I finished this letter earlier yesterday right when AP called the US presidential election for Joe Biden. I write to you with a sense of renewed determination for what is still possible and what the future might hold.
Today’s letter is one I’ve been sitting on for a while. The alignment of our lives with the world before us is circumstantial, oftentimes uncertain and precarious. I wanted to speak to that today. I hope I’ve done it justice for the letter-writer. I’ve hope I’ve done it justice for you.
The format of The Reading is no accident. These are letters, ultimately, between me and each week’s letter-writer, with you as witness. They are designed for you who receives this in the morning as much as you who receives this at night, wherever you are in your creative journey. They serve not only as advice but as a place for you to land each week. To create some order in the fragments around us. To create, I hope, new ways for all of us to practice—in life as much as art. Our voices, in all their shapes, guide others in the world, one after the other. I by so many others. You, perhaps, by mine.
If you’d like to support The Reading financially, today is the last letter you’ll receive with the new podcast version without a paid subscription. Next week, the audio version of this letter and The Writing will be limited to paid subscribers. Every Sunday letter will, of course, remain free.
Thank you so much for this series and for your lucid, honest writing. Since discovering your newsletter, I have been sending it to all the artists I know who are struggling with how to live and work these days.
My question to you is about trying to ask for help. I feel really stuck in terms of where to go next with my writing and would really love some guidance. How does one seek mentorship or grants/fellowships with limited resources? By limited, I mean financially limited, as well as categorically limited. I have a British passport, but live in Hong Kong, and have also lived in NYC. I don’t identify as Asian American, so I feel uncomfortable applying for those grants and fellowships; and because I’m not based in the UK, I’m not eligible for any of those grants either. Everywhere I look, there seem to be these identity requirements that I don’t meet, which exacerbates my already unhealthy identity issues. I realize that those identity requirements are in place because the publishing world is so white-centric, but I can’t also help but feel the US and European markets are also ignoring the complexity of diaspora and those living in Asia. When submitting my fiction to some Asian American literary journals, I’m disheartened when I see submission guidelines stating that they don’t want stories from Asia. But at the same time I certainly don’t want to come across like I’m tricking anyone by submitting or applying for events/spaces that I’m technically not invited to. I feel like there’s a divide between POC in America, and POC outside of America, and I don't know how to bridge that. Am I allowed the same resources? Am I allowed to apply/submit?
I have been thinking about your letter since I received it several weeks ago. Your predicament and the practical questions you’re asking are the results of investments we have, at least in the US, in how and why art is made in relation to the nation-state and capital. You’re right—the publishing industry in the US and Europe are indeed ignoring the complexities of diaspora, and for very particular reasons.
Culture, like land, is yet another ground into which nations stake their flags. There’s reasons, for example, why the Fulbright program is administered by the US Department of State, and why the French, in the late 1980s, created a minister of Rock and Roll to address inadequate dominance there. The state has an imperial agenda as well as a nationalist one. Art, the realm of the imagination, can gild the principles in national consciousness and nationalist identity. It can provide mythology as history, explanation for impetus, and the vision necessary for nationalist action. In literature, to lie takes as much imagination as the truth.
Funding the arts can also be a cover of moral good for other intentions. Developers use art initiatives as a cover for gentrification. In the US, where so much private wealth is derived from the suffering of others, a legacy might be bought (or forgotten) in a wave of arts philanthropy. Arts non-profits, at least from my experience as an artist, seem to be constantly applying to third-party funding, private and public, webbing themselves in Kakfa-esque limitations that come with programming derived from project proposals and third-party requirements.
Perhaps this comes from the fact that places like the US have a very limited safety net, with money being the difference between healthcare and food, with not much in between, and these organizations become mediators in defraying those precarities. Unfortunately, this leaves artists not only to bear the exclusions of these inherited agendas, but also to unconsciously accept, and adopt, the same conditions in making our own art.
Literature in the US organized around where the money was. Now, it seems as though the writing might be impossible without that support. When I was working full-time, I was often jealous of other writers who could take off to residencies or retreats at a moment’s notice. Many of these writers had the independent wealth to stay unemployed or only flexibly employed. For those who weren’t, these residencies were not only artistic necessities but important parts of their financial pictures: a few months away from home was a sublet and travel opportunity all in one, if they could afford the other expenses. Yet, something in me could never square how many residencies were structured, over time and habit, to exclude full-time caregivers, artists with families, and artists who could not afford to take time off.
I say all this to emphasize that these organizations you are looking to for support are designed to be limited. They are limited by tax codes and nations. They are limited by the time and energy of (usually) a few overextended staff members. But most of all, they are limited by external agendas and conditional money that preclude and prevent a free and open arts culture to grow.
There are some examples of these conditions and requirements being overcome by effort and circumstance. In 2015, the Yale Younger Series Prize dropped their requirement for writers to be under 40. That same year, the Undocupoets, a group of undocumented poets based in the US, successfully campaigned several major first book poetry contests to remove citizenship-based conditions in their terms. This year, COVID-19 has radically opened many location-limited events to anyone in the world, opening a cache of cultural resources that were previously inaccessible online.
But you wrote about about how to ask for help. Community organizing may well be one of the steps you’d be interested in taking to change the terms you’re writing of in your letter, but perhaps you wrote because you need the support you find impossible to receive.
____, you probably already knew that my answer to your letter was going to be a complicated one. You want to know if you have a right to resources: a right to time, space, and economic relief that others like you, but not exactly like you, seem to be worthy of. You see this sea of opportunities passing over you without a second thought and you register how unfair it is to not be thought of; to not exist; to not only be ignored but actively excluded from these organizations and agendas that see no use in your subject position. So perhaps you wonder, under all this, if you have the audience to be a writer.
For being a writer, even with institutional support, is selfish enough, isn’t it? At least, with an audience or a fellowship, you might imagine that someone else desires your work and wants it to exist. You might imagine that with the right institution that caters to the right audience, your writing will find the understanding it deserves. You might want for your writing what you want for yourself: to be understood and to belong somewhere—a home that is bigger than yourself.
Your circumstances, ____, have put you in a categorical exile. Displaced from definition, you suffer because the places you thought you’d belong do not recognize you. Consciousness of what causes your suffering will ease the influence it has on your life. You will not always have the means to get those needs met. You may feel, now or over time, an incredible loneliness. But the way you survive will be completely different from the way you expect to.
In order to manifest something more than yourself, you must be clear with yourself on the help you need. If you are in search of a community, you may end up in more than one. If you are looking for guidance, you may end up discovering your own expertise. If you are searching for a mirror, you may have to align not along identities or nations but along where you are right now, what resources you have, or what vision of life you dream of in common: no matter. To recognize your needs and to meet them, however imperfectly, is to recognize yourself.
What you know as recognition is a kind of disappearance. Institutions, nations, and even families have easy roles to blend into. In many cases, they require you to do so. You wrote yourself that the publishing industry is ignoring the complexities of diaspora in Asia—I believe you. In fact, your experiences and your situation do not make you invisible. They make you uniquely situated to see in-between what is readily available. They make it impossible for you to disappear.
Your life, ____, requires an extraordinary act of imagination. While I cannot offer you relief from these structures, I can offer you this: who you speak to is not confined to the definitions of our time, but the readers who come upon your work when they most need you. If you write now, then you will appear in that future time. You will show up for yourself in this one. We do not write to mirror the limitations that mark our time but to mark the moments when something new becomes familiar—worthy of consciousness, worthy of difficulty, worthy of repetition, worthy of life.
If you’d like a subscription but cannot afford it, you can respond to this email about your situation for a reduced-rate subscription.