Asian Chick Lit
Bollywood Confidential – Sonia Singh
Goddess for Hire – Sonia Singh
Bridget Jung's Diary
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
Chick lit is dead -- long live chick lit! Asian American writers are bringing a fresh new look to a prefab publishing genre.
Jimmy Choo slingbacks and Fendi baguettes. First-name-only sex and guilt-induced Ben and Jerry's binges. Ticking biological clocks, teetering careers, tilt-a-whirl flirtations with Messrs. Right, Wrong and Why the Hell Not.
This, in a pastel nutshell, is the stuff of which the publishing category called chick lit was made in the late '90s. Publishers, swooning over the success of Helen Fielding's "Bridget Jones's Diary" and Melissa Bank's "The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing," began cranking out hundreds of candy-colored clones, featuring nearly indistinguishable white, blond, neurotic protagonists desperately seeking attention, success and a good man -- not necessarily in that order. For the next half decade, the genre grew at the staggering (for the book industry) pace of 7 percent per year, peaking in 2005 at about $140 million in sales, according to market research firm Simba Information.
And then, abruptly, it looked as if the party was over. As Kristin, the anonymous literary agent behind the PubRants blog, posted on Feb. 1, 2006, chick lit manuscripts that would once have prompted feeding frenzies were going cold and unsold. The genre is "in the toilet," she remarked. "Is the chick lit trend dead?"
Which is why it's an interesting coincidence that this week, two new chick lit novels by Asian American authors, Michelle Yu and Blossom Kan's "China Dolls" and "Good Things" by Darien Hsu Gee (writing as Mia King) are hitting Barnes & Noble bookshelves for the first time -- while a third, Julie K.L. Dam's "Some Like It Haute," is now being released in paperback. And their works are just part of a burgeoning buffet that includes Kim Wong Keltner's "The Dim Sum of All Things" and "Buddha Baby," Caroline Hwang's "In Full Bloom" and a clutch of works by Desi divas, including Sonia Singh's "Bollywood Confidential" and "Goddess for Hire," Kavita Daswani's "For Matrimonial Purposes" and "The Village Bride of Beverly Hills," Swati Kashwal's "Piece of Cake," Amulya Malladi's "The Mango Season" and Anjali Banerjee's "Imaginary Men" and "Invisible Lives" -- all published in the past two years.
"A lot of people question the longevity of the genre, saying it's a fading fad, but the truth is, the genre isn't dying -- it's evolving," says Diana Szu, editor at the St. Martin's Press imprint Thomas Dunne Books, who acquired Yu and Kan's "China Dolls." "It's moving away from just being about shopping and designer labels, and tackling more serious issues. And it's manifesting itself in a lot of subgenres: chick lit mystery, mommy lit, even 'hen lit,' for older women. And of course, you've seen the emergence of ethnic authors -- black and Latina and Asian American -- who are reinventing the genre in their own image."
Dressed for Success
Of course, reinvention doesn't mean throwing out the Manolos just because your hose has a run in it. Just because an author is Asian American doesn't mean that she has to beat readers over the head with the Joy Luck club.
"I'm an Asian American novelist who's written a chick lit novel, but my book is not an 'Asian American chick lit novel,'" says Julie Dam, a senior editor at People magazine whose foray into the genre, "Some Like It Haute," was first published in hardcover a year ago February. "My character doesn't have an ethnicity attached, and that's a conscious decision: I wanted to think that on some level, we've moved beyond skin color, that we can tell universal stories."
Universal, that is to say, if you know and love the frenetically fabulous world of runway fashion, which Dam does, having covered the shows for Time magazine for several years at the start of her magazine career. Like most examples of the genre, "Haute" has its semiautobiographical elements: Dam's protagonist, Alexandra Simons, has brown hair and eyes, is from Texas, stalks models and designers on behalf of an international newsmagazine and has both the temerity and the self-awareness to call herself "smart and shallow." (A self-description that Dam, tongue embedded firmly in cheek, owns up to: Heck, she graduated from Harvard, but covers music and celeb weddings for People -- what she calls the "Britney and Beyoncé beat.")
What Simons isn't, at least not explicitly, is Vietnamese American -- or even Asian at all. That's not to say that she couldn't be; there are plenty of multiracial and adopted Asian Americans with last names like Simons. But Dam consciously wanted to keep race from dominating the book's narrative. "I've read lots of good Asian American literature, and I don't want to make it seem like I'm dissing it -- I just didn't feel at that point like I could write it any better than the people who were already doing it. I didn't think I had something new to add to that discussion yet. People, especially other Asian American women, always come up to me and ask me if Alex is supposed to be Asian, and I basically say, 'Maybe yes, maybe no -- that's up to you.' For me, it just wasn't the most important thing about the character."
Asian or not, Alex is feisty, fashion-forward and possessed of a stiletto-sharp wit. For readers looking for a book spiced with zingers and couturista-insider flavor, "Haute" prances in runway lockstep with "The Devil Wears Prada," though with a little more out-there zest to the plotline. Think reality TV show contestants, high school French teachers and the mysterious disappearance of an Esperanto-speaking fashion designer from the highlands of Peru, solved with the help of an undercover mole code-named Deep Décolletage, and you're most of the way there. Oh, and there's also the sudden arrival of Mama Simons at the Paris shows, a twist that may be the most Asian American element in the book -- the hovering ability of Asian parents being, of course, legendary.
But that's as close as it gets to the tropes of identity, family and mother-daughter bonding that make up that other well-populated genre of fiction, the Asian American family memoir. "The fact of the matter is, I wrote this book because I wasn't ready to write the book I really wanted to write, which, ironically, is a historical novel about my family set in pre-World War II Vietnam," admits Dam. "I still intend to write that someday, but at the time I was having a very hard time putting it down on paper. And my agent said, after I struggled for a year, 'You know, you should just write something quick and fun and easy first, to show yourself you can do it.'"
Which, given her professional experience and the then-surging popularity of "The Devil Wears Prada," prompted Dam's foray into the chick lit milieu. "And I don't have a problem with the term chick lit, either -- I don't see it as pejorative," says Dam. "I know other writers who really push back on it, but I see it as just a label. There's good chick lit, there's bad chick lit and there's everything in between. If marketing a book as chick lit means it has a better chance of being bought and read than the thousands of literary novels that are published every year that sink without a trace, why not go for it?"
Dishing It Out
That's more or less the opinion favored by Darien Hsu Gee, whose new book "Good Things" was published Feb. 6 under her pseudonym, "Mia King." "Some women writers take offense at being lumped into the category, but I really don't," says Hsu Gee. "It's all just marketing, at the end of the day. Publishing is a business and, you know, it's like Laurence Fishburne told Keanu Reeves in 'The Matrix': If you're going to play in this world, there are certain rules you have to follow. The physics of the real world doesn't necessarily apply."
"Good Things" mostly fits the physics of the chick-lit world: Peppy, attractive protagonist in a glamour profession (in this case, TV chef and lifestyle personality) hits a bad patch in the road, losing her friends, her job, her erstwhile love interest and very nearly her mind, before getting it all back again, a stronger and wiser person for the experience. Bitter female rival, gay best friend, mistaken identities, Manolo heels -- all present and accounted for. But what makes "Good Things" somewhat different from its peers is its setting -- Seattle and its rural backwaters -- and the fact that its protagonist, Deidre McIntosh, is a shade older than the genre's thirtysomething median.
"Deidre is 40, and you rarely have a heroine over 35 in chick lit," says Hsu Gee. "But that's me. I just felt more comfortable writing within my demographic."
As far as age is concerned, that is: McIntosh is not written as Asian American, which, according to Hsu Gee, was just a matter of "listening to the story." "As a writer, you have to write what you have to write, and as I was writing, it just turned out that this character, who I really connected with and enjoyed, wasn't Asian," she says.
"Which shouldn't be a limitation. If J.K. Rowling can write books from the point of view of a boy wizard, there's no reason why I can't write from the point of view of a non-Asian. But you know what? That's actually the first time anyone's asked about that. I think everyone's just too embarrassed to talk about race and to ask that question, 'You're Chinese American, but you wrote a non-Chinese character.' And I think that's a valid question."
On that point, Hsu Gee says that "Good Things" is actually the second manuscript she's written. Her first, penned a decade ago, was a book called "Terracotta Women," about two Asian American sisters, and she found it an uphill battle to market. "This was just a book featuring two Asian American characters who've grown up in the U.S., who have this quirky family -- but no mysticism, no ghosts in Chinatown," she says.
"And I just kept on getting told by agents, 'I love the book -- I just don't know if I can sell it. There's no demand for this kind of a story'" -- that is, for an Asian American woman's novel without overwrought ancestral melodrama and people handing each other swan feathers. "I think the climate has changed. That book could sell now. But back then, it was all Amy Tan, back-to-your-roots, Chinatown fiction that was dominating the Asian American lit market."
But Hsu Gee has no interest in hiding her identity as an Asian American. "There's a big-ass author photo of me in the book -- it's actually a lot bigger than I expected. I honestly thought it'd be one of those discreet, postage-stamp size pictures. And I clearly mention my husband's name in my author bio," she says. Not just because she's
proud of her hubby, but because it's at the heart of why she ultimately chose to write under a pseudonym. From her blog's FAQ:
Q: I've heard that Mia King is a pen name. Is that true?"Honestly, if Darrin's book weren't coming out so close to mine, I wouldn't have even bothered," laughs Hsu Gee. "I submitted a list of 10 different names to my editor and agent and asked them to pick one. My favorite was actually Sara Lee -- I thought it would be funny, given that my protagonist is a baker -- but they didn't like it. We ended up with Mia King: 'King' because I have some good friends who are Chinese with that last name, and 'Mia' sort of in honor of my daughter, whose name is Maya." Chai Tea Latte for Two
A: Yes, it is. My real name is Darien Hsu Gee. I chose to write under a pen name because my husband, Darrin Gee, had a nonfiction golf book, "The Seven Principles of Golf: Mastering The Mental Game On and Off the Golf Course," being released a month after "Good Things" (how's that for coincidence?!). I thought writing under a pen name would eliminate any confusion, but Darrin still gets complimented on writing contemporary women's fiction. Oh well.
One of the other conventions of chick lit the idea that synchronicity happens and, for the genre's star-crossed protagonists, it happens all the damn time. Have a one-night stand with a handy stranger? Assume he's the brother of your childhood nemesis, the ex-boyfriend of your new boss or the hot-shot CEO of a rival company, because that's just how life rolls in chicklitaville.
So it shouldn't be a total surprise when, just hours after I hang up with Hsu Gee, I receive an e-mail from Anjali Banerjee with a link to some of her pre-chick lit work, including her first published book, a semiautobiographical young adult novel called "Maya Running." And Banerjee's most recent book, "Invisible Lives," also happens to be set in Seattle, where Banerjee now lives -- though unlike Hsu Gee, her protagonist and most of her supporting characters are Asian American. In fact, Banerjee says that her publishing experience has been almost exactly the opposite of Hsu Gee's.
"The first book I wrote was actually a pretty straight romantic suspense novel, called 'Night Train Home,'" says Banerjee. "It didn't have any Asian characters and was quite honestly a pretty bad book. But the primary critique I got from agents was that it wasn't 'different' enough: It wouldn't stand out from the hundreds of other works of contemporary women's fiction already being published. And so I decided to tap into my own ethnic background, my own cultural experience, to give my next book a more distinctive flavor."
The charmingly quirky coming-of-age novel "Maya Running" landed Banerjee a two-book contract with Random House juvenile imprint Wendy Lamb Books. But Banerjee's follow-up, "Imaginary Men," developed in the writing into a story aimed at a somewhat more mature readership. "My agent took one look at it and said, 'We're going to market this for adult audiences,'" she says. "It's not like I set out to write a chick lit novel. It was entirely a marketing decision on the part of my agent."
"Imaginary Men" and its follow-up, "Invisible Lives," ended up at Downtown Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, whose logo is a pink-and-black icon of a shopping bag. "But to be fair, my editor at S&S has been careful to steer me away from the genre cliches -- no pink covers!" says Banerjee. "She's constantly telling me, 'I don't think of you as a chick lit writer or a romance writer -- I think of you as a writer, period.'"
Which didn't stop Publishers Weekly from calling "Imaginary Men" "'Monsoon Wedding' meets 'Bridget Jones's Diary.'" "Hey, I have no problem with that," laughs Banerjee. "I'd be delighted if everyone who watched 'Monsoon Wedding' and bought 'Bridget Jones's Diary' also bought my book. Unfortunately, there are people out there who see an Indian on the cover of a book and won't buy it. They'll be like, 'Oh, this book isn't meant for me.' It's a bit of a catch 22: You want to be able to write something distinctive, but you also want to have people recognize that there are broader themes in the work, that the work is universal."
And Banerjee definitely has a point. "Invisible Lives" tells the tale of Lakshmi Sen, a girl mystically blessed by the eponymous goddess with the ability to see into people's hearts. The gentle magical realism of the narrative and the vividness of the setting -- Lakshmi works her wonders with selections from her family sari shop, identifying exactly the right pattern and shade to match her customers' emotional needs -- gives it the feel of a masala-scented "Like Water for Chocolate." Other than the twentysomething age of its protagonist and the meet-cute romantic throughline that propels the protagonist into the arms of her unlikely but ideal man, "Invisible Lives" has very little in common with the books it's being stacked with.
Which ultimately begs the question: Does the chick lit label provide any real marketing advantages for works about Asian American, er, chicks? Two to Conquer
Michelle Yu and Blossom Kan, authors of the fresh-on-the-shelf "China Dolls," barely have time to pause to think about that question. Between finishing the novel, launching its companion Web site/blog, prepping for their five-city author tour and negotiating deals with the book's sponsors -- yeah, you read that right -- it's a wonder the two even have time to do their full-time day jobs, as sports reporter for New York 1 Cable News and corporate litigator, respectively.
For the dynamic duo (the two are cousins), the chick lit genre has represented an incredible opportunity to repackage Asian American issues for a commercial mass market. "China Dolls," which follows the romantic entanglements and disentanglements of a trio of single Asian American females -- a sportswriter, an attorney and their investment banker friend -- is a conscious attempt on Kan and Yu's part to update that classic of Asian American women's fiction, Amy Tan's "The Joy Luck Club," only with a younger, savvier and more contemporary perspective (heavy on the ginger spice martinis, light on the mahjong).
"'The Joy Luck Club' is really the only Asian American book to ever break through to mass popularity,'" notes Kan. "And that was in 1990 -- 17 years ago. That's really quite shocking. You look at an analogue like 'Waiting to Exhale,' which blazed the same kind of trail for African American women's fiction, and basically it created an opportunity for books by black authors to sit in the front of the bookstore, where everyone can now come and see them. That same phenomenon hasn't happened with Asian American authors."
"If you walk into a bookstore now," agrees Yu, "there's a whole row of African American books out front, Latina women's fiction everywhere you look, but Asian American books are nowhere to be seen. And that's what we really want to do: We want to start that row, and to inspire more Asian American women to dive into writing commercial fiction."
Which means that for Yu and Kan the marketing is a big part of the message.
"I hate that question about whether you feel like you're 'selling out' just because you're marketing yourself in a commercial way," says Kan. "In my opinion, Asian Americans have to become more commercial -- we have to infiltrate the mainstream, get our work out to wider audiences. It's not enough just to write good books. People have to buy them and read them, too."
There's something infectious about the pair's energy -- a vibe that others seem to be picking up as well: Hollywood titan Creative Artists Agency has signed on to rep "China Dolls" for cinematic adaptation, and St. Martin's has extended their deal by two more books. It's a cheap line, but their optimism seems to jump out at you right from their very names -- Kan Yu? Yu Kan!
Packaged Goods -- and Bads
Of course, even successful marketing can be a two-edged sword. The wild hype around one erstwhile member of the Asian American chick literati, Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan, certainly contributed to her downfall after long passages in her book "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life" were discovered to be plagiarized from fellow authors in the genre -- Megan McCafferty ("Sloppy Firsts" and "Second Helpings"), Sophie Kinsella ("Can You Keep a Secret?"), Meg Cabot ("The Princess Diaries") and even another Indian American author, Tanuja Desai Hidler ("Born Confused").
"It was frustrating for me, because she'd received this huge advance and so much publicity, while legit writers are just floating away trying to gain some recognition," says Anjali Banerjee. "But I did feel sad for her. She's young, and I think it'd have been different if she were more mature and more in control of what was going on. There's no question that a lot of the fault lies with the people packaging her behind the scenes."
That would be Alloy Entertainment, the media leviathan behind such chick lit blockbusters as the Gossip Girls line and Ann Brashares' "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants," which was accused of being the actual creator of Viswanathan's Frankenstein novel -- a charge that Viswanathan herself denies. But even setting aside blatant patch-and-match jobs like "Opal Mehta," the chick lit machine at its worst seems to blur authors and titles into identical bonbons on a confectioner's conveyor belt -- obscuring cultural distinctions and authentic voices under a sleek candy coating for mess-free mass consumption.
Which means that most reviewers and readers alike won't know the genuine differences that make the talented women above unique individuals -- like the fact that Julie Dam married her long-time boyfriend six months ago, but the two still haven't gotten around to moving in together. ("I laugh at the ridiculousness of it all, but I swear we'll be cohabiting in 2007 -- we've made a promise.")
Or that Darien Hsu Gee has two kids -- a 6-year-old and a 1-year-old -- and is homeschooling them on Hawaii's Big Island.