'How Do I Write About My Identity Authentically?'

You think you have to write what you know. Don't.

[Photo description: A mirror on a dimly-lit white wall in an apartment atrium shows a staircase. Light falls onto the top of the stairs, which show the photographer’s long pants and shoes from the knees down. © Yanyi]

Dear Yanyi,

Hope this letter finds you well.

This letter is mostly about Chinese identity and craft and authenticity, which is a weird and fraught topic for anyone to write about. It’s also kind of long and annoying, so if you don’t want to respond to this letter, I understand.

I’m a Chinese-American writer, and a lot of my writing focuses on exploring my relationship with identity and being a kid of two cultures. Lately, I’ve been trying to question what I write about/who I write for/how my writing fits within the larger context of Asian-American literature/Chinese-American literature.

I don’t want to write in a “neutral” register, since a lot of readers have a tendency to read characters/stories as white unless explicitly stated otherwise, but I also don’t feel like I can really claim any of the stories and motifs I see a lot of other Chinese-American writers working in. I see all of these wonderful writers doing such brilliant and inventive things with stories they were told as kids, playing with cultural separations like Silly putty. I love those stories too and would love to be able to write something based off of them, but also: my parents never told me those stories. I’m worried that I’m drawn to them just because they’re strange and new to me and frequently get marketed as “Authentic Chinese Stories(TM)” by publishers and that they’re really not mine to claim/use in my work (i.e. that I’m just copying other writers who actually know what they’re talking about). My parents recently told me that I’d never have the intrinsic cultural knowledge it would take to understand Chinese literature and to focus on being a good American instead, which just makes me question myself more.

Right now, I’m working on a story set partly in Han-dynasty China/based in some local history from my parents’ hometown, but no matter how much research I do, I keep second-guessing myself. I worry that I’m telling a story based more on historical nostalgia/playing into the Orientalistic/imperialistic/exoticizing vision that shapes how Chinese history and culture gets represented in the West and what Chinese scholarship filters through to Western audiences. Given the way my non-Chinese beta readers seem to assume I’m an authority on ancient China simply because I’m Chinese, I worry more that everything I present will be seen as some kind of normative statement of historical accuracy the way so many writers of color get reduced to being spokespeople for “their” culture rather than individual voices among a crowd.

I know there’s probably no set answer to whether or not this is my story to tell and that different Chinese-American writers (naturally) have different perspectives, but any advice you have for working through this mess in my head would be so appreciated.

Best,
I don’t know if I’m culturally illiterate and at this point I’m too afraid to ask
New Jersey

Dear IDK,

You called your letter “long and annoying,” but I kept thinking back to it when I was deciding on which letter to choose this week. Your letter is not annoying, but it might be easier to call it that than to really confront the complicated issues you summarize in it. Your letter is long because it’s hard. I chose your letter because it’s hard. It’s hard to start my response to it. It’s hard to answer, honestly, as this is a difficult and personal question for me too, one that I’ve yet to put completely into words, but maybe what makes it complicated is what makes it worth exploring here with you right now.

As you state in your letter, different Chinese Americans have different perspectives, and if your letter was just about whether that was the case, then you probably wouldn't have written to me. So I’m going to try and unpack a few of the things I’m hearing between the lines of your letter, and maybe that will lead to something that will help you.

This is a crucial time for you because you are questioning who your reader is and what you hope to accomplish with your writing. It sounds like it’s important to you that you share context with other Chinese American and Asian American writing. However, you know yourself to be an imposter. You don’t know the childhood stories that other writers are playing with, so you feel like you can’t be in dialogue or context with them. On top of that, you’re worried that you’re just pretending to be interested in those stories because literary publishing has segregated and pigeonholed the Chinese American market into those narratives, and something in your head is telling you that you’re just another sellout.

Your dilemma about the literary context is mirrored, in miniature, with the situation around your story. You’ve picked a time and subject that you're interested in, but no matter how hard you work, your research is never enough. To make it worse, your non-Chinese readers believe you too much, so you write off their perspectives completely, and you’re getting crushed by a pressure you feel to represent all Chinese Americans, a responsibility you never asked for in the first place.

You’ve also been told that your sense of curiosity and responsibility about this is, at best, annoying. Your parents want you to get over this culture they didn’t bring to you. Your non-Chinese readers won’t believe you when you voice your worries of perpetuating racist essentialism. You seem to have, to each of these groups, a whole identity as either an American or Chinese person, when your experience of yourself is that you’re not enough of either.

That experience of belonging neither here nor there can end up making you feel like no one. And that voice in your head that’s saying your research is not enough, or that you don’t have the right material to play with—isn’t that same voice asking when you would have anything real to say, ever?

There’s a creative writing adage that goes “write what you know.” The problem with this is that Western imperialism has made it so knowledge is not equitably respected or valued according to who is doing the “knowing.” You want to be recognized as Chinese American, but you’ve internalized the idea that only the flashiest, most entertaining myths are authentic enough to get published. You want to write beyond these stereotypes, but you’re terrified of enacting the same kinds of essentialism that others have done to you. You’ve internalized that your work and your life are bridges for someone else to consume and judge some aspect of your identity—not only your racial identity, but your identity as a good, moral, and responsible person.

A deep evil of racist ideology is the pervasive way it weaponizes shame. Xenophobia reminds us that we are perpetual students with always one more thing to learn before we can be granted full protection from the state. Racism tells us that no matter how hard we work, how good we are, or how sincere we seem, we are fundamentally not worthy of dignity as full human beings—because a biological fact beyond our control is a moral flaw. Shame is the racism that lives in us.

When I hear you describe yourself as culturally illiterate, that shame is what I hear. Moreover, I hear another thing you didn’t mention in your letter: the fact that you must feel profoundly alone. Your parents may not have the vocabulary or education to advise you on your dilemma. Your readers don’t understand that shame, so they don’t see why it matters so much to you to get it right. Effectively, you’re trying to solve structural racism all by yourself in your work, and when you do, you’ll be able to say that you know something real—yourself.

The problem is, racism will still be there when you publish your perfect story. There will always be someone new who will assume who you are or expect stories that you can’t—or won’t—deliver. As Toni Morrison said, “the very serious function of racism...is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work.” And each of us who are oppressed by that kind of greed for power, well, we must each acknowledge it but take Morrison’s advice: do not mistake it for the work.

For you and I who have been oppressed, you must let go of the myth that writing is what you know. We know to distrust ourselves and to defer to someone who will always “know” better. We know to dress up our stories for entertainment and decoration; to always be ready and waiting to appease the next task that will be thrown over to us. We cannot write what we know. We must write what we want.

It may be that this story you’re working on is the one that you want. But it could also be that you feel a sense of responsibility toward your family and toward a past you feel pressured to represent. Or perhaps you want to feel connected to what it means for you to be Chinese American. Writing from research is very possible, as demonstrated by novelists like Min Jin Lee, but it could also mean that you’re craving community and, somewhere unconsciously, you don’t feel free when you’re working on this story.

Every day, there are people across disciplines working on how to dismantle racism, but there is no one working on what it means for you to write from a liberated and fulfilled life. What would happen if you were no longer a bridge, but an origin point? Don’t be afraid of what you don’t know. It’s how we choose to understand that makes the writing of it worthwhile.

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