How to Talk Socialism with Your Fictionalized Parents
To write about my socialist family in a capitalist society necessarily means truth and lies are mixed up.
The Good Terrorist
I understood how someone who confronted the police in their youth would never want that for their own child. That trauma can collapse thirty-five years, creating its own time, because even a parent’s long memory is nothing compared to the memory of state bureaucracy.
Paley’s narrator and her father collide like bumper cars: It seems the momentum of their worldviews might bring them together, until that very force sends them shuddering in opposite directions. It happens again when the father offers his view of literature:
“Of course, most were anti-Semites. Dostoyevsky. It was natural, it seems. Ach, why is it we read them with such interest and they don’t return the favor?
“That’s what women writers say about men writers.
“Please don’t start in. I’m in the middle of telling you some things you don’t know.”
I saw how this father could both share wisdom openly and remain stubbornly closed, and that what felt like irreconcilable dualities between me and my parents were all true. It is true that their politics are shaped by communism; it is also true that they want me to have a stable, middle-class life. It is true that they have a lot of wisdom to share; it is also true that they might learn from my generations’ analysis. It is true that I am my own person with a politics and worldview; it is also true that I will always be their child.
IV. Why You’ll Fictionalize All This
To write about my socialist family in a capitalist society necessarily means truth and lies are mixed up. If I believe one story, my parents’ friends were misguided and careless extremists; if I believe another, they were freedom fighters murdered by the state. If I believe one story, my mother is a criminal; if I believe another, she was a young idealist speaking truth the only way available to her.
These three—Ginzburg, Lessing, and Paley, all women—know that we must navigate those truths and lies in intimate spaces where politics isn’t meant to disrupt but of course does. They know because they went to rallies and meetings but also raised children and cared for homes; they had to decide, as their own parents did, what to tell their children and when. Two of these authors are Jewish and surely came to socialism for similar reasons as my Asian American parents: Being immigrants and racialized others, they’re forced to see the brute force of authoritarianism and policing and the wage. Having left the old countries, they want to know if they can offer something better and fairer to the next generation.
It makes sense that these women bring us into the small everyday interactions where a quieter but deeper political change takes place. A political figure is inspiring; a parent’s truth is foundational. A rally is energizing; a vulnerable conversation is transformative.
Fiction is a realm where one can put aside, for a moment, the contested archives and histories determining what happened and who is accountable; in the realm of fiction, truth is measured by the human heart. That must be why Ginzburg asked readers to approach her book as a novel: For those of us coming from people or communities treated as marginal or irrelevant, a trial by heart, by human recognition, is the only chance we have.
Ryan Lee Wong is author of the forthcoming novel Which Side Are You On (Catapult, October '22).
He was born and raised in Los Angeles, the son of a fifth-generation Chinese American father and a Korean immigrant mother. Previously, he served as Program Director for the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and Managing Director of Kundiman. He has organized exhibitions and written extensively on the Asian American movements of the 1970s.
He holds an MFA in Fiction from Rutgers-Newark and served on the Board of the Jerome Foundation. He lived for two years at Ancestral Heart Zen Temple and is based in Brooklyn.