by Tess Gerritsen
Memory #1: I am ten years old, sitting in the back seat of a parked car with my best school chum as we wait for her mother to come out of the grocery store. My friend is white. We are chattering, giggling, making noisy girl noises. A woman walks back to her car, which is parked beside ours. Maybe it’s the fact we’re laughing so loudly. Maybe she thinks we’re laughing at her. She glares at us.
What she sees: a white girl and an Asian girl sitting in the parked car.
What she says is: “Damn noisy chink.”
Memory #2: I am twelve years old, and my parents have taken us out to a nice new restaurant. We arrive at around seven thirty and are seated. No one gives us a menu. As wait staff whisk past our table, as other diners are seated, eat, and depart, we sit ignored. Several times my father beckons to the waitresses and asks if we might be served. They shrug and move on. Two hours later all the diners have left except for us, and the wait staff is now cleaning up. The manager comes out, tells us he’s sorry but the restaurant is now closed for the night and we’ll have to leave.
My father doesn’t say a word. We all get up and quietly walk out.
These kinds of experiences leave a mark on a child. Like so many other Asian Americans, I reacted by ducking my head and focusing on my schoolwork. Exhorted by our Tiger Mothers to prove ourselves worthy and make our families proud, too many of us become silent and conflict-averse, terrified of drawing attention to ourselves or pursuing any career that doesn’t lead to guaranteed security.
That, apparently, is the definition of a model minority.
Although I became a writer, it wasn’t until after I’d first fulfilled my cultural imperative and earned a medical degree. Now I’m doing exactly what I’d always dreamed of doing: telling stories and getting paid for it. You would think that I’d want to explore some of those painful themes from my childhood. Other writers do it. There are bestselling novels with protagonists who are Jewish or Irish or Italian or autistic or southern women bonding with their household help. And there are lots and lots of novels about middle-aged white men having affairs and mid-life crises. But rarely do you see a novel, much less a bestselling novel, that explores the Asian American experience.
So why have I never written one? My three-word answer: fear of failure.
That’s not just my own lack of confidence speaking; it’s something that a very canny (and honest) publishing executive told me two decades ago. It was back while I was writing romance novels for Harlequin Intrigue, and I had a chat with one of Harlequin’s top brass. She loved my writing and she wanted to discuss my upcoming book projects. I asked her if she’d be interested in a romance featuring an Asian American heroine.
She wasn’t afraid to tell me the truth, and I will always be grateful for her honesty. Harlequin had done extensive market research, she said. They knew which titles were hits and which were flops. And whenever they published a book with an Asian hero or heroine, no one bought those books. They might be the best stories in the line, but they invariably failed in the marketplace.
“I want your books to be bestsellers,” she said. “And this will hurt your sales.”
I took that advice, so generously given, and all my novels have featured white heroes and heroines. I’ve slipped in Asian Americans as secondary characters: Maura’s morgue assistant Yoshima, for example, or Vivian Chao, the fearless surgeon in HARVEST. But in none of my books have I featured an Asian or touched on those painful memories from my childhood — until now.
In THE SILENT GIRL, I’ve finally written the story I’ve been burning to tell, a story with bits and pieces of my own Chinese-American childhood. Not the painful memories, but the quirky bits, imbued with my mother’s lore about ghosts and monsters. One of her stories in particular has always stayed with me, the much-beloved Chinese legend of the Monkey King, a wild and unpredictable creature who was born from a stone and becomes a warrior. When Jane Rizzoli finds monkey hairs on the body of a butchered woman in Boston’s Chinatown, the legend of the Monkey King becomes key to understanding the crime. Monkeys both fascinate and frighten me, and I get chills thinking of such a creature roaming Chinatown’s dark alleys.
For the first time, I introduce not just one, but two major Asian American characters. The first is Detective Johnny Tam, who joins Jane and Maura in the investigation. The second is a female martial arts master. Her character was inspired by a real woman: Bow-Sim Mark, an internationally revered wushu master who teaches in Boston.
Twenty three years have passed since my chat with that Harlequin executive. I’m now got a best-selling crime series on which a hit television show is based. I want to believe that readers in this country have matured and broadened their tastes. They’re avidly reading about boy wizards and teen vampires and Swedish sleuths; surely they’re now open to more.
Or are they?
( I am, once again, traveling and unable to respond to comments. But I do hope this will start a conversation about minorities in fiction. How far have we come? Is there a strong enough market for it? Or should authors continue to “write white” to ensure sales?)