“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion began “The White Album.” Her words have been on repeat in my head during the months that I have been neglecting this column while putting the finishing touches on my thesis for Saint Mary’s MFA in Creative Nonfiction. As I prepared to walk for graduation, I found myself returning to the beginning and wondering: Is that why I decided to tell stories? What exactly is the nature of telling stories?
This past January, I took a class that explored fairy tales from a comparative and cross-cultural perspective. I thought it would help me learn how to write stories since folk tales have both expository and narrative elements and follow set structural patterns. There is a hero or heroine who goes on a journey. There is a donor who helps the hero or heroine. There is a conflict, separation and ultimately a reunion. Things tend to happen in threes. In order to find the narrative arc in my own story, I decided to go back to the very beginning.
Some folklorists believe that the first stories told were tales of giant-slayers. In a Norwegian tale, seven brothers go off in search of seven brides, and the oldest six are turned to stone by a giant’s hand. Only the youngest prince and princess are able to trick the giant and destroy his heart. Or in the Portuguese version, three sisters go out into a field to pick flowers, then disappear. When the youngest brother comes of age, he goes off in search of his lost sisters and finds the first two married to the King of the Birds and the King of the Fishes respectively. But his youngest sister is being held prisoner by an evil giant that wants to force her hand in marriage, and the brother must destroy the giant’s heart. Then there’s the Cyclops in Homer’s Odyssey or David and Goliath. Were these stories told in order for ancient people to live or were they just stories the peasants liked to tell to pass the time?
Shizue Seigel, an Asian American artist I know in the Bay Area, recently introduced herself to a group of women by saying that so many of the movies she sees don’t speak to her life at all. As much fun as it is to watch Meryl Streep being chased around by Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin, she can’t relate to Streep’s movies because the experiences are so far from her own. I admit I was completely baffled by this statement because Meryl Streep is one of my favorite actresses. I could understand where Shizue was coming from since there was a time in my life, not too long ago in fact, when I complained about every book I read and every movie I saw because they failed to represent me, or any Asian American perspective—but never Meryl Streep’s movies.
Dark Matterwas the first film I saw at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival in 2007, and I gravitated towards the sympathy her character, Joanna, showed for the Asian gunman oppressed by the school’s racism and department politics. When I went back to K College after the film fest, my Asian American studies mentor told me that after a similar shooting in the 1990s, militant students would hang pictures of their professors in crosshairs to protest oppression. At that particularly militant point in my life, Dark Matter, and Streep herself, became emblematic of me and my college experiences.
Becoming Realer: Identity, Craft and the MFA is a column that explores issues of poetry, theory and writing craft in relation to the personal experiences of Saint Mary’s College of California Creative Writing MFA candidate and LR staff writer, Kelsay Myers.
“My [writing] is a testament to who I am and what I have lived. It is a process of becoming a student, a teacher, an activist, and an Asian American woman. I was forced to pick up the pen as a weapon and wield it in a fight against the oppression of my people, to become a voice for those of us who are unable or unwilling to speak.”
I wrote those words in the introduction to my Senior Individualized Project (SIP) at Kalamazoo College called, “Creating History and Spaces: The Making of an Asian American Woman in Zuihitsu.” That’s still what I want to do with my writing—create personal and political history, expose it, re-frame it and carve new spaces for people who have been left out or overlooked. I want my writing to make a difference in the world. It should make a statement that will reach others, even though I am ultimately writing for myself.
To this day, I still remember reading Seattle poet Koon Woon’s first official book of poetry,The Truth In Rented Rooms(Kaya Press, 1998) back in Rochester, NY. As I read more of his writing it was like watching the smudgy white walls of my studio apartment turn into a kaleidoscope of possibilities. I could tell Woon’s writing came from a place of strength and hurt, truthfulness and sorrow. These were human qualities I had taken for granted all my life before I started writing poetry myself.
Woon’s writing had the wonderful ability of convincing me to peer deeper into the well of mystery and to search for my own meaning in life. He writes in the poem “In Water Buffalo Time,”
When my little friends mocked me for my seriousness,
Our teacher, under the shade of the yung tree bursting with berries,
Told us Meng-Tse had dreamed he was a butterfly
Dreaming it was a man.
Without even knowing what a “yung tree” or who “Meng-Tse” was, I intuitively knew that as a poet of Asian descent I was on the threshold of a long literary tradition in this country I called home. I knew I had already missed much, but I soon realized that the curling waves of Asian American literature(s) populate a very large and deep body of experience, innovation and experimentation that only keeps on getting stronger.
The editors of the Lantern Review blog have asked me to review books of poetry, and I intend to employ my trusty reading skills and quirky powers of interpretation to the task of properly introducing poetic works by Asian American authors to You, the general reading audience. The kind of poetry that reels me in and makes me want to take another bite is one where the author simplifies the complex only to open me back up and engage my mind with the never-ending complexity of human experience and imagination.