Do you have a writing-related quandary that’s haunting you? Write to me.
Today is the first monthly installment of The Reading’s Sunday letter. After this, the next letter will be on the first Sunday of March.
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Thanks for reading. Happy 牛 Year!
Thank you so much for your letters—reading them has been a bright spot for me this year.
I’ve been mulling over your advice in “How Do I Write About My Identity Authentically?” and “Can My Novel Include a Country’s Stereotype Responsibly?”—in particular, “write what you want.” As an Asian-American writer, I’ve struggled with motivation to research and write about my family’s culture precisely because of the reasons pinpointed by you and the original letter-writers. Although my stories always deal with some sort of marginalization and characters who look like I do, I naturally gravitate toward “Western” (to be reductive) storytelling methods and tropes. Compared to several of my Asian-diaspora writing friends, it’s difficult for me to get invested in re-learning my milk tongue, exploring “non-Western” story structures, or becoming an expert—again, that expectation for marginalized writers to hold twice the knowledge—in my parents’ or grandparents’ cultures and mythologies, because I feel like they do not truly belong to me.
I often write in direct response to the stories that resonate with me or make me angry. However, I’m aware that the ways in which I respond, as well as the stories I continue to seek out and the satisfaction I feel in writing them at all, have been tuned primarily by the American, British and (not enough) Asian diaspora works that have most moved me.
So my questions are: is choosing to stick to “Westernized” tropes (with a sprinkling of diaspora feelings and the yearning for belonging) also a form of freedom? Or is it a loss by way of colonialism and imperialism? Or both? What responsibility might I have as an Asian-American to attempt to build some immense body of knowledge on my family members’ culture, if at all?
Thank you so much for your time!
Daunted by Possibly Assigned Readings
Thank you for writing this letter and for your existing engagement with my previous letters. I must admit, I myself have been daunted by yours for the past several weeks. There is, always, the fear that I will say something horribly wrong, but it is more that I’ve wondered deeply, for so long, about the answer to this question myself: there is so much that I don’t know where to start. Consider this letter not my last word on the subject, but a moment of reflection that I hope will lend you some answers, or, even better, some questions that can guide you a little further down your path.
My immediate answer to your question is that in writing, you are only responsible to yourself. Of course, if I ended this letter at that, you would not be satisfied at all. This is because the implicit question of your letter is not about how or what you should write—it’s caught up in these other questions: who are you? Where do you belong? And how would you belong there, if you got that far?
You’re asking these questions because you’ve woken up from your compulsory re-education up until this point. Perhaps your school curriculum advanced racist interpretations of Asian Americans—perhaps it never included us at all. US and European authors may have been held up as the pinnacle of progress and enlightenment in literature, not authors who looked like you. Now you’ve become aware of these things, to the point where your social and literary world are telling you the opposite: that Asian diasporic works are good and pleasure in the colonial and imperialist education you received is bad. In other words, you’ve gone from one belief-system of good and evil, where English is good and Asian is bad, to another one where Asian is good and English is bad.
On paper, the choice seems clear. The US and Europe have wrought centuries of violence across the rest of the world, directly affecting you and your ancestors. You, in your own way, already respond to this. Yet, your letter indicates that you’re feeling inadequate. You have qualms with writing on or from your identity, and when you look to take on more of your parents’ and grandparents’ cultures and mythologies, “they do not truly belong to [you].” You’re somehow thwarted in an attempt to join your friends and family. You’re not really sure you want to.
On the other hand, you may have absorbed the tired story of how cultural authenticity is nurtured into you: that parents teach the child what there is to know about the world, passing on languages, myths, and recipes. Your feelings may believe this story even when your mind knows it’s a little more complicated: maybe your caregivers, having to work double-time to earn their security as immigrants, did not have time to teach you much at home. Perhaps they neglected this purposefully, hoping you’d be better off if you were more Americanized. Maybe you never learned those myths or refused to, understanding even at a young age that broadcasting your difference in a racist society led to a kind of violence.
So you don’t quite fit into the American dream, but you also don’t fit into the story of your difference. Nevertheless, you feel pressure to take on these models of being in order to become recognizable.
David Eng and Shinhee Han write about one angle of this in Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation ,
Asian Americans are forced to mimic the model minority stereotype in order to be recognized by mainstream society—in order to be, in order to be seen at all. […] For Asian Americans, mimicry is always a partial success as well as a partial failure into regimes of whiteness.
You probably see yourself as the sole actor here—with the historical and social consequences of compulsory education and assimilation in the background. But these racist institutions and experiences have shaped the way you approach your problems now. Building off Eng and Han’s research on mimicking the model minority stereotype as both “partial success” and “partial failure,” perhaps the violence of colonization doesn’t live in the what being written, but in the outlook from which you write.
That outlook is what I’ll call the position of the decentered writer. The decentered writer has been taught that they are not the source of expertise, so they constantly look outward in a search for their own authenticity. The decentered writer has gradually been pushed further into the margins of their own consciousness; someone who has been mandated to choose between many bodies of knowledge, none of which include a story lived by the writer themself.
The decentered writer’s knowable world does not include the writer’s experience. The poetic strategies and trajectories of that life are, at best, precarious assimilations, following Eng and Han, never to be fully successful. The decentered writer has been mandated to become another person in order to belong. By design, they will always fail. By design, they will never belong.
To put it another way, you live out your life in a story that doesn’t exist. Because it doesn’t exist, you can’t be a character. If you can’t be a character, you can’t know any words. You can listen and even understand other people’s stories, but you don’t have one of your own. Any attempt to adopt another can feel like an awkward costume, a silly charade.
It is taken for granted that the decentered writer possesses the “pure” knowledge of the margins from which they appear, and that is the cultural product they are expected to mine for the benefit of neoliberal multiculturalism. But historical trauma doesn’t work like that. My mind trails to Eng and Han’s summary of Rea Tajiri’s documentary, History and Memory (1991) :
History and Memory is about a young Japanese American girl whose parents endured internment during World War II. Whereas the girl’s mother has repressed all memories of the internment experience, the daughter has nightmares that she cannot explain—recurring images of a young woman at a watering well. The daughter is depressed, and the parents argue over the etiology of her depression. Eventually, the daughter discovers that these nightmares are reenactments of the mother’s histories in camp. Ironically, the mother has history but no memory, while the daughter has memory but no history. For both mother and daughter, history and memory do not come together until the daughter visits the former site of the internment camp, Poston. There she realizes that it is her mother’s history that she remembers.
Memory is a funny thing. For those of us who inherit historical traumas, we remember without knowing why we remember. We remember without knowing. Domination doesn’t just take land or livelihoods—it takes language. It takes home. It takes a sense of belonging. Those who have descended from survivors harbor the psychic casualties of cultural warfare; casualties of the idea that it’s “cheaper to give them education than to fight them” . Our unknowing is political. It is like that by design.
The reality of the matter is that you’re an amalgamation of your inheritances and your experiences. You’ll never succeed in the dichotomies you’ve set for yourself because you are a little of both. By looking to these blanket ideas of racialized good and evil as the standard of your worthiness, you deny a part of who you are in the name of the “greater good.” In turn, you will always see yourself only as a “partial failure” and “partial success.”
To be responsible to yourself means to acknowledge what you have lost: to uncouple your face from the face of the wound. What survives in the decentered writer is desire—a yearning for that which we are missing. It is not so much a choice as you frame it but the struggle to know at all. Memory survives in slant through our wordless bodies and inexplicable dreams. The story isn’t laid out logically, but the decentered writer might make out the characters, refill their speech bubbles. To honor yourself is also to honor your inheritances and associations. You are, in fact, part of a collective history. Each decentered writer has a different way in. For we need entire generations to weave this broken but growing tapestry of lost knowledge.
You cannot escape your inheritances. Nor can you abandon them. Home is not inherent in those books that moved you in your years growing up. Home is not inherent in your friends’ knowledge or your parents’ myths. Home is made by you. Knowledge does not hold home in and of itself: you are the one creating where you belong by allowing yourself to belong there. By allowing a piece of the world to belong to you. The selves we were will never leave us, our movements ghosted by our ancestors moving with us. You will find them where you find yourself.
 David Eng and Shinhee Han, Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation. Duke University Press, 2018, p. 45.
 Ibid., pp. 50-51.
Take a free workshop on Asian American mental health with me (2/11). Take a writing workshop at Kundiman (ongoing; writers of color or Asian American writers). Apply for the Creative Capital Award (3/1). Apply for the 2021 Silvers Grants for Work in Progress (3/31; for writers working on long-form essays or full-length book projects in criticism, political analysis, or social reportage; work must be in contract).
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Yanyi is the author of Dream of the Divided Field (One World Random House, forthcoming 2022) and The Year of Blue Water (Yale University Press 2019). To find out more, go to yanyiii.com.