Storytelling and Narrative: Challenging Systemic Racism as Asian Americans
INTERVIEW WITH KEN LIU BY CAT HUANG
Photography from New York Time Magazine
This piece was published in the 32nd print volume of the Asian American Policy Review. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What does it mean to be an immigrant? What does it mean to have your story be misunderstood and taken away from you? That you feel like you cannot tell your own story? That’s how a lot of immigrants feel—that they cannot tell their own story because the language they wish to use is not the language that most people in their new home can understand. There’s something deeply frustrating and incredibly human about all that.
AAPR: The eponymous short story “The Paper Menagerie” within your short story collection The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories is highly decorated, has won multiple prestigious awards, and is very popular among readers. The story talks about basic themes that many readers within and beyond the Asian American population can at least understand, if not specifically relate to. It discusses family, immigration, and growing up in this era of race and discrimination in America. It talks about the American Dream and the desire to assimilate—even themes of corporatism.
What do you think is the significance of talking about these themes? And do you feel like talking about these themes of discrimination, race, etc.—or the way people talk about these themes—has perhaps become reductive in today’s day and age?
LIU: Yeah. I’m really glad you asked the question. “The Paper Menagerie,” the story itself, is actually a fairly difficult story to talk about because the story is written in such a way that it’s open to multiple interpretations, some of which were interpretations I intended. But other interpretations were not ones I intended. So I think the reason that story has become popular is largely because it is very amenable to multiple interpretations, which is actually kind of my big thing.
So to me, fiction is kind of like building a house, right? I am an architect and an engineer and I build a house and the house encodes within it my expectation and understanding of how human behavior is and what the human condition is. I build the house to reflect the way I think people live and how they love and how they hate and how they grow and so forth. But the house is just an empty house. It’s not alive. The reader comes to the house and moves in. The reader has to put her own pictures up on the walls. The reader has to cover the floor with their own purpose. The reader has to unpack her baggage literally and emotionally inside the house. The reader has to actually feel at home and start to explore it. That’s when the house becomes a living thing. Every story is a collaboration between the reader and the writer.
So just as two families moving into the same house, one after the other will live entirely different lives; two different readers coming to the same story will end up coming away with two different stories. That’s just the way. I think houses that are open and amenable to a multitude of different kinds of families moving into them are going to be more popular than houses that are very quirky and strange and specific and exotic and whatnot. They’re very idiosyncratic. Some people will love, love, love these houses and other people will hate, hate, hate them. But because the house is reflecting in some way the writer’s intention and the writer’s personality and the writer’s own baggage, it just has to be reflective of the writer’s entire life experience.
Coming back to “The Paper Menagerie,” I wrote the story because I was inspired by these very moving personal narratives by women who would be called mail-order brides in contemporary parlance. They are women who are mostly from what we call the Global South who, for a variety of reasons, often in order to make a better life for themselves and their families, choose to be included in introductory services so that men from developed countries would meet them and marry them and then they get to migrate and make new lives in these developed countries. They’re often viewed as figures of derision—mocked and seen as mercenaries.
But the reality is, these are women of great courage. I don’t think many of us can imagine doing such a thing, and in fact, in one sense, their lives reflect the great inequality our world thrives on. In another sense, they also reflect the great courage that people have always had to move across borders to create new lives and defy the odds and try to make of their own lives something that couldn’t be imagined given the circumstances of their birth. So I was very moved by these narratives of these women who did this and their efforts to connect with their husbands to make lives in their new lands—to really craft out a space for themselves to build their own houses, to make rooms of their own, if you will. That’s what they were doing: they were trying to make rooms of their own. And I was just so moved by the stories. And I realized that so many of these women are right here in America, and they’re an important part of the American story. But their stories are often not told in a way that is empathetic, that centers their experience, that really focuses on who they are.
I was supposed to write a story at the time about magic. I was trying to enter into a contest for stories about magic users. And I thought, no, there’s a great deal of magic to what these women go through and maybe I can write a magic realist story inspired by these narratives that will center the experience of these women and maybe allow me to talk a little bit about my own thoughts about what it means to be American.
What does it mean to be an immigrant? What does it mean to have your story be misunderstood and taken away from you? That you feel like you cannot tell your own story? That’s how a lot of immigrants feel—that they cannot tell their own story because the language they wish to use is not the language that most people in their new home can understand. There’s something deeply frustrating and incredibly human about all that. So I put all of that in there. I wrote the story. In some sense, fundamentally, the story to me is an exploration about what it means to be American. And what it means to tell a story, to be American without necessarily using English as your primary language of expression. That’s what the mother is. So the story is about the mother really.
Jack is there also, because Jack is there to explore a secondary theme, which is the theme of systemic racism and internalized racism. Because his mother was not seen as American even though she was. His mother was excluded, even though she belonged. His mother was made to feel like somehow she shouldn’t be here, even though—why doesn’t she belong here? She has the same right to be here as any of those women who really ridiculed her in Connecticut—the same right as her husband, the same right as her son. And yet everybody else in the story seemed to think they belong here more than she did, which is ludicrous. It’s about systemic racism. That’s what I wanted to explore.
So I wrote the story, and the story came out, and right away you can see that the story was not interpreted the way I intended it to be interpreted. You can read it in the way that a lot of summaries describe the story. They talk about how the story is about an American father and the Chinese mother. Why is she described as the Chinese mother? Why is she not American the same way as her husband is? They both are. Now if the description is a White father and a Chinese mother, I can understand because those are both racial descriptions, but it doesn’t talk about who they are. But the way these things are phrased, it equates being White with being American. It equates being native born with being American, which are both positions I absolutely reject. But very few people picked up on that. Even in the way that people who claim they like the story describe the story, you can see the very systemic oppression of the mother being replicated and recreated.
It’s really kind of incredible to me that very few people seem to even understand how wrong it is to describe the mother as Chinese and the father as American. You just cannot do that. That’s missing the point of the story. And in fact, a lot of people ended up interpreting the story to fit the traditional immigrant narrative. Which is explicitly this story I was writing against. They interpret it as a story about how the children of immigrants are caught between worlds and how they’re somehow choosing Americanness versus Chineseness. Which is ridiculous. Again, the mother is American. When she cooks her dishes, they are American dishes. When she speaks her language, it is an American language. Chinese is an American language, just as Chinese cooking is an American cooking style. As long as you don’t accept that premise, you will never understand the story properly. As long as you always describe her as speaking a language foreign to America and cooking foreign to America, you are participating in the systemic racism against her.
The point is, that kind of attitude is pernicious. It’s part of systemic racism. When the interpretive frameworks are in favor of systemic racism, a story cannot prevent that from happening, cannot prevent itself from being co-opted into the power structure, even though I constructed the story intentionally against it.
The internalized aspect is [also] something that I feel like we have not talked enough about in our exploration of systemic racism. Systemic racism, in large part, operates by making the oppressive seem normal. And this whole idea that some people get to be Americans, that Americanness is defined by a certain language, by a certain skin color, by a certain state of being, is deeply pernicious. Unless we question it, we always end up buying into it, and so many of us— myself, and fellow Asian Americans—have for way too long bought into the idea that Whiteness equals Americanness, and we have often ended up just not really challenging the system as we ought to.
AAPR: You talked about learning about the narratives and stories of the mail-order brides, as they’re known as. I’m wondering, because a lot of your writing does talk about themes of migration and movements surrounding the Asian American diaspora, do you think it’s important for us to know the histories, past and present, of migration and movement—for example, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Muslim ban from the Trump administration, current concerns about undocumented immigrants, and refugee policies?
LIU: I think it’s incredibly important to know the history of not just your own people, your own tribe, but also of your country and really the world at large. There are so many aspects of history that we don’t question, that we just look at and say, “This is the way it is.” But how did it become that way? Unless you understand how things became the way they are, you’re not going to be able to understand where to go. To learn about the history of of civilization is to learn a history of oppression, of invasion, of domination, and of genocide of all kinds.
It really makes you question the narrative of the modern nation-state, which assumes an equation between land and language and title and blood and all the rest of it. The modern nation-state and the borders between nations is, again, part of systemic racism. It’s part of the modern political apparatus to keep people in the status quo, which is not natural, but the result of oppression and legalized murder and legalized rape and legalized expropriation. Unless we acknowledge all that and try to reckon with that, how can we possibly move on? I don’t understand how that’s supposed to be.
I do think it’s very important for all of us to look into that history and to understand where things come from, and to try to dismantle the unjust structures that we benefit from or suffer from. It’s absolutely critical for all of us to try to tear all that down and try to question it.
More specifically, when you don’t focus enough on the history of migration, you end up just accepting things the way it is. You end up accepting as universal, the things you’re taught as universal, because you were taught that these writers are worth reading. And they’re worth admiring. You end up accepting that without realizing that the fact that these writers are worth reading is because many other people were told, at pointed sword, to study them, as opposed to other voices that are equally great and wondrous.
We end up learning to admire the art coming out of certain people, and to treat art of other people as anthropological pieces. What does anthropology cover? And what does art cover? It is a very important distinction, but why? Why do certain people get to be considered art and other peoples considered merely anthropological curiosity, mere artifacts to be displayed in the natural history museum? We can’t not question these things. Because these distinctions of history matter, they matter to how we determine the future, how we determine the present, and how we value what we find to be valuable.
AAPR: I agree, I think it’s very easy for us to accept things the way that they are without realizing the ways in which many different populations have shared histories of genocide and war and violence, and how these have affected many of us in different ways. I also really love your explorations of what is basically solidarity— when you’re talking about the moral responsibility that we have to one another, and how sometimes we have to act against our own self interest to help one another if you want to have a just society.
LIU: It’s so frustrating sometimes, the way I hear about how unconscious bias enters into every conversation. I hear from writers who say things like, oh, I don’t want to write about immigration, because it’s not universal. How is it not universal? By taking that stance, you’re somehow assuming that being native-born is universal. But being a migrant is somehow not. Just accepting that premise in the first place is to accept the ideal of the modern nation-state and to accept the myth of blood equals land equals language equals all the rest of it. It’s nonsense.
And yet, we unconsciously replicate it. It’s like some writer writes about college professors sleeping around with their students. And this is considered the universal great American novel. But when we’re talking about immigrants, that’s marginalized, that’s just stuff that’s only of ethnic interest. Not somehow universal. It’s ridiculous. But we keep on replicating that pattern, in the way we talk about books, in the way we classify books, in the way we sell books. Even efforts at trying to remedy these things, somehow unconsciously replicate the very power structure they’re meant to dismantle. And it’s deeply frustrating.
AAPR: Thank you for sharing these thoughts because, it is my hope at least, that in pointing out and identifying these power structures and the way that they continue in our writing and in the way we talk about things, that will help people become more aware. And again, this returns to the question of, what things are considered American? Is it the “Chinese mother”? Or is it the American family, the immigrant dream?
I am especially struck by your thoughtfulness about what kind of things are accepted in certain canons, for instance, the literary canon. You mentioned certain tropes that are allowed or some that aren’t. I am really interested in this because in one of your short stories, “State Change” you include many references to writers like T.S. Eliot, who is a great modernist poet, figures like Joan of Arc, Cicero the Orator and the Romans and the traditions and formations of democracy. And these are really traditions and figures who are imbued in the Western canon. How do you see yourself either continuing or diverging from these Western traditions of writing and literature?
LIU: One of the things I think we do a disservice to is—when we speak about the Western tradition, we often end up erasing differences and diversities within the Western tradition itself. There’s a tendency for us to be so reductive and a tendency to simplify. And a tendency to sharpen differences when ambiguity, internal contradictions, and multiplicity are the hallmarks of every culture, including so-called Western tradition. The Western tradition is not monolithic and I wanted to highlight its internal diversity and contradictions.
For example, there are a lot of assumptions about how toxic individuality is a core tenet of Western traditions, which is ludicrous. The Western tradition includes huge strings of collectivism and collective action, and the idea that the individual is not defined as an individual, but rather as the intersection of a multiplicity of connections. This goes back to the earliest thinkers in the Christian tradition. So if you want to talk about the diversity of Western tradition, how can you not include the collectivism that is at the heart of so much Western thinking?
The idea that somehow you can ignore the diversity within the Greeks, within the Romans, within the British tradition, which is itself a subsumption of so many other free Imperial traditions, and the idea that you can treat all of Europe as somehow a monolithic thing when Europe is such a diverse, wondrous land full of so many different languages and cultures and histories, is caused by the process of the modern nation state movement. Part of the whole movement of forming modern nation states is this erasure of differences where regional distinctions get subsumed. And that’s a tragedy that continues.
Much of the process of modernism and modernity is about erasing a very vital, lively diversity within these Western nation-states. So a lot of my work is about recovering that diversity, reminding people that the Western tradition is not monolithic, that it is, in fact, broad and open and diverse, and that it’s cosmopolitan in the most positive sense of the word.
Like many other non-white individuals in the past who have tried to or struggled against the Western canon, I came to the conclusion that the the best way to address the Western canon is to understand that it can be an inclusive, diverse and welcoming place if we simply treated ourselves as though we belong in it, rather than treating ourselves as outsiders trying to somehow adopt something that’s not our own.
I view the Western tradition as very much my own tradition. It is simply a canon that I study, and therefore, is a part of me. It’s a part of my personal canon. I have no problems with the idea that we can all learn to admire these writers and to add other writers to the canon and to attempt to carve out spaces within it for ourselves, for our own voices.
Because if there’s anything that is grand about the Western ideal, it is the ideal that humanism and ever-expanding scopes of empathy are possible—that we can in fact, become truly universal not by erasing differences, but by actually recognizing and celebrating differences, and to say that these differences, the focus on the local, the regional, the specific, the personal, is actually at the very heart of what Western universalism is about. A true universalism is not aimed to erase, but to recognize, to celebrate, to lift up every single voice.
AAPR: Thank you for sharing these thoughts about the Western tradition and the understanding that we belong to this canon. We are an extension of it, just as, as people in America, we are by extension Americans. And when we talk about diversifying literature, we’re not talking about replacing any type of writers in the canon, we’re not trying to strike out White writers. We’re actually just adding to it, carving out our own spaces. And I think that is something that people sometimes misunderstand about these new movements in literature.
LIU: 100%. I think a lot about language itself, also, and I think about what the role of language actually is. English is a very interesting language in this sort of debate, because English is, by default, now recognized as sort of a universal language around the world. It has more speakers than any other language, and a very large portion of English speakers and writers are not native English speakers and readers. And that has implications.
You see this sort of debate around the world: what does it mean to speak and write English well? Does it mean that you’re imitating models from the great British writers, the great American writers? And if you’re talking about imitating the great American writers, are they White American writers? Or can they be Black American writers, and Asian American writers, and Muslim American writers, and immigrant American writers, and so on? Is your stance that only White American writers count as great writers of English and worthy models to emulate? What are you really saying?
So this is a debate around the world. And you have to think about, what about writers from Africa who write in English? What about writers from Europe, or writers from Asia who choose to write in another language? Are they somehow less worthy of admiration, because they are somehow not considered owners of English and therefore able to define what it is?
I think these are all worthy debates to have, and I haven’t seen enough debate around them. But I really think that if you really view English as a world language, then you have to be willing to open yourself to the possibility that people from outside of North America and Great Britain get to define what English actually is, and they get to expand the language and they get to reshape the language to tell stories that in its previous or current form, is incapable of. Can we extend the language to do so? And my view is that English, historically, has been able to expand and grow and become the language of people whose stories that language was not meant to tell initially, but people have been able to use it for that purpose and grow it in the same way that the Western tradition can grow and encompass greater diversities than it initially perhaps was able to. And I think it’s a nice metaphor for the fact that we need to, like you say, grow rather than seek to replace. I always believe that you need to grow; you need to elevate every voice and not try to suppress some at the expense of others.
AAPR: To wrap up, do you want to talk about your forthcoming work?
LIU: Yeah, there are a couple things I want to talk about. One is the conclusion of my Dandelion Dynasty, which is coming out in June. It’s called Speaking Bones, which is the final book in my Dandelion Dynasty series. Like I said, it’s a series I’ve worked on more than 10 years now and it’s over a million words. It’s the longest thing I’ve ever written. It’s the thing I’m proudest of.
It is, in fact, a series about modernity. In some ways, for me, modernity is very much the story of America. It’s the story of America, it’s a story of how a diverse collection of peoples become one people. How [do these] people come up with a constitution, which is not just a piece of paper, but rather a set of stories that allows them to explain to themselves who they are. That’s what I mean by a constitution. A constitution is a set of constitutive stories, a set of constitutive practices, a set of constitutive deeds that collectively form a mythology that allow that people to define for themselves who they are and to react to crises. We have a crisis, a constitutional crisis in America right now, because we’re arguing over who gets to be American and who gets to tell the American story. That’s fundamentally what our political differences are actually about. It’s a competition. It’s a clash between visions of America. What does it mean to be American? What does it mean for America to exist as a nation?
Right now, there’s a huge argument in this country, not between merely two sides, but between many different voices about what that really means. The riots of January 6th, the insurrection, our elections, our arguments, our seeming irresolvable differences—these are all actually just manifestations of this fight over what is our constitution—what is our constituted story?
It turns out that, because these thoughts and ideas are swirling around the air, my epic fantasy series ended up being about that. That’s really what it is. It’s an epic fantasy that’s ultimately about what it means to have a nation. What does it mean to actually build a nation that isn’t defined by blood, language, or merely land, but by a set of ideas, a set of mythologies.
It is, to me, the most moving story of our time, because the American experiment is a grand and beautiful experiment, and full of blood and pain and oppression and all sorts of horrors. But it is fundamentally a beautiful story, and worthy of our effort to defend it and to fight for it really.
My epic fantasy, ultimately, is about that more than anything else. I hope readers who have followed the journey so far will enjoy the very final volume that is a coda on that.
KEN LIU is an American author of speculative fiction. A winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards, he wrote the Dandelion Dynasty, a silkpunk epic fantasy series (starting with The Grace of Kings), as well as short story collections The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories and The Hidden Girl and Other Stories. He also authored the Star Wars novel The Legends of Luke Skywalker. Ken Liu earned his AB from Harvard College and his JD from Harvard Law School, before working as a software engineer, corporate lawyer, and litigation consultant. Liu frequently speaks at conferences and universities on a variety of topics, including futurism, cryptocurrency, history of technology, bookmaking, narrative futures, and the mathematics of origami.
CAT HUANG is an Ed.M. candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and serves as the co-director of partnerships for the Asian American Policy Review. She graduated in 2021 from Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, where she studied labor relations and English, and became the first Asian American woman to be elected and serve as the president of Cornell’s student body. Her academic interests at Harvard include studying the intersection of labor and education, conflict resolution strategies, and political polarization.