AMWF Books vs. AFWM Books: The “Good Reads” Question

(photo by Christine Tan)

A few months ago, Christine Tan — who writes the fabulous Shanghai Shiok — Facebooked me with this photo and a message:

Hey Jocelyn, quick look at my…bookshelf shows I have more explicitly WF/AM [White Female/Asian Male — also referred to as AMWF] books (yes, I include Anna and the King!) than the opposite, AF/WM [Asian Female/White Male]  (and yes, I include Amy Chua in that one). Wonder why I enjoy the former more even though I’m part of the latter. Maybe I just haven’t come across really good/insightful/not based on creepy stereotypes AF/WM writing. I mean, are there any AF/WM books you like and could recommend?

I chimed in with some suggestions of good AF/WM books, as did others, but her post lingered with me. Of course, there’s no “law” saying we MUST enjoy more those books that best reflect our own relationships and realities. Still, it was fascinating to me that Christine — who is in a AFWM marriage — still enjoyed more AMWF books over AFWM books.

And the thing is, I feel the same way.

That’s not to say I don’t have AFWM books that I love. In fact, I recommended Red China Blues and Chinese Lessons to Christine, which both feature AFWM relationships. Xiaolu Guo’s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is brilliant, as is Pang-Mei Chang’s memoir Bound Feet, Western Dress. Even Amy Chua’s controversial Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was fascinating.

But compared to these and other titles, my AMWF list of favorite reads is much longer. And because I’ve discussed this with other friends — both online and off — I just know I’m not alone. The question is, why is this?

On one level,  it’s clearly a writer’s choice — that they choose not to write about AFWM relationships. That might be because AFWM couples are more common, which might lead a writer to think it’s clichéd enough to shift focus to something else. But I have to imagine that many authors — especially white males — want to avoid getting into bed with all of the “creepy stereotypes” about AFWM relationships. That’s something author Matthew Polly captures perfectly in his comment on this post:

Publish on paper that one time you got drunk, ordered up the sexy massage, and enjoyed a happy ending and you are forever marked—and a certain subset of the female population will forever be lost to you. Why would a young single man, who probably plans to come home and find an “appropriate” wife, want to risk that? Far safer to write about ancient Chinese artifacts and leave the wild oats untold. Having written about sex in China myself, I can say that there is a price to pay even if it is done very carefully.

But perhaps the publishing industry also plays a role — for similar reasons. Women read more than men (especially when it comes to fiction). I have to wonder, are the gatekeepers rejecting more AFWM book manuscripts (especially those with even the smallest hint of an Asian fetish in their pages) with their mainly female readership in mind?

What do you think? Do you see a similar disparity (in terms of good reads) between AMWF and AFWM books? And if so, what’s your explanation?

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17 Replies to “AMWF Books vs. AFWM Books: The “Good Reads” Question”

  1. That’s a good question. I think your hunch is right: most editors are white men, and are probably rejecting good AM/WF manuscripts due to their privilege.

    As for good AF/WM books, there’s been a growing number in sci-fi and sci-fi/YA — over the past five years. What caught me off-guard is that of them are written by Asian-American or biracial men. By far the best two are Fair Coin by E.C. Myers and How to Live Safely in a Science Fiction Universe by Charles Yu. (But to be fair, Yu’s is really a study in Asian relationships as seen by an Asian-American son.) Ready Player One was also good, but I forget if the main romantic interest turned out to be white or biracial.

  2. @C
    I think Jocelyn is imply the opposite. The publishers are not intending to publish anything that has a sexism undertone because women want to read about romances more than men.

    I personally think the real reason is that women in interracial relationships tend to be highly educated and write more. Also, Asian females don’t want to tell their stories in fear of repercussions from their own culture. White women have that risk too, but it seems that they can shake that off easier. It is also true that AFWM’s stories have less of a fanfare- they are relatively common and easier to be accepted.

  3. ^”Also, Asian females don’t want to tell their stories in fear of repercussions from their own culture. ”

    Being a guy, I don’t read romance novels so I don’t claim to be an expert on what’s out there, but I find this a little hard to believe.

    Many independent filmakers who are Asian-American women often portray (fictional) romantic relationships where Asian female leads are paired with white men (almost becoming the default pairing), and often AM/AF pairings are portrayed somewhat negatively if not absent. The blog have entries that discuss this. One filmmaker actually approached the mostly AM commenters on that site and solicited donations, the resulting reactions was funny to say the least.

    (Obviously the Debbie Lum film discussed in another entry here didn’t exactly portray “Steven” in a positive light, and whites males are expectedly not pleased from online comments.)

    I don’t see how AF novelists in general could be that different in particularly caring about cultural “repercussions” if they can write books that sell to a mainstream (white) audience. The Amy Tan’s and Lisa See’s of the world probably couldn’t care less if AM’s aren’t pleased with their portrayals (or absence) in their novels.

    “It is also true that AFWM’s stories have less of a fanfare- they are relatively common and EASIER TO BE ACCEPTED.”

    Which would actually support the view as to why WM/AF storylines (portrayed positively) can make it past editors’ approval more easily.

    Feel free to correct me on this subject.

  4. I haven’t really thought that AF/WM literature lacked. Its odd that a topic is being brought up because on my blog I’m planning on getting into AM/WF books I own into more details. While I did try to read AF/WM books such as Mingmei Yip’s Peach Blossom Pavilion or yes, Amy Tan’s novels, I would guess that perhaps there might be a sort of backlash against AF/WM literature, in my opinion though. Or perhaps there hasn’t been a skillful writer that can convince me why they deserve to be together. My opinion though. By the way, what are the titles of the books in the pictures? Thanks in advance.

  5. Hmmm…

    Western male / Asian female (with protest, those labels themselves are pretty generic and invite stereotypes), Western author:
    – you’re immediately disqualified as having yellow fever
    – the relationship is such a cliché, nobody will really (want to) read the story (unless maybe if you could find a peculiar angle, but that would still be a difficult sell)

    WM/AF, Asian author:
    – you’re just one of those “traitors” who think they’re better than their own kin and falls for the allure of the supposedly richer, better Westerner
    – in all likelihood, yes, there’d be less willingness to talk openly about a relationship (yes, there are exceptions, but then they have to get extra-saucy and be willing to pretty much break with their ‘home culture’/relationships)

    Asian male / Western female, Asian author:
    – you’re one of the lucky ones who break the mold, and thus there’s interest, of course

    AM/WF, Western author:
    – you’re so brave to do something so unusual, tell us more…
    – and with women being the ones who read more, especially in the ‘romance’ section (plus, we are talking Western book publishing), there’s a natural market with interest and a better chance at being able to identify with the ‘heroine’ when she is a Western woman (and interested whether it’s about a successful relationship – to dream a bit – or about a failed one – to be happy they didn’t try that or feel forewarned about possible stumbling blocks)
    – chances are higher that you’re willing to tell your story and get positive support/results from it rather than get tainted (which for an Asian woman could come from simply talking about private matters too openly)

    Of course, I’m putting up rather clichéd, not exactly deeply critical, notions, but this is what comes to mind.

    If I think of my own relationship, it would go something like that – she wouldn’t want to talk or be talked about, I’d either be disqualified as just another Westerner with a thing for Asians (which is why I started with a critique of the labels right away – every relationship, even if there is an influence of cultural/social backgrounds, is different, is between two individuals, not cultural stereotypes…) or I would need to have intimate and noteworthy details to share – but it’s just a relationship, and I ain’t sharin’ details 😉 …

  6. Hi Jocelyn,

    Wow. Thank you for remembering that message I sent you, and for going deeper! This is one of the most interesting AM-WF “versus” AF-WM discussions ever — looking at it through the lens of book publishing!

    I remember when I sent you that message. I’d been staring at my bookshelves, wondering why I automatically put Asian guy-white girl books on my ‘to-read’ list but am hesitant of reading books, especially memoirs, that concern my own type of pairing.

    My answer, my honest answer, is that perhaps I’m a self-loathing traitor.

    I say this with a little jest, but it’s somewhat true, at least when it comes to the reading choices I’ve made. And when I say self-loathing traitor, it has nothing to do with hating my race/culture, and everything to do with how I’ve internalized some of the negativity towards Western guys-Asian girls.

    When I see a white guy-Asian girl book in the store, and if it’s written by the Western partner, I admit my first thought is: groan, not again. And if it’s written by the Asian partner, I will pause a little longer, wondering: is she the sort I could be friends with? When I see a white woman-Asian guy story, written by either partner (and it’s usually the Western partner who writes these) I only think: Yeah!

    Thus, at least in my case, Gerald’s analysis is true. It’s true, even though I MYSELF am in an AF-WM relationship.

    Asian guys with Western females aren’t really represented in celluloid media, both for outwardly racist reasons, and also because they are less common in real life. But would I be totally wrong to argue that you have healthy representation in the book world? That, if Western publishing caters to a white audience (so many Asian authors, especially in genre, use Western pen names for broader appeal), and most of that audience (for fiction) is female, then manuscripts about white female experiences (including dating Asian men) are going to be favored in slush piles and publishing houses? (There are always exceptions – Amy Chua, Pang Mei Chang’s memoirs got published – but I feel that when an Asian woman in an interracial relationship writes about it, it is more of an examination of her Asianness, whereas when a white female in an interracial relationships writes, it’s focused on her partner’s Asianness, generally speaking.)

    The gatekeeper question really, really interests me. I keep thinking of Jocelyn’s final paragraph above:

    “Women read more than men (especially when it comes to fiction). I have to wonder, are the gatekeepers rejecting more AFWM book manuscripts (especially those with even the smallest hint of an Asian fetish in their pages) with their mainly female readership in mind?”

    Here is a true story: an acquaintance of mine, an American male, wrote a novel, a love story between an American man and Chinese woman in China. It was a nuanced look at the complexities of interracial relationships in a foreign country, and, I can vouch, it was decidedly not creepy. He got a powerful NYC literary agent, who shopped the manuscript around. A Big 5 publishing house was very interested, until the acquisitions editor stepped in and said no thank you – she liked the book, she said, but she liked Nicole Mones’s Lost in Translation more, and thought THAT was the ultimate love-story-in-China book. [I love Lost in Translation – and the main characters are a white American woman and half-Chinese man (with a Chinese surname).] The (white female) editor pointed out the problems she had with my acquaintance’s book, such as she was bothered by how the male protagonist gazes at his Chinese lover and thinks about how different she feels to his previous American lovers. She couldn’t connect and identify with the characters. Anyway, another major publishing house eventually offered for the book, and though it was a substantial advance, the author declined it — he decided he didn’t want his book published after all. He’d spent years on it, but in the end decided his beautifully written book was “creepy.” He had his reputation to think about, he said.

    So that right there is an example of self-censorship combined with gatekeeping geared towards a white female audience.

    Anyway, this subject really interests me because I’m struggling with my own manuscript. I’m writing a memoir about a particular year in my Shanghai life, and though I am consciously trying not to make it an Asian girl-Western guy story, my relationship (and eventual marriage) are events that happen within the narrative, so I suppose my book will be classified as such. The commenters who wrote that, for cultural reasons, Asian women shy away from writing about their own relationships (interracial or not) — I think this is true. As I write, I’m nervous about repercussions — my family will not be happy, even though I write nothing negative about them and the way I was brought up. They are horrified just because it’s a “private matter.” Some days, I want to stop writing because I’m overcome with Asian daughter guilt. And yet, in the end, I keep writing… hoping to come up with the kind of AF-WM book I wouldn’t dismiss in a bookstore. Fingers crossed I will finish it, and it will get past gatekeepers!

    (In the meantime, greatly looking forward to Susan Blumberg-Kason and Tracy Slater’s books! Lol, just two more examples of AM-WF books I’m sure I’ll enjoy.)

  7. Some great insights from writers themselves.
    I want to point out the great theme of orientalism. The stories of relationships with a Asian partners have been focusing more on Asianess as Christine has said. It is Asian first, actual character second. Your culture background is relevant, but I suspect writers are expecting to write within the oriental contexts more than anything else. A white woman’s perspectives on the relationships can appeal to broader audiences.

    I read a few AMWF books and find the themes repetitive. In addition, most Asian Americans writers are expected to talk about generational conflicts or assimilation topics. Do AMWF books really break the mold?
    Unless someone can write the story to draw my attention away from Asianess into the actual characters, I will give these books a rest.

  8. Just wanted to give a mention to Guo Yue and Clare Farrow, that lovely Chinese and English married couple who write together. Their children’s book Little Leap Forward is lovely

  9. Another read that was very enjoyable (with a Caucasian lady and Chinese Man so doesn’t really answer the questions here!)- Alison Wong’s, As the Earth Turns Silver, based in New Zealand World War 1.

  10. Is interesting Alison Wong who had a son with Caucasian man thanked her Dad for giving her the “permission” to write such a novel.
    Another author with the same name, Alison Wong, has written a novel about love between a British ethnic-Chinese and a Caucasian Englishman. Novel is called Take A Chance.

  11. These are fascinating comments — and you’ve all added a little something to my understanding of this whole topic. Thank you!

    @C, thanks for commenting. Those sci-fi titles sound interesting — I’d like to check them out!

    @askdsk, thank you, you make some interesting points — especially the comment about Asian women and fear of repercussions (which is reflected in Christine’s later comment).

    @Allen, thanks for your thoughts! I think askdsk’s point on AF/WM stories as being more common seems to fit with my point about writers (and probably gatekeepers) wanting to avoid what is more common/cliched.

    @Sveta, thanks for sharing. Interesting idea — a backlash against AF/WM lit? Even if not overt or intentional, there could be something like that going on. As for the titles in the photo, here they are:

    AFWM books:
    Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
    A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers
    Following the Wrong God Home

    AMWF books:
    The Lost & Forgotten Languages of Shanghai
    Tempted Tigress
    Anna & The King
    The Lover
    Repeat After Me
    Foreign Babes in Beijing
    The Last Chinese Chef
    On Gold Mountain
    Love in Translation
    Rock Paper Tiger

    @Gerald, thank you! That is one spot-on analysis. I completely agree!

    @Christine, thank you for sharing your experience, including the story of a guy who was rejected by gatekeepers and also self-censored. I feel a bit sad that he passed on the book deal, even though I can completely understand why. But I really sincerely hope you’ll finish your memoir and put your story out there — the world needs your voice and experiences.

    @askdsk, in terms of Asianness in writing, are you talking about the idea that some writers focus more on Asian culture, instead of developing interesting characters or stories?

    @Miriam, I do love Little Leap Forward very much! As the Earth Turns Silver is also a book I know, but haven’t heard of Take a Chance (am adding to my to-read list)

  12. Can I mention another married couple writing team- Ma Jian (from Qingdao) and his English wife Flora Drew from London (who translates her husband’s writings). Am sure you know his writings well. His 2013 novel is out, The Dark Road. It’s just lovely to explore their literary work as a couple.

  13. It helps to do a comparative review. If you pick out a book that features a Jewish protagonist, you can find within the pages how being Jewish is often not prominently featured. Imagine you jump out of dimensions of world of China and US and explore the rest of the world. What is an American women’s experience of dating German in Germany? Aren’t there good amount of cultural differences as well?

    Some authors choose to focus on the first person narratives mostly, and others don’t. So readers are lead on to different beliefs. Maybe it is less of a problem for memoirs. Taking Amy Chua as an example. She had some worst attacks within Chinese community.If you read her book, you can hardly see her husband in it. It is brutally honest to a degree of therapy. It is not a bad book. Why do the rest of us care so much? How much self-censorship do you impose to yourself so your story is not only about you? I don’t know how to answer that.
    As a white woman writes about Asian man, do you see the other person as ethnicity, culture or both? Answer to that questions will probably decide the outcome of your relationship and the tone of the book.
    One of the best book I read is “Waiting”. Almost anyone I know (whites or otherwise) read it without asking cultural specific questions. You can captivate people’s attention without pointing out the conflicts and differences. They are there, but often forgotten.

    Another reason why WFAM books are more common is related to gender – don’t attack me for it. Women are less refrained to write romance. Men don’t normally want to go that route. Asian women don’t get to share a tale of adventure, sex and courage. It almost seems “unnatural”. I hope there is no denial white women and Asian women are not on equal footing in this regard.

  14. I really don’t know why but I don’t like to read books unless I have an exam to take. Sorry I’m not a bookworm.

  15. Argh, I’m supposed to be studying for an exam now, but find this all so fascinating. Been in Japan for some time and have been with my AM fiancé for some of that… but have only recently discovered this community of AMWF. I’m not alone!
    …Not that I thought I was before, but hmm… more in the sense “There are people discussing this, and I can join in!”
    Will have a search and maybe order some books after looking through some of these suggestions. ^^ Thank you for providing such interesting content and sparking great debates!

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