Leonard Chang and The Lockpicker

Korean-American’s Book Rejected Because Characters “Do Not Seem Asian Enough”

Rejection is a part of life, especially for writers. Their manuscripts are rejected all the time, for various different reasons. And while the rejections are often valid, there are several instances when the rejections just doesn’t make sense.

 

Popular novelist and screenwriter Leonard Chang was put in a situation where his manuscript for his recently published book, The Lockpicker, was rejected by his editor. Although he got the book published, the reason it was rejected was so crazy that Chang wrote an article about the experience for The Booklist Reader.

 

The Lockpicker stars Korean-American characters, and according to Chang’s editor, the characters weren’t “Asian enough.” In his essay, Chang shares his rejection letter, in which he says this:

 

The characters, especially the main character, just do not seem Asian enough. They act like everyone else. They don’t eat Korean food, they don’t speak Korean, and you have to think about ways to make these characters more ’ethnic,’ more different. We get too much of the minutiae of [the characters’] lives and none of the details that separate Koreans and Korean-Americans from the rest of us. For example, in the scene when she looks into the mirror, you don’t show how she sees her slanted eyes, or how she thinks of her Asianness.

 

The Lockpicker is a novel about two brothers who are trying to escape the memories of their abusive childhood. The protagonist, Jake, chooses to do this by committing to a life of thievery, while his brother Eugene ignores the pain of his childhood and his impending divorce. Instead, he tries to focus on running a successful business. While references to their heritage can be made, the story really has nothing to do with them being Korean-American, so why is it that Chang’s editor cited their lack of “Asianness” as the reason the book shouldn’t be published?

 

Cover of The Lockpicker

Image Via Amazon

Diversity is an important topic in every aspect of the world, including books. Getting a peak into the life of characters from two cultures is always interesting, and if The Lockpicker was about the boys’ Korean heritage, then perhaps the rejection would make more sense. However, putting in the references to being Korean-American just to highlight the differences between these characters and everyone else is the opposite of what we should be trying to do in the world.

 

The point of incorporating more diversity into books isn’t to emphasize the protagonist as being other. In fact, in a story that has nothing to do with the protagonist and his brother being Korean-American, it’s better to show diversity by not highlighting their ethnicity. No one notices that they are different or other because it’s not a big deal. It’s not on the forefront of anyone’s mind and it shouldn’t be.

 

Unfortunately, not everyone thinks that way. This was not Chang’s first rejection letter, and it was not the first time the novel got rejected because of the lack of the characters’ “Asianness.” The first editor who rejected the manuscript had this to say:

 

What fails for me is that [that] virtually nothing is made of the fact that these guys are Koreans. I suppose in the alleged melting pot of America that might be a good thing, but for the book it doesn’t lend anything even lightly exotic to the narrative or the characters.

 

Again, the book was about the characters’ torturous childhood, which had everything to do with the personality of their father, and nothing to do with his being Korean-American. Their lives now as a thief and a businessman also have little to do with their ethnicity. If Chang had put in more about the brothers’ “Asianness,” it would’ve seemed forced, defeating the purpose of including diversity in books.

 

Many Twitter users responded to Chang’s essay with their own experiences of old teachers and professors criticizing their stories because the characters were not ethnic enough. Others tweeted their support of Chang, talking about how much they love his work and how they will read anything he writes.

 

As he stated in the essay, Chang pressed on and continued to send The Lockpicker manuscript to editors. At the same time, he carried on with other projects. He sent a manuscript of another novel called Triplines to a company called Black Heron Press. After they accepted that, he gave them The Lockpicker. According to Chang, “…their acceptance was probably the fastest I’d ever received.”

 

The Lockpicker has been well-received by fans, no thanks to his first few editors. Luckily, Chang chose not to get too down on himself or give up on the book because of them. In his essay, he wrote this:

 

If I had been deterred or demoralized by the initial rejections, if I had given up then, the manuscript would still be sitting in some drawer. Thank goodness I kept pushing forward, and I hope you, fellow writers, continue pushing forward, too.

 

It’s clear we still have a long way to go when it comes to rejecting the stereotypes of diverse characters, but thankfully, we have creative types like Chang speaking out to help us along. You can pick up a copy of The Lockpicker here.

 

Featured Images Via Kore Asian Media and Leonard Chang