A New American Script
The group who came to the library that particular rainy afternoon had much to say. In response to my talk on the ways fiction has shaped morals around our nation’s imagining of slavery and its aftermath, they shared personal and impassioned stories of the place of race in their own lives. After our discussion, a smiling woman approached me: “I really enjoyed your talk,” she said. I thanked her, and waited for her to finish wording what was on her mind. “If you don’t mind me asking, I’m wondering how your ethnicity relates to this topic.”
She said “ethnicity,” but I knew she meant race. It felt right for her to ask—they had just shared so much with me. Her curious questioning vocalized what I’m sure other people have privately wondered, and is something I ask myself too: why is this person with an Asian face talking about the place of Blackness in the American imagination?
In the bit it took me to think of a reply, a compressed version of the journey that had brought me to apply to be part of the Humanities Washington Speakers Bureau surged through my head. I thought of visiting the graduate program I would eventually choose to attend some twenty-five years ago as a prospective student. The sole Asian American professor on the faculty at the time advised me not to come because of the lack of support for Asian American studies. I committed to the program anyway. Some part of me knew, even if I could not articulate it then, that the path I needed to take involved the kind of learning I could do precisely because I would not be surrounded by like-minded people. I knew I would have to work hard to discover, and then communicate, why it was important to pursue the research directions I wanted to take, which was a challenge that I needed. I could hardly articulate to myself why my interests were of significance to anybody but myself. Historically, Asians have been a statistical minority in the United States. How was what I wanted to do different from mirror gazing?
My years of study showed me that what I first thought was a mirror was in fact a window looking out to the past. Asian Americans make up a small number of the U.S. population by legislative design, historically labeled as unassimilable aliens and a docile model minority, often (perplexingly) at the same time. Gatekeepers to America cast us as bit players, lucky to be invited, without apparent editing access to the entire complicated script that holds these American states united.
“I felt as if I was asked to meld myself into America without being able to ask why America was shaped that way in the first place.”
How does the weight of the past get felt by a single person? For me, I felt it in my formative years as a hard-to-articulate estrangement from the stories held up to me as ethical fables of how to be a good person and a good citizen. I felt as if I was asked to meld myself into America without being able to ask why America was shaped that way in the first place.
As I studied early American literature to prepare for graduate exams at one of the nation’s oldest universities (seeded by riches from the slave, tea, indigo, spices, and opium trades), I felt in a new way how precarious the democratic mission that inspired this country’s existence is. I saw how easily a society envisioning the equality of “we the people” can blind itself with stories that perpetuate the idea that heterogeneity is to be feared rather than nurtured. That the nation did continue to hold together was marvelous testament to the people who used the indomitable power of the imagination to narrate into existence new possibilities for connecting through our differences, when all signs otherwise pointed to it being easier and safer for everyone to bunker down in their own spaces and beliefs.
But as valuable as these fictions were for producing fresh ways of unifying, they invariably encased omissions and inconsistencies; I saw that the casting of Asian Americans as both aliens and models was no fluke. The contradiction itself was symptomatic of an American script as yet too reliant on the cliché of naming others as different and less-than-human in order to induce a fevered mirage of sameness and order. In my years of conversations with students, I’ve realized that others too, because of how the past has weighed on their present lives, have also felt variously burdened by this cliché, and are looking to do something about it.
What I’ve learned is this: all our private mirrors can become windows, which gives us a ledge from which to see the multiple ways we have not yet recognized in everyone the human capacity to feel, act, and change—and then to push for stories that can help us do better. I stand in awe of the many who, from the very beginning of this country, used their restlessness with being handed bit parts as a creative f lint: how else could the script of America be written to make space for the majesty and potential of human differences? “All men are created equal” were the best words the Founding Fathers had at the time to describe protagonists for America’s origin story as a nation built on possibility, rather than rank and ancestry. Since then, there have been multitudes of people, who through words, labor, action, and art, have thought about, cared about, and argued over what this nation can be so that it may strive to fulfill its promise. The result of this cacophony is our continually coming up with more generous and true words to imagine how we interconnect and see each other. And we will continue—we must—to imagine more.
“The Country that Fiction Built” is my small way of inviting people to do this imagining together. So this was my reply to the woman: my experiences as an Asian American have everything to do with this talk. I’m glad you asked.
Michelle Liu is a professor in the English department at the University of Washington. She is currently presenting a free Speakers Bureau talk, “The Country That Fiction Built.“