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From the Front Lines: Mirror works, window works

It’s time to broaden what we mean by ‘literature.’

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If you’re anything like me, you already know what kind of reader you are. You know you love young adult (YA), for instance, and you know why you love it. For instance, I love mysteries set in England. No, I don’t care where, nor do I care when. I love these stories for their settings, sure; but I also love them for their predictability and for their detectives, whom I always kind of recognize.

I also love these mysteries because they play into my sense of confirmation bias. When I meet the detectives, they are almost always a little disheveled. They almost always have some kind deep internal flaw borne of a long-ago slighting. A good number of them live alone. These characters re-affirm what I think of know of detectives, and that, in turn, makes me feel smart and happy. I also know that I don’t have to worry about solving the crime – the book will do it for me.

The same goes for YA. I love to read YA because I know the narrative will eventually come out in favor of the protagonist. Whether or not the ending is happy, the protagonist will learn something or grow, and they will do so in a way that feels satisfying and fair to the protagonist. (This is key rule of children’s literature, after all – the narrative will always be on the side of the protagonist.)

In other words, these are works that reflect back to me what I think I already know. They are, in the parlance of social psychologist Dolly Chugh, mirror works.

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About five years ago, I began realizing that reading this way wasn’t the best way to read. Picking works by the same authors and hoping they’d keep on turning out good work wasn’t working for me. (I have read every Elizabeth George; every Lee Child; every Dick Francis, multiple times; every Ruth Rendell; every Ann Cleeves.) It’s not so much that I was bored with these writers; it’s that I began to realize that this “safe” reading I was doing wasn’t in line with the world I wanted to build for myself.

Because I spend so much of my time reading (why yes! My book purchases do comprise part of my tax write-offs, why do you ask?), I like to make sure that my time is spent in tandem with the way I live: I want to use my reading to get to know new people, new cultures, new lives.

 

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I want to take a slight detour here to complain about my name. My Taiwanese grandpa made it up for me, and when my parents and I moved to the United States, they transliterated it best they knew how. That included taking the two kanji characters and making them two English syllables. It’s on my passport and my driver’s license and Social Security cards this way. And so, whenever I get an official piece of mail – or a marketing email – it starts out with a cheerful, ballsy “Dear Yi,” because American systems are not aware that some first names are spelled in two parts. Folks, that’s not my name. It’s like calling Sarah “Sa” or Tiffany “Ti” or Thomas “Tho.”

I have spent a good amount of time correcting people’s usage of my name, but I didn’t really connect that with a lack of diverse literature until I took a hard look at what I was reading. Well, it’s no wonder that most white Americans can’t pronounce my name; if most of them are reading books by Elizabeth and Mike and Stephen or even Harlan, processing a name that’s foreign to them isn’t going to be easy. But I know from experience that the folks who take the time to ask me about my name, who ask me how to really pronounce it, learn a lot more about another culture – and about me, their new friend or business partner or client – than they would by just avoiding me entirely.

(Yes, folks aren’t as prone to call you for work or friendship if they feel worried about pronouncing your name. This is a fact, but it’s also not for this column.)

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Thinking about this had me wondering: What am I missing out on by not seeking out new-to-me writers with names that sound different or whose plots and heroes look and sound different from what I’m used to?

I started with the genres I enjoy the most, mysteries and thrillers. This is the genre I turn to when I am feeling tired or worried. I find reading them soothes me. I’m invested in the stories enough to forget about what I’m concerned about, or I can lean on the detectives to solve the crimes and catch the bad guys, and this grants me a certain amount of comfort. I picked out a mystery series by Muslim writer Ausma Zehanat Khan and a science fiction thriller by Black-Native American writer Rebecca Roanhorse. Next, I selected a thriller by Nigerian Oyinkan Braithwaite.

I also selected some women’s fiction, another genre I enjoy, by Indian-American writer Sonali Dev.

These are all names that were unfamiliar to me. (With the exception of Rebecca Roanhorse, every single name, as I’m typing, has been flagged by Microsoft Word as a misspelling.) And I’m not sure what I was expecting as I opened each one of these books, but gaining access to the characters and the storylines these writers presented for me – and the challenges the characters faced within the books – made my world feel as if it was opening up.

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The heroes were not what I expected. The secondary characters served different purposes. The mysteries still got solved, but not always in the ways that I had become accustomed to. The plotting and pacing were different, and the settings and metaphors were different as well. Even in the case of Dev’s work, which is a riff on Jane Austen’s novels, she adds in the device of food, which allows her books to gain a different dimension even though we’re already familiar with the plotlines of her books. Chugh calls these “window works.”

I already knew why I was reaching for the books I’d filled my bookshelves with: They provided me comfort. And they still have their place. But I’ve always told my audience that I believe we really only read for one of two reasons: to feel not so alone or to get to know someone new. The books I was choosing to read weren’t accomplishing either one of those tasks for me.

Since then, I’ve made a concerted effort to pick up more books by writers from other cultures. I can’t lazy-read these books, exactly – I have to be awake and alert and ready to learn new things.

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The thing is, the more I read new-to-me cultures and their writers, the more accustomed I become to these cultures and writers. And then, the broader my selection of books to enjoy.

 

I know. It seems so obvious now. What kind of reader would want to confine herself to a narrower selection of books versus opening herself up to the literal world of literature that is out there? Granted, every single book I read from another culture is not going to resonate with me. (I have never, ever been able to get through Taiwanese writer Wu Ming-Yi’s The Man with the Compound Eyes.) I am a product of the American education system, and so I am likely to gravitate to those works that feel familiar to me. That means works with a familiar three-act structure or maybe works with a clear hero’s journey. This is what we have come to know as “literature,” in an all-encompassing sense. And that’s totally fine. But it is also something to push against so that I may continue to find ever-more stories.

But what I’ve come to realize is this: I have way too many friends who come from places whose stories may not follow the structures we learned in school; whose characters aren’t all heroes, bent on retrieving trophies; whose narratives do not mirror the ones we’ve been told are paragons of “good work.” The draft of my own father’s autobiography started out, “Five thousand years ago in China,” and I scoffed, telling him that this was not the way to start an autobiography. (The writer Gish Jen, in her book Tiger Writing, recounts a very similar anecdote, and I was never so pleased to see that someone had the very same story as I did to tell: It proved that my experience was not a fluke and that my dad was not the only one trying to pull the wool over the collective eyes of a western reader.)

In every case, reading stories by writers who come from different cultures is an accurate reflection of the world I live in today. On a more personal level, it has underscored my gratitude that we live in a world where knowledge of an infinite world of stories is literally at our fingertips if we can just broaden our library searches or our peregrinations in our bookstores.

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This is the last installation of “From the Front Lines.” I’ve loved every minute of writing this column, and I hope you’ve enjoyed it and learned something from it and feel like you’ve gained a writerly colleague in me.

Next month, I’m moving over to writing a column that’s about exactly what we’ve explored together today – the huge breadth of literature available to us. Together, we’ll look at different storytelling traditions and learn from writers who are practicing those traditions today. We’ll check out some books that show off these techniques, and we’ll even try a few of these techniques ourselves. I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

—Yi Shun Lai is the author of Pin Ups, a memoir. She teaches in the MFA programs at Bay Path and Southern New Hampshire universities and is a founding editor of Undomesticated Magazine. Visit at undomesticatedmag.com.

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