When Kyla Zhao wrote “The Fraud Squad” during her junior year at Stanford to stave off the loneliness of COVID lockdown, she had reason to hope that American publishers would take a look at her first book.
After all, “Crazy Rich Asians,” the 2013 blockbuster book and 2018 movie, proved there was a commercial appetite for Asian-focused stories, including those set in Zhao’s hometown of Singapore. She could certainly pull off the “Crazy Rich Asians” angle, with some “Devil Wears Prada” thrown in. Zhao, a one-time intern at Vogue Singapore, conjured up a high-society world of designer dropouts and social underhandedness to a story about a working-class graduate who goes to great lengths to land her dream job at a top fashion magazine.
Exceeding even her wildest expectations, Zhao landed an agent in 2021, followed by a six-figure book deal with Penguin Random House and potential interest from Hollywood. But if the Jan. 17 release of “The Fraud Squad” marks a stunning turn in her life, it also shows how America has become enamored with stories from Asian creators. These writers still struggle with the expectations of the white-dominated publishing and production industries, but slowly they are getting real Asian stories and Asian lives for a surprisingly enthusiastic audience.
“When I first started writing during the pandemic, more authors of color were being published, or I was becoming aware of it,” says Zhao, who juggles book promotion duties with her job as a marketing analyst for a high-tech firm in Sunnyvale. . “It showed there’s an interest in stories from outside the West, starring Asian protagonists, and it probably convinced them there would be an interest in my book.”
Other writers of Asian descent agree that they have benefited from the growing interest in the stories they have to tell. Seeing films such as the Oscar-winning “Parasite” and the critical and commercial hit “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” they are energized by the excitement of serious literary works, such as those by Min Jin Lee, Lisa Ko, Karan Mahajan , Ocean Vuong and San Jose-raised Viet Thanh Nguyen, who won the 2016 Pulitzer for his Vietnam War spy thriller, “The Sympathizer.”
East Bay novelist Vanessa Hua said she has noticed a greater representation of Asian-American writers since her first short story collection was published in 2016. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Hua doesn’t remember learning much about Asian writers, except for Amy Tan and Maxine Hong. Kingston, when she was in high school in the early 1990s.
While at Stanford, Hua joked, “I wrote bad Ann Beattie knockoff stories about lonely young white women in New York because I thought that was the one who appeared in ‘Literature’ with a capital ‘L’.”
Over time, Hua realized that her stories, based on her “upbringing, culture, and obsessions,” had value. She turned an “obsession,” a little-explored aspect of Mao Zedong’s personal life, into her 2022 novel “Forbidden City,” in which she examines the trauma of the Cultural Revolution from a unique perspective: a 15-year-old girl who aging becomes Mao’s confidante and lover, as he launches his latest “class struggle.”
But even if some Asian-American writers land book deals and win literary awards, the publishing industry is still “disproportionately white,” according to a 2022 report from PEN America.
The industry faced its own “moment of moral urgency” following the 2020 protests over the police killing of George Floyd, according to PEN. That year, the New York Times published an analysis showing that 90% of US fiction books published between 1950 and 2018 were written by white authors, even though whites make up only 60% of the US population. The analysis also found that only 22 of the 220 books on the New York Times bestseller list for fiction were written by people of color.
“It’s not quite there yet,” says Isabelle Thuy Pelaud, professor of Asian-American studies at San Francisco state, of diversity in publishing. Along with Nguyen, Pelaud co-founded the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network (DVAN), which champions the work of Vietnamese-American writers and artists from other Southeast Asian countries.
Pelaud said publishers and producers still cling to the idea that they should tailor Asian-themed stories to white American audiences, usually by brushing aside Asian characters and relying on white protagonists to provide the point of view.
“It has long been assumed that people should be able to identify with the narrator, and it has always been assumed that the narrator must be white,” Pelaud said.
When Zhao presented her book to agents, she ignored suggestions about changing her New York setting or at least introducing a white character to make it “relatable.”
The White POV character has long been the dominant figure in books and films set in Vietnam, usually in the form of an American soldier disillusioned with fighting an unpopular war in a country he perceives as foreign or hostile.
In an interview with NPR’s “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross, Nguyen said, “The reality is that the Vietnamese people paid the heaviest price” of the decades-long conflict, as they also faced the related traumas of colonialism and displacement. With DVAN, he and Pelaud want to help Americans realize that “Vietnam is a country, not a war,” while promoting writers who portray the real lives of Southeast Asians.
In her new volume of poetry, “Nothing Follows,” San Jose-raised Lan Duong, an associate professor of film and media studies at USC, addresses an important but difficult subject in the refugee community: family dysfunction. She writes about growing up on welfare, while her embittered father, a former lieutenant colonel in the South Vietnamese army, struggles with low wages.
In this way, Duong’s poems represent the stories that Asian-American artists hope to see more of. While the movie “Crazy Rich Asians” enjoyed its pop culture moment, some expressed concern that the “wealth porn” and focus on Chinese elites with old money would be the “end point, all-important”.
“I appreciated that ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ launched this new found interest in seeing Asians on screen, but I still think there are a lot more stories to be told and represented,” said Duong.
Zhao agrees that non-Asians tend to see Asian people as “a monolith.” She populated “Fraud Squad” with characters from different strata of Singapore’s multicultural society, and is taking a similar approach in creating characters for her next two books, a children’s novel about a young Asian-American chess prodigy and an adult novel set in Silicon Valley. , about an Asian woman who struggles with ‘imposter syndrome’.
“I want representation,” she says, “that is vibrant and diverse.”