Non-white heroes: the kiss of death in the marketplace?

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?) 



39 thoughts on “Non-white heroes: the kiss of death in the marketplace?

  1. JD Rhoades

    "Damn noisy chink." WTF? Dude, that's not even the right stereotype.

    Seriously, I wonder if the popularity of manga and anime might change the perceived resistance to Asian main characters. Of course that may be a different audience from your normal one.

  2. flipsockgrrl

    There have been a few successful examples of non-white heroes in crime fiction.

    Probably my first memory of such a figure was Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte who appeared in 30-odd novels by Arthur Upfield. (Bonus factoid: Upfield was the first non-American admitted to the Mystery Writers Guild of America.)

    Looking back, Bony's popularity seems remarkable because it came at the height of the White Australia era, decades before Aboriginal Australians were legally recognised as citizens (1967), and half a century before the concept of multiculturalism gained political acceptance. Perhaps Bony presented a romantic 'noble savage' stereotype of indigenous Australians. These days, I doubt a modern version would be as popular: we are too painfully aware of the manifold disadvantages faced by so many Aboriginal communities.

    I had read some Bony books in the 1970s, and in the 1980s became fascinated by a BBC TV series called "The Chinese Detective" with David Yip as the first (fictional) English-Chinese officer to achieve the rank of detective in London's Metropolitan Police. This police procedural showed the Met's institutional racism and the personal prejudices of individual characters.

    Then there are Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins PI novels and Tony Hillerman's stories about Navajo police officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. Faye Kellerman's LAPD detective Peter Decker gradually becomes reconciled with his Jewish heritage.

    If I had to guess what these series have in common, it might be that they go beyond stereotypes and tokenism. They treat the hero's cultural milieu seriously and respectfully, and they depict complex, interesting characters and predicaments. Tess, you are more than capable of doing that!

  3. Eika

    There's an Asian-American Graphic Novel now. I've had to read it for two classes, it's in the kid's section of the library, and it's quite good. It also features The Monkey King.

    Have we made it perfectly? No. But I want to think there's been progress.

  4. Alafair Burke

    Tess, I'm so glad you are blogging about this and, even more importantly, writing the characters you want to write about. I think this is a much bigger issue than anyone realizes. I simply don't believe that readers are racist. I do, however, think that publishers *assume* that readers are racist. I once heard a book marketing type say, with absolutely no irony, "I don't understand why George Pelecanos keeps writing about black people." Sigh.

    Based on your readers' excitement about THE SILENT GIRL, I don't think you have anything to be worried about. Congratulations.

  5. Jake Nantz

    I say Bravo, Tess. I think people are not quite there yet, but are getting much closer. Think of Pelecanos and his black leading man, Derek Strange. They haven't been all bestsellers, but one of them (SOUL CIRCUS, I think?) won a major mystery award, and they're beginning to get him as much or more notice as his early Greek protag. They're also cracking good books!

  6. Murderati fan

    Will we ever just see people? Not color.
    However, there is always discrimination, sometimes defned by railroad tracks.

  7. pari noskin taichert

    I'm so glad you've written the story you wanted to tell. I hope it's just the beginning of more works in this direction.

    At this point, I think the market is far more ready for diversity than it has been in the past. As a matter of fact, readers are craving newness and one way to give it to them is by expanding our protags more to reflect the entire human experience. In New Mexico, we see this quite a bit now with books with Hispanic and Native American protags outselling many other kinds.

    The pendulum swings again.

    I pray for a time when writing what we want to write — what reflects the world around us — isn't a matter of color or ethnicity, but merely a matter of truth.

  8. Robert Carraher

    The beauty of this nation is it's diversity of cultures. The beauty of books is their ability to allow me to explore the world. I just finished an old book and wrote a review on my Crime Fiction blog yesterday. The book was the 1958 Edgar Winner, Best Novel. The book was written the same year the Little Rock nine took their stand to desegregate schools in the south and the Govenor of Arkansas called up the State National Guard to keep nine black children out of a school, prompting Pres. Eisenhower to call up the 101st Air Born and to Nationalize the State National Guard to assure these children could attend school. A sad reminder of a denial of the beauty of diversity. The book was Room To Swing, by Ed Lacy the pseudonym for Len Zinberg who in the book created the first credible African American Private Eye in fiction. This book stands as a social document of the complex racial politics of the times–and also as a damn good mystery. Maybe I need a new shelf in my library for books like this and The Silent Girl can sit next to it.

  9. Rae

    Racism sucks, and so do those who practice it. Rat bastards. Ugh.

    The bad news is, there's still a whole boatload of bigotry in this country. The good news is, things are getting ever so slightly better, in teeny tiny steps. I think. I hope.

    I know your new book will be great, and hope it's your best seller to date.

  10. David Corbett

    Dear Tess:

    I wonder, if the book doesn’t do as well as your others – a distinct possibility in this market, for a number of reasons – will your Asian characters get the blame?

    Trick question.

    Will you stand by them regardless?

    The real question.

    Zoë Ferraris dealt with this issue brilliantly in a dialog she and I did for the Mulholland website. The piece was titled, “The Invisible Hero:”

    Zoë’s protagonist is a Palestinian Bedouin. My last book featured an 18-year-old Salvadoran-American. I asked if we’d missed the memo, the one that says these kinds of characters are fine in secondary roles, but not as heroes. I loved Zoë’s answer:

    “Nah, we read the memo, we just didn’t like it. You know, we’re like the GM food biologists of the literary world. There’s some transgenesis going on and although people are suspicious, it’s really a tomato.” (There’s more. Zoë’s incredibly insightful on this front and a gifted writer.)

    But being white, Zoë and I are ethnic tourists of a sort. Empathy isn’t experience. I don’t carry your pain in my bones. I was never chided for laughing with my friends not because of my behavior but for my being. And I and my family never suffered the vicious, petty humiliation yours did in that restaurant. I’m sure there are other experiences, dozens of them, that echo with those two. And you’ve carried that pain with you, for better and for worse, for years. Bravado is cheap when the pain’s secondhand.

    And yet, my film agent put it bluntly. After reading my latest novel, he said: “Definitely your best. But it’s a no-go in Hollywood right now because it lacks a white male protagonist.”

    Oh well.

    I’m reminded of Pari’s post yesterday, and think: You can’t be truly creative and not accept the consequences, which are as unpredictable as luck. Being creative means walking the plank. The greater public doesn’t give a hoot about our creativity.

    But they can be seduced into reading our stories, even the painful ones, if the pain echoes with their own. The outsider is such a compelling character precisely because she’s us—whether we want to admit it or not.

    I hope your characters truly do give voice to the frightened girl you once were, as well as the indomitable if half-silenced woman you became. That truth may end up meaning more than anything in the end.


    P.S. Echoing Alafair and Jake: I've heard that George Pelecanos and Walter Mosley "don't respect the genre." I know what the person was trying to say, but it still stops me in my tracks.

  11. Lynn in Texas

    Although not the main protag, in the 80's when my parents introduced me to James Clavell's book TAI- PAN, my favorite character was May-May. I admired her strength, determination, wit and love for Dirk, and ached at how she was mistreated. To this day, my mother and I still crack up over May-May's sayings, esp. calling someone "Turtle Dung", lol. Don't forget Amy Tan still has a great following of readers! There's room for everyone of any race, in my "book"!

    I wish you great success on THE SILENT GIRL, and look forward to reading it.

  12. tanya

    Come over to urban fantasy and/or paranormal romance – would love to see more asian-american hero's…there are several that are in books now that are so awesome.

    these genre's are not fussed with ethnic differences…just adds to the fun. would love to see a series based on shape-shifters and lore from china.

  13. Allison Davis


    There's a theme going here in Murderati…how much life and writing do you have to have behind you to get to the heart of your creativity? What dues do you have to pay to gain the credibility you need to get the work out there that you in your heart of hearts want to write?

    You are there but you paid a dear price of time, energy and stoicism to get there.

    I can't wait to read The Silent Girl. (I rewrote this about six times but it isn't the place for my diatribe on race in this country…why I have a house in New Orleans…we can talk about race there. My (black) neighbor took me to Church with her one Sunday and I asked if I would stand out and she laughed. She said, "You're light skinned like my Jackie, you'll pass." I will never stop smiling at that story and it's irony, never. )

  14. Steven Torres

    I've had a handful of books published with Puerto Rican protags. Good reviews, lousy sales. Not sure why. People in my family say no one wants to read about minorities, or at least not in the numbers needed for financial success. Not sure.

    I have heard one avid mystery reader at a Bouchercon tell me that she wouldn't like my books – she didn't like exotic and "different." She wanted to think about the puzzle, not things like culture differences. Ah well. Part of me wants to say "narrow-minded" another part wants to say it's her money and if she doesn't want to be challenged, that's her right.

    It can't all come down to race and skin color – Mma. Ramotswe says differently. Does she count?

    There might be a difference also between people of color among their own kind as opposed to out and about in the white world. Also, people of color who don't raise a fist – Mma. Ramotswe, for instance. A black detective in Harlem? No problem. A black detective raising a gun at whites in Westchester County? Maybe not so good. Again. I don't know. I wouldn't doubt you if there were a serious series with a black detective in Beverly Hills. Eddie Murphy already did the comic side of things.

  15. Jenni Legate


    I am sorry you experienced the ignorance of racism as a child. Unfortunately, it seems that sort of thing still happens. It's disgusting and painful, I know.

    I am not in the publishing business, but I do know there is a specific target audience of people who want to read books with a multi-cultural flavor, who want protagonists who are not standard white American or European. This audience is the people like me who grew up globally. We're called TCKs or Third Culture Kids, also known as Global Nomads. These are people who spent at least part of their childhoods outside their parents' culture. This includes Army brats, missionary kids, diplobrats, people whose parents lived outside the country for business reasons, and even people who never leave the country but who daily straddle between their tight-knit ethnic community and the mainstream culture at large. This last group includes people like you who grew up with Asian parents but had to face the larger mainstream culture at school, or Native American children who travel from a reservation to a public school and back each day. This group of Global Nomads or TCKs is actively seeking out material of all types with different viewpoints, characters we can relate to of all stripes. Many of us TCKs are people with parents of different religions and/or different races. I can't even begin to tell you how many of my friends have a background like this – one parent is Chinese, the other is Haitian, the child was born in France and has lived all over Africa. And there are large communities of TCKs online, searching for connections to one another and to literature, art, and music with a multi-cultural flair. We often can't or don't relate to some of the biases and idiosyncracies of the mainstream culture. We are perpetual outsiders in our own countries, looking in with a global viewpoint.

    My parents were typical Americans, but I was born in Libya and raised all over Africa and Asia. I actively seek out novels with characters who are outside the mainstream. Much of what I read is foreign literature, or foreign biographies and histories because I love and relate more to the viewpoints, settings, and cultural flavor. My favorite novels include (not in any particular order) the Poisonwood Bible (I relate so closely it's scary), No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, just about anything by Wilbur Smith, Amy Tan's Kitchen God's Wife, the Jade de Jong series by Jassie MacKenzie, Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh (the main characters are a wonderfully mixed up bunch), A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Zanif, Noor by Sorayya Khan, just about anything by Alice Walker, the Kite Runner (which brought back so many memories it was painful), and The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery. I could go on and on. Even as a child, I was raised reading French comics like TinTin and Asterix & Obelix, reading The Jungle Book, Hermann Hesse, Aimee Cesar, Joseph Conrad, EM Forster; hearing African & Asian Indian fairytales, and listening to African and Asian music. Favorite non-fiction includes Blood River by Tim Butcher, A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of his Arm a Tiny Bomb by Amitava Kumar, In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz by Michela Wrong, Child of the Jungle by Sabine Kugler, and Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller.

    I would love to read your "true" stories. The ones that don't have white protagonists and a white American point of view. If I want to read those stories, there are plenty out there. I want to read the stories that draw on what makes you uniquely you.

    The Harlequin publisher may be right about their particular audience, but there are other audiences out here who are starving for books that cross cultural boundaries.


  16. Gar Haywood


    Now THIS is a great topic. (Though I must say I'm a little annoyed that you've posted it as a drive-by, which is to say, on a day that you aren't around to engage in the ensuing discussion. If ever there was a blog post that demanded its author be around to respond to questions and comments about it on a real-time basis, this would be it.)

    Anyway. I applaud your courage for testing the non-white protagonist waters with THE SILENT GIRL, and hope the book is your biggest seller yet. But I have to admit, as a writer of color who has only occasionally avoided the elephant in the room of my ethnicity by writing books devoid of central characters who share it (in other words, "white people"), I have mixed feelings about authors who deliberately "write white" for the sole purpose of appeasing the marketing gods. I don't think writers of color have any obligation, per se, to write exclusively for and about "their people," but I do believe that, when they make the conscious decision to write only what sells (i.e., about white people), they can sometimes be missing – or, dare I say, wasting – a rare opportunity to integrate the literary landscape with characters just like themselves, for the benefit of readers just like themselves.

    Forgive me if that sounds judgmental. God knows, the results of your decision to write what you write can't be argued with; your success to this point proves both how well you write from a non-Asian perspective and how smart a move it was, from a sales standpoint, anyway, to choose that path for your work. The thing is, (despite the evidence of my career to the contrary), writing about protagonists of color doesn't always have to be a death sentence; sometimes it works out quite well, if an author with substantial talent is willing to take the risk and all the stars align in his or her favor.

    I mean, who would Walter Mosley be today if he'd chosen to make Easy Rawlins just another white amateur P.I. in a literary sea full of them?

  17. Boyd Morrison

    Tess, perhaps times are changing. Jamie Ford's novel HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET is about the friendship of a Chinese boy and a Japanese girl during WWII and has been on the NY Times list for more than two years now. It's also an international bestseller. My own thriller, ROGUE WAVE, features a half-Japanese half-Caucasian character as the hero, not because I wanted to make a statement, but because it just seemed likely that a native Hawaiian would have at least some Asian heritage in his ancestry. I've never heard any comments from readers about his race at all, positive or negative, which I find gratifying. It's just who he is.

  18. Gar Haywood

    David wrote:

    "I've heard that George Pelecanos and Walter Mosley "don't respect the genre." I know what the person was trying to say, but it still stops me in my tracks."

    Glad you understand what they were trying to say, David, but could you please explain it to me?

  19. 77 yr. old grandma

    surely we have progressed beynd a white bread image of America. and I for one applaud any Chinese character as interesting and intelligent and humorous. we need all kinds of role models in all walks of life. and "consider the source" in those racially stereotyping.

  20. Debbie

    Bigatry extends beyond skin colour. Demanding a character that is stereotypical or one who is not is a type of bigatry. Accepting those same characters as the right character for that part with the understanding that they exist in society is a beginning. What I'm trying to say is that a character should act right for that character and if it's stereotypical but not created by the author out of prejudice, than the character is fine. At the same time, an author should not go out of their way to portray or avoid portraying a character a certain way.

    I'm currently writing a character who is homosexual. His story will be unsettling to many. It is what is intended. He is a person first, his struggles, the conflict, yes are tied into his sexuality. But it is his humanity that those who can get past prejudice will see. I don't want people to read it because he's gay, and I don't want people to not read it because he is gay, and least of all do I want people saying, 'well he's not like me' or, 'he's not like the gay people I know.' He's not a stereotype but a person, and when it comes down to it, we are all the same and different.

  21. Allison Brennan

    This blog made me think, because I think a lot of racism isn't overt, it's more fear of the unknown (not that I can find anything remotely fearsome about Asians, based on my experience.) Stereotypes are so widespread, and a lot of it has to do with our early experiences. I went to a private college prep school. And yes, there's a huge stereotype that Asians are smarter and do better in school. It was a fact, because in my experience, they went onto the best colleges. I had never considered that part of the reason Asians focused so much in school was because that was how they survived, in a sense. There were a few other races represented at my school, but we were all pretty much white or Asian.

    My kids now go to a private school, but it's far more a melting pot than where I grew up. Sure, we're still in the suburbs, but there's not a separation among races at my kids school as there is at some of the public schools. (Which have some huge problems, but usually gang-ish related.) In their experience, they don't even think about color. It's more they think about what they have in common.

    My main character is half-Cuban. Totally American. I had wanted to name her brothers Frisco, Mateo, and Rico. I was asked to change them. I'll admit, I didn't get it at the time (I can be dense about some things.) The hispanic names for the females could stay, but not the "heroes" — so I could have Carina, but not Frisco, Lucia but not Mateo.

    Now I get it, though I don't agree. Is it because of the romance sub-genre? I'm thinking it might be.

  22. Rob Browne

    Glad you're doing this, Tess. My wife is Asian-American and, although she grew up in Hawaii, she went through some similar scenarios when we moved to California as teens. I remember walking down the street in Los Angeles when a car screeched by, someone shouting "F*ck that Jap!" And another time, when we were living in Santa Barbara when a kid called her a "Chinese weirdo." Doesn't seem like much, maybe, but things like that cut deep.

    I'm happy to know, however, that both of my kids say they have never experienced any kind of racism against them, so hopefully things are changing. At least in our neck of the woods.

    As for Asian characters. Back in the early nineties I had a script in development at Showtime in which the female protagonist was Asian. I was told at one of the development meetings that she needed to be white. Why? "Because Asians are too hard to cast."

    I was surprised, and mentioned one actress who was fairly well-known at the time. "What about Rae Dawn Chong?"

    "That's one," the exec said. "What if she says no?"

    So I dutifully changed the character to white and, I think, the script suffered because of it. Partially because she worked better as Asian and partially because the story was set in Honolulu.

    When I wrote KISS HER GOODBYE and the lead female was Chinese-American, I half expected the publisher to ask me to change this. Fortunately, they didn't. And when the pilot was shot last year, I expected them to cast a white woman in the part — but to my surprise they didn't. I have to wonder, however, if this would be true if part of the story hadn't involved Chinese folklore.

    Anyway, thanks for this post, and I look forward to reading your book.

  23. PD Martin

    Tess, those two examples of racism are just horrible, and like the other posters I'm glad you're writing about a Chinese American.

    I think racism is changing, but perhaps too slowly. Here in Melbourne, Australia when I was a kid there was a big influx of Greek and Italian immigrants and they bore the brunt of the racism in the 1970s and 1980s – although I suspect not as much as our indigenous people (aboriginal people). Then came the Asian immigrants, who also suffered. But if I look at MY family I see the changes across the generations. My grandmother (who died a couple of years ago at 90) was definitely racist. So much so that when we adopted our daughter from Korea we did wonder how my grandma would feel about an Asian great grand-daughter. We needn't have worried. She loved Grace so much 🙂 And I hope this trend of racism decreasing over time continues – although faster, please! I'm not sure if my daughter will experience any racism once she's at school…only time will tell.

    It should also be noted that the cultural landscape is very different here in Australia. For example, Melbourne is an extremely multicultural city, yet you hardly ever see a black face. We just haven't had the African influx and the aboriginal population is relatively small in Melbourne. I'm sure Americans and perhaps especially African-Americans would find Melbourne very "white" when in fact it's extremely multicultural. And Australia does rely on immigrants to bolster our population and fill our jobs. In terms of population, at one point there was a campaign of "two children for the family and one for the country". This Government campaign was trying to increase the average number of children Australians have to three.

    Very different to countries like China and probably the States too.


  24. Brett Battles

    God, I hope things are changing! As a Caucasian man with a full blooded Vietnamese daughter, and two children that are a quarter Hispanic and a quarter Japanese, I dream of a world that they don't get judged by what they look like, but by who they are as people. Have I seen racism directed at others? Absolutely. Many times. When I was younger I didn't know what to do when someone expressed a racist thought, so would inevitably fade into the background and let it slide. I knew what they were saying was wrong, and I didn't agree with it at all, but I had no idea how to fight it. I didn't have the tools, experience or confidence. Now I won't do that at all. I won't let it slide for a second. I guess the good thing is, though, I see it considerably less than when I was younger. Not saying it's gone, but there are more people out there smart enough to know how ridiculous it is.

    I am SO glad you have taken this step. And I can't wait to get my copy.

  25. Allison Brennan

    Brett, I have two very close friends who adopted baby girls from China. And I think you're right–there's a lot less overt racism now (at least where I live.) Sacramento has a lot of interracial marriages, and I think that has also blurred the line in an "us" vs "them" past.

  26. Shizuka

    I can't wait to read The Silent Girl.
    There's definitely racism out there, some of it more muffled than it was when I was a kid, but I don't think racism is the only reason people don't read books with non-white characters.
    Readers wonder if they'll be able to identify with the struggles of the non-white protagonist or the world she lives in. I know that's why I'm often reluctant to read science fiction or historical fiction.
    And why I've read books that take place in a social setting very different than my own and sometimes haven't been able to sink into the book.

    I think people are ready for "not the same old thing." At least, some people are.

  27. Allison Davis

    You all stirred up more thoughts. I have a brother in law from Haiti and a sister in law from Tokyo who is half Chinese and half Japanese and cousins who married Japanese in Buddhist ceremonies, African Americans, Filipinos…so the world is changing,. but not everyone. I like what Gar says, gotta do your part and keep putting it out there.
    "I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word." – Martin Luther King Jr., Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech , 12.10.64

    Unarmed truth. There you have it.

  28. Robert Carraher

    @ Shizuka for me, a skinny white guy, that is why I read such a broad spectrum. If I want to know how a a fat white guy who is cheating on his wife, while steeling from his job is doing, I can stand in my front yard and listen to the neighbors. if I want to broaden my horizons, learn about how other people think (and yep, fiction is so great for being able to teach that) then I want to read other things. I remember like I read it yesterday a Walter Mosely scene from Brown Sugar. EZ Rawlins discovers the dead body of Brown Sugar's white lover and contemplates calling the police, but then he thinks." Dead white boy. Black man at the scene." and he knows that even tho' there is no way the evidence could point to him, that the police are still going to give him the rubber hose. Now a white character would have called the police. that's the reality I want to learn about. And I want to understand as a reader. Unfortunately, the average reader wants to read what he can learn standing in his front yard and listening to the neighbors.

  29. KDJames

    Living in the South, I see a lot of racism, both subtle and overt. The most infuriating are people who honestly don't think they're racist but who say things like, "Well, you know how 'they' are." And if I object, they say, "You're not from here, you don't understand." Yet they are horribly offended if you tell them that's a racist viewpoint. In their mind, they aren't racist, they're just being honest. I refuse to ignore it or let it go unremarked, but how do you even begin to counter that kind of attitude?

    I do see hope for change though. Both my kids went to public schools [honestly not sure why that's even a point of discussion here] and both have friends of different ethnic backgrounds, as well as from different countries. I think they tend to see skin colour the same way they see hair or eye colour. With all their international study-related travel, the world is becoming a smaller and more known place.

    Tess, I'm sad we're still having this discussion in our lifetime, but I'm proud of you for lifting your head up and looking us straight in the eye about your past experience and also for writing this book. In addition to all the others mentioned, there are the works of Tony Hillerman and Kathleen Eagle — one could argue that Native American heroes are an even more difficult "sell" than Asian Americans, but both of these writers have succeeded admirably in very different genres.

    I'm also a bit stunned that a writer of your stature worries about "fear of failure." Guess I'd sort of hoped that after a certain amount of time or number of bestselling books sold, that feeling would go away. Good grief, we writers really are a neurotic tangle of insecurities, aren't we? Wishing you safe travels.

  30. Clare Havens

    I think that writers should just start writing about ethnically diverse characters if that's what you feel you need in your story – that's the only way to get a paradigm shift. If the story is good enough, people will buy it!

  31. Calvin Camp

    Since Leslie Glass has been writing bestselling crime fiction with a Chinese-American lead for over 15 years, I really don't see why it should be a problem for you to write one. Sure there are too many racists out there, but there are far more people who really don't care what race you or your characters are – and we just want a good story with compelling characters.

    I mean, think about it. You've got an established fan base. Most of them have probably already figured out that you're not white, and they haven't disappeared. If they were racists, they wouldn't likely be reading books written by someone they hated any more than they'd read about a character they hated.

  32. Fran

    I think that the internet and movies have broken down a lot of stereotypes in a lot of fields. Manga and anime, along with Lucy Liu and Maggie Q and Masi Oka have opened a lot of Asian doors, and a lot of people didn't notice. Precious Ramotswe sneaked in and charmed all manner of white folks while they weren't looking. Change is slow, but it's here. Heh, even some gay protagonists are making it on the scene, becoming more mainstream.

    Oh, but Tess, that picture of your family in the restaurant will haunt me. I'm about as white as you can get and not burn in the sun, but my mom's Native American heritage gave her an African American tone, and she got kicked out of a restaurant in Biloxi, even if she was "that white kid's nigger nanny". I learned to stand up to racism at a very early age, may I just say. My mom, a USAF captain, didn't take racism or any sort of bigotry lightly. There may still be scorch marks in that restaurant. But to sit there, patiently being ignored? That just breaks my heart!

  33. Naomi Hirahara

    Can't wait for the book, Tess!

    I do think times have changed some, but it's still tough in terms of bestsellerdom. The director, Justin Lin, who recently released the latest Fast and Furious film, "Fast Five," has blogged that he has lost money on every Asian American movie that he's directed.

    There's certain niches that have done better than others. Amy Tan, of course, has found success in the mother-daughter storyline. And THE HOTEL ON BITTER AND SWEET is at its heart a historic romance (as was SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS and MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA). Lisa See has mined history as well — her literary books, rather than her international thrillers, launched her on bestseller lists. (BTW, looking forward for her next, DREAMS OF JOY. And a movie based on her first historical will be coming out this summer.)

    In our genre, SJ Rozan has her popular Lydia Chin and yes, Barry Eisler with his John Rain (although I have never heard of a hapa having an operation to look more Asian — pure fantasy, and that's fine — it's about an assassin, right?). And whatever we may think of him, there's old boy Charlie Chan. I'm currently reading THE HOUSE WITHOUT A KEY to compare Chan with the real Hawaiian character he was modeled after.

    So there's another issue, do these characters need to be more exotic — drawn a certain way so that they are more acceptable to non-Asian readers?

    Certainly, there is more openness to characters of color in books more than movies. And nowadays, since the success of a book is sometimes linked to a movie option or actual movie, this could be a problem.

    I'll link your post in an Asian American Facebook group that I belong to, and let's see if they will chime in. They have some strong opinions, so this may be very interesting.

  34. bigWOWO

    Thank you for this blog post, Tess Gerritsen. I think it's awesome that you are using your platform as a bestselling author to return to your roots. I imagine that it must be cathartic to write about where you came from. If your next work has a wide readership, perhaps you'll be able to change the commercial landscape so that minority writers will no longer face the pressure of having to write about White characters.

    Mad props, and I'm looking forward to your book. I just blogged about you here:

    "Big sales mean wide readership, and by moving in an Asian American direction with her latest book, Tess Gerritsen will have the history, the numbers, and the readership to better bring Asian Americans into the mainstream dialogue. While it’s unfortunate that discrimination forces our writers to take a circuitous route in bringing our issues to the forefront, a circuitous route still brings us to a similar destination.

  35. Laura

    Tess –
    I think it's inspiring that you've written the story you always wanted to tell. I was fortunate enough to receive a proof copy of "The Silent Girl", and I loved it.
    Thank you, it's always a pleasure reading your books. (Even if they do keep me up waaay into the night!)

  36. Nels Wong

    Tess, I applaud you making a conscious effort to add in major Chinese American characters. I've appreciated the other Asian American characters you've added in your previous books and that did not go unnoticed on me when I read them. I am also glad that you are in a position to affect your own stories, the way you originally had wanted to 23 years ago. Certainly keeping the stories and characters interesting is key, regardless of ethnicity, race, or background so keep on writing great stories and that will keep fans satisfied.

    Compared to 23 years ago, I'm certain that there has been some progress. Perhaps not nearly enough, but I do think small strides forward eventually helps out down the road. Now, if only Hollywood could get out of their own living in the past and catching up to the progress of current times.

    You may also find this interesting. Some friends of mine in the Young Adult market are also trying to expand the diversity of stories and characters in their market. Check out and you'll see that there are many authors out there equally interested in expanding the diversity of characters.

    Keep up the great work and I cannot wait to read "The Silent Girl" very soon.

  37. flipsockgrrl

    Two belated thoughts…

    It's only within our lifetimes — and relatively recently, at that — that the female professional investigator has become a normal, non-noteworthy staple of crime fiction.Thirty years ago Rizzoli and Isles might have struggled to find a publisher at all — now they and a dozen others of their ilk have their own TV shows, book series, radio adaptations, range of t-shirts and coffee cups, etc 🙂 If women can become mainstream in this way, there's no reason to think other 'minority' characters can't do likewise.

    Second, while on the whole I agree with Phillipa's comments about Melbourne (and Australia in general) being largely white/European, it's worth remembering that one's perspective can be shaped by one's neighborhood. Come to inner northern/western suburbs like Footscray, Collingwood, Flemington, Essendon or Brunswick and then tell me you don't see African, Middle-Eastern, Arab, Indian, Asian, South American and East Asian faces every day 🙂

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