In the year before the Age of Covid, I had just started raising my hand for speaking gigs—tentatively, of course, because I had and still have a very young career in writing, and always with a sense of a shock whenever my applications were accepted. And whenever I shuffled to my seat on a panel or stepped up to a podium to deliver a presentation, I’d scan the crowd—deliberately, methodically, checking each row and each face.
I was looking for something quite specific. I was looking for those faces that, like mine, don’t look like “the norm” here in Utah. Hell, let’s be honest—that difference applies even outside of geographic boundaries. So seeing more of us that weren’t “the norm” always bolstered my spirits, and made me even more determined to do right by them. And one of the ways I could do that was by showing them that someone understood where they were coming from—understood in a way that went deep down to the root of their identities and unearthed their fears and insecurities until they came tumbling out like grubs to be squashed underfoot.
I knew I could do that because someone else had done it for me—done it in a manner as distant as social media, and without knowing of their impact on me. They did this simply by saying that we all had grandma stories, and that we shouldn’t be afraid of telling them. We shouldn’t be afraid of purists who sniff and say, “Oh, well, what do you know? You might look like us, but you didn’t grow up here, so you’re not really one of us.” We shouldn’t be afraid because we should own our stories.
Truth be told, I am afraid. I am constantly afraid that I’ll run into someone who looks like me, who’ll listen to my heavily accented Mandarin (because I speak it like a foreigner), and watch me laugh too loud and too openly, and shake their heads over how brash and direct I am with colleagues, and think, It’s too bad. It’s too bad that her parents didn’t raise her right, that she is so American that she’s not really one of us anymore.
They’re right in that we didn’t grow up wherever our ancestors did. Fate had sent us elsewhere, and we had to adapt in different environments. And, truthfully, we are all the stronger and more flexible for it. I can’t say the same for the purists, who would attempt to control the gates to… what? An immaculate culture devoid of the heft and flex of movable time? A standard gone stagnant because it’s been held hostage by their steadfast refusal to admit that, as humankind evolves, so, too, does its countless cultures, and the stories that comprise them?
Pfbt. Puh-lease. I reject the reality you project on me and substitute mine—one in which we with mixed-up stories have as much right to tell them, in our own way, as classicists who study and retell the classics. In my reality, we had hot pot and a roast turkey on the table at Thanksgiving. We kept track of our ages twice over—once by the Gregorian calendar, and once by the lunar calendar. My mother taught us zhuyin, and my college professor taught me pinyin. Neither is right, neither is wrong, both just are. In the same fashion do our grandma stories exist—have the right to exist—and it is up to us to tell them, if we have the wherewithal to become storytellers. If we’re brave enough to own them.
It’s this kind of ownership on the part of writers of color that has helped pave the way for more diverse stories to flourish in publishing today. Okay, sure, a lot of that has to do with allies promoting our work in ways that we cannot (the spin-off blog post on that could derail into another novel by itself), but it all starts with us, the writers. We have to have the confidence to grab ahold of our stories and fly them triumphantly and say, “This is the story I want to tell, that comes from my heart of hearts and from my experiences and from the family I grew up with, if not the one I was born into.”
And those of us who heard a different story, who didn’t have the exact same experience—even if we identify within the same culture—need to make way for those differences and acknowledge that change and dispersion have created gaps in our experiences, gaps that have allowed these differences to put just a slightly different spin on old tales, and made them fresh and new for everyone again.
I share these ideas with writers I meet now, looking into their faces for the light that dawns when they realize they, too, have stories to tell. Stories that they want to tell, rather than the ones they should.
At the last in-person writing conference I attended before the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down, I saw that same earthshaking epiphany light up another young writer’s face in a way that made me catch my breath. He was one of those folks I look for, when I scan the audience: dark-skinned, with hair as thick and rich and black as calligraphy ink. His manner, when he introduced himself to me after my panel was finished, was unassuming, polite, in that “perfect English” that some folks like to “compliment” us for. He looked about college-aged, a kid who didn’t look white enough to brazen his way through the world with the swagger that his paler peers assume as their birthright.
We got the niceties out of the way, and then his previously stolid expression melted into dynamic energy.
“Oh, my God,” he said, “oh, my God. You have no idea what you just did for me. I didn’t think I could write Indian stories. Couldn’t do them justice.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because.” He gestured at himself. “I didn’t grow up in India.”
I smiled. “Doesn’t make your stories any less authentic.”
“No,” he agreed. “I guess not.”
“Write them,” I suggested. “Worry about the rest later.”
He tugged at his backpack strap and I swear to God, I thought he was about to pull out his laptop and start typing right then and there. Instead, he nodded, gave me one more brilliant grin, mumbled his thanks, and melted back into the crowd that was already rushing into the room for the next panel.
I remember seeing myself in his eyes, my fears and insecurities mirrored in his. Learning how to take ownership of my grandma stories had helped me overcome my fears—not completely, but enough to make do. I hoped that by empowering him with the same tools, he could overcome his.
Because we need more diverse grandma stories out there in the world to light the way for all of us looking to celebrate our differences and our unique experiences.
Feature photo credit: Min An via Pexels.