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Growing up, I can only remember one author visiting any of my schools. She was a former middle-school teacher who’d just published a novel, and she came to talk to my fourth-grade class about switching careers, her daily writing routine, and the inspiration for her book.
The visit was an important event for me, a 10-year-old who never went anywhere without a spiral notebook and a Paper Mate pen. I wanted to be a writer, even back then, but it was difficult to imagine, especially because I never saw or read books by Korean or Asian American authors—or authors from the middle of nowhere, which is what my small, isolated community felt like to me as a child. The novelist who visited my school was a white woman, but she was from my own tiny corner of the Northwest. I could hardly believe that I lived within a few miles of a real author, one who said that she had dreamed up her characters and worked out the plot of her novel on long walks through the same woods I had known all my life. Watching her talk about her book made me think that maybe writers really could come from anywhere—maybe I could be one, too.
The memory of that elementary-school visit—the sense of hope and possibility it gave me; the way it encouraged me to dream about a life I wanted, but hadn’t been able to envision—is one reason why I love visiting schools now. My last on-site event before everything shut down in March 2020 was at a nearby high school, where I was invited to speak about race and representation in literature. Since then, I’ve continued to give virtual talks at middle schools and high schools across the country. It’s always a privilege to get to discuss writing with students, to hear about the books they love and the stories they hope to tell.
Students consistently have the best questions. They tend to say what they think, and they don’t let you get away with shit. I generally arrive with notes prepared, ready to talk about whatever the teacher has asked me to talk about, but I also try to follow the students’ lead. Sometimes we talk about the stories and poems they’re writing, or our favorite books and authors, or what goes into building a good scene. Sometimes I’ll give them prompts and time to freewrite and share work if they want to. Sometimes they just want to hear about my own path to writing, or learn more about how books are published. Every classroom visit is a challenge and its own education, and I’ve never not enjoyed one.
In the fall of 2020, just after the school year began, I was asked to Zoom with a group of 11th graders. Their English teacher had invited me in part because they wanted me to talk about a piece I’d written for an anthology in 2017. It was focused on my experiences as a transracial Korean American adoptee who grew up in a redder region of a blue state, what it was like to be the only person of color in a conservative white family, and some of the conversations I’d tried to have with my adoptive relatives about race and politics. It was, at its heart, a personal piece about my experiences within my family and my communities, and it ended with a hopeful moment with my mother—a moment that showed us trying to find some common ground after the 2016 election.
About a week before my scheduled talk, I was told that while the teacher was still eager to have me visit, others at the school had concerns about the content. I went back to the text. Nothing in the piece struck me as inappropriate for 16- and 17-year-olds. But perhaps some were worried that the discussion would be “too political” for an English class, particularly with another presidential election right around the corner. Maybe, I thought, we could reschedule my talk for later in the school year? Or maybe I could still visit as planned, but shift the focus of the discussion to other pieces of work, other aspects of writing?
Instead, my visit was canceled just a few days before I was scheduled to speak. I don’t blame the teacher who invited me—I know the cancellation wasn’t their idea. I don’t actually blame anyone at all, including the school administration, because I recognize that I cannot know all the details or all the pressures they may have been under. At the time, I was mourning my mother, writing a book, working full-time, and supporting my own kids with remote learning through the pandemic; I didn’t pause to ask all the follow-up questions I might have at another time. All I was told was that the decision had something to do with the content of the text itself.
If the concerns were related not to whatever I might have said about writing, but something I myself had written, I suppose there would have been no easy way around that. The truth is that I cannot separate my writing from who I am as a writer, even if I wanted to. All of my work is “political”—as is the work of every other writer you read—in the sense that I write from a distinct point of view that is both personal to me and politically formed. In this country, my body and my identity are politicized whether I like it or not; my not talking or writing about this would not change the reality. And so I have made it part of my work as a writer to name my experiences, and to try to tell you what they mean, in part because I have learned that if I do not, someone else with their own political agenda may try to define or outright deny them.
I’ve been thinking more and more about this as we continue to hear about school curricula being challenged or changed, books being removed from reading lists and libraries—part of a crusade led by those who claim that students need to be shielded from learning our country’s history and how it led to the present; that it is neither necessary nor valuable for them to read stories about all kinds of people, both like them and not. Not every kid will get to meet an author they feel some kinship with, as I did in fourth grade, but all kids deserve a chance to meet themselves—and to see their lives and experiences affirmed—in literature. I continue to worry about the pressures that teachers and schools are under when it comes to instruction, the questions and narratives they are able to make space for, the discussions they feel they can foster in their classrooms. As a parent—and someone who likely wouldn’t have been the first in my family to finish college, let alone a writer, if not for the countless books I checked out from my school library and the invaluable classroom discussions led by my teachers—I recognize just how much students of all backgrounds stand to lose if their educators are not free to teach them the full truth about our history, or introduce them to mirrors and models in books they might not find on their own. And I would be concerned about this even if I were not a writer or a parent—in so many ways, our collective future depends on how we teach and what we share with students today.
I have (a few more) notes:
- It was such a pleasure to get to write this profile of Ocean Vuong for Time. “I’ve never believed that you write a book and then you’re done,” he told me. “I’ve always felt that our themes are inexhaustible, and our work is to keep building architectures for these obsessions.” Vuong’s new poetry collection, Time Is a Mother, is out from Penguin on April 5.
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