Chronicles of an X-American (part 1)
The best training is to read and write, no matter what — Grace Paley
I’ve always been a poet, and it’s always some tributary of poetry that I return to when I have my teeth, metaphorically, kicked in. I started writing poems, mostly nature poems, when I turned nine. I was fast with my first drafts and slow to revise. Only my fifth-grade English teacher was remotely encouraging about my work, and it was only because of Mrs. Heath’s belief in me that I kept writing for pleasure. My favorite thing to do in school was to diagram sentences, and create little train tracks or tree branches of words, all connecting with each other in a magical and logical way to make a sentence.
In middle school one English teacher flatly told me I had no talent and I should think of something else to do besides write. I was no Flannery O’Connor, she said, and I should give up. This was the same teacher who was astounded by my fluency in English and often accused me of cheating somehow. I caught other language arts teachers’ stifling yawns or barely contained eye rolls when I said that I like to write and wanted to pursue a career that incorporated writing in it.
By the time I was a senior in high school, I was full-on Sylvia Plath, depressed and writing poems about death and winter – and what propelled me was a friend from school who told me to keep writing.
So I did. I was the child skeptic in my family, interestingly enough, and constantly asking questions, especially questions that started with WHY so it was no surprise to my family that I chose journalism. My immigrant family was quite concerned I’d starve as a journalist or a poet, and wanted me to subscribe to one of the model minority myth professions: medicine, law, engineering. But I chose my love, writing – whatever the form.
I will not catalogue the number of people or institutions who did not want me to be a reporter – and their crazy reasons why. I will not catalogue the number of people who rejected my poetry submissions, or my first novel that I finished in graduate school. I will say that I was very discouraged, and it was my stubbornness that kept me afloat. 1980s and 1990s. Suffice to say, I found a few people along the way who gave me chances and I kept trying, I kept pushing forward and writing. It was something that was all mine. It has always been a thrill and a sense of accomplishment to see my byline in daily newspapers. (I’m so grateful and astounded to see the galleys of my debut novel in my children’s hands.)
I had to quit the newspaper world when the babies came along, and I happily returned to poetry.
I’m stubborn like my immigrant family. So many of the people in my immediate and extended families have been told to give up and go home. Go back to where you belong, they say. I’ve been hit hard with rejection, year after year, decade after decade. At first it was no No NO to the novel I’d written in graduate school, about 75 no thanks at the time. Then Jhumpa Lahiri’s book, The Interpreter of Maladies, was released in 1999 and won the Pulitzer Prize and the gatekeepers were plain old mean for a long time after that: Why don’t you write like her? We already have an Indian, Bengali, female, prize-winning author. What can you possibly add to the literary conversation?
I could rave and rant about all of the people who have told me it’s not good enough or who do you think you are? But it won’t help anyone. I can categorize my rejections and failures into decades: in the 1980s, when I was an undergraduate at UNC, I studied with a famous author, and she was encouraging – but my classmates were not, and their mean-spirited, condescending critiques left me numb and unable to write for three years.
When I began again, nature poems. My roots. And then after a long while, poems about being other, South Asian in a sea of white faces. In the early 1990s, I left the Midwest where I’d studied as a graduate student for the first time, and lived in Honolulu. It was the only time where I felt I was a blade of grass in a green meadow. So many faces that resembled mine, so many encouraging voices helping me push forward. I finally felt safe to write about misogyny in the workplace, about racism in the South and elsewhere in America and about the dichotomies of being raised as a hyphenated American: X-American in America. (It was so magical when Finishing Line Press took a chance on me and published two poetry chapbooks in 2017.)
By the mid-90s I was in New York, once again a minority in my largely white MFA program. Luckily, I had some of the best classmates in the known universe, and I got to study with some very caring teachers, including Magda Bogin, Rebecca Goldstein, Lucille Clifton.
By 2004, I had three babies in tow and my husband was out of town for work. A lot. My graduate school BFF made me apply for a summer workshop. I followed her advice and was floored to receive a full fellowship to poetry workshops at Squaw Valley. That was a magical week and I returned soon after as a fiction writer – for that workshop I wrote a story that would eventually bloom to my debut novel, The Atlas of Reds and Blues.
2010. I was six weeks away from finishing my novel, Shadow Gardens, a satirical ethnic retelling of Mrs. Dalloway. After the raid at gunpoint, and the confiscation of our electronics, including my laptop, I seriously thought about quitting (for more information see joylaskarstory.com). But my friends rallied – and a buddy in Atlanta got me started on my #artaday project, which is now entering its eighth year. Titling those photographs helped me get back into writing, one phrase at a time. Eventually, I went back to the little pieces of fiction I still had in my possession and I began anew. If I hadn’t listened to my friends, then I wouldn’t have the book that’s making its debut in four months. February 2019.
I too believe the road to publication is subjective, irrational. But if you have to write, then don’t quit. Keep going, no matter who tells you it’s not good enough. Keep reading and keep writing, keep pursuing your dream.
Books to consider this week: A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua, Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney, School Figures by Cathy Song, When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz.
Classic book recommendation: Golden Gate By Vikram Seth