Sometimes, you talk to a person, and they give you a bunch of hope for the future while simultaneously making it very clear that you still have a lot left to learn.
I’m talking to Xu Xi, Jenks Chair of Contemporary Letters at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, author of 14 books and editor of four anthologies of Hong Kong writing in English. Her latest project is The Art and Craft of Asian Stories, an anthology comprising a selection of works by Asian authors with commentary from Xi and travel writer Robin Hemley (Bloomsbury Academic, October 2021). For starters, the anthology was a hard project for me to wrap my brain around – it isn’t, Xi and Hemley write in the introduction, “meant to silo off Asian writing for Asian writers.” In fact, it’s meant to do almost the exact opposite – it’s meant to “widen the field of models for students from any background in any country.”
I take some time over this sentence in the introduction because I have become used to judging a book by its cover – and, worse, a short story or a novel or any text, really, by the perceived ethnicity of the person who wrote it. Frankly speaking, I should know better: When I queried my debut novel in 2014, I fretted, and rightfully so, that potential readers would see my name on its cover and expect a certain kind of narrative, one that takes place in Taiwan, where I’m from, and is peppered with all sorts of exotic foods and chopsticks, and in which, when the characters speak, it’s in broken English, charmingly offset with italics when they mispronounce words.
In some ways, I was right to worry – my book, a contemporary women’s novel, is shelved in “Asian American studies” in some places, and I did get told by a major agent that I should employ more broken English and more food descriptions.
It is all very much tied up in what folks believe is marketable – and what the gatekeepers believe the American public wants to see; what they believe is an “authentic” story from an ethnic voice. But even though that was seven years ago, the question of who “gets” to write or tell which stories is still on everyone’s lips. In my case, it’s a constant battle between whether I write my American existence or the Asian culture and ethnicity that rules my parents’ house – and, if I’m being totally transparent, often guides my first impressions. Xi has another, and to my ears, healthier way of looking at the quandary. She says, “I think that saying who is the authentic writer is the worst question you can ask. It’s like it’s almost irrelevant because authenticity has nothing to do with the imagination or creativity or art. You know, art is about ‘how do you see the world?’ And ‘what is humanity about?’ Whatever vantage point you take is authentic.”
This is deeply refreshing to hear. But Xi has more knowledge to impart. I tell her about the students in the Master of Fine Arts programs I teach in, who say that they want to be seen as writers who just happen to be Asian or happen to be Mexican or Black or female and who also are good writers who tell good stories.
Xi tells me that she believes that the way forward from that is to keep encouraging these writers to write their actual lives. “I mean,” she says, “the question is, how does a writer that happens to be East Asian live? Does she live an East Asian life or American life? Or is it a life where they never speak their language, the East Asian language, [a life] where they never eat the food? [Today’s writer is] drinking bubble tea, and they’re eating kimchi, and then they’re also eating pizza – I mean, this is normal now, right? I think that somehow their writing is going to reflect that. It’s ‘how do they live?’…How do they experience the world? What do they see? How do they move? What concerns them? What catches their eye? What are you hearing? What are you listening to?”
In many ways, this is a deeply ironic position for me to ponder writing from: I, who also wanted to be seen as a writer who just happens to be East Asian, never really had East Asian friends, nor did I seek them out. And although my mother cooked the way her mother cooked in the countryside of Taiwan, once she discovered the less elaborate American meals of steak, salad, and potato, we moved quickly to that. And, growing up in the Inland Empire of Southern California, our food choices for dining out, more often than not, were pizza, submarine sandwiches, or Chinese takeout, which bore little to no resemblance to the food of my childhood. So although my published name is ethnic and my family practices my home language and traditions, I would fall into the category of writers whose lived experience is more American than Asian.
And thus comes the second learning point Xi has to impart to me, the marked difference between Asian literature and literature from the Asian diaspora. She notes that the globalism of our current time is encouraging travel to the point where writers can move back and forth between East Asia and the United States. “They’ve mastered both languages, and it’s not like they’re separated from their [home] cultures. So someone like Gish Jen, for example, is really a very American writer, right? And she doesn’t pretend to be otherwise; at the same time, she’s drawing on all that Chinese family and cultural history. The young people, younger writers, who are coming from China or Shanghai or Hong Kong with Taiwan or whatever, can look to the West and go there, and be just as comfortable there as they are here.”
At this point in the conversation, something clicks for me. Me, I say to myself. Xi is talking about me. I, too, straddle these two different worlds. I may not be teaching classes in Taiwanese or even in Taiwan anytime soon, but I can see a future in which that happens. I don’t know if any of the books I write will appeal equally to East Asian audiences and majority-white audiences, but it shouldn’t matter because there is a whole demographic of folks who are writing stories that not only occupy the space between Americana and Black, Latinx, East Asian, Muslim heritages but that move fluidly and joyfully between and among them.
Literature changes to reflect the demographic that writes it, not the demographic that reads it: While there still may be echoes of the type of prejudice that influences my own reading, younger writers, Xi notes (she cites K-Ming Chang’s Bestiary, which spans three generations and addresses queer love), are writing very much against the stereotype while they’re drawing on the legends and lore of East Asia. There will be no dragon ladies or trauma narratives in which the single Asian girl in a majority white school gets bullied. “A lot of writers now are cutting through stereotype, writing narratives in which, yeah, OK, a girl gets bullied, but maybe she’s also a bully,” she says.
Talking with Xi has, like all the best conversations, challenged and exposed my own prejudices and allowed me a larger lens with which to view an entire demographic’s literature. And if it feels a little funny that the demographic she’s pulled back the curtain on happens to be my own, well, so be it. No one ever said that growth was painless.
—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.