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Guest Chick Elka Ray: On Character Diversity

Today the Chicks are thrilled to welcome Elka Ray, who lives in and writes about both Vietnam and Vancouver Island. Her new Toby Wong novel is DIVORCE IS MURDER. So glad you could visit us here, Elka!

When my daughter was five or six, like many little girls, she said she wanted to be an actress when she grew up. She’s a great mimic with natural comic timing, yet I reacted with dismay. The reason? She’s half Asian and my first thought was: “What kind of roles would she get?” As it now stands in Hollywood, she’d be an unlikely lead or love-interest. Instead, she’d be playing “Asian” characters – whatever that means.

I can’t change Hollywood but I can write stories with complex characters who look more like my kids. This desire led me to Toby Wong, the divorce lawyer star of my new book Divorce Is Murder. Thankfully, the publisher likes Toby – who’s whip-smart and Chinese Canadian – enough to have given her a series. Not everyone felt that way. One editor actually rejected the manuscript because Toby “wasn’t Asian enough” – and suggested I write about Asian Canadian gang members!

While I’d love to read a book about Asian Canadian gang members, that was NOT the story I wanted to write. My goal was to feature a “normal” Canadian – a smart, sarcastic, adventurous professional woman, who’s of Asian descent. Yes, she’s faced some racist bullying. Yes, she’s struggled with her identity. But she’s not entirely defined by her heritage.

My family (German mom, English dad) immigrated to Canada when I was four. I’m white-blonde and blue-eyed. For five years in a row I was chosen to play the Virgin Mary in the German school Christmas play. When I finally complained, they let me be the Angel. You get the picture. Back in regular school, some of my classmates were fifth-generation Canadians whose ancestors came over from China to build the Trans-Canada railway. Yet I heard people ask them: “No, where are you really from?” In the book, Toby gets asked that. No one ever asked me that.

I’ve spent the last twenty-five years living in Vietnam, where I’m constantly aware of just how much I stick out. On the flip side, I’ve benefited so much more from reverse-racism: no matter how sweaty and disheveled I was, never being questioned in five-star hotels (while my Asian friends were); not being arrested in a nightclub on suspicion of being a hooker (again, while my Asian friends were); and landing jobs for which I was way underqualified so there’d be a token white person in the company brochure.

Meanwhile, back in Canada, people of Asian descent are not reaping those benefits. The opposite, in fact. Within two days of being in Canada, my Vietnamese-Australian husband got stopped by the cops TWICE. First time he was “not considerate enough to let another driver merge” (I did Driver’s Ed in Canada: it’s on the mergee to yield and zipper in). Second time was for JAYWALKING. And yes, he was so guilty. The cop then proceeded to yell at him in put-on pidgin-Asian-English: “You You No Walk-ee!” I was too floored to react while my husband, who sounds like Crocodile Dundee, just said: “Er, yeah, okay mate.” Do I think he was racially-profiled? Hell yes!

Back to fiction. After reading this, you probably get why themes of race, identity, and belonging keep popping up in my stories and why I want more diverse characters in books, movies, and TV shows. I hope you’ll like Toby Wong. Most of all, I hope that when my daughter grows up, her coloring will matter a whole lot less than her talent, kindness, and sass.

Readers: If you’ve ever lived or traveled in a foreign country, what was it like being thrown into a completely new culture?

divorceismurder_cover BLONDE HAIR

Toby Wong visits her quiet hometown in British Columbia, where nothing ever happens–until her old high school rival is found murdered.

Shortly after returning to her sleepy hometown on Vancouver Island, Chinese-Canadian divorce lawyer Toby Wong runs into Josh Barton, who broke her heart as a teen at summer camp. Now a wealthy entrepreneur, Josh wants to divorce Tonya, the mean girl who made Toby’s life hell all those years ago. Not long after Toby takes Josh’s case, Tonya is found murdered. Josh is the prime suspect.

Together with her fortune-teller mom and her pregnant best friend, Toby sets out to clear Josh, whom she still has a guilty crush on. While he seems equally smitten, can Toby trust him? The handsome cop charged with finding Tonya’s killer doesn’t think so.

Since Tonya stayed in touch with everyone from that lousy summer camp, Toby keeps running into ex-campers she’d rather forget. Could one of Tonya’s catty friends be her killer?

Are Toby’s old insecurities making her paranoid? Only too late does she realize that she really is in danger.

Elka 2018 author pic

Elka Ray is the Canadian author of Divorce is Murder.
Born in the UK and raised in Canada, Elka has two previous novels, SAIGON DARK and HANOI JANE; a short-story collection, What You Don’t Know; and a series of children’s picture books about Vietnam, where she currently lives with her family.
Elka grew up in Victoria, B.C. Canada, the setting for her latest mystery. When she’s not writing, drawing, or reading, Elka is in the ocean.

 

CONNECT WITH ELKA ONLINE

Website: ElkaRay.com

Facebook: /elkaraybooks

Twitter: @ElkaRay

Instagram: @elka.ray

YouTube: Elka Ray

Goodreads: Elka Ray

 

29 thoughts on “Guest Chick Elka Ray: On Character Diversity

  1. Welcome, Elka! I have to say, a book about Asian Canadian gang members sounds fascinating to me. But Toby sounds like an awesome character even if she is on the right side of the law, and I’m glad she found a home with a publisher. It’s funny how non-white characters are often expected to spend a lot of time and energy reflecting on their heritage. I’m half-Asian myself, and I typically only think about it when I get the “but where are you really from” type of questions. (I’ve been lucky never to have experienced such outright racism as your husband.) Maybe if Toby didn’t have a murder to deal with she could focus on being “more Asian,” but personally I would rather read about her crime-solving efforts!

    Liked by 6 people

  2. Stereotypes and publishing, got to get used to that, but its always hard to hear. While I’m grateful that more race, religion, gender is becoming explored–we all miss the mark when giving in to “expected” roles. Way to push back! Toby sounds amazing. Congrats on the new book.

    Liked by 6 people

  3. The characters in my Natalie McMasters books are very diverse. Natalie is a white, bisexual woman in her 20s, her wife Lube is a lesbian and a Mexican immigrant, her other love interest Danny is a straight white Marine (there are no ex-Marines) who is an ex-cop. Her uncle who runs the 3M detective agency is also a Marine and a devout Southern Baptist, while his partner Leon Kidd is an black ex-cop and Marine in his 50s. I love all of the diverse personalities because it provides endless opportunities for plot elements that arise organically out of character interaction.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Tom – sounds interesting! I’m always amazed by men who can write good female leads. I thought AJ Finn (and yes, I know he’s controversial) did a great job in The Woman in The Window. Elka

      Like

      • I’m not familiar with Finn’s work, but I’ll check him out on your recommendation. The longer I write, the more I think that things like gender, sexual orientation and ethnicity matter little re character development. Sure these things influence who we are, but I think the primary goal of a writer is to create a believable person and eschew stereotypes. That’s what I try to do, and at least some of my readers tell me it’s working.

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  4. I want read about this character. The story line sounds interesting to explore. This book is now on my to read list. It is disheartening that people in the publishing industry still want to stereotype characters instead of allowing them to just represent normal complex people.

    The real life examples you gave of racism is just so sad to say the least. The rise in overt racism worldwide is troubling. I’m a black American. Some people here say if things get worse on that front there is no other country we can go to because some form of prejudice is every where. This post really just confirmed that.

    Liked by 7 people

    • Hi Melody. I can’t even imagine the injustices you face as a black American woman. It is easy to feel disheartened. Yes, prejudice is everywhere but so are good people fighting against it! All the best to you! Elka

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Your new book sounds terrific, Elka, and thanks so much for visiting the Chicks today! About ten years ago I started living half time in Hawai’i, where as a haole, I’m in the minority. I’ve found it to be both eye-opening and a wonderful experience–largely because of what it’s taught me about how it feels to be the”other.”

    Liked by 5 people

  6. I can’t wait to meet Toby! I’m so glad you’re visiting us at Chicks, Elka. I love to know the personal stories behind the fictional ones, so this is all very fascinating to me. I’d be interested to know about your daughter’s experiences with regard to race. I kinda hope she has NO experience, though, if you know what I mean!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hi Becky. Many thanks! My daughter, aged 10, has only lived in Vietnam. Here, she’s often told she looks “Western” – largely because she has long, caramel hair. When we go to Canada or Australia, she’s described as “Asian”. Beyond genetics, race is about self-perception & how others perceive us. It’s going to be interesting to watch my kids & their mixed-race friends deal with this as they grow up & become more aware of racial stereotypes. And yes, I’d love this to be a non-issue for her (and the rest of us) forever… Elka

      Liked by 1 person

  7. “As it now stands in Hollywood” …WHAT? She could be playing Laura Jean Covey in “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before”!! Great adaptation of a great novel, BTW.

    I’m hopeful that Hollywood and the publishing world are getting more diverse, but I’m sure there’s still a long way to go. Just you get requests for your character to be “more Asian,” I’m also betting that somewhere, someone is asking an author/screenwriter to make a character “LESS XXX,” so they’ll be recognizable and relatable to the mainstream audience, whatever that is. OK, I wanted to post a link, but maybe just google “never go full retard;” that’s the dynamic I’m talking about.

    But yeah, you nailed it. No matter how disheveled, no matter what I’m wearing, I’m still white and blond and speaking un-accented ‘Murican English.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I’m hopeful it’s changing too – in the right direction. And you’re right about the more/less conundrum, which doesn’t just apply to race/culture but EVERYTHING. Especially, I think, for women. You’re meant to stand out yet ultimately look like everyone else, be curvy but not too curvy, sexy without trying to look sexy, etc etc… Sigh. I feel tired! Elka

      Liked by 1 person

      • You can! Moreover, the same people might actually want to read both. This is another thing publishers struggle with, trying to pigeonhole authors into tight genre parameters. I write lighter, fast suspense (like the Toby Wong books) and darker thrillers & have had various agents & editors express concern that readers will be “confused”. (This always has me wondering who these easily confused readers are? Don’t most readers check out the front cover & scan the blurb before committing their time & money?!?) Elka

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: Guest Chick Elka Ray: On Character Diversity — Chicks on the Case – Three Rivers Novelties

  9. What a fantastic post, Elka, and thanks for sharing your story on Chicks! Your book sounds wonderful and it’s going straight to the TBR. Very nice to meet you!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hi Ellen. Many thanks! I may be biased but BC is beautiful! And I feel very lucky to live in Vietnam. It’s been an extraordinary place to “grow up”, which is how I think of it, as I arrived here in my early 20s. Where do you live? Elka

      Liked by 2 people

  10. Great post, Elka — thanks so much for hanging out with the Chicks! Toby Wong sounds like a character I’d like to spend time with! Love that you write stories characters with complex characters who look more like your kids — and that publishers (although still too seldom) are publishing more mysteries with diverse characters! (Also love that your husband sounds like Crocodile Dundee!)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Vickie! I love it when people who’ve only dealt with my husband by phone meet him in person. There’s always that second when their eyes freeze as they’re trying to process: imagination – Croc Dundee – versus reality – a super smiley, energetic Asian guy… Elka

      Liked by 2 people

  11. Thank you so much for visiting, Elka! Great post. We absolutely need more diverse characters. I love that you’re creating them and exploring these important themes in your work. The book sound terrific and I can’t wait to meet Toby. I already love her!

    Liked by 4 people

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