We Are Not Labels

July 20, 2017 | By | 1 Reply More

Picture by Maurits Bos

Once upon a time, I was a bad-ass lawyer. Clients from all over the world came to me to buy and sell companies in the Netherlands. I could swing my big dick with the best of them. Often, I was the only woman in the room and an Asian American at that. If that was going to be a problem, it sure as hell wasn’t going to be mine.


I am allergic to labels and the differential treatment it often implies. It could be a product of my age, growing up in the days of affirmative action in the US. I hated the idea of getting into a school / job / promotion because I ticked someone’s diversity box. I can tick a lot of them: as a woman, a minority and an immigrant.

It made me cynical about diversity in general and labels in particular. I rejected out of hand the notion of imposing female quotas in boardrooms. I refused to join in on any attempt to create girl power on the work floor.

Then Donald Trump got elected. Clearly, we weren’t as far as I thought in the march toward equal rights. Or, whatever ground we had gained, we just lost.

Writing Labels

So I got on board with identifying as a feminist. And yet I was still ornery about having to market myself as an Asian-American-Dutch female of a certain age. I had resisted those labels as a lawyer. Why should I accept them as a writer?

The sad truth is that writers need labels. We need to affix them to our foreheads and slap them onto our manuscripts. We need labels to attract an agent or a publisher, woo reviewers and above all find our readers. How else can we distinguish ourselves / our books from the teeming masses of writing that appear every day? New! Improved! So special!


Still, I longed to be judged as an artist and my work on its merits. I remained obstinate. I would not submit my work to literary journals focused on the Asian (American) community.

Then I attended a novel-writing workshop with Yiyun Li at the Napa Writers Conference in 2016. She was born in Beijing and often writes about China. I told her, I don’t want to be pigeonholed as an Asian writer. She laughed: we’re going to be labeled anyway.

A Feminist Press

Maybe that’s why, soon thereafter, I approached Linen Press. It’s the UK’s only independent feminist press. I sent director Lynn Michell my novel manuscript and she loved it. Last April, Linen Press published my debut novel, The Dancing Girl and the Turtle.

Set in Shanghai 1937, this is a novel about war and rape and self-harm. All Anyi wants is to speak about the trauma of rape. But no one is willing to listen. One reviewer has described my novel as “making 50 Shades of Grey look like light bondage”. That’s another label to add to the collection!

Literary fiction versus genre. Historical fiction or a novel set in the past? So many labels to choose from.

Women for Women

There used to be a great clothing store in Amsterdam that sold one-off items made by young local designers. I think the store’s name was We Are Not Labels.

It’s what we’d all like to achieve as writers. Artistic work should be unencumbered by brand image and never reduced to mere hype. It should stand on its own, proud and shining. In a perfect world, we would each have enough time and money to read all the books ever written. We would then have the patience to make up our own minds about what’s good and what’s not.

Labels are shortcuts. They function as signposts or runes for the initiated to discern the truth. That’s all. No need to get our knickers in a twist.

Because women are readers and they’re writers, too. We have voices. We have something to say. Who among us will listen?

Karen Kao is the child of Chinese immigrants who settled in the United States in the 1950s. After a long, fulfilling career as a corporate lawyer in the United States and the Netherlands, Karen returned to her first love of writing and the stories she heard as a child of Old Shanghai.

Her debut novel The Dancing Girl and the Turtle is the result. Karen is a poet, essayist and writer of long and short-form fiction. Her work can be found in Jabberwock Review, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal and her blog.

About the Dancing Girl and The Turtle

Song Anyi is on the road to Shanghai and freedom when she is raped and left for dead. The family silence and shame that meet her courageous survival drive Anyi to escalating self-harm and prostitution. From opium dens to high-class brothels, Anyi dances on the edge of destruction while China prepares for war with Japan. Hers is the voice of every woman who fights for independence against overwhelming odds.

© Karen Kao 2017

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Category: Contemporary Women Writers, On Writing

Comments (1)

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  1. JazzFeathers says:

    Fantastic post, thatnks so much for sharing it.

    The matter of labelling bothers me a lot too, and I think that’s the reason: labels are shortcuts. It’s like in our fast world we don’t have the time to consider what we are reading, if it’s something we’d like to read. We let other people tell us what it is we are going to read and if we are likely to like it. We are robbed of our right to make up our own mind.
    And you are right, of course: we are going to be labelled anyway, so at least we should choose our own labels. It’s kind of sad to think that’s all the power we are left with, but that’s today’s publishing world, I suppose, we need to cope with it.

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