I hope you and yours are taking care, wherever you are in the world. I am feeling the weight of these past few weeks, so my note today is short.
To celebrate the two-year anniversary of The Reading, I’m having a short sale this month! Get 24% off a yearly membership until July 31.
This month, Writing Space is happening every Tuesday except the week of July 18th.
There are still a few spots left in Ida Yalzadeh’s Foundations of Asian American Studies class! Sign ups close on July 7th and class starts on July 14th.
Now, on with the work.
I’m in a writing workshop at a place with a recognizable name, the kind where you say you’re doing a class there and people know what you’re talking about. I was super excited to get in but am feeling quite ambivalent about it now because of my fellow writers’ critiques. I was uncomfortable the first week when a peer commented another writer’s sample that it was was too “insert slur here” for him. The moderator cut him off and said that wasn’t a helpful comment but it had already been made. I was nervous to show my work because I’m Chinese American and my work deals with race.
In the session about my work, there were a few comments that left me laughing after class and then crying. An example of what was said: a white man commented that the dialogue with a Chinese character felt very real to him, which he would know as he was married to a Chinese woman.
The one that has me thinking still is when an elderly white writer brought up how he couldn’t get past the fact my protagonist had an “American” name while her parents were Chinese immigrants. Why wouldn’t they name her a Chinese name? The issue is I had written a scene where the mother talks about her daughter’s name as one of the few things her abusive husband let her have control of and how her daughter is named after herself. So now that comment has me thinking do I keep the scene in and in a way, answer that question for the white reader, or do I cut it out, because I don’t want to cater to a white audience? I had the realization that these are the types of comments and people I’d have to deal with when showing others my work and the feeling of weariness just overwhelmed me. I am so, so tired of having to justify myself.
Writing has been a safe space for me and this is my first foray into having other writers read my work. I knew workshop wouldn’t necessarily be a happy endeavor (it’s always hard to hear criticism) but I thought at the least, writers, who know how difficult writing is, would comment with care. I read Craft in the Real World before my class and observed the differences in how white and minority writers are treated in workshop but still, naively, didn’t think my class would be like that. I still perceived the writing community as a group that tries to see complexity and tries to see beyond the stereotypes that exist in real life. At least that’s what I try to do in my work. There are people in my workshop who do that, but there are also ones who have the privilege of saying what they want without care to others. What I experienced felt like a microcosm of the world around me that dehumanizes me to my race, one that tells me I have to do more work and explain myself in a way to justify my place in the world. Basically, I feel extremely disillusioned about writing and in a way, robbed of what I thought writers were, what writing does and what it could do.
Part of me wants to keep my writing to myself now, to treat it as something I do for only me but another part of me wants my words to be out there, published, because I do believe I have something important to say. How do I continue on after this? Should I even continue? Do I even want to?
Lost in Doubts
Thank you for your letter. It is unfortunate that you had such an unpleasant wake-up call at this workshop, and that it’s turned you off from writing, possibly forever. Who could blame you! Yet, at the end of your letter, you speak of writing as a safe space for you, some of that coming from your faith in the intentions of the larger writing community as one open to complexity and difference.
Unfortunately, bad experiences often do eclipse the good in hindsight. In your case, a workshop member says something is too “insert slur here” about another’s writing. A white man says a Chinese character is real to him because he’s married to a Chinese woman. Another white writer deems a Chinese American character’s name as “too American” for her parentage. In each of these examples, the battle is not over authenticity of culture but an authority of truth: the right to tell a story, any story, and, through that, to claim the line between belonging and unbelonging, real or fake, right or wrong.
Perhaps it is a mark of hegemony that one’s lived experience can’t be true in itself. One’s experience must stick to other authorities, be verified as correct. Correctness is about who, ultimately, has the power to include or exclude, not the person whose experience it was.
Ownership is a totalizing thing, and totalizing conquest has no room for rebel details or unmapped parts. A story is not a story, but an artifact of knowledge—another piece of the world that can be taken, absorbed, and owned by an empire.
In other words, these critiques were not about the specific details of any one story you read in workshop. They enforced a larger kind of story: the one where those in power in an empire decide what’s real in this world; the one where it is their version, not yours, that counts as correct.
You saw these workshoppers playing out those power dynamics, and you responded accordingly. First, there’s anger (should you change that scene to stick it to the man?) and then resign (disappearance back into private life). But, you wonder, can you have more choices than mere reaction or disappearance? Is there a way back to freedom and safety in writing again?
Justifications are arguments for outside authorities. If you’re tired of making them, you have to ask to whom you want to answer in your writing. Will you continue to give your power to the hegemonic authorities you don’t even respect? Or will you look to your communities? To yourself?
This is your fork in the path. You have learned that you are not like other writers. You might have learned, too, that you will not be able to write like other writers. Your value, your power, lies in your difference, your difficulty, your ineffability, sometimes even to yourself. To express yourself in public, you must discover who you want to be there. To write, you have to discover how, and by whom, you want to be read.
I, like many more writers you’ll discover, have developed my own practices around this: implication and diversion. They both revolve around what I think of as raced words and subjects. They both require specificity to be successful. The truth is, having been “discovered” as a raced person from a very young age has made me intuitively an expert at racism’s moves. I know the words that, once read, are like flags in the racist’s brain, making them scramble for more context clues, more pieces of the story they know.
In the implied mode, I talk about my experiences without actually using any flagging words. Specificity is important in that one specific statement or metaphor can set off a shared cultural understanding that only another person of that experience could know or want.
In the diverted mode, I do use flagging words, but I move my writing beyond the expected path. This is a kind of difficulty that is playful refusal, the purposeful lie. For example, when I was younger, I would give outlandish answers to the question “Where are you from?”
These are just two ways to claim one’s own difficulty, to incorporate it as a part of one’s practice. What’s become important to me, and could be for you, has been returning to the reason I became a writer in the first place: to write the books that challenged me; that voiced thoughts I myself had not gotten to, or hadn’t dared to get to; that give me more ways to choose my life.
There is nothing new about empire. There is nothing new about racism. To respond only to these terms and systems, to play exclusively in or out of their imposed realities, would be to underestimate how stories all meet each other in the collective imagination.
Now, your challenge of difficulty will be different from mine. Perhaps your work directly uses the terms and scenarios I avoid or play with in my own work. Perhaps there’s no option to get around—you must get through. Then my advice to you is to be sure of the mark you’re aiming for. Ask yourself if you’ve found your own experience illuminated by the process of writing. Choose ambitions beyond the roles hegemony has laid out for you. Ask if it will help someone who has been searching for the same thing as you.
I can’t and won’t dictate where you should go next. Transformation is exhausting. It requires more energy you could be putting towards your art. It requires strength to stay optimistic that yet another lesson, at this moment, would make you stronger in the future. Sometimes you fail to learn the lesson, if there is one. Sometimes you do suffer.
You will find that your writing will change no matter what you do. Sometimes you change it little by little, thinking you’re staying still. This kind of change is easy in that more often than not, you don’t notice that it’s happening. You make a choice to say yes when you mean no once or twice a year. You shift the precedents for yourself. It’s that change you must watch out for. The kind that ends with you forgetting which path to take, or why you’re on the journey at all.
Writing, like all art, can be a site of safety, freedom, imagination. It can hold futures and dreams, our best memories, our worst. But because we deal in language, it seems inevitable that each writer, at one time or another, must confront other uses of writing, its place in a larger structure of power, and that structure’s hold on our social hierarchies. How we take in these moments, how we react to our knowledge of them—that is what makes the difference in the kind of writing we can hope to do.
The nice thing about going your own way is that you’re already “wrong”—but in your wrongness, in being off the map, you can stay free for a little while longer. To become that writer requires a radical act of imagination. More than one. And then the courage to choose yet another path. To keep moving, and know that there is truth and strength in that.
Postscript: On knowledge as a trapping net
More like this
- ‘How Do I Write About My Identity Authentically?’
- ‘Is Choosing to Stick to “Westernized” Tropes Also a Form of Freedom?’
- ‘How Do I Write Without Being Pigeonholed?’
To discover more letters, check out the index.