My first novel, Baroque-a-Nova, came out ten years ago. In 2001, I was turning 26 and only a year out of grad school. I had come back from to Vancouver from New York City because I didn’t want to find a job or relocate to Queens, and had just moved out of my parents after paying off my student loans producing content for an internet start-up.
With one book under my belt, I thought I had an idea of the kind of writer I was.
Or at least the one I wasn’t, and that would be an Asian, or Asian-Canadian, writer.
That didn’t mean I couldn’t look in the mirror. I was born in Hong Kong, and felt lucky to be living in a city where being Chinese is more common than being redheaded. (I currently teach part-time at a university dubbed “Too Asian” by Maclean’s; I’m looking forward to the day when it’s Asian enough to find fish-shaped waffles on campus.) And yet, in 2001, I didn’t want to be a writer confined by certain expectations of the subject matter and thematic content of my work that came with my ethnicity. I thought of myself as a writer who happened to be of Asian descent.
The best-known books by Asian-North American writers were concerned with subject matter to which I felt, at best, a distant connection: railroads, restaurants and laundries; stern, overbearing parents; concern with mythology; a devotion to an ancestral land that is distant and unalterable; and certain keywords like “joy,” “luck,” and “jade.”
Although it was a world I could claim, it didn’t reflect my own experience. While I have two great-grandfathers who paid the head tax, I was born in Hong Kong by parents who themselves were raised there. My parents, while not overly permissive, weren’t hysterically strict in the now-infamous “Tiger Mother” mould. I wasn’t forced to play violin, but my mother signed me up for guitar lessons.
So when people ask me what my parents thought about me being a writer, part of me bristles at the kind of response they expect. Generally, though, I pause for a moment and say: “Nobody wants their child to be a writer.”
The comedian Louie CK has a very famous routine about being a white male that inadvertently encapsulates my feelings, in 2001, about historical novels.
“Here’s how great it would be to be white. I could get into a time machine and it would be fucking awesome when I get there. That is exclusively a white privilege. Black people can’t fuck with time machines. A black guy in a time machine is like, ‘Hey, anything before 1980—no thank you, I don’t want to go.’”
We don’t have time machines; the next best thing is the historical novel, which is likely the most popular mode of literary fiction in this country. If Canadian novelists of European descent (and their white readers) travel back in time to indulge vicariously in their privilege, what benefit does a non-white writer or reader derive? An Asian-Canadian novelist looking to his forbears’ past for inspiration can only transport himself to a struggle against hardship and systematic racism. While I was aware of and saddened by the past, I’d rather focus on the present-day.
The books I was besotted with at the time all attempted to voice certain contemporary themes: art, the fecklessness of youth, the effect of mass media on one’s identity. My first novel contained all those obsessions, and almost to make a point, didn’t have any major characters that were Asian.
When I was asked about that decision by Rebecca Wigod, who was kind enough to profile me for the Vancouver Sun, I told her I didn’t want to write a book with “bamboo lettering” on the cover.
Like a lot of what comes out of my mouth, that remark was both off-the-cuff and rehearsed. It continues to haunt me.
This October, I will be speaking at an event entitled “Bamboo Lettering” at the Vancouver International Writers Festival with two other Chinese-Canadian writers, Ling Zhang and Jen Sookfong Lee, both of whom have written work that looks at the Chinese-Canadian immigrant experience of the past. I feel more than a little sheepish knowing that these authors will need to speak about their work in the context of a flippant remark I made over a decade ago.