A Letter to My Younger Self As You Begin Your MFA
by Karissa Chen
A few months ago, I had a conversation with Eugenia in which we marveled, equal parts relieved and embarrassed, at how far we had come in the way we think about our identities as Asian American writers since our MFA days. You don’t know Eugenia yet, but you will. In a few days, you’ll be at a poorly lit Bronxville bar, post-MFA-orientation, and you’ll see a girl singing her heart out, and you’ll be curiously drawn to her. Maybe because you like her energy. Maybe because you love karaoke. Or maybe because she’ll be the only other Asian American you’ve encountered so far at this mostly-white program. It will be several weeks before you’re formally introduced, months before you admit to each other one drunken night the burden you feel being Asian American writers, and nearly the whole academic year before you have a first friend date outside the bounds of school. But trust me on this: she will be one of the people most important to you.
At first your conversations will be about how you don’t want your Asianness to define you or your writing. You’ll agree on this point. You’ll talk about how sometimes you feel that focusing on race prevents your work from being universal; you’ll wonder if the concerns people have when they focus on race are actually about class; you’ll wonder if you should mention your race in your bio; you’ll wish, just a little bit, that your characters and narrators could be “colorless”, “a-racial” — you’ll stop just short of “white.”
You’re probably nodding along as you read this — these are the concerns you’ve had since you decided to embark on this writing life, even if you’re not quite sure where these concerns come from. You don’t quite know the term “ghettoizing” yet, but you fear writing something “ethnic” because you worry you’ll be pigeonholed, trivialized, exoticized. I know your fingers graze book spines and for the briefest of moments, you wish your name didn’t give away your ethnicity so clearly, that you didn’t have to be judged against expectations you imagine both those in Asian American communities and those outside them have for you. I know that you yearn to be told you don’t have to write about Asian characters if you don’t want to, that nobody expects you to speak for everyone else who looks like you. I know writing about your identity and your culture conjures in your mind images of fans, plum blossoms, qipaos and chopsticks, that you worry that people will search in your stories for themes of assimilation, immigration, culture clash, alienation, all through a particular lens that feels inauthentic, degrading, diminishing. I know you want to write work that moves, that speaks to your own insecurities and depression and loneliness, that breaks your own heart and the hearts of others, and you worry that the only way to do so is to erase the “noise” of race. You don’t know yet what I remember with slight embarrassment — the number of times you will approach older Asian American writers, sometimes total strangers, asking them for advice, practically pleading with them to give you permission to write whatever you want, even if what you want involves beautiful redheads who fall in love with green-eyed boys next door. You will shed a lot of tears in front of trusted mentors because, for reasons you don’t understand, talking about this is painful and confusing and causes you to feel short of breath.
I want to ask you a question you’ve never thought to ask, that no one will ask you in these early days: For whom are you writing? Or more pointedly: Do you imagine your audience to be white?
I know the answer to this question, of course. I know the answer is “yes, mostly.” I know that even if you don’t consciously think it, you conflate “American audiences” with “white people.” And I don’t blame you for this. People of color are taught from a young age to assume an audience is white. “Normal” is Sweet Valley High, The Wonder Years, Sixteen Candles. “Normal” is an absence of racial or ethnic markers. We, those who are not “normal” because we are not white, learned what “normal” was from the media we consumed; we learned to yearn to be “normal”; we learned to act and speak “normally.” When you write about those freckled women in unnamed suburbias, you are reaching for what is closest on the shelf of our collective cultural consciousness, what is easiest, most “normal,” most “universal.” You are reaching for white.
Your MFA program won’t help in this regard. It will transform you into a better writer, and your life will be changed by it. You will learn craft and language, you will develop a love affair with poetry, you will find lifelong friends and mentors. You will experiment, test your boundaries, search for your voice. But you will find yourself surrounded by white peers, white teachers, people who can’t push you to ask yourself the harder questions about who you are as a writer. While this will bother you slightly, you won’t know how to articulate why, or even what you’re looking for, at least not in a way that doesn’t sound self-hating. When everyone in your (mostly white) workshop hates a writer of color you bring in to share, you will assume it’s because of a problem with your own taste, not because their sensibilities, shaped by and upholding a dominant culture, might be different. When your writing, influenced by those Asian dramas you grew up on, is criticized for being melodramatic, you will wonder if you ought to try harder to write something quieter, something snarkier, something more twee.
The one and only time you try to write a story with Asian American characters, it gives you so much anxiety that you feel like throwing up and crying (although it will become the story that means most to you out of all those you write during that time). You will take it as the compliment she intends when a white friend tells you, “What I like about your writing is that race never plays a role in any of it; you’d never be able to guess the writer was Asian!” You’ll feel you have finally succeeded in what you’re trying to do. Only once will you ask a teacher of color a jumble of incoherent questions on race and writing, and he will offer you answers you’re not quite ready to hear, asking you why you feel the need to replicate and mimic a story that has been told a thousand times over, a story of cultural whiteness, telling you things that your mind will resist so much that even years later, you can’t quite remember the particulars, only a sense that he was right. Two weeks later, he will be denied tenure from the institution and you will never see him again, though you will write passionately to the administration about how disappointed you are and how much you need more teachers of color.
It will be several more years before you begin to shrug some of this off, before your ideas begin to change. It will be years of cautiously entering communities of color, unsure if you belong; years of fights with a beloved who disdains your poorly developed ideas of identity; years of reading widely about race and identity and reading works by writers of color. Change won’t come like a waterfall. It’ll happen slowly, as the fear and anxiety that is driving you ebbs and gives way to a realization that your cultural and ethnic identity are inextricable from your writing, eventually leaving a determination to define what it means to be a writer of color for yourself.
I’d like to save you some time. If I could, I’d like you to get to where I am now, sooner; so you can be the writer you’re meant to be, sooner; so you can start writing the works that will matter to you the most, sooner. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment the thought bloomed that things could be different, so instead I’d like to talk about one book, a book you’ve already read, a book whose significance you won’t understand until later.
Do you remember the first time you came across a Spanish phrase in Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao? How you paused only briefly at the non-italicized words, using the limited Spanish you knew from Sesame Street and two weeks of seventh grade foreign language learning to cobble together an approximation of its meaning? How you were surprised that the parenthetical that followed it was not a definition, but an aside? Do you remember how the second time, you didn’t even pause? You probably thought of it as any other word you didn’t understand, the meaning of which you might gather in context. Soon after, when it became apparent that the book was peppered with Spanish words, you began to read with your laptop perched within arm’s reach so you could look up phrases in the dictionary. And this was how you learned the definitions of everything from “chanclas” to “dique” to “maldito” (with some English words like “pulchritude” thrown in).
In a couple of years, you’ll read an interview with Diaz in which he explains that the choice not to italicize or define Spanish phrases was very much intentional. To these characters, he said, Spanish words were no more “foreign” than any of the other words coming out of their mouths, and they certainly wouldn’t have taken the time to define them. Why, then, would he write them in such an unnatural way? Why do it simply for the sake of an imagined audience that didn’t know? He added that he wasn’t writing for those who didn’t already know — he was writing for those who did, for Latinx readers like him, who would find the cadence and cut of his dialogue as familiar as going home.
No great epiphany will come then — you won’t untangle your thoughts on writing and identity all at once, but the thought will worm into your mind that this small political act, this tiny defiance, this refusal to make things easy for an audience that doesn’t know — this is the portal to another way you had never considered before. This understanding will pave a small pathway to what you’ll eventually figure out, what I know now: that so many of your fears, so many of your anxieties — they only hold weight as long as you believe your audience is mostly white.
Who else would expect you to hold their hand through any exploration of your identity or history or language or culture? Who else would think it was exotic? Who else would reduce a nuanced, complex narrative simply to a story about race and culture? Who else would think a story about loss or love or power is not universal because the characters who encounter these things are not white? Who else would pigeonhole you as an “ethnic” writer simply because you wrote about people who looked like you?
A few months ago, I got into a debate with a friend. The friend, who is white, argued that work about a non-Western culture without cultural and linguistic explanation would appeal to a smaller audience, and thus sales might fall. The suggestion upset me, for several reasons. First of all, every piece of work only appeals to a subset of the population. But more than that, I was bothered by the notion that somehow a work would have to be made “palatable” to a white audience, or even an audience of POC who cling to a culture of whiteness, in order for it to be “successful.” These audiences love things like Lord of the Rings and Star Trek and seem to have no trouble entering foreign worlds when they’re made up—people speak Klingon, for goodness sake!—and yet when it comes to real worlds, real people, texts become too difficult, too exotic. People of color spend so much of their time trying to crack the code on a world that is not entirely their own, not just in stories but in the navigation of everyday life; it does not seem unreasonable to me to ask that, once in awhile, a white reader do some of the same work.
Remember that time you went to Nagoya, Japan and discovered that no one spoke English in that city? You spent several days trying to communicate through hand gestures and charades and a Chinese-language keyboard before picking up a few rudimentary Japanese phrases. It was challenging and unfamiliar but, in its own way, exciting. You were a visitor to a country built for the people who lived there. And part of being a visitor was learning to navigate the country on its own terms, without feeling like you were owed an easier way. Isn’t visiting an unfamiliar world in literature much the same? Why not build the world of your stories for the people who live there, not the visitors, and trust that the visitors who really want to understand will make the necessary effort?
But no, you aren’t here yet. You probably wouldn’t believe me if I told you your audience doesn’t have to be white, or you might say, “Well, of course I know that,” but you don’t, not really. So let me tell you something else: Eugenia will graduate two years ahead of you. The two of you will become best friends. You will read each other’s work, feel safe to ask each other questions, share successes and failures, drink, dance, karaoke. You will grow together, without even noticing, your ideas on identity becoming more nuanced. And one summer, she’ll go off to Kundiman, a poetry retreat for Asian Americans, and when she comes back, she’ll tell you, “I thought about you the whole time I was there.” With her introduction, you will start to meet writers from that community, including founders Sarah Gambito and Joseph Legaspi, and you will jokingly—but not really—beg them to start a retreat for fiction writers, your desperation for the space electric beneath your skin. When, a few years later, they finally do and you get to go, it almost won’t matter, because by then the Kundiman family will already have become your family. And it will be this family that allows you to see, for the first time, in the flesh, who your audience is. They have faces that look closer to yours and names that feel intimate to you. They have cultural touchstones that you understand, and they understand, too, why you asked yourself the questions you did for so many years. In their presence, you’ll finally understand that when you write, you are writing for them, and what that means—what it really means to write for them is that you are writing for yourself.
I am writing for you.
I wish I could tell you that this change makes it all go away, but of course it doesn’t. You will still feel the burden of representation, even as you begin to feel that it’s natural to write about Asian and Asian American characters. You will still wonder, very occasionally, if by writing stories set in China and Taiwan, you are pigeonholing yourself. You will find new sets of problems, like: Do you use the Mandarin, Shanghainese, or Cantonese word for qipao in your work? Does your dialogue between people in China, written in English, sound too colloquially English and unlike something a real Chinese person would say, if translated? Where is the line between the dramatic sensibility you drew from the Asian dramas you grew up on (good) and purple prose (bad)? You will begin to feel new anxieties about how to truly represent a fluid truth, how to take ownership of stories you did not live, how to best make space for questions you don’t have the answers to and for the margins that aren’t invisible but are not entirely clear to you. But these new concerns will be ones you welcome. Because they mean you are finally open to asking questions in your work and allowing uncertainty to seep in. Because they mean you’re finally moving past the fear of being fully yourself on paper and onto the question of how — how best to represent fully all the parts that make you yourself.
One day, about a year after you graduate from the MFA, you will feel really low. Nothing you have written in the last year will be any good. The sentences will be sound, but the work will feel devoid of heart, devoid of you, somehow no longer honest. You will finally break down one evening when you and Eugenia are writing at a hotel lounge. Tearfully, you will confess to Eugenia that you are afraid that nothing you write will ever be worthy again, that perhaps it is pointless to even keep trying. She will listen to you, her face sympathetic, nodding, and then she will take your hands and tell you something you will remember for years afterwards, whenever you are stuck, unsure, directionless.
“Write the thing that will save your life,” she will say.
When I write, I imagine the people who look like you, the people you come from and who came before you, the people who will inherit your face, your history, your name. I imagine the people adjacent to you, those who look like you but have a different story, a different struggle, yet find solace in a collective narrative woven out of individual differences. I imagine offering a mirror, a model, a way to be seen. But most of all, I imagine you: you, on the precipice of this writing life, confused and anxious, seeking a guide for a road on which you’ll take many wrong turns. I imagine you, on the journey towards becoming the writer you will be.