08 February 2007

Race, as an Issue, Rears its Ugly Head in Hong Kong

Here's a link to an Agence France Presse article in which I'm quoted. It is what most recently set me to thinking about race.

Actually, I've been thinking about race a lot lately. The novel I'm currently working on is a sort of coming of age story that deals with it. I'm writing it as the all-seeing narrator. I spend plenty of time letting my readers know what's going on in the heads of my three main characters. One of them is a 20-something black woman in Southcentral Los Angeles in 1946. I'm a 50-something white guy in a trendy neighborhood in Central Los Angeles.

Race and sex are two subjects - near and dear to my heart - that are seldom dealt with honestly. One of the reasons that Chester Himes is one of my very favorite writers is that he, more than most, often dealt very honestly with both topics.

All that is only peripherally germane to the current ruckus that is unfolding in Hong Kong, at the Literary Festival which I attended last year. So I'll get to the other stuff later, but for now, here's what's going on in Hong Kong.

Nury Vittachi was one of the original organizers of the Hong Kong Literary Festival. Nury and I used to work together on Asian Finance and Executive magazines when I first moved to Hong Kong in 1986. (We are both now recovering journalists, if anyone out there knows of any good 12-step programs...) Nury went on to fame and, I don't know about the fortune part, as a columnist, humorist, novelist, public speaker and all around public personality and bon vivant in Asia. (You can find Nury here.)

When I participated in the Festival, I was very impressed by the work that Nury had done; how well the festival ran, how well it was attended, the remarkable mix of people from around the world who showed up for it. A lot of its success was clearly due to Nury's work.

Now he's been fired by the Board of Directors, essentially, they say, because he's a pain in the ass to work with. (My words, not theirs.) I think that's a lame excuse. Over the years Nury has rubbed a lot of people the right way and some the wrong way, as anyone in the public eye is likely to do. When we worked together we had our share of differences, but we always respected each other and when working together were easily able to come up with mutually satisfying compromises long before anything ever threatened to erupt into fisticuffs.

Near as I can tell there are two real reasons for all the trouble, one having to do with corporate loyalty, the other racial.

The corporate loyalty comes into play because Nury, whose books sell very well, switched publishers from Chameleon Press and distributors from Paddyfields (now maybe I'm in trouble, I think Paddyfields distributes me too) both companies of which are heavily represented on the Board of Directors of the Literary Festival. According to Nury, that caused some bad blood.

But that wasn't enough to cause an eruption. The present rumpus got underway when Nury noticed that the judges for the first Asian Literary Prize to be awarded by the Festival, weren't Asian. Initially the judges were almost entirely white and male. Since a fuss was first made, the Board has added a Canadian-Chinese woman, a mixed-race Australian and an Egyptian - none of them resident in Asia. Nury then, quite rightly, employed the R-bomb, "racism."

The fur has flown.

Now here's where I attempt to connect my work on my current book to all of this. Here's the questions. Why should the race of a judge for a literary prize matter? Isn't literary excellence the only criteria, and shouldn't any smart, conscientious reader be able to judge that?

On a personal level; I, a white man, am trying to write from inside the imagined mind of a black woman, so who the hell am I to talk? In my detective-thriller series I write about Asia, but not from an Asian perspective, at least not yet. I write from an American expatriate's perspective that depends as much on my memory as my imagination.

If some readers think I've got my head up my ass with regard to black women, I can hardly wait to hear about it. Maybe I'll learn something. Or maybe my imagination really is that good. You tell me when you eventually read the book. I think it's educational when people of a particular race, culture or gender write about other people. It's a good way to see yourself through other people's eyes. Here's a book recommendation: "Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to Be White," Edited by David R. Roediger.

But judging literary merit isn't the same as writing. A big part of what makes a writer great, especially within a given region (remember, we're talking about an "Asian Literary Prize" here) is the cultural resonance of their work. I lived 11 years of my life in Asia. I've spent many months, probably another year or more added up, traveling there before and since. I'm still an outsider in Asia. I always will be, even if I do retire to that village in Central Java or Cambodia.

An outsider's perspective can be valuable. So sure, put one or even two on the panel of judges. But for a group of people, none of them born in Asia or resident there, to award an Asian literary prize that they expect to be taken seriously, is just plain stupid, arrogant at best, and yes, racist.

I was hoping, what with a new book coming out this Fall, to be invited back to the Hong Kong Literary Festival next year. I haven't yet decided what I will do if I am invited. I wouldn't go without speaking up, loudly, about its faults. Or I might not be willing to go at all.


Miz Treeze said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Eric said...

I deleted this comment because it didn't remark on anything I had to say. Feel free to say anything you want about what I have to say though.

Pari said...

It's weird how imperialism still rears its head in HK. I remember being stunned -- and this was more than 25 years ago -- at the attitude of the various ex-pats who lived there. At Waltzing Matilda's (does it still exist there?) I met a Brit who was actually proud that he didn't know how to speak Cantonese after 20 years' residence.

So, yeah, I think your friend Nury is right on the money.

Racism and prejudice don't always have to do with ethnicity. Living in NM, I know that for a fact. But in HK, I believe, "white" is still equated with superiority.

How stupid can you get?

SJ Rozan said...

As a writer who writes in the voices of a Chinese-American woman and a white man, both in the first person, and whose new book is written from a number of different pov's, some of them black men in Harlem, I find the issue of what a writer should write to be a non-issue. The question is not, is it okay for you and me to write Chinese characters, black characters, men, women? The question is, are either of us any good at it? The first question I will absolutely not debate. The second I'll talk about any time.

But as you say, judging is not writing. How this relates to the issue of the HK Festival prize is, the answer to the question of whether we're good at it has to come from people who know from the inside. If a white man tells me my Harlem gang-bangers are good, or no good, I'm not sure it matters. If a black man who grew up in Harlem likes them, then I think I might have done okay.

So I'm with you. If they're giving an "Asian" prize, I'd like to think Asians were involved in choosing the recipient. Otherwise the R word, and the two P words -- paternalism and patronization -- do seem appropriate.

David P. said...

After having read the blog, and then going back and reading the linked article, I would agree it's racially, or culturally, insensitive. But racism would imply a pre-meditated desire to inflict one's feelings of racial superiority over another, wouldn't it? There are too many variables to simply say "racism" without investigating the issue much more deeply.

Imagine a literary award named The Southern Literary Award. It's only requirement being the author must be from the American South. Would it seem odd if all the judges of the prize were white? Or if all the judges were black, even? To me it wouldn't. Because the main requirement would be a Southern heritage/perspective. One would laugh at the idea of a resident of London judging such a contest.

So, culturally, are the judges of the first Asian literary prize even remotely qualified? Are they published authors of high regard who live in some part of Asia and have a deep abiding respect and interest in Asian culture? But after having said that, it is still stupid and insensitive not to have a majority of established Asian writers on the jury. As weird and out of sync as having an African American literary prize being judged by Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer.

Lastly, with regard to whether a person of a particular race, sexual identification, gender, whatever, should feel empowered to write about people of other races, religions, etc., that answer is obvious: of course they should. We are all human beings.