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. Read More