Alexander Chee | Longreads | April 2018 | 16 minutes (3,921 words)
Some years into the writing of my first novel, I was 32, living in Brooklyn and waiting tables in a midtown Manhattan steakhouse a few shifts a week. I worked there instead of some trendier or more downtown place for the exact reasons that made it seem odd to the people I knew: it was a world apart from the one I wanted to live in. The commute was long, 45 minutes on the subway each way from my Park Slope Apartment, but I used the time to read and write, often writing on legal pads as I came and went. My income from three or four nights a week, 5 hours a night, was just 15 percent of what the people who ate there spent on dinners out each year — after taxes, I lived comfortably on this. To my relief, I never saw anyone I knew there, except for a single classmate who worked at Vanity Fair and was good at not condescending to me. Celebrities came so regularly, it was a little like working inside the pages of a gossip magazine. I remember the day O. J. Simpson reserved a private dining room under his lawyer’s wife’s name, but then came out onto the main floor, joking around with the diners. The New York Post cover the next day had a photo of our steak knife, bearing an uncanny likeness to the presumed weapon in his wife’s murder.
The best celebrity sighting for me, however, was Dr. Ruth Westheimer.
The hostess seated her in my section for lunch, at an unassuming but generous table by herself. “I love her,” the hostess said, as she walked by me. We had what I thought of as the ordinary interactions between waiter and guest, and I left, put her order in, and returned to my work. Sometime after her food had been served, she called me over as I passed her table. I stopped and leaned in.
“You’re not a waiter, are you?” She said this with a conspiratorial affection, like she knew me.
“Is something wrong with your service?” I asked, alarmed.
“No,” she said, smiling. “Everything is wonderful. But you’re not a waiter, are you? You’re a writer.”
The lunchtime clamor receded a little around the last word. I felt found out, if in the nicest possible way
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I am.” I then asked her why she had asked me that.
“You can just tell,” she said, her smile gone cryptic.
I thanked her, then went back to serving lunch. I tried to think of what it was that had caused her to descend into my station like an oracle and make this pronouncement, the sort of unrealistic deus ex machina moment of the kind I eventually made the topic of my eventual second novel. I was surrounded by coincidences then, a forest of messages from the universe. But this couldn’t have been a coincidence. Surely this was something else, a more divine and direct kind of message. The voice from the burning bush, but instead of a bush, the message was coming from that marvelous smile, the familiar, kind eyes, the perfect hair — and that twinkle.
Here I was again in an old story, one that had begun with people always telling me to be a writer, starting at the age of 14. My interaction with Dr. Ruth that afternoon, though, mattered in an entirely new way. By that time, I had finally decided to be a writer. I just wasn’t sure I could do it. But I was trying. I was halfway through the novel, though I didn’t know that then. The difference Dr. Ruth made, however, was this: she wasn’t telling me to go and become a writer. She was telling me I was one. And that it was finally something visible, even legible, no matter what else I was doing.
I told myself stories first.
In Guam, at age 5, I was a boy who taught himself to swim underwater before he swam across the surface. I made up my own story to explain my condition: I was a changeling child of dolphins and had been left behind with human parents, possibly to teach something to mankind by living among them. Human society, however, terrified me and I only wanted to return to the sea. I loved Guam, loved my friends, my family, and yet I only wanted to inhabit the open water and its dark depths, to hurtle through the air after a deep dive and to blow air through my breathing hole as I did. I would stand at the beach, as far out on the sandbar as I could go, staring at the blazing blue water, asking, through telepathy, for my dolphin parents to come and get me and take me home. Don’t leave me here, was the command thundering through my small head. Don’t leave me here with them.
The far blue surface always remained undisturbed.
I don’t recall how I knew about changelings, but for as long as I can remember, I knew what they were. My human father had been the one to teach me about dolphins. He was an oceanographer, and took me snorkeling on his back with a mask nearly as large as my face. He showed me reefs of colored fish, anemone, and coral. After each visit I never wanted to return to the land. I’d sit in our apartment, in the kitchen, at the breakfast bar, my legs kicking against the stool. When our water heater broke one morning and the apartment flooded, I was thrilled, and waded out to wake my parents. It was as if the water had come for me.
At age 5 I made up my own story to explain my condition: I was a changeling child of dolphins and had been left behind with human parents, possibly to teach something to mankind by living among them.
Underwater, I experienced a peace I never did on land. I began practicing a diver’s trick my father taught me, which I would perfect through my childhood, emptying my lungs in order to make my body sink to the bottom and stay there, watching to see how long it took me to need air. And then when the need came, standing against it just a moment more before propelling myself back up to the surface with a kick.
The November I was 6 we left Guam and moved to Maine. I was filled with a terrible sorrow as I examined the snowy streets and fields, the cold beaches, and felt the possibility of my rescue come to an end. Guam had been a paradise to me and now I was trapped forever with my human family in a land full of snow.
In Maine, I began to tell stories to others. For a very long time, I believed I was a writer because I like questions. But I learned to like them. I had to. Once I arrived in Maine, they were my only constant companions, besides my family, all of us the subject of people’s inquiries.
It seemed as if I was a curiosity to almost everyone I met there. At first, the questions were directed at my mother. Whose little boy is this?, and when my hair was long, Whose little girl is this? This is my son, I would hear my mother say in the quiet tone I recognized as a sign of her anger. The assumption behind the question was that I couldn’t be her child, or that I couldn’t be a boy.
Away from her, people were more direct. At school, for example, on the first day of the first grade, a little boy in the lunchroom took a long look at me and asked, “Are you a chink?”
I earnestly replied that I was half Korean.
“Someone from Korea.”
“A smaller country near China.”
I didn’t know the meaning of the word “chink,” and went home to ask my mother what it meant. Her horrified reaction told me much of what I needed to know. After two years of this, in the third grade, I told the class I had Made in Korea stamped on my buttocks. By the fifth grade, after meeting the Kinks at a New Year’s Eve party in Boston that my father had taken the family to — my Korean immigrant dad was stylish but not otherwise a known Kinks fan — I joked that I was not a Chink, but a Kink.
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As I grew older, the questions came increasingly from the parents of these kids. What are you? they would fumble, then sometimes apologize and reframe the question more tactfully. What’s your background?If they thought they were being more polite, the question was How did your parents meet? These were all one question with three faces, though, and the face I was shown depended on whether I was alone with someone, or in their house with their family, or on the street, whether the interaction was social, intimate, or professional. And as the story was a good one, and I knew it, I told it, again and again, naively proud over everyone’s responses. It took me years to realize that almost no one else is asked this question.
Thinking back, I can see myself in their kitchens, facing my friends’ parents like some 10-year-old Scheherazade, explaining away my whole life so as not to be sent home for being the wrong object. Implicit, always, was that my answers to these questions had to be stories, entertaining ones, and that the listener wanted endings with reassurances. I am more like you than not like you. My parents did something anyone would do. I am not threatening to you. As I got older, people began to make observations instead of asking questions. Someday everyone will look like you. They meant to offer me a reassurance now, but it gave me the feeling of being something flickering in and out of their vision, an unstable signal from the future.
As I grew older, the questions came increasingly from the parents of these kids. ‘What are you?’ they would fumble, then sometimes apologize and reframe the question more tactfully. ‘What’s your background?’ If they thought they were being more polite, the question was ‘How did your parents meet?’
Having believed in Guam that I was a changeling, in Maine I was treated like one — the wrong child in the right place, not the boy they expected. Like, but not like, the person they expected, and therefore uncanny and strange. What my questioners were really after was the story of my mixed parentage, which is to say, my parents mixing me, and when they began asking if they were still together, they had the expectation of an unhappy ending. I learned, for example, that if I said I have a white mother, and a Korean father, the next response was often, “That’s unusual, isn’t it?”
At first, when I was more anxious to reassure, I would say yes, until I realized I was lying, as I didn’t know if it was. Another question with an underlying insistence that I didn’t belong, because according to their unspoken rules, my parents didn’t even belong together.
By the time I reached college, 18 years into answering these questions, I wanted to make t-shirts that said I Am the End of Western Civilization. I imagined wearing them and never answering another question like that again — I could just point at the shirt instead. But that seemed like a big promise.
The first person to encourage me to be a writer was my first-year high school English teacher, who nominated me for a prize with poems I’d written in the journal I kept for class — a prize I then won. I was 14 and it shocked me so much that it took finding the prize years later to remember I was a winner. It didn’t fit my idea of myself.
Two years later, I was accepted into my high school’s gifted and talented program for playwriting, and wrote a play inspired by a summer spent at Georgetown University’s summer session, where my gay roommate tried to get me to come out of the closet. It was picked as one of three plays in the state to be read at an assembly, by real stage actors.
I was ashamed of the play two ways. I was not yet out to my mother, and so I didn’t tell her about the performance. I feared what in fact happened, which is that I effectively came out to everyone in my school, even in my town, by writing about a gay man — just not to her. But I’d also changed the story into one of two roommates at college, one gay, one straight, and how they deal with the differences between them. This was a lie more than a fiction. When I left for college, I found a copy of the play in the back of my mother’s car as I unloaded the trunk, and I had the feeling it had snuck into the car, like a finger, rising up to accuse me.
I had — have — other talents, and the ways I was encouraged at them made more sense to me. I even tried them out. My art and music teachers during my childhood always tried to claim me as belonging to their disciplines. I can draw, well enough that my drawings are praised, and I do so for my own pleasure. In college, I even tried to be an art major for one year. I can sight-read music, either as a singer or playing the clarinet. I have a talent for listening, also, and it seems related to another mystery of my existence, which is the frequency with which people tell me their secrets. Whether I’ve known them for decades or a minute, it is as if they have waited their whole life for the chance encounter in which they confess to me. If my narrators feel as if they are telling you something they’ve never told anyone before, it is in part because I have sat through what you might call thousands of rehearsals.
I never knew why so many people told me to be a writer. I still don’t. Maybe it was because I was always telling stories in answer to people’s questions. At first it seemed something apart from me, apart from what I wanted for myself. My own writing seemed ordinary, or, in the case of my poetry, it either seemed to me unintelligible to others, or too easily understood, making me feel exposed.
In college, when I finally began to write short stories, I started with stories that had characters with no discernible ethnicity, as if that were something everyone in the world of that particular particular story had forgotten existed. I wanted the ease of not having to explain myself that seemed so much a part of every book I read, and yet I also experienced the same feeling looking at them that I felt when I saw my closeted high school play — as if as if I’d written a lie and not a fiction.
In my senior year, I finally wrote a short story imagining a young Korean American woman on a trip to Korea to pay her respects to her family’s ancestral shrine after the death of her father. It was based on a trip of the same kind I’d taken during the summer of my sophomore year. I’d chosen a woman character inspired by my sister, a way to think through some of the intense misogyny of Korean patriarchal culture. That would become my first published short story. And with that publication, I felt as if I had finally let myself out of the strange box I had been confined in.
“We have to imagine the real,” the writer Grace Paley says in her essay, “Of Women, Poetry and the World.” She was speaking of her need to write as a woman, about women, after reading only men, as a way to include the rest of the world in literature. It’s a quote I found many years after I’d begun trying to meet my own need for this. To write fiction that included my own experience as an Asian American and the complexity of it.
I am a person who is used to being mistaken for someone other than who he is. It is a kind of disappearing act, one I wasn’t initially in control over, though I did — do — also like to disappear.
I am still trying to imagine the real. Before I ever found Paley, I called what I did “making stories at least as weird as the world is.” I am pretty sure it is always what I’m doing when I write. But it isn’t the reason I write — it’s the standard I hold myself to when I do. If I hold myself to imagining the real, I know the reason why I write is next door to that. It is in what I was doing when I made that joke in the third grade — Made in Korea is stamped on my ass — or it’s in the I Am the End of Western Civilization t-shirts.
I am a person who is used to being mistaken for someone other than who he is. It is a kind of disappearing act, one I wasn’t initially in control over, though I did — do — also like to disappear. I like to feel anonymous, even hidden, when I write, as if I have to vanish as a way to welcome in whatever comes next. And to be safe from whatever might try to stop me. Other people’s mistaken perceptions of me have taught me a kind of dance, as if it were all a long game of jumping rope.
I write to find myself within my own my shifting relationship to myself, and to make sense of the way that shifting self is interpreted by others. I write to make myself visible. Legible on my own terms first. When I write, I ask myself, What do you see in your life that you don’t see in what you are reading? How can you put it there?
Joan Didion, whether or not she came to be an influence on me, has always been a lesson, a very long lesson, in many parts. I met her exactly once, in 1992, when she was reading at the old Brentano’s Bookstore on Fifth Avenue in New York City, launching her collection of essays, After Henry. Brentano’s was once one of the world’s most beautiful bookstores, like a library catwalk with with bookshelves and a massive chandelier — it is something else now; I can never bear to look to see what. A perfect setting for her. She appeared before us at a podium placed at the middle platform on the stairs between the ground floor and the catwalk second floor, dressed in a brown tweed Chanel suit and her trademark sunglasses. She stood there like Evita Peron, surveying the crowd, before saying quietly, “I’m going to read a little something I wrote about Patricia Campbell Hearst.” There were gasps from the audience, including my own.
I was new to New York City that year, working as an assistant editor at Out Magazine, and I had gone with a friend, James Conrad, the magazine’s art director. At the signing following her reading, the booksellers asked that we ascend the stairs to her in threes, so as not to overwhelm her. James and I went up with someone I don’t remember, and as she looked up to ask who to sign our books to, we both stared at her, unable to speak. Finally I blurted, “My name is Alex, and this is my friend James, and we’re just two of the many gay men who worship you.” She laughed, startled, then smiled and signed our books.
And that was that.
At that time in my life as a writer, I had learned that I could never have a single identity in the uncomplicated way of so many around me, and I never wanted one again. And yet I felt I couldn’t tell stories if I couldn’t describe that. I was struggling with this sense of myself as a writer and a person on the day that I went to see Didion, and I left that day with a new understanding of her and of me.
I had first found her books in college, where I’d been assigned to read them, and as is the case for many writers, Slouching Towards Bethlehem was one of the first essay collections that made me see how I might also write the essay. Next I fell in love with her first novel, Play It As It Lays, and my appreciation for the first line — What makes Iago evil? Some people ask. I never ask. — is such that when I gave that novel to a lover and he did not like it, I was not so sad when the affair ended, and I stayed for three years with a man who did love it. In my years in California before the night I met her, I prowled used bookstores, her books always on my list. I still own the copies I purchased then.
She may not have seemed like the most obvious teacher for someone like me, but she was the teacher I found. Yes, I treasure that moment on the stairs for having been able to make her laugh. Also, the lessons of that day, and of her. The tremendous poise she had in front of her fans. The simple way she introduced the essay. No patter, no explanations, no awkward joking.
I write to find myself within my own my shifting relationship to myself, and to make sense of the way that shifting self is interpreted by others. I write to make myself visible. Legible on my own terms first.
She was small, and in her brown tweed suit the color of her hair, almost a wren — a bird that can vanish into the background, or leap away suddenly. In “Insider Baseball,” one of my favorite of her essays — the one everyone now imitates whenever a presidential campaign comes around — she addresses her way of using her diminutive appearance to her advantage, surprising and overwhelming those who underestimate and condescend to her, and emerging with the get. Seeing Didion in person, I finally understood what she meant. One of my favorite quotes of hers is, “I have already lost touch with a couple of the people I used to be.” When I see those iconic photos of her leaning against her Corvette, smoking, boldly daring you with her eyes to keep looking, I am reminded now that this figure is only one of them. That she is a shapeshifter, too. When people treat her as if she is still that woman, as if she’s never written past those first essays, I wonder if this is almost the result of yet another ruse. A trick that allows her to be elsewhere, unbothered. As if she is her own decoy.
I admire her for her ability to excel at once at writing novels, memoirs, essays, and screenplays too. I also admire her for being able to be glamorous when everyone expects writers to be awkward, ugly things. I love the Chanel suit she always wears to her events, like it is the superhero costume she puts on to go and be Joan Didion. And I love her for how the sight of her that day taught me to at last value what I had always been bothered by in myself: the unpredictability of my own appearance, the way no one seemed to reliably know who I was, or what, or where I was from. That I learned to see this as a strength, a tool I could use as a writer, well, I learned that from her.
* * *
A version of this essay was originally prepared as a speech to honor Joan Didion at The Authors Guild’s 2015 Gala in New York City.
Editor: Sari Botton