The old adage, ‘Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never harm me’ is false for publishers — negative words burn us but we develop thicker skin over time to protect our hearts. At the dawn of every book released by my indie publishing company, Dark Helix Press, as the President, I brace myself for the worst, which is disparaging reviews and remarks. In donning mental armor to absorb these words, I aim to produce a better book next time.
The latest book anthology Dark Helix published is Belief, is a collection of fiction, nonfiction and poetry by writers of Asian descent. The marketing company we hired (The Idea Shop) was super excited about this, since given all the talk about diversity in books these days, marketing should be easy peasy!
We managed to get some interview and review times on radio and podcasts along with a few general articles in online newspapers since we had published just in time for Asian Heritage Month in May, which was fantastic! Surprisingly, the most honest critique of the book came from a comedian, Josh Williams. On his One Man Podcast show, he mentions that The Idea Shop had been given him a copy of Belief and he wondered why he should read this book, since he wasn’t Asian. His reluctance to read the book is a true reflection of other non-Asian people’s first thoughts when they see an Asian themed anthology. Why should I read this? They are different from me. As I mentioned before, criticism helps us improve and I needed some sticks and stones, dang it.
In a later podcast episode, Josh revealed that he did end up reading Belief and in his review, there was anger in his voice when he talked about some short stories ending early and his distaste for poetry. He retold the stories that he liked and cited why they touched him. He had transformed from being a reluctant participant to an advocate for the book, by telling his podcast listeners to pick it up because they would also make a connection with the writers in the book.
A week later, I was invited to be a guest on the One Man Podcast and Josh apologized for his review of Belief. I was surprised, there was nothing for him to apologize for. I told him that he gave the book a pretty good review and that not everyone understood poetry. Heck, his initial comment about why he should read an Asian themed book was understandable, this is a question about universal appeal that every publisher asks when they are approached with a manuscript. Josh explained about his fear of being cancelled, which I found unfortunate because this cancellation fear is what keeps us from having real conversations about diversity and it’s hard for certain parties to see the advantages of making change. When one side is shouting in your face that you should be X (insert whatever is considered acceptable at the moment), it’s hard to see why the status quo should be questioned.
Instead of shouting at one another, we should do what director/actor Stephan Chow’s catchphrase recommends — “Sit down, drink a cup of tea, eat a bun, and talk slowly.” I am glad I encountered Josh and we were able to have a civil conversation about Belief which adds to the bigger picture of society embracing diversity. One day when COVID-19 is less of a threat, Josh and I will sit down and have a Montreal style bagel together. Coincidentally, it turns out he was my brother-in-law’s classmate in elementary and high school! The world is a small place and in opening up our minds and hearts to other cultures, we will discover more about ourselves. We share the same DNA sequences because we are all part of the human race.
To be honest, the harshest critic is my tiger mom and I am sure there are lots of stories I can swap with Asian and non-Asian people alike about our moms! Our experiences, looks and cultures may seem foreign to each other on the surface, but we are more similar than you think.