I remember living in London when "The God of Small Things" was published. It became a bestseller, opening the door for many writers from South Asia. A similar effect, arguably, happened after books such as Maxine Hong Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey and Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club were published in the U.S.. Publishing, for all its editors who champion books they love, is a business that requires profit. Ethnic literature, a term that like the discipline, gave voices to the traditionally marginalized, proved to have an audience. But if the label or platform of ethnic literature is so marketable, then why are many well-known writers and academic scholars trying to get away from the term 'ethnic literature'?
In "The Future of Korean American Literature," scholar and novelist Heinz Fenkl references Chang-rae Lee and Susan Choi as examples of Korean American writers trying to move away from what he calls essentialist typecasting. Susan Choi, author most recently of A Person of Interest and American Woman, sees herself "more as a Southern writer and a Jewish writer than as a Korean American writer," a label she finds too limiting. This points to a problem of perception: Though Choi was raised in Indiana by a Korean father and a mother of Russian-Jewish heritage, then moved to Texas at age nine with her mother after her parents divorced, she is seen by both Koreans and non-Koreans as a Korean American writer. And whether Chang-rae Lee writes about the Korean immigrant community in Native Speaker or about a middle-aged Long Islander in Aloft, I'd say rather than writing about specifically identifiable ethnic experiences, the core of his writing is about the human experiences of family, love, work, and individuals negotiating a life amidst the pressures of the particular society they live in.
One of the best pieces of fiction I've read that tries to come to terms with the contradictions and pressures of writing ethnic literature is found in Nam Le's debut story collection, The Boat. In Le's story "Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice," the title character named Nam Le (yes, it's a meta story) is told by his instructor that "'ethnic literature's hot...and important too.'" But he says classmates are blunter with their opinions and tell him that ethnic lit makes them sick, as "'it's full of descriptions of exotic food,'" or that the language might be "'spare because the author...didn't have the vocab.'" Another friend says, "'It's a license to bore.'" Repeatedly, Nam the character is told by those around him to exploit the Vietnam material, as if writing about aspects of his non-white identity is automatically a form of exploitation.
The situation Nam describes is not uncommon among writers of an ethnic origin outside the Indo-European cultures. Countless writers that I spoke with confirmed to having similar experiences. If you peruse blogs, many accounts confirm Le's meta-story in real life examples. An African-American writer on Vernacular Literary Blog confesses that her instructor told her that she "'should write more black stories like this, it's very in right now,'" in a story with "no reference or markers to the character's race." In the article "Uncomfortable Fictions", Mary S. Schriber, Courtney-Leyba, and Karen Elizabeth note "a backlash against multicultural art and its attendant criticism" in academia, despite "contemporary authors of color...producing works of great beauty and strong social comment." To Nam Le's credit, he writes what he knows, and more. In the story, and in the collection, we sense what interests, disturbs, and moves him about the world: The Boat is a complex panoply of realities in America, Vietnam, Australia, all the way to Cartagena, Columbia, that reflects both Le's roots and experiences as well as the kind of writer he wants to be. "Love and Honour" dissolves into a story about a father and son, beyond and including questions of ethnicity.
Writers such as Susan Choi retreat from the label "ethnic" for the very reason that Le's story suggests: A term originally intended to empower those traditionally marginalized can be used to dismiss minority writers. The range of books being published today are remarkable, and writers of color are coming out of the best MFA programs, earning rave critical reviews, and most notably, writing about such diverse social and political backgrounds that makes it difficult to lump them into one category. Nami Mun's Miles From Nowhere about a Korean immigrant growing up homeless in New York City has little in common with Zadie Smith's White Teeth or On Beauty. Still many of their achievements have contributed to the backlash of resentment referred to in "Uncomfortable Fictions," and as noted in Nam Le's story or blogs like The Vernacular Literary Blog, it seems to partially stem from the misguided sense that ethnic literature sells based purely on the label.
One literary agent's page went so far as to state that she wanted "literary fiction, ethnic fiction" as if the two terms were mutually exclusive. This is a pity. Writers such as Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, ZZ Packer, and Julie Otsuka are remarkable for their literary achievements, and to overestimate the power of their cultural platform is a disservice to them, and many others. Sure, the cultural background is a platform that publishers use, but so is Brooklyn, baseball, the Mafia, Old World European capitals, Hollywood glam, circuses, genre bending fiction, vampires and the supernatural, our unfortunate war bungles, and the list goes on. It's another theme that both interests and attracts publishers and readers, just as books like Carter Beats the Devil, The Night Circus, The Monsters of Templeton and most recently, The Snow Child, were heavily promoted for their circus themes or fantasy elements. In an age of media and information, books need all the help they can get.
There's nothing wrong with the term "ethnic literature" in its original intentions, but I am interested in what happens beyond the marketing of "ethnic literature." Reading ethnic writers reflects a greater trend towards an openness to world literature, but it isn't mutually exclusive to other reading experiences. I'm as entranced by Angela Carter's darkly jeweled fairy tales and Jonathan Franzen's examination of America as I am in the wild verve of Victor LaValle's imagination or in the humor, pathos and sympathy of Dagoberto Gilb's oeuvre. I read Richard Russo, Alice Munro and Jhumpa Lahiri for their characters that seem to live beyond the page and the worlds that they bring to shimmering life. Sherman Alexie once wrote, "Great art is the result of eccentric, individual passions, not screen testings, market research, and crowd sourcings." Let's not forget this.