I will always remember what my business professor said once during a unit on leadership. He was an award-winning academic of Indian descent, yet when he envisioned an accomplished leader, it was not himself who he saw, but a “tall white man in a sleek suit”.
“I had achieved everything that man had,” my professor said. “But I still cannot see myself up on that podium.”
I had the same problem when writing. For the past two years since I started working on my Long-Suffering Manuscript, I had trouble visualizing my main character, who is made of many parts, but mainly of me, who is Chinese-Canadian, as someone who is not white.
As I wrap up plotting the LSM and move into the actual writing itself, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to tell a full story, and be authentic while telling it.
Popular books, films, and TV shows don’t star non-white protagonists very often. I get it—there are simply more white directors, writers, and producers than there are non-white counterparts. Certain vocations, like acting, attract more white talent than talent of colour. The problem is when what we see in books and the big screen does not accurately reflect what’s out there in real life.
According to a recent study published in the Time, for every non-white person in a movie, there are three non-white persons in real life. Women are also disproportionally represented, with half as many women in movies as there are in real life. The patterns in the arts and entertainment industries are deeply rooted and widely upheld, but it doesn’t mean I should allow these standards to dictate my narrative.
I grew up on Law & Order: SVU, Quentin Tarantino, and many types of media that, in retrospect, gave me very little to identify with outside of its primary appeal of hard-boiled action and twisty plots. There was nobody in the stories I read or saw that looked like me. If there was somebody of Chinese descent, they were stereotypically reductive. Think Cho Chang from Harry Potter, though Law & Order: SVU was the worst. I can count the number of times an Asian woman was shown on that show with one hand, and 100% of the time she was a prostitute. She had no agency, no soul, and existed purely for Benson and Stabler to rescue.
What a waste of an opportunity to tell a story.
So I’m choosing to do things differently. I will write a multi-dimensional non-white protagonist who exists outside of her race, sexuality, and gender, and so-called industry expectations be damned. And every time I erroneously think my main character should be white because it’s what I see in the media all around me, I will remind myself why I’m doing this writing thing in the first place: to tell a story that matters, and to tell that story honestly. I will stick to my guns. I will see this through.
I’m not expecting sudden industry-wide change, but I hope to contribute to the ripple effect that is the recent increase of diverse voices in books and the big screen.
Just look at Frank Underwood in House of Cards, whose bisexuality is not a focal point but one of the many attributes that make him a three-dimensional villain protagonist.
And Beverly Katz from Hannibal, a FBI agent, friend, killer sharpshooter, and altogether believable human being who just happens to be an Asian woman.
And so, so much more.
I’m Chinese-Canadian, female, and twenty-three years old. There’s still a ton I have to learn about writing, about art, and what it means to be successful at both, but there’s one thing I know for sure that has worked time and time again.
If there’s no book, film, or TV show with characters you can identify with, go create your own.
And don’t let anyone convince you that you can’t.