Diaspora evokes a sense of loss. For me the struggle to write arose out of disruption – trying to recover grounded-ness under the constant chaos of moving across international borders. Writing has been a helpful exercise to converge disjunctive moments in life, bridging the gap between foreign surroundings and faraway memories. It is therapeutic to piece together the fragments.
While a life on the move provides plenty of inspiration for prose, the downside is to not be able to fit into neat categories of national literature. The difficulties are twofold: coming into terms with identity and searching for relevant publication venues. As my Chinese family moved from Canada back to China early on, the question of identity has always lingered in the back of my mind. Among my friends in China, I had always presented myself as Chinese. Identity was more like a camouflage, a protective layer so as to not appear different. It took endless sessions of post-colonial theory courses and pet therapy before I could finally start talking about being Canadian. Writing also helped me claim my identity. It was a process of self-validation. Having acquired English as my native language at a young age, not being able to speak it in China was like being deprived of a voice. Even as I was studying in the US and UK, I had to face constant interrogation from strangers about why and how I spoke English so fluently, like an implicit warning that English will never be my language because I looked Asian. These microaggressions are a prelude to the discrimination and erasure that many women writers of color face in the West.
Walking past shelves of English literature displayed in bookshops had frequently left me with a sense of defeat. One could easily tell that nearly all of the visible names on the book ridges were Caucasian. When Asian or Asian American/Asian Canadian writers take the spotlight, the story is either a tragic tale of fleeing Communist China or the hardships of immigrant life in North America. While masterpieces such as Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous are simply too poignant and real, only making the marginalized experiences of these writers of Asian background visible caters to a public need to consume grief. The reality of being Asian, especially in East Asia, can be quite different from the simplistic descriptions of oppression in Anglophone literature. As I looked upon famous Asian and Asian American writers as role models in writing, I found myself indulging in unhealthy reiterations of oppression, even though I myself was lucky enough to mostly be free of the discriminative experience as I grew up in Asia. This is not to say that every Chinese person in China is better off than a Chinese Canadian. Literature has the duty to illuminate the multiple dimensions of privilege and deprivation rather than reinforce existing cultural stereotypes. To break free from the limitations of existing themes for minority literature in English is to recognize that every voice matters.
So what unique vision do us writers on the borders have to offer? The first is to deconstruct what immigration means. In the old days moving from one country to another is to seal life in the country of origin behind closed curtains. Contemporary digital technologies alter the landscape. For people like me, China can still be accessible even as I move to Canada or the UK, through instant conversations with family and friends on social media. I can still spend an entire day speaking, reading and writing Chinese in international cities like London or Vancouver. My life can still be perfectly functionable as it was in China, as long as I avoid thinking about the fact that I am actually in a different country. The constant availability of these avenues of escape also makes it more difficult to sit down and make sense of one’s own journeys. Writing involves emotional labour. Those of us who happen to find time to reflect, struggle to capture the elusive elements not yet articulated in English literature. The methods can vary. Writing in two different languages and translating back-and-forth comes a long way to foreground one’s own assumptions. Implicit within the text is the addressee. Laying out sites of rupture between languages, cuisines, countries, etc. can be helpful both for the diasporic individual and for readers who may not possess the cultural context.
The greatest challenge that I stumble upon in writing is to go beyond the role of a cultural communicator and actually start talking about the world the way I see it. Explaining cultural differences in order to get to the point is like going through the hurdles of asking “How are you?” before being able to have real dialogue with a person. “How are you?” is also a distinctly English expression that does not have such a dominant presence in other languages. Navigating the nuances in expression and etiquette is part of being a multilingual writer. Yet sometimes the “How are you?” part drags on forever and the conversation gets stuck at the beginning. Quit being polite. Confirming to conventional phrases can stifle the text. English is an evolving language. Colloquial deviations add variety to the English vocabulary, which is already so indebted to cultural exchange. Paramount against all odds, narrating a fresh experience opens up new modes of relation across language and culture.