“I Started to Write the Way I Needed To”: An Essay by 2019 Emerging Voices Fellow T.K. Lê
The 2019 Fellows have two months to go and they want to talk about their experience as Emerging Voices, in the hopes that they might inspire other writers in need to apply. Stay tuned to PEN America’s blog through July for this series of essays from T.K. Lê, Dare Wiliams, Fajer Alexander Khansa, Judy Choi, and Anthony Hoang. In the first installment, poet T.K. Lê talks about the things we inherit and how they impact our lives as writers.
Are you a writer? Apply to be a 2020 Emerging Voices Fellow through August 1 (PST.) Want more of the 2019 Fellows? Join us for the Final Reading on July 23 at the Hammer Museum.
For most of my life, I was convinced that my only inheritance as a child of refugees was fear and shame. From my father’s constant anxiety that spies were following him to my mother’s strident efforts to make me more normal, or less strange, I learned that staying small meant being safe. I made my way through most of my life making compromises with some core part of my being I couldn’t yet name, and feeling guilty about harboring a deep desire to be creative.
Along the way I received signals that I took as warnings to stay small. I graduated college to be a journalist just as the market crashed. All my mentors at my big magazine internship got laid off. I quit journalism and taught English in France. Every day I was barraged by direct racist and sexist comments, and from that experience I began to see the ways in which the U.S. hides these issues under convoluted policies and “polite” conversation. I threw myself headlong into activism, and joined efforts to build a leftist Vietnamese American movement. I burned myself out in so many flames, went to graduate school, fell ill, and decided against pursuing a doctorate. I took an 8 to 5 job in administration, where I could comfortably pay the bills and retain good health insurance. Yet I continued to be sick and isolated from community. My writing suffered.
And yet it survived. I was writing, even when I didn’t think I had the right to call myself a “writer.” Even when I was too afraid to say I wanted to write. I journaled, scribbled on scrap paper, dumped creative writing on Facebook, wrote blog posts, and ran writing workshops. I researched and wrote a thesis on U.S. empire and Vietnamese diasporic memory. I grieved the death of my grandmother, whom I was unable to see more than once in my life, by composing my first short story. Each April since I met artist and activist traci kato-kiriyama over five years ago, I wrote 30 poems to celebrate National Poetry Month.
My writing survived, and I did, too. Survived enough to write a how-to manual—or a poetry collection—to comfort my future self the next time I feel lost.
I survived because of people. People sustained the core of my writing, and fostered it when I was unsure and afraid. I couldn’t create alone, and their support showed me that I didn’t have to. They wrote with me, shared stages, created workshops, kept repeating that I was ready even when I refused to listen. They also showed me how to build an intentionally political literary community.
As more layers of the mask of the U.S. empire fall, I have been witnessing my friends and community members grow more afraid. In increasing incidents, they are targeted in public restrooms, threatened with deportation, and attacked in their safest and most sacred of spaces. Everyone I love is exhausted, sick, and dying. There is no time left to be small. This year, I took a risk: I called myself a writer, and I started to write the way I needed to.
These parts of my past, the careers and movements I was a part of and subsequently left, and the things that happened to me, are no longer sources of shame. There’s no reason to hide the fact that I came into myself the way I did. The winding road I took to get to where I can call myself who I am gave me the ability to write the stories, poems, and essays that I do. My past helped me to name and call to the people for whom I live.
The PEN America Emerging Voices Fellowship has afforded me time to focus on my writing. I am connected to resources to structure a creative career that makes sense for me. I am a part of a lineage of writers whose work I admire, and that is affirming to know. Vickie Vértiz’s sharp and generous mentorship has empowered me to aim higher, try more, and to try again.
I didn’t inherit shame and fear from my parents; they were holding what oppressive institutions foisted upon them, both from Vietnam and in the United States. Rather, I hold this weight consciously and I learn from it. What they did transfer to me, somewhere deep in my bones, is a desire to keep living, to keep going in the face of every system that operates to make me feel worthless. What I have gathered along the way are the tools to take our pasts and our years of experience to help build big, reclaim space, to work collectively toward a new self-determined future. With political action and creative imagination, we can tear down the borders, gates, and regimes that try to fool us into disbelieving our own power. I don’t know what is to come in the years ahead, but I can no longer afford to be afraid.