Why don’t any of these characters look like me? Otherwise known as, we need Asian representation // Discussion

As I’m sure a lot of you know, as of 2016-2017, a lot of readers have become more conscientious of the books they’re reading, and have been actively striving towards reading more diversely – something that I’m doing, as well. A lot of authors have begun to respond to this, and have been working towards putting out diverse, inclusive content, taking into account the intersections between race, gender, sexuality, disability, etc. 

And while that’s absolutely incredible, in mainstream YA books (especially YA contemporaries), I’m still not seeing a lot of Asian representation. 

At all, honestly, if I really think about it. 

Quick note: I’m Korean-American, meaning that I’m East Asian, so a lot of my experiences and perspectives are nuanced in that regard. So, when I call for diversity for Asians in books, I need to emphasize that this means for East Asians, Southeastern Asians, South Asians, etc., all of whom deal with different and specific issues. I really want to emphasize this. In no way throughout this post do I mean to suggest that all Asians require the same type of representation in books, or that all Asians suffer from a lack of representation in the same ways

I can count the amount of YA books with Asian main characters that I’ve read on one hand – and I actually don’t think I can name a single YA book in which an Asian character’s heritage/cultural identity plays an actual part in the book itself. Most of the time, we’re told that a character is Asian (and sometimes, it’s only hinted at), and that’s that – their background or cultural ties doesn’t seem to impact their decisions or the storyline in any way, and I’ll talk more about why I find this both unrealistic and harmful later.  

This isn’t necessarily a critique of authors as individuals (I swear I’m not trying to attack them in any way 😅), but it’s worth mentioning that even Asian authors often don’t provide Asian representation in their books – there’s not a main character who’s Asian in Jenny Han’s The Summer I Turned Pretty trilogy, and while Lara Jean is half Korean, her Korean heritage and culture doesn’t play much of a part in the To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before duology.  

And that’s the thing – as an Asian-American who’s proud of and deeply connected to her culture, as many Asian-Americans are (especially those who are 1st-2nd generation like I am), I don’t want an Asian character to be written in as Asian for the sake of diversity. I want an Asian character whose culture is a part of their lives, whose culture is reflected in some of the decisions that they make/the conflicts that they have – and believe me, there’s a LOT of them. 

I want to read about an Asian-American girl who’s frustrated because her male cousin/brother is constantly viewed as superior to her because she’s female, and who’s constantly belittled as a result. I want to read about the hurt that comes with the favoritism of the sons and nephews and grandsons in Asian households, simply because of the sex they were born with and the gender they were assigned to. I want to read about Southeast Asian girls who struggle because they don’t fit into the picture of a pale, skinny, East-Asian girl that the media touts as being the only kind of Asian girl to exist, but come to realize that they have every right to be proud in their identity as an Asian woman, and that they are beautiful regardless of what commercialization + the media says.

I want to read about Asian boys who feel suffocated by the need for hyper-masculinity in Asian households, boys who feel like they’re not allowed to show their emotions or feel anything, boys who don’t want to be restricted by the gender binary, but don’t know how to cross these lines in such patriarchal households. I want to read about Asian teenagers who suffer from mental illnesses, which are largely rejected, discounted, and disregarded in Asian cultures, trying to come to terms with their symptoms and their reality, and how they learn to accept themselves. 

I could honestly go on for hours and hours about the very nuanced issues that many Asian teenagers deal with around the world (although I should note that Asians who reside in Western countries are, at least, able to talk about these issues in ways that our counterparts in Eastern countries often aren’t able to). These are realities for millions of Asian teenagers around the world, and yet we get nearly no reading material that incorporates any of it, or accounts for any of it at all. Inclusivity across all fields and spectrums for people of color is extremely important, and something we all should actively call for – but as an Asian-American, this has been my personal experience when it comes to diversity in YA books, and the exclusion that I have personally felt.  

How can we change this?

Honestly, it all starts with us, as readers. Demand that books provide better representation, and thorough representation. Actively seek out these books, as they most likely won’t be part of mainstream YA, and support PoC authors, who work to help us connect to characters on a much deeper level. If you’re a PoC, or part of any marginalized/minority group, write about your experiences when it comes to inclusion – share your experiences and your thoughts, and why diversity matters so much to you, because I guarantee that there will be people who feel similarly. 

And if you hope to be an author one day, write these books. Write in marginalized voices, write in minorities – consult with members of groups you wish to write about, ask them about their experiences and their stories, verify that you’re getting it right through research and time. 

Ultimately, I’m so thankful to be part of such a wonderfully supportive and welcoming community – the book blogging community/booktube community is making such great strides towards ensuring that diverse reads are on the market, and is so supportive of the authors who provide us with these books. Thank you for helping me to realize that my voice matters, and my representation matters. 

What are your experiences with diversity in books? What do you want to see more of in YA? Please let me know in the comments, and I hope you all have a fantastic week! 


14 thoughts on “Why don’t any of these characters look like me? Otherwise known as, we need Asian representation // Discussion

  1. This is an amazing post, Katie, and it needs to be widely read to spread awareness of both the staggering lack of representation, and how we readers can encourage change.

    I actually took a break from writing my review for The Abyss Surrounds Us to read this post—and the specific section of my review I just finished writing was a criticism of how the Chinese-American protagonist’s race (along with the races of the rest of the cast) was just aesthetic. Their races had no impact on the characters themselves beyond their appearance and names, which was a serious disappointment. I’m going to add a link to this post in my review, if you don’t mind!

    Thank you for sharing this; we readers all need to be aware of this, and acting to correct it.

    1. Thank you so, so much, Liam!! I was honestly a little nervous posting this, so your support means a lot 😅 This topic is one that really means a lot to me, and I’ve especially been thinking about it a lot lately – Asian erasure + underrepresentation in the arts is such a huge issue, and I really want it to be something people are conscientious about.

      I don’t mind at all!! I’m looking forward to reading yet another wonderful review by you 🙂 But yeah, seriously – characters being made Asian just for aesthetic purposes (I love that you used that term, by the way) bugs the hell out of me. Peoples’ backgrounds and cultures are extremely influential in the actions that they take, the choice they make, and the lives they lead, so I really hate it when authors completely disregard this + don’t want to take the time to research and develop their characters more.

      You’re the best, Liam!

      1. I’m really glad you posted it despite your nervousness! Your perspective and message are too important and needed not to share—especially since you explain it all so clearly and eloquently.

        Thanks! I think the post won’t go up until February, so hope you don’t mind waiting. 😅

        Have we already talked about Maurene Goo’s “I Believe in a Thing Called Love”? It’s an upcoming contemporary romance about a Korean-American teen who uses the “lessons” she learns from K-dramas to try to snag a boyfriend. It sounds hilarious, and I have high hopes for it being good Korean-American rep. I’d be absolutely thrilled to read your review of it, if it sounds like something you want to pick up. Keeping my fingers crossed.

  2. This is such a great post, and you’ve raised so many important points!

    Your paragraph about wanting to see books where culture plays a huge part in the character’s life really rings true for me – I’m Indonesian-Chinese, and my culture plays a HUGE part in who I am and what I think and how I live. I’ve seen bits and pieces of it reflected in various different books, but it’s never as nuanced and developed as I want it to be. To be honest, though, I would be 100% surprised if there’s any book that covers my very specific culture – neither books with Chinese characters nor books with Indonesian characters are quite able to do so. 😛

    Anyway! I think there are definitely some books out there that already do this well (Everything I Never Told You and Cloudwish being two off the top of my head) but we definitely, definitely need more.

  3. What an amazing post, and you discussed the issue incredibly well! Thank you for sharing this, I really loved reading it. 😃

  4. This is such a brilliant post, Katherine. I’d definitely love to read more books with Asian representation. Admittedly, it’s not something I’m well versed in, but I’m really trying to change that and it’s why we definitely need more books with Asian protagonists and settings. I am currently reading The Terracotta Bride which is based around the Chinese afterlife and it’s so interesting and I’d love to read more about Asian myths.

    Once again this is such a wonderful posts with really amazing points!

  5. This is such an amazing discussion post! As an Asian myself, I agree that Asian representation in mainstream YA books is very rarely gotten right by authors. I especially agree with this part: “I want to read about Southeast Asian girls who struggle because they don’t fit into the picture of a pale, skinny, East-Asian girl that the media touts as being the only kind of Asian girl to exist.” I am a Filipina, and the only book I’ve read which has a Filipina character, was Melissa dela Cruz’ Something in Between. I didn’t even finish that book, tbh. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I’m just cringing at the representation of Filipino culture in that book. Granted, I only made it into two chapters? But that’s enough for me to DNF the book.

    I also hate it when the main character in a book just casually mentions an “Asian” friend. Like, what kind of Asian? Because there are lots of us. I feel like that’s something so obvious but also something a lot of people still don’t know.

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