058. East Asian American Romances with Cultural Historian Hsu-Ming Teo
Season 2 Premiere! Hsu-Ming Teo, a cultural historian and romance scholar, joins me to discuss her research on cultural authenticity in east asian american romance novels, among many other fascinating topics such as love as a commodity, intimacy, Australian convict romances, historical accuracy, and why impact still rules, but intent may matter more than we think. We also discuss novels by Ruby Lang, Courtney Milan, Helen Hoang, and Jeannie Lin.
Season 2 Premiere!
Hsu-Ming Teo, a cultural historian and romance scholar, joins me to discuss her research on cultural authenticity in east asian american romance novels, among many other fascinating topics such as love as a commodity, intimacy, Australian convict romances, historical accuracy, and why impact still rules, but intent may matter more than we think. We also discuss novels by Ruby Lang, Courtney Milan, Helen Hoang, and Jeannie Lin.
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- 58 Romance Novellas For A Quick Hit of Hope
- Check out Shelf Love’s updated website including the transcript for this episode
- Shelf Love episodes with transcripts
Guest: Hsu-Ming Teo
- Clean Breaks by Ruby Lang
- Trade Me by Courtney Milan
- The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang
058 East Asian American Romances with Cultural Historian Hsu-Ming Teo
[00:00:00]Andrea Martucci: Hello, and welcome to season two of Shelf Love, a podcast where we have thought provoking, critical discussions about literature's most polarizing genre: romance novels. I'm your host, Andrea Martucci. And I am so excited that you are joining me in my second season. I kind of like my numbering system. So this is really episode 58, and the season is silent, but I'm definitely coming into season two with a different energy, which you will hear all about in the next episode, in which I reflect on what I learned in year one of producing shelf love and where it's going in season two. I also share all sorts of secrets that aren't really secrets, but let's just dive into the deep end.
My guest today is Hsu-Ming Teo, a cultural historian and romance scholar. She is also one of the editors of the Routledge Research Companion to Popular Romance Fiction, which was just released in August 2020. I spoke with all three of the editors, including Jayashree Kamble and Eric Selinger back in early July, 2020.
In this episode, we talk about cultural authenticity in East Asian American romance novels, among many other fascinating topics, such as love as a commodity, intimacy, Australian convict romances, historical accuracy, and why impact still rules but intent may matter more than we think.
We also discuss novels by Ruby Lang, Courtney Milan, Helen Hoang, and Jeannie Lin. Enjoy.
Hsu-Ming Teo: I'm Hsu-Ming Teo and I am a cultural historian by training and I teach English literature and creative writing in the department of English at Macquarie University, which is in Sydney, Australia.
I'm also a literary novelist. I don't write romance, but, I've published two novels. I've been working on my third novel forever, but, romance scholarship takes, it takes most of my time right now.
Andrea Martucci: So a cultural historian, can you explain what that is?
Hsu-Ming Teo: So I'm a historian by training. I've always been interdisciplinary, but as a historian, I usually look at cultural products.
So at art films, television, mostly, mostly novels. I have looked extensively at travel writing in the past, and that was actually how I got into the study of romance, because a lot of the travelers, the British travelers that I had are from the early 20th century. So a lot of them that I was reading, went home to write romances. And that's how I started studying romances.
So cultural historians basically [00:02:30] study culture, cultural products and things like that. So there are several ways of approaching a novel or a literary text, or any work of fiction. You can approach it as a literary scholar, in which case, you do what Eric does so well, which is to analyze the text for its formal properties, for the way it uses language, all of those literary things, but you can also, analyze a text from a sociological or a historical perspective. So if you're doing that, you're looking at the text, not just in terms of its literary qualities and analyzing it, but you're situating it within its culture, its society, its time, its mores, its backgrounds and connecting that to the web of political associations that underpin the novel. Yeah. So that's basically what a cultural historian does.
Andrea Martucci: I really like that I'm finding through speaking to you and others, like the words to articulate these different ways of thinking about romance novels, because things I've been trying to do on the podcast is just casting about and trying to have these conversations. But, really, I think this is kind of like helping to moor those ideas and, and understand how these different approaches work. I'm really enjoying all these conversations.
Hsu-Ming Teo: Good, I'm glad because I think, think Eric Selinger, and also Laura Vivanco are fantastic at analyzing the novel as a literary artifact. They can see all kinds of literary techniques and they do beautiful readings of the novel. For me, I'm not concerned about whether the novel is literary or not. I'm really interested in the fact that women produce this women read it, women enjoyed. It's very much a woman centered, woman controlled, artifact of culture that flourishes, that is incredibly successful. So I'm not interested in evaluating, is it literary or is it good writing or is it not, is it good for women or is it not?
I'm interested in the fact that women are producing it, they're reading it. What are they trying to do with it? So that's, those are the questions that, I guess that usually underpin my research. If a woman has written this, what is she trying to do? Where does she come from? What ideas that is she drawing from?
And, I'm particularly interested, I suppose, in the idea that the romance genre, because it is so widely available and so accessible to women in terms of not just reading, but also getting into the romance industry. You don't have to have any formal qualifications or something like that. You just have to be a fan and a reader. Right. And what this does, I think it's incredibly democratizing as a [00:05:00] genre, because what it means is that women, women who are interested in all kinds of things can bring their experiences and ideas into the public sphere, into a popular forum to talk about things. There's always the structure of romance - there's always going to be the love story, but beyond that, I'm fascinated, I'm so interested in and very excited about the fact that, that women can use the romance genre to talk about all the things that interest them, whether it's, autism or asbergers, whether it's about trauma.
And, it's a legitimate and legitimizing for them, So I think in that sense, the romance genre, is incredibly democratizing and that is very exciting for women. Also other groups I guess, who are beginning to read and write romance.
Andrea Martucci: And I want to come back to the point about, let's say marginalized voices, increasingly being represented in romance beyond just women.
But as a cultural historian, you obviously have historical perspective. A conversation I've had with, Katrina Jackson, who you may know as Nicole Jackson, the historian. We frequently have conversations about historiography and how a lot of historical sources represent, it's basically this idea of what history was worth writing.
And a lot of times that does not include, domestic information or information about women's lives because that sort of stuff, the emotional stuff isn't considered important and worth recording or saving through generations and all of that. And obviously this is tied up in also for the same reasons why literature written by women tends to be considered less serious and important and worthwhile through history.
But I mean, I think that's what you were speaking to, right? Like how democratizing it is, how you don't have to be a great big, important person or man, for your story to be important. It's the stories of people from all sorts of backgrounds and regardless of, how maybe from a capitalist or political perspective, like how important this story is.
Hsu-Ming Teo: Yes, I think, the issue of historians and what they research, historiography, is almost a different topic. It's something that I, I work a lot on as well. so obviously I do a lot of research on historical fiction, but I think one of the things about historians and the past is that.
First of all, yes, they weren't interested in women or women's lives because there was a sense that the [00:07:30] private sphere did not really change that much and it's events that drive history, but that has really changed over the course of the 20th century. So I think sometimes, general public has a different understanding of what historians do than what they actually do.
So I think the general public still thinks that, Oh, historians are still producing narratives about the nation state, about presidents, about white men, all other men who could go to war and who take actions and things like that, it's all tied to the state. But when you're looking at history, especially cultural history, social history, we've had more than half a century now of cultural history.
Of historians learning to read sources of the past in very, very new ways. And basically from the sixties and seventies onwards, it's just expanded to include all kinds of new methods of reading history, of bringing women's lives into it. And I think, probably since the 1980s, there's been increasing interest in the history of emotions. That's something that, it's still pretty big today, but that was something that historians did not have the methodological tools to go back into the sources in the past to look at it and imagine what emotions were like. Also because I think, there was an assumption that people are the same. They felt the same as we do today. Now we know, I guess, that emotions are actually quite historically specific, which is why I'm very interested in the history of love, of romantic love in particular and how people experience emotions, because we know that emotions, that they are definitely feelings, but they are feelings mediated through a social and cultural context and, through ideas that are associated with the feeling right. And I always love, what my favorite example to get this, this point across is, the British historian, John Gillis's work, he did work on romantic love, in the early modern period and he looked at a society in Wales where young men express the love or the attraction to women by urinating on their dresses.
Andrea Martucci: Oh, how charming.
Hsu-Ming Teo: Yeah. So people think it's like marking its territory, but I mean, if that happened today - it's no, that is not love. That is hate. That is a hate crime, and that I think is a perfect example of how emotions might be there, but the way in which it's expressed culturally can change and is different. And is context-specific.
Yeah. I think where women novelists, both historical novelists, as well as romance writers have been particularly good in terms of saying that, hang on women's lives are really interesting to [00:10:00] us and we are going to go back into the past and use the past to imagine what it might have been like for women to live back then. So I think, when women first started writing historical novels and all of that, there was definitely an interest in being historically accurate. But how historically accurate could you be when there was so little, I guess, historical knowledge about women's lives back then.
So there was a lot of imagining there. Women have been doing this for a really long time. If you look at women's history, women using historical fiction and the romance genre to write about women's lives in the past, goes back to at least the 17th century. So they're using the genre to explore women's lives and to make political points, because whatever they say about the good things about the past, as well as the deficiencies of the past, reflect on the present as well.
And, one of the things that the romance has allowed women to do is to say, it allows them to write when they don't have a legitimate voice and authority in writing and they can just say, Oh, it was a romance. So this is women in the 17th and 18th centuries.
It was just a romance - so they can downplay it, but at the same time, the point has been made. And that's why I say the romance genre functions as a forum for women to bring their political points, their strong feelings of outrage about injustice into the public sphere. Because they couldn't write history. They weren't considered to have authority as writers in the past, but they could write romances. And women have always had that opportunity.
You know, so I think initially women were concerned with representing a past that was historically accurate. And, in, one of the previous research projects I've done before, which was on Bertrice Small's 1978 novel The Kadin, one of the things that I was amazed at was the way in which she wrote this novel about the Ottoman empire, about the court Suleiman, the Magnificent , in the seventies. There was very little knowledge about women's lives in the Ottoman empire back then, but she just used the writer's imagination to think, okay, this is the situation and these are the politics. And I was a woman at that time, how my life had been.
Now, there's a lot of things she got wrong, but what was really amazing was how much she got right. And she did this before women historians, you know, feminist historian started investigating the women's lives in the Ottoman empire. It was in the 1990s that work started coming out about the Ottoman empire and women's lives there.
And what I've found , was that Bertrice actually imagined, quite accurately, [00:12:30] what women's relationships might have been like inside the harem and things like that. And so she preceded historical work on the Ottoman empire, by a good 20 years. Lots of it was wrong, but some of it just by imagining, and thinking, what might my life have been like, she got a lot of it right as well.
Now I think though that there has been a shift in terms of women and the historical romance. I think that they're not so much interested in - particularly when you look at the most popular types of historical romances, which are Regency and Victorian or 19th century romance, set in Britain or in America. I don't think that they're so intimidated by history that they're looking to ground themselves in and be historically accurate and all the rest of it. What I find fascinating now is that, they using history in very innovative ways to suit their needs.
And I think in the past novelists were intimidated, they felt that they had to get the history right. And now I think in the 21st century, novelists are saying, okay, I'm going to get lots of these wrong. It doesn't matter because it's not history. It's just a work of fiction. It's just a romance, but I'm using the past as Well.
So the historians won't like this, but I'm using the past as fodder, just as an artist, who does collage might use scraps of tinfoil and wood and string and all of that. And I'm building a work, to express something that I'm interested in and yes, yes, it's not going to be historically accurate but Hey, it's not history.
So what I think now for scholars is the least interesting question: is it historically accurate? More interesting is what are women trying to do with the past, in what ways are they trying to use the past to reflect upon the present and to imagine idealized pasts and things like that.
So in a research project I've just finished on the Australian convict romance for example, I've looked at the way in which the history of the Australian convict past, is a very sad, in many ways, disempowering history, because the opportunities for romantic love were very very scarce. Men outnumbered women, as much as by nine to one in the early 18 hundreds in the New South Wales Penal Colony at Sydney.
The sexual exploitation of women is very well-documented and just heartbreaking to read. Women's lives were incredibly hard. Into this very unpromising unromantic past come, these historical romance novelists who start writing [00:15:00] about convict romance protagonists, what are they trying to do?
They're not trying to idealize that past. They're recognizing their past. But what they're trying to do, I argue is to provide a readable, usable story, a readable, usable heritage for women who read their novels to say that, okay, we know what the convict past was like, but here's an alternative, here's an alternative where women are actually empowered.
What convict men are not completely degraded. Where social mobility is possible, where the happy ending is possible. They're rewriting a story of origins, of national origins, that is useful and empowering for women in the prisons.
Now we all know it's a fantasy, but they're saying, yes, we know the past wasn't like that, but it should have been.
And if it should have been like that, then what should the present be like now? So I think that's what's happening in, among a lot of, historical romance novelists. And I think it's, it's very exciting stuff.
Andrea Martucci: Okay. one rabbit hole question on that because, I think, there is increasingly this social justice narrative in historical romance where, sure. Maybe there were not hundreds of, bad-ass suffragettes running around Britain at a particular time, but we don't care. More suffragettes or more abolitionists or more this, more that. So like the corollary, I would think, some people really enjoy, let's say British historical romance novels that do not touch on some of the nastiness of, let's say imperialism and colonialism and, the slave trade and, all sorts of stuff that really explain where wealth came from and all of that.
And I would assume, in Australian convict romances that while the convicts are victims, they are also colonizing a land that is inhabited and, in a government structure that is basically stealing land from the indigenous people of Australia. So I'm curious, like how these fantasies of the past navigate those issues in a way that does allow for a rosier view of what was going on and our protagonists get to win at the end of the day, but then how do you navigate that happiness with the fact that there are some people who - do you incorporate them into the story? How do you incorporate them into the story?
Hsu-Ming Teo: Yeah, look, I think history is basically littered with hierarchies of victimhood. Yes. And it's really hard to write the romance which includes a happy ending for [00:17:30] all.
Andrea Martucci: Yes.
Hsu-Ming Teo: All groups. So, if we look at the convict romance through the prism of indigenous justice, they are appalling.
Andrea Martucci: Yes.
Hsu-Ming Teo: you have to just be blunt about it. There are some novelists who just don't touch on the indigenous issue at all. Yes, they acknowledge that this is settler colonialism. And then they focus entirely on convict men and convict women. That's why it's, it's a story of origins and emeliorative of repairative story of origins for white women, but not for other groups. Cause, that's who that audience is.
If we look at indigenous people, either they're marginalized. Or there is a very colonialist narrative to these novels where Aboriginal people, Aborigines, are brought into the narrative to ensure the happiness of the white couple and see that. Yeah. You know, so I've written about that in terms of the British empire as well. I've written about how Mills and Boon romances, set in Africa, for example, Harlequin Mills and Boon romances set in different African colonies, or nations that were decolonizing in the 1950s and sixties, tended to either they infantilized a local African peoples, and nationalities, or, they were just brought in as, happy African helpers of white love. So that's a long standing narrative, in romance. It is, it's definitely colonial discourse.
And definitely you should read convict romances in that way. I didn't focus on it because I think that my previous work has made this point so many times.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah.
Hsu-Ming Teo: How many times can I say over and over again, that this is colonial discourse and all of that.
Yes, definitely. It's it's a problem. There's also a problem in terms of the representation of other ethnic groups other than white in these convict romances. So in one of the convict romances, for example, there is a chef and a general helper in the house who is of Chinese origins.
And it is just cringeworthy to read about this very stereotyped character who seems to come out of a very racist novel from the 1920s. So those discourses are powerful and they are still with us. Yeah. I guess the answer to your question is that it is not possible or it doesn't seem possible for these, romances, these convict romances to tell a story, a redemptive story for the white convict couple [00:20:00] and yet to deal sensitively and justly with indigenous people's or with peoples of other minorities. Because the very fact of being in Sydney in the penal colony means that they have already displaced a whole lot of indigenous people of the Darug nation from their own homelands.
Andrea Martucci: Yep. No easy answers. So speaking of, people being in different places, I want to dig into your paper, Cultural Authenticity, The Family and East Asian American Romance Novels, which was published in March 2020 in JPRS. I've learned the lingo now, I feel very special.
And the two novels that you wanted to talk about were Trade Me by Courtney Milan and Clean Breaks by Ruby Lang and, I will let you guide the conversation from here, but the one question I think I have going into this, that you've already touched on and I assume this is maybe what you touch on in your chapter in the Routledge companion, that you co-edited with Jayashree and Eric, all I know is the title. What is it, Love in Romance Novels?
Hsu-Ming Teo: Yes.
Andrea Martucci: Okay. so my question is about, love being a culturally defined thing. So you definitely talk about that in this paper, and this is something I've been thinking about even among American-written romance novels. Just this idea that I think we have this sense, that love is universal and it definitely isn't. And I think the way you said this earlier is it's how love is expressed. Are you peeing on the girl you like's skirt or are you bringing her flowers? Let's say. So I'm definitely very interested in digging into that topic specifically as we talk about this, because, I think that this is a really tricky topic to explore in romance. I mean, my lens is obviously I'm an American and I read mostly American-written romance, even if it takes place elsewhere.
Americans love this idea of the melting pot and, that love is love. And that, I guess this idea of multiculturalism that, somebody could end up loving somebody else from a very different background. And I think that what we're starting to see is a resistance to the idea that it's so easy to cross over boundaries of how different people define love based on their cultural upbringing.
So that's what [00:22:30] I was thinking, as I read this. So I guess in the context of Trade Me and Clean Breaks,
Hsu-Ming Teo: Right.
Andrea Martucci: Where do you want to dive into talking about them?
Hsu-Ming Teo: Let's begin with colonial discourse then. (laughs)
Andrea Martucci: Sure, yeah,
Hsu-Ming Teo: because, that was the starting point for this work on cultural authenticity, this oppressive family in East Asian American romance novels. I was basically asked to talk about Asian and you know, Asian romances and all of that. I hadn't done very much work on it because mostly, yeah, I had been focusing on Sheik romances, desert romances, and all of that.
Orientalism was a really big feature, in terms of how white women are representing middle Eastern men and central Asian men as well, and cultures.
So Orientalism is basically a concept which emerged in the late 20th century, particularly coming out of Edward Syed's work, his book on, with the very title Orientalism, and it's the notion that, when we write about the cultures, particularly when white Western cultures and societies which have been colonial or Imperial societies, when they write about, or they represent other cultures, they represent other cultures in the way that works along a binary. And in many ways it's similar to how men used to write about women. So men are strong. Women are weak. Men are rational, women are emotional. Those kinds of binaries we're talking about. And what Syed did, because he most famously articulated it, this argument, is to apply this notion of the binary, how white societies represent nonwhite societies.
And he said, when you look at the writings of white British men, for example, or white Europeans who are colonizing, the way that they represented the colonial peoples was as as inferior so that, Europeans were superior. Non Europeans nonwhites were inferior. Europeans were adults and non Westerners were childlike. And then they were irrational. They were given over to the senses of the body. They didn't have self control unlike white people and all of that. And this binary discourse that he calls Orientalism, it's a way of thinking about them, about the other, So he says that then not like us, the white superior Europeans, they are other. And this process of othering, which can also - it makes them exotic because, [00:25:00] if you're coming from 19th century British culture, which is very repressed, in some ways sexually, then the sensuality of the other seems very attractive.
So it's not always a negative, it can be a positive, but it's a positive in a way that lends itself to colonial domination. It's like, okay. Why are European nations colonizing and ruling over you know, nonwhite societies? Well because they are the other, because they are inferior because they're culturally inferior because they're childlike, because that irrational, because they don't have enterprise, because they don't make good use of their resources, because they're lazy, because they're sensual, they'd rather have sex and all of that, than build bridges and towns and blah, blah.
So this discourse of Orientalism, exoticizes the other, but it also produces the other as something to be ruled and dominated. Yes. So that's basically Orientalism, in a very crude,
a crude way.
Andrea Martucci: I always think it's so funny because that sounded not at all crude to me, but, but I'm learning that, as I speak to more academics that, because you know so much that it's hard to and I'm like, that's gorgeous. That's that was very detailed. And you're like, that was nothing.
Hsu-Ming Teo: Anyway. So when I was asked to produce a paper for a conference at Williams College on representations of Asians in romance novels, first of all, it was quite hard to find. I only knew of a handful. So I went into Goodreads and then I came across these websites, which were saying where are all the Asians? And that's how basically I found the novels actually.
But I guess, a couple of things struck me, and the first was that, there was this homogenization of Asians going on.
So which Asians were we talking about? Because you know, Asians really makes sense outside of Asia. They don't make sense within Asia, right? Because Asia is a product of Orientalist discourse. Within Asia, you've got Japanese, you've got Koreans, you've got Chinese, you've got Vietnamese, you've got Buddhists, Sikhs, Hindus.
You've got lots and lots of variety that if you are located within the region, we know as Asia, you notice the difference. So in Australia, I am Asian Australian. And that makes sense, in many ways, right? Because of shared experiences and things like that.
So when I was looking at these novels, it's okay, there is a homogenization going on, but when they talk about Asians, really they're [00:27:30] talking about East Asians. South Asians, the conversation seem to be quite different. In some ways, a richer tradition coming out of Bollywood and things like that as well.
But what I noticed was that the whole issue about Asian-ness came up in these novels about East Asians, covering the Chinese diaspora from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, along the Pacific rim, but also Japanese Koreans as well, sometimes Vietnamese.
But it was very much East Asians. So that was one thing. And then I noticed that Erin Young, had already written some stuff about East Asian American romance novels but the ones she was looking at was written by white American women and they ended up reiterating the orientalist descriptions that I've just been talking about.
And I'm not a person who feels like personally offended and outraged. And I do feel particularly sympathetic to writers, because I know how hard it is to write a novel.
And I think, Oh my goodness, critics come in right at the end and then we criticize the novelist and for doing all kinds of things, but Hey, it was so damn hard to get the novel out in the first place. So I'm very sympathetic towards, towards writers. And a lot of times and I know that this line of thinking is probably not popular in America at the moment.
I'm also a firm believer in the whole notion of discourse. Discourse, it's the idea, popularized by Foucault that power is exerted through lots of different statements that you make. So in orientalist discourse, it's "Orientals are lazy, they're sensual, they're emotional."
So the power discourses because it allows people who are making those discourses or those statements to rule. But the thing about discourses, that I think nowadays what we've lost sight of, is that this course is circulate in society. And sometimes - and this is why I find the idea of discourse useful - sometimes you can be a person who is not racist at all in the way you interact with other people. And you can be really good to other people generally, and all of that, but you still utter racist discourse because that is what is circulating. And those are the words that, you kno w. You just said to me, I gave you, and talking to Eric and Jayashree, gave you a vocabulary, a new vocabulary to talk about romance novels. And you didn't have that vocabulary before.
Now when you start using that vocabulary, that's a discourse about the scholarship of romance that you're now uttering. And I think that colonial and [00:30:00] racist discourses work in this way as well.
The people who produce them no doubt were racist and all of that, but along the way, they become a sort of common truth. And then writers who are just focusing on something else, like trying to develop the love relationship in the romance novel, but they want to be more inclusive. So maybe white writers want to be more inclusive. They want to show that American society has been bad to Asians, or they have been bad to, to certain people and they wanted to correct it. But they use the vocabulary. They use the ideas, the statements that they have, they used the discourse and they end up reproducing racist discourse i their novels.
Why I said, for me, the notion of discourse is really important, is because there is a distinction - it separates the discourse from the actual person, right? What I'm hearing in American society at the moment. And I guess in Australian society, is that, that distinction between the discourse and the person has been lost.
Andrea Martucci: Yes, I believe the way - if I am wrapping my head around what you're talking about - the way this is often phrased is around impact versus intent, where even though you intended to be kind or represent a different culture, it doesn't. At the end of the day, your intent doesn't matter if the impact was to regurgitate, these Orientalist or, racist, ideas.
Hsu-Ming Teo: Yeah. Yes. so nowadays, so the impact I completely agree with because as I said, the impact has a real effect on people's lives. It perpetuates stereotypes, racist stereotypes. So the impact definitely is real where I differ is I guess I think the intent matters.
And that is because I, as, as a scholar and as a, just as a human being, I'm not interested in antagonizing and proving myself to be right. I'm interested in building bridges. And if I'm interested in building bridges and building relationships, I need to be building bridges and building relationships with people whose intent was right.
So to me, intent matters a lot. I know to a lot of people, it doesn't because whatever the intentions was, the offense was committed. I'm not saying that my way is the right way of looking at things. Maybe it's the wrong way of looking at things. But for me personally, I can't see a way of changing, because social change and all of that, it begins with relationships. It begins with the personal.
We've always thought that the personal is political. And if I'm going around, saying your intent doesn't matter because all I feel is the impact, who am I going to be building, [00:32:30] building relationships and building bridges with in order to effect greater change?
For me, intent matters. And, so I guess, I'm bringing what is personal into my scholarship and saying that, I'm looking at all of these things, which are very racist, but I'm saying that the text is racist, but I'm not saying that the author is necessarily, so - if that makes sense.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah, and I actually completely agree with you on the intent. You know, you may still hurt somebody, But if you did not intend to do that, you are the kind of person who, if you hear that you have hurt somebody.
Hsu-Ming Teo: Yeah.
Andrea Martucci: you can begin that work to, change your own thinking. Whereas somebody who is like. No, I, I actually wanted to hurt you. You can't reach that person. And, I think the way that - this is actually something I find very damaging about the conversations on Twitter sometimes is - somebody says something maybe careless, maybe just uneducated, some opinion, and, other people, start bringing forth arguments about why this person is wrong. But oftentimes come from a very, aggressive and, Oh my gosh. I don't know how to phrase this, like retaliatory and like, you're a garbage person and everything you have to say is garbage. That viewpoint. And a lot of times you see this happen, you're like, I feel like you actually disagree on something like nuance and you're treating this other person, like an enemy. And imagine if you had a, balanced conversation where you said, did you consider this? And they say, I didn't thank you. You can reach that common ground. And actually you have aligned as opposed to created a greater divide between your, you know, what you're thinking.
Because again, that person may be - sometimes they truly do intend harm, but sometimes they don't.
Hsu-Ming Teo: Yes. And so if they don't, then I want to be building relationships with people who are on my side. So I, as a novelist, say I have, maybe say I've represented, a gaze or something.
I didn't quite do it right. I want to know, but I want to say, I'm sorry, how can I do it better? Right. And I think that most novelists would want to do that. Intent and impact matter. And when we look at it, the East Asian American romance novels to come back to the topic because, when I had a look at, I guess all of these romance novels with East Asian American, um, protagonists originally, the ones that were written by white authors were very orientalist, and [00:35:00] demeaning to Asian cultures in that what they valued about Asian cultures was the cultural products: the paintings, the Jade, the jewelry, things like that.
You know ? But the people as represented by the families, were overwelcomingly oppressive. So in the early novels, and by early, I'm talking about the ones that came out in the 1990s, the Asian heroine from whatever background Asian American heroine, had to be rescued by the white hero so that the end point was escape from her oppressive Asian family, who looked down on her because she was a woman, who did not give her opportunities, who are really harsh and all of that kind of stuff. And she would be, by falling in love with the white man and then, forming a relationship she was then enfolded into the white family and it's such an obvious, blatant narrative of, immigrant integration into the white American society that's been going on since, I guess since the early 20th century,
Andrea Martucci: Assimilate or you will be othered and punished, right?
Hsu-Ming Teo: And you should assimilate because white American society is going to value the individualism of the Asian woman, in a way that the Asian family does not, because the Asian family is only interested in the collective. By integrating into white American society, then the Asian woman can get the kind of freedom to become the person that she was meant to be, to fulfill herself. So it's very American, you know, ideas here about freedom, about individualism, about potential, self fulfillment, being the best version of you that you can be.
Andrea Martucci: And you say this in here, but I think that was explored very explicitly in Clean Breaks, by Ruby Lang, right? I jotted down one line, you know, because you were making points about that intergenerational conflict and parental misunderstanding. And towards the end of the novel, she says in her own head, "she'd thought that she'd had to resolve things with her parents in order to be happy in love."
Hsu-Ming Teo: Yes. yes. And I think this was I guess the main argument of the journal article, the JPRS article that, when lot of Asian American authors started writing romance novels, I thought I would find something different from what the white American romance authors had been writing.
And, I thought I would find something different because they were drawing from their own background and hence it was authentic. But what surprised me then I suppose, was the [00:37:30] way in which they were perpetuating stereotypes of the oppressive Asian family, the family that, you know, that place a lot of pressure on the kids to be the model minority, as happens in Clean Breaks, that fosters rivalry between siblings, that expects a certain level of conformity to the Asian community, and that, that therefore restricts individual happiness, individual potential, that doesn't really value the individual, because the collective is still seen as more important.
And this is the image of the Asian family that is of whatever, whether it's Japanese or Chinese or Korean or whatever, this, as the image that was being perpetuated in the early two thousands, in Asian American romance novels. And I thought, it's not that it's not true sometimes.
But, when you encounter it in one romance novel after another, it starts to become a bit problematic because what are we saying about Asians, about Asian families, about the success of Asian lives, as individuals in American society, right? That this issue just keeps coming up inter-generational conflict, over and over again, the family is always oppressive.
So is it portraying the family as un-American, always un-American. Cause even if they've been there for generations, they still feel that, the pressures to be a model minority, they still feel all of these pressures in the parent child conflicts are arising from a specific, orientalized Asian culture.
So I'm not saying they're not authentic in that, that writers have not experienced them and that individuals have not experienced them. What I'm saying is that collectively they're producing this particular image, and this is why I believe impact and intent are important because clearly the intent is not to perpetuate stereotypes.
Clearly the intent of authors is to draw from their own background, and all of that to produce an authentic, more authentic, non-racist, romance featuring Asian protagonists, but the impact, has not been that.
And so what I think is interesting here is that even when Asian-Americans write about their own background, the kinds of discourses that they are drawing from, drawing into, their romances, do end up perpetuating some of these stereotypes.
Andrea Martucci: I wonder how this intersects with the issues with diversity among people who work in publishing. So for example, if you have traditional publishers, [00:40:00] which, the majority of books that you are, discussing in your paper were traditionally published. Courtney Milan, I believe the books that you talked about, she self published those. So she's the exception in this, of the books that you discussed .
And again, I think it's an intent versus impact thing, you have, let's say majority white, exclusively white editorial staff, marketing staff, sales staff, and their intent is let's get some diverse stories here. Ooh, let's get some, Asian American stories. but because they live in a racist society, as we all do, they are not Asian themselves. They have ideas about what Asianess is. They believe that the stories are most authentic when they portray that, what you called, boutique multiculturalism, versus strong multiculturalism, and therefore those are the stories they select and, or they actually, encourage authors perhaps to play up certain things with the idea that the characters aren't Asian enough, I'm doing air quotes here And it, and again, intent versus yeah. Impact. They mean well, but they're going about it in a way that is actually not great.
But I think also there is this idea that, Own voices authors that are writing about something that they have personal experience with. I think sometimes when the person on the other side of that publishing doesn't have any personal experience themselves, it's very difficult to identify those things that are problematic because generally people tend to trust like, you're writing about your experience, therefore, That's your experience, I'm not going to dispute your experience, right?
Hsu-Ming Teo: Yes. Yes. I think that's definitely an issue. But anything I had to say on this point would be speculative, because I don't know the interactions between the author and the editor and publisher. Yeah. So I think that's definitely the case. and in that case, you just have to interview the author and say, was there pressure from the publisher, from the editor to make it more Asian, to highlight certain kinds of aspects of this.
But I also think that it's coming out of, what is actually a real authentic, Asian diasporic experience of intergenerational conflict. Studies have shown that this is real, so I'm not saying that this is not real. It does not happen. It comes out of young adult fiction as well, looking at, identity formation, and all of that. So these are real issues that are being brought into, into the romance genre.
In some ways that's fantastic because like I said, the romance genre acts as [00:42:30] a forum whereby ordinary people can bring all of their concerns into it.
And I guess it's up to the author to push back against the editor if the editor is trying to impose. And, it would be very surprising for me, I guess, if an editor claimed to know more about what was authentically Asian then the authors drawing on their own background. I think it's about what is the issue that the author really wants to explore? And quite a lot it is the problem of intergenerational conflicts, conflicts of culture within a multicultural society. It doesn't necessarily have to be - and we know that editors are also open to different forms of representation.
So yes, Courtney Milan published, self published, Trade Me, which is one of the ones that I say that doesn't fall into this trap because when in Trade Me, the conflict between Asian parents and Asian child, those are just normal American conflicts. It's not specific to Asian culture, because you see it in the Latinx character as well.
You also see intergenerational conflict and parent / child conflict and pressures, between the white male protagonist and his father. So it seems to be, you know, it's like a new adult genre. It's just there in American society So it's not particularized to Asian society. And so that's why I say that Courtney Milan's Trade Me sidesteps this issue, she's able to look at the issue of, what is specifically Asian, but she doesn't generalize to all Asian cultures are like that or that they are different from American cultures. She's just basically saying all families are complicated,
Andrea Martucci: Yes
Hsu-Ming Teo: different kinds of complications, some of it arising from particular cultures. But also, it's not the only one because the other book that I look at is Helen Hoang's The Kiss Quotient.
With The Kiss Quotient, Helen Hoang is able to side step this whole orientalizing of the oppressive Asian family as well, because what Hoang does is to look at a Vietnamese family, and the very eccentric individuals within the family. She's looking at Asbergers syndrome as well on the part of the heroine and then later on the part of one of the extended family. And, I think her portrait of Vietnamese society is, it's quite complex. There are parents who are very supportive, but at the same time, there are expectations that sometimes children, adult children put upon themselves.
So that's one of the interesting things that she does that the male protagonist, who is of a Vietnamese background, has internalized an [00:45:00] expectation and a burden that he was never intended to adopt. And that is looking after his family and then making up for all the mistakes of his white father, who has abandoned them.
So it becomes a much, much more complex story than just oppressive Asian parents who don't understand, their kids don't understand the society in which they operate in and place this, unbearable pressure upon the children, that is in the end problematic for the romantic relationships.
Jeannie Lin is another novelist. She's writing historical romance novels, set in Tang dynasty China, but, her families again, yes, that is the oppression. In terms of the parental expectations placed upon children in terms of whom they're going to marry, what they're going to do with their lives, the desire for success and all of that, but in Jeannie Lin's novels because the parents really loved their children, the parents become, and the family becomes, the solution to romantic love as well. The family is not just uniformly oppressive. The family is also the solution to romantic love because the parents love the children so much that they are willing to forego alliances that will be strategic for them, that will help them in terms of social and political mobility or in terms of a better financial footing. The parents will put aside all of those ambitions to fulfill the romantic desires of their children.
So in those, in Jeannie Lin's novels, what I love about her novels is that she acknowledges that yes, that this is culturally authentic. It is true that, that Asian families do think in terms of the collective, that parents do place pressures on their children, but there are other forms of love that matter as well.
And that sibling love, parental love, family love, create the necessary conditions for romantic love to flourish when it looks as though they're in a society that is inimical to Western notions of romantic love.
Andrea Martucci: And that's interesting because as you explained in your paper, historically at the time, you said it's the Tang dynasty, during that time, this notion of romantic love did not really exist, especially in terms of, you don't marry for love, you marry for political or economic, strategic reasons. And if you're going to love anybody, it's mostly gonna be through lust for a courtesan or, that kind of situation. So it seems like this is also similar to this idea of historical novels being written with [00:47:30] these more just narratives where maybe there are historical elements that are very accurate where also, perhaps it's not super historically accurate for parents at this time to forego those political alliances and give their blessing for their children to have of a politically disadvantageous marriage.
But that, because we are in the romance genre, we'll allow this because
Hsu-Ming Teo: yes.
Andrea Martucci: Basically the culture of love that exists in the popular romance genre, at least right now, particularly in the two thousands is, the idea of love that has been created in this genre very much- it's a concept of romantic love that is at odds with a historical. a strictly historical, right?
Hsu-Ming Teo: Absolutely - yes, not just for American society, but for most of history, if you look back at European societies, I guess colonial American societies as well. I mean, people did not marry for love.
They married for strategic reasons, whether it's economic or familial or for social, political, whatever they were making alliances. Those are the reasons that people marry. And this is why, of course famously, in medieval romance, quite often, as C S Lewis said, romantic love is adulterous because.
Because it's found outside of marriage and so romantic love is it's about the feelings and all of that, but at the same time, Western societies, Asian societies had this notion of love as duty. So you can still love within, an arranged marriage because when love is duty it's about performing the duty, it's about caring and I would hate to think that we demean or denigrate those aspects of love as well.
Because I think when we look at the scholarship on intimacy, for example, and Lynn Jamison says, it's not just about the feelings. Intimacy is not just about romantic feelings and feeling close to somebody it's also about the caring aspects, right? And it's also about the financial support.
And all of those kinds of things so that, we need to complicate our concept of what does love actually look like when we look back in history? But definitely if you're talking about the love match, marrying based on sexual attraction, particularly, or a sense of finding your soulmate or something like that, of intellectual, psychological emotional compatibility. That is something that is very recent. And so if we talk about how anachronistic it is in Tang dynasty China and Jeannie Lin's novels, you could say that it's equally anachronistic in most historical romance novels as well.
And that is the point: historical [00:50:00] accuracy, as I said is the least interesting thing about it. What they're saying is that yes, we know the past is not like that, but it should have been. Because this is what we want for the present. Yeah.
Andrea Martucci: I don't actually know what year the Tang dynasty was. Was it like 700? It was like, a long time ago, right? Let's see. Tang dynasty 618 to 907 CE.
Oh yeah. That's long.
Hsu-Ming Teo: Yes. More than a millennium ago.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. I will mangle this. Dante is I believe known as a romantic poet and in his era romance was, as you said, it was adultery. It was lusting after married women and writing poems to them and, idealizing that.
But yes, it wasn't -
Hsu-Ming Teo: but it wasn't intimacy and this is why, I'm fascinated by the history of romantic love because he, also Petrarch, who was his contemporary, they wrote all of these things about love and definitely we have, a Western notion of romantic love, the passions being transported by it, obsession, longing, all of those things, have been circulating in Western literature since the 12th century.
But, their notion of romantic love is different from our notion now because it did not involve intimacy. It was unattainable. And also it was unrequited. And we've pretty much, lost the idea of loving when all hope of loving is gone. Of unrequited love. Yeah. Of love that is not returned, because now it's okay, you know, fall in love with somebody, but if they don't love me back, Oh, I'm heartbroken. But eventually I will move on to find somebody who does love me back.
So we expect that love is going to be required. And if not, we move on, but for them because it's idealized and it was, let's say, with Petrarch and his Beatrice, his muse, she didn't know who he was. He didn't really know who she was. It's easy to idealize somebody when you don't live with them.
Andrea Martucci: Oh, yeah, that's true.
Hsu-Ming Teo: All those kinds of things. So it's an impossibly idealized love that is able to exist because they don't actually live together and there is no intimacy.
Now, I guess we have the expectation of intimacy as well. And it's something that the academic David Shumway has written a lot about. He talks about modern love and how the discourse of romance, all of these ideas we have about romance co-exists alongside ideas we have about intimacy, and intimacy is also - people haven't written as much about intimacy - but it's also as fascinating because it's also elusive.
If we asked, what does love mean? Love means different things [00:52:30] at different times. So does intimacy can mean, Oh, I'm sharing my soul and my heart and we can really talk and we can really connect. But intimacy is that we can just be together without saying anything.
Right. So that's all these expectations placed upon intimacy, but now in the 21st century, these other things that are being looked for, not just in the American romance genre, but also in other cultures as well. So American narratives of romantic love have been incredibly influential and powerful.
I mean, talk about self power, right around the world and when you have a look at how other cultures are costing romantic love, they're not doing it necessarily in terms of filiality. So it's not about, the greatest love is no longer just the love of the child for the parent.
It's about intimacy and romance between, between the romantic couple, right? The sexual couple, and this is new in many societies. And so if we just say that, Oh, everything Western is bad, because it becomes imperialistic, then we'd have to say that this is bad because this idea is spreading right around the world.
Now there is, What's her name? I think Huike Wen, who writes a lot on Chinese film and television programs and all of that. She has a book coming out. I can't remember when it's coming out, but she looks at all of these Chinese television programs and all of that. And they have adopted wholesale, this notion, Western American notion of romantic love being about the couple, about sexuality, about feelings, but also about intimacy, about fulfilling each other's needs, about individual fulfillment as well, and about freedom. These are very American ideas, but they're spreading right around the world. So even with the Asian American romance novels, yes, they bring in all of that, cultural authenticity, again, using air quotes.
Cultural authenticity in terms of the family, inter generational family conflict, parental expectations for their children to be a model minority and very successful in a transplanted society. But at the same time, they're very American because the ideal of love that they hold to is one where people are free to love, free to be autonomous beings, free to achieve individual potential and to be valued.
So one of the really nice things I think about Ruby Lang's Clean Breaks is that Sarah Soon is this very prickly, very judgmental romantic protagonist, who is in many ways, quite hard to like. But Ruby Lang has created this lovely Asian American hero from a Taiwanese background who looks at her, who looks at [00:55:00] all the prickliness and, and all of that and even how judgmental she is and thinks, it is because she wants to be better, that she applies those impossible internalized standards of perfection on herself, as well as other people. And he looks at her and he values her for at, and he's sympathetic towards her and he helps her to lower the barriers and lower the standards, and to be more open to imperfections as well.
And that's one of the great achievements of Ruby Lang's Clean Breaks, I think.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. And that's a beautiful way of thinking about it. And as you were saying that I was thinking about how this idea of individualism and uniqueness that Americans have like I'm special - is an interesting idea because a lot of that is based in this very capitalistic idea of your value as an individual, right?
And her conflict, a lot of it is, she's an OB GYN and she's coming back from an illness and she needs to come back perfectly. She has to be perfect. She has to come back and, get her number of patients up and do all of that.
And she doesn't want to slowly work her way up. She has to come in with a bang. And I think as you were thinking, I don't know if this is a fully thought out thought, but that sense of perfection and everybody has the potential to, to make it - is yeah. Yeah. Again, it's very American.
It's crippling because if you do not perform, if you do not add this value that you're supposed to add, then you're nothing, according to these ideas, and it's weird because we're told we're all unique, but also we're treated as commodities.
Hsu-Ming Teo: Yes. And we treat love as a commodity as well.
So that's one of the fascinating things, love is supposed to be outside of the values of the capitalist market because if you love somebody, they, as opposed to be irreplaceable. You love them because they are unique. You love them because they have qualities that nobody else has.
And that's why you love this particular person. And, In the older, idealized version of romantic love that we've just been talking about in terms of Dante, in terms of Petrarch, it's possible just to keep loving because there's never the possibility of being together anyway.
But now, although we have these older ideas about uniqueness and love as outside of the market, we also combine our practice of love, our practice of romance with the values of the market. If somebody doesn't love me back, eventually I'll go and look for another product. And I'm putting it in a very crude way deliberately [00:57:30] because, because love can be, we can choose, we are consumers of love.
If one person, if one product fails, we can go and find another product, That's the way of thinking, I'm not saying that it's necessarily a wrong one because it's much more complex than that. We bring a whole lot of other things apart from just the feelings.
We also bring the decision to love, which I think is a really important thing as well, because when you know, So if I don't look at it through a Neo liberal capitalist lens and I don't think, Oh, okay, we're just choosing among products and the one that will reciprocate and fulfill me.
It's all about self fulfillment. If I'm not looking at it through that lens, then I think, okay. I tried to love somebody. They didn't love me back, but I have love to give. So I'm going to find somebody else that I can care for, somebody else that I can do all of these things for, somebody else that I can love.
And so loving, then it's not just about feelings, it's not just about choice and consumerism. It also is an act, a decision, a choice to love, because you are a loving person. You love because you are a loving person. And so that's empowering and that's a real positive for society as well.
So the two co-exist, I guess these ideas co-exist alongside each other, which is why I find the topic so fascinating.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. and I've been reading All About Love by bell hooks and as I was reading it, I was really struck by the idea that, I would say about maybe half of the romance novels I read, explore love.
And about half really are only talking about courtship and really are not talking about love at all. and I think I'm definitely more into look, I like courtship, it's fun, but I want to truly see that, exactly what you're talking about, the intimacy that they have, that they're not just getting to that intimacy at the end of the novel.
I want to have seen that intimacy and that closeness and that knowing grow throughout the novel so that I believe that they are truly in love and will remain in love, right? Like that they are the kind of people who will love as a verb, as opposed to, and this is why I hate like fate elements of romance where I'm like, yeah, but like, are you any good together? I don't care if you're meant to be together.
Hsu-Ming Teo: Yeah. I guess this was one of the things I was exploring in, the chapter on love and romance novels that I wrote for the Routledge Companion to Popular Romance Fiction. And I think the most interesting novelists that I was looking at there is one that I guess lots of people love, particularly academics.
And I used it [01:00:00] verb advisedly and that is, Jennifer Crusie. The chapter on love and romance novels just basically goes through the history of romantic love in Western culture. Then it looks at the way in which ideas about love have changed in the romance novel from the late 19th century to the 21st century.
And you can trace a lot of these changing notions of love, for example, in the, the mid twentieth century, the Harlequin romances were all about brooding men who were like utter bastards, right. And they were nasty and all of that, but there was this irresistible sexual attraction that the heroine had to him and all of that.
And they fall in love, not because he's a nice man, but because of the feelings and the passion and the attraction and all of that. By the eighties and nineties, that's pretty much on its way out. It's still there every now and then, but, but we see it from the man's point of view and he's not an utter bastard because now, the discourse of intimacy is becoming more and more important in the way in which we understand love.
It's not just about the feelings, is not just about the emotions, it's about compatibility. But, what I think is really interesting in Jenny Crusie's Fast Women, is that she is exploring what happens to love after marriage. So she's got these three relationships, and it's like women who are divorcing or being divorced.
And men, the hero has, had a previous relationship and all of that. And I think, one of the secondary characters, she is saying that well, it's not that I didn't love him anymore. Or, it's not that I wasn't in love the first time, because I think usually in romance novels, it's you find the one true love that you're meant to be with, happily ever after. If it didn't work out. And if that was, if you divorced, and you enter the romance as a divorced person or somebody who's just coming out of a relationship or, who's had a relationship that didn't work out, generally the romance novel will tell you it's because it wasn't true love. It wasn't the real one. He or she wasn't the one you were meant to be with. And I think, what I really admire about Jenny Crusie's Fast Women, is that she says those marriages, they were love.
It was real. It's just that after marriage, I changed and he couldn't accept me for the person that I had changed into. And the moment she does that, she destabilizes the romance genre and the conventions and the narrative, on which the genre [01:02:30] depends because if you're constantly changing, how do you know that the person that you were really in love with is going to keep loving you after, as you change?
Andrea Martucci: Right.
Hsu-Ming Teo: And in many ways, I think she doesn't really have an answer for that because for her it's okay, I'm just going to take the plunge and just work at it. So work, working at relationships, right? Which Americans love. Working at relationships, becomes the solution. We're going to work at it and we're going to work at intimacy.
And there is a, a hope that intimacy will take over wher romance leaves off, that if we keep working at intimacy, we'll grow together and we will still remain in love. By the time she writes Bet Me by the time Jenny Crusie writes Bet Me it's like I don't even know whether that's going to work because, you know, in the end love is just a gamble.
I'm going to bring the fairy godmother in and just do this. So it's very tongue in cheek. Very, I guess metatextual in that she's okay, yes I know that there is a fairy godmother here. It's deliberate, right? Because of this very problem of intimacy. So you said you're interested in life rather than courtship?
Most of the stories are about courtship. Can they still remain in love after? And I think that's the question that she reached, after she'd been writing for so many years. And that was the question that interested her, but I don't know that she actually found an answer to that.
Andrea Martucci: Given that she, yeah - her writing changed a lot slash petered off. So
Hsu-Ming Teo: yes
Andrea Martucci: I think that the way you just explained Fast Women certainly explains why when I read it at 16 it was such a puzzling story to me and yet why I found it so interesting. I could go on about Fast Women, but I'm not, not least of which actually, the one thing I'll say is I think what most dated that book for me is the all men are cheaters, narrative that actually follows, I think a lot of her stories, right? Like, you know, the bad guys cause they cheat on their wives.
Hsu-Ming Teo: Not all of them.
Andrea Martucci: Are there any cheaters that are okay in the end?
Hsu-Ming Teo: No, I can't remember the title of it.
She has one where the protagonist is a teacher and she's with the sports coach. And he's not a cheater, but he's obsessive, right? He becomes a stalker.
Andrea Martucci: He's abusive, Yes. And he, no, sorry. The main way, that he's a bad guy is he hates her dog.
Hsu-Ming Teo: Yes. (laughs) Okay. I agree with that. Yes. Yeah.
Is it, if the guy doesn't love her dog, obviously he's not the one she's meant to be [01:05:00] with, so you can actually tell who is your true love by the attitude to your dog?
Andrea Martucci: Yes. Yeah. I think that's actually fairly constant. If anything.
Hsu-Ming Teo: Yes.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. I could keep asking you questions all day, all night. Is there anything else that you really wanted to hit on with the main topic with Trade Me and Clean Breaks?
Hsu-Ming Teo: No, except to say that, I think that they're very important books because they're expanding the repertoire of romantic protagonists and different kinds of cultures and showing that love is a lot more complicated, and, in some ways, you know, for all that I have critiqued Clean Breaks and the perpetuation of stereotypes of the oppressive Asian family, it shows that there are these problems there. And that love operates in very, in more realistic ways, because it's about negotiations between different cultures. One of the things that also does, Clean Breaks also does is to blow apart the notion there are, there is this generic, trans-Asian culture, because she, she gets down into the particular that, different types of, Chinese diaspora is from mainland China, from Taiwan and they have their own rivalries.
And this is one of the things I think that Asian-American romance writers are showing that and that, actually Asianness is quite complicated, that thre are, these and internecene rivalries and competitions and tensions from the viewpoint of the outsider as a generic Asianness, right.
And these writers, Camy Tang as well, a whole lot of others, are showing that, it's actually quite, more complicated than that. And sometimes the conflicts are within the Asian community and not necessarily the Asian community versus the white American community.
So I think they're doing really important things. I love the fact that they're writing these very sophisticated, complicated romances, particularly what Helen Hoang is doing in terms of mental illness and personality disorders and things like that.
And even somebody like, this was, this came out quite some time ago, but I talk about it in the article as well, what happens when the model minority fails? And when Asian Americans cannot be successful? Those are explored in the novels of Camy Tang.
So Camy Tang's novels are Christian inspirational novels, with, the protagonists are mostly from a Japanese background. And there's this tyrannical Japanese grandmother who keeps pressuring her grandchildren to get married. But she's looking at, protagonists who are also not model minorities.
And they feel that [01:07:30] pressure and it's about, they can still be happy. Vicky Essex, who I think is a Canadian author, does that too in her novel, it's a category romance called Back to the Good Fortune Diner, her Asian protagonist was a big, big shot, New York editor, loses her job has to go back to the family diner in, I think it's, in upstate New York or something like that.
And then she's regarded as a failure and she regards herself as a failure. And then, you know, it's like what happens when you don't achieve that immediate success, you're not perfect and all of that. And one of the stories that they're telling of course is that, as long as you're able to find somebody to love, as long as you have the capacity to love and to build relationships within the community, that's a successful life.
And that'sa a really importantstory that they are telling to the Asian American community who feels the pressure to be a model minority as well.
Andrea Martucci: And that feels like a, honestly that feels like an American theme, right? Like maybe it's not broadly. I don't know that certainly resonates with me as a white American, but I understand there's like that intersectional, element of it with the model minority, but you know the ultimate lesson being that, I don't want to say love conquers all.
Hsu-Ming Teo: I think it feels American to you because it is. Because Patricia Toma in her scholarship argues that the model minority has the same problems as those in, they're basically the problems of Neo liberal American society. That you're there as a citizen, a producer, a consumer, there are all of these pressures for you to be the perfect worker, to be the perfect producer, and for women reproducer. So that's why it feels so resonant. I think because, because they are the same problems of neoliberalism as well as a model minorities within a Neo liberal society.
Andrea Martucci: Thank you so much for being here. What is the best way for listeners to connect with you or learn more about your work?
Hsu-Ming Teo: Oh, okay. I've given you my website and my email address. I'm not on social media. So email me contact me at Macquarie university in Sydney.
I'd love to hear from anybody who wants to take this discussion further. And thank you so much. This was a really interesting, really enjoyable discussion. I really appreciate what you're doing in terms of deepening the conversations around the romance genre, Andrea, it's just wonderful.
Andrea Martucci: thank you [01:10:00] so much. That's Oh, my heart is warm.
Marker [01:10:02] Thanks for listening to episode 58 and thanks to Hsu-Ming Teo for joining me. A transcript and show notes for this episode can be found on shelflovepodcast.com. You'll definitely want to check out Hsu-Ming Teo's article in JPRS, which was the foundation for this conversation, but also goes into much more depth on topics that we only brushed on.
As I mentioned at the top, coming up I have discussions with romance scholars Jayashree, Kamble and Eric Selinger, and next episode, I pull back the curtain on this podcast. Have you ever wondered how much money I make or why I'm no longer a member of RWA? Tune in next week.
In the meantime, I'd be grateful if you rated and reviewed the podcast on Apple podcasts. I love to hear your thoughts on the show and it helps other romance nerds find the podcast. You could also skip the middleman and tell a friend about Shelf Love.
Also, I'm trying out Saturday releases. So look for new episodes on Saturdays until I changed my mind.
Thanks for joining me today. If you have any thoughts on the show, I would love for you to reach out to me.
You can send an email to Andrea@shelflovepodcast.com
Black lives matter. Stay safe, stay mad, and keep reading romance.