Becoming Realer: Re-Claiming Asian America

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.

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K Awareness Campaign circa 2008 | Graphics by Nina Reyes

“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.

There’s one problem with my former way of thinking about writing. As long as I think of writing as something that happened to me because it was the only avenue I had left, a way of self-expression forced on me by my experiences with racism, I will resent it . Am I really a writer if writing isn’t my choice, just a way to deal with past trauma? Is writing a passion, something that exists in the core of my being, or is it simply the only weapon left at my disposal “in a fight against the oppression of my people”?

Those questions weighed heavily on my mind this past week because I’ve reached that point in the academic year when doubt starts to seep in. I’ve been told by a second-year in my program that this happens to everyone, but my doubts stem from two very specific roots: 1) the idea that writing is not enough. And, 2) the fact that I am a transracial adoptee.

The root of the first problem was not planted by my parents. My dad was responsible for getting a new library built in my hometown and has a deep respect for books and their messages. My mother reads five books at a time all the time. But, I grew up when math and science were prized over art and literature. And, as a Korean adoptee, I have an insatiable need to belong and belong at any cost. Gone were the heydays of the Beat Generation and even postmodernist theorizing. That’s the reason I took physics in high school instead of creative writing, and one of the reasons I devoted myself more to the study of philosophy than poetry during my first few years at college.

In fact, in my first-year of college, our school newspaper, The Index, published a front-page article intended to cause a stir on campus. It did. The article claimed that the hard sciences were the only rigorous disciplines, and that the social sciences and humanities were “fluff majors.” While those of us in the so-called “fluff majors” largely dismissed the article itself as “fluff,” somewhere in the back of my mind, I wondered if writing really was enough for me.

In my last year of college, I decided to drop my philosophy major to a minor, one class away from getting the degree. It was the hardest decision I had to make. It was my dream to become a philosopher, but it was more than that. I’d fallen in love with philosophy, and I am certain that if it hadn’t been for my experiences with racism in college (both in the classroom and outside of it), I would be a philosopher today. Dreams change though, and so do identities. I devoted the rest of my college time and energy to Asian American activism and poetry. I brought spoken word artist, Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai to campus, attended the Midwestern Asian American Students Union conferences and wrote my SIP.

Last year when I applied to MFA programs, I believed that I had finally accepted my task and role as a writer. My writing is about making sense, and art, out of my lived experiences, I claimed. It is also about becoming a teacher, an activist, a gadfly and an artist. So, I threw all of my time and energy into the craft. I decided to write for two blogs, and my first published essay will be coming out next month in a new Korean adoptee anthology called More Voices. It’s a sequel to the 1999 anthology, Voices from Another Place.

This semester at Saint Mary’s, I’ve thrown myself into more projects as well. I’ve started to learn about writing pedagogy, and I’m building an art installation for the Asian American Women Artists Association‘s exhibit, A Place of Her Own. I’ve decided to revive an old academic and creative writing hybrid essay and am again writing larger social critiques for a music writing craft course. All things that seem to take me further and further away from writing toward art or criticism.

I met with my graduate advisor to talk about it all. She thinks that all the groups I write across will want to claim me: Asian Americanists, cultural critics, memoirists and artists. I hope she’s right. She asked me where I would say my writing fits. What do I consider myself to be? That’s an identity-crisis inducing question for an adoptee. I hope to be all of them and none of them. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts philosophy. A new space. Not that it’s really “new” per se. Recently, I read Aino Rinhaug’s article in Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Perspectives called “Adoptee Aesthetics: A Gendered Discourse.” She says:

“Adoptee aesthetics expresses not only the contemporary aesthetics’ political concern with and turn to the notion of ethnography; it also explores the limits to this practice and seeks—simultaneously—to identify what could be seen as new boundaries and territories of its own practice.”

I’m not unique, which is probably a good thing. As an adoptee, I also want to belong to every group, and I fear that I don’t belong anywhere or to any group. It is a debilitating and consistent fear. The most important groups that I hope to belong to are Asian American academics and creative writers.

In the past few days, I have come to believe that writing is all of these things: learning, teaching, Asian American activism and becoming the person I am. Then, I happened to glance at the LR blog and saw last week’s writing prompt where Claudia Rankine calls for writers to examine why we do or do not write about race and how it consciously affects our work. Everything fell into place. Although I did write long before my experiences with racism on my college campus, I developed my voice out of those experiences. I lost a self and gained a self because of that entrenched system of oppression. Although a lot of my anger has gone since leaving the Midwest, that is something I cannot forget, even if I write for myself these days. That is who I am and what I have lived, and that is why I claim to be an Asian American woman writer all over again. But, this time I don’t just accept it. I embrace it with both hands.

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