This is a free edition of I Have Notes, a newsletter featuring essays, conversations, and notes on writing. Past editions include A Choice in Name Only, Violence Against Asian American Women Is Rooted in More Than Just ‘Hate,’ How to Write About the People in Your Life, and Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein Wants to Liberate Scientific Storytelling.
Several years ago, I participated in a nonfiction discussion alongside several white authors. They were all asked about their writing: How had they become writers? What were their writing routines? What was the inspiration for their books, and how long had they worked on them?
I didn’t get any questions about my writing process. The moderator asked me to talk about my experiences with racism and offer some advice to the (mostly white) audience on how to not be racist. Every question I was asked had something to do with this. My expected role was to provide the “teachable moment”—and, I suppose, to be Asian.
It was rather mortifying, but I’ve had far more troubling moments on the road. I think the memory has stuck with me because it was the first time I experienced this particular brand of literary tokenism in front of a crowd. When I share this story with other Asian women writers—who have their own stories, some of which involve us being mistaken for each other—sometimes I try to make it funny, leaning into the embarrassment of it all. I have learned how to deliver the line And then they asked me to read the passage where I get called a slur so that it draws laughs as well as cringes. We all know what it is to be flattened or fetishized, then expected to be thankful for the honor.
I recently heard someone refer to Asian American stories as “timely.” What did they mean? I wondered. “You know,” they said, “with everything that’s been going on lately, people want to educate themselves.” They were unable to name the violence against us, yet they were looking for Asian writers to educate readers.
A reliance on “timeliness” is partly why I find myself fielding requests for unpaid writing and labor when Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month rolls around. It’s why some editors only reach out when another stomach-turning attack on an Asian woman or elder is circulating on social media. And I suspect it’s also why so many outlets and publishers responded to the Atlanta spa shootings by compiling recommended reading lists. Though I did appreciate the lists sourced from writers, editors, and booksellers of color sharing AAPI-authored books they turned to for joy or solace, I wasn’t sure what to make of ones urging readers to start here or listen and learn—they didn’t seem to be written for us, or for anyone already reading our stories.
“People in our community die, and we get attention,” a fellow Asian writer said to me. “Why are we only relevant when they’re killing us?”
I thought about all the people who wanted to deny us our anger, fear, and grief after months of mounting attacks. I thought about the companies and industries that had utterly failed to follow through on the Black Lives Matter statements they made in June 2020. It was hard not to wonder how many people might check out a book, follow an Asian celebrity on Twitter, perhaps encourage their organization to throw together a vague statement of support, and then tune out until the next horrific attack made headlines.
Long before I believed that I was a writer, I wrote a piece that terrified me. It was the first time I’d attempted to write honestly about my experiences as a Korean adoptee, and my voice actually shook when I had to read it aloud to my small writing group. To my relief, everyone was gracious. You should keep writing about this so that people can learn from your story, someone told me. The comment was kindly meant, and I took it as such. When I think of it now, I also think about the fact that this expectation, the belief that my writing will be worthwhile if it supplies some sort of lesson, has been present since the beginning.
Of course there can be an instructive component to storytelling—there are so many writers who’ve taught me, expanded my views while captivating my imagination. I’m gratified when someone tells me they learned something from my work, or allowed something I wrote to shift their thinking. I believe that once a story is out in the world, readers should and will have their own relationship to it—I don’t get to dictate what it means to anyone else, and I don’t want to.
When you are a writer, especially one from a marginalized background, you are expected to be grateful for any and all attention. When you are an adoptee, you are expected to be grateful for everything. I know how fortunate I am to be able to do what I do; to be read, seen, or heard at all. Am I thankful for it? Every day.
Still, I can’t help but feel ambivalent now when someone suggests that the true value of my work lies in its ability to teach or inspire “empathy” in readers. I can’t help but notice when I’m at an event and am asked to talk about racism while white writers talk about their craft. I wrote my book as a piece of literature, representing only myself and my own experience, hoping that it would be read and enjoyed. I wrote a story I hoped could be for anyone, though I was especially thinking of those in my communities. I wrote it because the idea wouldn’t leave me alone, because I love writing and it is my job, because I wanted to write it and wanted it to exist. I wrote it for these and a thousand other reasons that had little to do with demonstrating that people like me are worthy of thought or inclusion or the freedom to live without fear of racism, harassment, and violence.
I feel that the conscious or subconscious assumption that Asian writers and other writers of color exist and work in order to translate or humanize our communities, dispel ignorance, provide education or promote empathy—implying that this is why our work should be read and discussed, particularly in a certain month or after a tragedy occurs—does us and our readers a disservice. It assumes that readers are not already aware, and need to be offered such lessons in order to find our literature worthwhile. It can place undue pressure on us, creating an unrealistic burden of representation that white writers and artists aren’t expected to shoulder. It implies that we are not writing with our communities in mind, intentionally centering them in our work. It suggests that our real contribution and responsibility is not the work itself, but an imagined ability to make ourselves and those like us more real or legible to those who don’t already see us. Some, it seems, want our stories—which are always “timely,” always worth uplifting—to manifest or make apparent a worth, a humanity, that should have already been evident. But recognizing our humanity should be a given before you read us, not the goal of doing so.