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POC Destroy Science Fiction! is a special issue of the Hugo-winning magazine LIGHTSPEED, 100% written—and edited—by POC creators.
POC Destroy Science Fiction! is a special issue of the Hugo-winning magazine LIGHTSPEED, 100% written—and edited—by POC creators.
POC Destroy Science Fiction! is a special issue of the Hugo-winning magazine LIGHTSPEED, 100% written—and edited—by POC creators.
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Personal Essay: "You Don’t Have to Write Autobiography" by Ken Liu

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When we set out to destroy science fiction with this Kickstarter, we didn't want it to be your ordinary, run-of-the-mill campaign. We wanted it to be full of smashing, crashing POC voices, telling what it really means to be POC reading and writing science fiction. One of the ways we hope to do that is by sharing a series of personal essays about the experience of being POC in science fiction.

Personal Essay: "You Don’t Have to Write Autobiography" by Ken Liu

In high school, when I explained to a teacher that I wanted to be a writer someday, they tried to encourage me with this: “Yes, I think your life story would make a fascinating tale.”

Okay, but that’s not . . . um . . . I wasn’t interested in selling the story of my life at all.

Of course, it is trivially true that all fiction is “autobiographical,” in the sense that the author’s experiences inform and color their consciousness and all emanations from it, but that is quite different from saying that the only story a writer may be expected to write is autobiography.

Yet, POC writers are assumed to have perspectives that are less than “universal.” Indeed, their writing is often seen as a kind of self-exploiting performance—they write with their bodies, sell their memories, exoticize and craft their experiences for dominant consumers as the Other. When applied to my racial identity in America, this takes a particular form. As Betsy Huang writes in Genres of Contemporary Asian American Fiction (p. 12):

[T]he autobiographic imperative induces the writer to prove her quality by exemplification. The result is that Asian American writing is rarely sui generis, but always expected to be generic, its worth measured by how capably the writer executes the essential elements of the expected immigrant narrative and how the immigrant protagonist exemplifies “what it means to be an Asian immigrant.

In order to escape this oppressive interpretive framework, I sought refuge in genre fiction. I wrote about robot dolls who came to life and historians who traveled back in time to bear witness to unbearable atrocities. I tried to limit the appearance of “Chinese” elements in my fiction and avoided any subject that might be construed as autobiographical.

I managed to sell a few stories, and some readers even wrote to tell me that they liked them. They did not read my tales as autobiography because I gave them no hooks to do so.

But striving to not write a story about immigration, a subject of great personal interest and importance, seemed to me also a kind of unbearable restriction. It was the dilemma facing all POC writers—writing about your culture and life felt like giving in to a fate others designed for you, but not writing about your culture and subjects you’re familiar with was like trying to sing with half your mouth taped shut.

So I wrote “The Paper Menagerie,” a magic realist tale that meditates upon our shifting attitudes toward our parents as we come of age; it also obliquely critiques the dominant mode of popular, assimilationist immigrant narratives. As a story that literalizes complicated metaphors, it can, and has been, read in multiple ways with various levels of textual support.

But the one reading it cannot support is autobiographical. The protagonist’s life bears almost no resemblance to my own. I am an immigrant; he is not. Both my parents are Chinese; his are not.

Yet, more than a few readers insisted on reading it as autobiography—and even as non-fiction. Many wrote to me to berate me for how I “treated my mother,” and others wrote to me to say they were moved by my “personal experiences.” Plenty of reviews speculated about my own childhood based on the story. When I gently explained that the story was pure fiction, at least one reader told me that he no longer found it moving as a result.

I wonder if they would have done the same if my last name didn’t sound Chinese.

The experience could have taught me that treading on “Chinese” topics is dangerous, as some readers will find value in what I write only when they can psychoanalyze it as an exploitation of my life. But I think that’s the counsel of despair. I refuse to let the dominant mode of reductionist reading dictate what I write.

Let’s destroy all restrictions—external or self-imposed—on what we should write; let’s destroy all interpretive frameworks that would seek to reduce us to a mere type; let’s destroy science fiction and fantasy.

______________

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ken Liu (kenliu.name) is an author and translator of speculative fiction, as well as a lawyer and programmer. A winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards, he has been published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons, among other places. He also translated the Hugo-winning novel, The Three-Body Problem, by Liu Cixin, which is the first translated novel to win that award. Ken’s debut novel, The Grace of Kings, the first in a silkpunk epic fantasy series, was published by Saga Press in April 2015. Saga will also publish a collection of his short stories, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, in March 2016. He lives with his family near Boston, Massachusetts.

Comments

    1. Tasha Turner Lennhoff
      Superbacker
      on February 2, 2016

      "But striving to not write a story about immigration, a subject of great personal interest and importance, seemed to me also a kind of unbearable restriction. It was the dilemma facing all POC writers—writing about your culture and life felt like giving in to a fate others designed for you, but not writing about your culture and subjects you’re familiar with was like trying to sing with half your mouth taped shut"
      I hope we live to see a change in this attitude. It's not just unfair. It's unpersoning.

    2. Cecilia Tan on February 2, 2016

      "writing about your culture and life felt like giving in to a fate others designed for you" -- This. I can't tell you how many well-meaning people back in the 1980s when I was starting my writing career suggested I should "use" my "Chinese cultural heritage" in my writing. "You could be the Chinese Bujold. You could be the Chinese Katherine Kurtz. The Chinese ____ (fill in hot female writer of the moment)." Except that no, I couldn't, for a million reasons but a big one was that if all external forces are pushing in a direction it only made my muse want to push in the opposite one. If a muse is ultimately a relentless need for self-expression, trying to mold myself into a marketable version of the possibility others saw for me was antithetical. Besides, the year I graduated college Amy Tan hit the scene (I received no fewer than 3 copies of The Joy Luck Club as gifts that year) and Amy Tan was therefore already taking up the one slot for "Chinese American female autobiographical literary bestseller as packaged for well-meaning white people." (That slot had previously been occupied by Maxine Hong Kingston.) I wasn't interested in becoming that title-holder within sf/fantasy, and I went another direction with my career.