Photo collage of authors Jessie Ren Marshall and Christine Ma-Kellams

What does it mean to be an Asian American author?

With new books coming out this month, writers Jessie Ren Marshall and Christine Ma-Kellams have a frank talk about representation and identity politics in storytelling

Jessie Ren Marshall and Christine Ma-Kellams are fiction writers who met in a Slack group for debut authors publishing books in 2024. Marshall and Ma-Kellams’s pub dates are both in April, and they connected to trade notes and offer support about their experiences.

Women! In! Peril! (Bloomsbury), Marshall’s genre-bending and wickedly funny story collection, follows a diverse cast of women—parents and children, queer girlfriends and straight divorcées, robots and sex workers—who are on the edge of transformation. Ma-Kellams’ novel The Band (Atria) is a whip-smart, darkly funny thriller that follows a psychologist with a savior complex who offers shelter to a recently canceled K-pop idol on the run. Both books were featured on Debutiful’s list of “most anticipated books of 2024.”

Ma-Kellams is a Harvard-trained cultural psychologist, Pushcart-nominated fiction writer, and first-generation American who lives in California. Marshall is an award-winning playwright who lives off-grid with her dogs in Hawai’i. 

The authors met recently via Zoom to share their experiences as Asian-American writers and to discuss the current state of identity politics in publishing. The conversation was edited for content, clarity, and length.

Jessie Ren Marshall: I have to say, my preconceived notions of a “K-pop novel” were totally subverted by your book, The Band. It’s about a Korean pop star and his relationship with an American fan, so I thought the story would be light and commercial. The subject is pop, but the writing style is elevated and maximalist, and you use academic literary devices, like footnotes. But the story is also very energetic and fun, delving into pop music, fandom, romance, idolization, and high emotion.

Christine Ma-Kellams: I feel like a lot of pop cultural things get relegated to this idea that oh, it's just a fad, or it's just a trend. But really, I feel like they do reflect the broader cultural obsessions and where we are as a society. One of the things I really liked about your collection, Women! In! Peril!, was just how different the protagonists were in each one. Obviously they're all women, but in terms of their own distinctive personal backgrounds and demographics, it made me wonder:  How intentional were you about figuring identity into these stories? In some of the stories, Asian identity features really explicitly into the character. Across stories, there's a variety of Asian identities, but then there's other stories where the protagonist doesn't necessarily even have to be Asian, and the story could fit with any characters from any cultural background.

An author holds up her book, titled "The Band."

Author Christine Ma-Kellams

JRM: So, I’m mixed race. I think it would be super weird if I only wrote about protagonists who reflected my ethnicity, which is half Japanese, half white. Creating diverse characters is a practical concern! The world is diverse, so our characters have to be diverse, too.

Then, there’s also diversity within a single character. We contain multitudes, and each of us views the world through multiple perspectives. And finally, the stories were written over such a long swath of time that I think I was many different Jessies throughout the writing. And I had a different relationship to my Japanese-ness and whiteness at those different times.

But you’re raising an interesting question. There’s definitely a conundrum about representing Asian American identity in fiction. It’s so many different things. How do you write a book thinking, “This belongs in the canon of Asian American literature?” Can you talk about your process in writing The Band and how you framed this question in your mind?

CMK: One of the things I wanted to do across my stories is to feature Asian characters that weren’t necessarily tortured by their identity of being Asians in America. Which is not to say that identity and identity politics don’t come up in The Band, because they doI just wanted to do something different than the typical immigrant storyline. For example, there’s this running commentary about tensions even between Asian countries. In America, we tend to lump all Asians together, but you go to Asia and you'll find that Asians don't necessarily like all other Asians. There's long-standing historical divisions between these different countries. I focus on East Asia in The Band, but obviously, this is not specific to just Korea, Japan, and China. 

So I think part of it was: I want to talk about identity, but not just through the lens of how hard it is to be an Asian American in white America, but also how identity can be really fractured within a community, too.

One of things I noticed is that I've read a number of stories by Asian American women in particular, where one common thread is the psychological torture their characters experience of being in relationships with white men because of the fear of being a fetish. In The Band, there is an Asian woman in a relationship with a white man, but the point of tension in the story is everything else, not just the fact that these two are different races. So some of these tropes relate to identity that I see a lotI enjoy them; I think they're really important, but since it's been done so frequently already, I didn't want to revisit it myself.

The front cover of a book features a scorched k-pop photo card and the title reads "The Band."

"The Band" is a thriller about a canceled K-pop star on the run and his American fan.

Courtesy of Atria

JRM: The word you usedtorturedis so important. Characters who are tortured by their identity as Asians in America. That’s something I like to push against, that everything around identity has to immediately go into the trauma zone. I think that's not true to real life. 

Because, yes, we carry trauma, we experience microaggression, we experience aggression-aggression. At the same time, being Asian is not constantly dire. It's not one-note. There's a whole symphony behind any negative experience.

I do think that there's a reason the cultural conversation keeps talking about Asian women and white men. And it’s important to examine the politics of that without getting hung up on political correctness. Especially in fiction, political correctness is boring.

This is something both of our books do well, I think. They add more emotional nuance to difficult events, through a narrative that is not simply, “It's hard to be a woman. It's hard to be an Asian woman.” Human identity is more complicated and more beautiful and less stereotypical than that.

CMK: Speaking of stereotypes, I think one of my favorite things about your book is just how funny it is. There are more Asians in comedy now than there ever have been historically, but I read a lot of Asian American lit, and while some of it is funny, that’s not exactly what it’s known for. That said, literary fiction is not known for being hilarious, but your stories stand out in that they're hilarious while also being very literary. Many of the stories are poignant, but you also balance the poignancy with really dry humor.

JRM: I wanted the book to be humor-forward, especially when it approaches heavier topics, like climate change and dealing with loss. Humor is a coping mechanism, a way of facing the un-faceable, and on the page it adds contrast to the moments of grief. 

Writing about trauma without any irony or humor can sometimes feel like trauma porn, especially when you add a POC protagonist and mix in a little white guilt. It sometimes feels like the author is a product, and you have to accept being pigeonholed into representing whatever racial slot publishing gives youan idea satirized in the film American Fiction

I wonder, how much do we confine ourselves to one tiny spot on the bookshelf in order to achieve success? When we promote a book, it can feel like we’re shrinking ourselves down to the size of that object, our book. Is this a problem of art versus marketing? I think every author might feel pigeonholed when they realize it’s not enough to write their book, they also have to sell it.

An author holds up her book, titled "Women! In! Peril!"

Author Jessie Ren Marshall

CMK: Absolutely. Even though I didn't watch American Fiction, I did read the book, Erasure. As I read it, I felt like I was personally convicted of my own role in perpetuating this because as a reader, when I go out of my way to read a book by an Asian American author, I sort of expect automatically that I will identify with everything that the book says.

And when I don't, I'm always a little bothered or surprised. Yet I don't expect to understand all women or all people in my age group or all Californians. I think part of the reason we need more stories and more types of stories is so that the pressure is less. So that every Asian person that comes out with anything doesn’t have to be all things to all people. 

You can be a few things to a very small subset of people and that's fine and everyone else can read it and they don't have to necessarily relate. And we don't have to be offended or upset or like surprised because there are so many different stories.

JRM: That’s such a good point. I’m also guilty of picking up a book and expecting to identify with it because I share certain traits with the author. But I think I’m often correct. I do feel a connection. And not necessarily because we have a shared experience of being Asian or being female, but because we live in a society where we’re treated as Asian and treated as female. That’s the shared experience.

The diaspora of Asian and Asian American identities is so incredibly vast that it becomes the unifying factor: how people (mis)treat you in this country.

The front cover of a book has a panicked woman with a title where her face should be, which reads "Women! In! Peril!"

"Women! In! Peril!" is a humor-packed story about a diverse cast of women on the edge of transformation.

Courtesy of Bloomsbury

CMK: I think ironically, I often identify more with other writers of color that are not necessarily Asian. The common thread may not be the Asianness; the common thread may be the foreignness or the being-treated-differently-ness.

JRM: The Othering. I agree. Being an Outsider is an identity. It’s like being in the high school lunchroom, and seeing the popular-kid table. And I know I don’t belong there. I belong over here with the outsider kids.

And in publishing, people are trying to be more inclusive and inviting us to sit at their table. But at the same time, “trying very hard to be inclusive” is still an act of Othering.

CMK: Anything could have an oppressive edge to it. Not just far-right ideology, but even progressive ideology, if executed the wrong way, could be weirdly oppressive in its own way.

I've literally been told at dinner parties that I'm white-adjacent by white people and I'm like, “Is this you trying to include me?”

JRM: That's bizarre.

CMK: It’s related to the whole sentiment that somehow the term diversity gets to include some people, but not others. And we're going to make assumptions about what counts as diversity and what doesn't.

I feel like this is sort of the dark underbelly of the discussion: What do we mean when we say diversity, and as Asians, do we consistently fall under that category?

And honestly, sometimes I feel guilty identifying when I get invited to women of color lunches because I don't know if I'm what they're looking for when they want to invite a POC woman.

JRM: Noooo! I mean, I'm only half-Asian, so you can imagine how conflicted I feel. I'm definitely not the person they want. 

It’s such a messed-up mentality that says there are only so many seats at the table for diverse artists. “We only have room for one person. And you're not the person.” It's really the opposite of diversity, to say there's only one spot. It's reductive and joyless.

And it’s sad but true that even when everyone is a person of color at the lunch, the sense of hierarchy and feeling of exclusion is probably still there. It’s baked into my way of thinking, that I’m not Asian enough or white enough. And then within the Asian community, there’s inclusion and exclusion. Like you mentioned before, East Asia is regarded differently, as more “white-adjacent.” 

“We only have room for one person. And you're not the person.” It's really the opposite of diversity, to say there's only one spot. It's reductive and joyless.

CMK: I do wonder to what extent Asians within the diaspora necessarily identify across these lines. To what extent do you feel like this broad umbrella term Asian American is useful?

JRM: I think there are some factors that tend to appear a lot in those stories, whether they’re familial stories or fictions. You mentioned immigrant narrativesthat’s certainly a point of connection. Even across racial lines, you might feel kinship with people whose family immigrated to the U.S. at the same time in the same kind of circumstance.

In your bio you talk about being first generation. That this fact, and moving a lot, and living between worlds has formed your identity. That you’ve been called “a woman without a homeland.”

CMK: My husband actually says that to me all the time. When I was in college, l had mostly Asian friends, but even among us, if you went to a sushi restaurant and would only eat chicken teriyaki, then you would get made fun of because somebody would mock you for the degree to which you’re being Asian or not. So my husband makes fun of me because he says that I don't really fit into any of these spaces and am not Asian enough for a lot of these Asian spaces. Although I do eat sushi with the best of them!

JRM: Well, that’s fair about the chicken teriyaki. I’d mock them too.

CMK: But I do wonder: in terms of sticking to our own identity in our writing, do you know of any Asian American authors who have written novels that do not feature Asians?

JRM: Oh. Great question. I hope there are examples, because I don’t want to limit what writers can write. But it feels like there's an obligation to have a major character that’s basically acting like an avatar for the author. This may be part of the fallout from the Own Voices movement, that idea that it’s naughty to write across racial lines. If you, Christine, write a book without Asians, unless it’s historical fiction or sci-fi about a society with no Asians, I think there would be backlash against you for internalized racism.

CMK: It's a thought exercise, because one thing I have noticed is that, for authors of color, I think we get away with writing characters who are not necessarily our own race or ethnicity a little bit more than white authors do. 

JRM: Yeah. And I think white writers get away with it when they do it well. But it’s a harder sell. Readers might go into the book feeling suspicious. And I think that suspicion is warranted, because historically the white gaze has been dominant and POC stories have been colonized. But the writing is the test.

Earlier you said that the stories in Women! In! Peril! feature women of different races. That’s true, but I felt like if I didn’t mention the race of a protagonist, then readers would assume she was white. Because the white gaze is still assumed in literary fiction.

CMK: That brings me to another thought exercise. If you write a character and never explicitly mention the race or ethnicity, does the white gaze dominate, or do readers assume you're just going to automatically write your own ethnicity?

JRM: And how does your own identity figure into whether you assume a white narrator or not? That's true.

This has been a great conversation. I’d like to talk a bit more about community. As a debut novelist, have you found AAPI fiction writers to be a solid community? Personally, I’ve felt a lot of support from that group and many others. I think we’re hungry for stories that challenge the status quo, but we realize those stories might be harder to promote, harder to publish. So the writing community steps up to offer help. It’s like that outsider identity we talked about, a feeling of, “I got your back.”

CMK: The other day, I reached out to two BookTokers and I was shocked when they responded to me at all. I was pleasantly surprised that they're there because they love books, so they're happy to talk about books or read about your book or to hear more about it. 

And it's really encouraging in a world where I feel like there's a lot of emphasis on chasing clout, yet there are people who are still there just for the pure love of the game. It's more about just the passion, which makes me hopeful for the future of publishing, right? That as long as there are readers who just love a good story, who cares where publishing will go next?

The truth about being a writer is that you’re just dating, over and over again.

JRM: Yeah, that's such a great way to look at it. Not every book needs to be the biggest thing ever and get you a million followers. Success is about your book finding its readership. That's a great part of social media. It helps you find those people, it helps you connect with them. And if a person feels like, “Oh, my followers are your readership,” they help to ferry your book over to them.

It's almost like dating, which we’ve already been through twice, finding our love-matches in our agents and editors. The truth about being a writer is that you’re just dating, over and over again.

CMK: They should create a dating app for books, to match up readers with books. Like you swipe, but it's all books.

JRM: Yes! We can tailor our profiles to help us find all the funny Asian girl books. 

CMK: Like, I want funny Asian women. That's why I write like Ali Wong. If she was a writer who wrote short stories and novels.

JRM: Oh my gosh, yes. Maybe if we put this conversation out there, some tech person will be like, I should create that app!

CMK: Somebody please do it.

Published on April 11, 2024

Words by Christine Ma-Kellams

Christine Ma-Kellams is a college professor, Harvard-trained cultural psychologist and writer whose fiction and essays have appeared in Prairie Schooner, the Kenyon Review, ZYZZYVA, the Rumpus, Catapult, Southern Humanities Review, Saturday Evening Post, the Rupture/the Collagist, the Wall Street Journal, Psychology Today and elsewhere. Two of her short stories were also nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her empirical studies on culture and relationships have also been widely covered in GQ (Australia), Esquire (Middle East), Boston Globe, Vice News, Elle Magazine (UK), Yahoo News, MSN News, Fox News, New York Post, and Daily Mail. Her debut novel from Atria, The Band (April 2024), follows a cancelled Kpop boy bander who escapes by hiding in the McMansion of an unhappily married therapist with a Savior complex. In its indicting portrayal of mental health/public obsession/fandom/cancel culture, The Band considers how old tribal allegiances disrupt modern celebrity.