We create worlds, we create characters like sexy, male, literary characters…of color

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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.[1]

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?

[1] 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.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “We create worlds, we create characters like sexy, male, literary characters…of color

  1. Your posts are seriously spooky the way you bring up subjects that are occupying my mind rather loudly. I was writing pitches all weekend for projects I haven’t even started. As I was imagining new stories to tell I was wondering about what kind of characters I could bring into the light and the obligation I felt to curate diversity in the fictional worlds I create. But what kind? I want to see more interracial couples in literature, I want to see more of what you’re talking about – sexy men of color. I also want to see a lot of different races in main character roles not struggling with race issues so much as just life issues. I know that race continues to be a very real issue but I also know that people of all races are dealing with other issues and why must so many books with people of color as main characters revolve around that? Why can’t we see them living their lives and struggling with the universal issues we know everyone struggles with?

    I think the same thing about gay MCs. There don’t seem to be many mainstream novels out there about gay people that aren’t hyper focused on their gayness – yet I know lots of gay people living lives that don’t revolve around their gayness – they have other stories to be told. It seems that in literature writers are often depicting gay characters as either being raunchy partiers or they’re living a really depressing life where everyone they know dies and nothing but bad shit happens to them. What about telling the stories of gay couples who are struggling with fertility issues or who have interesting jobs and lives (why so few gay detectives in mystery? why so few gay romances that aren’t erotica?).

    But each writer has to find the stories they can tell authentically and while I’m not sure I can tell the story of a black man (I’m a white girl, after all) with any kind of authority, I can tell stories about mentally ill people. I can tell stories about gay men and women – these are experiences I’ve either had or I understand a great deal about. So this has been on my mind a lot. The one novel I’ve finished has almost no people of color in it because it takes place here in the town I live in – a really frighteningly white town. What cultural richness I can bring to stories is something I think about a lot.

    • Angelina: Thank you for your thoughtful response..! It’s so important to figure out ways in which we can diversify the reading canon–and this diversification isn’t limited, as you know, to the color of our characters’ skins…but to yes, gender and sexual orientation and age and occupation, etc., etc. That you are putting so much thought into your work makes me so excited to read your book when it is published!

  2. I look forward to reading about the sexy protagonist in your novel! Honestly, though, I can’t think of ANY sexy protagonists because sexiness doesn’t come across all that well in literature. I’m thinking Cal in East of Eden but that’s probably because I saw the movie with James Dean starring as Cal. What sexy protagonists can you think of that aren’t men of color? I’m curious because none come to mind.

    • Good question–and I realized the lack of sexy male protagonists of color because the ONLY sexy male protagonists I could think of happened to be white. So here was/is my list, off the top of my head:
      George Emerson of E.M. Forster’s “A Room With A View”
      Rick Deckard of Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”
      Mr. Rochester of Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre.”
      Mr. Darcy of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”
      T.S. Garp of John Irving’s “World According to Garp”
      Atticus Finch of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”
      Jay Gatsby of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”
      Aragorn of J.R. Tokien’s “Lord of the Ring”

  3. Very good points. I’m starting a new project now, and I have a mental note to have more characters of color. I sometimes do the thing Heinlein did in Starship Trooper, where you see a character for a while before being told that the character is not white (thereby catching the reader who assumes that all characters are white — and straight — unless it’s made clear right away that they aren’t).

    And I agree with Angelina’s points about gay characters who aren’t defined by being gay. I have a main character in one novel who is gay, and it takes almost the whole novel (170,000 words) for that fact to come out (as it were), because it’s not relevant to what’s happening to her.

  4. I have to agree with those first four on your list. Although I didn’t personally like Heathcliff from “Wuthering Heights” it must be said that many people think he’s super sexy. I think literature is full of sexy white men – men who are sexy in different ways. It will definitely be good to have sexy men of color as main characters and also in heroic roles.

    Anthony-that’s a huge book!! When you were first developing your main character did you just know she was gay (the way characters sometimes come to you a certain way) or did you decide she would be gay because that was an element you wanted to have in your book?

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