Diversity Beyond Borders: A Conversation with Charles Tan

It’s been great to see a renewed media and reader focus on diversity in literature lately, but when we talk about diversity in the United States we typically focus on writers based in the US and UK.

I talked with writer and editor Charles Tan, who lives and works in the Philippines, about what issues around diversity look like from an international perspective.

Charles Tan is the editor of Lauriat: A Filipino-Chinese Speculative Fiction Anthology. His fiction has appeared in publications such as The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories, Philippine Speculative Fiction and the anthology The Dragon and the Stars (ed. by Derwin Mak and Eric Choi). He has contributed nonfiction to websites such as The Shirley Jackson Awards, Fantasy Magazine, The World SF Blog, and SF Signal. You can visit his blog, Bibliophile Stalker.

Sarah McCarry: You’re a writer and editor (and reader!) based in Southeast Asiain what ways do you interact with the mainstream (or independent) publishing industry in the US/UK? What have those experiences been like?

Charles Tan: In a certain way, I’m in a privileged position; if you mention my name in the Philippines, no one knows me. But in the science fiction or fantasy genre in the mainstream publishing industry, I’m usually known either as a blogger, reviewer, or interviewer. And it’s a complex relationship, because whenever Philippine speculative fiction is mentioned in the mainstream publishing industry, my name is usually the first one that comes up, and that’s not the case here locally.

For the most part, it’s been a favorable experience—I get books to review, I get to interview some of my favorite authors (although I haven’t yet gotten to interview you!!!), I get to write some nonfiction pieces here and there… I’ve even edited my own anthology, Lauriat: A Filipino-Chinese Speculative Fiction Anthology, for an indie press in New York, Lethe Press. And I was even nominated for the World Fantasy Awards thrice.

SM: You’ve talked about how books by Filipino authors rarely get published in the United States, but books from the US/UK are regularly distributed in the Philippines. How does this impact the way you think about “diversity” and what it means? What would real diversity look like to you as a reader and writer?

CT: Again, it’s a complex situation. A few years back, I wrote an essay on how the term “World SF” is problematic, and it’s mostly defined by what it isn’t. In that same way, “diversity” isn’t an accurate term in the sense that it’s defined more by what it’s not. Right now, diversity is a catch-all term for all the shortcomings of the Western publishing scene, whether we’re talking about lack of women, lack of people of color, lack of representation for people who do not fall under the binary gender spectrum, etc. Diversity is basically for those who aren’t privileged—usually WASP authors and editors (although there will be variations of this formula; maybe they’re Jewish, maybe they’re Mormon, or maybe they’re a privileged female author, etc.).

So talking about diversity is like tackling the medical term cancer—and knowledgeable people know a spiel is bullshit when a celebrity or politician makes a claim about “curing cancer” because right now, there’s no universal cure for anything; the best we have are treatments for individual forms of cancer, whether it’s lung cancer, heart cancer, eye cancer, etc. So talking about diversity will mean a different thing depending on who I’m talking to. When I talk to Christie Yant, who edited the “Women Destroy Science Fiction” issue of Lightspeed Magazine, it might mean representation of women in the genre. When I talk to Malinda Lo, author of books like Ash, Huntress, and Adaptation, it could mean representation of LGBT characters and People of Color in YA. When I talk to Jaymee Goh, an author and fan of steampunk, it could be about race and People of Color in genre. Or if I talk to Joyce Chng, an author from Singapore who writes novels like Rider, it could mean about people outside of the US/UK getting published.

In a perfect world, all these voices would have equal representation—not just in the books we read, but in pop culture in general. But as it is, we have issues like more severed heads than women presenters in E3, how American films don’t feature PoC (despite their being the majority of Americans), how the next wave of YA films adapted from novels are being directed by male directors, representation of LGBT people in superhero comics, etc. And as someone whose agenda is usually ignored or pushed aside, it’s tempting to blame allies for this: why is that PoC’s books being featured and not mine? And this is the wrong kind of mentality; we’re people at the margins fighting for the 10% (that is an arbitrary statistic) share we have, when we should be fighting against the 90% that dominates the field, not with each other.

The tragedy is that this isn’t new. How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ, for example, was published back in 1983 and we’re still suffering from the same problems. The other thing to point out is how all these diversity issues will eventually converge. For example, I might edit an anthology with a decent gender parity, but how about the distribution between people of color? LGBT representation? Distribution of writers based on geography? Just like first wave feminism gave way to the second wave and the third wave (which became more friendly to LGBT people), our definition of diversity needs to evolve and become inclusive. But at this point in time, we can’t tackle all these issues at once, so we’re at this stage where each individual will have one or two causes they want to solve and/or specialize in. Sometimes, our causes overlap, but for the most part, they are segregated.

SM: How do you think issues of representation are different for international writers, as opposed to writers (especially writers of color) in the US/UK?

CT: It’s different in all the ways that matter.

Take for example a writer from the US/UK published by the Big 5. Their books will get distributed around the world (whether it does well or not). A writer from the Philippines published by a local major published will only get their books distributed in the Philippines, and even then, they’re second-class citizens compared to the US/UK books. Just visit any bookstore here and most of the books on the shelves are foreign books. Some bookstores will have books under the Filipiniana section, which is where you’ll find local books. It’s ironic that in the Philippines, it’s easier to acquire US/UK books than it is for local ones.

There’s also the quantity disparity. Barring the romance genre, the typical initial print run of a locally published fiction title is 1,000 or 2,000. That’s like the print run of a small press in the US/UK. Even a mid-lister in the US/UK will get a print run of around 10,000 copies.

And then there’s royalties. I think most fiction writers in the Philippines don’t expect to earn money from their writing. Some even don’t mind getting pirated, because that means, at the very least, their writing gets read. And that’s another shortcoming here; since a lot of writers can’t really sustain themselves from their fiction writing, there’s an absence of agents and knowledgeable lawyers who specialize in copyright. That, in turn, leads to abuse to aspiring authors, and it’s happening right now. Wattpad is popular here so many publishers scoop up writers, buying not publication rights to their work but their actual copyright, and authors are happy with it, as long as the publisher releases a print book of their work (since their Internet readership is intangible feedback to them and lacks the edification they would have received from a print book).

It’s possible for a local writer to get published in the US/UK, but that’s the exception rather than the norm, and even then, it’s under the terms of the US/UK publisher, and by that, I mean the content, which will usually focus on the Filipino-American experience or maybe eliminate the Filipino character entirely. If we look at the books published under a US publisher—The Gangster of Love by Jessica Hagedorn or Illustrado by Miguel Syjuco—it’s usually from an expatriate perspective. And while I haven’t read the book, Before Ever After by Samantha Sotto (who is based here in the Philippines), based on the book description, is set in Europe.

And let’s not even talk about eBooks and self-publishing. Barnes & Noble doesn’t sell outside of the US and the UK. Apple sells eBooks to a lot of countries, but the Philippines is not one of them (at least at the time of this writing). Amazon has a complex royalty policy, none of which favors the Philippines; if your book is priced between $2.99 ~ $9.99, you can get a 70% royalty share (this was initially established to compete with Apple’s royalties to publishers and authors), but only if the consumer who bought it belongs to one of Amazon’s listed countries. Worse, Amazon also charges $2.00 extra to customers from select countries as a charge for their Whispersync service. So a $2.99 book costs $4.99 if the customer is from the Philippines, and worse, the publisher is only getting 35% royalties instead of 70% it would have gotten if the consumer was from the US. This encourages a consumer base targeted at readers from abroad, rather than one that nurtures a local readership—at least if you want to maximize your profit.

And again, we go back to presenting books by international writers to appeal to reviewers, book bloggers, etc. When was the last time you saw a major book blog feature a book published in a country like Singapore, Malaysia, India? And this will extend to media outlets that cover book reviews, individual book bloggers, etc.

Or the language barrier. Either your book is in a foreign language that some readers won’t bother to learn (or consequently, publishers unwilling to pay for good translators), or they mistake that your book is inauthentic because it’s in English (never mind the nuances between American English vs. Singaporean English vs. Filipino English, etc.).

Or simply present/pitch a book that’s interesting to them, and by default, a book outside of the norm tends to not interest them, especially without the marketing of a major publisher or brand name. And this could be an unconscious bias. Even I’m not excluded from that.

If you’re a writer of color from the US/UK, you have access to all those benefits. And by default, they’re writing from the perspective of an American nonetheless—just from a POC perspective—and that’s perfectly justified, since that’s their experience or agenda.

And again, this is not to say publishers should make space for international writers at the cost of writers who are POC in the US/UK. In an ideal world, do both.

Having said that, representation here in the Philippines (and perhaps in other countries as well) is not perfect. We have problems with representations of local languages for example, as well as LGBT literature.

SM: What steps can US readers and publishers take to better support real diversity?

CT: I think the answer is obvious, but the question is whether we want to take the risk or not.

For publishers, take a chance on authors not from the US/UK, and that goes for their content as well. Dedicated marketing efforts to promote their work; this is one of the problems, I think, of several publishers. Even when they do publish a book that’s diverse, they don’t allot significant marketing efforts towards it.

As for readers, expand their horizons, be aware of their own unconscious bias, and take risks on reading/buying different kinds of books.

SM: Who are some Filipino authors everybody should be reading?

CT: I don’t think there’s any author that everybody should be reading, but definitely there are several Filipino authors that are currently underrated, or outside of the radar of most readers. For the sake of disclosure, if the day job (a local eBook publisher) has published the books of a specific author, I will mark it with an asterisk (*).

If you’re into speculative fiction, I recommend Tin Lao, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Eliza Victoria*, Dean Francis Alfar*, Nikki Alfar*, Kate Aton-Osias*, Ian Rosales Casocot*, Crystal Koo, Isabel Yap, and Alyssa Wong.

If you’re into history, I suggest Ambeth Ocampo.

I’m currently enjoying the nonfiction of Barbara Jane Reyes and Gina Apostol, and they are talented writers in their own right. For comics, I’m currently enjoying the works of Emiliana Kampilan, Mervin Malonzo*, Mica Agregado, and Rob Cham.* (The first two usually write in Filipino.)

I’d also like to plug the following people who aren’t Filipino but contribute a lot when it comes to conversations about diversity:

Amal El-Mohtar, who is a talented writer, poet, editor, reviewer, blogger, etc. (basically she does a lot of things with excellence). Natalie Luhrs, as she covers a lot of genre coverage on her blog, the Radish. Bogi Takács, who writes about diversity and like Amal, is a multi-talented writer. Carrie Cuinn, who is an author/editor, and has her own publishing press. Finally, Galactic Suburbia, my favorite Feminist podcast.


SM: Thank you, Charles!

Sarah McCarry (www.therejectionist.com / @therejectionist) is the author of the novels All Our Pretty Songs and Dirty Wings and the editor and publisher of the chapbook series Guillotine.


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