[Photo by Yanyi: A dirt road is dappled by rosy evening light. Coniferous and deciduous trees loom over it, allowing one bit of pink-blue sky to show above.]
You write poetry and criticism. Why are you starting an advice column and what could it possibly be about?
Perplexed, Or, Extremely Thrilled
You are, understandably, a little concerned as to why I’ve decided to shell out advice. No, I haven’t abandoned my faith in literature or criticism. No, I’m not really, really bored.
I’ve decided to start an advice column because I believe literature not only saves lives but helps us live them. In the past ten years, I’ve trawled through the likes of Ask Polly, Dear Sugar, and Captain Awkward, just to name a few, absorbing relationship and emotional advice when I stopped speaking to family and was in need of mentorship and support. In the same way that I searched online for how to install shelves on drywall, I looked to advice columns for a consistent voice in growing up, being surprised by extremely particular situations that still mapped a little onto my own.
You’re asking me this question because I am a queer Chinese American trans man but most of these columns are written by white-presenting women, which is not unexpected in a society where emotional intelligence is relegated to those perceived as feminine and platforms are given to those perceived as white. To tip the scales a little bit, demographically, is enough reason for me to want to do this. However, I’m also supposed to be a Literary Writer™ and self-help is still, perhaps, perceived as feminine, undervalued, neoliberal and without prestige anyway, so why do it?
I have a new proposition for you that I hope you’ll entertain: literature is not the work copyrighted but the process of the work lived. It’s not books that follow you in life but the shape of the words enacted. Words are the fragments of revolutions; words are the frames of new homes. I’ll never forget the transformational power of being told for the first time that my dime-a-dozen memories I had already gotten over were experiences someone else would call “trauma.” I’m the first in my family to go to therapy. I deeply believe “[what] you heal in yourself you heal for your entire family line,” as astrologer Chani Nicholas has said, and queerness has taught me that family is not only blood: family is shared experience, shared life.
Over the past year, I’ve traveled in-person and virtually with my first book, The Year of Blue Water. I’ve spoken with high school students, readers in bookstores, and peers in MFA programs, feeling grateful and touched by the conversations we were able to have. While looking at the career paths available to me as a teacher, I realized that I didn’t want to be restricted, time and again, to one-on-one mentorships and small classrooms ultimately exclusive to those with the luck, connections, and generational wealth required to step into pay-to-play workshops and elite university programs. I do not write poetry to be an expert technician. I write poetry to understand how to live.
It’s my goal to think and feel about what it means to be an artist right now with you, from your writer’s block to who you are as an artist. It’s my hope that we can talk about that strange thing that happened in workshop, whether workshops should even exist, if you can be a writer when your family doesn’t approve, or even (yes) whether you should dump your boyfriend, and to have this all out in the open for anyone to find and, maybe, feel a little less alone in the world.
I hope you’ll join me. I look forward to it.