Am I Chinese Enough to Tell This Story?
Kirstin Chen on Writing About a Family Fleeing Maoist China
After my first novel was published, I flew back home to Singapore for the Singapore Writers Festival. I’d been asked to read an excerpt at my panel. It was a simple request; I’d given countless readings in the preceding months, always alternating between the same three passages. This time, however, when I flipped through my book, I felt a new trepidation. Soy Sauce for Beginners is set in contemporary Singapore and filled with Singaporean characters, and yet, I’d spent little time considering how a Singaporean audience would receive it. The sentences had been composed in Boston and San Francisco, revised from feedback offered by my American graduate school classmates and agent and editor, and read mainly by American readers. What if Singaporeans thought I’d been away in the US for too long? That despite what my passport said, I wasn’t Singaporean enough to tell this story?
I wondered if I should temper my American accent with some British pronunciations, since British English was what was taught in school. Perhaps I should choose a passage without any Singlish lines (the local English creole) to avoid unnecessary judgment. Or perhaps I should read solely in Singlish to prove my bona fides.
In the end, because I could not find a better excerpt of the right length, I read the passage I always read—the one in the beginning of the book, with the single line of Singlish dialogue. And when I read that line, I felt the festival tent stir. I thought I saw heads turn and glances exchanged. But maybe I’d imagined it all.
What I didn’t imagine, though, was the encounter with the woman in the book-signing line after the panel.
“I’m looking forward to reading your novel,” she said, “but I don’t think you’ve spent enough time in Singapore to speak Singlish.”
Still smiling, I said, “I grew up here. My parents live here. I moved away for school when I was 15.”
“Fifteen still too short, lah,” she said. “Must at least be 18.”
Back in my apartment in San Francisco, I turned my attention to my new novel. The idea for it began with an unforgettable story a friend had told me about a relative that was left behind in early Maoist China. When my friend’s father was a boy in the 1950s, he’d witnessed his grandmother defacing the portrait of Chairman Mao with a hammer and reported her to the authorities. The family decided to flee to Hong Kong, but when they attempted to procure the necessary exit permits, they were forced to leave one child behind as proof of their intention to return. As a result, my friend’s aunt—his father’s younger sister—had to remain in China. I can no longer recall what compelled my friend to reveal this part of his family history, but I do remember my reaction, the chills that shot down my spine, the thudding of my heartbeat. I leaned in and asked question after question: How old was your aunt? Who was she left with? Did she eventually get out of China? Where does she live now?
After my interaction back in Singapore, however, I had doubts as to my ability to write this next novel. If there were readers out there who believed I didn’t have the right to tell a story set in Singapore—the land of my birth, the only home I knew—who was I to embark on this novel, set in a part of southern China that I’d only visited twice, during a time period that I knew almost nothing about? While I am Chinese, my family hasn’t lived in China for several generations. My relatives live in Singapore, Hong Kong, or the US. English is my first language, and my years in America have chipped away at my ability to read Chinese. If I wasn’t Singaporean enough to tell a Singaporean story, then how could I possibly be Chinese enough to tell a Chinese one?
I studied essays on cultural appropriation by writers I admired, like Kaitlyn Greenidge and Viet Thanh Nguyen, searching for guidance, clarifying my own views. Like them, I take it for granted that “a writer has the right to inhabit any character she pleases—she’s always had it and will continue to have it,” as Greenidge writes in The New York Times. At the same time, one can’t simply ignore history, particularly when writing characters of a different race. “The sensitivity over culture cannot be understood in isolation from deeply entrenched histories of colonization, exploitation and inequality,” Nguyen writes in the LA Times.
All of this made sense when thinking about white writers writing minority characters, but how did this apply to me, a Singaporean Chinese with Filipino-Singaporean-Chinese parents, who had lived in America for over half her life, and was writing a Maoist Chinese story?
Research seemed like the only way to fight back my doubts. If I didn’t yet have a right to this story, I would earn it through sheer hard work. I read novels and memoirs, history and economic texts. I watched narrative and documentary films. I pored over glossy pictures of propaganda posters. Still, every day I added to the already long list of questions to which I could not find answers. Each time I sat down to write I imagined my words being picked apart—in The New York Times Book Review, why not—by some famous historian of modern China.
“All fiction writers, regardless of our cultural backgrounds, must acknowledge the privileges and responsibilities that come with the job.”
Somehow I completed a draft of Bury What We Cannot Take. I could no longer put off tackling my list of unanswered questions, and since my books and the Internet had failed me, I turned to my father’s oldest sister, the only member of my immediate family with in-depth first-hand knowledge of the setting and time period of my novel.
Bury What We Cannot Take is set on the tiny island of Drum Wave Islet, located just across the channel from the city of Xiamen, in 1957. As a young child, my aunt had lived on Drum Wave Islet (more commonly known by its Chinese name, Gulangyu) for several years, before moving to the Philippines with her family in the 1940s. The year she turned 15, she took the money meant for school fees and ran away from home to join the wave of Overseas Chinese students returning to China to rebuild the Fatherland. She ended up back in Xiamen.
I was not close to this aunt. I saw her every couple of years at family reunions, but aside from hugging hello and goodbye, we’d barely spoken. Still, she welcomed me into her home and made me lunch and asked, “What do you want to know?”
She shared her childhood memories of living on Gulangyu: how, during the war, her family had been so hungry that her mother had slaughtered the family dog and made soup; how my aunt and her older brother had launched a protest to voice their anger and had refused to eat the soup, only to be held down and force fed by the grown-ups.
She shared later memories, too, of the famine of 1960: how as a young and pregnant reporter, sent to write about a rural village, she got so hungry and exhausted that she simply lay down by the side of the road and slept until she gained the strength to keep going.
From the day she ran away from home, two decades would pass before she saw her parents and siblings again.
In truth, very few of these memories actually made it into the book. My aunt had given me something even more valuable: insight into the resiliency of family. How do members of a family probe and stretch the limits of familial love? How does a family recover from the profoundest of traumas? These are the questions I ask in Bury What We Cannot Take; these are the questions I now ask of my own family. I’d spent all these years on research in order to fully render my characters, but in the end my characters had revealed my family to me.
Now, in hindsight, I see how I’d managed to sidestep the issue of cultural appropriation all together. My aunt had bestowed upon me the right to this story, which had given me the confidence to tell it the best way I knew how. But what if, instead of my aunt, I had interviewed a stranger? What if, instead of being a Chinese writer, I was white? If a white writer had done the same research and spoken to the same people and ended up with the same novel, would she have earned a right to it?
I picture my book cover with a new name under the title, say, Mary Smith. I turn the pages and imagine Mary typing these phrases and descriptions and scenes. When she writes of the husband losing his temper and striking his wife, is she guilty of promoting the stereotype of the stern and remote Asian patriarch? When she describes the cruelty of the Maoist government official, has she villainized him to the point of caricature?
To be fair, these are concerns that I, too, considered, before concluding that each of these character’s motivations and fears allowed him to transcend type. Still, it’s possible that Mary would be asked to justify her portrayals more than I’ve been asked to (so far); it’s possible that some critics would even assert that no amount of research could give Mary Smith the right to tell this Chinese story. And while I disagree with that perspective, I welcome the full spectrum of criticism, especially from the formerly silenced. All fiction writers, regardless of our cultural backgrounds, must acknowledge the privileges and responsibilities that come with the job. If I’d never questioned my right to tell the story of Bury What We Cannot Take, I may not have sought out my aunt. I may have believed that all the information I’d needed was in my research texts, and my novel would have suffered for it. Instead, I never forgot what a privilege it was to be able to share this history, this region, and these characters with a mainly Western, English-speaking audience—and the profound responsibility I had to get the details right.