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No. 102: Does fiction affect people’s view of the “Other”?

Updated: Jun 6


Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu in the movie "The Face of Fu-Manchu," from 1965.

Does fiction make any difference to people’s concept of those they designate as “other”?

I like to think story-telling can bring readers into the protagonist’s point of view in a way that increases a feeling of shared humanity. More to the point, I would consider whether readers would identify with a character of East Asian descent as the protagonist. If not, the story’s not a success with those readers. Does identifying with a character from different demographic categories mean readers will see real people in their lives in a different way? I like to think so, but I’m not sure. Positive influence seems less likely than negative influence.

The issue is much larger than any one writer.

I’m writing this shortly after the signing of legislation to deal with “Anti-Asian Hate Crimes,” as NBC described it. Of course I’m in favor of these crimes being recognized as such, which has been way too late in coming, and all the moves intended to aid prosecution. I see efforts to bring education into this matter and it all seems positive in nature to me. The real question is whether any of it does more than reveal and, ideally, punish crimes—or whether people who are inclined to hostile attitudes and actions won’t be influenced at all. That’s a lot like my opening question about fiction.

One of many ways to consider these subjects is through the concept of who’s “normal” and who’s the “other.” This can be described this way: “The most important and consequential thing that sociologists have discovered about whiteness—having white skin and/or being identified as White—in the United States and Europe is that whiteness is perceived as being normal. White people "belong" and are therefore entitled to certain rights, while people from other racial categories—even members of indigenous populations—are perceived and, therefore, treated as unusual, foreign, or exotic.” (“The Definition of Whiteness in American Society,” Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D., on thoughtco.com, Nov. 8, 2019.)

Humans seem to be tribal in various ways, by which I mean we identify with groups to which we belong and are aware of those we don’t. The most significant ways may be demographic, but there are others: Loyalty to a sports team; devotion to certain entertainment (one style of music but not another, for instance); playing a particular online rpg as opposed to others, and so on. These other examples can cut across all demographic lines. Yet we divide by appearance and lifestyle more than the others.

I’ve criticized the ways Asian and Asian American characters have been portrayed in English-language storytelling for a long time. Doing so always raises a question that may or may not be expressed explicitly: Who cares? And when people do care, does it matter?

For me, writing fiction has been a way of expressing thoughts and feelings indirectly, as opposed to memoir, essay, and a blog like this one. In particular, I have found fantasy and science fiction to be tools with which to tell stories. I’ve created stories from the time I was a young child, so I don’t have a particular anecdote to tell of how I was inspired to do this. It just seemed to come to me naturally.

Because I write about characters of East Asian descent, my work connects to the matter of how such characters are depicted in the big picture of American society.

I grew up watching characters on TV and in movies purportedly representing people like me, my family members and friends, and in historical settings, people like my ancestors. Very few of them were role models with whom I wanted to identify—in fact, few were characters with whom I could identify. Most were shallow characters defined almost entirely by race and culture. The same was often true in narrative prose.

Related to my creative work was my interest in how other creative work—prose fiction, movies, television, and comic books were big in my young life—depicted people who had a racial resemblance to me. Growing up, I was aware that these depictions contributed a lot to the way other people viewed me and my immediate family. I did not have an exaggerated view of my potential influence, but I developed a desire to depict characters of East Asian descent as people defined by more than just race and ethnicity.

So, once again, does fiction make a positive difference? I think it’s possible but I don’t see a way to measure how much.

Note: Nonfiction pieces from an earlier version of this website are not archived.