The Asian American Women Writers Who Are Going to Change the World

V.V. Ganeshananthan, Porochista Khakpour, Bich Minh Nguyen, and Esmé Weijun Wang discuss writing, activism and community

This past year of national chaos has often had me thinking, What if? What if, before this year, I’d spoken up more, given more, fought more? On the one hand, if I’d allocated the entirety of my waking hours toward canvassing for the side of political good, I still, in all likelihood, wouldn’t have prevented this year’s kakistocratic events. But if a thousand people like me had done more? Ten thousand?

What-if rue like this is mostly useless, but it can, at least, help lead to future action. Toward that end, I’ve felt heartened and inspired by the examples set forth by fellow writers — especially, at times, by politically outspoken Asian American women. It’s a demographic often expected to be relatively quiet, even docile; what’s more, we’re routinely labeled the so-called model minority, a hateful idea trying to press us into the service of white supremacy. It’s evil shit, and not-at-all-quiet exemplars abound, including Nayomi Munaweera, Celeste Ng, Vanessa Hua, Nicole Chung, Alice Sola Kim, Jarry Lee, Rachel Khong, Tanwi Nandini Islam, Aimee Phan, Vauhini Vara, Jenny Zhang, Karissa Chen, Mira Jacob, Kat Chow, Steph Cha, Kirstin Chen, Tracy O’Neill, Larissa Pham, Marie Myung-Ok Lee, Suki Kim, Marie Mutsuki Mockett, Sonya Larson, Shuchi Saraswat, Catherine Chung, Shanthi Sekaran, Christine Hyung-Oak Lee, Jia Tolentino, Hasanthika Sirisena, Nina McConigley, Krys Lee, Solmaz Sharif, Ru Freeman, Lisa Ko, Janice Lee, Katrina Dodson, Aja Gabel, Sonya Chung, Jade Chang, Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, T. Kira Madden, and, and, and.

In this roundtable, I spoke with four such vocal women: V.V. Ganeshananthan, Porochista Khakpour, Bich Minh Nguyen, and Esmé Weijun Wang. They’re all versatile writers who frequently work across genres, splendid novelists who also write candid, powerful nonfiction, and who are brilliantly forthright about their political views. Here’s Ganeshananthan in the Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s Margins about who gets to write what they don’t know, and her essay “The Politics of Grief” in Granta. Here’s Khakpour on writing as an Iranian American in Catapult, and her essay “How Can I Be a Refugee Twice?” in CNN. Nguyen wrote about being a refugee in Literary Hub, and, along with Karissa Chen and Celeste Ng, published a rap-battle response to Calvin Trillin’s “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” Finally, take a look at Wang in Buzzfeed about the “good” schizophrenic, and in The Believer about metaphors of mental illness.

We talked on Google Hangouts about different kinds of writing, expectations of Asian American women, physical height, and varieties of activism.

R.O. Kwon: I wanted to assemble this roundtable because I admire you all, and I’ve learned from you — from your wonderful books, of course, but also from how vocal you are about your politics. Were there any catalyzing events that led you to start writing politically, or has this always been a part of your writing life?

Esmé Weijun Wang: For me, it depends on what you mean by writing politically. If, for example, we’re talking about mental health advocacy, I’d say I started writing about that back in 2010 or so, and there were definitely catalyzing events. But in terms of writing more about issues of race and white supremacy, I feel like that’s been, for me, more recent, with the exception of some writing I did in the 90s and early 00s. Part of my more recent participation in the discussion has come from seeing other people of color, especially Asian American women, writing about similar issues.

Bich Minh (Beth) Nguyen: Yeah, I’ve always written about race and racism, and Asian American identity, but I hadn’t always talked about it. I do think I’ve become more vocal because of social media, and because of what’s been happening in the past couple of years. It took me awhile to grow into the more public space.

V.V. Ganeshananthan: A lot of my early writing probably wasn’t especially political. For me, Twitter, in particular, is a helpful, liminal space between writing and talking. I do write politically, but I will sometimes say things on Twitter that I wouldn’t say aloud. It’s strange, since I have a large enough following that it’s probably larger than any room I would address — which isn’t to say it’s that large — but I feel very comfortable there. I think that comfort has expanded.

Wang: You know, when I was 17, I published two essays in a book. One essay was about Asian fetishes, and the other was about Asian identity, about the Caucasian pseudonym I used for a long time when I was first starting to write. I don’t immediately think about what I wrote back then because, at the time, there wasn’t social media. You would publish something, it went into a book or some other print publication, and that was basically it. There was no feedback, not like there is now with essays published online.

Porochista Khakpour: I think there were catalyzing events that led to me being a political person. For example, being a refugee with political asylum status and a “resident alien” green card. The L.A. Riots when I had just become a teenager. Going with my father to protests at L.A.’s Federal Building on a variety of Iranian immigrant causes. My identity as an Iranian American was to be interpreted primarily politically, so I had no choice. By the time my first novel came out a decade ago, I knew that was how people saw me, and more and more I rose to the call and the need, which was very real.

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Kwon: I wonder how you think about dividing your time and energy between writing fiction and memoir versus speaking out — whether it’s on Twitter and Facebook, or via essays — about the political situation? Is there any divide between these kinds of writing for you?

Nguyen: Honestly, I’ve had a lot of trouble writing since last year’s election season. I’ve had trouble thinking about my writing as being relevant. Sometimes I find myself writing about political topics on Facebook, but I’m not actually writing my book. In writing classes I took, we were always discouraged from writing anything political because we weren’t supposed to preach, and anything political was considered preaching. Of course, that’s not what I actually believe. But it takes an active form of thinking about what political writing is to feel brave enough to make it happen in my own writing rather than on Twitter or Facebook.

Wang: Yeah, I feel similarly. Social media feels like a safer space for being deliberately political. I’ve been trying to experiment with what, exactly, feels meaningful in terms of including politics in my nonfiction and fiction. Last fall, I needed to send Granta a new story for their Best of Young American Novelists issue, and I was having a lot of trouble coming up with something fresh. I felt it wouldn’t be meaningful unless it addressed the current political situation, and that was something I’d never thought a lot about before. The story I ended up publishing in that issue includes the election. It concludes with the night the results come in, and I’d never done that before, including a political moment in fiction. I’m finishing a book of essays about schizophrenia, and I have to convince myself of the relevance of what I’m writing. Sometimes, it feels like nothing is relevant unless it’s obviously relevant.

I have to convince myself of the relevance of what I’m writing. Sometimes, it feels like nothing is relevant unless it’s obviously relevant.

Khakpour: I am constantly online, and that is where my activism finds itself most these days, given I deal with physical disability, too. I spend several hours on social media daily, and that goes mainly to political causes, so there is no real struggle to divide the time. It’s who I am. I can’t possibly tune out, especially not these days. My other writing may be separate or may be related but it continues on a whole other track. Activism has been part of my identity for many decades.

Ganeshananthan: I’ve written about a different set of politics for a long time, and with the goal of including politics in essays, fiction, and poetry. I have clear strategies and thoughts about how to do it in a Sri Lankan context. In Sri Lanka, the population is reading in three languages: people don’t always have reading material in common, so I’m always thinking about translation in a way I don’t in the United States. Also, a lot of my Sri Lankan characters are involved in politics. I’ve had American characters in my fiction a long time, but they’re often less politically active. I’m not sure why that is, and I’m not sure they are going to stay that way. I’m still figuring that out, but I think it’s helpful to have some practice in another sphere.

Kwon: I’m curious if — well, I’ve realized I often react to what people expect of me. I know that, sometimes, strangers think I’ll be quiet, passive, demure as fuck, and I take almost cartoonish measures to try to contradict those expectations. I curse a lot, things like that. I also get tired, though, of projecting a strength I don’t always feel. Beth, you’ve talked online about how people think you’ll be quiet, and how they can get extra angry when they learn you won’t be, you’re not. In your writing life, on social media, do you feel the weight of these expectations about women, especially Asian women? If you do, how do you handle them?

Nguyen: I will say that I have cultivated a strong resting bitch face, and it has served me well. I have had to deal a lot with the consequences of not meeting people’s expectations — in my personal life, in my academic life. People don’t understand that they’re reacting to a stereotype. They don’t understand their own anger, and I cannot adequately explain it to them. It just makes them angrier and more defensive. The problem ends up being all mine. It’s very difficult to have a conversation with a white person about this level of racial stereotyping because, typically, they don’t want to admit they harbor those feelings. I have to expend a lot of extra energy working around that, trying to avoid it. I don’t think it’s useful or personally satisfying, and I don’t always do this, but it’s sometimes the only choice I can make to avert the larger racial disaster that usually happens when a white person is even gently called out for harboring racist ideas.

Wang: As a teenager, I wanted to stand with my hips thrust out, hands in back pockets, trying to inhabit a demeanour that went against type. During my wedding rehearsal, a table of my friends said, Oh, we were all just talking about how we were all so intimidated when we first met you. I was really surprised to hear that, and kind of proud. I feel like my reputation has moved away from being deliberately intimidating. There are times when I miss that, in how I’m perceived.

I have cultivated a strong resting bitch face, and it has served me well.

Khakpour: As an Iranian, sometimes I’m not even considered Asian. It’s hard to know where we fit in, much less what stereotypes get tagged on us. I mean, I know straight men sometimes have some sort of fetish, which is pretty horrific. But I think for my group of Asian Americans, others so barely know us that they can’t even guess what we will be like. “Terrorist” is as far as it will go. But I’ve been heartened when Asian American groups bring us in as West Asians, because then we can find ourselves in these discussions. We often aren’t even allowed to consider these issues because we fit in nowhere.

Ganeshananthan: From a pretty young age, I was hell-bent on being perceived as vocal. So people where I grew up did not think of me as quiet. I think it helped that I was tall. I was the tallest girl in my class for many years, up until I was eleven or twelve, and then I stopped growing. But I already had the psychology, even though I didn’t keep growing, and now I’m just average. Sometimes, people will say to me, Oh, I didn’t realize that you’re only 5’5”.

Nguyen: That’s tall!

Wang: Porochista and I have talked about the fact that people think she’s a lot taller than she actually is. Even though I’ve spent a lot of time with her in person, and know her well, I still think of her as maybe being 5’10” or 5’11”, even though she’s 5’6”. It’s interesting to think about how taking up physical space influences perceptions of Asian women.

Nguyen: I wrote about part of this in a book, Short Girls, because I grew up short in a city where everybody was really tall. Throughout my childhood, people would say, Oh, you’re so short, you’re so small, how’s the weather down there? As a result I felt small, that I didn’t deserve to occupy space, and I think that did something to me. What’s interesting is that, now, I always forget that I’m short. I am, actually, very short. I’m five feet tall, but in my mind, I don’t feel like a short person. I don’t think about my size. For me, that is a big mark of my progress. I grew up feeling so short, and now I just feel like a regular person.

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Ganeshananthan: It’s funny, Beth and I were roommates at a conference in Iceland. We’d met before, but it was the first chance we had to spend a lot of time together, and I remember you referred to yourself as short, and I said, You’re not short. You said, Stop, look at me, and I —

Nguyen: I was wearing heels!

Ganeshananthan: Yeah, you were wearing heels. But I’d also developed a much taller conception of you, and I think we must be putting all kinds of work into this. I mean, I played an instrument that I picked because I was told it was too big for me. I pursued it seriously for years! Also, we’re not supposed to be funny. I remember that, at one event, a young woman said to me, repeatedly, I didn’t think you’d be funny!

Wang: Oh, gosh, I relate to that so much.

Nguyen: Oh, yeah.

Ganeshananthan: To be fair, I wrote a fairly serious first novel with half of one joke in it. But people sometimes have fixed ideas about what you will or should be like, and that’s tough. That can come from within your own community, too. People say, How did you do this, why did you do this, I have some ideas for your book. In some of those conversations, people are definitely a little surprised that I’m not demure.

Kwon: I know I’m not the only person who admires you all for being writers who try visibly and actively to be forces for change, and for good. What advice do you have for other writers who want to be more politically vocal?

Wang: I think a good way to start, and a good practice for me to continue, is to amplify other voices, particularly those of marginalized people who are being directly affected by this new administration. Retweets can seem simple, but I feel they’re also really important to do. And for people who aren’t used to talking about politics on social media, it’s also a way to not have to try to compose something eloquent and new.

Nguyen: That’s what I would say is key, is to support other writers’ work, and to be part of that community. Community is what we need and what is going to get us through these time. We have to be active in it, and do our part. I know it’s not always easy to speak up. In my classes, I don’t force students to talk if they tell me they’re really introverted. I want them to know they can speak up in different ways. For example, I’ve been thinking a lot about motherhood as one issue in academia. Academia is not the most welcoming place for mothers, even though it seems like it should be. So I’ve often kept that part of my life hidden, and then I realized that wasn’t doing any good. I was just reinforcing the idea that mothers should not be mothers in academia. And so I thought, Okay, this is another aspect of life where, if I step up a little more, and try to be more open about it, visible, maybe I can help somebody else.

I don’t believe in writers who are not invested in wanting to change the world.

Ganeshananthan: I agree. The idea of amplifying other writers’ voices is important. Taking that one step further, I think it’s a particularly American narrative that there are two choices, and you must pick one: I must speak out and I must be on the top of every mountain or I have done nothing useful. From working in a Sri Lankan context, I’ve also gotten that, sometimes, the political things I do don’t have my name on them. That might mean I’m editing an op-ed for someone else, I’m helping them get in touch with an editor who might appreciate their work, I’m arguing with them so they think their political arguments out differently. There are many options. I’ve seen people I admire come up with alternatives that work for them. They say, I can’t go to a protest, for example, but I would like to offer my home as a meeting space. I can’t be at this rally but if someone would like to take my car, or if someone would like to have a meal at my house — other forms of support are possible. It’s been really moving.

Khakpour: Stop being afraid. Speak up. Be yourself. There is no dignity in keeping it all inside. If you are a writer, you have something to say, certainly. So do it. And don’t stop. I don’t believe in writers who are not invested in wanting to change the world.

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