I had a crisis last week when I realized that all of the contemporary Chinese-American fiction writers I can think of are immigrant women, with the exception of Ha Jin. I noticed this after I’d turned in my short story last week, told from the perspective of a Chinese-American immigrant woman talking about the Cultural Revolution.
The story is called “The Swim.” It’s about Chinese refugees during the ’70s who swam from the mainland to Hong Kong. I first heard about it from my parents, who told me stories about a couple from their church who swam to Hong Kong because they were persecuted for practicing western medicine. I later found out it was common around that time in the Guangzhou province. I wondered why I hadn’t ever learned about it.
I told my housemate Paul about it, and he said even his parents swam to Hong Kong to escape the Cultural Revolution. His Chinese name, Hoi-Leong, refers to the moonlight that his father used to measure how far he was from shore when he swam.
My brother Josh was the first one to read the story once I finished it. It was the best story I’ve written to date, and I thought I was the first one to write about Chinese refugees swimming to Hong Kong – until my brother told me over the phone that Lan Samantha Chang had already done it in her novella “Hunger.”
Lan Samantha Chang is the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, arguably the best Creative Writing MFA program in the nation. This is also the place that Josh is going to study over the summer with James Alan McPherson, the first short story writer and African American to win the Pulitzer Prize.
Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Josh got into the program by submitting a story about a Chinese-American woman pastor. The last word makes it original.
“I didn’t tell you about ‘Hunger’ before, because I thought you wouldn’t have written it,” Josh said.
I felt a mix of relief and disappointment when he said it. He quickly snapped into motivational-speaker-Josh and said I shouldn’t be discouraged by unoriginality, but encouraged that a number of people are starting to write about a historical phenomenon few Americans – including the second generation Chinese – are aware of.
It’s as if this were the pain Olympics, where we were all competing with one another to see who could write the one Cultural Revolution story that defines our generation. As if genocides and death counts were all competing against each other to get coverage in the New York publishing industry.
I asked Josh what he thought about Chinese immigrant women monopoly, the most widely read group of all Asian-American fiction today. My theory was that they were able to sensitively talk about political warfare that didn’t involve the U.S. It’s the same reason why the forgiving Toni Morrison is much more widely read than the scathing James Baldwin or Edward P. Jones.
Josh’s theory was a lot simpler, and much more believable: Chinese women are the easiest to exoticize. When he said that, I wondered what my story was doing to challenge that.
Fiction writer Chimamanda Adiche said in a TED talk that the cultures that tell the most stories are the ones with the most power. They get to tell sad stories, happy stories, stories of suffering, stories of courage – each different perspectives that fully communicate the complexity of their culture. As a Nigerian-American writer, she is frustrated that the only stories from her culture that get broadcasted in America are of the poor, the starving, the overseas teenager living off the aid allowance of their first-world parents.
The fewer stories told, the easier it is to put the culture in a box. I thought about the fiction I’ve written over the past few years, and what stories I was telling. Then I thought about the columns I’ve written over the past year, and what stories I was telling about myself.
The fewer stories told, the easier it is to put the writer in a box. What do the cardboard walls I’ve written around me look like from the outside?
GEOFF MAK is disappointed that the best argument the Republicans could come up with against Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan is that she’s gay. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’ve ever read Nami Mun’s “Miles From Nowhere” and can tell him if it’s worth a read.