking about what our younger generation should read. Right now our younger generation are reading more local literature and people want to read about themselves. The younger generation is more confident about this and they're saying 'I want to read about me!', 'I want to read about my experiences', 'I want to read a book and go, "I've been to that place"'.
And they're picking up these books and that's partly because we've had a chance to bring in local literature to the schools. Similar to Malaysia, I think we're beginning to see a confidence in local writing in our schools. I think in a much younger generation, the undergrads and secondary school students, they like their local authors and they look up to them.
*The excerpts used in this article have been re-arranged for clarity of points and opinions
About the speakers
Jinat Rehana Begum has taught Literature and English in primary, secondary and tertiary institutions in Singapore. She began scribbling poetry on the back of used envelopes as a teenager and started to experiment with prose when she bought her first computer. First Fires is her first novel. Inspired by Neighbourhood, a single by British indie rock band Space, her next project is a collection of stories about the residents of a high-rise apartment in Singapore.
Krishna Udayasankar’s bestselling debut series of mytho-historical novels, The Aryavarta Chronicles (Govinda, Kaurava and Kurukshetra; Hachette 2012, 2013, 2014) have received critical acclaim. She is also the author of 3 (Ethos Books, 2015), a novel based on the myths and legends surrounding the founding of Singapore. Krishna holds an undergraduate degree in law and a PhD in strategic management. She lives in Singapore with her family, which includes three bookish canine-children, Boozo, Zana and Maya, who are sometimes to be found at her laptop, trying to make her writing better.
Noelle Q. de Jesus was born in the US, grew up in Manila, and spent most of her adult life as a writer, wife and mother in Singapore. Her first book of short fiction, Blood Collected Stories, was published by Ethos Books Singapore in 2015 and it won the 2016 Next Generation Indie Book Award for the Short Story. At the moment, she is working simultaneously on a second collection of short fiction and her first novel.
Jennifer Kwan graduated from the National University of Singapore in 2016 with a B.A. (Hons.) and is the resident feminist of Ethos Books. You've probably seen (or heard) her recommending books at some of their book sales. People ask her why she's passionate about the accessibility of halal food and she takes these as opportunities to talk. A lot.