Open Letter to The Asian American Literary Community that Only Acknowledges Those Who Appear Asian Enough
Look, I’m with you on the disgust regarding the whole Michael Derrick Hudson scandal.
I could break down my own Excel spreadsheet and relay how frequently I’ve submitted a poem 30-40 times to have it be accepted by a higher ranked journal in the end. Of course, the main difference--I always use my given name, Natasha Kochicheril Moni, which may reflect my Indian descent.
Would you like to know how often I’ve been rejected by top tiered magazines such as Poetry, The New Yorker, Tin House, Threepenny, sometimes in ways that defy the time-space boundary?
My partly Asian name hasn’t gotten me to the beginning of any line where the editors pretend that chai lattes are really a thing. I have no MFA. My BA is in Child Development. Right now, I’m putting myself through naturopathic medical school and though the title of my first book is The Cardiologist’s Daughter, there was no silver spoon (it was pewter, because the Dutch love pewter) upon my tongue when I was born, there was shag carpet below my feet and now a world of debt that wakes me in the middle of the night, well like a clock.
While in my late twenties, did I fall in with a group of poets who guided me on how to submit (some say “like a man”)? Absolutely. But to each acceptance, especially one like Magma Poetry (where they publish around 2% of the 3,000 poems from the slush) there might be anywhere from 5-70 rejections in between.
In fact, at times, I have received more scrutiny. Try writing a poem about sati and being criticized by white American editors claiming you are racist against your own people.
Try having folks, on a weekly basis, tell you directly or by gestures (literally looking you up/down or walking around you in a circle to try to see how Asian you really are) that you don’t look Indian, so you’re not Indian.
Just this past year, I participated in a reading where all the readers were of Asian descent. In fact, the theme of the night was linked to place. As I stood before the 50+ audience members, I experienced what might be known as Seattle freeze, but this wasn’t Seattle. The first two rows averted their eyes, disengaging from me entirely. Apparently, I wasn’t the right amount (though I am ½) or the right kind of Asian (the kind that looked like them) to merit their time/energy.
To jump to even more recent times, I sat in the audience of the panel regarding the recent publication of Seattle City of Literature: Reflections from a Community of Writers. This book was taken to task, perhaps rightfully so, for not including many writers of color. In response to this and the recent Hudson debacle, different lists are flooding the Internet regarding true Asian American writers.
These attempts to restore some sort of balance in white, male dominated literature, persist with the exact errors as the literary scene in general. The same authors continue to be plugged. So, I ask where are the writers of mixed descent? You know, those who are actually first-generation American, but whose names or topic matters or appearances don’t immediately reflect their Asian heritage? Why are they being overlooked?
Probably for similar reasons that the same white authors get plugged. It’s easy.
As a past editor for the small literary journal, Crab Creek Review, I admit that in my early thirties I didn’t give as much consideration to someone’s demographics. I often chose a piece, because I felt like it was the strongest. It carried the biggest punch. Later, I often deferred to my editors—occasionally overriding a decision when I felt it was in the best interest of the journal. If I were to examine my stats, did I favor white male writers? I’d hate to think that I might have.
A couple of years ago, I sat on the panel for WA State’s art organization, Artist Trust, and while I still lobbied for what I believed to be the strongest writers, I did find myself paying more attention to the quality of writing and representation (county, gender, ethnicity).
Given some time to reflect, I realize that these judgments, selections are often knee-jerk. We return to our default settings, if not challenged. I, no doubt, could have done a better job to solicit from under-represented communities (not just ethnic, but LGBTQ). We can all stand a bit of scrutiny.
So, I ask you, Asian American literary community who continue to plug the same authors over and over again, to be less lazy. Take some time to familiarize yourself with the greater writing scene, which includes HAPA and those of mixed descent. We are here. We have always been here and we are only growing. Open your community.
Fellow Asian American, Writer
Natasha Kochicheril Moni is a writer and a licensed naturopath in WA State. Enjoying this blog? Feel free to put a little coffee in Natasha's cup, right here.