(Hah, and you totally thought my next post would be about the gift I sent D for Valentine’s Day, didn’t you?).
I’m in Chicago, in the middle of the 2009 AWP Conference – and what can I say so far, except that it’s been incredibly exhausting but utterly amazing. Today was only the first full day of the conference, and already I’ve gotten to attend a panel put on by Writers In The Schools (WITS – the umbrella organization of WritersCorps, where I interned two summers ago), a panel about community service and writing, an amazing reading (with the incredible Sun-Yung Shin, and also a Chinese American poet I hadn’t known about before, but whose work I fell in love with when I heard her read it – Wang Ping), a panel about landscape and narrative (where I got to meet Lan Samantha Chang briefly, afterwards), an hour or so’s worth of walking around the enormous bookfair, and a really fun and insightful talk by Art Spiegelman (the comic artist behind Maus).
I’ve been overwhelmed by people’s friendliness, and also by the sheer enthusiasm and overwhelmingly earnest passion that people have for their own work and for their friends’ and colleagues work. And the subject matter being discussed is so much more real and immediate to me than, for example, even some of the most interesting panels I attended at the American Literary Association conference last year. I’ve felt really encouraged, just being here. I’ve had this overwhelming rushing sensation come over me at times: “THIS is why I do what I do; THIS is why I’m here in the brutal, frozen over hell that is winter in the Midwest” (Mind you, I don’t think the Midwest is an awful place; I just cannot, and will probably never, be able to get used to the extremes of weather). And I’ve been so incredibly humbled and grateful at the kindness of older writers (especially from the Asian American community) reaching out to me, and even asking me to contact them after the conference and to send them some of my work (though they’d never met me before). I feel a little like a crazy fangirl at times, walking around completely starstruck by the ranks of generations of writers who fill the seats around me at seminars and panels and readings and special sessions. If anything, my experience so far has really reinforced the importance of community to the health of the arts, and of the artist, for me. The lessons about community I learned from starting OT last year never rang more true.
One thing in particular idea, however, really stood out to me today, which is why I decided to blog (at some point, I hope, I’ll go back and read my past entries and be reminded of this). During the panel on landscape and narrative (which, admittedly, was about Midwestern landscape – but which I went to anyway because I’m incredibly interested in landscape and place, and because Lan Samantha Chang was going to be one of the speakers, and, having studied Hunger, for which place is so intrinsically important in her characters’ development, I was curious as to what she’d have to say), David Haynes remarked that he’d realized in recent years that one of the reasons he has trouble writing about his hometown is that he’s discovered that writers of color often experience a kind of alienation from the place around them – because of a preexisting sense of social/historical alienation – that prevents them from fully claiming a particular landscape as their own. Right then and there, it was as if a lightbulb went off in my head. One huge problem I’ve been trying to wrap my head around for a really long time now is the question of why it’s so darn DIFFICULT for me to write about my hometown in anything less than an abstract sense. As David Haynes made his comment, my mind started working and the logic of it sort of fell into place. Home, to me, kind of never really encompassed anything beyond my family’s home and backyard. Sure, we participated in the life of the community to a certain extent (mainly with regards to the school system), but I’m not sure I ever felt like a full Moorestonians – partly because my family is simply very private and not particularly social. But I also now think that this is partly because we were simply just different from our friends, neighbors, colleagues and classmates — ethnically, culturally, and experientially. Most of my friends’ parents had been living in the US, if not in Moorestown, for all their lives – and their families had been “Americans” for generations before that. They bought their meat and fish at Ralph’s, biked into town for cookies Peter Pan Bakery, swam in the Sunnybrook swim league, played tennis at the Cherry Hill Raquet club, and looked forward to inheriting family businesses, or at least, falling back on a cushion of financial support if things didn’t work out, after college. They knew where they were going. Moorestown was theirs, to grow up in, move away from, and late move back to when they were ready to settle down and raise kids. We, meanwhile, lived on the outskirts of town. We could’ve walked to school, or to the Flying Feather market on the weekends for water ice (like some of our neighbors did) but our parents didn’t feel it was safe. It was the first time any of us, I think, had encountered having so much space at our disposal (keep in mind that my parents were raised in the city). For a while, even to my brother and me as little children, what was magical about our four acres of woods was that it didn’t seem truly ours – it was more like a fairytale land to be explored and discovered. We mostly stayed to ourselves. We bought our fish, not dead and iced-glazed at a small town butcher’s, but swimming and freshly butchered at the Chinese market in Philadelphia (and later, when one opened closer by, from Cherry Hill). We bicycled – not into town – but up and down our driveway. We didn’t really participate in summer sports camps as small kids (my brother did T-ball for a year in 1st grade, and then quit, and anyway our parents didn’t entirely know how to help us pursue such things; nor did they consider them as important as summer activities like VBS or practicing multiplication tables). Until recently, our father did not own a business in town (even now, it’s an unusual kind of business – which, I think, makes him pretty brave); nor have we ever expected to inherit money or positions from our family. Or even to return to this place once we’d left. When we moved in, we didn’t really know how long we’d stay where we were. It was assumed that my brother and I would move away permanently after college; that my parents and grandparents would downsize to a smaller house (though they’ve since changed their minds and decided to stay as long as possible). My parents were used to the idea of not having many roots in a place, I think. And I think I grew up used to that idea, too. The idea of being rooted (as in, I-did-my-growing-up-here) but not rooted (as in, I-never-felt-like-this-place-was-mine) I think has been a constant struggle for me. I’ve always known that my sense of racial inadequacy in the context of my very-white neighbors and friends has helped to contribute to the difficulty that I have writing about issues of ethnic identity. But I never really thought of it in terms of landscape before. I’ve always reached back towards the known landscape as a kind of touchstone, a reminder of rooting and place ownership. But now I realize that the landscape I really knew and owned growing up was mostly confined within the four acres of our yard. There are places and parks in my very small town that I’d never visited before college, even though they were sites of childhood play and family memories for my classmates. No wonder I always run up against a blank wall when it comes to writing about the landscapes of home. Even though I think the natural textures of the place I grew up are beautiful. Even though I want to – even need to – write about them, with all my might. And it makes sense to me that the farthest I’ve gotten with this has been a sense of perpetual mourning at the destruction of farmland around my neighborhood. I think because I could imagine it happening to my own family’s land one day, and that one piece of land that was so near and dear to me, which we really felt was ours, and which housed our formative years of self-discovery and in a way, protected us from knowing the extent of how different we were from other children until we became older – that to imagine its disappearance is to imagine the disappearance of a slim foothold on a larger landscape that was already always alien, and which we longed to know and claim, but could not. Perhaps also, because I’ve never known this place as well as I’d like to, and it bothers me that I do not – and my obsession with trying to know, to understand, to own, feel, claim – drives me into panic when I see it dissolving into grids of unfamiliar buildings before my eyes. The unknown, which I had at one time become resigned to view as alien, becomes even more alien, and so what I lose in the loss of Moorestown’s rural landscape is not a loss of history and identity, as I’ve always, to this point, imagined (after all, when I come to think about it, I never really knew any of those places growing up – simply drove by them on a regular basis, and imagined my own home into them), but the ability to find out what I’ve been missing, to know that which I’ve been trying to know, but have never really felt a part of, for all these years. Once it’s gone, my chance to put the puzzle together disappears, too.
Perhaps, then, what I need to be doing in my writing is not to be looking for mythologies of hometown landscape that have never really existed, but to explore some of this frought history of alienation. I think this is what makes Lan Samantha Chang’s use of landscape to explore her characters so successful. The land is big and vast and moves around them, and the little square piece of it that is their yard is theirs. But only fleetingly so. Because the land around them moves past, and not with them, and what they’re left with is only a haunting shadow, a self-swallowing memory of belonging, community, and individuality.