Monday, September 24, 2007

On being a minority writer.

I am 20 pages away from finishing Danticat's memoir, Brother, I'm Dying. I'm nearing the end, but I'll do a full review when I get there. But as always, her prose is beautiful.

Recently reading these pretty successful young authors (well, I guess now not so young anymore but not old either), like Danticat and Diaz, it makes me think, suddenly, of my own quest to become a writer. I mean Danticat is heralded because she's made inroads for the Haitian population; Diaz for the Dominican-American population. It's wrapped up as part of who they are as writers, and I wonder if they could really ever escape that.

I was once told by a writing teacher that I should insert my Asian culture into one of the stories I had workshopped. "It makes more sense that way," she said. Then she said, "Young, minority writers are really popular these days. You should harness that as a way to market yourself."

This gave me pause, only because, well, I had never thought of myself as an Asian-American writer. I thought of myself as a writer. Maybe an American writer, but first and foremost, a writer.

My Asian-Americaness is part of my daily life, sure. I have a wide circle of Asian friends, I've gone to Asian parties, I spend Friday nights in Ktown and Saturday mornings in Chinatown. I speak two languages (though one fairly haltingly), and I celebrate certain Asian holidays. But none of these things seems to me strange or awkward. Especially in New York City, it's easy for me to view my life as just one of many different lives that a person can lead in New York. It's normal to me; this is my life.

I'll spare any details on times when I've been jarred and made aware of my Asian identity, and having to learn to fit into a "white" culture. Or the times when I felt self-conscious of who I am. It happens, but the point is that in the end, I've learned to live my life as if I think people are color blind. I don't know if that's a naive thing to do, but most of the time I forget that I'm any different than Joe Smith over there.

So that's the kind of writer I am. I'm sure, if you looked for it, you could find hints of how my Asian culture has influenced the way I see the world, the way my characters act, the things they value, the way they are to each other. But, save for one recent unfinished story (started at the urging of my aunts), I have never written a story where the protagonist was Asian. Not even when I was churning out a new story a week in fifth grade. Maybe because from the close POV, it's like I'm in my characters' skins, and they, like me, don't see the color of those skins. They, like me, are completely unaware that maybe they have a color that someone else percieves. I wouldn't even be able to say that my characters are white. To me, it's a non-issue. It doesn't even factor into anything I even think about. My stories are about the way humans react, not about the way an Asian versus a white versus a black person might react.

But the point is, maybe it's not a non-issue. People are shaped by their cultures. Maybe I should be writing stories with Asians as central characters. (Maybe this would make me more marketable.)

But I never wanted to be a writer of Asian-American literature. I hated that. It conjures up ideas of Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston. I have nothing against Asian-American writers; they did important things for the community, but it's just that my stories are not questions of racial identity and diaspora and what not. If I were to ever integrate Asiannness in a story, it'd be because that person happens to be Asian. Culture would bleed into the background, like anything else. I'd hate for it to become a central focus. I'd hate for people to start looking for the race aspect of it. Other people have done that far better than I could, and those are not things I care to explore.

But with a name like mine, I realize, even if I did somehow get myself on the shelves one day, someone is probably going to pick up my book and expect something. Some sort of stance. Some sort of statement.

I'm proud of who I am, of course I am. But I don't think I'm so different that I need to make waves and write about it. Sure, it'd be kind of funny for me to write a book about the Asian-American world that I live in, because it's its own little pocket of Americana. But no one would want to read it except other Asians. And I suspect that I could never finish it because I wouldn't care. And I wouldn't want to take the focus off of what really is important.

Is this silly? Unrealistic? With a name like mine, am I required to inject my own raciality? I've often thought about, like, what if I write one novel, just one, focusing on Asian people. You know, start myself off on the ethnic front. Trick people into letting me publish what they expect an ethnic person to publish. And then.... hee hee.... never do it again!!! See if I can do the bleeding into the background thing.

I don't know. It's not that I don't have a lot to say about race and being an outsider... I suppose I could do it if I wanted to. It's just that, in the end, those aren't the things that drive me, those aren't the things I care about. Piano lessons, parental expectations, fitting in into a homogenous world... it's all there, in my experiences, but in the end, those aren't the things that matter most to me. So why, by virtue of the color of my skin and the shape of my eyes, should I have to write about them?

Just some thinking.

6 drops:

moonrat said...

interesting. melanie and i were just talking about this yesterday in terms of your heroines--a lot of times you DON'T specify race or provide any physical description that gives it away. it's kind of neat, because then whoever's reading it can picture whatever they want.

it's too bad that this is something you have to think about. i don't feel hemmed in by anything--although i do find certain topics daunting, and i think i would naturally shy away from writing from the point of view of a character of any other race, since i could easily be criticized for not understanding the experience of being anything but white. (which i don't, of course.)

but also, as to giving yourself away... i'm as white as a heavily powdered cream puff, but i do all those things, too. i think i'm asian on the inside, i really do...

angelle said...

Self-perception is funny, isn't it? I mean, I do see myself as Asian, of course I do. It's part of who I am, and of course you know that in no way am I a whitewashed Asian. I know the ins and outs of the NYC Asian-American population as well as the best of them. Maybe even better. But the point is, is that when I'm writing, I don't think about those things, because to me, they're completely normal. Once you start making a big deal about them, it becomes exoticized, something I am loathe to do. Because to me, this is my life. It's not strange or dissimilar. It's just that we all happen to look a little more yellow and have dark hair and slantier eyes. Hahahaha. Maybe that's naive of me, but I guess what I mean is that, I'm no stranger than if you were to generalize any other group - punks, artists, bankers, upper east siders.. you know? I don't want to have to write about it because it doesn't matter to me. I see myself as Asian, but I also forget that people will see me as Asian and think that means I'm different. I think I honestly believe that people see me and don't think I'm different.

Hmm. Maybe I should write a story about an Asian writer who refuses to write Asian stories. Hahahaha.

angelle said...

And Moonratty, to me, you are Asian. You can rock Japanese songs with the best of them! You can read that crazy section that I don't even think I could sing in English!!

Kaytie M. Lee said...

You should write the stories you feel compelled to write.

I have a friend who is half-Japanese and who has chosen to write fiction from that Asian-American perspective. She's a lovely person. If you find yourself still thinking about this post you may want to look her up because I bet her perspective would be valuable, or at least interesting. Here's her blog:

cyn said...

a wonderful introspective post, like moonrat's about ratting and her eternal return the other day. dayam, girls, you guys are cranking them out!

angelle, i agree with previous poster. you write what draws you and what you are passionate about. i don't believe a writer has any obligation to her "people" or her "gender", she has one to her writing.

having just finished my novel, i can't tell you how difficult it was. because i was passionate about it, and am still passionate about it. if i weren't, it'd be a dead thing, mere letters on a white page. it is a writer's passion that breathes life into the tale.

of course, my story just so happens to take place in an ancient china-like kingdom. but it is a fantasy tale first, about my heroine's journey. i can't say if my future writing endeavors will be "chinese", i simply wrote what drew me.

just be true to your own passions. and forget about "expectations" due to your surname.

cyn said...

moonrat, you would be called an "egg" versus a "banana". haha!

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