Chinese in America, sort of

There was a panel at the Bay Area Book Festival last week called “Chinese in America,” which was a curious title, considering that each of the speakers was actually Chinese American. I guess “Chinese American Writers in America” just doesn’t roll off the tongue.  2015-06-07The panel host prefaced the discussion by noting that this was the first panel where he was sitting next to all women (Yiyun Li, Maxine Kingston, and Anchee Min). Every other panel so far had been mostly men. He then asked what it meant to be Chinese in America. Yiyun Li, a writer and professor at UC Davis, said it was like that joke — the only way to be Irish is to be Irish AT people. She didn’t wake up in the morning feeling Chinese. Instead, it happened when she pushed against her readers with her writing.

Maxine Kingston took this a step further. She called out the festival programme, which described the writers as “three spectacular China-born women.” Yet, on another page, you can see that her author bio lists her as born in California. After all her years of writing, this was still the narrative being ascribed to her.

I got the sense that for these authors, their Chinese identity couldn’t be divorced from their writing, for better or for worse. Everything that was said in the panel felt intensely personal. In contrast, the authors at the dystopian climate fiction panel earlier kept a safe distance between them and their writing. They talked of imagination and the future, but the Chinese American writers spoke of personal identity. I noticed a few Asian American YA and kid lit authors on the teen stage roster — Mike Jung and Jenny Han, among others. It would have been interesting to get them on a panel to talk about their writing, without the focus being on their Asian-ness.

Anchee Min told an anecdote about a child rejecting her daughter for being Chinese, citing this as the reason she wrote — so that people could come to know each other. She spoke of meeting two women in Iowa who identified with the Chinese grandmother in one of her first stories. And earlier in the panel, all three authors talked about their love for Gone With the Wind. One of them mentioned how, back in the day, every girl envisioned herself as Scarlett. Some stories are universal that way, or people have the capacity to identify across cultural boundaries. One or the other.

Maxine Kingston brought up African American authors as an influence on her writing. They paved the way, as the only minority writers on the scene when she first started out. She quoted James Baldwin on racism, that nobody gets to be innocent. In the same matter-of-fact tone, she told an audience member, “Anger is a great fuel for writing.” But by the end of writing, she added, the angry energy has to be transformed. It needs to be a sort of reconciliation and redemption.

Following that, Anchee Min said it was like having a broken arm in her sleeve. She wouldn’t hide that anger and pain. In contrast, Yiyun Li said that she wasn’t angry when she wrote, merely curious about other humans.

The panel ended on a heartwarming note, with Anchee Min thanking the panel host. (At least, I think it was him. Sitting so far back, I didn’t know half the time who was talking to whom.) When she was a new writer, it was this book critic who held her writing career in his hands. She was happy to have the chance to thank this reviewer for a good review, decades later. Everyone applauded.

It was a touching moment, sure, but… It reminded me of Malinda Lo’s series on diversity in book reviews, of how privileged identities still hold the most power in publishing, and how POC writers get pigeonholed into telling one story when really, there isn’t a single story that can sum up every experience. Even the language of welcoming diversity still situates marginalized groups as outsiders. So what I want to know is — when will we get to define our own identities, on our own terms?

Anyway, food for thought.