“exotic,” or why editors should be careful with words

I just returned from participating in the annual Children’s Literature Association conference in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and while I will definitely be posting my thoughts on the conference, first, this:

One of the great things about my job (assistant professor teaching classes on children’s and young adult literature) is that publishers send me free books. This introduces me to an awful lot of great literature that I might not otherwise encounter, as well as saves me potentially hundreds of dollars per year. I’m incredibly grateful to all the publishers who have me on their lists, especially Lee & Low, Children’s Book Press, and Scholastic, and all the others who have sent me books because I’m on 2 awards committees (Jane Addams and Asian Pacific American), or just because.

Today I received a book that I think was not “just because” because there was no mention that it wanted to be considered for either award. The letter from the editor began thusly:

As a child armchair traveler, I passionately followed the exotic adventures related in books such as The Story about Ping… Exotic to me as a child (and still today), as I always have been captivated by reading about cultures and times different from my own, and places far from home.

This tells me that right off the bat that the author of this letter is white. While many of us can claim to love stories that depict cultures “different from my own,” labeling them as “exotic” immediately calls up Orientalist and fetishist sentiments. This was my first gut reaction.

As well, the fact that he cited The Story About Ping, which was illustrated by The Five Chinese Brothers illustrator Kurt Weise (see Schwartz, Albert V. “the Five Chinese Brothers: Time to Retire.” Interracial Books for Children Bulletin 8, no. 3 (1977): 3-7 and the response to it Lanes, Selma G. “A Case for the Five Chinese Brothers.” School Library Journal no. October 1977 (1977): 90-91) makes his Orientalist orientation a little more clear. The Story About Ping has been criticized for depictions of both animal cruelty and its Orientalist illustrations (slanted eyes, etc.), so a person who enjoyed that book’s “exotic” story probably does not examine illustrations or perspectives very critically. This situation reminds me of recent conversations sparked by Laura Atkins (“What’s the Story? Reflections on White Privilege in the Publications of Children’s Books“) and Zetta Elliott (“Something Like an Open Letter to the Children’s Publishing Industry“) as another clear example of the white-ness of children’s literature publishing; if there were more Asian Americans walking the halls of children’s publishing houses, this kind of language would not be used with such flagrant Othering.

My point in writing about this is to emphasize, in addition to how I read the white gaze through the editor’s word choice, but more so the importance of the editor’s introductory letter. I am an Asian American, and I am sensitive and react quite viscerally to the use of the word “exotic” because it is loaded with fetishistic, Orientalist fantasies of the white gaze on Asian Others; as a female, to me it signifies white males colonizing and hypersexualizing the bodies of Asian females (and yes, the editor is male). Others who are less sensitized to these words may not react the same to an introductory letter that describes an Asian culture as “exotic,” but I find it repugnant. As allies and advocates for healthy and non-fetishistic perspectives on underrepresented cultures, I hope you will not be okay with words such as “exotic.”

I have not read the enclosed book, and am not sure I will. I say that because the point here is not the book, but the editor’s letter and the impact it had on me as a potential reader, reviewer and promoter (since in my professional capacity I do review and promote books), so I don’t want you to criticize my criticisms based on not having read the book; it’s about the letter. I don’t have to read everything that comes across my desk, and a letter like that gives me a reason not to.

11 thoughts on ““exotic,” or why editors should be careful with words

  1. Debbie Reese informed me that she tried to comment but it didn’t work for some reason. Here is her comment:

    “Also see the Elizabeth Bluemle’s essay “The Elephant in the Room” located here: http://blogs.publishersweekly.com/blogs/shelftalker/?p=700

    Hers, and the two you cite above, are new, relatively speaking. What is troubling is that they’re not unlike the decades old essay, “The All White World of Children’s Books” or… well, there’s a lot of older items wherein people pointed to these problems.

    Will the power of the Internet make the difference this time around? I hope so.”

    Make sure to check out Debbie’s blog: http://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/

  2. White guy

    Wow, the guy uses the word exotic and you go right into the hypersexualization of asian women.

    While you claim to be critical, I see you being very prejudicial. Without any real evidence, you group this guy in with colonization and hypersexualizing the bodies of Asian females. That’s quite a stretch.

    Also, do you have any idea how white people are portrayed in Asian cultures? Do you know the nick names? I think you would do a lot better in your line of “research” if you were less into being a victim and more into actually looking at both sides of things.

  3. I didn’t go right into the hypersexualization of Asian women. My point is that as an Asian American woman, I am highly sensitized to the use of the word “exotic” in certain contexts because it’s such a loaded term that recalls Orientalist tendencies; because this is a book about an Asian culture, using such a loaded word with a controversial history is a poor editorial choice. I scaffolded my argument by first stating the problematic use of the word, and second by analyzing it through my specific positionality as a woman. The editor picked a word that has historically (and contemporarily) been used in connection with the white male fetishizing of the Asian female body. Edward Said (1975) and Perry Nodelman (1992), among other scholars, have pointed out that the white male gaze has tended to fall upon Asian female others, or feminized Asian male others.

    I’m a scholar and this is my scholarly response to the letter; please don’t trivialize my response by accusing me of playing the victim. As a minority, I am constantly exposed to the the majority “side of things.” If the editor (a member of the majority) had considered my “side of things,”he would not have used the word “exotic.” I don’t deny that white culture is not always favorably depicted in Asian media, but claiming that those depictions are the same as or inflict the same damage as the majority’s depiction of Asians in media is, to use your phrase, not looking at “both sides of things.” Historically the US has been the more powerful regarding US-Asian relations, and many of the depictions of Asia in the American media have ranged from paternalistic to quite malicious. Even well intentioned depictions may miss the mark (see Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination 1945-1961 by Christina Klein, 2003 and Asian Americans in the Media by Kent Ono and Vincent Pham, 2009).

  4. I really enjoyed your post. The word ‘exotic’ always bothers me as well, and it’s a tricky thing to criticize (as the above comment thread shows) because people use it in a way intended to be positive. While I wouldn’t necessarily go all the way to ‘hypersexualizing’ with the editor’s note above (seems like over-reading in that particular case, though ‘colonizing’ I think is more fair), I found the discussion really useful to help me think about what it is that troubles *me* and how to talk about it.

    That being said, although I don’t know _Five Chinese Brothers_, I grew up with _Ping_. I was surprised that you mentioned it had been criticized, and what it had been criticized for. Many of the Asian faces in it seems nuanced to me, full of expression and carefully depicted. Narrower eyes is a cartoon convention for depicting Asians, but does it have to be read as an insult? Naturally cartoons draw near to stereotypes (in the original sense of the word, right?), a stripping off of detail leaving only the features necessary to make something recognizable. When I draw cartoon faces, I always try to capture enough of the person I’m drawing to make it recognizable, but my judgment/opinion of the person really resides in the expression I make them have, not accidental features.

    As for animal cruelty (in _Ping_), having been to the Yangzi, and China generally, _Ping_ seems kind of amazingly white-washed compared to reality! For that matter, the book really glosses over the explanation for why Ping and his family are being kept and raised to begin with… But the soft-peddling is totally appropriate for it being a kid’s book, don’t get me wrong. Just, it seems strange to criticize.

    Of course, I’m defending _Ping_ for the same reason the editor mentioned it, probably–I grew up with it. For me, the adventure-and-return plot had/has an emotional role to play beyond the cultural specifics. But as with another childhood favorite, _Everyone Knows What a Dragon Looks Like_, the cultural details did also play some part in forming my notion of China. I think that’s… okay probably, more or less? Whether I’m Asian or not, male or female, the power of story can kind of overcome Otherness in an age-appropriate way.

    The overall point, that there should be more colors in kids’ books–for reasons other than that that would be exotic–rings true. But the forging of such connections can’t always be perfectly sanitized, and maybe doesn’t need to be? Put another way, there may be a fine line between “letting one’s imagination roam the world” and “developing colonialist sensibilities”… but at the age for reading _Ping_, exposure still seems better than not.

  5. Hi everyone, thanks for the comments!

    I think I should clarify how I got to female hypersexuality because it seems people are reading it as a stretch – I am not accusing the editor of hypersexualizing the Asian female body, but I read the word “exotic” as a historically gendered term, and this is how *I* as an Asian American female react to it when it is used to describe something Asian. Therefore I have a visceral reaction to this letter.

    As for growing up with a book, and the nostalgia attached to it, I think *Little House in the Prairie* is a great example of a book that many of us loved as children but has become very problematic based on our more contemporary and heightened sensitivities to the depictions of Native Americans in media. I admit that I loved this book as a child, but as an informed adult (and particularly as someone in the children’s literature field), I would never send an introductory letter using the word “exotic” (or other loaded terms more specific to Native cultures) promoting a new Native story by mentioning my love for LH _to a Native American._ Because I agree with the criticisms that Ping depicts stereotypical illustrations, recalling this book in the promotion of the editor’s book has the exact opposite effect – it demotes the story. Other readers of Ping may not see the same stereotypes that I do, but an informed editor should know of existing controversies and consider the potential to offend.

    I don’t think the issue here should be “exposure or no exposure” because it sets up a false dichotomy. We don’t live in a culture where there is ever only one option – to include or not include the ONE book depicting an Asian culture? There are thousands of books depicting the 30+ different Asian cultures, and Ping is one of the least thoughtful choices. Children learn race and racism at very young ages, and it is our moral responsibility to ensure that they see a variety of depictions of racial others.

    Piaoxianjing, I recommend the above cited articles on *The Five Chinese Brothers* for more in-depth analyses of Orientalist illustrations in picture books.

    Also: Debbie Reese’s blog for investigating the problems with Little House: http://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/

  6. elliottzetta

    Hi, Sarah–great post, and thanks for linking to my open letter. I, too, feel “the exotic” is gendered in a particular way, and it immediately calls to mind all the women of color authors I know who wind up with book covers featuring “exotic flowers” or female bodies draped in “exotic fabric”–often wet and/or showing a LOT of brown skin…it’s a term that conjures a specific set of ideas and images that are largely damaging to people of color, women in particular, b/c it’s largely about DESIRE–fetish, and fantasy…

    This is unrelated, but Facebook won’t let me re-friend you! can you please friend me at Author Zetta Elliott? thanks!

  7. YES — exactly! Amen to everything you said.

    I am so tired of the tropes of Asians and Asian Americans as “exotic,” “multi-culti,” and also those that equate those bodies and lives with (“exotic”) foods. And I will add that the gendered component, the fetishizing of Asian and Asian American bodies by the White male gaze is also quite disturbing. If we don’t want our children to consume these harmful representations in children’s literature, it is imperative that we critique them publically, as you’ve done so eloquently here, Sarah.

  8. mare

    Exotic! I recall telling a fellow in Poland that I needed to go to get ready for our presentation in the morning to which he said: It doesn’t matter what you say, you are exotic and that is all they will remember! I hope that isn’t the case but what is it that EXOTIC does to the communication – how does it distort and deconstruct what is said and meant and desired…EXOTIC jams the works!
    thanks for your thinking and linkings…mare

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s