I can’t remember the first time someone asked me what I was. The question has always been a part of my landscape, as common as denim or dirt. Now people ask it of my daughter. The question itself is funny—what are you?—so nonsensical, so naked of etiquette, frenzied to know. Sometimes it’s friendly, a password whispered in front of a door, asking if we are the same. Usually, it’s not. I used to try to play games with the question, beat it. Well, I would say, I have a bachelor’s degree in political science and English literature. Now, made sad and wise by age, I just tell people what they want to know, reeling it off like a rhyme: my mother is white from England; my father is Chinese from Singapore; I was born in Canada. Is there something necessarily humiliating about having to list your race—and your parents’ race and your grandparents’ race—before you can gain entry into conversation? If so, it’s only because we’ve made race something to be ashamed of. This is what I tell myself: you can think your way out of this trouble, this pain.
I never wanted to write fiction that was rooted in where I came from. That where is overexposed, like a stripped nerve. This is a problem for writers of color—or for anyone who knows there’s a narrative attached to their body, a narrative over which they have no control. Telling the truth, just being me, felt like a crude performance. Writing about my life was giving into the lust of the dominant gaze. And there was no way I could write my story and pass it off as pure fiction: I reverse migrated with my family from Canada to my father’s country, Singapore, and then I migrated back to Canada, my birth country, as an adult. This journey was so embarrassingly specific, so convoluted, it could not be masked well enough to be a story of its own, loosed from autobiography.
Instead, I swung hard in the opposite direction. I wrote angry, reactionary work, telling the world all the ways it was wrong. I published a novella of feminist fiction in 2007 because if my writing didn’t have a righteous point to make, how could I justify doing something as bourgeois as writing? An instructor told me that when you write, you have to leave the soapbox behind—you can’t let politics determine the story. Because he was white, I ignored him. Maybe it was easy for him to put aside politics, but mine weren’t something I could take off like a T-shirt. Then, at a workshop for writers of color, another teacher said the same thing, a little differently: if you can’t get past your own morality, you will be judging your story too much to write it. This was a ground-shaking relief. It gave me a choice that wasn’t either turning my cheek or slapping back. It gave me permission to walk away.
In the summer of 2009, my literary career going quite poorly, I got a job in a distant suburb teaching English to laid-off autoworkers eight hours a day. I caught a bus at the end of the subway line and rolled for forty minutes through an industrial park. Every day, there was almost no one else—just me and industry and humidity and a couple eight-year-olds going to see their grandma. It gave me time to think. I thought about a relationship that had ended two years earlier, one I had believed would last forever. When it ended, it triggered an avalanche of other endings, ones I’d never laid to rest: how abruptly I had left behind one life after another as my parents and I moved continents, sometimes twice in one year, and then how I’d moved one last time, without them, the loss of their presence like a fissure in the earth that would never again be filled. At the time, I’d done what Oblonsky does in Anna Karenina: “There was no answer except the usual answer life gives to the most complicated and insoluble questions: put it out of your mind.” But now, on this daily bus ride, I faced those endings. In this Pacific expanse of sadness, a joyful idea bubbled up: My past does not determine my future. I don’t know what will happen next.
I had found a story: I would write a novel about grief that ended with that thought. Maybe because I had a fantasy that my grief would end there, on the back row of that bus. It was unlikely, but it was a healthier fantasy than the one where if I just wrote one more ideological novel, racism would end.
I began looking for a plot to bear my idea. Someone who is bereaved is stuck in time; they can’t move forward. What if I actually stranded a character in time? So I started writing a time-travel novel. For the first time in my writing career, I felt delight. As a totally imagined world unspooled before me, there was a place I could go that was somewhere else. And in this free place, where I was alone, without the eyes of the world or my stingy self, something odd happened.
I wanted to write true science fiction: What would it be like to realistically time travel? I researched the U.S. visa system, labor bonds, first-person accounts of migrant work. But in order to write about the emotional landscape of displacement—what it would really feel like to arrive in a strange time where you knew nobody—there was only one place to look to get at the bodily truth. I had to return to those first days I spent in Toronto at nineteen, marveling at the wideness of light switches and how revolving doors worked; how the telephone wires were strung overhead, parceling out the sky, instead of buried in the ground; how lonely it was to be the only person with the eyes to see what was native to everyone else. I had to write about my life. And so I filled my protagonist’s world with things from my own: she suffers because she won’t ask for help, lest she reveal her foreignness; she closes her eyes and pretends that when she opens them, everything will be the way it was; she can’t fill her Sundays.
In trying to get away from my story, I’d walked in a circle and returned home. But now everything looked different. Writing my story as sci-fi was safer, more insulated against the gaze. But that’s not why I did it. I did it because it was good for the story and because the story was mine. We don’t have to fight for control of something that’s already ours. It’s ours. Let us tend to the stories that are in us. Let us let go of the stories other people tell themselves.
In explaining his own halting journey to “writing what you know,” Kazuo Ishiguro describes why he was driven to write about his family’s homeland, which he left at age five:
I was starting to accept that ‘my’ Japan perhaps didn’t much correspond to any place I could go to on a plane … the Japan that existed in my head might always have been an emotional construct put together by a child out of memory, imagination and speculation … What I was doing was getting down on paper that world’s special colours, mores, etiquettes, its dignity, its shortcomings, everything I’d ever thought about the place, before they faded forever from my mind. It was my wish to re-build my Japan in fiction, to make it safe, so that I could thereafter point to a book and say: ‘Yes, there’s my Japan, inside there.’
When we are writing fiction, even science fiction, we are asking our reader: Can you see me as I see myself? Can you see the places of my life? In a world like ours, such an act is a bonkers, bad-idea, foolhardy leap of faith. It is a kind of love.
Thea Lim is the author of An Ocean of Minutes.