Behind in the Count

Another year of VIDA’s eye-opening numbers


It’s that time of year again. The results of the 2014 VIDA Count are in. In its fifth year now, the count tracks improvements and stagnation in the number of female writers appearing in “well-respected” literary journals and periodicals.

(While the Independent was not included in the survey, according to last year’s count, we had an extremely respectable parity of 52% male to 48% female reviewers.)

This year, VIDA inaugurated the Women of Color VIDA Count, which attempts to tally the ratio of women of color among all women contributors to 15 “top-tier” journals. VIDA admits that its method for tracking women of color was flawed because it depended on women self-reporting their ethnicity, and many opted not to respond.

Whereas identifying whether a writer is male or female is often as simple as his or her name, ethnic identification must come from the individual. One cannot identify others’ ethnicity on looks alone, as Nancy Giles discovered in a conversation with Jay Smooth. So VIDA made the heroine-ic effort of contacting as many women represented in this year’s count as they could to ask them to complete a survey on racial identification.

The responses fell well short of a complete dataset. Most declined to respond at all, and some responded only to say they would not take the survey. Apparently, not all lady authors feel diversity is important.

For those who responded, though, the overwhelming majority identified as white. You don’t even have to open the graphs to see the skyscraper that represents “White” towering over the tiny stumps of other races.

The ethnicity categories in the VIDA survey show the many permutations of race. For Asians, there are 20 choices. A total of 48 respondents identified as one of those 20 categories. Congrats to the New York Times Book Review for publishing the most, at 16. Boo to Harper’s, which came in with the least, at 0. Of course, the New York Times Book Review also published 158 white female contributors (with 215 non-respondents and 10 who declined to take the survey); Harper’s, 24 (with 15 non-respondents).

I would like to say that I was shocked at the results, but I wasn’t. Saddened, upset, angered, but not shocked.

It only affirmed, in glaring optics, my own experience trying to get two novels published. Both feature Amerasian female protagonists and address, among other important topics, issues of race. They are accomplished enough to have attained me representation with a prestigious literary agent, who sent them out to a litany of editors, all of whom were white.

(I must admit they did not self-identify for me; I relied upon online research that included photographs, biographies, Twitter feeds, interviews, and articles.)

From the editors’ responses, I concluded that they only want books that confirm the white view of Asians as superstitious, backward, repressive, secretive, and greedy. They want to capture a whole race like insects in amber, frozen in a bygone era of Mandarins and samurais, bound feet and concubines, forbidden love and sexually wily women.

They want to ignore contemporary history, as if Asians stopped being interesting once Asian countries emerged from the pre-World War II era to build themselves as powerhouses to rival America. What is weak and flawed is fascinating and colorful, what is strong and contemporary is not interesting unless the character is white.

I imagine meeting one of these editors at a cocktail party. We’d fall into an easy conversation and discover that we have things in common: a love of the unfashionable novels of Thomas Hardy and Joseph Conrad; the loneliness of long distance lap-swimming; an irrational fondness for our muttly dogs; an allergy to shrimp.

Then maybe I’d ask to keep in touch, and she’d say, “Oh, sorry, I already have an Asian friend.”

No. No, she wouldn’t. She wouldn’t because she’s liberal and progressive, a big city girl who loves all food that was meant to be eaten with chopsticks.

But she would do that in her professional life because she doesn’t know how to market my book without a cover of a partial view of a pouty-lipped, dark-haired girl in silk. And so you have to ask which kind of racism is more insidious: the one that keeps people from intermingling socially, or the one that narrows the rich diversity of voices to one single note?

Thank you, VIDA, for tracking gender parity and the representation of women of color in the literary world. Looking at the VIDA charts, I can now say:

It’s not me, it’s you.

I am not alone.

We will not be silent, mainstream publishers, and we’ll gather at your gate and make noise until either you come out and unlock it, or we bust it open ourselves.

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