February 12, 2021 | Feature
attempting to write about writing
what is asian-american literature and what does it mean?
When I write, I don’t usually start with a plan. I start with an idea and then proceed to avoid outlines, bullet points, and topic sentences. My fingers gently tap at my keyboard and the fully formed letters magically appear on the screen to spell out the wrong words as often as the right ones. I simply write. But when I’m writing, be it an academic essay, short story, or news article, I can’t help but wonder: who am I to write this? And what do I even have to say?
My college admissions essay was titled “You’re White Until You Aren’t.” I wrote about my decision as a first-generation immigrant to ignore my heritage in order to fit in from a young age. I abandoned my ancestral language and chose to solely speak English in an attempt to live a facsimile of my white peers’ lives in Des Moines, Iowa. That commitment shattered after a trip to Western China when I was a teenager. Standing in the middle of my grandmother’s living room, I saw a package of thin, golden-brown crackers: the exact brand I had loved when I last visited years before. The gesture touched me, and I was guilted by the fact that the language I had chosen to forget was the only one I could use to speak to her. I made a vow to myself to understand and embrace my culture, language, and heritage from then on.
Reading it now, I can’t resist the urge to cringe. I chose to present myself as a first-generation Chinese-American first, because I thought I was a first-generation Chinese-American first. Doing so overshadowed other important aspects of myself and further reinforced the idea of a unilateral identity story.
Just as for many others, nothing has had a deeper or more painful effect on my life than my identity. Writing on the subject directly is difficult because identity is something that I struggle to pinpoint or define. It constantly shifts and changes, composed of my fluctuating experiences and perspectives. But I try to navigate it anyway, because I don’t have a choice. Writing is a very personal creation, a self-portrait drawn with the alphabet. Everything I write, particularly personal nonfiction and fiction, is the result of an internal wrestling match as I attempt to properly express myself and therefore my identity.
Creating work about my identity becomes more difficult when readers expect people of marginalized identities to write about it, talk about it, post about it—to explain the experience to people who haven’t lived it themselves. Our lives and circumstances must be distilled into singular narratives, or told in a way that stirs up discomfort without directly attacking the systems that create or perpetuate our struggles. Our pain can be made just palatable enough; our anger, I posit, less so.
Ling Ma, the author of Severance, a book about a first-generation Chinese-American woman whose life is upturned by an apocalyptic pandemic, echoed this in an interview with the Chicago Tribune: “I resented that expectation. I had been told, even by a faculty member, to write about ‘where you come from’ and I was like (expletive). I felt there was this cultural expectation to write about your otherness—to explain yourself.”
Wanting to write about identity, but not wanting to cater to expectations: the tension between the two makes writing about identity difficult and is redolent of “stereotype threat.” Claude Steele, who coined the term, said in a speech at Brown that when minority groups are exposed to a stereotype, the anxiety created by that negative assumption causes “cognitive stress.” The desire to break the mold of the stereotype must coexist with concerns about perpetuating it further. This distress can negatively impact performance by adding a layer of cognitive conflict not experienced by non-marginalized groups, Steele added.
When I write about myself or create an Asian-American character, I want to express a part of my identity that I grow into every day, but I also want to avoid the label of an Asian-American piece and its resulting limitations. Balancing the two desires forces me to put thought and effort into what I’m creating and changes the way I write. In my day-to-day life, I am already taken at face value firstly as an Asian woman, and I don’t want my writing to suffer that fate as well.
Severance came into my life last summer, and I was drawn in by the protagonist, Candace Chen, as she languidly moves through her life in New York City as a book publisher. The book’s impact on me was far greater than other novels I’d read because Ma gave me a character I could identify with, not just on a personal level, but on a cultural and generational one. It inspired me to write about the Asian-American experience. I hesitate to say it is an Asian-American piece, because although Ma tells that story, its scope shouldn’t be limited to that category.
When asked by a New York Times reporter which “immigrant fiction” pieces have influenced her, Pulitzer prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri responded, “I don’t know what to make of the term ‘immigrant fiction.’ Writers have always tended to write about the worlds they come from.”
Before I arrived at Brown, I hadn’t explored the world of Asian/Asian-American writing. I was unfamiliar with Amy Tan and Jhumpa Lahiri. I didn’t know that writing about food was a trope, or the distinction between cliché and nuanced identity-based writing. I didn’t remember reading anything relating to the Asian-American experience in high school, which allowed me to write about my own experience freely but naively, unknowingly falling into stereotypical patterns and narratives. VISIONS, Brown’s Asian/Asian-American literary magazine, rejected my writing samples two separate times. One was about the evolving relationship between a daughter and mother and of communicating care through food. Another was a longer piece about the ghost of an Asian woman who spends three days mourning and ruminating on her life in New York City.
My third submission from last semester, titled “Mother,” a metaphoric piece about the self-sacrifice of an Asian woman, was accepted. Perhaps I had a better understanding of how to present my writing appealingly—but in doing so, I questioned whether I was further contributing to the curation of a particular narrative, one in which our identities can be explored, but never too closely. Categorizing writing as “Asian-American literature” can be limiting even as it is empowering, given the diversity of experiences that rigid expectations for “Asian-American” narratives may constrain.
Rupi Kaur, a best-selling Indian-Canadian poet whose work quickly garnered international attention, writes poems related to her identity and experience. Kaur has come under fire by several critics for commodifying her marginalization. In a Buzzfeed Article, Chiara Giovanni argues that “the Western metropolitan literary market’s demand for confessional writing that is colored by just the right amount of postcolonial authenticity, ensuring that it is exotic enough to be attractive without making white Western readers uncomfortable, plays a major part in her success.”
I personally understand many of these criticisms and even agree with some of them. In my opinion, Kaur’s virality represents exactly the type of immigrant and marginalized story that people are comfortable with and want to consume. But her simple-versed poetry still remains a form of South Asian representation, even if she has been criticized for her delivery. She is an international best-selling author, after all, indicating that not everyone agrees with the critiques. It’s possible, too, that her marginalized identity makes her an easier target to attack. The mixed reception of Kaur’s poetry shows yet again that writing to an audience about one’s experience isn’t all that easy.
Just as there is no singular Asian-American or Pacific Islander experience, there is no one way to express and write about it. It’s questionable what the umbrella term “Asian-American literature” even captures. The lines are blurred. Some define the term as literature written about Asian-ness without having to have been written by an Asian author; others define it as literature written by those of Asian/Pacific Islander descent. But then, even the definition of Asian itself has recently shifted to be more inclusive of South Asians.
Hanya Yanagihara, author of A Little Life, said in an interview with The Believer, “Where it becomes difficult is defining what, if anything identifiable at all, makes an Asian-American book an Asian-American book, other than the fact of its creator being Asian. And I’d argue that there is nothing identifiable beyond that.”
I agree with Yanagihara’s sentiment. While I search for Asian-American representation in all forms of media, it’s hard not to become frustrated by the constant categorization of experiences and narratives, especially of the marginalized. We don’t have a “Straight” or “White” genre on Netflix because we don’t need to. While labels are sometimes helpful, I believe we need to think more broadly about the impact that labeling by identity might have on promoting identity over personhood for marginalized individuals.
It’d be naive to say that I fully understand my undefinable Asian-American identity, which cannot be separated from the medley of my other identities and experiences, many of which have yet to be processed. It would be senseless to claim that I could fully explain it through words. It is impossible for a lovely reader like you to glimpse the words that fully encompass my Asian-American experience and identity, because, unfortunately, they don’t exist.
I can try really, really hard and maybe I’d come really, really close. But that’s not the point. The point is that no matter what I write, I shouldn’t be worried about perpetuating or avoiding tropes about Asian-American literature or stereotypes about Asian-Americans. I should feel no pressure to write anything besides what naturally appears on the screen when I type. Yet, somehow, the act of scribing parts of myself down, of trying to pinpoint a palatable identity, is one that I’m inevitably and repeatedly drawn to. I want to bring greater awareness and representation to my experience and experiences like mine. I want to give myself the closure that writing often brings.
But I want it to be without any strings attached.