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“Too Asian”: Time for Diversity?

By Joyce Chng


In the beginning

Rider began with visuals in my head: a golden-furred pterosaur soaring overhead and a figure striding towards me, dressed in riding leathers and boots. As visuals go, this refused to budge and I found myself writing, first a short flash piece and then followed by longer chapters. A month was what it took for it to crystallize and take final form. The second and third books were written a few months later.

The series has pterosaur-like aliens who speak in images and colors. It also have a main character who is the descendent of Chinese colonists, a girl with a burning desire to be a Rider, like her older sister (oh, the sibling rivalry!). The world is a desert planet, terra-formed by the settlers. Yet the desert is slowly creeping back and reclaiming the land as its own. I first tested the ground with a raw draft on Smashwords and the response was generally good. They liked it! Even my older girl, my taste-test for all things YA, liked it and wanted more. Later, I pitched it to a local independent press, Math Paper Press, and Kenny Leck, the publisher, liked it too.

So, here we go: my first published YA SFF series in print. A series that resonated with me and my daughter liked. Yet, I found it an uphill task when Rider and Speaker went on Amazon. The uptake was slow and I was disappointed. Then the reviews came in. Mostly good, but some were really hurtful and surprising. One remark I got was that Rider was “too Asian” and I shouldn’t have mentioned so many Asian things like food and culture. One-star. The irony was that the person who wrote this review was also Chinese.

I found it shocking. We are all asking for diversity in MG and YA lit, but are our readers ready for it?  In a fast-changing world where privilege goes hand-in-hand with discrimination and bigotry, are we truly ready for a diverse YA lit-scape?

The Singapore market

Of note: I am Singaporean-Chinese, living in Singapore where the YA scene itself is slowly growing, but the readers still consume mostly US-centric YA books. Walk into a bookstore and it is all US-centric and dominated by the big publishing houses. You hardly see any local YA books there and even then, the local books are tucked in a small unnoticeable corner. Reception is cold and most of the time, it is not there. Mainly because, perhaps, Singapore is a small market.

The publishing houses that are putting out YA and MG books are a mixture of big and small presses. Marshall Cavendish, Epigram Books, Select Books and Math Paper Press. The MG books seem to be doing much better than YA books, simply because the marketing has been consistent and targeted at a sizable portion of the population: kids. YA, however, seems otherwise. This is not to say that there is no interest in YA books written by local authors. There are government-funded initiatives to encourage local aspiring YA writers. At the same time, there are self-published YA authors like Low Kay Hwa who rely on word of mouth and volunteers (i.e. local school kids!) to get people buying.

I always joke that Singapore bookstore chains are only known to carry textbooks and assessment books (books created specifically for home practice ) and any market-savvy writer would be smart enough to become a textbook or assessment book author. There is a great demand here, simply because well, Singapore is an exams-mad/academic-orientated country with parents wanting their kids to excel in school. Independent bookstores like Books Actually and big book chain name Kinokuniya though do carry more YA books, even by local authors, though Kino tends to put local books under the Singapore/local section.

Despite such challenges (!), there is some sign of interest in Singaporean and Southeast Asian YA/MG. We have the Asian Festival of Children’s Content, a conference where authors, agents and book publishers discuss issues in children’s fiction. We also now have a one-day conference targeted at young writers too, many of whom are also writing YA. I am cautiously hopeful to see these events bear fruit.

To the future and beyond

I really hope the Rider Trilogy will take off (no pun intended) and I am eternally optimistic, even if the task is challenging and sometimes emotionally draining.

The Rider Trilogy has its own page: http://awolfstale.wordpress.com/the-rider-trilogy-ya-sf/ (with buy links from Amazon and Gumroad).

imageJoyce Chng is Singaporean-Chinese and lives in Singapore. She writes science fiction, urban fantasy and YA. She can be found at A Wolf’s Tale, talking about writerly stuff and Life, and as @jolantru on Twitter.