On Misfits & Writing
A column dedicated to art and literature and misfits and all things weird.
Why a White Poet Posed As Asian to Get Published, And What's Wrong With That
A Sociologist Examines the 'White Fragility' That Prevents White Americans From Confronting Racism
Beyond 'Model Minority': How Asian Americans across the nation are reflecting on their relationship to the Black Lives Matter protests
Code Switch - Screams and Silence
When my husband and I adopted our new puppy, Remus, I was met with newfound feelings of hope and happiness that I hadn't felt over these past two-and-a-half years. Soon after, I felt pulled back into my art. With presence of mind. With joy. With drive, carving out time to write without distraction, I dug through every single fragment I'd written over the past two, long and grief-filled years, and poured myself back into my stories. What I found thrilling was the joy of returning to language, to syntactic playfulness, to haphazard research about intriguing new topics. But, what I found most thrilling was the tangible connections that creating art allows me to make with regards to subverting and dismantling stereotypes about Asians, about women, and the elderly.
When I started writing again, I was disheartened to find myself struck by all-too-familiar worries as a writer of color: Is centering a narrative on an Asian character a type of opportunism when held in the context of a publishing world waking up to a recognition of its white supremacy? Although my stories do not always delve into topics of race or cultural identity, I am plagued by the constant paranoid thought that I am not Chinese enough to write a story about a Chinese character.
So, I did as I often do, and turned to research in order to help me try to understand where these emotions are coming from, to see if another artist/writer/thinker/academic could help me to find some language to comprehend my confusion. I found an essay written by Ken Chen, the executive director of the Asian American Writer's Workshop in New York, who wrote about Michael Derrick Hudson, the white poet who used a Chinese pen name because he believed it helped him to get published:
"When former Spokane NAACP President Rachel Dolezal pretended to be black, it wasn't because she was unaware of white privilege. It was because she was ashamed of it. For Michael Derrick Hudson, he was afraid he lacked that difference that would mark him not as abnormal, but as special. If Dolezal obscenely fantasized about becoming black, Hudson at first looks like a clear-eyed calculator. He wanted power, the capital of multicultural difference. . . . In New York, where almost 70 percent of New Yorkers are people of color, all but 5 percent of writers reviewed in The New York Times are white. Hudson saw these crumbs and asked why they weren't his. Rather than being a savvy opportunist, he's another hysterical white [person], envious of the few people of color who've breached their quarantine." ~Ken Chen, NPR
I vividly remember when this happened in 2015. I felt so invalidated and demoralized because Hudson's actions sent a message to the world that Asian artists had no merit and were not publishable without the "privilege" of being a person-of-color. When I learned that Hudson's use of a Chinese pseudonym was being defended in some circles, and that he would still be anthologized in Best American Poetry even when his "yellow face" was known to the editors and that year's guest judge of the celebrated series, I was bewildered and angry. I didn't and still do not understand how we live in a world where Hudson could celebrate and benefit from his white fragility, his resentment, his greed and toxic beliefs about what it means to be/publish as a person of color in a mostly white publishing world. What was most striking to me was that Hudson could so brazenly use a Chinese pseudonym while I, as an Asian artist, continually struggle with understanding what it even means for me to be Chinese. There is no static, uniform, singular way to identify as Chinese. What is culture? What is heritage? What is identity? How does culture align within and outside of language, skin color, names, foods, birthplace, family lineage?
I am furious that Hudson's shallow form of "yellow face" was to wear a Chinese pseudonym which allows him to appropriate decades of Asian communities' enduring strength and self-advocacy (that has followed decades of violence against Asians) for his own professional benefit. When events like this happen--in my artist community, in academia, in media--I initially experience what feels like an electric shock, followed by grief and deep disappointment in our society, and then an aching awareness that a violation is being enacted by another white person against a community of color who does not have a say in how they are perceived by a white supremacist society. For me, Hudson's style of "yellow face" is another form of colonialism--he is occupying a community, uninvited, and through means of appropriation, ignorance, insecurity, and greed. Hudson's "yellow face" weaponizes Chinese culture against itself, and gas lights communities of color to believe that their achievements are not their own.
I am married to a white man who is truly one of the kindest, most brilliant, most loving and generous people I've ever known. He dedicates his time, energy, and resources to combat racism and white supremacy in his university, in his teachings, in his collaborations with his peers. Still, there are questions that erupt in my mind whenever I witness the white privilege of my husband and my white peers. What is it like to be seen when you want to be seen? Be seen how you want to be seen? Be the idealized "default" in literature, business, media? Be protected/camouflaged when you want to be invisible? Of myself, I ask: What does privilege and invisibility and camouflage mean for me when I, a bi-sexual woman living in a homophobic world, am married to a man? What does this mean when my young, mixed-race nieces and nephews begin to face the inevitable questions from their school friends about their races and heritages? And, what does erasure mean when I homogenize the unique ancestral heritages of white individuals into a collective, monolithic identity?
This leads me to one of the most difficult questions that my husband and I often talk about: As a white person in America, what does it mean to claim a cultural community? I believe that identity and lived experience are shaped by our fraught histories and our current zeitgeist, where people of color are discriminated against, ridiculed, have expectations of excellence heaped on them in every avenue of their lives, and experience different forms of erasure and violence than what their white peers face, across all communities. So, can a white person in America, like my husband, honor their unique heritage without enforcing a form of white privilege that involves claiming ancestral cultural communities in ways that further diminish disenfranchised communities of color? I am speaking, for example, about how white privilege can arise in the form of a white person in America using cultural markers or hyphenates ("Hi, I'm German-Irish-Scottish-American") without the same fear of violence that people of color face. A white person (living in our current zeitgeist) who utilizes a hyphenate could imply that they personally experience the same discrimination as immigrants of color (i.e. colorism, xenophobia, erasures, sense of displacement, and alienation). There are, undoubtedly, many many white individuals who are part of vulnerable communities--LGBTQIA+ (and especially trans individuals), white immigrants in America, specially-abled individuals, the elderly, unhoused and socioeconomically disadvantanged individuals, and, tragically, so many more--who experience many of these forms of violence that their peers of color face. The forms of violence, trauma, and pain that white individuals from vulnerable communities face are absolutely real and deserve deep empathy and kindness. I believe that it is also a very valid truth when I say that a person of color in any of these vulnerable communities will experience additional intersectional forms of violence and erasure that their white counterparts will not face due to the legacies of white supremacy. A challenging belief that I hold at this moment (though I know that this belief, like all beliefs, is malleable and porous) is that, in this current zeitgeist, utilizing simplified hyphenates or ancestral cultural markers can enable a white person in America to hide their shame or complicity in the historical violence of white supremacy in much the same way that Dolezol hid behind her strategic bronzer.
When a white person cherishes and honors their parents' and ancestors' complex and diverse heritages, there is so much beauty and learning that can come from this, but I believe it should be done with an understanding that white supremacy has shaped the ease in which a white person in America can wear their hyphens, how they can take them off and put them on to suit their needs, such as in the ways Dolezol did when she dyed and braided her blond hair and bronzed her skin, or as Hudson did when he wore a Chinese pseudonym and gas lit an entire community. My beliefs are also shaped by my experiences as a quadruple hyphenate (first-generation, American-born, Chinese-American, bi-sexual) living in a white supremacist world where, for each hyphen that I wear, I am constantly asked to prove my worthiness and belonging in the country where I was born. I believe that white people are afforded privileges to be as visible and invisible as they want to be, and in relation to cultural labels, this means that they can label and un-label, hyphenate and un-hyphenate themselves with cultural markers, at will, without repercussions, without fear of violence, with their privilege still intact--like "a mutating virus, racism shape-shifts in order to stay alive; when its explicit expression becomes taboo, it hides in coded language" (Katy Waldman, The New Yorker). A person of color in America does not have the same shape-shifting powers as white people, meaning that they cannot control their simultaneous hyper-visibility and invisibility in a white supremacist society. Colonialism has ensured that white people will have their white identity's access to the entire world on paths of their own choosing.
My hope for my white, American-born husband is that he embraces the unique histories of his German-Irish-Scottish ancestors and he simultaneously makes space to learn (with humility, with honesty, self-love, curiosity, kindness, patience) from his discomfort as he interrogates his white privilege. Although I've encouraged him to explore and honor his German-Irish-Scottish heritage, this is something that he has expressed uncertainty, caution, and ambivalence in doing, partly due to the distance in time and space between himself and his European ancestors. He is also uncertain whether a positive reflection or celebration of his ancestors' heritage could be seen as him further enforcing white supremacy. In response to his uncertainty, I would argue that when he acknowledges both his family's rich heritages and complicated history of immigration/colonization and the impacts he and his white ancestors have had on this continent, that this honesty is a form of allyship, compassion, and advocacy that deepens the concept of identity/culture/history, and also uplifts/re-centers communities of color in meaningful ways.
I have not and would never ask/direct another individual in how to self-identify; a request like that is profoundly damaging and contributes to the same violent power dynamics and ignorance of racism and white supremacy. But I wanted to share one way that I've personally imagined for my husband to acknowledge both his heritage and white privilege: illustrative descriptions, where he could describe himself to others as, for example, a "fifth-generation descendant of German and Irish and Scottish immigrants." An even more thorough illustrative description of his heritage could be, "a fifth-generation descendant of German-Irish-Scottish immigrants whose arrival on this continent in the 1700s, though fraught with undeniable histories of trauma and discrimination, benefits from white supremacy that continues to this day." It's a mouthful, and I honestly would never expect him (or anyone) to say all this! In any case, however my husband approaches his own personal identity, I am thankful for his humility, that he has not relied on simplified cultural labels (i.e. "Hi, I'm German-Irish-Scottish American"), that he endeavors to not contribute to the diminishment of the history of violence against communities of color, and he does not ask for unearned access to marginalized immigrant communities of today that he himself knows he does not actively represent. I've deeply respected how my husband practices coexisting with his discomfort. I am so grateful for his courage, generosity, and decency to not further enact white violence through forms of ignorance such as "race blindness" or attempting to separate himself from the legacies of white supremacy that have shaped his life. I am so inspired by his tremendous capacity to engage in difficult dialogues with his white peers about such complex and unanswerable questions. I am so thankful that he does not ask me to carry that burden for him, that he has always honored and respected my stories and experiences and my desire to contemplate this complex issue. And I'm so thankful that he truly listens, tries to learn from, and acknowledge when I've identified moments where he either overtly benefits from white privilege or when I've personally been knocked down and derailed (once again) by a white individual's racist remark or microaggression.
As a person of color, I do not understand Dolezol and Hudson, the opportunistic naming and bronzer, or the theater of white supremacy they chose to enact in an already-colonized world. Just as I was saddened and bewildered as a young thirteen-year-old girl to learn from my mother that I would bleed for much of my life, I am saddened and bewildered knowing that these questions of identity/culture/heritage will continue to haunt the entirety of my life as an artist, as a person-of-color, as a flawed and confused daughter surviving in a fragmented world.
As I write this, I realize that there are amazing white allies in the world who have done so much to battle white supremacy from within the institutions that they live and work. I realize that I will never have a satisfactory conclusion for myself or for anyone about this complex issue. And I realize that there are a bajillion different approaches and understandings about race and identity, and my ideas are just as fragmented and incomplete and filled with gaps and questions as all of them. With humility and gratitude, I thank you for reading this, for your patience and forgiveness as I try to untangle these impossible questions.
". . . when you get up in the morning you must take your heart in your two hands. You must do this every morning. . . . you can do this. In the morning, do a few little exercises for the joints, not too much. Then put your hands like a cup over and under the heart. Under the breast. . . .Then talk softly, don’t yell. Under your ribs, push a little. When you wake up, you must do this massage. I mean pat, stroke a little, don’t be ashamed. Very likely no one will be watching. Then you must talk to your heart. . . . Say anything, but be respectful. Say — maybe say, Heart, little heart, beat softly but never forget your job, the blood. You can whisper also, Remember, remember."
~ Grace Paley, "My Father Addresses Me On the Facts of Old Age", The New Yorker
Over the winter both my husband's beloved auntie and father passed away within just a few months of each other. Our beloved doggy, Luna, passed away within weeks of losing my father-in-law. And in the weeks following the original writing of this post, my husband's dear friend and colleague passed away in a tragic accident. Although I've experienced great loss in my own life (I lost my father when I was 19, my mother when I was 24), I can only imagine what my husband has been going through, losing his father and auntie and doggy and dear friend, all at the same time, and during a global pandemic, and to be surrounded by a world already reeling from its collective grief over the many lives that were lost to the pandemic. I am heartbroken for my father-in-law's spouse, my uncle-in-law, and Matt's colleague's family who must navigate a world without their best friend and life companion. I am heartbroken for my husband, and awed by his constant sweetness and strength over these difficult several months. What does it mean to experience such personal grief in the midst of a global pandemic? When I experience the waves of hopefulness and relief that come as I process my grief, is this disrespectful to the memories of our lost loved ones? I miss them every single day, and will always cherish how my loved ones shaped our lives (and the lives of so many) in the most incredible ways.
The art of my father-in-law (Tom Cover, a master woodworker) and auntie-in-law (Beverly Cover, a celebrated fine art photographer) has shaped my own creative life in indelible ways over the years. I have the deepest respect for the ways they envisioned and handled the tangible, physical, and natural world. The gnarled tree branches smoothed to glass on a lathe, the layers and textures of light and shadows that moved through the camera lens--Tom and Beverly's artistic visions inspire me to return to my visual art background through mosaic and illustrations of stories.
I am also deeply inspired by my incredible writer friends--the brilliant stories, essays, and novels that they are working on and/or have published in recent months. I want to return to my writing community. I am motivated to do this without social media, though unsure of what my steps will be. I try to imagine the grandmothers and great-grandmothers who were artists and writers, who navigated their young adulthood (and much of their adulthood) without internet, twitter, instagram. I think about how they grew community, fostered friendships and connections. Like them, I will continue to work hard to find ways to stay connected and to support other writers without traditional social media (at least for now). I am giving myself time. If I learned anything at all over the past year and a half, it's that there is no time limit, no checklist, no one way of navigating through all of this.
I feel so thankful to share that in recent months I started zoom-meeting with my amazing writing group, to workshop and learn from their incredible stories. I continue to read flash for SmokeLong Quarterly as a submissions editor. At CSU Stanislaus, I support graduate students (many of whom are nurses and social workers and women-of-color) with their writing projects.
But I do know that my life has felt enriched and strange and uplifted without FB. I'm finally honoring and experiencing moments of solitude and independence that I haven't felt since my youth. For these reasons, my detachment from social media is something that I want to maintain as I move forward in life, as I continue to process my grief, to learn more about the world, to read the news and practice developing my own opinions, to navigate life without the use of thumbs-ups, tags, and heart emojis as a measure of my self-worth.
A year of such tremendous loss reminded me how precious life is, how important it is to live my truth, to speak up and ask for what I want, to express my love to all those I care about. And I want to honor the lives of my loved ones by nourishing my body and art and friendships and family connections in ways that feel true to me.
I hope that you are safe and well in these surreal times. And please celebrate with me and check out these incredible books recently published by my fabulous writing friends and peers:
MORE THAN ORGANS / Kay Ulanday Barrett / Sibling Rivalry Press
THE PRESIDENT AND THE FROG / Carolina De Robertis / Penguin Random House
IMAGINE US, THE SWARM / Muriel Leung / Nightboat Books
THE BOOK OF LOST LIGHT / Ron Nyren / Black Lawrence Press
ALL OF IT, TINGED / by Diana Fisher and Asako Shimazaki / Drop Leaf Press
THE VIOLENCE ALMANAC / Miah Jeffra / Black Lawrence Press
LIVING ON A SONG A DAY / Rayne O'Brian / Blue Light Press
Hello Friends! How are you? Thank you so much for visiting my website and for reading! I hope that you are well, that your friends and loved ones are all safe and well during these challenging times. There is so much that I want to share with you about my recent writing projects and teaching. I will write more on that soon, but for this special, spooky October day, I wanted to share photos from my recent art projects!
Beginning on the Thursday before Halloween, I worked on building an outdoor Cardboard Carnival for my nieces and nephews. I built games and playthings with used cardboard boxes, packing tape, used packing foam and bubbles, glue sticks, scissors, acrylic paints. I wanted to create something for the kiddos who, due to the pandemic, are not able to experience the liveliness and hilarity and festivity of fairs and carnivals. I wanted to bring them silliness and magic, and to hopefully build some silly memories for their young 1 to 6 year-old hearts.
Wack-A-Mole was made with the box my Crate&Barrel ramen bowls were shipped in. The open back of the "Mole Barrel" allows a person to sit and reach their hand/"mole" up through the cutout holes. The holes are lined with used packing wrappers so the wacker can't see where the mole will pop out of. The moles' tummies in front used the cardboard circles I'd cut out for the wacking, then glued on, and painted yellow. (The design of my Wack-A-Mole was inspired by one of my fave YouTubers.)
Ball-toss! For the Acorn Toss, I used a tall and wide box that my dog's pee-tray was shipped in. After cutting open the sides, I was able to lay it completely flat. I folded one panel in half, and created a triangle-arch. The remaining panel was taped and binder-clipped to the bottom sides so that the triangle could stand firmly on its own. I painted ping pong balls to resemble acorns. I laid a sheet of used bubble wrap on the base of the triangle for the ping pong balls to softly land on.
Rocket ships for my twin, 3-year-old niece and nephew! The rotating propeller is attached via wax string that's sewn through the rear cardboard flap. The dash-board was made by painting yellow and red buttons onto the bubble wrap. I built these before learning that the twins' costumes were astronaut uniforms! It was such an amazing coincidence!
Carnival Cutouts for photos! Luke-topus (left) is inspired by my adorable nephew who dressed as an octopus for Halloween! My calico cat (right) is inspired by this cat wizard:
It would be an understatement to say that 2020 has been a challenging year. I am using this Halloween post to turn a new chapter in my life. Spending four days designing, building, and creating these art projects for my nieces and nephews brought me so much joy. And it reminded me of how healing the act of making art can be. It also reaffirmed for me something I've shared with you in recent months regarding art and writing for self-nourishment. I feel inspired to continue setting my focus, aspirations, goals, and activities towards making art and living life as an artist. I want to keep painting and building and crafting. I want to continue writing nonsensical and whimsical flash. I want to write more serious stories that help reflect the world through my characters' off-kilter lenses. I don't have the power to change what's happening in the world with regards to the pandemic, or to reset the climate change clock, or to bring lost loved ones back to life, or to slow the progression of the final stages of a degenerative disease that's paralyzing my beloved elderly dog. . . But Art is something that I can Do. Something that I can Make. Something that I can start and end on my own steam. Art brings people together. Art can encourage thoughtfulness and laughter and questioning and catharsis.
I want to make more beautiful and silly things. And, as much as I struggled with the publishing and promoting aspects that came with bringing a beloved book out into the world, I am beyond grateful every single day for my experiences working with my brilliant editor at Acre Books, learning from my teachers and mentors and classmates and peers in graduate school and workshops. I am beyond grateful for the gift that Nicola Mason gave to me by publishing Spider Love Song and Other Stories, and working closely with me for an entire year as we edited each story. I want to write a second book of short stories, to allow my words to bring joy and healing to myself and others. I want to experience the rush of excitement, the hope that comes when a story brews in my mind, and spills out onto the page and out into the world in wonderful literary journals. I want to continue striving to do this in my own way, to learn how do this in ways that don't make me question my motivations, ethics, or ego. I hope that you, too, continue doing/making/building Art, and/or doing whatever brings you Joy, nourishment, happiness, humor, kindness, and comfort to yourself and others. You and your heart and everyone on this planet deserves every ounce of love you can offer. The world is a better place because your art is here, because your stories and imagination are here . . . because You are here.
Happy Art-ing! Happy Being! Happy Joy-Making!
I feel fortunate that for the past two months the air inside my home has remained relatively clean and safe due to my use of air purifiers 24/7 and my decision to tape up every leaky window and door. But the air is also stale, stuffy, and heavy. I've been recirculating and breathing the same air for weeks. With my poor lung health and susceptibility to viruses and breathing-related ailments, I've been mostly housebound since the pandemic began, and (except for the five clear air days we miraculously had when the winds shifted) totally housebound since the fires started in August. Safe social distancing means that we need to meet outdoors, but due to the smoke and unhealthy air, this is not possible so I've been unable to visit with family. I've also lost several loved ones due to cancer and illness in recent months. And other loved ones are struggling with serious illnesses and consequently have reduced or no immune systems, so I have had to limit even my outdoor distance-socializing to just a few members of my most immediate family and my closest bud, Carson. And this has meant that even before the fires began, I had to turn down invitations to go for walks with my amazing friends who I love and miss dearly.
But there is a glimmer of hope. The fires are slowly being contained, firefighters will hopefully soon be able to return to their loved ones, and the towns and lives that were so tragically altered by the fires will begin the difficult and long process of healing. In the past three days, we've had clear air days, so I've been able to open my windows and leave the house. I feel so incredibly fortunate to have WiFi and a secure living environment and the option to work from home. I feel so grateful that I can Zoom and FaceTime and text with friends and family whenever I wish. And, while my husband is busy teaching biology courses via Zoom, I feel so fulfilled with my work as I read student papers, Zoom meet with grad students, lead weekly Zoom writing workshops with Stan State faculty and grad students, edit and read for a wonderful flash lit journal, and collaborate with my best friend/colleague, Carson Ash Beker, on projects like interviewing the acclaimed artist and writer, Faylita Hicks. And I feel so fortunate that during this time at home, my husband and I can be with our beloved elderly pup who has had a multitude of age-related health problems and requires constant, round-the-clock care.
There is a term that I've heard before, "alone together", that some define as times when a person is surrounded by many other people, but they are still alone. For quarantine, I've flipped this term on its head so that it describes how we are all living apart, in relative isolation, so we are together alone. I think that my sense of overwhelming isolation is due to the fact that I'm no longer able to hike due to the fires and poor air quality. Hiking is my favorite activity in the world, something that always brings me a sense of joy and peace and agency and strength every time I embark on a trail. Combining the loss of hiking with not being able to physically socialize with loved ones due to the pandemic and fires, or to tree bathe, or spend time in my garden, or run a simple errand due to the unhealthy air . . . I've begun to feel less capable in life. I feel like I've forgotten how to drive a car. I've forgotten how to small-talk. I am beginning to forget what "normal" air smells like. I experience more frequent bouts of severe depression and suicide ideation without access to my normal outlets. I don't remember what it feels like to wake up without a sense of dread or fear about whether I'll be able to breathe or go outside. I (as I know most everyone does) miss Life as it was before the fires and pandemic.
My sense of forgetting brings me to something that I've been wanting to share for a while, something that's been growing and shaping itself in my mind over this past year. After Spider Love Song and Other Stories first made its way into the world last September (2019), I immediately began to feel the fear that I wouldn't be able to make art again. I worried (and still worry) that whatever I created after SLS wouldn't be as compelling or meaningful. In the first months following my book launch, I struggled with performing my roles as bookseller, self-promoter, businessperson. I felt the pressure to continue creating art at the same rate and speed as I had through graduate school. And until very recently, I felt the tremendous disappointment (and even anger) with myself each time I'd tell friends and loved ones that I haven't been able to write much or finish the stories I've started since the launch of SLS.
There is a sense of grief and loss that I am experiencing that exists on its own, outside of the pandemic and fires. I've lost what motivated me to first begin writing; my courage and inspiration have been replaced with worries about things like finding a literary agent, finishing 60 pages of a new manuscript that I can use to query presses, building my portfolio or CV, pursuing fellowships or awards, or staying connected via social media solely for a "platform."
One decision that I feel so thankful to have made this year was to delete my social media account. Everyday, I feel so grateful for my editor and friends and family who did not pressure me or make me feel badly about this difficult decision. I feel so thankful to not have to experience the incessant anxiety and second-hand embarrassment that comes from reading posts by people who've stuck their feet in their mouths. I haven't wasted hours today slogging through dozens of catty comments. I no longer have to expend energy trying to ignore the unproductive infighting that happens in toxic echo chambers like Facebook. I do not have to experience that strange phenomenon known as FOMO that happens with social media, and that sense of isolation that comes after viewing hundreds of photos of other people's lives. I do not have to deal with the guilt or stress of knowing about (but not attending) the dozens of online events posted on social media every day. I no longer have to force myself to write cheerful comments while privately spiraling into another cycle of depression, and consequently dealing with the guilt and shame that accompanies my depression and introverted nature after I've convinced myself that I must be crazy because everyone else seems so comfortable sharing their lives and emotions on a daily basis. The intense introvert in me is so thankful to no longer have to share details about my life with such regularity or experience the agony of waiting to see if others approve. I'm learning how to formulate my own opinions and sense of value about my life without depending on the number of "thumbs-up" and "hearts" I receive.
Last month marked the one-year anniversary of the launch of SLS. And I wanted to write this post to share with you where I am today with regards to both my life and my artistic journey and identity. I will begin by sharing this: I want something different. I want to find my inspiration for making art. I want to write because I want to write. I want to publish because I have something to say, and not because of a publishing schedule. I want to return to that feeling of love for language, for crafting sentences, for experimenting with syntax and texture and sound.
I'm ready. That's what I want you to know. I'm ready to let go of the deficit mentality, the competition, the hierarchies, the rankings and ratings. I want my art to conjure ghosts, to make me laugh, to help others, to speak to societal issues that impact my community, to communicate with loved ones, to feel excited and uplifted and invigorated while I create art.
I am aware that I'm speaking from a place of privilege because I have other ways outside of my art in which I earn a living. And, it's a privilege for me to have had the incredible opportunity and gift to be able to experience publishing SLS, to debut, to experience the joys and wonders of collaborating with the most brilliant editor and press and pressmates that I could ever, ever, ever have hoped for. Pursuing different measures of success such as fellowships, funding, acquiring contracts or agents, and awards are all tremendous aspects of an artist's journey, and I fully support any artist who achieves their dreams. And, I truly believe it's crucial for society to begin to better support artists, to provide both the recognition and funding needed for artists to support and uplift themselves. Attaining fellowships and funding are not separate from or antithetical to the passion and inspiration and advocacy that I've described wanting for myself; these measures of success are things that I, too, would feel so proud to claim as part of my artistic journey.
I just want you, dear friends, to know that my next stories and book will come one day. I know this in my heart. I feel it in my fingertips. And I have found some glimmers of joy even in these dark days, in the writing that I have done, in the support and love that my friends and family consistently show me, and in the teaching and mentorship that I've been able to provide my students and other writers. For myself, my desire for something new simply means that I want my passion for writing to thrive without the deficit mentality, self-loathing, competitiveness, or societal pressures to view my success based off of external measures. This is what I want for myself right now, where I want to be today, and it's where you'll find me if you ask.
How are you? I hope that you and your loved ones are well and safe during this surreal time. As we near the end of our summer, our world has not yet healed. In the grip of a global coronavirus pandemic, we are simultaneously facing another far-reaching pandemic, one that has grown, mutated, and perpetuated in our nation for centuries: the continued police violence and systemic racism against immigrants, Black, Native American, and Latinx peoples. As I write this, I think about what it means for me to be a person-of-color, and how racism and xenophobia intersect within and between cultures. I think about the racism I've witnessed in Asian people against other races. I think about my privilege of being born in the United States, of being educated, of being a native English-speaker. I think about what culpability and responsibility mean, about the power of anti-racism, and about what I can do as an artist and educator to help combat racism, violence, and xenophobia. Over these past several months, I've donated to multiple community bonds that fund organizations helping to rebuild Black communities. I've donated to organizations that provide legal support for people who have been arrested by police during BLM protests. (If you, too, are interested in supporting and donating to community bond funds, BLM, and other community-centered and social justice organizations, check out this link). In the online summer course that I co-taught at CSU Stanislaus, undergrads read/wrote about and discussed the complexities of how race and inequity intersect within health care and science. There is so much more work to do, individually and as a society. I will continue to keep my heart and mind open to learning about how to do and be better, to fight for social justice and to combat racism, until my last day on Earth.
In my writing, I've been exploring themes such as race, culpability, and witness. But in recent weeks, nothing gets finished, nothing ever feels like it will get finished. I've been falling behind in attending the weekly writing workshops led by my wonderful friends. I'm not ready yet for people to see my work. But there is still a sense of deep joy and pride when I do get pen to paper, when I've sketched out an idea for a story, or pieces of dialogue. And I know that my stories are there, that they are coming. I can feel the characters I've been writing into, their stories building up in my imagination. I can hear and see them in my mind, clamoring to get out, anxious to make it onto the page. I am grateful that these characters are sticking with me as I figure things out during this surreal time.
In the hours and days and weeks and months of quarantine, I've filled my time with physical projects. I've found a sense of satisfaction in physical labor, in building and digging things in my backyard, in completing small tasks. I've pounded in concrete stakes with a mallet. I've hauled dirt and lugged bags of mulch. I've pruned everything. I painted a table bright purple. I've also begun doing things inside my home, trying to find small daily projects, like moving around ceiling light fixtures or rugs or picture frames, baking and cooking new dishes, making the densest first loaf of bread any human has probably ever made or tried to consume. I've been curriculum planning for a weekly graduate writing workshop series that I'll be co-teaching at CSU Stanislaus this Fall 2020 and Spring 2021. I've been sewing face masks. Finding and completing small tasks each day helps me to feel like time is still moving, that life is still going, that the Earth is still spinning on its axis, that we are moving forward towards a vaccine and cure for the Covid-19 pandemic, towards a more equitable world.
Autumn and winter are just around the corner. I am already nervous about how the shorter days will impact my depression. I'm concerned about how I will social distance visit with family when it's raining or too cold to be outdoors. I'm concerned when I won't have the small, daily backyard projects that I've come to love and depend on. In the meantime, I plan to just keep writing, keep teaching, keep hoping, keep building, and keep trying.
September will also mark nearly eight months since deleting my Facebook account. Without social media accounts of any kind, I've dearly missed seeing and hearing from my FB friends and acquaintances, learning about their unique lives, what they are celebrating or struggling with. But, in the past several months, I've also grown and deepened my connections with family and a handful of close friends. Throughout quarantine, I've done this through phone conversations, Zoom, FaceTime, and emails. I've found that the correspondence we have now is so much less fleeting and dilute, and so much more meaningful.
I do not miss being on Facebook or social media. I don't miss the echo chamber, the cannibalistic nature of infighting, the misinformation and trolls, the lack of a volume or on/off switch that comes with having a social media account like FB. These days, I read NYT and Mother Jones and NPR. I watch John Oliver. When I don't understand something that's happening in the world--politics, local and social issues, etc.--I take my time and read and research and learn as much as I can. I take my time to develop ideas and opinions. And, I feel grateful every single day since deleting my Facebook account for the way that my independent mind feels as if it's finally been returned to me.
I truly hope that the rest of your summer is filled with so much Love, with nourishment and kindness and hope, with learning, with projects and art that fill you with a sense of satisfaction. Thank you so much for reading. And, take good, good care during these difficult and strange times.
How are you? If you are reading this, I hope that you are safe and well. I miss you! It's been a roller coaster these past several months. The pandemic, quarantine, masks, cutting my own hair. The grief pervading every action, activity, gesture, interaction. The grief for everyone the world has lost to the Covid-19 pandemic. The grief for their families and loved ones. I'm heartbroken knowing that our world will never be the same.
I think about art and writing and its place in a world so tragically altered by the pandemic. Art brings joy. Art opens up dialogues. Art encourages questions. Art honors the unknown. There were weeks when the quarantine began when I could not make art, could not fathom writing during a time of so much suffering. Living and moving in ways that honored austerity seemed to be the only right thing to do. And maybe it was.
But recently I've begun to question the notion of austerity as we near the end of two full months in quarantine. My brain has become hungrier for stimulation. I take it wherever I can find it. I've started doing the brain-pumping New York Times crossword puzzle and their addicting Spelling Bee daily challenge. I've learned to cut my own hair. I learned how to hand-sew masks that I've given to loved ones. I've started to learn Mandarin. And, I've also had days where I can't get out of bed, days when I cannot bear the thought of reading the news, days when speaking with a loved one feels too terrifying, days when I'm so depressed that I feel like my heart has caved in.
I feel so grateful to share with you here that I've started writing again. A dear friend who's an editor of a lovely college literary journal solicited a piece from me. Without this invitation, I might never have had the motivation to begin writing again and to finish a story I'd started months ago. Two other dear friends began hosting virtual writing sessions every Monday and Thursday. I started "attending" these and have kept up my writing. I had (and still have) no idea why I'm writing, who I'm writing for. I had no idea what would come out of these sessions. But I wrote. And I wrote and wrote and wrote. I wrote terrible poems, ragged flash fiction, unbearably corny pseudo-memoir, wannabe speculative fiction. But I didn't care. I don't care. I'm writing, making something. And I am beyond grateful for my friends, for their friendship, their support, their generosity, their incredible capacity to help others in a time of such great need.
I'm still figuring things out. But what I want to leave you with is this: Everything that you are doing during quarantine, and everything that you are not doing during quarantine...all of it is exactly right. All that you are is exactly right. All that you want to do but aren't able to do yet, is exactly right. There is no one way to be during this unprecedented time. I hope that you will come to see that the art that you are making, the imaginations that you are inspiring with your words and images, that these are also exactly right. The joy your art brings to others is an essential thing. Your late morning sleeping in and too anxious to face your day is an essential thing. Your social distancing and mask-wearing even while others become lax in their precautions is an essential thing.
If you are still reading this, thank you. If you are staying home, thank you. If you are an essential worker, thank you. If you are wearing masks, thank you. If you are sleeping in, thank you. If you are homeschooling, thank you. If you are a parent, thank you. If you are simultaneously working and parenting from home, thank you. If you are (like me) child-free, thank you. If you (like me) have days where you can't bear to write or make art, thank you. If you are making art, thank you.
Just, thank you. Just know that you are loved, that you are seen during this surreal time. I see you. And, I thank you.
One of my favorite quotes does not come from a craft book, a novel, a short story, or poem. Rather, these words—which have helped me so much as a writer to develop character, craft scenes, dig into the deeper meanings and themes imbedded in the work that I read or produce—comes from a biography about a scientist named Barbara McClintock, who won both a Nobel Prize and MacArthur Foundation grant and numerous other awards for her work in genetics:
The word ‘understanding,’ and the particular meaning she attributed to it, is the cornerstone of Barbara McClintock’s entire approach to science. For her, the smallest details provided the keys to the larger whole. It was her conviction that the closer her focus, the greater her attention to individual detail, to the unique characteristics of a single plant, of a single kernel, of a single chromosome, the more she could learn about the general principles by which the maize plant as a whole was organized, the better her ‘feeling for the organism.’
~Evelyn Fox Keller, A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock
I love to study the ways my characters move in the world. Like McClintock, I believe that expression of the minutest details (through scents, gestures, faces, tastes, textures) can give an observer a ‘feeling for the organism.’ For an artist, I feel that exploring the minute gestures is such an effective way to express meaning and desire in intimate and non-didactic ways.
Interestingly, in contrast to McClintock’s reasons for her approach, I write into minute details without the intention of learning the Why or How. I do so because I believe that, unless a character is a trained psychologist, that they will not know why they do most of the things they do, they will not have the types of analytical, organized checklists in their head that help to explain their thoughts and feelings and decisions. Rather, my characters will Do based off of instinct, fear, hunger, thirst. They will Do because they can, because they need, want, desire. Ultimately, by allowing my characters to first Do (or react), before (or without ever) understanding or dissecting why they do what they do, I feel that this allows for a story to move forward in unexpected and surprising ways.
In early drafts, I try to generate as much work as I can before revising. I try not to spend hours analyzing the Why or How for my characters. I feel that by focusing my attention on the movements and expressions of my characters, I can more effectively disguise the story’s ‘seams’ (i.e. the places in a narrative where the author’s research/story-boarding is more evident). I love to imagine a reader sinking deeply into narrative, into the characters’ minds, into the action and texture and layers of the story.
If you are interested in experimenting with locating ‘a feeling for the organism” in your own work, for disguising the seams, or just exploring the minute details in your fictional worlds, here are a few questions to get you started: What does sadness taste like? What does morning smell like? What temperature does anger carry? What light does your character prefer to read in—do they prefer a pink evening sunset, the glare of an LED clip light, the yellow of an incandescent lamp, the glare of a streetlamp streaming in through the living room window? What is the tiniest thing in the room that your character notices just before they fall asleep?
As an artist, and as a misfit, an introvert with depression and a serious case of social awkwardness, my journey into sharing my work with the world has been an uneven and complicated one. There is this simultaneous pull to feel seen, heard, to feel connected to community, to reshape my history into tolerable memories, to create something and imagine it in the hands of my readers, touching their lives. And then there’s the linked desire to flee the moment others begin to speak, when they start to share how my work impacted them. There is the knowledge of my privilege to have a platform, a collective and supportive and loving space to share and make art with my closest friends, colleagues and peers. And there is, what my wonderful editor once described as the double-edged sword for introverts when it comes to public attention; in particular, there is the complex world of social media and digital life that intersects with life as an introvert-and-artist—which has meant that I’ve forgotten how to nurture my internal sense of self-worth without the external markers defined by thumbs-ups/hashtags/hearts/tags.
My publishing life is paired with deep dives into self-doubt, self-loathing, depression, and imposter syndrome. And, in these sinking moments, there is also community, friendships, mentorship, family (chosen and blood) who visit me in the deep. They give me breath, they give me words to describe my pain, they help carry the burden so that I/we can rise back up, together.
The pain I feel right now in my publishing life is very raw, vivid. I feel embarrassed and selfish for even feeling this way, for allowing my sense of failure to swallow my air, sink me deeper, to keep me from appreciating all that I do have. I feel especially disappointed in myself for feeling so self-conscious, for not sharing in my peers’ celebration for their wonderful work, for allowing the deficit mentality to diminish the power of community, collaboration, friendship. And for forgetting what my greatest teachers taught me: that in Art, there is no scarcity.
I will keep this post short and end by thanking my closest and greatest friends, who right here I will call Ash Better and my love-bug Batt Clover, who teach me every single day through their lionheartedness and through their brilliant Art and writing and science, that Love and Learning and Laughter can coexist with moments and feelings of failure, disappointment, self-loathing, pain, and grief. I am not my failures. My failures are not defined by what others think of me or my art.
While I’m here in the deep, I will try to remember why I started writing: I wouldn’t have survived high school or the years following my parents’ deaths without Art. I would not be alive today if it weren’t for my love-bug Batt Clover, my teachers and friends, mentors and chosen family, opening their doors, sharing their breath, nurturing healing spaces for me to make art.
If you, too, have felt lost or weighted down by depression or self-loathing or disappointment, I hope that in reading this column, you’ll feel a little less alone. I hope that, in some small way, these words will find and lift you, and remind you that your pain is real, valid, necessary—just as you and your art and your dreams are.
I hope that you—new and old Friends, will take good, gentle care of yourselves, that you will reach out to friends and family if you don’t yet have the strength or breath to, and that you keep moving forward in your own unique, weird, misfit way. And I will try to do the same.