My mother’s given name is Fang. Friends and teachers here have always said it like it’s a sharp tooth. But in Chinese, it’s got a brief but harmonic “ahh” sound, the kind the dentist asks you to make. I like to think that my mother and her name toughened up for America. It makes for a good story, you know? It gives you something meaty to chew on.
In the spring of my junior year of high school, I took an English class called “Stars and Dust,” in which my classmates and I learned how to write creative nonfiction. “It’s about truth. Write what you know,” my teacher admonished after our daily warm-ups. So I wrote about hurricanes. I wrote about ants and ghosts behind bedroom doors, about silence and surgery and scabs. Bluebonnets in desperate bloom along the gray highway. I wrote about roots and my mother.
In a way, I almost felt like I had to. I mistook writing what you know for writing everything you know, and I confused confessional angst with honesty. I saw aspects of my life as little doors to be unlocked one by one and thrown wide open to the foreign eyes of my classmates: One week I wrote disability (so brave!), the next week I wrote ethnicity (so edgy!). An advent calendar of life experiences. Ethnicity especially — actually, race, ethnicity, nationality, the distinctions were muddy to me at the time (“as muddy as the polluted banks of the Yangtze River,” I probably would have written back then). All I knew was that it sounded really poetic to talk about accents and foreign rivers and the nicotine staining my grandfather’s tongue, and the way my mom checked locks three times and called out to me from downstairs, “Mimi, ahh!” These things added texture. They added truth!
Junot Díaz pulls this kind of thing off. So do Amy Tan, Jhumpa Lahiri, Julia Alvarez. I couldn’t. I recently reread the story I wrote about my mother, and the words sound nice, and I make a semi-vulnerable mention of my bacne at one point, but it doesn’t feel honest or full. At the end of the story, I tell my mother I’d rather have her homemade dumplings over French fries any day.
Where did that come from? When did my mother’s messy story — displacement and money-tightness and homesickness and unemployment — get distilled into a sappy winter-night bonding scene at a McDonald’s drive-through?
Part of the problem was likely my lack of self-discipline. I was an immature 17 and allergic to self-discipline and trying to hit upon the right chord of truth. I’m almost 19 now, which isn’t much better.
Beyond that, I tried to write my mother’s story in a way that it was never lived. I thought her foreign struggles would be more “authentic,” not only because of the suffering-equals-art trope, but also, at least a little bit, in the way Gauguin painted native girls like fruit and called it art. He liked their rawness, having escaped all the artificiality of society back home. But when my mother counted tips as a waitress in an oily Americanized-Chinese-food restaurant, she had no comforting sense of “keeping it real,” and she never thought, at least consciously, that her circumstances were somehow more authentic or morally resonant. They were simply harder.
There was something else, too. I relished the thought of having something that most of my classmates didn’t, as if experiences were possessions. We were forever disciples of that mantra, “Write what you know,” and we exploited life material for literary material. Equating singularity with creativity, I grabbed onto this thing with slick, greedy fingers and rearranged it onto an Microsoft Word document. I made myself, I made my mother as different and as novel as possible because I wanted to say something original. But all this time, my mother’s been trying to rope in the stubborn runaway vowels that still tell people she’s from someplace else.
I remember stuttering when my teacher asked me to read my story aloud to the class, my own words dragging their feet on their way out of my mouth. My mom, on the other hand? Well, she’s a fang.