“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.

Transracialize! Crash Course in Transracial Adoptive Parenting

If you read anything today, read this! A crash course in transracial adoptive parenting, brought to you by Dr. John Raible, a scholar, transracial adoptee, adoptive parent and awesome coffee buddy.

Obtain a kid from overseas recently? Or still fantasizing about rescuing somebody’s orphan? Perhaps you are in the process of saving one of those less expensive kids from foster care?… The unabashed assumption and unapologetic bias behind this Crash Course is that the best teachers of adoptive parents are adult transracial adoptees who have lived through the experiment, especially those adoptees who are also adoptive parents. The second best teachers are experienced transracial adoptive parents who, even though they may not be adoptees or people of color, nevertheless have figured out how to become conscious anti-racist advocates and allies.

Allies, you ask, in what struggles? In the joint struggles against racism and on behalf of adoption reform.


“LGBT Parents and Transracial Adoption” by Dr. John Raible

I had the great pleasure of meeting Dr. John Raible, whose work I admired from afar and quoted in my dissertation, at the Alliance for the Study of Adoption and Culture conference at MIT earlier this month. He gave a phenomenal talk on LGBT parents and transracial adoption, and generously made the text available on his blog. In this presentation, Dr. Raible asks us to reconsider the assumption that “LGBT parents have an almost innate sensitivity to diversity issues since they are members of an oppressed minority”; if they are white LGBT parents, they still might not “get it” in terms of race. He speaks of the need for all white parents and white siblings – be they gay, lesbian, straight – to transracialize; that is, to be people “who did pay attention to race, who early on moved beyond color-blindness, who took their heads out of the sand long enough to notice how their siblings of color were being positioned in particular ways, and how they were being racialized.”

I encourage you to read his presentation and also to subscribe to his blog: http://johnraible.wordpress.com/how-to-fix-adoption-first-respect-adult-adoptees/lgbt-parents-transracial-adoption/

The Transracial Korean Adoptee Nexus and John Seabrook

Holy hot cakes, there’s never a dull day in the transracial adoption blogosphere. Here’s a summary of what’s going on at my good friend Bae Gang Shik’s blog:

  • Gang Shik wrote a thoughtful and critical blog entry about John Seabrook’s The New Yorker article and NPR podcast regarding his recent adoption of a Haitian (post-earthquake) girl named Rose.
  • John Seabrook responded to Gang Shik, calling him “unhappy.”
  • Other transracial adoptees and allies commented on the entry, asking Mr. Seabrook to consider his own white male privilege and stop dismissing criticisms coming from adopted persons who are, after all, experts on their own lives, as well as scholars of adoption.
  • John Seabrook responded again, accusing adoptees of not listening to him and twisting his words.
  • An adoptive mother threw down the final word (as of now):

I sincerely hope that John never has to read the unkind assumption about his daughter that I read on these pages about my son – that Rose must have had an unhappy adoption experience simply because she speaks her own truth.

I’m really glad whenever I read/hear the comments of adoptive parents who actually listen to and support their transracially adopted children (who, by the way, do grow up into adulthood). But I continue to be extremely frustrated by the active silencing and dismissing that occurs at the hands of other adoptive parents who cannot look beyond their privilege and entitlement. Transracially adopted persons have a right to tell their own stories and be critical of an imperfect industry without having to be defensive towards the very people who parent them. I’m not a transracial adoptee, but I’ve been researching this for a number of years. At the Alliance for the Study of Adoption and Culture (ASAC) conference 3 weeks ago, I observed first hand how often white adoptive parents dismissed issues of race, pathologized adoptees scholarship and thereby treated them as objects rather than subjects. For example, adoptive parents asked Dr. John Raible about his personal life in response to his academic presentation regarding gender, sexuality and transracial adoption; another white therapist asked Deann Borshay Liem if she felt “whole” after viewing her mind-blowing documentary, In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee. Clearly, these folks don’t see adoptees as scholars, as documentarians, as experts regarding their own lives. They see them as objects to be studied, examined, pathologized, and then silenced. This must change.

Whew, off my soapbox. Read the conversation at KAD Nexus: http://kadnexus.wordpress.com/2010/05/17/john-seabrook-npr-segment/

Cultural Appropriation Bingo

Sometimes all you need to do is cut and paste and let the words speak for themselves:

To anyone who ever asks why Racialicious is run solely by people of colour, or keeps such a death grip on the comments section, or runs content almost solely by people of colour – well, your answer is in the sample comments above, which in their own way are all saying: SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP.  Even if they were written by well-intentioned people who did not intend to shut Jessica up, that is what they ultimately communicate.

We run Racialicious the way we do because we have to. This is how we survive and build community.  When no one will give you the space to speak your own truths on their site, make your own damn site.  While we intend to make space for respectful disagreements, we do not publish comments that require our writers to defend whether their experiences, feelings or opinions matter or exist.  Because people of colour have to deal with that kind of eroding scrutiny every single effing day.

Read the post in its entirety at Racialicious: http://www.racialicious.com/2010/04/22/some-basic-racist-ideas-and-some-rebuttals-why-we-exist/

Words of Wisdom from Dr. John Raible

It’s been a crazy month for transracial adoption with everything in the news about Artyom’s situation, but I just had to post about two blog entries written by respected adoptee, adoptive parent and professor John Raible:

I got into this crazy mess called adoption because I am fundamentally grateful that I was adopted and got a second chance in life, even though I wish I never had to be relinquished or adopted in the first place. Contradictory statements? Of course: that’s the paradox of adoption. It is both a blessing and a curse.

From http://johnraible.wordpress.com/2010/04/18/sticking-with-a-wounded-child/

In my view, before we can move forward in rethinking and revitalizing transracial and transnational adoption practice, a significant realignment must take place in the relationship between adult adoptees and adoptive parents…  APs must start accepting the fact that we are no longer children, and that we think for ourselves and have our own unique experiences of adoption that may differ significantly from the way they prefer to view it. Furthermore, although we are still and always will be adoptees, many of us are also parents, scholars, authors, film makers, performance artists, social workers, therapists, etc., with unique contributions and insights to bring to the conversation.

From http://johnraible.wordpress.com/2010/04/19/how-to-fix-adoption-respect-adult-adoptees/

Please, if you read anything today, read these two posts – and the rest of Dr. Raible’s blog. And then go read Harlow’s Monkey. And then go read The Language of Blood. And then go read Outsiders Within: Writings on Transracial Adoption. And then go read Tobias Hubinette’s work.  And keep reading and watching and listening to the voices of adopted persons.

The All-White World of Children’s Publishing

I just read a great paper by Laura Atkins (Roehampton University, London) titled “What’s the Story? Reflections on White Privilege in the Publication of Children’s Books” that she gave at the IRSCL congress in Frankfurt. This topic has been on my mind a lot lately since I study Asian American children’s literature and, although a bit dated, the CCBC reports that the ratio of insider authors of Asian/Asian American stories is higher than that of the Native American, Latino and Black stories (2002). I hypothesize that it is because Asian Americans are perceived to be better educated and able to represent themselves than Native Americans, Latinos and Blacks, which is an unfair stereotype thanks to the Model Minority Myth (shall we call this our “yellow privilege”?)

Also, I’ve been thinking of white privilege in publishing because of my research regarding transracial adoption in American children’s literature. The majority of Asian children adopted into the US have been adopted by white couples of relative economic stability – the “white middle class” Laura speaks of. Of the 51 children’s and young adult books I examined in my dissertation, almost all were written by white Americans, and about half were written by white adoptive mothers. Few were written by Korean Americans, and a whopping one was written by an adopted Korean, who was about nine years old at the time of writing, and whose text was thus heavily edited by her therapist and adoptive parents – all white, I presume. I also presume that the majority of editors and publishers whose hands accepted these texts were white Americans. Thus, while the topics of these stories were the experiences of transracially adopted Koreans, the creators and “gatekeepers” who let them into the American publishing world were – and are – white Americans.

So, since I tend to look at most issues through the lens of transracial adoption, I read Laura’s article with TRA at the front of my mind. Some thoughts:

Laura writes,

“I would argue that most children’s publishing houses currently exist in order to serve the interests and needs of the white majority culture.”

Publishing is undeniably an industry. Adoption, on the other hard, is also an industry, but many would deny it. Korean adoptee and adoption activist Jane Jeong Trenka writes about “transnational adoption and the ‘financialization of everything’” in her eloquent Conducive article, and Korean adoptee and adoption scholar Tobias Hübinette writes of how adoption agencies are “profit-making,” how changes in the Korean economy ebbed and flowed the tide of adoption, and how transnational adoption can be likened to slavery because “both practices are driven by insatiable consumer demand, private market interests and cynical profit making, and utilise (sic) a highly differentiated system of pricing, where the young and the healthy are the most valued… both groups are brought over only to please and satisfy the needs, demands and desires of their well-to-do buyers and owners,” with both practices “justified and legitimised (sic) by the same shallow argument that when moved to their new homes, the actual material solution of the slaves and the adoptees is unquestionably greatly improved” (Hübinette, Comforting an Orphaned Nation, 2006). I’m sure this comparison makes many uncomfortable, but there it is: they “exist in order to serve the interests and needs of the white majority culture.”

Okay, back to white privilege in children’s literature publishing. Laura continues:

“this in many ways goes beyond color – it is the problem of a deeply engrained culture of publishing, of distribution networks, of the perceived market… The children’s publishing industry is blind, insular, and self-enclosed in too many ways. Yes, many good and well-intentioned people work in the industry, and most desire to make things better, to provide all children with wonderful books to read. But this is such a fundamental problem based on who primarily works in the industry, and even more so who holds the positions of power and dictates marketing and publication decisions.”

“Perhaps self-publishing will be the way forward, the internet, the ability of people to bypass an archaic publishing industry that seems slow to respond to change. Though currently, self-published books lack the legitimacy that most children’s book buyers perceive from books that come out of publishing houses.”

No doubt TRA stories are written by “good and well-intentioned people” who want to “provide all children with wonderful books to read.” But are good intentions enough? One of the stories I examined mislabeled Korea’s location on a map and another displayed the Korean flag with the black bars slanted in the wrong direction. If a Korean American editor had been checking the story, surely those mistakes would not have gone unnoticed.

Laura mentions Lee & Low and Children’s Book Press, two publishers that publish specifically multicultural children’s books. There does exist an adoption publisher that publishes specifically adoption related texts: Yeong & Yeong (publisher of the well-known When You Were Born in Korea and When You Were Born in China books). Still, I would say the majority of adoptees who try to go more mainstream have difficulty finding a home for their stories. Some adoptee friends of mine who have successfully published for the adult market have been unable to publish their books for children or young adults because they are deemed “too edgy.” Apparently, it’s okay to have young adult novels about drug abuse (Go Ask Alice), physical abuse (Dreamland), eating disorders (Wintergirls) or urban violence (Autobiography of My Dead Brother), but God forbid we have an “edgy” adoption story that may or may not paint adoption as less than ideal. Rather, since adoptees are having difficult getting their stories in print, it appears that many are now using the Internet as their outlet to share their thoughts and stories. See my friend JaeRan Kim’s site: Harlow Monkey.  She hasn’t necessarily tried writing for young people, but her blog is an excellent example of unregulated, uncensored self-publishing that allows her to speak her mind. And you know what? (White) adoptive parents and other (white) people interested in adoption respect her honest, thoughtful and well-researched thoughts.

Anyway, read the rest of Laura’s insightful paper here.