Anyone who knows me from the book community knows that I’m passionate about reading and supporting diverse books. I’ve been an avid reader since I was very young, but the process of diversifying my reading material did not begin until much later. Shortly after I started college in 2011, I had stopped reading as much compared to when I was in high school, but sometime during 2015, the same year I added Asian American studies as my second major, I rekindled my love of reading and began a desperate search for books by and about Asians and Asian Americans, especially in the realm of young adult literature, which was the staple of my reading material as a teen.
I’m happy to say that compared to 2015, 2019 has far more books by and about Asians being published, and I’ve been gifted with so many amazing Asian reads. However, as far as Asian and Asian American representation in YA is concerned, I still find some intersections lacking, among them queer Asians, especially trans Asians. I have seen my ethnicity and cultural heritage represented to some extent, but my queerness/transness and how it interacts with my race/ethnicity, not really at all. To my knowledge, there is not a single Own Voices YA book about a trans Asian character of any gender or ethnicity, let alone one who is specifically nonbinary/genderqueer and Taiwanese American like me.
Although there are some books about white trans people being published in YA, they are not “mirror” books that I can see myself in despite the shared transness. This is because race is gendered, and gender is racialized as well as inextricable from the culture(s) it exists in.
Due to a phenomenon known as Orientalism (coined by scholar Edward Said), Asian people are constructed by the West as [hyper]feminine relative to white people. Moreover, within Asian cultures, different gender norms apply than in white-dominant, Western cultures (e.g. long hair and dress/skirt-like clothing are not considered feminine in traditional Han Chinese culture, among others). In short, to be Asian, trans or not, is to be held to different gendered standards than white people. That is why it is so important to have specifically Asian trans representation.
Speaking to my particular background as an East Asian and a part of Chinese diaspora, I see so much potential for narratives about Asians navigating queer gender expression. Certain kinds of aesthetic gender nonconformity, such as androgyny, are not as heavily stigmatized in East Asian cultures as they are in the West and are even seen as desirable by many. Yet ironically, even as these gender-nonconforming aesthetics are admired, being trans is still highly stigmatized or erased. I want to read stories that depict that struggle and reconcile those contradictions.
Outside of my own background, there are Asian cultures that have long, rich traditions of three or more genders and/or genders that defy Western conventions. Many of them have been eroded by but have survived colonization. They all deserve to be written about and explored with authenticity and sensitivity as well. In general, there is so much unmined potential for trans Asian stories that publishing has sidelined.
Part of my impatience and hunger for trans Asian representation has been aggravated by the continued publication of what I might call “anti-representation,” or the opposite of good representation, in the form of cis-authored stories about cis people crossdressing as disguise. This trope is super common in East Asian media in general (e.g. the various Mulan adaptations, the popular Japanese manga Hana Kimi and its live action adaptations, the 2016 Korean drama Moonlight Drawn by Clouds), and there have been multiple Asian YA books in recent years that use this trope in some capacity (e.g. Noteworthy by Riley Redgate, Flame in the Mist by Renee Ahdieh, We Hunt the Flame by Hasfah Faizal, Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim).
While there is potential for exploring queerness in such narratives, they’re virtually always written in a way that reinforces rather than subverts cisheteronormativity. Ultimately, they reduce gender to body parts and imply that trans people are liars whose supposed farce is revealed by our bodies. They appropriate our experiences while invalidating our identities.
Facing these books is frustrating as a trans Asian reader because I feel forced to compartmentalize myself in order to read and enjoy them. Because Asian representation is scarce and the publishing industry marginalizes Asian people, I want to support Asian authors and their works, but that becomes incredibly difficult when some of those works are harmful to me as a trans person. I will be frank in saying that I wish the crossdressing-as-disguise trope would die out. Unfortunately, publishing currently lacks the self-awareness required to take action toward this end.
Even if publishing doesn’t stop putting out these cis crossdressing narratives, it wouldn’t be such a huge issue if there were also a plethora of Own Voices trans Asian narratives to balance things out. However, that is currently not the case, and I want that to change. I want to read books that truly represent trans Asians and the diversity and nuances of our experiences.
Augvocate for the Day
Shenwei is a proud disabled queer Taiwanese American writer, blogger, and sensitivity reader. They are a firm believer in fiction as a political medium and thus seek to use writing in service of social justice. Their hobbies include reading manga in two languages, marathoning anime, researching niche topics that catch their interest, and haunting their nearest bookstore.
This guest post is part of a month-long collaborative series called Augvocacy, which is shorthand for August with an advocacy. Essentially, this project aims to bring together like-minded individuals — be it bloggers, authors, or readers — in actively forwarding a particular advocacy. All contributors to this project are referred to as Augvocates — and each Augvocate will share their thoughts on my blog from the 1st day of August until the 28th. Find the rest of the Augvocacy 2019 posts here.
For this year, Augvocacy hopes to discuss and encourage the importance of amplifying Asian voices in books and in media. While this particular call brings attention to the oftentimes-ignored demand for more authentic Asian representation, it also aims to debunk the bigoted view that Asian cultures are a monolith and to shed light on the nuances of struggle, privilege, and identity within and across our own communities. Learn more about Augvocacy 2019 in this post.
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I’d love to hear from you!
🌻 Do you agree with Shenwei’s points? Do you think it’s important for trans Asians to see themselves in books?
🌻 Shenwei also highlighted that there exists a myriad of untapped, unexplored possibilities for trans Asian narratives. What would you like to see in stories and in books?
🌻 Have you ever read a book with a trans Asian character? If yes, was the representation good?