These stories are my inheritance, which is not the same as sole ownership.
Like me, Han felt an urgency to honor his family’s stories, to protect them from being lost. “These older generation Korean people who have directly experienced separation from their loved ones are passing away,” Han said. His aunt was supportive of him fictionalizing their experiences, reminding him that “as the only writer in my family … I had a gift and responsibility to hold and remember our lives.”
For Jonathan Escoffery, author of If I Survive You, this kind of disclosure was a no-go during the writing stage. If I Survive You is a linked story collection about a Jamaican family living between homes and cultures in Miami. “If I’d worried what family and friends’ responses might be while writing this book, I never would’ve finished writing it,” he told me. “I didn’t want to put that kind of power in the hands of others.”
That’s sort of where I landed, too—I only began openly discussing the biographical elements of my novel with my family once the book was nearing the proofs stage. This was a decision borne of both procrastination and the intention of setting a boundary. Letting people dictate what you write about is a slippery slope; I wanted these conversations to happen in a controlled environment, when the book was nearly set in stone. I soft-launched these talks months earlier by occasionally mentioning a family detail I’d included in my novel to see if this elicited a dramatic emotional reaction. When no one objected or demanded to see what I’d written, I read that as tacit permission. But even that word, permission, implies a kind of trespass.
These things may not have happened to me, but I am living in the aftermath. I am the aftermath.
Escoffery muscled through these issues by telling himself that “no one in my family would ever read this book, no matter how well received it might be. I see now that my assumption was foolish.” Unlike Escoffery, I’m operating under the assumption that my family will read my novel and am banking on the hope that the differences between them and my characters will be a source of comfort rather than offense. But ultimately, their reactions are out of my hands. As Escoffery points out, “you can’t make logical arguments” around other people’s hurt feelings. This is true of anything we write, but there is an extra layer of complication around telling stories that are mine but also not mine. These things may not have happened to me, but I am living in the aftermath. I am the aftermath.
Not inflecting my characters with my family history would have saved me a lot of anxiety and dread. But it would have resulted in a novel that didn’t faithfully grapple with the questions that consumed me. All-Night Pharmacy would have a lot less heart. I’m also of the mindset that if the writing feels comfortable, I’m doing it wrong. In the words of my novel’s most chaotic character, Debbie, “If you’re not asking yourself, Am I about to ruin my life? at least once a day, you’re not living a life at all.” Translating the immigrant experience into fiction isn’t as risky as, say, taking mystery pills with two dudes who claim to be disgraced Icelandic princes, but my adrenal glands don’t recognize the difference.
Not that I do it for the thrill. I’m a notorious weenie who finds the rollercoasters at Disneyland too scary. I do it for the same reason as Joseph Han: “In the same way we respect and care for our elders and loved ones, writing is a form of witness and stewardship. We become caretakers of stories, our writing as vessels for their passage so they may find and reach those who need to hear them and listen.”
Ruth Madievsky's debut novel, All-Night Pharmacy, is forthcoming from Catapult in 2023. She is also the author of a poetry collection, Emergency Brake (Tavern Books, 2016). Her writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Harper's Bazaar, Guernica, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. She is a founding member of the Cheburashka Collective, a community of women and nonbinary writers whose identity has been shaped by immigration from the Soviet Union to the U.S. Originally from Moldova, she lives in L.A., where she works as an HIV and primary care pharmacist. @ruthmadievsky. www.ruthmadievsky.com