Love and Silence Fate and Desire in Asian America
The satisfaction people take in free will comes not from their ability to choose, but from their ability to feel like they’ve chosen.
When you teach fiction, you often think, how strange it is that we are talking about a character’s agency . Agency is an American preoccupation. Once, you attended a talk by a Turkish writer who complained that American writers claim not to know what a character is going to do until they do it, or suggest that writers listen to their character’s desires, as if the character is real. American, he called it, to believe that fiction has a mind of its own.
You often think about all of the things you were told you should do as a writer, just as you often think about all of the things you were told you should do as an adoptee, as an Asian American, as a man, etc. Other people will invoke your free will even as they tell you what you must do with it.
What is it they must think agency means?
The only book you can both read to your children and also teach your students is Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon , a novel about a girl who wants to change her fate. This is the novel’s central question: whether and how you can.
At the beginning of the book, the girl, Minli, and her parents are poor farmers on arid land in what seems an ancient/mythic China. Each night (to keep their hopes up or just to entertain them), Minli’s father tells them stories. Believing these stories to be true, Minli sets off to search for the Old Man in the Moon, who, in her father’s stories, is in charge of fate.
A charmingly failed enterprise, one might think at first. But the magic of the novel is that, by participating in these stories, Minli is able to change them. She ends up meeting the characters in the stories, who help her find her way to the Old Man in the Moon. The answer to how to change her fate appears on a magic page from the Old Man’s Book of Fortune. It is a single word: thankfulness .
This answer is a bait-and-switch, really, and a good one. It doesn’t tell her how to change her fate; it tells her to change the story of her fate. The story is the important thing.
In her craft book Tiger Writing , author Gish Jen writes about becoming an Asian American novelist, navigating between what she calls the “independent” and “interdependent” selves. The independent self, she claims, is good for understanding how to write a typical (Western) novel. The interdependent self she associates with her Chinese American upbringing.
As an example, she offers her father’s autobiography. Unlike the (typical) white American story that features an internal and/or external quest, her father’s manuscript spends most of its pages on their family history and ancestral home, only getting around to his life in the second half of the manuscript. The point is that Jen’s father’s idea of self is a self defined by context, not by agency.
This idea of the self is much closer to the self you have known as a Korean American adoptee. You, like Jen, are attracted to the kind of novel that emphasizes your ability to decide your own life, but it doesn’t reflect your experience. You live in a context, not in a choice. What is free will, after all, to an adoptee?
This essay, you must admit, is yet another attempt to describe Asian American stories and Asian American desire. It starts when your daughter asks how she can stop hitting her baby brother, which she claims she doesn’t want to do. How can she control herself?
You tell her that there is no she separate from herself , that this is only a story people tell. You tell her that the story she is telling is that, if her brother annoys her, even though he is three and she is nine, justice is to take revenge. It isn’t easy to change that kind of story—a story about why and what you desire. You have to do more than just decide to want something else. Even if your daughter manages not to hit her brother, the story still has power. This is why, you tell her, when she does not hit him, she feels unsatisfied.
Mostly what people want from free will is control. Free will insists on the agency of order: first, you desire, and second, you act on it. Neurologically, however, the signal to act comes before the signal for conscious intention. Many experiments have confirmed this. In the moment, your consciousness doesn’t determine your actions—it adds them as evidence to a story about desire.
Interestingly, what this means is that the satisfaction people take in free will comes not from their ability to choose, but from their ability to feel like they’ve chosen. In the 1960s, neurophysiologist William Grey Walter had brain operation patients push a button whenever they wanted to change the image on a screen, but set the screen to change as soon as their brains signaled their fingers to push.
Participants hated it. Not because they didn’t get what they wanted—the screen did change, and they did want it to change—but because they didn’t get to push the button first. Whether they had free will or not, they couldn’t experience any feeling of free will. Their desire, though technically fulfilled, was left unsatisfied. Mostly what people want from free will is control.
Where you are going with all of this is melancholy. Melancholy is where you always end up. The part of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon that haunts you, and your students, is its final image.
At last, Minli successfully brings home a fortune (though whether she changes her fate or fulfills it is debatable) and in doing so, she becomes the new hero of her father’s stories. In fact, each night the local children gather at her house to hear her parents recount her adventure once again. The village is all one endless celebration. The catch is that Minli is not among them.
“This is the time of night,” her father tells a visitor, “she likes to watch the moon.”
Apparently, while her friends and family celebrate, Minli likes to go off alone. She withdraws to the courtyard, where the last page finds her staring longingly up at “where the mountain meets the moon.”
A lone girl staring at the moon while a party goes on without her, is not a typical image of contentment. More like the classic image of melancholy—you know it well.
When your wife died in 2018, at thirty-nine, you were often unable to sleep at night. The kids snored beside you in a small apartment, and everywhere floated the many ghosts of your wife. Often, you watched the moon, remembering a famous line from Japanese literature, something a lover says when he is unable to tell his beloved that he loves her.
“The moon,” he says instead, “is beautiful tonight.”
The beauty of the moon is the beauty of reflection. The moon reflects a missing sun. You see its double, its ghost. Maybe this explains why the moon so often suggests a longing for something that is lost. The condition of melancholy is the condition in which your story about desire outlives your ability to satisfy it. This is the condition of fate, and of Asian American desire.
The film you teach most often in your Asian American literature course is about intergenerational trauma. In What Happened to Her? And the Strawberry Fields , Japanese American teenager Irene Kawai runs away from home, haunted by impossible visions. These hauntings come in two forms. First are her mother’s memories of being incarcerated in a concentration camp in Poston, Arizona, before Irene was ever born. Second is the ghost—or hallucination—of Irene’s younger sister, who dies at the beginning of the film.
It is because of these hauntings, the film implies, that Irene ends up in Poston two decades after her mother was incarcerated there. The film is set in the 1960s; anti-Vietnam War protests are everywhere. But Irene can’t get anyone (her mother) to talk about the camps. In the silence, her mother’s story shapes her desire. Her mother contends that these stories are over, already fixed in time.
When Irene arrives in Poston, she arrives with a box full of dynamite and the (wannabe) dynamiter’s girlfriend. (There’s an acid trip involved; it’s a good movie.) Both women have ties to the camps, and through connections, they find an older Japanese American woman living nearby as if the story of the camps is still alive. The older woman plays for the younger women a song the prisoners used to sing—and, in a sudden rage, Irene smashes the record and drives out to the old site of the camps to set alight the dynamite. The final explosion alters both the physical landscape of grief and the emotional landscape—the ghost/hallucination disappears in the blast.
Irene has to hear her mother’s story in order to enter it and change it. She relies on the melancholy of strangers. The older woman is the first survivor who seems willing to talk about her survival and to talk about it as something ongoing.
The lesson here is that silencing a story makes the story impossible to change—and that all you need to do to silence a story is to pretend that it is over. The story of incarceration, and what it revealed about American desire, is a story that continues to haunt Japanese Americans, and the nation, generations later. This is racial and national melancholy.
So how do you change a story that you keep telling beyond your ability to satisfy it? Grief never feels like free will. It is love haunted by the beloved. You still sleep on only one side of the bed, because to cross onto the other side is to be reminded that the border you really want to cross is the one between your desire and time. You live in a story that other people insist is over, fixed.
Years earlier, when your first child was born, you were afraid that you might pass down your trauma, that you might parent badly because of your adoption. Your adoption was suddenly terrifying, even though you had been holding its story at bay for years. To deal with that story—to deal with your desire—you had to talk about it. You went to therapy. You wrote. Over many tellings, adoption grew more liveable. You thought that you had survived.
And then your wife died and left your children motherless. Your son will never have any memories of her.
To deal with that story—to deal with your desire—you had to talk about it. You went to therapy. You wrote.
What you turned to, after that fate, after that repetition of fate, were books. You read and taught and wrote, and read to your children, and read what your children wrote. The one book you could both read to them and also teach your students was Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon . In it, a girl gets everything she thinks she wanted, and the story of getting it doesn’t satisfy her. Satisfaction, after all, is a story that is over, that doesn’t need you anymore. Minli leaves the party because she is still alive with want. She looks toward the Old Man in the Moon because he knows her secret.
As you tell your children—in a very difficult sell—it is okay to be unsatisfied; it is okay to not have control. It is good to keep telling a story because it is good to keep changing it. To want to get what you want, to want the feeling of free will more than the feeling of wanting, is a bait-and-switch that doesn’t work. It is a story not about desire, but about the desire to end your desire.
What you see in Jen’s Tiger Writing is that Asian American literature is not the literature of a lone hero (man) discovering his independence, but rather of putting discovery in context.
In the back of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is a section titled “Behind the Story,” which includes photos of the author (Grace Lin) on a trip to China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, and a couple of paragraphs explaining that the novel draws partly from Chinese myths and partly from Lin’s own invention. The photos are not extraneous—Lin’s trip was instrumental in writing the book. Seeing the context of her childhood stories, she writes, she finally felt them “come alive.”
What she means is that, as she entered the landscape of those stories, in Asia, she could see their shape in her life. She finally knew how to tell those stories in her own, Asian American way.