By Aaron Zhang
“There's a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of making publishing, literature, writing more equitable,” Krystal Yang said. “There are always stories that need to be told, and there is always a different perspective that can be read.”
Yang, a sophomore at Pomona College, grew up in the Bay Area, and read and wrote often throughout her life. Her writing process involves, in her words, “hyperfixation.” For example, at a young writer’s workshop, she heard a song involving alligators and wrote a piece, called “Alligator Tears,” about a woman who grew alligators as plants. In other words, Yang tends to fixate on magical, surreal ideas and images.
As Yang has gotten older, she’s found writing to be a way to explore character and intersection of identity. Even with its unusual themes, her writing reflects challenges in her life, namely, not having Asian American writing mentors. Yang hopes to use her writing to battle the stigma of Asian Americans in art—her way of “making my experience as an Asian American person really at the forefront of my writing,” she said.
In addition, Yang often reflects on Asian American identity and stereotypes pushing Asian Americans away from arts and towards STEM. “This pressure is rooted in anti-Blackness and racism and capitalism,” she said, alluding to the history of the model minority myth, which positioned Asian Americans as superior to Black people, and “should not have any control over my life, should not exert a significant influence over my identity and what I want to do with my own life.”
In identity, Yang also acknowledges her own privileges, which include parents who can financially support her and a college education. As a writer, she strives to use her privilege to benefit those who don’t have as many advantages as she does. This can mean “inspiring somebody to pursue writing,” she said, “connecting young writers to other young writers, or promoting marginalized voices within literature and within publishing.”
For example, over the summer, Yang interned at a literary agency in New York, which, because of the recent Black Lives Matter protests, focused on helping writers of color and selling books from underrepresented voices. Yang helped an agent review and write free feedback on manuscripts from Black authors.
From this experience, Yang has also learned from the corporate side of publishing, sitting in on meetings and seeing what goes on behind-the-scenes. She discovered racial and cultural inequities in the writing industry as a whole, best showcased through the Twitter hashtag #PublishingPaidMe, which encouraged authors to publicly release how much they get paid for their writing. Authors such as Roxanne Gay, John Scalzi, and N.K. Jemison posted advances for their books, and an anonymous spreadsheet of advance payments for various authors went viral, demonstrating the pay disparities between writers of color and white authors.
These racial inequities in pay occur due to “comps,” or comparable titles. Comps are used to project sales for a book by looking at similar titles by similar authors; for example, a dystopian YA book might be compared to The Hunger Games to determine its price.
However, because of lack of diversity in the literary world, books by minority authors may not have many comparable peers. Because an agent cannot find comps, they may not think a novel is viable. To that end, a significant part of Yang’s internship has been “realizing that it’s not just the production of writing that needs to be more equitable, but selling of writing as well.”
In addition, Yang noticed identity-based divisions in publishing between majority and minority: “You have fiction, and then you have queer fiction; you have fiction, and you have minority fiction.” Yang feels that the divisions lump narratives together; as a young, Chinese American woman with two parents who can financially support her, Yang’s story is distinct from that of someone with a different background. “Does my story deserve to be in the same category as somebody who has more underprivileged identity?” she said. “You can imagine that these two narratives could be very different and very disparate, but the fact that they would most likely be both classified as ‘Asian American literature’ or Asian American fiction—there seems to be something unfair with that.”
There’s much work to be done in making publishing and literature more equitable, but Yang believes that equity in literature could benefit society as a whole; she recalls feeling insecure in high school because she did not see Asian American writers and hopes institutions will grow to include international literature alongside classics such as Frankenstein and Jane Eyre. Curriculum incorporating diverse works in a substantial way could help support and inspire those who have been historically underrepresented.
In college, Yang continues to read, educate herself, and help others learn about inequities and issues of diversity in literature and publishing. She uses her writing to explore Asian American identity, hoping to help others overcome racial or cultural barriers and see writing as a viable path. Furthermore, she draws on the knowledge she’s learned through projects in writing and publishing, as well as her knowledge of racial equity and identity, to encourage young artists to continue learning about equity in arts: “It really does start with educating yourself about issues that you’re immediately engaged with.”
Yang is happy to give feedback or discuss literature and publishing with young writers. You can reach her here.