by Maisie Chan
Recently, I attended a talk by screenwriting guru John Yorke. He was talking about story narratives and how politicians often successfully used storytelling to make people believe anything; referring to a famous American President whose name I shall not bother to utter. And whilst I was listening to him talk, I applied what he was talking about: which essentially was the power to control who and what gets seen, to British East and Southeast Asian (BESEA) people. We’re both invisible (by that I mean often absent from books and other art forms), and visible as an imagined threat.
As you know, over the past year and a half the number of hate crimes against ESEA people around the globe have increased massively. It’s been awful, especially for children at school and the more vulnerable, such as the elderly and women. I’ve been writing for a long time and became a writer to try to change things. The recent hate has just made things more urgent. However, I am in awe of the rallying around from many grassroots organisations and movements such as BESEA.N and STOP ASIAN HATE – it’s been actually heart-warming. Sometimes out of a crisis, resilience is born.
So, let me come back to storytelling. I’ll talk about children’s publishing as that is what I know most about. There are less than a handful of BESEA children’s authors published in the U.K. You might know one or two names. But probably not more. They are not what you would call household names and often, I suspect, fill a void that has been only recently been noticed in publishing because of reports, such as the ones from CLPE Reflecting Realities, and the work begun in the US by We Need Diverse Books.
It matters that we tell our own stories, however varied they are; the more varied the better. To the outside world, Chinese culture and Chinese people are a monolith. I had a paramedic tell me she thought the Chinese were taking over the world when she was tending to my son who was having an asthma attack. She told me she could see, “Chinese people everywhere” (the ones she could see are ‘Chinese’ students near Glasgow university! Glasgow is a very white city, to be fair). But the notions of ‘hordes,’ and ‘take over,’ are still very much alive.
We’ve had a multi-millionaire children’s author cast an East Asian as a nerd in glasses. The character is a geek, asexual, weak and pathetic. I’ve seen other children’s books use the word ‘Oriental,’ or mock Chinese accents. That kind of language is harmful. We need positive representation not only for our own children but for non-Asian children who have never seen many (or any) British East Asian characters in children’s books. Perhaps then they might stop saying that we eat bats, that our food is disgusting, that we don’t belong here, or that we are perpetual foreigners. Perhaps.
To counter the ‘kung flu’ and Covid racism, we need to nurture and support storytellers in all forms: fiction writers, non-fiction writers, screenwriters, children’s writers and journalists. We need people from the British Chinese and wider BESEA community to become artists, creatives, activists, and to take back the storytelling aspects. Why? Because some people feel we are taking over the world. In actuality, we are hardly represented in publishing, on TV or in films at all.
BEATS (British East Asians in Theatre and on Screen), where I was recently a fellow, is one of a few organisations that has been trying to call out negative stereotypes and nurture new talent for years. There are many actors wanting work, and there are many writers and behind the scenes creators wanting to do their job and tell our stories. But it’s hard. We need the community to rally behind us as creatives and tellers of stories. Help us create the stories and get them out there. One way to stop the hate is for us to be seen, to be heard, and for it to be normal; common even.
I remember reading Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club in the 90s and crying because it felt like the first time I saw myself in a book. I wasn’t Asian American, I wasn’t even raised by my Chinese mother, but something in that book touched me. Reading that book helped me become the author I am today. I studied The Joy Luck Club as a book and a film when I was at uni, and then I went on to do a Masters degree looking at Hong Kong film stars as they took up roles in Hollywood in the late 90s. That academic background and my own desire to see more British Chinese stories (my own and those of people I know) lit the fire in me to become a storyteller.
Being a children’s author is fun. I get to imagine child-like things and create fun worlds. But more importantly, I am putting British Chinese children on the front cover of my books and at the heart of my stories. It’s almost revolutionary to have Danny Chung from my novel Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths and Jack from Tiger Warrior on the cover of my books, but it shouldn’t be. The lack of British Chinese children on the cover of books – from picture books to young adult, is really sad. I’m just one person and I can’t change things overnight. But I have been trying to help where I can. I mentor writers from BESEA backgrounds every year and I started Bubble Tea Writers Network, a place where I offer support to writers and signpost opportunities. I know that a few of those writers already have literary agents and others are getting interest from agents, the gatekeepers to getting a publisher.
This is me, a writer, asking you to get behind us. Shout about our work. Look for negative portrayals in books and call them out. And if you have a creative spark in you or your child does, then nurture that spark because we need storytellers.
Maisie Chan is a children’s author, having been published by Piccadilly Press, Hachette, Scholastic and Penguin. She runs Bubble Tea Writers Network for emerging writers, and mentors one BESEA writer a year on the Megaphone Writer Development Scheme. Based in Glasgow, she is a Dr Gavin Wallace Fellow. You can purchase Maisie’s books from her bookshop.
If you’ve felt inspired to tell your own story, please share it with us on Shared Horizon. We are always in need of new articles and stories. Email us with your ideas.