I will start by being so bold as to quote a rejection by an esteemed former editor, publisher, and literary agent who shall remain nameless, but who read The Lockpicker in manuscript form. He wrote a brief letter of praise, but ultimately rejected the novel. The line from his letter that shouted back at me was thus:
What fails for me is that it [that] virtually nothing is made of the fact that these guys are Koreans. I suppose in the alleged melting pot of America that might be a good thing, but for the book it doesn’t lend anything even lightly exotic to the narrative or the characters.
Before you get shocked or wince sympathetically, I must confess that this was not the first time I’d receive this kind of rejection. I won’t get into the identity and racial politics of why this critique is so pernicious, but it’s enough to say that exoticism for exoticism’s sake, especially from a Korean-American writer who sees himself as American and not exotic, is just, well, antiquated.
Another rejection for another novel, another, longer quote from a legendary editor:
The characters, especially the main character, just do not seem Asian enough. They act like everyone else. They don’t eat Korean food, they don’t speak Korean, and you have to think about ways to make these characters more ’ethnic,’ more different. We get too much of the minutiae of [the characters’] lives and none of the details that separate Koreans and Korean-Americans from the rest of us. For example, in the scene when she looks into the mirror, you don’t show how she sees her slanted eyes, or how she thinks of her Asianness.
Half the problem is that the agents and editors, who probably knew or guessed Chang was Korean-American, expected him to write only about issues related to that ethnicity (and then, probably dreary accounts about how difficult life is in racist America). I’ve mentioned this problem before in the context of Turkish author Elif Şafak:
When my first novel written in English came out in America, I heard an interesting remark from a literary critic. “I liked your book,” he said, “but I wish you had written it differently.” (Laughter) I asked him what he meant by that. He said, “Well, look at it. There’s so many Spanish, American, Hispanic characters in it, but there’s only one Turkish character and it’s a man.” Now the novel took place on a university campus in Boston, so to me, it was normal that there be more international characters in it than Turkish characters, but I understood what my critic was looking for. And I also understood that I would keep disappointing him. He wanted to see the manifestation of my identity. He was looking for a Turkish woman in the book because I happened to be one.
Writers are not seen as creative individuals on their own, but as the representatives of their respective cultures: a few authors from China, a few from Turkey, a few from Nigeria.
It must be pretty depressing to be an author from an ethnic minority and find editors and agents are only interested in your stories if they include characters of that minority and they are described and behave in the way Western progressives suppose they should. As a pale-faced Brit I am unlikely to encounter such prejudices – editors and agents will reject my work for very different reasons – but the answer is there anyway: self-publish.