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Celeste Ng

Celeste Ng

Posted: November 2, 2009 05:30 PM

I'm placing a bet now: when I publish my first novel, there's a better-than-even chance that someone out there will call me "the next Amy Tan." The reviewer will mean it as a compliment. But it won't make me happy.

Let me explain.

My discomfort does not stem from a dislike of Amy Tan. I admire her work, particularly the stories in her first book, The Joy Luck Club, and her insightful collection of essays The Opposite of Fate. I had the privilege of hearing her speak in the 2004 "Women of Substance" series at the College of St. Catherine (now St. Catherine University) in St. Paul -- she's a engaging and wryly funny speaker. Plus, she sings in a literary rock band with Stephen King and Dave Barry! In leather! With a whip! I'd love to be able to write as well as she does, to have a career like hers, to be as awesome as she is.

But for some reason, Chinese American writers mostly get compared to other Chinese American writers. Maybe other East Asian writers, but that's often as far as it goes. A quick survey:

Of Lan Samantha Chang's novel Inheritance, Library Journal wrote, "Readers who enjoy the works of strong women writers like Amy Tan, Gail Tsukiyama, and Hong Ying will relish this." It's no coincidence that those strong women writers are also all of Asian descent. Of Chang's collection Hunger, the Washington Post said it "invited comparisons to Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston." Reviewing Gus Lee's novel China Boy, the School Library Journal noted, "This timeless, magically told tale of growing up and coming of age is a perfect companion to Tan's Joy Luck Club or Kingston's Woman Warrior." But not to any other tales of growing up or coming of age? Kirkus Reviews described David Wong Louie's collection Pangs of Love as "a worthy (if more prosaic) companion to recent similar chronicles by Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston, and others," and in reviewing Wong's debut novel, The Barbarians Are Coming, Newsday called Wong "funny as Gish Jen [and]...eloquent as Chang-rae Lee."

Even Tan herself is not immune. In The Opposite of Fate, she quotes a New York Times review of her novel The Kitchen God's Wife that compares her to Maxine Hong Kingston, Bette Bao Lord, and Nien Cheng. Somewhere in the Commandments of Reviewing must be written: Thou shalt not compare Asians to non-Asians.

If someone were to call me "the next Amy Tan," it would not be because -- or not primarily because -- we have similar themes or subjects or styles. Let's be honest: it would be because we are both Chinese American. And to be fair, it might not be "the next Amy Tan." It might be "the next Maxine Hong Kinston," or "the next Lan Samantha Chang." Again, I'd be lucky to be compared to any of those fine writers. But I want it to be for literary merit, not for our mutual culture.

A similar fate befalls writers of other minorities. Check any bookshelf of contemporary fiction and you'll see what I mean. Black writers get compared to black writers; Jewish writers to Jewish writers; gay writers to gay writers. According to the publisher's description, my friend Preeta Samarasan's novel Evening Is the Whole Day is "sure to earn her a place alongside Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai, and Zadie Smith." I teased her: a place on the shelf of Brown Women Writers. As someone of Indian descent, Samarasan can apparently hope to become a Bharati Mukherjee or a Jhumpa Lahiri, but not -- say -- a Toni Morrison or an A. S. Byatt. Or an Amy Tan, for that matter.

I suspect that Amy Tan herself might understand what I mean. In The Opposite of Fate, Tan comments on this phenomenon:

"The underlying message to the reader: These books are similar, but one book is better than the other, pick only one. Some reviewers tend to reduce the books to the most obvious and general abstractions: the themes of immigration and assimilation. They overlook the specifics of narrative detail, language, and imagery that make the story and the characters unlike any that have been written before." (p. 312)

Is this selective comparison a marketing technique? Absolutely. "Like The Joy Luck Club? Then you'll love this!" But it does writers and readers a huge disservice. Comparing Asian writers mainly to other Asian writers implies that we're all telling the same story -- a disappointingly reductive view. It places Asian writers in their own segregated Asians-only pool: you may be funny, but we can't compare you to, say, David Sedaris or Lorrie Moore -- let's see, who's funny and Asian? Worst of all, such comparisons place undue weight on the writer's ethnicity, suggesting that writers like Tan, Chang, and Kingston are telling first and foremost A Story About Being Chinese, not stories about families, love, loss, or universal human experience.

So please don't call me the next Amy Tan, or the next Lan Samantha Chang, or the next [Insert Chinese American Writer Here]. Let's stop reflexively comparing Chinese writers to Chinese writers, Indian writers to Indian writers, black writers to black writers. Let's focus on the writing itself: the characters, the language, the narrative style. Because if a review compared me to Amy Tan on those measures, rather than on just our shared culture, I'd be proud.