What Does It Mean to Write Asian American Literature?
In my family, race itself did not exist. If I wanted to be real, I could not experience what was not real.
Several rejections of my last novel called the writing “impressionistic,” which was how I learned that “impressionistic” was not a compliment, though I had once stood in an art museum and thought, here is the way to get across that reality is always an interpretation.
Like any human being, I grew up in a reality constructed of language. People were always telling me what reality was supposed to be, even if it didn’t match my lived experience. In an attempt to be real, to exist in a shared reality, I learned other people’s interpretations of it. This is a process we call socialization.
At home, my (white, adoptive) parents claimed skin color didn’t matter, that I was their “real” son, that they were my “real” parents—but at school, other kids insisted that skin color did matter, that my parents were not my real parents. Friendly kids would ask, “Don’t you want to know your real parents?” Unfriendly kids would say, “You don’t even know your real parents.” My schoolmates named me “monkey,” “flat face,” “chink.” Adults often asked my parents (in front of us kids), “Are they yours?” My father would say, “Don’t they look like me?” It was like hearing a dirty joke: it turned my ears red.
My identity didn’t translate. The language my parents used made it impossible to complain about the language other people used. I couldn’t say, “Some kid at school called me a monkey,” because my parents would say, “you’re not a monkey,” and I knew this. I couldn’t say to my parents both, I am your real son, and also, I want to find my birth parents. To admit that I experienced racism would be the same in effect as saying, I am no longer a member of this family. In my family, race itself did not exist. If I wanted to be real, I could not experience what was not real.
Because my reality depended on the nonexistence of race, I had to take on the existence racism demanded of me. Perhaps this is counterintuitive. I became quiet, diligent, good at math—because to resist those roles would have meant that there was something to resist. To resist racism is to insist that it can be resisted.
There is a famous study on parenting adoptees (which I learned about in a book audaciously titled The Psychology of Adoption) that sorts parenting techniques into a spectrum from “rejection-of-difference” to “acknowledgment-of-difference.” Either end screws an adoptee up. The editors of The Psychology of Adoption argue for a middle ground, acknowledgment-of-difference without insistence-on-difference. It’s like D.W. Winnicott’s good-enough parent: Only the middle ground can constitute healthy desire.
I became quiet, diligent, good at math—because to resist those roles would have meant that there was something to resist.
What I mean is that both extremes are the same: They repeat their one story, either You are not different or You are different, which are the same story—difference as pathology. (What we are seeing right now, with the spike in coronavirus-related racism, is the other side of the same coin as the model minority myth—the value of difference being how pathological our difference is seen to be to whiteness.)
This story of difference shapes desire, since desire is always desire for what we do not have (you want an apple only if you do not have one). Rejection-of-difference encourages adoptees to seek acknowledgment-of-difference; insistence-on-difference encourages us to seek obliteration. The one story is the story of racism.
In the Asian American novel that has meant the most to me over the years, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, the narrator’s mother calls this insistence on one story “madness” (“sanity” is diverse). The madness of the question “Do you consider yourself an Asian American writer?”—a question that used to bother me before I learned to say simply, of course—is that both I do and I don’t orient literature along an axis of whiteness. The middle ground is about making race the context of the story and not its objective.
In other words, while the “single story,” as Chimamanda Adichie says, makes “one story become the only story,” it also makes what David Eng and Shinhee Han call the “split subject,” e.g. the Asian American who, in order to exist in a reality in which racism is nonexistent, must deny his raced experience. The split subject hides reality from the story of reality. He hides his truth from the dominant interpretation. This is somewhat unlike W.E.B. Du Bois’s double consciousness, which the subject tries to hold together, or merge; the split subject is the result of trying to get rid of one part of who you are.
Here is what makes Asians go mad in America: the single story of who they are supposed to be to be not mad.
When the first Korean American novel on a major New York press, Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker, was published in 1995, it was criticized for having a confused identity: half spy novel, half family drama. Since then, Asian American critics have rescued this splitness as an aesthetic and political choice. The novel is aware of the danger of a split subject.
As Councilman John Kwang says to the narrator, Henry Park: “When others construct and model you favorably, it’s easy to let them keep at it, even if they start going off in ways that aren’t immediately comfortable or right. This is the challenge for us Asians in America. How do you say no to what seems like a compliment? From the very start we don’t wish to be rude or inconsiderate. So we stay silent in our guises.”
Our guises silence us by their acceptability. To be acceptable is to be visible of sorts. When we take on the guise of the model minority, when we silence our resistance, we become split in order to become seen—but what is seen is only the guise. This is what Audre Lorde calls the “self-negation” of giving oneself up to someone else’s story, someone else’s desires. We are seen because we have become what the other person wants to see.
Silence is Henry Park’s greatest skill. It is a skill acquired through his Korean American childhood and the training he undergoes to become a spy. His job is to let his marks speak until they incriminate themselves. The splitness of the novel is in the conceit that what makes Henry a good spy is also what makes him a bad lover. His wife has left him with a note listing his traits: including “surreptitious,” “illegal alien,” “emotional alien,” “genre bug,” “Yellow peril: neo-American,” “stranger,” “follower,” “traitor,” “spy.” What makes the novel work is that Henry’s ability to keep up his splitness, his compartmentalization, has begun to fail.
To me, the most fascinating move the novel makes is in backstory: I find myself coming back again and again in my teaching to the beginning of Henry’s end as a spy, the moment his guises break down. The target is a psychoanalyst, Dr. Emile Luzan. Why a psychoanalyst? Henry’s guises fail because, in therapy, he cannot be silent.
Luzan asks Henry “to take up story-forms . . . to look at life not just from a singular mode but through the crucible of a larger narrative.” Trying to fill therapy’s silences, Henry mixes stories in from his real life. He puts himself in contradiction. By telling his story, he breaks his silence; by telling multiple stories, he breaks the silence of his guise.
As a parent of young Asian American kids, I’m always looking for books about young Asian American kids, especially girls, since my kids constantly retell the stories they hear. Stories about what a person should look like, what it is to be American, how a person should be. For a while, my daughter’s favorite game was to trade stories with me. I would tell a story, and then she would tell one that was usually a version of mine.
At first, my stories all started “once upon a time” and ended “happily ever after.” Soon my goal became their complication. The more she retold my stories, the more I tried to disrupt my telling: I would tell her a story about Nothing, which ended as soon as it began, or a story about a person telling a story, which ended with the story I was telling. She would retell these stories too, more easily than I had come up with them.
When she started reading, she also started checking books out of her school library. Nearly every book was about a white girl with blond hair. These stories meant she would tell stories about little white girls with blond hair, which meant she would tell stories about herself as a little white girl with blond hair. Eventually, she came right out and said she thought girls with blond hair are better. The stories were one story: the story of how to teach a girl to see difference as pathological, in the name of socialization.
When you become split, when you try to disappear your unacceptable self in order to live within an acceptable guise, where does the disappeared self go? This is the question that led to my latest novel, about a man who finds out he has a doppelgänger—a doppelgänger who has lived a much better life than he has, and yet has disappeared. It’s the most Asian American thing I’ve ever written.
Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior begins with a story the narrator is not supposed to tell. It is the story of her drowned aunt, who was erased by her family because her story is unacceptable: She became pregnant out of wedlock. In punishment, the townspeople burned the family’s crops and killed their livestock, and the next day, the aunt was found with her baby in a well. The narrator, Maxine, is told this story by her mother, on the day she gets her first period.
When you become split, when you try to disappear your unacceptable self in order to live within an acceptable guise, where does the disappeared self go?
Beware, the story implies, of desire. The narrator’s retelling of her mother’s story doesn’t censor desire, but explores it, wondering whether the baby was a result of rape or love, why the aunt did not abort it, why she jumped into the well with it—a kind of mercy? The retelling is an act of love. Maxine frees her aunt from erasure, by making the story-that-should-not-be-told (which is always only one story) into many stories, reinstating her aunt in the realm of imaginative possibility.
Asian American literary theory is always trying to account for splitness. Lisa Lowe, in Immigrant Acts, rejects a binary conception of difference and argues that Asian American literature and lives are at once heterogeneous, hybrid, and multiple. Viet Thanh Nguyen, in Race and Resistance, writes of “flexible strategies” and racism’s attempt to reduce Asians to a “singular body” versus Asian American insistence on multiplicity. Sau-ling Cynthia Wong, in Reading Asian American Literature, describes the inseparable and integral relationship between separation and integration.
One of the central questions of The Woman Warrior is put this way: “What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies?” What is reality and what is story? The novel won the 1976 National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction, was marketed as part of a wave of ethnic autobiography, and was attacked in its time by other Chinese American authors for its borrowing of myth. Genre is further complicated by the many stories told by the narrator’s mother, “talk-stories” that raise young Maxine in a state of confusion over what to believe. The book can be read as a story about stories, as the narrator’s attempt to make sense of talk-stories by telling her own (in the form of the book).
When I teach The Woman Warrior, my students identify the myths and “talk-stories” that have influenced them, such as what it means to be of a certain gender or race, or even the story of how they are supposed to act in college. The Woman Warrior is full of stories about what it means to be “Chinese-feminine” or “American-feminine,” about how to be a good daughter or a good American, a model minority, a ghost. Into this muddle of stories does the narration enter. Asian American literature begins as an intervention.
What kind of story is alluring enough to convince the model Asian American to trade his reality for someone else’s? As with any powerful story, the bait is satisfaction. The model minority myth says: “You can be satisfied if you don’t want more.” You can be real by denying the reality of racism.
This is an easier reality to live with, perhaps—a reality that insists equality exists—than the reality that no matter how hard Asian Americans work and how silent they are about injustice, they will never be treated as equal members of a white supremacist society. If we want satisfaction, all we need to do is to accept the guise of equality as a replacement for equality. (The Woman Warrior: “My mother’s enthusiasm for me is duller than for the slave girl . . . Throughout my childhood my younger sister said, ‘When I grow up, I want to be a slave.’”) To tell a story about desire that itself corrupts desire, simply replace resistance with satisfaction.
To make yourself a math major because it will satisfy your desire to be seen—is a defense against your real desire to be seen for who you are, which might never be satisfied. In this way, as Lauren Berlant writes in Desire/Love, “your desire misrecognizes a given object as that which will restore you to something that you sense effectively as a hole in you.” Thus, “the story of your life becomes the story of the detours your desire takes.”
It is the lure of satisfaction that keeps Native Speaker’s Henry Park idolizing his mark, Councilman John Kwang, even after Kwang’s sins are revealed: Henry believes that if Kwang succeeds, any of them could succeed. To take down Kwang is to accept that his guises, unlike Pinocchio, will never make him a real boy.
“Fantasies of satisfaction are attacks upon desire,” is how psychoanalyst Adam Phillips puts it. “They are, in fact, against desiring, both up against it and in opposition to it.”
We take the model minority myth because we are afraid to want what we can’t have.
I began thinking through this essay because I overheard a coworker say, about adopting a dog, “I put in an application, but I don’t want to get my hopes up.” At the time, my wife was “battling cancer,” which meant she was dying of cancer but not yet dead. Not getting our hopes up would have been the same as not wanting. It would have been the same as not telling stories, or as accepting the one story we knew was true.
For a while, my wife was convinced she would be cured. As time went on, we thought she could at least continue at an impasse, that chemo could hold the cancer at bay indefinitely. To beat cancer is to be in remission. We were living in a story without satisfaction, in which dissatisfaction would be a miracle if it went on and on. Like many, we grew more religious. We sought out stories of survival, not after cancer but with it. There were so many stories about people in similar situations—so many that they confused us with their contradictions. Why did some people live and some die?
When we got our hopes up, we didn’t talk about results. We talked about seeing our daughter marry. We talked about medical improvements, experimental treatments, continual progress. Later, when my wife was in the cancer ward in Seoul, the worst was silence. Suddenly you heard nothing about a certain patient who used to be a regular visitor. To hear nothing was to know only one story could apply.
Each time I teach The Woman Warrior, students start out condemning the narrator’s mother. She contradicts herself, withholds information, demands her children act Chinese without telling them how, calls them ugly when she means beautiful, stupid when she means smart. Maxine accuses her mother of confusing her: “You lie with stories. You won’t tell me a story and then say, ‘This is a true story,’ or, ‘This is just a story.’ I can’t tell the difference. I don’t even know what your real names are. I can’t tell what’s real and what you make up.”
My students are also confused and also blame the mother for it. As our discussions go on, I try to lead them toward asking why the narrator might recreate her confusion for the readers. Why retell these stories if they never did her any good? Why would the author write a book in which her self-like narrator tries to figure out what is real from what is talk-story—and write it not by clearing up the issue, but by doubling down on ambiguity?
One of Maxine’s biggest complaints is that her mother cut her frenum—“so that you would not be tongue-tied,” her mother says. Maxine counters with a proverb: “But isn’t ‘a ready tongue an evil’?” Her mother agrees that it is so in China, but their problem is “things are different in this ghost country.”
In this ghost country, a country that insists what does exist does not exist (coronavirus; inequality; a racist, militarized police force), the tongue must be ready. It must fight both silence and the loudness of acceptability. It must embrace a middle that is not between two options but among many. Maxine’s mother means to prepare her daughter for a lifetime of confusion, to make her fluent in paradox.
Stories are the problem and stories are the solution. This is an Asian American theory. Stories spell danger when they offer satisfaction in exchange for resistance and possibility. We live in an America of endless stories about who we are supposed to be, about whose stories matter, about whose reality is real. We live in a ghost country where the stories we are told often aim to limit the ways we can retell ourselves, to silence the difference of difference. How do we get our hopes up? How do we survive? We fight talk-story with more talk-story. We tell stories about who we can be in order to change the story of who we are.
Matthew Salesses is the author of The Sense of Wonder, national bestseller Craft in the Real World, the 2021 finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear, and two other novels. Adopted from Korea, he has written about adoption, race, and Asian American masculinity in The Best American Essays 2020, NPR’s Code Switch, the New York Times blog Motherlode, and The Guardian, among other media outlets. BuzzFeed has named him one of 32 Essential Asian American Writers. He lives in New York City, where he is an Assistant Professor of Writing at Columbia University.