‘How Do I Write Without Being Pigeonholed?’

You have control but not in the way you believe.

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Hi there,

Happy Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month and Mental Health Awareness month. I wish my communities the potency and precision of our anger this month.

I once conflated anger with abuse, but I now know the permission to abuse is a value system. It has nothing to do with anger as an emotion, which has given me clarity for vision and energy for action.

Thus, as promised one month ago when I left Substack, I’ve been planning a series to spread knowledge about independent newsletters and their platforms for marginalized writers. I’m holding the first of these events this month: Starting a Paid Newsletter for Queer and Trans Writers (5/16; free), Starting a Paid Newsletter for Writers of Color (5/23; free), and Starting a Paid Newsletter for Creative Writers (5/30; $10-25). Special shoutout to Lambda Literary for helping to sponsor these so last-minute. You’ll be getting another update from me on summer programming soon.

In the midst of all the drama, I forget to mention that the final manuscript for my next book, Dream of the Divided Field, was sent to production in late March! The private life of a private book is coming to a close. This means I’ll be on the lookout soon for reviewers, reading venues, and all the hullabaloo of having a book in the world—I’m really looking forward to sharing it with you next year.

I’m continuing to teach Contemporary Queer and Trans Asian American Poetry this month at Dartmouth. In addition to attending the remaining events, you can now watch the April events with poet Ching-In Chen and critic Dorothy Wang.

Lastly, some people have asked if they could support me through a one-way donation instead of subscribing: yes, you can now tip me! This is also where you can donate a subscription if you’d like.

Now, on with the work.

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Photo by Yanyi: You've been walking through Manhattan but have stopped to look at this tree with the oddest leaves: green with pink fringes all around, collectively almost like cherry blossoms. They frame a window in a brownstone with a stone planter carved with shell designs. A few tough grasses are growing into their own flowers.
Dear Yanyi,

I am a Chinese-born American (does the term CBA exist?? If not, you first saw it here!) who has recently found a little bit of success in getting some essays and short stories published, for which I’m very grateful. However, I’ve noticed a disconcerting trend—all my works that are being published (and if not published, receiving the most positive feedback from my writing group) are my “China” writing.

I’m really uncomfortable with making this distinction that I never used to make, but I can’t help becoming aware of it. My “China” writing are essays that explicitly highlights “Chinese” cultural beliefs and social phenomena, while my “non-China” writing are short stories that do not focus on those things, although they may still take place in China or have Chinese characters. Obviously, my “China” writing encompasses topics that are not unique to China, and my “non-China” writing can still involve elements specific to China and Chinese people. At least, that’s what I think, or used to think. I can’t tell anymore.

Ever since I’ve become aware of this trend, I’ve become increasingly awkward and paranoid when I write. I’m hyperconscious of any “China” elements in my writing. When they’re there, they feel like they’re artificially grafted on in order to make the work salable. When they’re not there, it feels like they’ve been artificially severed in order to test the quality of my writing minus the “China” bits.

Is my writing even any good? Am I just getting rewarded for selling exotic ware? A consistent feedback I get on my “China” stories is that they help my readers learn something they didn’t know about China. But I’m not a journalist or a folklorist or an anthropologist. I can’t do their jobs. If that’s how I’m being read, then I’m just a really terrible and unprofessional journalist/folklorist/anthropologist/et cetera. I’m also a little discouraged because I’ve always tried my best to not just record “China” stories, but to subvert, critique, or transform them. Also, maybe I’ve been misunderstanding the whole situation. Maybe I’m just a really bad fiction-writer and a great essayist. How can I seek to understand and negotiate this unhappy distinction I’ve learned to make? How can I get an accurate measure of my writing?

Much thanks,
Very Confused

Dear VC,

I laughed at loud at your first sentence—another “CBA” over here. Congratulations on these early publications. They will not be the last.

The letter you’ve written is not only something other CBAs might ask but also something I’ve heard from other queer writers. I would venture to guess that though the specifics are not the same, many marginalized writers would relate to this dance between writing fully as your own self and trying not to be pigeonholed based on identity stereotypes. How can you prevent your work from being used to further cultural imperialism? How do you determine whether you’re really a good writer or if you’re being tokenized? How do you write at all with a sense of freedom if your professional avenues are rife with reductive readings?

As I like to do, let’s start by going over the more obvious advice. I’ve written before that it’s incredibly important to allow yourself and your characters the complexity of experience you actually live or want them to be able to live. That is, the continual violence of stereotypes is the flattening of others’ imaginations and your own imagination of yourself. The world already does it to you—it’s imperative you resist doing the same.

I’ve also said before that in the face of racism, you should write what you want. If you’re stuck waiting for judgment from another person’s idea of “good,” especially if that goodness has been structurally defined by racism, you risk internalizing a rubric that never included you as fully human, let alone a writer.

In your letter, you mention starting to read your own work as though it was “grafted” with Chinese elements or editing those elements out entirely to see if it was still of any quality. These two perceptions sound familiar? You’re reading yourself with racist tropes, too, accusing yourself as either an ethnic writer making it solely through exotic pandering or a technically-perfect-but-never-authentic Asian, good at imitation but bad at soul.

I’m not saying this to blame you. You’re anticipating the racist ways you’ll be read in hopes you’ll be able to evade them. That’s a long-term trauma response: because you’ve survived up until this point by anticipating all the ways the future can go wrong, you’ve quickly studied up on this threat and you’re winding up on how to avoid it. Yet, perhaps the solution to your problems has often been becoming another person. And there’s no one in the world who can do your writing but you.

Your writing is an extension of yourself. You’re self-conscious that you’ve been giving off signals you never intended, and now you’re making changes to your work because you believe that you can control how others respond to your writing and therefore you. It’s understandable—the anxiety you’re trying to allay comes from a desire to exist as who you are, not what others foist upon you.

But the whole setup of racism is that it has nothing to do with you. It makes itself your business. It interrupts your normal flow of life and writing—it seeks to stymie and confuse you about what you mean. It impairs your judgment and seeks to replace it with racism’s lens. On systemic levels, as in the traditional publishing world, it seeks to replace your standards of excellence with its own. Don’t let it.

You’ve been taught all your life to look up to someone else to validate your goodness. This is how you’ve known to get love. You’re a humble student, not a teacher. With writing, this teacher manifests in audience—it’s not just the established journals you hope to publish with, the prestigious prizes that announce you’ve arrived, or the degrees that show you are employable, it’s also the checkmarks on your writing from your writing group telling you how their minds were blown by that one line; it’s also the number of followers you get on social media. It’s no wonder that you’re feeling anxious right now: your sense of validation is primed more to follow a corporate manager than guide you on your path as an independent writer.

With this new revelation, you no longer trust the world to reflect the quality of your writing. Without the world, who can you trust to help you grow into the writer you want to become? Without the world, who will love you when you become that self?

A sinister part of systemic racism in literature is the reduction not only of people’s humanity but of all our perceptions of who readers are. The literary world that only appreciates your “exotic teaching” doesn’t imagine a readership who already knows about those themes. Its lack of imagination signals to you that you, too, should not imagine that readership—a readership that would include you. You are the evidence of the mistake.

If you want a public career in the existing literary world, you can’t escape the fact that you will be misread, misunderstood, tokenized, and belittled just because of your byline and your appearance. This has happened to me in various ways in my career both by people who didn’t know me and people who were very close to me. You’re not being paranoid: it’s really happening and it happens all the time. The next part of the craft you develop will be the result of this negotiation.

Unfortunately, I can’t tell you where to go from here. It’s a personal process that requires you to ask what kind of life you want to live and what values you hope to live out. It requires you to ask yourself what writing freely really means to you.

Every writer, no matter their identity, comes to an impasse with audience at one point. One wants to be read by people who understand the work; one wants to be understood. One wants to be recognized as good. One wants to be good. No writer comes to writing to be alone. But we are alone, eventually, and must learn to be, in order to do the work necessary. For the only way we can truly be understood is if we are determined to understand ourselves.

When I said “write what you want,” I am talking about your pleasure as the next arbiter of your work. That is, what would you write if your main audience was yourself? You don’t have to convince yourself that the Chinese elements in your writing were meant to “subvert, critique, and transform.” You don’t have to prove that you’re good enough for yourself. And if you do, why is that?

The life in writing gets shared with those who would find it life-giving, too. Part of that joy is writing with the right community. Not knowing the makeup of your writing group, I hope you’ll seek out at least one other writing partner who understands your Chinese elements from both an intellectual and emotional level. It’s likely this person would share your identity with you—maybe even another CBA. Sometimes the best feedback you can receive from your writing community isn’t how “good” or “publishable” something is, but how much it invites them to live.

Writing is an acknowledgement of humanity—not only of your own humanity but of the humanity of your reader. A good work reflects back to you your potential to be alive. It thinks you through your intellectual capacity, honors the fullness of your senses, projects visions of both your lineages and futures, and broadens your place in a community beyond space and time. When you write for yourself, this celebration is one and the same. The joy of writing for ourselves as audience is that we get to live twice. Not half-lives or part-lives as racism would have us accept, but more life than we even thought possible. Life that we get to give ourselves.

Postscript: On writing what’s “expected.”


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Yanyi is the author of Dream of the Divided Field (One World Random House, forthcoming 2022) and The Year of Blue Water (Yale University Press 2019). To find out more, go to yanyiii.com.