Writing the Asian-American Experience
Every time NEA Big Read author Kao Kalia Yang does a reading from her book The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, a Hmong person in the audience comes to her afterward and says, “That’s my story too.”
As Yang’s story demonstrates, seeing aspects of your life and identity reflected in another person’s work can be a powerful and affirming experience. NEA Literature Fellow R.O. Kwon said she couldn’t picture herself as a writer because she had read so few Asian-American writers in school, and no Korean-American writers at all. “It's just so wild to me that I grew up loving an artform in which I physically could not and did not exist. I think those absences made it hard for me to imagine a life in the arts,” she said on the National Endowment for the Arts podcast.
Writing the Asian-American experience is not writing one story, one perspective, or one genre. Poet and NEA Literature Fellow Sally Wen Mao reflects on the burden of representation in her poetry collection Oculus through the lens of Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong. Mao said Wong was “very much a token and very much [had] to reckon with her role as a stand-in for all of these invisible lives, invisible faces.”
NEA Literature Fellow Vanessa Hua noted that “whether it's in Chinatown or in, say, Cupertino, there is no one Chinese-American experience.” Hua said her novel A River of Stars, which she describes as “a pregnant Chinese Thelma and Louise,” reflects those differences.
These are some of the stories and perspectives shared by Asian-American writers on the Arts Endowment podcast in recent years. We hope you will enjoy the wisdom, vulnerability, and humor shared in the interviews below.
Poet and essayist Seema Reza
Reza, the daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants, is unflinchingly honest in her book When the World Breaks Open, which chronicles the dissolution of her marriage, the death of her father and second child, her sexuality, and single motherhood. On the podcast, Reza was equally frank with our host Josephine Reed as she discussed the book, her family life, and her writing philosophy. “I think that the secrets we keep hold us hostage, and the only way to overcome shame is to lay it out there to the people in your community,” Reza said.
Music Credit: “Annibelle June,” written and performed by Abigail Washburn, from the cd The Appalachian Picking Society.
Seema Reza: “Instructions.” Be brave. Do the things you were afraid to do, do them alone. Listen. You will learn the most before you’ve said anything about yourself. Be patient. Do not dismiss anyone for a single act of unkindness. Remember how little you know about where they have come from. Remember that nothing anyone does is actually about you. Be cautious. Not everyone has your best interests at heart. This is not paranoia. Be kind. It is through kindness that you will scrub away at the surfaces of people and reveal how much they are all the same, how much they are all like you. It is through kindness that you will overcome your loneliness. Be grateful. Do not take any smile for granted. No one owes you anything. Be grateful. There are many other lives you could be living. There have been many opportunities for the life you are living to end. Be grateful. At the end of the day, when your hands are caked in paint and your heart is heavy with stories, know that you have spent the day wisely. Do it again tomorrow.
Jo Reed: That is Seema Reza reading “Instructions” from her book, When the World Breaks Open and this is Art Works the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts I’m Josephine Reed.
Seema Reza is a poet and essayist whose first book, When the World Breaks Open is an unflinching investigation into the dissolution of her marriage, the death of her second child and her father, her coming into herself as a sexual woman and single mother, and her work as a coordinator of arts programming for military personnel. Having said all that, let me assure you, while being heartbreakingly sad at moments, it is not grim. Seema Reza may examine herself ruthlessly, but she’s too engaged with life to be mired in narcissism or, least of all, self-pity. She owns her sorrow but she’s fierce and joyful. Her words positively sing off the page whether she is writing poetry, essays, or fragmentary observations—as she does throughout her genre-bending book. When the World Breaks Open is a daring and sophisticated work that “turns jagged truth into art” with a lyrical power. Seema began to discover that lyrical power in her writing as a young mother attending community college in Maryland.
Seema Reza: I had my older son when I was 19 and I lived right behind Montgomery College and took lots and lots of classes, and there was one semester where I was taking a chemistry class, a painting fine art class, and a creative writing class, and of the three things, the only thing I was a perfectionist about was writing. With painting, I was, sort of, happy with how it turned out. With chemistry, you know, I guessed, a little-- I would've made a terrible chemist.
Jo Reed: <laughs>
Seema Reza: I enjoyed chemistry. Of course, there's a sort of poetry to, like, how chemistry works. But when I realized that the only thing I'm, like, really a perfectionist about was making sure a sentence turned out the way that I meant it to turn out, I realized that this must be the thing—the thing that I needed to do, whether or not I, sort of, achieved success.
Jo Reed: Tell me about your background. You were born in the U.S. Your parents came from Bangladesh?
Seema Reza: Yes.
Jo Reed: And you met your husband in Bangladesh?
Seema Reza: Yes. So I was born here in Maryland, and my parents had migrated here 10 years prior, during the Bangladesh Pakistan War. And when I was 16, I was a real handful, and when I was 16, I was sent back to Bangladesh to live with my grandmother, to get, I don't know, straightened out or to be separated from American culture. You know, a lot about separating us from the bad influences of our...
Jo Reed: Absolutely.
Seema Reza: friends, but the thing with immigrant parents is that they think, like, "If you've been raised back home, everything would be different.” But it was, like, no, Bangladesh had changed, as well, and actually, the kids were way worse there than any kids that I knew here.
Jo Reed: And that's where you met your husband?
Seema Reza: And that's where I met my ex-husband was just through friends there.
Jo Reed: And you married very young?
Seema Reza: Yes. I mean, I had turned 18, like, two months before. We got engaged when I was 17. Now, looking back, it's absolutely nuts. We were in the kind of love that you can only be in when you're 17 and 20, you know? And I really wanted to escape, you know? I wanted to escape the cultural and religious pressure of my family, and getting married seemed like a certain path to adulthood. If I could have just lived with him for a little while, I am certain I would not have married him. But that wasn't an option. I was in this pretty religious Muslim family and that was my way out.
Jo Reed: And you had your first child when you were 19?
Seema Reza: Yes.
Jo Reed: You worked college in as a mother.
Seema Reza: Yes. And it took me a decade to finish college. Right? I was 30 when I graduated from undergrad and divorced. I don't think I could've studied all of the things that I wanted to study, go down all of the paths that I went down, if I was in a traditional four-year college-- like, there's a traditional way that the kids go to school. So there's a benefit. I studied astronomy. I took photography classes. I took all of these classes, and then, would feel like it was too much. I wasn't giving my family enough, and then, I'd take a semester off, and so that was my-- that whole decade between 20 and 30.
Jo Reed: When the World Breaks Open is the name of your book, which is an evocative title. Tell me how you chose it.
Seema Reza: Oh, it was a question that my younger son asked me. We had gone, the three of us, myself and my two sons, on the first vacation I'd ever taken them on alone. And we went to the beach and my father had drowned in the ocean just months before, and I was terrified, and I took them away, and I was, like, "No. We're going to have a vacation. I have you for Fourth of July. We're going to do this.” And we went to this very mediocre hotel in Virginia Beach-- after this, you know, day of feeling capable; right? It's so terrifying to leave a marriage when you haven't lived as an adult, at all, ever. And so I'd spent this day, like, taking the kids to the beach and going to dinner and doing all of these things that now don't seem so scary, but then, were terrifying. Every step of it, I was, like, "Oh, my gosh, there's nobody here to help me.” And at night, the boys have this habit, still to this day. They're 12 and 18 and they still have this habit of bickering at night before bed, just like their nightly bicker, and they were having their nightly bicker and it was driving me nuts. We were in the hotel room. I was in one bed. They were in the other, and I was reading, and I was, like, "What's going on?” And my older son was, like, "He's asking questions that make no sense.” And so I said, "Ask me, then.” And he said, "Mama, isn't it true that when the world breaks open, God comes out?” And I was, like, "Yeah.” I think that's exactly how I feel right now. And it's been my experience through all of these really, really difficult, terrible experiences, is that, like, at the bottom, you know, when you just feel like the fabric of the world has, kind of, torn and you see that, "Oh, my goodness.” It feels like the grief is going to swallow you whole; right? Like, this train coming at you. The next feeling, if you can just, sort of, white knuckle it through that feeling, is like, "Oh, my gosh, it didn't swallow me whole. I can survive that.” So that's where the title comes from.
Jo Reed: Well, the book details-- well, it details a lot. It talks about your marriage becoming undone and of the loss of a child and being a single, and a sexual, woman, and the death of your father, and so on. I mean, it really tells a lot. Why the decision to write the book?
Seema Reza: I couldn't write anything else. It was just my first semester, when I had-- after that semester where I decided on writing, I applied to Goddard College's BFA program. It's a low-residency BFA program, and I'd seen a poster for it at the community college, and got into the program, and that first semester-- the first residency was the week my marriage-- just, like, it started Thursday. I realized I could not sustain this marriage anymore. And I had applied to write young adult fiction is what I had planned to write, and of course, I couldn't. All I could think about was, like, "What have I done? What am I doing? What really happened? What didn't happen?” And to really rigorously examine that, I needed to be, at least, as hard on myself and as honest about looking at myself as I was about the other, sort of, characters in the book, and so that self-examination, while I was writing it, was never intended to be published. <Laughs> You know? I wrote it because I really wanted to understand, like, "How did I get here? I know I played a role in this, and what was that role?"
Jo Reed: Can you read a poem, "Sanity?" Because I think that, kind of, speaks to this.
Seema Reza: "Sanity.” We restrained in a way that made my teeth hurt. I reached out in little unreciprocated gestures, favorite dinners, and funny stories. I came home one night and his posture flipped a switch in me and set my insides on fire. When I opened my mouth, I reduced him to ash. It was more than I'd meant to say, but I couldn't stop. And when I saw how wild I was being, rage of that caliber is an out of body experience. I surrendered to it completely. I lay my arms down, clenched my fists, and let it pour forth. When I was done, he began. His insults weren't eloquent, but he slammed pots and kicked cabinets and jabbed me in the ribs and collarbone with his finger, for emphasis. I was relieved that he was crazy, too, and I thought it would be over, that enduring his crazy would serve as penance for my own. Late that night, I went to deliver an apology wrapped in forgiveness to smooth things over. He was sitting in the corner of the couch watching television with his brows furrowed, the remote poised in his right hand. He lifted his eyes briefly when I entered the room. I delivered my speech, familiarly specked with ardent defenses and wan confessions, and he said, 'I think I want a divorce.' Eventually, after much cajoling and rephrasing of questions on my part, he admitted that he didn't want a divorce. He wanted sanity. 'Sanity. Sure. I can do that,' I said. He finally accepted my apology, refusing my offer of forgiveness, and returned my kiss with a disdainful peck. I was trembling and giddy, like someone who has narrowly escaped a falling object. I resolved to do sanity right, this time. We pulled a crisp sheet over our anger and tucked the edges in. For a time, we were again polite paper dolls.
Jo Reed: I think, you so nail what happens when a marriage falls apart. It's, both, so specific and so individual, as it is for all of us, but there are feelings around it that are just universal. And that's what art teaches, no? It's in the specificity we find the universal.
Seema Reza: Oh, totally, totally. I always give this advice at the beginning of my writing workshops, which is, you know, there's three rules to good writing, and of course, it's my workshop so I can say that there are rules.
Jo Reed: <laughs>
Seema Reza: <laughs> Of course, there's many more rules. You know, one is honesty of voice, not writing in someone else's voice. If you curse, curse. The second is that specificity of detail, and the third is like a willingness to change your mind, over the course of the writing. But that specificity of detail is so important because we have to pay attention to what we paid attention to. Right? To get, like, a clue to our minds, to what it is that's sticking for us.
Jo Reed: The book is put together quite unusually. You have narrative chapters. You have fragments. You have a recipe, and poems. Let's talk about the structure and why you structured it that way.
Seema Reza: Part of my undergrad thesis was about this relationship between form and content, and how the form changes the content and how certain content needs a specific form, and I think that's true of just all kinds of information; right? There are multiple kinds of knowing and there are multiple ways to represent that knowing, and usually, you need to know things in several different ways. And for me, for writing these pieces, most things I wrote in several different forms before I found the right one. Or I found the right-- the thing I was trying to understand, and so I'd go back and forth, and I'd write it as prose and it would be, like, "Oh, the connective tissue is getting in the way.” Or I'd write it as a poem and I'd be, like, "No. This needs more context.” And Red Hen was so generous with me about that. They were, like, "Yeah, do it.” You know...
Jo Reed: And that's your publisher?
Seema Reza: That is the publisher. And that was really freeing. You know, I was doing this process really of investigating how I came to the place that I came to. What things had I learned about love or had I been taught about love that allowed me to accept this as my life? What had I learned about my father that made our relationship what it was? And so in this process of investigating, I was using all of the tools, the poetry and the prose and, you know, the straight, like, reading about the history of Bangladesh and just trying to think about, "Why were they the way they were, my parents?"
Jo Reed: Yeah.
Seema Reza: And so, being able to present that information in all of these different ways felt like the only way to tell the story, as completely as one can.
Jo Reed: Seema, read the poem, "Fathers like Giants."
Seema Reza: Sure. "Fathers Like Giants.” Our fathers were way above us, higher than the clouds, taking care of things, taking care of our mothers, like giants who would catch us if we fell, though we did not notice them until they were gone. They took us to see things we didn't want to see, protected us from things we wanted to do. Once, at a fair in Dhaka, a young man purposely bumped into my sister. My father, walking behind, bumped into him with the girth of his belly, sending him askew and when their eyes met, my father said, 'I thought you liked bumping into people.' And just as we had forgotten he was there walking behind us, we sometimes forget now that he is not.
Jo Reed: What a lovely tribute to your father. And as mentioned, he died while your marriage was unraveling and you were divorcing your husband and he drowned while he was swimming.
Seema Reza: Yeah. He always wanted to take one last dip. I don't know. I wonder how much money he spent on swimming trunks because he would always take one last dip on the morning of departure from an oceanside vacation or any kind of waterside vacation, and my mom would be, like, "What are we going to do with these wet swim trunks?” And he would just throw them away <laughs> and that would make her even madder. So he'd gone for the one last dip, and my mom had gone for her one last shopping trip, on this visit to Fort Cochin, in India, and he never came back.
Jo Reed: You detail many difficult times, in the book, and as you say, you interrogate yourself pretty harshly, too. It's so personal, and you directly address your decision to put it all in the book and at exactly the point where I was wondering, like, "I wonder what her kids think about this?"
Seema Reza: <laughs>
Jo Reed: But were you ever wary? Or was it as straightforward as it comes across in that chapter in the book.
Seema Reza: I think that the secrets we keep hold us hostage, and the only way to overcome shame is to lay it out there to the people in your community. Of course, my community is a little bit bigger now, with the book. And so for that there was no question, this was what I needed to do. There’s that voice in your head, if people really knew you that can make you just feel like total crap all the time if you let it just sort of fester in there, and not that I don’t struggle with that still, but this is my way of speaking to that voice. All of this writing is my way of speaking to that voice. The places that are uncomfortable are the places we need to go in art. But when it comes to my sons, man, parenting is just a great experiment. I thought really deeply, you know, over the course of doing this investigation about what caused my grandmother’s secrets, and my mother’s secrets. Not even straight up secrets, even, but, like, this dishonesty about, almost gas lighting about, like, “No, everything’s fine.” And it’s like, no, everything is clearly not fine, and what harm that caused our relationship, and that is one thing that I cannot bear to have with my boys. You know, they can become whoever they want to become, but I’d like to know them, and I have to model that.
Jo Reed: And you want them to know you.
Seema Reza: Right.
Jo Reed: Yeah.
Seema Reza: Yeah. I want them to know me and love me anyway.
Jo Reed: You write in the book very honestly about your husband being abusive and the stories you would tell yourself. “Well, I’m not bruised. I’m not bleeding.” I mean, and all those stories.
Seema Reza: Yeah. And you know, there’s that, and then also I’m not the kind of woman who would be abused. There is a deep, deep shame to being weak. And still I feel, you know, a certain little kernel of, like, I can’t believe that that’s part of my history, you know, because you want to be tough.
Jo Reed: And invulnerable.
Seema Reza: And invulnerable, and fierce, and you want to believe that the person you’re with loves you, and that that is enough. Right? We’re told that love can conquer anything. Well…
Jo Reed: There’s another poem I want you to read about your youngest child.
Seema Reza: “February 13th. The night before you were born I lay in the bathtub on my side, too swollen with baby to be submerged. Your father sat beside me awake with us both, pouring cups of warm water over the loaded barrel of my belly. That kind of love is where the roots of this family are, and it is our work to convince you and to convince ourselves of the irreconcilable truth. Love like that existed once, and we are all somehow better off now.”
Jo Reed: I thought that poem was beautiful. And what a gift to your son, because both of your kids you know they lived through the fighting and they lived through the divorce and to remind them that there was a great love there as well I think is really a lovely gift.
Seema Reza: Thank you. Yeah. You know, I loved their father so much, and he loved me so much, and so often we feel, like, to be loyal to ourselves we have to throw out the good. And to move forward sometimes you kind of do. There are definitely periods where I had to be fueled by rage in order to, like, pack my stuff up and leave. But also I learned a lot about being loved during that time, too, and if we discount that about everything we have to leave, then when we take the sort of stock of our lives everything looks like it was really terrible, but it wasn’t. There was laughing at the grocery store, and there was all of this beauty.
Jo Reed: And two lovely boys.
Seema Reza: Two lovely boys, and a lot of really beautiful experiences, which is why I stayed, which is why we kept trying to make it work, even though the broken places were getting more and more broken. Thank you for asking me to read that.
Jo Reed: Oh, no, not at all. Like, I really liked it so much. You write in the book about turning jagged truth into art, which is something you certainly have done in your own life, but you also work with veterans and service members to help them do that as well. And the NEA has funded art for veterans and service members for years, art therapy and workshops, so I’m very curious and eager to know how you began that work.
Seema Reza: I started this work at an arts and crafts center that was attached to the old Walter Reed, Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and the Army had set up these arts and crafts centers just before we were entering World War Two for morale, welfare and recreation. I got there in 2010. It was my first, full time, out-of-the-house job, and when I began working there, I got involved with doing sessions at the main campus, not just at the Center, and what people wanted was community. You know, I would just set up a table in a public space, and we would make art, and we would do paintings, and we would do wood burning, and we would have drum circles, and we would do all of these things, and it would be this sort of really, broad group of people. There’s a lot of hierarchy of injury in the military health system, I think, and so this was a sort of, like, flattened hierarchy where we would have family members, and somebody with an invisible injury, cancer, or posttraumatic stress, or neurocycle social issues, and people with visible physical combat injuries all at one table teaching each other things, and creating things, and that’s what a natural community is. Right? A natural community isn’t everybody being the same. It’s this sort of range of, you know, abilities and strengths so that we can fill in for each other, and that sort of emerged there.
You know, recognizing this need, we founded a nonprofit with several veterans and several community building artists, called Community Building Art Works and we are working to fill that gap for people who maybe didn’t see themselves as artists before, and discovered the art through these art workshops that are not therapy at all, but they’re about creating art and supporting them through these sort of phases of, like, being in treatment, and then being an outpatient, and then being a veteran, which is a very different experience. When you hand people these tools to develop their own emotional vocabulary, they realize they’ve been looking for it all along.
Jo Reed: I want you to read “Bad Guys.”
Seema Reza: “Bad Guys.” “You think I’m good. I’m no good guy.” He is clicking his pen, elbows on the table, his composition book open in front of him. He is the only person in my writing group today. He is tall, broad, with short hair and glasses that are tinted dark. He is kind, and gentle, and intellectual. He has done terrible things on his five combat tours. He is one of the best people I have ever met. “You want to know the truth about good guys and bad guys,” he asks me. “There are no good guys, only bad guys, and other bad guys, and innocent people caught in the crossfire.” I think maybe there are only good guys, all caught in the crossfire.
Jo Reed: And the last line just sums it up, I think.
Seema Reza: Yeah. I think it’s that shame thing, of course, and we create these barriers around, like, what type of person would do X or Y, and we don’t have, like, a practice of forgiveness, I don’t think, in the modern world, or, like, there isn’t, like, a lot of space for that, but when you sit with people and you make space for them, they usually think their way to really good things when they are in a space with unconditional, positive regard, but it means that you have to also allow space for them to say things that challenge you and your capacity for love because usually somebody will say something really, really harsh or Islam phobic, or sexist, something designed to make me flinch just before they tell me something that’s real and vulnerable. Just before they’re willing to write something real, they check if I’m trustworthy, if I can handle the real truth. And it’s not for everyone. But for me, I feel like I’ve done some pretty terrible things and I would prefer for people to see through that to what my intention is today, you know.
Jo Reed: I always think I really do not want to be judged by the worst thing I ever did, and try to remember that when I’m looking at other people.
Seema Reza: Oh, amen. Yeah. And learning self-forgiveness, not that I’m done with it, but it is the most essential life skill, and teaching people how to, like, work towards that means that you have to hold the table steady while they shake it.
Jo Reed: What has working with veterans and service members taught you about people and about art?
Seema Reza: It has taught me so much about art. One of the main places that there is sort of overlap between veterans and artists, I think, is that, you know, military training trains people to observe really carefully as does art training, right? When you’re drawing a thing you have to forget what you thought you knew about what it looks like and break it down into what you’re actually seeing. Similarly, when you write about something, right, we’re writing these specific details, and really trying to see beyond what we thought the story was and paired with the sense of, like, nothing makes sense, and so I better make sense of it. And that’s true for artists, and I think it’s true for most people who join the service, is there’s something in the world that doesn’t make sense that they’re trying to change, so learning to sort of lean into that observation more as an artist, myself, has definitely been a benefit of this work.
Jo Reed: Poetry Out Loud, you are a judge this year. You were a judge last year. Tell me about that experience.
Seema Reza: Oh, my goodness. So last year was my first year, and I didn’t quite know what to expect. I thought it would be really, really difficult to judge children, and I’ll confess to you, and everyone else, that it was not. I warmed to it, because they took it so seriously. You don’t think of them as kids when they get up there and they’re really doing this work so professionally. And one of my favorite parts is receiving the packet of poems. We receive the poems before the kids read them so we know what they’re going to read, and we can familiarize ourselves with the text. And it’s often like favorites, and then so much stuff that I haven’t read, so it’s always this, like, new bank of awesome poems, and that’s very exciting. And, you know, I do most of my professional work on the other side of the funnel, when adults who didn’t learn this poetic practice as a way of seeing the world, an alternate view of the world. So it’s really heartening to see kids who make this kind of effort to memorize poems, understand them. That emotional work of understanding a poem is maybe harder than writing a poem, I think. And it makes me really hopeful for the future, which I am always in need of.
Jo Reed: As we all are. Do you find that there’s a particular resonance when you’re actually hearing poetry as opposed to reading it?
Seema Reza: Definitely. I think poetry is meant to be experienced aloud. I believe that that’s what breaks are for in poetry. And when you read a poem aloud from the page, I think that the writer is training you when to breathe and when not to. But, right, you’re trying to control the flow of somebody else’s breath when you put in these breaks. So having read the poem and then having it read to us, and matching up those experiences, I think there’s definitely a huge advantage. People should come to see the performance, because it’s amazing.
Jo Reed: Tell me what you’re working on now.
Seema Reza: So I am working on a collection of poetry that will come out in 2019. I’m very, very excited to get a book of just pure poetry out, and I’m also working on a collection of non-fiction essays about the different ways that we know things, and who gets to claim knowledge.
Jo Reed: Seema, thank you so much. I really appreciate it, and I thought your book was wonderful.
Seema Reza: Thank you so much for reading it and for this opportunity.
Jo Reed: Not at all. Thank you.
That is poet and essayist Seema Reza. Her book is called When the World Breaks Open. And as you heard, Seema is one of the judges at 2018 Poetry out Loud competition. The finals are on April 25th at 7pm at the Liner Auditorium here in Washington, D.C. Go to arts.gov for more information about this free event. And if you can’t make to the Liner, we’re live-streaming the finals at arts.gov. You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. You can subscribe to Art Works where ever you get your podcasts, so please do. And leave us a rating on Apple—it really helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Poet and 2021 NEA Literature Fellow Sally Wen Mao
Mao’s poetry collection Oculus examines the way Chinese people, in particular women, have been objectified by American audiences. On the podcast, Mao discussed her research into the history of the Chinese in America, the dehumanization of being made a spectacle, and the weight of representation. While Mao wrote Oculus for Asian-American women, she noted she’s not speaking for them, “because, again, within Asian America, there are so many disparate histories.”
Sally Wen Mao: So much history, the history of the Chinese in America, for example, I really had to go out and seek it. I had to do research independently because it was not something that was taught growing up in school…and sometimes, I feel this like very strong desire to take that information and turn it toward the lyric moments of poetry
Jo Reed: That’s poet and 2021 NEA literature fellow Sally Wen Mao. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.
Critics are singing the praises of Sally Wen Mao’s second collection of poems, Oculus. The word Oculus is Latin for “eye.” It can also refer to the lens of a camera, and architecturally, it’s a circular window or a circular opening at the top of a dome. Sally Wen Mao uses these multiplicities of meanings, as she examines the violence of spectacle. Mao presents the many ways in which Chinese people, most particularly women, have become spectacles for American audiences in life, in death, on film and on line — objectified by a lens they don’t control. Her poems excavate this history of spectacle beginning with Afong Moy—the first Chinese woman to come to America. In a series of persona poems, she takes Anna May Wong from early Hollywood to the present day. And Mao interrogates the culpability of present technology as well-- from an online suicide in 2014 to a murder that was a front page sensation and horror in 2012. Through them all, Sally Wen Mao makes clear the price these people paid and continue to pay as they hold the weight of our gaze, their visages a spectacle for others to consume...both visible and unknown. And the poet also intervenes—reanimating and resurrecting these women who have been flattened by history’s gaps and the narrowness of our stares. Sally Wen Mao spoke with me about Oculus earlier this week—as it happens-- in the wake of the murders in Atlanta of six Asian-American women.
Sally Wen Mao: Yes. So, in Oculus I kind of attempt to create a through line between the history of Chinese women, in particular, in America and the present and the ways in which the narratives have been shaped about those women and I began with the first woman, the first Chinese woman to ever come to America, Afong Moy, which was in 1834 and then I continue with Anna May Wong, a Hollywood star, which she lived in the 20th Century, for the most part, and yeah, and then I trace it to the present, where, again, these conversations have really become fraught in the past week. So, that is something that I was really intentional about when I was writing and drafting “Oculus.”
Sally Wen Mao: Yes, great. Yes. I will read that poem,
A man celebrates erstwhile conquests,
his book locked in a silo, still in print.
I scribble, make Sharpie lines, deface
its text like it defaces me. Outside, grain
fields whisper. Marble lions are silent
yet silver-tongued, with excellent teeth.
In this life I have worshipped so many lies.
Then I workshop them, make them better.
An East India Company, an opium trade,
a war, a treaty, a concession, an occupation,
a man parting the veil covering a woman’s
face, his nails prying her lips open. I love
the fragility of a porcelain bowl. How easy
it is, to shatter chinoiserie, like the Han
dynasty urn Ai Weiwei dropped in 1995.
If only recovering the silenced history
is as simple as smashing its container: book,
bowl, celadon spoon. Such objects cross
borders the way our bodies never could.
Instead, we’re left with history, its blonde
dust. That bowl is unbreakable. All its ghosts
still shudder through us like small breaths.
The tome of hegemony lives on, circulates
in our libraries, in our bloodstreams. One day,
a girl like me may come across it on a shelf,
pick it up, read about all the ways her body
is a thing. And I won’t be there to protect
her, to cross the text out and say: go ahead—
Jo Reed: That is just such a beautiful poem. There’s so much that I love about this and the lines that really jump out at me-- “In this life, I’ve worshipped so many lies and then I workshop them and make them better,” and clearly, that’s what this poem is doing, trying to complicate a narrative that’s often so simplistic.
Sally Wen Mao: Yes. I mean, the origin of this poem came from when this happened to me, when I came across a book at the library that was-- it was a book kind of describing the sexual conquest of Asia by Europeans and it was a book that the tone of it was quite dehumanizing throughout, even though it kind of presented itself as a history book, it was very-- yeah, it really dehumanized and fetishized Asian women that it was describing throughout the book and it defined the East was anywhere from North Africa to Southeast Asia. So, it just-- I find that these narratives are still being perpetuated throughout my life and they’re so harmful, the impact. So, I wrote this poem because I was really angry. I just remember myself. I was 22 and I just felt powerless because, again, the book that I found, it had just been published that year. It was reviewed in The New York Times. It was enjoying like this moment in the spotlight and I just felt “Wow, this type of book is still acceptable,” and yes, I can imagine that happening to any Asian woman and it’s not just that one book, but it’s so many books across the history of the world and not just books either, but like we mentioned films, narratives, all the media that we consume.
Jo Reed: Indeed and you do go back in history. Tell us about Afong Moy.
Sally Wen Mao: Yes. So, she was the first Chinese woman to ever come to the United States and she came because a couple of brothers or actually cousins, maybe, merchants wanted to sell this new line of products from Canton or Guangdong and they wanted to sell vases, scrolls, oriental objects, and they thought that the best marketing gimmick would be to bring a live Chinese woman to be displayed among these objects from China and so, they found this 19-year-old girl and sent her across the ocean and so, she landed in New York City and she was placed in this saloon, of sorts, and they put all these objects around her and they charged admission so that people can go and just kind of go and look at her and see her as kind of an object, right? This show, it became a sensation and she ended up going on a tour across the US and she ended up-- she met the President at the time, Andrew Jackson, and it was quite a journey and yet, every record that exists of her were newspapers, usually, and all of the accounts of her are written from the perspective of people who consumed her or paid to see her or just saw her as an oriental object, essentially.
Jo Reed: So, you imagined a voice for her and you gave her an imagined perception.
Sally Wen Mao: Yes. I mean, the thing about it is that her perception existed, but it was just ignored.
Jo Reed: Exactly.
Sally Wen Mao: And I had to imagine how strange it must have been for her. All of these people were calling her strange, but like coming from her perspective, like America was strange. America was like extremely bizarre in all of these ways that those newspaper accounts never ever considered.
Jo Reed: Well, there was a lot of emphasis on her bound feet, but what you did in that poem was instead of her being the object of these people’s gaze, you turned it around and had her gazing at the spectators and wondering at the deformity of women’s corsets.
Sally Wen Mao: Yes. Really, it is the first comparison is the bound feet are a way of controlling women’s bodies, but that also existed in the west in the form of corsets. So, in a way, the narratives were spinning this story that yes, China is extremely backwards, even Andrew Jackson called it like a barbaric practice. But like all of these things were happening in other forms in the United States.
Jo Reed: Exactly, and the context, of course, of somebody who’s a slave owner calling bound feet barbaric.
Sally Wen Mao: Exactly. Exactly, and somebody who displaced so much of the Native population at the time. 1834, like as Afong Moy was traveling through the United States, she was sometimes on the same path as the Native Americans who were being displaced at the time and so, all of those histories, I think, are intertwined.
Jo Reed: Well, you wrote 11 persona poems in the voice of Anna May Wong, who we know more about, I think it’s safe to say, than Afong Moy, but who despite her enormous talent was still flattened by stereotypes on the screen. You mentioned her when we first began speaking, but could you just tell us a little bit more about her?
Sally Wen Mao: Yeah. So, she was a very prominent Hollywood actress and she was born in Los Angeles and she was the daughter of a laundromat owner and she really rose through Hollywood like from a very young age. I think her first starring role, she was still a teenager and yes, she had to face a lot of racial stereotypes in the kinds of roles that she would be offered, like Fu-Manchu’s daughter and she did really critique this, like in her lifetime. She was very vocal about the realities for Asian actors and actresses.
Jo Reed: Can we hear “Anna May Wong on Silent Films?”
Sally Wen Mao: Yes.
“Anna May Wong on Silent Films”
It is natural to live in an era
when no one uttered—
and silence was glamour
so I could cast one glance westward
and you’d know what I was
going to kill. Murder in my gaze,
treachery in my movements:
if I bared the grooves
in my spine, made my lust known,
the reel would remind me
that someone with my face
could never be loved.
How did you expect my characters
to react? In so many shoots,
I was brandishing a dagger.
The narrative was enchanting
enough to make me believe
I, too, could live in a white
palace, smell the odorless gardens,
relieve myself on their white
petals. To be a star in Sun City—
to be first lady on the celluloid
screen—I had to marry
my own cinematic death.
I never wept audibly—I saw my
sisters in the sawmills,
reminded myself of my good luck.
Even the muzzle over my mouth
could not kill me, though I
never slept soundly through the silence.
Jo Reed: That’s “Anna May Wong on Silent Films.” Tell me what goes into taking on the voice, especially over the course of 11 poems, of someone who actually lived.
Sally Wen Mao: Yes. I did research. Obviously, I read a couple of her biographies. She did have a very vocal presence. She had-- for example, she wrote newspaper columns for the New York Herald Tribune and she did-- so, one contrast between Anna May Wong and Afong Moy is that Anna May Wong did have first-person accounts and records and I guess the reason I chose her as a persona is that in a way, Anna May Wong’s career and her job was to kind of take on the lives of other people and as a celebrity and as an actress, she ended up bearing the burden of representation and because her face was visible at the time, that ended up-- it ended up standing in for so many people and she was such a token, right? Still is, to this day. She’s very much a token and very much has to reckon with her role as a stand-in for, again, like all of these invisible lives, invisible faces.
Jo Reed: I’ve always been in love with her voice because it’s so authoritative. And because of miscegenation laws, her roles were limited. Is that correct?
Sally Wen Mao: Yeah, the anti-miscegenation laws at the time meant that she couldn’t really be a leading lady, even-- and honestly, a lot of Asian roles went to white actors and those white actors, even if they were playing Asian people in yellow face, like there was still the anti-miscegenation laws applied in those cases.
Jo Reed: She also said “All Chinese in America are homesick,” which I found heartbreaking.
Sally Wen Mao: Yes, and something I think that is specific to her is that she was born and raised in Los Angeles. So, she didn’t actually go to China or she never even stepped foot in China until her early 30s. So, imagine, she had like this long and illustrious career as an actress trying to represent this people that really, she didn’t really know China that well. Like, she didn’t know China firsthand. She only knew China through this diasporic lens.
Jo Reed: In your poems, in your persona poems in the voice of Anna May Wong, you really give her stories. She has a romance with Bruce Lee. She’s making cameos in “Romeo Must Die” and “Kill Bill,” among others and it’s serious, but it’s also playful.
Sally Wen Mao: Oh, yes. I really wanted the persona poems to do something beyond just capturing her life. I feel like if people wanted to know about her life, they could read the multiple biographies that are out there about her. For me, I felt that the poem created a space where I can experiment with a thought experiment, just what it would it be like if she could travel into the future. She traveled so much in her life. If she traveled into the future, what would she think? What would she think of Bruce Lee? What would she think of all these films that came out after her death. So, that was something I really wanted to tap into.
Jo Reed: I’m curious about the way you tackle history in your work and the way you imagine these moments that have been lost in history.
Sally Wen Mao: Yes. So much history, the history of the Chinese in America, for example, I really had to go out and seek it. I had to do research independently because it was not something that was taught growing up in school. I remember, for example, when I was 12, I was removed from my class because there was a citywide project that was about kind of preserving the history of Chinese in California and so, I was pulled out of the class along with my friend, who is also the only other Chinese girl and we learned about Chinese immigration into California. They even took us on a field trip to Angel Island, which was an immigration station from the early 20th Century that housed a lot of-- that detained a lot of Chinese immigrants because it was an immigration station was built, essentially, to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act and I just remember even as a 12-year-old thinking like “This is crazy. I didn’t know this history. Now I’m learning it. Why am I the only one learning it? Why isn’t it taught in my class? Why aren’t the rest of my classmates learning this history?” And the history of Chinese immigrants to California, it’s such a huge part of California history. Now, as an adult, I have learned that I have to seek out that information and sometimes, I feel this like very strong desire to take that information and turn it toward the lyric moments of poetry because one thing that struck me when I visited Angel Island so many years ago was that these detained immigrants, they were writing poetry on the wall. On the walls of the detention center, there were poems that were carved and the immigrants who were detained and desperate and just miserable were turning to poetry and I think that there’s something really significant about that.
Jo Reed: I agree. Throughout your poems, you really push at that boundary that can be very fluid between spectacle and image.
Sally Wen Mao: Yes. I mean, so much of, again, if we’re talking about like Chinese American femininity is bound up in spectacle, right? Even with Afong Moy, she was a spectacle. That’s essentially what she was. She was an object to be looked at and consumed. Same with Anna May Wong and in my book, I also think about social media and technology today and how in a way, even now, when we can kind of like upload images of ourselves and when we can kind of curate like an Instagram or go on a webcam, things like that, even now, I still don’t think that women have total control over their images and that was something that really fascinated me and not just women, obviously. I have a poem in the book that looked at a particular spectacle that occurred almost a decade ago, of this man who was pushed into the subway tracks.
Jo Reed: "No Resolution."
Sally Wen Mao: Yes.
Jo Reed: Yeah, I was going to ask you to read that later, but do you want to read it now?
Sally Wen Mao: Oh, yes. Yes, so, the story about this was that his-- somebody took a picture of him on the subway tracks, and then it ended up becoming the cover of the New York Post. And-- like there's just something so I guess like traumatic about seeing that, I remembered. And this-- and a year later, in 2013, I ended up, by chance, meeting the man's daughter. And we just had this exchange, and this poem is kind of about that. So,
"No Resolution." And the epigraph says,
"In December, 2012, a father from Queens, Ki Suk Han, was pushed into the train tracks of an oncoming Q train. This poem is for his daughter, Ashley Han.
The cover of the magazine. I throw it open,
I throw it out. This man announces
the headline. THIS MAN IS ABOUT TO—
Blood broadcasts the story. noise rakes
the story, and pummels it to the ground
until there's nothing left. No story. No Man.
No wife and daughter, no life in Queens.
His daughter doesn't speak, she closes
her eyes, and the lids sear the whites beneath.
At the press conference, she hides her hands
inside her hoodie. All the cameras, they point,
they shoot-- she reels, she shatters.
A year later, I will meet her. We will walk down West 4th,
MacDougal. Under the arches, on a crisp
October day, we will eat crepes in the East Village,
watch a man play piano in the square.
She will talk about her father-- the story
of all of our lives-- how she didn't have the chance
to connect with him fully, and then suddenly—
it was the story of none of our lives—
and she was 21, an only child, with her father's
fate on a magazine cover, piled in grocery
stores across America, in low-res, hi-res,
the pixels blurred like smudges.
For now, it is December. The shadows on the platforms
elongate. I have not yet met her. I turn off the television,
afraid of its heft, its volume, its relationship to gravity.
Lately, I can't go underground without shielding
my body with my hands. The train winds
and goes. The stories about our lives do not have faces."
Jo Reed: That's "No Resolution." I think it's a devastating poem. This mammoth, personal loss, turned into a blip in the news. I've seen your book described as looking at the violence of the spectacle, and I think this poem certainly does that.
Sally Wen Mao: Yes. I guess, I mean, in recent news, you see these videos of elderly Asian folks being brutalized. And I really think back to that moment in December 2012, when we all learned about this incident, where this man was just pushed into the train tracks. And one of the huge, you know, outcries, related to that, was the fact that the New York Post just like decided to run that cover, and it was so lurid, and it was so dehumanizing, to use like an earlier word. And again, like you can't see his face. Like he's looking at the train. And, I remembered the pain that a lot of people felt, in the Asian American communities, just this feeling that, if we die, then our deaths might turn, or be made into a spectacle, might be exploited in that way. So, yeah. I don't know if I can properly talk about it.
Jo Reed: It's hard, this week, too. Do you fear that same story for the women who were murdered in Atlanta?
Sally Wen Mao: Well, one thing that I noticed, as the news was unfolding is the central focus of this shooting, of this massacre, is this conversation about what to call it, right? Is it a hate crime? Is it not? And this policeman said that the shooter had a bad day. That's the theme heard around the world, right? The shooter had a bad day. He had a sex addiction, you know, it was not motivated by race. And then, I remembered like somebody from this shooter's life came out and said, oh, he loved Asian culture. He was not racist. But like one thing that I realized is that a lot of white people-- a lot of people-- you know, a lot of people aren't aware that that kind of fixation on Asia, that kind of like obsession with Asia, it can be racist. Because where does that fixation come from? It's a long, you know, brutal history of subjugation, and the intersection of fetishization, of a hyper-sexual Asian woman, and that type of sexualization is highly racialized, it's highly racist.
Jo Reed: And tied in, with that very particular stereotype, I think, that's highly sexualized, is also passivity.
Sally Wen Mao: Mm-hm, yes. And, I mean, like Asian women, I think the American conception of Asian women has to do with imperialism, it has to do with occupation, and also, you know, these long histories of exclusion and brutalization. And one of the things I've found in my research, just for my poetry, is that the first waves of immigrants, women immigrants from China, were sex slaves. They arrived in San Francisco, and as soon as they arrived, they were carted off into-- to a barracoon, where they were stripped naked, and inspected, and then they were sold to the highest bidder. Not something that I learned in school. Not something that, I think, is public knowledge. But it's deeply wrapped in-- you know, in this country's history, and its perceptions of Asian women.
Jo Reed: Your poems confront those perceptions. You draw on visual culture a lot in your poems. I’m curious about your own relationship with visual culture?
Sally Wen Mao: Actually, growing up, I loved drawing. I loved visual art. And I was always drawing, I was always painting, and I think it just kind of translated into my writing.
Jo Reed: Where did you grow up?
Sally Wen Mao: I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, but I was born in Wuhan, China, and my parents moved to the US when I was five. We lived in Boston for four years, and then, we moved to the Bay Area, when I was around nine years old. And yes, I remember those times. I really looked to drawing and writing as a solace for feeling-- you know, feeling different. Feeling alone. So, all of that, I think, is-- are things I want to think about in my work.
Jo Reed: And how did you land on poetry, rather than visual arts? How did you make that turn?
Sally Wen Mao: Well, it's kind of funny, because I think, in middle school-- this is probably a very typical story, but my mother told me that I couldn't be a visual artist, because artists don't make any money. And up until--
Jo Reed: Oh, and poets strike it rich all the time.
Sally Wen Mao: Yes. Well, you know, what's funny is because-- like up until middle school, I just kind of assumed that I would become a visual artist, and that was just what I was going to do. And then my mom was like, oh, yeah, artists don't make any money. And then, I switched to writing. I started writing poetry, I started writing fiction. And by the time I reached high school, you know, this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to write poetry and fiction, and I wanted to become a writer. And this time, you know, my mom would tell me, no, that doesn't make money, and this time, I wasn't going to listen to her. I was a teenager, so. So, yes, I just kind of stuck with that.
Jo Reed: You dedicated the book-- and it was very, very moving to me. You said that you wrote this book for women of color.
Sally Wen Mao: Yeah. And I guess, you know, I'm not making an attempt to speak for women of color, or even for Asian women, because, again, within Asian America, there are so many disparate histories. And like to me, I was really fascinated, in Chinese history-- the history of Chinese in America. But I do think of this book being for women of color in general, because of the multiple valences of this particular type of oppression, that might manifest in different ways. In very different, diverse ways, like across the spectrum. And, you know-- and I think that there's something powerful about acknowledging that, and acknowledging that we are a part of a larger struggle, you know, against this intersection of misogyny and racism. And other valences, too, like homophobia, like transphobia, like classism, and-- you know, and so many types of exploitation. Gosh. But, by coming together, I feel-- I really believe that something can be birthed.
Jo Reed: This book, Oculus, has been out for a year. Have you heard from Asian Americans, Asian American women about it? Have you gotten feedback?
Sally Wen Mao: Yes, I have. I've gotten a lot of feedback, and to really means everything to me, to hear from them. They are my audience, right? They're the people that I want this book to reach. And they're often the people who never come across some of these themes in their reading. So, yeah. I mean, I have heard from a lot of-- particularly-- like in particular young women, young Asian women. And again, to me, that is my audience. That is who I want to be in conversation with, that is who I want to affirm and validate.
Jo Reed: I'd like to end with the poem "Resurrection," the poem you end your book with. Do you want to say a couple of words about it, and then read?
Sally Wen Mao: So, this poem came out of this experience when I came to New York in 2014, I was working on the poems of "Oculus." And so, I was deeply thinking about Anna May Wong. And I noticed that there was a billboard that was being shown all around the city, that had her face on it. And it was an advertisement for like a new exhibition at the New York Historical Society. And it was about Chinese Americans, and the history of Chinese immigration. And the thing that I really noticed is how, even, you know, to the present-day, Anna May Wong has that burden representing this entire, huge, like diverse population of people. Even in 2014, like her face is standing in for millions of immigrants, right? And I think the thing that really got to me is that, like, her name was like kind of in this small text, much smaller than, you know, Chinese American. And so, it made me wonder if the people around me, on the subway, or like in the stations, like if they recognized her face. Because I recognized her face, it was so familiar to me, but it might not be familiar to other people. They might not know who she is. And they might see her face on the signs, and think, okay, Chinese. Chinese, right?
So, this poem is called "Resurrection
In the autumn I moved to New York,
I recognized her face all over the subway
stations—pearls around her throat, she poses
for her immigration papers. In 1924, the only
Americans required to carry identity cards
were ethnically Chinese—the first photo IDs,
red targets on the head of every man, woman,
child, infant, movie star. Like pallbearers,
they lined up to get their pictures taken: full-face
view, direct camera gaze, no smiles, ears showing,
in silver gelatin. A rogue’s gallery of Chinese
exclusion. The subway poster doesn’t name
her—though it does mention her ethnicity,
and the name of the New-York Historical
Society exhibition: Exclusion/Inclusion.
Soon, when I felt alone in this city, her face
would peer at me from behind seats, turnstiles,
heads, and headphones, and I swear she wore
a smile only I could see. Sometimes my face
aligned with hers, and we would rush past
the bewildered lives before us—hers, gone
the year my mother was born, and mine,
a belt of ghosts trailing after my scent.
In the same aboveground train, in the same
city where slain umbrellas travel across
the Hudson River, we live and live.
I’ve left my landline so ghosts can’t dial me
at midnight with the hunger of hunters
anymore. I’m so hungry I gnaw at light.
It tunnels from the shadows, an exhausting
hope. I know this hunger tormented her too.
It haunted her through her years in L.A., Paris,
and New York, the parties she went to, people
she met—Paul Robeson, Zora Neale Hurston,
Langston Hughes, Gertrude Stein. It haunts
her expression still, on the 6 train, Grand
Central station, an echo chamber behind
her eyes. But dear universe: if I can recognize
her face under this tunnel of endless shadows
against the luminance of all that is extinct
and oncoming, then I am not a stranger here.
Jo Reed: And I think that is a very good place to end it. Thank you so much, Sally, I really appreciate you giving me your time. And thank you for this book of wonderful poetry.
Sally Wen Mao: Thank you so much for having me, it was a pleasure.
Jo Reed: That was Sally Wen Mao—We were talking about her collection of poetry, Oculus. You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed, stay safe and thanks for listening.
NEA Big Read author Kao Kalia Yang
Yang’s book The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir is the deeply personal story of her family and the larger history of the Hmong people. On the podcast, Yang discussed her experience as refugee in Thailand and America, her relationship to her family, and her path as a writer. “The Latehomecomer is Kao Kalia Yang after forty years in America putting the Hmong experience on the bookshelves for a bigger world. But The Latehomecomer is also America. I feel like we are still coming home to each other,” she said on the podcast.
Music Excerpt: “Renewal,” composed and performed by Doug and Judy Smith
Kao Kalia Yang: My dad said, "If you dream in the right direction, the dream never dies. You never wake up. It always only grows bigger." So it was important for me to write the book to tell the world that a woman who never learned how to read or write had lived, and that she not only lived, she'd walked through history.
Jo Reed: That’s Kao Kalia Yang. She’s author of The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.
Kao Kalia Yang’s The Latehomecomer is the first published memoir by a Hmong-American writer. Hmongs are an ethnic Asian group with a rich culture and roots in China and Laos. The Hmong’s history is little known in the West, although it’s been deeply entwined with the United States for the past half-century. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. recruited some 30,000 Hmong people in Laos to fight against forces from North Vietnam and the Lao Communist insurgents. This became known as the Secret War. It was a disaster for the Hmongs: One third died in the war. And after the Americans left in 1975, another third were systematically slaughtered. Thousands of Hmong refugees fled to Thailand seeking political asylum where they remained in refugee camps for years. The lucky ones were allowed to emigrate to the West—among them, the Yang clan.
Kao Kalia Yang tells this story in The Latehomecomer which is a deeply personal memoir, the story of a family, and the larger story of the Hmong people. The Latehomercomer also gives great insight into the day-to-day uncertainties of refugees, both in the camps of Thailand and then in the United States. And as we’re reminded by June 20th‘s World Refugee Day or by tonight’s evening news, this is a story we continue to see played out with different peoples throughout the world. In telling her own story, Kao Kalia Yang found she speaks for many.
Kao Kalia Yang: That is correct. Every time I have a reading and there's a Hmong person in the audience, they inevitably get up and they say, "That's my story, too." And not just Hmong people. A lot of Somali students tell me the same thing and their elders tell me the same thing, and now, the new incoming current Karen refugees tell me the same thing-- that it is their story, too.
Jo Reed: Yes. And you begin the story before your birth, with the meeting of your father and mother. Where do they meet, and what were the circumstances?
Kao Kalia Yang: My mother and father met in the jungles of Laos in 1978. Both their families were fleeing from the genocide of the Hmong people. After the Americans left in 1975, May of 1975, Khaosan Pathet Lao, the leading paper in the country, announced an agenda to exterminate down to the root the Hmong minority for having helped the Americans in the war, and so my family and thousands of others fled into the jungles, and that's where my mom and dad met. She was 16 and he was 19 at the time.
Jo Reed: And they were married in the jungle?
Kao Kalia Yang: Yes. My mom said they went for a walk, with no end in sight, and that she left her mother behind, on the road to being with my father.
Jo Reed: They ended up in a refugee camp in Thailand, where you were born. How did they arrange that?
Kao Kalia Yang: So my mom and my aunts and my grandma were captured in the jungles of Laos, and they were held as enemies in a village. But my father and my uncles freed them, just a few days after my older sister Dawb was born, and they made a 10-day trek to the Mekong River, crossed the Mekong River to the other side where there were United Nations camps set up for refugees that had been crossing the river, and my family was sent to Ban Vinai Refugee Camp, where I would be born.
Jo Reed: What do you remember about the refugee camp?
Kao Kalia Yang: I remember so much. All I have to do is close my eyes and it all comes back to me, and I know refugee camps the world over aren't meant to stand to the test of time. It doesn't exist anymore. You know, in 2001, I went back to Thailand and I saw that the trees are much taller than I was, and that the river of my youth was nothing but a dried up sewage canal. But all I have to do is close my eyes, and I see the dry, dry grass surrounding the camp. I see all of the houses and all of the little children playing in the dirt, hungry dogs, you know, licking at the base of trees hoping that children would pee or poop. I see young men and women laughing with their hands over their mouths because the dust flew so high. I see my mom and my dad, young like they were then, waiting in the dust for some future to begin. And I see myself on top of my father's shoulders, you know, in the hold of my mom's skirt, her sarong. I used to swing in her open sarongs. So I remember these things.
Jo Reed: And even though day-to-day survival was an issue, your mother, your father, your grandmother, all tried to have you and your sister see the possibilities the world had to offer and what you had to offer the world. And you talk about you being on your father's shoulders. You actually-- you write about him climbing to the top of a tree with you on his shoulders.
Kao Kalia Yang: Yes. The camp was 400 acres wide, less than a square mile in radius. There was like 40,000 Hmong people there at the time. You know, we ran out of room, and so my dad used to take me to the tops of the trees, hold me up to see a bigger world. He said that one day my hand and my feet will walk on the horizons he's never seen. My grandma always told me stories of all of the things beyond the camp. She told me all these stories about the tiger, and of course, there was no way a tiger could enter into the camp where we lived. And I had no idea what a tiger looked like because I didn't own any books or anything. And it wouldn't be until we came to St. Paul, Minnesota and I went to the Como Zoo that I saw my first tiger.
Jo Reed: Even though tiger lore was so much a part of your childhood.
Kao Kalia Yang: Oh, so much a part of my childhood and my consciousness.
Jo Reed: Did your family ever talk about home? What was your sense of home while you were there in the camp?
Kao Kalia Yang: I used to ask all the adults in my life where home was. ‘Cause they kept on telling me that Ban Vinai Refugee Camp wasn't my home, and for my grandma and my dad and my mom, my aunts and my uncles, home was some story in Laos. Home was some future imagined in America. And the only thing they could ever tell me about the home in America was that maybe one day I would become an educated person. Course I didn't know what that was.
Jo Reed: And you were six when you came to America?
Kao Kalia Yang: Six and a half, yes.
Jo Reed: Six and a half...
Kao Kalia Yang: Almost to the date, yep.
Jo Reed: What was your sense of America like, of Minnesota? Because that's where you went, St. Paul.
Kao Kalia Yang: Yep. July 27, 1987 my family came to America. We had these government issued clothing, and so they were preparing us for winter. We were wearing sweatshirts and long pants and just preparing for this cold place, and we got here and it was super warm. I remember the first night, you know, walking out to my cousin's car and there wasn't enough space. So they told me I could sit in front in my cousin-in-law's lap, and I sat in her lap without my seatbelt on. The window was open because it was super hot in the car, and I thought, I could take the wind inside of me, just keep on swallowing wind, and follow the lights on the highway, and it would be enough that that would be all of life in America. Because it was beautiful coming from the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport to the McDonough Housing Project, because we passed through downtown St. Paul and the lights on the highway made the river gleam. That first night was magical. I remember being on the second floor and thinking I was floating on air, sleeping on air, and nobody knew it. I was in the sky again.
Jo Reed: Because that was your first experience in a multi-storied building?
Kao Kalia Yang: Yes.
Jo Reed: Were you given any preparation, you or your family, in the refugee camp, for coming to America?
Kao Kalia Yang: So after Ban Vinai Refugee Camp, we were sent to a transitional camp, Phanat Nikhom, six months to prepare for life in America. My mom and my dad took classes in like, how to put on your seatbelt. They had ropes and they'd pretend seat belted. My mom came home one day, I remember, with sandwiches, you know, with mayo, bread, mayo, chicken, and green onion and cilantro, so American foods. They learned how to say, "Hello, how are you?" "I am fine, thank you." My sister and I were sent to school, to pretend school, but I kept on falling asleep. So I got kicked out of the pretend school, and I went to the daycare with the kids, where I could nap during the day. Dawb learned that every color was yellow, and she learned that if you put an "S" behind your every word that you didn't have an accent in English.
Jo Reed: What about learning English? When you came to the United States and St. Paul, were you sent to a special school? Was it a special classroom? How did that work?
Kao Kalia Yang: We were sent to North End Elementary School which had a TESOL program, a special program for English as a Second Language Learners, I suppose, and we were in a classroom with kids our sizes and far older. I was in the TESOL classroom until my third year, until I was a third grader. But after that first year, Dawb left because she won the North End Elementary School Spelling Bee. So she was taken to regular classes.
Jo Reed: You write in your memoir that speaking English in the classroom was very difficult for you. You felt very shy about your English, and you made it a point to use the bare minimum of words.
Kao Kalia Yang: Definitely. Even now, even today, in English, I feel breathless in the language. Hmong is a tonal language. So every breath I carry into the world carries meaning. In English, I feel like I have rocks in my throat and I have to sculpt them into shape for a bigger world. <speaking Hmong> But in English, I never sound as beautiful. But I have this very clear memory of going to K-Mart with my mom, and my mom trying to ask for lightbulbs. Except, she didn't know the word, so she pointed to the ceiling and said, "I'm looking for the thing that makes the world shiny." And the clerk listened, but I could feel her impatience because she was tapping her feet on the ground. And when my mom stumbled to the end of her sentence, the clerk walked away, and we waited for her to come back, but she didn't. And I remember looking at my mom, who I thought was the most beautiful woman, she looked at her feet, and I decided that if the world that we lived in did not need to hear my mom and my dad, then surely it didn't need to hear me. So I became a selective mute the next day, and at first, it was a great rebellion. At first, it was me making a decision not to speak. But then, the rebellion got the better of me. It got to a point where my voice in English was so rusty that every time I tried to speak, other kids would look and sometimes laugh, and so the words, they died in my throat before they ever found their way into the world. I got through my public school experience. I graduated from high school with my thumbs up in the air.
Jo Reed: You know, you write that it was so hard for you to see your parents stumble in English, and even though you were uncomfortable in it, you would translate for them if your sister wasn't there?
Kao Kalia Yang: Yeah. When they were there, I stumbled my way through because I wanted to protect them. I knew that they were doing so much for us already and I didn't want them to be in the moment of that indignity that was our initial K-Mart experience with English. And so when my mom and dad needed me to, I tried, I've always tried, to step up to the plate. Because I think, even as a kid, I realized that no matter how weak I thought my voice was, how faulty I felt I was, I knew that I was their best chance going forward. That's what my dad said. He said I was their best chance going forward. So I've always tried for them. Sometimes I've succeeded and sometimes I've failed. But I can honestly say I've never not tried.
Jo Reed: You come from a culture in which family is all-important, to a place that values the individual above everything else.
Kao Kalia Yang: Yes.
Jo Reed: And I'm curious about some of the challenges that that must have presented to you, and yet at the same time, how where you come from gives your life really a more profound meaning, in some ways.
Kao Kalia Yang: I have a very clear memory of being in the third grade. There was a very handsome young man in class, called Mark, and Mark would sometimes open the door for me. One day, Mark asked me how many people was in my family, and I counted all my aunts and my uncles and my grandma, and so I had, like, a hundred something. And I asked him how many people were in his family, and Mark said, "Four." And I said, "I feel so bad for you." You know, and he looked at me and he said, "I feel so bad for you." And I said, "Why?" And he goes, "Think about all of the funerals you have to go to." <laughs> You know, I've always seen my family in this bigger context. I play on a big team. At family gatherings, I know what it is like when lots of hands come together to make a meal, and these things are very special to me. I'm married now and I married a white guy, and so he comes from a family of four, his mom, his dad, his sister, himself. I find it's very lonely. So the life that Aaron and I've built together has been really a mix, you know. There is him and me and our three kids, and then my siblings come in and out of our house. You know, my brother lives with us Monday to Friday, and then the girls, now that they're home from school, they're all home here so they can work, so that they can take care of each other, and take care of our kids and take care of us. I cannot envision of a different way to live, a different way to be. But I'll be very honest. I'm one of the older ones, so there are some responsibilities, right? No matter how much I earn, because my mom and dad both no longer work, I take care of all the younger ones and I take care of them to the best of my abilities. Sometimes I feel the responsibility grow heavy, and I worry and I worry and I worry. But the truth is, the standard I have for myself is high. You know, I can't fail because I can't fail them. The stakes are always high. So every opportunity I get, I have to kill it. I have to do a good job. Every door that opens, I have to make sure that it's open for the next one. I think it's made me a better person. I think my heart, there's so much in it that it's open wide, and at the same time, I'm tremendously cared for in the process. I am tremendously loved. You know, my dad says, "We are poor in money, but we're not poor in love. We're not poor in heart." And I think that is true.
Jo Reed: When you moved to St. Paul, you discovered the public library.
Kao Kalia Yang: Yes.
Jo Reed: Tell me what you discovered.
Kao Kalia Yang: The bookmobile was my first introduction to the library. In the housing project, there'd be a bookmobile that would come every week, and so because we didn't own a VCR, my older sister used to hold my hand and we'd go to the library and we'd check out books and then, she would create elaborate stories for me with the books. Made up stories that would make me cry and weep. I called her the human VCR. That was my first introduction to the library. But I remember coming home with my library card, the purple St. Paul Public Library card, and showing my grandma, and she said, "What is it?" And I tried to explain to her that it was, you know, this card that gave me access to all of these stories in the world, and she said, "Are there stories like mine in it?" And I told her I didn't know, and then I realized there weren't, you know. There weren't stories like my grandma. But I fell in love with the library. It is still one of my favorite places on earth.
Jo Reed: You're a reader and you're a listener of stories, and if you don't mind, help me to think about the differences between those worlds of reading and someone telling you a story, how we apprehend that differently.
Kao Kalia Yang: My Uncle Chu is a wonderful storyteller, and every time he tells me a story, he would stretch out his arm, and every freckle is a lake. Every piece of hair standing up is a person, you know. His knuckles, the rise and fall are the mountain ranges. The rivers are the veins flowing through. That's my first introduction to illustrated, I think, picture book. It was his arms, and it's still his arms that I see when I hear the stories around me. I remember the way my older sister Dawb would use the books. She would open them up and then, somehow, you know, in the pages of Cinderella, she created the great Chinese dramas from her memories of the movie houses in Thailand. You know, so there would be princesses flying on the tops of the trees, you know, magic, magical arcs of water dancing over the sky, which is to say, my first understanding of stories is that they can come together across cultures and exist in the imagination of a child, of a person. All you had to do was be able to see and be willing to go with it. When I started reading, I was reading books like Laura Ingalls, you know, The Little House on the Prairie.
Jo Reed: I love those books.
Kao Kalia Yang: I did too, as a little girl, and I loved them because of the way they depicted life. It was a real depiction of life and people in it, and it was so familiar to me and my own experience of life and the people in my life. But I also have this memory of going to the librarian--and the librarian is still alive, so she remembers it much more clearly than I--asking her in a whisper for books about people like me. She gave me a book about the Chinese, the Japanese, the Vietnamese. But she couldn't give me a book about Hmong kids, and I whispered under my breath, I said, "One day, a little girl is going to come in here and she's going to find a book, about the people who love her, on the shelves." The librarian and my sister both remember, very clearly, that remark. Of course, I didn't think that I would be an author one day, a writer.
Jo Reed: Kao Kalia, what did you want your book, The Latehomecomer to do? What did you want to invoke in or impart to your readers?
Kao Kalia Yang: When I first started writing The Latehomecomer, it began as a love letter to my grandma. My grandma, who was already an old woman, but she promised me that she would never die. We were a few months from my graduation from college. She'd always told me that education was a garden I cultivated in America, and that one day we would reap the harvest together. I started dreaming about my grandma and I being together at my graduation. But my grandma fell, and when I went to her and told her to get up, she told me that she wasn't gonna get up again, and I started crying, and she told me I was selfish-- she told me I was selfish for crying. She told me that there were people who loved her before me, that before me she had a mom and a dad and brothers and sisters and my grandpa. And that when she left me, it would be to return to the people who loved her before me, that to them she would always only be the latehomecomer. You know, she said there was no Hmong land in the map of a bigger world. But she would climb the Hmong mountain in her heart, open the house of her youth, and dinner would be ready and everybody will be there and they'll say, "Where have you been? Why are you crying so long?" I couldn't cry for my grandma to stay. So I started writing, and it was just a long love letter to her. And so this long love letter is what I kept on working on, and my dad said, "What are you doing?" one day, and I said, "I'm writing a long love letter to my grandma." And he said, "If you dream in the right direction, the dream never dies. You never wake up. It always only grows bigger." So it was important for me to write the book to tell the world that a woman who never learned how to read or write had lived, and that she not only lived, she'd walked through history and left all of us behind to miss her. So that was my intention, very personal, very private.
Jo Reed: How did you discover your own writing? That this was something that-- that you had a great talent for doing?
Kao Kalia Yang: In second grade, I wrote a short story about a watermelon seed that would be eaten by a little girl, and afterward, my teacher wrote a comment on it. Because I didn't talk, she said, "Kao's not so bad. She's getting somewhere with the language. She's not so bad, at all, on the page. The problem is she won't speak it." Although I didn't speak, my words had to go somewhere, so they found their way onto the pages before me, and my teachers, first, second, third grade and so on, so forth, they would read it, and every time I made a mistake, they would squiggly line it and put a question mark. And for me, that question mark always, you know, "What do you mean to say?" So you send a little girl chasing after meaning, you create a writer in the process. I think writing has always been my bread and my butter in the classroom. I thought I was good at math and I thought I was good at science because those are the things that my education focused on. But it was always in writing that I could rest, and I've had fortunate beautiful teachers who saw that in me. Mrs. Callatan, ninth grade, who told me I would do well in college because all college came down to in the end was the ability to read and write. I remember Monica Torres, at Carleton College, telling me to keep on writing because-- because the things I was writing, she had never read before.
Jo Reed: Did you think you'd pursue a career in writing, when you were at Carleton?
Kao Kalia Yang: Oh, no. I was on the pre-med track. Like lots of refugee and immigrant children, my mom and dad told us we needed doctors and lawyers; that lawyers can protect the rights that we've never had enough of, that doctors could heal what is so broken in the bodies around us. So Dawb said, my sister who won the spelling bee, said that she would become a lawyer, and it fell upon me, I thought, to become a doctor. So I went to Carleton to become a doctor. It wasn't until my grandma died and I started writing, and I started dreaming big, that I—that the idea of becoming a writer solidified in my head. I remember sitting opposite my mom and dad at our dining table, our little dining table, and telling them I wasn't going to become a doctor, that I was going to become a writer. And my mom looked at me and she said, "It's not a surprise. You've always loved stories." But my dad, he was quiet for a while, and then he said, "If the sky that I live under can fall on me, if the earth that I walk on can throw me off, who am I to stand in your way?" So that's when the gate opened, you know. But I believe in big magic and I believe in my grandma's magic. I would not be here today speaking with you if my grandma hadn't opened up that journey for me. On the day that we buried my grandma, I got two phone calls, when I went back to school. One of them was from Columbia University offering me a place in their program, and giving me their biggest fellowship in writing, that they could pay for half of my tuition. The other was for the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans. And they said that they would pay for half of my tuition no matter where I went, and give me a twenty thousand dollar living stipend a year. These things I believe are testament to my grandma’s love that when she went on her journey she unleashed mine.
Jo Reed: Your latest book, The Song Poet, is a memoir about your father.
Kao Kalia Yang: It is. The Song Poet is definitely a memoir about my father and his form, kwv txhiaj, song poetry.
Jo Reed: And can you explain what that is?
Kao Kalia Yang: My father sings. It’s like rap, it rhymes, it’s like jazz, there’s a lot of improvisation, it’s like the blues. It’s from a hard life. In kwv txhiaj your voice is your only instrument so there is no instrumentation, and you sing the songs of your heart to a bigger world. My father has always sang his songs for me. It wasn’t until my grandma died that he stopped singing. He sang it for our community. In 1992 he came up with an album that was a best seller in the Hmong community so he made five thousand dollars. The goal was always that he would use that five thousand to create a second album, but it never happened because it translated to clothing on our back, rice in our bowls. So then when my grandma died my dad stopped singing and he said that he stored the songs in his heart; his heart was broken and the songs had leaked out. I went back to that cassette album, and I kept on listening to it. And then I was interviewed by a local television station and they asked my dad, “How does it feel to give birth to a writer when you’re one yourself?” And my dad looked at his hands and he said, “I can barely write my own name. My daughter writes in English the stories I yearn to read.” Then the idea was born. I would write a book about him. And I asked my dad; I said to him-- on a beautiful summer’s day, actually, I said, “Dad, how does a song poet become?” And he told me that when he was a little kid-- my grandpa died when my dad was just two years old. My grandma had nine kids to feed. There weren’t many people to say beautiful things to him. He used to go from the house of one neighbor to the next collecting the beautiful things that people had to say to each other. One day the words escaped on a sigh and a song was born. That was the answer that he gave me. But he said that nobody wanted to read a book about men like him, why would anybody want to read a book about a poor machinist, a Hmong refugee in the factories of Minnesota. And I know that the world is made up of men like my father. And it’s men like my father who give birth to daughters like me. So I started writing it. And this year it’s out. It’s two months old; it’s a newborn.
Jo Reed: A newborn book. Congratulations.
Kao Kalia Yang: Thank you so much.
Jo Reed: We touched on this earlier, that as specific as your book is, given the current refugee crisis it has such a particular resonance now, and one hopes, gets people to think about refugees in a more humane way.
Kao Kalia Yang: I hope so. We live in a world that-- that’s so keen at creating more and more refugees all the time. So I think that the book is invaluable in an understanding of the American situation and the American circumstance. And I also know that while a lot of people introduce me as Kao Kalia Yang, Hmong writer, outside of Minnesota’s borders people like to say that I’m a Minnesotan author, that I come from the most literary state in the nation. Outside of America’s borders they tell me that I’m an American writer and that I’m contributing to world literature. The ways we see ourselves as a people, as a person changes, and then I think we only change when we get feedback, when we can see ourselves more clearly. So my hope with this book, it’s always been that it would give the American people feedback. The best titles I understand are the ones that hold the biggest possibilities for meaning. Yes, The Latehomecomer is my grandma opening that door to the house of her youth and everybody being there, saying, where’ve you been, why have you-- why have you waited so long. The Latehomecomer is Kao Kalia Yang after forty years in America putting the Hmong experience on the bookshelves for a bigger world. But The Latehomecomer is also America. I feel like we are still coming home to each other. My dad’s always said that the size of my hand and my feet would not dictate my life journey, that I’m not a child of war, poverty, and despair, but that I was hope being born. I want his words to be true so badly.
Jo Reed: Kalia, thank you so much. Thank you for giving me your time and thank you for writing this very important book about your family and about a people.
Kao Kalia Yang: Thank you so much, Josephine for the—for the wisdom of your questions and granting me opportunity and space to think about these things that matter so much to me. Thank you.
Jo Reed: That’s Kao Kalia Yang. We were talking about her book The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir. You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.
I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Author and 2020 NEA Literature Fellow Vanessa Hua
On the podcast, Hua discussed both A River of Stars and her short story collection Deceit and Other Possibilities, whose theme she said is “model minorities behaving badly.” She also talked about her experience as a second-generation Chinese American and her background as a journalist. “There will be a limit to what can be reported out, and so fiction has allowed me to kind of go into the spaces and places in people's minds and hearts that I couldn't necessarily do with journalism,” she said.
Music Credit: “NY” written and performed by Kosta, from the album Soul Sand. Used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.
Vanessa Hua: "A River of Stars" is about Scarlett and her journey, but I also was really interested in portraying all the different aspects of the Chinese American diaspora. Whether it's in Chinatown or in, say, Cupertino, there is no one Chinese American experience. I think sometimes communities are viewed as monoliths with the same history, the same language or culture coming in, and although there are shared aspects, I think my novel reflects those differences.
Jo Reed: That is novelist, short story writer and 2020 NEA Literature Fellow Vanessa Hua, and this is "Art Works," the weekly podcast produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed. Vanessa Hua is an award-winning writer whose novel, "A River of Stars," was named by the Washington Post and NPR as one of 2018's best books. Her short story collection, "Deceit and Other Possibilities," received an Asian Pacific American Award in literature, was a finalist for the California Book Award and has just been reissued as a paperback. She has received a number of other awards, including a 2020 NEA Literature Fellowship, and it's little wonder. Her stories center on living on both sides of the hyphenate and asks "What's Chinese? What's American?" and she allows for a multiplicity of answers to both questions. And because of that complexity the characters she creates, whether in her novel or short stories, are alive with the contradiction of humanity as they struggle with what immigration has wrought, the repercussions felt down through the generations. She writes as well as anyone I've read about working women and the way people come together to create made families in a strange and sometimes hostile land. It's not a surprise that she began her writing career as a journalist and was a long-time columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. She understands the streets and the struggles of everyday people, and she knows how to give them voice. I spoke to Vanessa Hua earlier this week. Here's our conversation. Well, Vanessa Hua, thank you for joining us.
Vanessa Hua: Thanks for having me on.
Jo Reed: You're welcome. You began your writing career as a journalist, and I'm curious what drew you to journalism.
Vanessa Hua: This sounds cliché, but I remember seeing "All the President's Men" for a history class in middle school, and I remember being really inspired, and then when I was in college I had an opportunity to work on the school paper to write a column for the paper, which had always been somewhat of a lifelong dream, and just the fact that I could enter people's lives, just go up to them and start asking questions or wonder-- anytime I had a question of like "Why is that?" I could go find the answer for it, and I think curiosity really drives my fiction and my journalism.
Jo Reed: And what was your beat? Did you have one?
Vanessa Hua: Everything from writing about technology during the first boom in the Bay Area-- I think I was even able to convince my editors at the time to send me to Burning Man because...
Jo Reed: Whoa.
Vanessa Hua: ...yeah, because of the huge nexus between the tech world and the desert art festival. I also covered minority business affairs, Asian American affairs, and I had an opportunity to report from abroad as well. I did reporting trips to China, South Korea, Burma, Ecuador.
Jo Reed: Well, why the move into fiction? What did you want to say that you couldn't via journalism?
Vanessa Hua: Well, actually I think I always thought of myself as a fiction writer. Long before I was a journalist I was writing short stories, even when I was a kid, and, well, I think that was tied into the fact I was a big writer, and why was I a big reader? I'm the American-born daughter of Chinese immigrants, and from early on I realized the world inside my home was very different than the world outside of it in terms of culture, food, ways of living. Our grandmother lived with us to help raise us, but I remember she cured meat that hung in the garage rafters, which wasn't happening in my neighbors' houses down the street in the suburbs. I knew there were questions that I had that my parents couldn't or wouldn't be able to answer, and so I sought that answer through books, and then by that same token that drove me to start writing fiction about trying to understand where the official documentation or the official record ended, and for me that's where fiction can really flourish. There will be a limit to what can be reported out, and so fiction has allowed me to kind of go into the spaces and places in people's minds and hearts that I couldn't necessarily do with journalism.
Jo Reed: Well, your fiction-- I mean, this is really reductive, but it does center on family, it centers on duty, and it does center on navigating dual cultures and identity that manages to be both fluid and unchanging at the same time.
Vanessa Hua: Yeah, I mean, I think if someone were to read the body of my work, whether it's fiction or non-fiction, they would see that I have the same interests and preoccupations and that I figure out ways to explore, and sometimes, say, a topic might show up in different ways in different forms over the years. For example, "A River of Stars," which I've called a pregnant Chinese "Thelma and Louise," about two...
Jo Reed: <laughs> That is too... <laughs>
Vanessa Hua: ...yeah, about two very pregnant Chinese women on the lam from one of these maternity centers. There's a practice of sort of sheltering-in the first month after giving birth with special foods. As a journalist I did a science story about the science behind that, but then I was able to incorporate some of that research into my novel. Certainly you don't ever want your novel to sound like you dropped in a encyclopedia entry or a newspaper article. I think for me sometimes people ask like "How are you a journalist, and how are you a fiction writer, and how are you raising kids?" And I think it's not siloed-off. What I might do in one arena seeps its way or makes its way into other forms. Sometimes it's deliberate, sometimes it's not.
Jo Reed: Well, let's talk about your novel, "River of Stars," which, as you say, is like a Chinese pregnant "Thelma and Louise." What inspired it?
Vanessa Hua: So I was pregnant myself with twins living in Southern California, and I began hearing about these maternity centers in the suburbs east of downtown LA. The neighbors were baffled. Every week pregnant Chinese women were showing up and going on evening walk. The garbage cans were piled high with diapers, the whole street smelled like stir fry, and it turned out that the women were coming a month or two before giving birth so that when they delivered their children would get US citizenship. And what fascinated me being pregnant myself was that I knew being pregnant is one of the most vulnerable times in a woman's life, and what was it like to be so far from home, and what did US citizenship mean for their children? What did that mean to them that they'd be willing to put themselves through that? And I was also struck by a news account I read where a neighbor said one of these women showed up on his doorstep, and she said "I'm hungry," so he took her to McDonald's, and afterwards rather than take her to the airport or help her call her family she said "Can you take me back?" So, again, they were willing to go back to what must have seemed like a prison of their own making, and the other aspect of it was when you're pregnant like I was with twins you're hugely pregnant, so people treat you with some consideration, like "Come to the head of the line," but I wondered what would happen if you got together like a dozen pregnant women. Who would get to be the queen bee? And so that in itself also seemed like a situation ripe for drama but also comedy, so it was in that ambivalence of that woman who ended up going to McDonald's and in just the group dynamics that really inspired me.
Jo Reed: Okay, why don't you give us a thumbnail sketch of the plot of the book.
Vanessa Hua: Oh sure. In my novel the two characters, Scarlett Chen, who is sent to the US by her married lover to give birth to what he thinks will be his heir, but she's deeply unhappy-- she steals the van, finds out she has a stowaway, a pregnant teen, Daisy, who also doesn't fit into the maternity center, and they make their way to San Francisco's Chinatown and make their way into motherhood and into life in this country.
Jo Reed: That is a good thumbnail.
Vanessa Hua: <laughs>
Jo Reed: I mean, that book, it's about immigration and it's about love between friends but between mothers and children, and it's also about legacy. I really would like you to tell me about the character of Scarlett. How would you describe her?
Vanessa Hua: Scarlett Chen is from a peasant background. She grew up in the villages, and this is influenced by the reporting I did back in '04 in China. I had an opportunity to go to villages and factories in the Pearl River Delta, which is west of Hong Kong. This was happening all over China, that teenagers were leaving home and going to work in factories. The work was incredibly hard but also a measure of freedom that was unimaginable to their parents, and so she's scrappy, she's kind of had to take care of herself from a very early age, and she has a complicated relationship with her mother, who is a family planning official in the village, and so when she's 36 she unexpectedly falls in love with the factory owner, and when she gets pregnant he ships her off to the US to one of these maternity centers. And I think as part of a protective measure she's really built-up walls in her life against other people, but then, I mean, something I learned as a mother-- your defenses start to crumble. Maybe it's the sleep deprivation or just the realization it's very difficult to go it alone, and so she and Daisy, they're found family, right, but another form of found family are their neighbors in their Chinatown apartment building, Old Wu, their neighbor, other neighbors who they initially quarrel with, but gradually it becomes their home.
Jo Reed: That apartment building and the interaction of all the residents I thought was so finely drawn, and I loved reading about them.
Vanessa Hua: That was also inspired by my reporting as a journalist. A lot of these residences in Chinatown are known as single-residency occupancy buildings, SROs. That's what they were initially intended for, for sort of bachelor workers, but over time now whole families have moved in, and there's a communal kitchen, a communal bathroom. When I've walked through as a reporter to interview people you'll see that the door is open. You peek in. Kids are doing homework, other people are watching TV, and so in one sense there is a small-town feel, but on the other hand the living environment is tough. I remember interviewing a woman who said "To be honest, my apartment in China was nicer. <laughs> It was bigger, it was nicer, it was newer, but I came to this country for the opportunity." So "A River of Stars" is about Scarlett and her journey, but I also was really interested in portraying all the different aspects of the Chinese American diaspora, whether it's in Chinatown or in, say, Cupertino or in those suburbs east of LA I was mentioning, Monterey Park. There is no one Chinese American experience. I think sometimes communities are viewed as monoliths with the same history, the same language or culture coming in, and although there are shared aspects, I think my novel reflects those differences.
Jo Reed: Scarlett is so fierce and so resourceful. I actually could picture the way she walked.
Vanessa Hua: <laughs> She cuts through the crowd.
Jo Reed: Completely cuts through the crowd, and I thought one of the strongest parts in the book for me was Daisy and Scarlett and that hardly perfect, often contentious but very real friendship and their struggle to survive in Chinatown and the strategies they use-- well, mostly Scarlett uses to get by and that family that they create, again very imperfect but palpable.
Vanessa Hua: Oh, thank you, yeah. I mean, I think family is what you make of it, and you have what you have, and so Scarlett and Daisy both give birth within a few weeks of each other, and I've often said that getting through that infancy together with someone is like surviving a natural disaster. <laughs> You will be bonded for life or forever shaped and changed by it if you don't end up parting ways, but they've seen each other at their worst and at their most exhausted, and having each other's back is how they manage to survive in this county.
Jo Reed: Motherhood and the way you really show the extraordinary challenges for women who have to work and the limitations that it places on them, but, as Scarlett says, it also opened the world for her. It's almost as though she was seeing the world through her daughter's eyes.
Vanessa Hua: Yeah, and not that the novel is autobiographical, but that thinking, it is completely drawn from my own experience of seeing the world anew with my twin sons. They're now eight, but there's something special in being with someone the first time they're experiencing something. I remember the first time it was raining, and they gazed up like "What is coming out of the sky? How is this even possible?" For me as a writer, even though having children means I'm busier than ever, especially now with the pandemic and having to home-school, but at the same time even though I have less time than ever to write I feel like I have more I want to write about, that whole new parts of the world have opened up to me.
Jo Reed: And Scarlett is also constantly worrying about not being there for her daughter because she's basically the one who's out making money, and that is something that certainly many, many women can identify with, but for somebody who is literally physically working most of the time and then having immigration worries on top of it it just cut even more deeply.
Vanessa Hua: I think no matter your socioeconomic status that is that eternal worry, like "I'm providing food and shelter for my child, but is it enough?" And even her own mother, with whom she has a complicated relationship-- even her own mother could strap her onto her back working the fields, and she wishes she could just do that, and there is that ache you have for your child, especially when they're small. I think they even call the first three months after giving birth "the fourth trimester," which is why they just want to be attached to you all the time, but, I mean, it's the very real sacrifices that a lot of working-class immigrant women face, that they're back to work maybe after a couple weeks and just having to face those hard choices, and maybe the fact of motherhood is just feeling guilty <laughs> no matter what you're doing.
Jo Reed: All the time.
Vanessa Hua: All the time, yeah.
Jo Reed: Two other characters are Boss Yeung and Mama Fang, and Boss Yeung is the father of Scarlett's child, and Mama Fang ran Perfume Bay, the house for Chinese women who wanted to give birth in the US. And what I found interesting about both of them was the way they evolved during the course of the book, and the way I felt about them when I started the book actually was quite different than the way I thought about them at the end of the book.
Vanessa Hua: Yes, thank you. Both those characters I think initially come off as villains...
Jo Reed: They easily could've been one-dimensional, and they were not.
Vanessa Hua: Yeah, yeah, and I think for me I was really interested in that idea of "Are people capable of change, and do we actually understand people until we understand what shaped them and what they're secretly going through or what their secret history is?" Then we just begin to interpret what they're doing in different ways. We still might not agree with what they've done or attempted to do, but at least we see the fullness of their humanity, and that was something important to me I think even with characters who are more minor, let's say, to the narrative. I still wanted everyone-- whether they were drawn in a few brushstrokes or whether they had a chapter or two devoted to their point of view, I just wanted that ability to get deeper into who they were and how they acted as they did, and the inspiration for both-- I can talk a bit about that. Mama Fang-- there's a tradition in Chinese literature of a matchmaker character, usually an older woman who knows everyone's business in town, who has a finger in every pot, who's cutting a deal, and I really thought of also sort of these modern female entrepreneurs in China. I remember reading about this cardboard queen who realized that all the cardboard used to ship our products still had several more uses, seeing opportunity where other people see garbage. That was really interesting to me, whether it was Scarlett or Mama Fang. And Boss Yeung-- I've been interested in the self-made billionaires and their murky histories, and I remember reading in a non-fiction book about a billionaire who had 12 acknowledged children, and that line made me laugh, because I thought "Well, how many unacknowledged children has he had?" <laughs> So just that world and Boss Yeung-- he is a factory owner-- factory owners from Hong Kong or Taiwan who went onto the mainland and found opportunity there but lived separately from their families for months, sometimes years, and just kind of trying to understand that dynamic, so that's where both of those characters grew from.
Jo Reed: Well, Scarlett's immigration status and her fear of losing her daughter because of it is a major plot point, and while it's certainly relevant now, it also has a particular resonance for Chinese Americans.
Vanessa Hua: Yes. I mean, there's such a long history of the US's ambivalent feelings toward the Chinese in this country, and it's alluded to in fact in the character of Old Wu, his family history. The Chinese Exclusion Act, which went from 1882 and wasn't repealed until the middle of World War II in the 1940s, basically barred most Chinese immigration to this country because they were seen as dirty, contaminated, stealing jobs. All of these things are the kind of terms that are bandied about in the contemporary discussion of US-China relations. The same things keep coming back around, so I think in terms of immigration or thinking about being caught between two countries what is the fallout on immigrants here or even the American-born children of immigrants? How are they perceived? Are they always going to be perceived as foreigners or not to be trusted or not fully American?
Jo Reed: When did you know this novel was going to be a novel and not a short story?
Vanessa Hua: That is an interesting question, because this began as a short story, and the draft that I showed my writing group-- I sent it to them about nine months after giving birth, so it took me sort of nine months to grow a baby and then sort of nine months to start getting my thoughts back together. I was writing in the interim but sort of line-by-line slowly or working on different things, so it took nine months to sort of birth a full-fledged draft of a short story. And so I worked on revisions, and then it ended up getting published as a short story in Zyzzyva magazine, which is based in San Francisco. It's a wonderful magazine. They really support their writers in so many ways, but not every one of my short stories becomes novels, but there was something about this short story that I kept wondering "What happens next?" because the short story had ended with Scarlett fleeing the hospital in the van, which is basically the first chapter or so of the novel, but then I just felt tugged back, but it was one of those scared feelings of like "What am I doing? Is this a novel?" And actually in a parallel universe there is a version of the novel in which there's many more points of view, rotating narrators. In the final version it's mostly Scarlett. Sometimes we'll get points of view from Mama Fang and Boss Yeung, so that was like another year of sort of streamlining the points of view, and in fact some of the chapters which were standalone ended up in my short story collection, in "Deceit and Other Possibilities," but yet some other material ended up nowhere except on my hard drive. <laughs>
Jo Reed: Well, I found it interesting in a couple of your short stories in "Deceits and Other Possibilities" we find a young Chinese American who makes a name for himself in the pop world of Hong Kong, unknown in the United States but a very big deal there, and we see kind of an echo of this in "A River of Stars." What's the attraction for you here?
Vanessa Hua: Well, in fact, you found the Easter egg. That was originally in that first version of "A River of Stars," but I can definitely talk about my attraction to it. So I've long been fascinated by this concept of Asian Americans or Asian Canadians who for one reason or another haven't had the opportunities in the past in Hollywood. They didn't have the right look, or they were only cast in certain roles as like martial arts instructors or delivery man number three, but yet they go back to their ancestral homelands, the places that their parents left, to go find opportunity abroad, and they are welcomed and lauded in the music industry and in movies, and I had heard about this. My husband's fraternity brother from college, Allan Wu, he became this big star in Singapore, became the host of "The Fear Factor" in Singapore, so I ended up writing some news features about this phenomena, and then it sort of ended up in my novel as well, because I think a lot of times immigration is positioned as like you leave and you never look back, and you're in this new country, but this idea of sort of circular migration or the ways that you continue to go back and forth I think is actually more reflective of what the situation is and that it's more complicated to be sure than sort of a neat narrative of like a one-way exit, but it's also just endlessly fascinating.
Jo Reed: Your book of short stories, "Deceits and Other Possibilities," was recently released as a paperback, and you added three more stories to it, and I'm curious what was it like revisiting the collection and how the stories got added. Did you write new stories? Were there ones that you wanted to be in the collection originally? How did that come together?
Vanessa Hua: So it was originally published in 2016 with 10 stories that I'd written over 10 years that all sort of reflected my interests in immigrants and the children of immigrants, or when people have asked "What's it about?" I say "Model minorities behaving badly." <laughs> So when the rights became available again my agent was able to send it out, and Counterpoint Press, which is this wonderful press based in Berkeley, California, was interested, and we'd also included that collection but also some stories that had been previously uncollected, another story that I had written in-between and then another story that was totally brand-new. They all sort of again relate to that theme of model minorities behaving badly, and I think they help round-out the collection really nicely.
Jo Reed: Well, let me ask you this. Did you rework any of the previous stories for this paperback edition?
Vanessa Hua: So for me what I was able to do with the existing stories was-- for example, there were some stories dealing with sort of a imposter at Stanford, and even though the Varsity Blues admissions scandal happened after I wrote it I was able to allude to it in the story even though I didn't name it. It just was an opportunity for me to reconsider those stories in the context of what a reader now might be thinking about. Or, for example, another story that deals with a mixed-status family in terms of immigration alluding to some of the stuff that was happening or is happening on the border, but it's interesting. One of the reviews that was otherwise quite positive said "Well, I don't know why that story that's partially set in Hong Kong didn't mention the student protests." And, well, it's like, number one, very little of the story is in Hong Kong. Number two, it was set far before the student protests, and there's going to be a limit how much you can update a story. Are books coming out now-- are people having to write-in a COVID-19 subplot? I don't know. <laughs>
Jo Reed: <laughs> Oh yeah, I hear that. Well, listen, you have won many awards, and congratulations on that, including an NEA Literature Fellowship, and I'm curious what the lit fellowship is allowing you to do.
Vanessa Hua: I'm so grateful to the National Endowment of the Arts. I have applied for this fellowship numerous times, and I think it was always a way for me to take stock at what I'd done, because you have to sort of put together a portfolio of what you've been doing and then put together your proposal for what you will be doing, and I think it was such a invaluable way for me to just know that I would keep reaching for something, and even if I didn't get it it was still worth it to put my thinking around that, to dream big. And so what the fellowship has helped me to do is to work on finishing my next book, "Forbidden City," which is-- it's set on the eve of the Cultural Revolution, and you may or may not know that Chairman Mao was both a fan of ballroom dancing and of young women, and so-- yeah. <laughs> And so my novel "Forbidden City" is told through the eyes of one of these young women who is recruited from the village and how their relationship influences the course of the Cultural Revolution. And with the help of the grant I've been able to get research materials. Yeah, I've traveled to China before. I was hoping to go back, but we kind of have to see how-- travel plans are a little bit up in the air right now, but I am just so grateful for the support and encouragement of the NEA, and it's just been wonderful.
Jo Reed: Well, Vanessa, I can't wait to read "Forbidden City," and I am so glad I had a chance to talk to you.
Vanessa Hua: Well, thank you so much for your insightful questions and your good cheer and humor.
Jo Reed: Well, thank you, Vanessa. It really was my pleasure. That's author and NEA Literature Fellow Vanessa Hua. Her novel is "A River of Stars," and her recently released book of short stories is "Deceit and Other Possibilities." You've been listening to "Art Works," produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Subscribe to "Art Works" wherever you get your podcasts and then leave us a rating on Apple, because it helps people to find us. I'm Josephine Reed. Stay safe, stay kind, and thanks for listening.
Author and 2016 NEA Literature Fellow R.O. Kwon
Kwon’s first novel, The Incendiaries, is about two lost college students who get drawn into a secretive cult led by a former student at their university. On the podcast, Kwon discussed the ten-year journey of writing The Incendiaries, her loss of faith, and her journey to becoming a writer. “When I went to college, I majored in economics, which was a gigantic mistake. I hated every second of it. But I think I didn't know how I could be an Asian-American writer, an Asian-American artist,” she said.
Music Credit: “NY” written and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand. Used courtesy of free Music Archive.
R.O. Kwon: “Carillon bells chimed. Distant birds blowing white, strewn like dandelion tufts, and outsized wish. It must've been then that John Leal came to her side. In his bare feet, he closed his arm around her shoulders. She flinched, looking up at him. I can imagine how he'd have tightened his hold, telling her she'd done well. Though before long, it would be time to act again, to do a little more. But this is where I start having trouble, Phoebe. Buildings fell. People died. You once told me I hadn't even tried to understand. So here I am, trying.”
Jo Reed: That is R.O. Kwon reading from the second page of her debut novel, The Incendiaries and This is Art Works the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.
Meet R. O. Kwon she’s is a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow. And her novel, The Incendiaries has been named a best book of the year by over forty publications. Not bad for a first book! The Incendiaries tells an unusual story. A young college woman, Phoebe Lin, gets involved with a cult of Christian extremists and bombs an abortion clinic in the name of faith. It’s not a path anyone could have predicted since Phoebe was an extremely popular girl at her elite college—she was at the center of anything that was amusing, indulgent and carefree. And this we slowly learn is a reaction to an unhappy past, steeped in secrets, guilt and disappointment. Will Kendall, on the hand, is a scholarship boy who tries desperately to fit in while hiding his own hardscrabble back ground and his previous zeal as an evangelical boy preacher. Phoebe and Will come together and end up meeting John Leal—a cult leader who incites a very different response from each of the pair. That’s truly is a thumbnail sketch of the plot—R.O. Kwon’s powerful language and vivid portrait of faith, love, obsession, loss and fanaticism drives a story so complex and layered, I wondered at its origins.
R.O. Kwon: For me, I think the first sort of genesis of it was that I grew up so Christian that my entire life plan until I was 17 was to become a pastor. I wanted to live in service of god. And then I lost that faith, and it was devastating for me in ways that I still find very difficult to talk about. And it was devastating on multiple levels, so there was that first level, of course, of losing this god whom I'd loved so much, that I'd really meant to give my life to him. Secondly, all my friends and family, pretty much all my friends and family at the time, they ranged from moderately Christian to extremely Christian. I grew up outside of L.A. and so I lost, in a lot of ways, my community. And then, let's see, a year after I lost my faith, I went to college on the east coast. And pretty much all my new friends had no experience of religion. Like they'd maybe gone to Easter Sunday with their grandmother once or twice. And so I would start telling friends, as I got to know them, "Well, I used to be really religious. I thought I was going to be a pastor." And across the board, their reaction was more just, "Well, that's weird." And people were like, "Well, you know, good for you. You're free. You can drink and have sex like the rest of us." And I was just like, "Well, you know, that's true, but it doesn't feel like a liberation. It felt and feels like the pivotal loss of my life." And so I wanted to write about that. I wanted to write about that loss, but also how wonderful it was to believe, because I think that's something that a lot of people don't necessarily understand who haven't experienced this. I loved being Christian. I loved believing. I loved the sort of calm that I felt. I loved that I walked around in what felt like a haze of love, and I grieve that still in a lot of ways. And I think I wanted to write a book that could perhaps serve as an imaginative bridge between different parts of the faith spectrum, that could perhaps make sense or maybe just shed some light on what it could be like to exist on one part of the faith spectrum and that could be legible even to people who have only ever experienced another part of the spectrum.
Jo Reed: Well, certainly loss is very much at the center of this book, as is faith. There are three main characters. There's Phoebe, there's Will, and there's John Leal. And all three of them speak to an examination of faith and of loss. Can you just tell me a little bit about each?
R.O. Kwon: Yeah, of course. So Will Kendall is the one who, in his experience of faith, and he's sort of the primary narrator of the book. Will Kendall is the one who—I would say I gave him the most directly autobiographical experiences of faith. And I mean that emotionally. I don't mean that, like, every detail maps onto my life. But I really wanted to-- it was so important to me to get that right, to make that feel as truthful-- as close as possible to what it felt like to me, how crushing it was to lose that faith. So he goes off to college and he's the one who wanted to be a pastor and he's lost his faith. He goes off to college and he meets Phoebe Lin, who has lost a great deal. I don't think I'm giving anything away by saying she's lost a great deal. In the early pages, we learn that she grew up believing that she'd be a piano prodigy and she's-- and then she realized, or she believed, at least, that she wasn't good enough. She wasn't good enough to try to make a life out of piano. And so there was that sort of tremendous loss of a purpose, really. And then there is John Leal, who is in a lot of ways a more enigmatic figure. He's a cult leader and he-- yeah, maybe I'll leave it at that.
Jo Reed: Leave John out. Yes, we can. And all three narrate the book, though Will more than the other two. What's with that decision to do that?
R.O. Kwon: Yeah, with writing in general, I feel less as though I make conscious decisions and more as though, as I write and as I revise, I'm asking the book to tell me what it wants to be, and asking the characters who they are, what they want from me, what they want from one another. Not long ago, I was working on my new novel and it was the middle of the night and I was really tired. And I realized that I'd written in all caps on my screen, "Who are you people? What do you want from me?" <laughter> And so I feel almost as though, and I know this isn’t quite the case, because it doesn't sound real, but I feel almost as though the book preexists me. And it preexists me in an ideal shape and it's my job to find my way toward it. All that as a long way of saying that having the book narrated by three characters came about over time. So for the first two years, it was narrated by Phoebe, the ex-piano prodigy. For the next three, four years it was narrated entirely by Will who loves her and opposes the cult and much of what it represents. And then I showed it to my agent and my agent, my literary agent, felt strongly that there wasn't enough of the cult. And I agreed with her. I never made a single change to this book that I didn't fully agree with. But I found that I agreed with her, and that was when John Leals' perspective started coming in. And then she, at the end of all this-- this is at may be the seven and a half year mark, my agent was like, "I just feel as though we still don't have enough of Phoebe." And I was like, "Oh, drat." Those first two years of work. But I realized that there was a lot I knew about Phoebe that never made it on the page, necessarily. And so that was when Phoebe's perspective started coming in.
Jo Reed: Okay. I'm just going to ask how long did it take you to write the book?
R.O. Kwon: <laughter> I know, we're just going through the number of years. It took 10 years.
Jo Reed: Wow.
R.O. Kwon: It took 10 years of near-daily work. I know this is not true for all writers, but for me, I work best if I'm working every day, even if it's just, at my busiest, even if it's just a sentence. I really need to be with it every day.
Jo Reed: So 10 years. I'm so curious about this process. Did you toss everything out at any point? Was the nugget always there and you were just trying to massage it into some kind of shape? Tell me how you wrestled with this for ten years.
R.O. Kwon: Yeah, of course! Let's see, so the first two years of work, which is when I-- so I love language. I love syllables. I love words. Sometimes someone will just say a word and I'll just space out thinking about the word and how interesting it is. So all of that is nice. It's fun. It's less good for writing early drafts of something as large as a novel.
Jo Reed: I know what you mean. I was in news for a while and it was way back. There was a lot going on in the Middle East, and I loved the word "Kandahar." And I would try any story that had Kandahar in it. I was always, "Oh, I'll take that one. I'll take the Kandahar story." Because I just loved the way it felt in my mouth and it was just a beautiful word.
R.O. Kwon: Yeah. I get a lot of "Word of the day" emails from the various dictionaries. And I love those. So yeah, so the first two years, I just reworked the first 20 pages of this book over and over and over again and wanted to get the language exactly right. At the end of those two years, I threw it all away.
Jo Reed: Just..
R.O. Kwon: I threw it all away because I realized… I realized I had been agonizing over the language, again without really knowing who the characters were, what they wanted from one another, what the shape of this book might be. And so that was when I started-- I spoke with friends who are writers who also care deeply about language. And I used a variety of techniques to just try to get through early drafts as fast as possible. To not let myself fixate as much as I want to on the words.
Jo Reed: What would you do?
R.O. Kwon: There are so many things. So one that was very helpful was I used a program that turned my laptop into a typewriter, so I could only backspace one letter ever. I couldn't copy and paste. I couldn't go back and delete whole paragraphs. It sort of forces you to move forward. <laughter> You look so distressed.
Jo Reed: I'm just remembering when I was an undergraduate and that's sort of how you would-- you know, it was pre-computer when I was an undergraduate. And oh lord, boy, was I happy to see computers.
R.O. Kwon: Yeah, but you know, it forces you to move forward, so that was really helpful. I wrote multiple drafts by hand. There was one draft I wrote where I turned each paragraph white as I went so that the font would disappear so that - what I had written would disappear onto the page, so I couldn't see it. Something that I loved doing and that I always do now any time I write anything, pretty much, I will write, like, five words, press enter. I'll write seven words, press enter. Three words, press enter. And so at the end, what I have is a giant manuscript that looks like a very sad, ragged epic poem. But it's not. It's prose, but just by spatially breaking it up, it makes it so that I cannot visually see it as a sentence the way I want to, and I find that to be really helpful.
Jo Reed: Interesting. Wow, so those were some of the things you did after two years to get you through it.
R.O. Kwon: Yeah.
Jo Reed: Now all through all that process, as we just heard, we hear right at the beginning, "People die, buildings fall." Was that always the case that this terrorist bombing was going to open the book?
R.O. Kwon: Yeah, so that came in around that two-year mark, after I had thrown everything away, because for the first two years, the book was centered on Phoebe. And in a lot of ways, it still is, the woman who falls into the cult. But for those first two years, she was just sort of wandering around by herself, meditating on the nature of an absent god and feeling sad about it. Which was exactly as fun and sexy to read, let alone to write, as that sounds. And I love walking around, meditative books. Like I love Teju Cole. I love W.G. Sebald. But I don't think that's what this book wanted to be. And I found out once I started externalizing some of my obsessions with loss, with grief, with faith, with god, with all of it, with love, once I started externalizing some of that, that's when the book really started to come to life. And so that's when I think things quite literally started to blow up on the screen.
Jo Reed: And did that also enable you to move forward with exploring the characters and the situations they found themselves in?
R.O. Kwon: Oh, that's such an interesting question. I don't know that I've ever thought about it that way, but I'm sure it did, for sure. Because there were just-- concretely there were things happening. And then there are ways in which the characters are then contending with what happens and-- yeah.
Jo Reed: It's also interesting because this book that's about so much, also explores class, I think.
R.O. Kwon: Mm-hmm.
Jo Reed: Very clearly in this book, and I would-- which I think very astutely. And class is something that especially in literary fiction, it doesn't get explored very much. I find if I want to read about class, I need to pick up genre fiction, where people really are still concerned about working.
R.O. Kwon: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. Yeah, and that was something that was very interesting to me, and I think it remains interesting in my fiction and in what I write. Very directly, since this book is set on a college campus, and it's set on an elite college campus, and class just very much seeps into every day of life at a college like that. And for me personally, so I grew up in LA in a small town that is something like 80 percent Asian. And I went to a public school that was 80 percent Asian, and of course there were differences in how parents-- what parents did and how they sort of survived, because a lot were first-generation immigrants, how they survived moving to the US and how they were-- whether they were surviving or whether they were thriving. There were differences, but they were not differences as stark as what I encountered the minute I went to college. And I was just like, "Oh well, I have classmates whose names are on buildings. This is wild. This is just an entirely different way of being." And I think just sort of that shock of encounter with such differences in class in a country that I think-- in a lot of ways, I think in America there's this ongoing lie that we don't have class, that everybody's equal, and it's just not true. And I think that that lie is harmful, because then there can be so much shame if you're not socioeconomically doing well, I think, if you're struggling. And I think that that lie directly can lead to that kind of shame, and so I wanted to bring some of that to the forefront.
Jo Reed: Yeah. I think you did so well with Will, who doesn't even want his classmates to know that he's working.
R.O. Kwon: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, for sure. He hides the fact that he has a job because he doesn't want his relatively very privileged classmates to know that he doesn't have the kind of money they have.
Jo Reed: Yeah. Very, very interesting. And doubly so because what is it called? The fiction of meritocracy? And he is in there on a scholarship, but the scholarship isn’t enough.
R.O. Kwon: Right. And that's such a problem with-- I have friends who work in institutions and programs that help people who are maybe the first to go to college-- to go to college. And yet there are a lot of colleges that wonderfully give very generous scholarships, full scholarships. But they still don't take into account, maybe, what about the air fare? What about the books? The cost of the books? What happens if the dining hall closes for Spring Break and there isn’t food? That's a real problem for a lot of families and a lot of students, and I think that we're still so behind on, on addressing these inequities.
Joe Reed: Yeah, yeah. No, I would agree. When did you come to the conclusion that writing was what you wanted to do?
R.O. Kwon: I was a reader first, you know? I didn't write very much when I was a kid. I wasn't one of those kids who's written, like, 40 books by the time they're 17. So when I was in senior year, I remember at some point the principal asked a few of us, "So what do you want to be when you grow up?" And I said, "I want to write novels. I want to be a novelist." But when I went to college, I majored in economics, which was a gigantic mistake. I hated every second of it. But I think I didn't know how I could be an Asian-American writer, an Asian-American artist. There were so few models then. There are more now, thank goodness. I'm Korean and I didn't start reading Korean-American writers until after college.
Jo Reed: Not in college?
R.O. Kwon: No, never in college. There were a few Asian-Americans, but not Korean-Americans. And that was-- and in retrospect, it's just so wild to me that I loved-- I grew up loving an art-form in which I physically could not and did not exist. So I think those sort of absences made it hard for me to imagine a life in the arts. And I was concerned about minor things like healthcare. I'm from an immigrant family. I didn't want to be without healthcare, and so I majored in economics. I took a job in management consulting, of all things. I think I lasted seven months. I always say nine months, and then my husband's like, "No, dude, it was seven months." And then I went to grad school for writing and I haven't really looked back since.
Jo Reed: How did your parents take it when you said, "I'm quitting my job and I'm going to graduate school for writing?"
R.O. Kwon: I feel so lucky about this. I think this is actually part of what turned me toward econ. So once I got to college, they were just like, "You know what? You get one life. You should do what makes you happy." And I think that's what freaked me out, or that's part of what freaked me out: that freedom. And that's part of why I wandered sharply toward doing exactly what wouldn't make me happy. But there was this key moment-- my mother was actually instrumental in my applying to grad school in the first place. So I was at this job. I was working, like, 90 hours a week. I was so miserable and I was mostly miserable because I had no time to write, let alone barely had time to read. And I just genuinely could feel myself dying inside. I could feel parts of myself dying. And I was talking to my mother and I remember I was in the grocery store and she knew how heartbroken I was and she said, "You know, why don't you apply to grad school? That was something you were talking about. There is grad school for writing. That would give you a little bit of time and you can figure things out a little more." In the minute she said that, and this sounds so cheesy, but I was staring at-- I was in the soup aisle and I was staring at one of those walls of a gazillion types of soups. And just the colors became so much more vibrant. It was as though my vision had actually almost gone gray for a while with how heartbroken I was. Because I knew I'd lost my purpose. I knew I wanted to write. I felt as though it was what I should be doing, but I wasn't doing it. And so the color just rushed back into my world. I applied to grad school and then I went to grad school.
Jo Reed: When you were in grad school I’m assuming you focused on writing fiction and in particular, novels?
R.O. Kwon: Yeah. And I have written and published a number of short stories along the way. I love reading all fiction. I also love reading poetry. I love reading plays, I love reading nonfiction. But I think my true love is novels, and it's the bulk of what I read, too.
Jo Reed: Now, I know you received an NEA lit fellowship. When did you get that and how did-- tell me how you used it for your work?
R.O. Kwon: Yeah. Oh my gosh, that NEA fellowship, I mean I'm sure you know. I applied to the fellowship, but of course I didn't expect to get it. Just like, "Okay, might as well apply. The chances are so slim." And what happened was this was at the eight-year mark. So background, I was feeling pretty low at this point, because my novel still was at about the eight and a half year mark. And so I was just like, "I've been working on this book for eight years. What am I doing with my life? How is this taking me so long? Why didn't I become a dermatologist? I think I'd have been a good dermatologist. I love thinking about skincare." And then I had this call from a D.C. number and I only saw it late at night. And then it was a voicemail saying, you know, this is the NEA. Can you call us back? We haven't been able to reach you today. And I think my body registered what had probably just happened before my mind did, and I saw that the world was moving up and down and I was like, "What's going on?" And I realized I was jumping up and down, because I thought if they called, well-- I couldn't sleep that night because I was like, "Well, probably this means I won an NEA, but it's also possible they called me to tell me I'd screwed up the application so hideously they're asking me to never apply again. I don't know. I don't know what this could mean." And then I finally got-- and then I called the next day in the morning and I learned I had an NEA and it was-- it meant so much to me. I think especially since I was feeling so bleak. The money is so helpful. There's also something really meaningful about feeling supported and seen by my country. And so the NEA, I'm so grateful to them. I'm so grateful for what they did and what they do and how much it helped me with my book.
Jo Reed: That enabled you to help move you past that eight year mark into the eight and a half.
R.O. Kwon: Yeah, it really did! It lifted my spirits for a significant while, which was wonderful. And I pretty much just used the money to keep writing, because after I sold the book at the eight and a half year mark, there was still-- there still ended up being a year and a half of edits with my editor. And then yeah, <laughter> books are not fast, man.
Jo Reed: They are not. So when were you able to just be a fulltime writer?
R.O. Kwon: I'm not sure that I would even now call myself a fulltime writer. Since The Incendiaries came out, which is in July of last year, and the paperback just came out pretty much I've been on the road a lot, and a lot of it has been-- which I'm very glad to do. I'm very grateful to do, but that's part of how I've been able to make it work that I'm not currently teaching because I've been on the road so much. So speaking engagements at universities, at institutions, at MFA programs or graduate programs, that's made it so that I don't have to have a day-to-day job just now. But starting this fall, I am thesis advising at the University of San Francisco. And in the spring, and I'm very excited about this, I'm going to teach at Scripps College, which is one of the Claremont Colleges, and it's for women and non-binary students. And I've never taught at a place that's specifically for women and non-binary students. And I'm so excited about what that could mean.
Jo Reed: That's fabulous. I want to go back to the book for a second, and that is Will, who is our, ostensibly, good guy, does some pretty indefensible things in the book. And I want you to talk me through that process of how that unfolded in the writing.
R.O. Kwon: Yeah, good. I love your use of the word "unfolded" because yeah, that does feel very much more like that to me. And I won't give it away for people who haven't read the book, but there's a pivotal instance of violence. And Will is involved. Will is guilty of a pivotal act of violence. And I remember when I started, I was working on that scene, and when I started realizing what might be happening, I was just like, "Oh, no, this is who you are? This is who you turned out to be?" And I was genuinely-
Jo Reed: Me too.
R.O. Kwon: Yeah, and I was genuinely appalled, because in a lot of ways, I love all my characters. You know, I love them in the way that my grad school mentor, Michael Cunningham, said something that I love and I think about all the time. And he said, "We must love our characters as God does, and not more." And to me, that indicates that I can't try to force my characters into behaving the way I want them to behave. They're going to behave the way they want to behave. And the way I respect them is by-- or one of the ways I respect them is by letting that happen. By following them rather than asking them to follow me, rather than jerking them around. <laughter> So with this scene, I tried writing so many versions of the scene in which this pivotal act of violence does not happen. And it just kept feeling so false, and I couldn't understand why. And I went back through the book and I read through what I have, and I realized there are so many ways in which I hadn't really noticed it at the time, there's so many ways in which Will privileges his own desires. And I realize that that scene that I'm talking about, that was actually the most truthful rendition of what he would have done in that moment when something he wants is being taken away from him.
Jo Reed: Yeah, it was interesting, because I absolutely believed it. But I was also saying, "What are you doing?" As a reader, of course I'm looking-- you do the same thing. You stop and you think back. They're suddenly doing something that on one hand is so out-of-character, but then when you think about it, sometimes you think, "Wait, but there were nuances of that. There were shadings of this." And that certainly was true with Will, too. And of course I change the way I looked at him going forward as a reader. Was that true for you as a writer?
R.O. Kwon: Oh, that's a fascinating question. Let's see, no one has asked that just yet. My understanding of Will expanded, because now I had to incorporate this thing that he does into my understanding of Will. Yeah, but I think this book went through-- I have no idea how many drafts this book went through. It could be 40, it could be 90, but it's some number like that. And I think I don't want to know because-- I don't have children, but I feel as though it's perhaps lightly analogous to what people say about childbirth. That your body, in a lot of ways, forgets what happened so that perhaps you could work up the energy to do it all over again. And I think that's kind of how I feel about writing. I've forgotten so much of the sort of minutia of what happened, and I think it's so that I can be excited about writing my next book. <laughter>
Jo Reed: Well, this book has been such a great success for you. Has that made writing this second book more daunting in some ways? Because people have expectations now, whereas The Incendiaries was a debut novel. So how is the second book?
R.O. Kwon: Well, thank you for saying that. I'm three years into it. I keep calling it my new novel, and at some point, I was like, "This isn’t new. This is just a novel." So I'm three years into it. I think when I write fiction, it's impossible for me to keep anyone else in mind. I find it to be so absorbing. That's part of what I love about it. I find it to be so utterly absorbing that I can't think about audience. I can't think about reception. I just have to follow what the book is. And so in that way, when I'm writing, I'm still able to go back to that place of privacy. That said, for pretty much all of 2018, I was on the road a lot, again, as I've mentioned. And I'm not complaining, but I was on the road so much and I think there are ways in which the first book was occupying headspace so that I couldn't write any fiction, really. I barely wrote any fiction for all of 2018, which was new for me, because I'd been writing fiction pretty much every day since grad school-- since sometime in grad school, so that was a change. But now I'm getting back to a place where I am very much writing fiction every day, even if it's just a sentence. So today was a busy day. I set the alarm for thirty minutes early than I normally would have gotten up and I wrote for thirty minutes. I eked out one sentence that I could live with for now, and then I proceeded with the rest of my day and the things I had to do. But I'm trying very hard to make that a priority now.
Jo Reed: Can you read fiction while you're writing fiction, or does it clog-- does it inspire or does it clog you?
R.O. Kwon: Oh, no, I read so much fiction while I write my novels. I know there are writers who say that they can't read books in their genre while they're writing them..
Jo Reed: Exactly, yeah. I've heard that.
R.O. Kwon: But I don't-- I mean, fiction, I love fiction. It's my first love. If I weren't reading, that would mean I wouldn't have read any fiction for ten years. I think that would, for me, be another way of dying inside. Yeah, I'm reading all the time. It's so much so that I know that if I'm not reading a lot, then the writing is suffering. The books feed my book.
Jo Reed: Do you re-read?
R.O. Kwon: Yes. I believe very much.
Jo Reed: Not everybody does. I love-- I'm always re-reading a book and reading a new book simultaneously.
R.O. Kwon: Yeah. I mean, I love when Nabokov said, that “the only reading is re-reading.” And for me, I get pretty stressed out on the first reads of books. You know, I get worried about characters and what's going to happen to X, what's going on with Y. And so I get stressed out enough by the story and by the characters' situations that I can't-- I often can't really focus on the language the way I want to. And so it's really only on the second read or the tenth read or the fifteenth read that I can really hang out with the language slowed down, that I can really just live with the book in a way I can't on a first read.
Jo Reed: I completely agree. And it's also like seeing an old friend. I just want-- sometimes I just want to see my friend again.
R.O. Kwon: Yeah. I love that. And there's something, too, about every book I truly love. I can re-read a passage or a page or a chapter hundreds of times, and it never stops yielding riches.
Jo Reed: Yeah, I agree.
R.O. Kwon: There's always something else there. And I think that, for me, in a way is the truest test of what I love, is “am I able to re-read it?”
Jo Reed: Who do you love? Who do you re-read?
R.O. Kwon: So many. Okay, one I re-read a lot while I was writing, The Incendiaries is Virginia Wolfe. She's very important to me, and I love her fiction, I love her journals. I love her letters. I love her nonfiction. I just love her across the board. Something I realized about the books I love most is I think I love-- I think it's what we were talking about, about books that try to reach up against the top-most limits of what might be possible. And I've been thinking about it almost like wildness rather than truth or beauty. I mean, I love beauty. I love truth. Those are good, those are good too. But I love when books just seem to be pushing past received forms. Pushing past the already-available, already much-used structures and seeing what else they can do. And I think that's something that I'm very interested in trying to do with my own work.
Jo Reed: I am so looking forward to reading your next book. The Incendiaries is wonderful. I so truly hope you know how wonderful it is.
R.O. Kwon: Thank you. That's so kind of you. Thank you.
Jo Reed: It's true. R.O. Kwon, thank you so much. That’s R. O. Kwon she is the author of The Incendiaries.
You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. You can subscribe to Art Works wherever you get your podcasts, so please do. And leave us a rating on Apple because it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.