‘Why Do You Write?’

It is who I am.

‘Why Do You Write?’
[Photo by Nicole Counts: A copy of Dream of the Divided Field lays between mandarin oranges on wood next to a ceramic fruit bowl with a white and blue pattern. A bit of slant light comes over through a window.]

Hi there,

My second book, Dream of the Divided Field, came out this Tuesday (along with my first audiobook). I am pretty proud of it. You can now read an interview I did with Poets & Writers if you’d like to learn a bit about the process.

Spring tour dates in New York City and Vermont (including some online events) are at the end of this letter, along with dates for Writing Space (x2) and Hotpot, which return this month.

Now, on with the work.

Title: Migrants. To drift is not surrender. The backwards call of a bird is the sound of another bird.
"Migrants," from Dream of the Divided Field.
Yanyi,

Why did you choose to become a writer? And why do you think people should write?

Warmly,
R.

Dear R,

I am a writer because I must write. Because I must write, it has saved my life at least twice. As I struggled to find the right path balancing my parents’ expectations and my freedom to live as a queer and trans person, understanding that living a double life would stop me from writing helped me make my decision. While being emotionally abused in my first relationship, the demand from my ex that I stop publishing was the moment I finally woke up to how they were really treating me.

How do I know that I must write and not something else? For most of my life, I’ve struggled with setting boundaries, voicing what I do and do not want, and, painfully, standing up for myself when I have faced some kind of violence, especially from loved ones.

Sometimes not knowing who you are is worse than knowing who you are and not liking it. For better and for worse, my “I” has always been blurry, open to change when it is needed but also open to manipulation.

In the worst moments of my life, I would have done anything, admitted to anything, for a given violence to stop and for my care to be possible again. What use is a self to an eight-year-old girl? What use is a self to a 23-year-old woman, at that, who had just disavowed an otherwise secure family for a nebulous queerness, whose gulf of loneliness was so vast with gestures of intimacy she did not receive and could not respond to and so fortified by societal prejudices both within and without her? I didn’t want a self. I wanted to be loved.

And yet, even in the beginning, there was also the library. It was my first definite joy in a new town. For as many times we moved before I was eight, my mother would track down the local library and lead me to a carpeted and musty children’s section the way other mothers might take their children to Disneyland. Even if, later on, there would be many things she would not understand about me, she knew to take me to the library. It was how I know she was trying to love me.

When I was younger, being a reader lent me an identity that had nothing to do with my immediate discords at home and in school. Literature was a place where I could rest, rather than defend, a self. It was a place where I could have one.

I must write because otherwise I would lose track of who I am. I must write because, when I had no one to tell my story to, putting my words down on the page gave me the gift of a future listener; of turning my prodigious listening to myself; of telling my own story, on my own terms, and the gift of choosing what to do after that.

My writing is the physical manifestation of the self that I have—as in having—to defend. It is my self-possession. Not because the self is property but because the self is the spring with which I leap into my life. It determines the directions I venture into. It guides how I progress through this time.

There is a part of me ashamed of how I need words to recognize myself, but then another in awe of how I knew, so young, to transfer my worth to a lifeboat, so that even if the ship were to meet its wreck, some seed of who I was lived on, some ghost to haunt me back to self-possession, even if I myself did not believe in it.

For my whole life, and even now, I have been ashamed of not only saying what I wanted but also of merely wanting. When, as a child, I did not have the tools to confront that shame and fear of punishment for mere existence, books gave me choice; reading allowed me preferences. For most of my childhood, I learned to recognize the feeling of freedom in an infinity room of authors and their characters speaking for themselves and, for as long as I needed it, me.

It is important to know that feeling. For even if you do not know freedom’s name, when you are awakened to it, you learn, in sinew and bone, that your body is capable of different feelings, deeper configurations, than those you regularly have.

It is no wonder that I wrote very few poems during those years I lived against my grain, agreeing to each portrait I was painted as, correcting my movements, adjusting my personality, believing I was managing someone else’s moods and needs by changing myself when the truth was that they were managing me.

I know I have abandoned myself in the name of love. I know now that those times were not love. And I know that they weren’t because I stopped writing.

For those who rely on force and control, your art is dangerous. To explore the range of your sentience is to remember that there is something else possible in your life. Something beyond what you are being told, because you have something to tell yourself. Something beyond the world you know, because you have glimpsed, out of the corner of your eye, another world that you can feel.

It seems to me this sentience is all we have. Wake up! it tells me, when I am still and barely breathing, for weeks or years in the same apartment, or in the same cycles of abuse, too amenable to giving up, too easy to overwhelm. When I write, I teach myself what I am still fighting for. It need not be in a war.

In fact, the easiest way to lose your self in your life is little by little, in the everyday yes you no longer feel for, in the certainty that those monsters in your shadows are still out to get you. And isn’t that the point of the original violence? It amazes me, after years of not speaking to my abusers, how loudly their favorite accusations still play in my mind. Stories so well-wrought they don’t even have to be told.

You will never be free from what you hear. But you can be free in your writing, where you say something back.


Postscript: Tidying up the limiting beliefs


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Dream of the Divided Field Book Tour

About

Yanyi is the author of Dream of the Divided Field (One World 2022) and The Year of Blue Water (Yale University Press 2019). To find out more, go to yanyiii.com.

To discover more letters and to find out more, check out the index.