In 2004 I started writing a book that would become BOOK OF A THOUSAND DAYS. For some time I'd wanted to reimagine the Grimms Brothers fairy tale "Maid Maleen" but had every intention of creating a fantasy world like others I'd written before: inspired by a kind of old Northern Europe, like the lands of the fairy tales I adapted and that of my ancestors. I was afraid of cultural appropriation, careful not to march into someone else's culture and try to colonize it with my own stories. While I loved reading books that weren't all just white people, I felt that, as a white person, it wasn't my place to tell stories that took advantage of other cultures. I would stick to places and cultures to which I had a direct inheritance.
But when I was working on BOOK OF A THOUSAND DAYS, my parents moved to Mongolia for two years. As I researched the land and the history, the story I'd begun and the Mongolian landscape and history slid together so perfectly, I couldn't bear not to let the story be what it wanted to be. I got over my fear, tried to come from an open place of love and respect, and wrote the story.
The original cover was a photograph of a headless girl (as was all the rage in those years--Female Torsos 4EVAH) so you couldn't see from the jacket that the main character (and all the characters in the book) looked like Mongolians of our world. But the book is filled with illustrations. While this book never hit any best seller list, it did well and received some lovely recognition from awards, state lists, and reviews.
When it went to paperback, my publisher gave it a new jacket. My publisher was great about this. They sought out a Mongolian-American model for the shoot and did a really lovely job, I thought. I've always been more of a fan of paintings than photograph covers, but I was happy with this one.
Given the decent release the hardcover had had, everyone expected the paperback to make a big splash. It did pretty well, but nothing like the expectation. Looking over royalty statements years later, all of my paperbacks have outsold their hardcovers (usually doubled or more) except for this one. The only one with a person of color on the cover.
When I did book signings where the store would have stacks of books on the table before me, I'd notice that the photograph covers with white girls would significantly dip down or disappear, but this beautiful book's stack remained tall. When people shopped by cover, they passed this one over.
When I visited schools, school librarians who told me they had large Asian populations in their student body said they wanted the paperback specifically. They knew representation matters. That those students who were of Asian descent would be happy to see someone who looked somewhat like them on a cover, leading a story of her own.
But with that assumption also came the other side. That schools with large white populations in their student body wouldn't be interested in the book. That stories about someone who looks Asian isn't for everyone (i.e. white people). It's niche.
I was sorry for this. I feel that this book is my best work. I felt really honored that I got to tell Dashti's story. But at that time, I never considered that my experience was considerably different than it would have been if I'd been an Asian author. A Mongolian-inspired fantasy book written by a white woman is still much more likely to be accepted and read by white readers (who make up 75% of the US) than an Asian author writing the same.
This should have been a logical conclusion for me. I certainly had first hand knowledge with how we tend to honor the stories of men over women. That men's stories are universal and women's stories are niche. A man can write an important work of art that involves relationships. The same book by a woman would be condescendingly called "chick lit" and recommended only to other women. This is a reality that I've seen over and over and over again.
But I don't have first hand knowledge about the experiences of a person of color. While I was worried that it wasn't my place to write about another culture and I hesitated to offend or get it wrong in the writing, I didn't think about the after publication part. How as a white woman the path would be largely paved for me. I believe that white readers would have been more likely to purchase this book if instead of a Mongolian-American on the cover there had been a skinny white model in a ballgown. But those same white readers were more likely to purchase a book with a Mongolian-American model on the cover written by a white author than one written by an Asian author.
The same way adults are more likely to give a boy a book about a girl if it was written by a man than if it was written by a woman.
Books can and should be both mirrors and windows. Both are precious experiences. If we're only reading books written by those of our own experience, race, religion, gender, we're missing so much of the world.
I hope we're getting over this often-unconscious biases. But in the meantime, allow me to recommend some wonderful books by Asian-American authors in a by-no-means comprehensive list. And please add your own recommendations. I'm sure I'm forgetting so many of my favorites and there are so many I don't know yet!
For young readers:
Ling and Ting books by Grace Lin
Alvin Ho books by Lenore Look, illustrated by LeUyen Pham
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park
Stanford Wong Flunks Big Time by Lisa Yee
Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata
In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Bette Bao Lord
Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities by Mike Jung
Serpentine by Cindy Pon
Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han
Prophecy by Ellen Oh
Does My Head Look Big in This by by Randa Abdel-Fattah
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford (technically for adults but with a dual young/old narrator)
Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
Amulet series by Kazu Kibuishi
This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki