We create worlds when we write our novels. My hope is that our readers’ worlds expand when reading our worlds. We do this by adding our unique stories and previously unwitnessed details to the existing historical tapestry of stories.
Sometimes we respond to something specific in the canon, like Jean Rhys who wrote an amazing prequel in Wide Sargasso Sea to Charlotte Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. But we needn’t be overt though we should always be conscious of how we enrich the world experience.
I’m in the midst of revising my novel, and this revision is one that has me tearing my novel back down to the studs and posts as I investigate the stories (on and off the page) of each character and add new characters. It’s a lot of work. And I’m going to say this is more like a rewrite than a revision, more like a rebuild than an incremental remodel.
In this hubbub, I participated in a “sex interview” with Gina Frangello in The Nervous Breakdown about my piece in Men Undressed. One of the six questions asked me who I thought was the sexiest literary male character.
And here I was a little stumped and perturbed, because in perusing my reading history (and I was an English major and Asian American Studies minor who took her fair share of Chicano/a and African American literary courses), there was a major lack of sexy literary male characters of color.
Why, did I ask myself, are the majority of male literary characters of color emasculated, violent, ineffectual, and/or lack physicality? (Okay, maybe those things turn you on? They don’t me). The potential answers depressed me.
I remember the 1980s and 1990s when Asian American literature revolved mostly around particular themes: immigration, assimilation, family/tradition. The canonical works of the day (The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, and Native Speaker by Chang-rae Lee for starters) all of whom featured men who were violent or ineffectual or so cerebral they lacked physicality.
The above writers are pioneers to whom I/we owe a great debt. And they too have been able to forge new paths due to their initial pioneering works. But there’s still lots of work for us to do.
When I was the fiction editor at Kartika Review, an Asian American literary magazine, I was happy to now see pieces that went beyond these experiences in the slushpile, because the Asian American experience is more complex and expansive than these immigration or assimilation.
And I was very aware that I was a gatekeeper, albeit a small one in the world, for our readers and for what would represent literature.
It’s up to me and to us to change the landscape. We need to write worlds. And we need to read worlds.
Meanwhile, I was obsessed with the tv show Mad Men. I came late to the Mad Men party, and this summer, my husband and I watched four seasons of the shows in a span of a few weeks.
Don Draper–what a sexy hunk. I felt guilty about spending all this time watching a television series, but then I
decided realized it was novel research. Mad Men is set in the same era as my characters who happen to be Koreans who arrive in early 1970s America occupied by Don and Betty Draper, Roger Sterling, and the gang, characters who for all their faults and strengths never interact with Asian Americans. And I cringe at how they would treat Asian Americans if they did. That Mad Men could illuminate my characters’ setting was amazing.
But back to Don Draper–what a sexy hunk. And I thought, why can’t my characters be that sexy? Why not?
And so I decided that in exchange for all the suffering I have inflicted upon my protagonist, I would make him sexy. And I would make him my kind of sexy: smart, tortured, and rugged. It makes me want to spend more time with my novel-writing, that’s for sure.
We have, as writers, the opportunity to expand worlds. And we have, as readers, the opportunity to expand our own worlds. What choices do you make to do so?
 I kind of had a flashback to my parents watching Korean dramas on VHS tapes all night and emerging in the morning demanding a neck rub from me. We had become my parents. Except we have no children from which to demand neck rubs in the morning.