Food for thought
When I reviewed Bitter Melon a couple of months ago, much of my criticism had to do with what I consider to be numerous stereotypical elements in the novel. So I was very intrigued by one question in GalleyCat’s interview with Cara Chow.
Q: What stereotypes do you hope to eliminate with Bitter Melon?
A: That’s an interesting question because, on the surface, Bitter Melon appears to perpetuate a stereotype. My protagonist is a straight-A overachiever and her mother is a Tiger Mom. No Asian-American reader could say, ‘Gee, I’ve never met one of those!’ I’m not seeking to eliminate a stereotype because all stereotypes are based on a seed of truth. Rather, I want to flesh out the stereotype in a three-dimensional portrayal that gives dignity and life to my characters and the groups they represent.
I want my readers to identify with my characters and feel compassion for them, regardless of their backgrounds. On a separate yet related subject, I would like to add that I really love the cover of Bitter Melon. It was important to me that the cover treatment was contemporary and non-stereotypical. In addition to being both, the cover is also gorgeous!
I actually think Chow does a great job making readers feel compassion for Frances and her mother. And I’m sure my reaction to Bitter Melon says more about me than it does the book itself. But to make this post all about me (you know, since it’s my blog and all), I really struggle with Asian-American YA fiction dealing with stereotypes, whether the author’s goal is to flesh out the stereotype or not. I suppose, in a way, I’m torn. While I realize the importance of having this kind of story for teens who are struggling through similar situations (or ignorance, discrimination, etc.), another part of me wonders if, since so few books with Asian-American protagonists are published to begin with, it’s more important to have non-stereotypical Asian-American stories. Or do I feel this way because I grew up yonsei (fourth generation) in Hawaii*, while Asian-Americans from other parts of the US feel I’m crazy for thinking this way?
* The footnotes to the Yonsei article on Wikipedia links to Jon Okamura’s Ethnicity and Inequality in Hawaii in Google Books for a longer discussion of yonsei in Hawaii (scroll up a bit to start chapter 6, which is relevant; the yonsei part is on the next page, p. 126. I didn’t study sociology and haven’t read the entire book so will not agree with or critique Okamura’s assertions, but my family history largely fits with the generational descriptions in the first paragraph of the “Limited Identity Construction” section.). The Wikipedia article refers exclusively to Japanese-Americans, but the Center for Okinawan Studies at UH uses the same generational terms in its “Okinawans in Hawaii” section.