Content note: This essay briefly mentions acts of racialized violence and also mentions the COVID-19 pandemic.
By JoAnn Yao
Over two months into quarantine, I have not been able to finish reading a single book.
I feel shame as I share this, especially since I work for an organization that promotes diverse books, but also because I feel adrift, unmoored without an ability that always came as easily to me as drawing breath.
It’s a loss I did not expect, of all the variations of loss I have imagined and feared over the past few months.
Books were my true first country. One of my earliest memories is begging my mother to read and re-read The Little Mouse, The Red Ripe Strawberry, and the Big Hungry Bear. I had Little Golden Books and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and Charlotte’s Web. I stayed up with a flashlight at night, stealing extra hours in Narnia or Middle Earth. I laughed with Jo March, spun dreams with Anne Shirley.
As I got older, my country expanded in every direction but the one I secretly wanted most.
I grew up in a small town in Georgia, one of only two Asian students in my grade. The modestly-sized public library seemed constantly on the verge of closing for good. We had one bookstore in the local mall; it went out of business when I was in college and has never been replaced. For a wider selection, I always had to look elsewhere, outside of town. It’s unsurprising that I never found the works of authors like Yoshiko Uchida or Laurence Yep, who did the lonely work of pioneering Asian American children’s literature.
Still, I kept reading. I cautiously brought up Cho Chang to friends and acquaintances who also loved Harry Potter, hoping they’d want to talk or think about her internal life the way I did. When instead people told me they hated her, I stopped mentioning her entirely.
Better to have a country than no country at all.
For Christmas last year, my father bought self-inking stamps for me and my sisters, each a slender block of wood no longer than my pinkie finger, topped with a carving roughly the size of a dime. After using mine for the first time, I stared at the bright red marks on the page. Three characters, one as tall as the other two combined. My name.
I realized it meant nothing to me.
My Chinese name lives only when I speak it, more muscle than memory. Yao Jia En, 姚家恩. I can summon the syllables with no effort. The story of it, how my parents chose it, feels familiar if faded. They chose it to honor a naming convention passed down on my father’s side of the family, and then they hand-picked a second name in English to match it.
The truth is, no one has used it for years. Even my relatives in Taiwan refer to me as JoAnn. It’s this, this closeness without actual interchange, that makes my Chinese name feel like a shadow living just behind my English one.
Seeing it as dead marks on a page pulled at the string of Mandarin I can only pluck from memory in broken phrases. My family stopped speaking Chinese at home so we could dim the awkward lilt of an accent in our voices when we spoke English. No one discussed what it would be like to lose it, an entire language.
Something about seeing characters that should be familiar to me but were not wrapped around my heart and closed like a fist. I called my mother: “Can you help me? I want to learn how to write my name.”
I studied the text she sent me, Googled its calligraphic form. Unused to the ways it had to move on the paper to create the correct pen strokes, my hand failed again and again to produce anything elegant. I wasn’t sure it was even legible. I texted my frustration to one of my best friends, a Chinese American. She asked for a picture. After receiving it she texted back, Is the middle character a jia?
The middle character of my name, 家, has nuances that shift in combination with other characters, but only a few meanings on its own. One of them is “home.”
For my sixteenth birthday, a friend gave me a book with an Asian American protagonist, the first I ever remember owning.
I read it in one uncomfortable afternoon. The white author, however well-intentioned they might have been, had written all of their biases into the narrative, neatly packaging an after-school message into the form of an Asian girl instead of considering how she might react or what she might want if she were a teenager rather than a platitude.
At school, I began slowly discovering Amy Tan’s works in the library, beginning with The Joy Luck Club. It felt foreignly adult and fraught with intergenerational questions left unanswered. It felt true to Amy Tan. I was less certain about how true it was to me.
By nature of being my only source, Tan’s story seemed like the Asian American story rather than an Asian American story—a single narrative in which closeness to heritage does not promise acceptance or understanding. I had neither closeness nor acceptance. Where did that leave me? Family tree assignments highlight how history sprawls up and out, but what about those of us who feel their roots can’t reach deep enough to grow?
I eventually fell back on the works of Agatha Christie and Lois Duncan, the twists in their stories strange and new in ways that didn’t make me feel small or alone.
“Get back on the boat and go back to where you came from,” a white classmate spat, just before he assaulted me.
It didn’t matter that I had never lived anywhere but the United States. I scored higher on a test than he did, and in doing so had apparently taken something from him. The well of blood I wiped from my face in the bathroom afterward smeared red; I remember that no one came to help me.
Not long after I moved to New York City over six years ago, I stepped off the subway and began moving with the crush of people around me—until a poster caught my eye. It was simple, only text on a plain background. I read it. And re-read it.
There are plenty of reasons to be cynical about advertising, of course. But profits follow demand. Ads respond to larger cultural shifts, to stories we tell and want to believe of ourselves.
That day, the poster that stopped me read, “Every accent is a New York accent.”
I never caught what it was actually advertising. All I remember is that I saw it and had to swallow around a sudden tightness in my throat.
Later that year, I picked up To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before for the first time. And I had heard about books changing lives, had read a few which I felt fit that lofty distinction. But To All the Boys set in motion a tectonic shift within me. Lara Jean Song Covey, with her hopes and insecurities and unerring love for the people in her life, strode directly into my heart, into the quiet room that I had already accepted would stay empty. I had perhaps even bricked it over.
In one of the largest cities in the world, I had come a long way from the town where I had such limited access to books. And yet I had stopped seeking myself in fiction. I had unlearned it. I had donned a kind of armor that served me during the years in which I had no choice but to be alone, but which now only kept loneliness pinned against me.
Lara Jean immediately reminded me of how much I have loved stories and books my entire life, and how simple yet profound it is to find one that connects just so. How much it means to have a narrative in which an Asian American girl loves and is loved. How it feels to find a character who exudes a warmth and a presence that feels so real, so close, that she could be a younger version of me.
All of these things have become inextricable for me, New York and that feeling of home and the year I finally, truly, saw myself in a book.
During the pandemic, I have glimpsed the world outside my apartment in bursts. Exhausted workers deemed essential even as they receive inadequate support for the work they do, my roommate among them. Refrigerated trucks parked outside hospitals for overflow from morgues. People mourning loved ones who died alone.
And amidst that: windows vandalized or smashed at Chinese restaurants. An elderly East Asian man robbed and threatened in San Francisco. A South Asian family, including a 2-year-old and 6-year-old, attacked in Midland. An East Asian woman injured with severe chemical burns on her face, neck, and back by an assailant who flung acid at her in Brooklyn. Although the violence stems from anti-Chinese sentiment, Asians as a whole have more broadly borne the brunt of it.
The incidents are filmed or photographed and disseminated widely on social media. Enough has accumulated for the FBI to mark the pattern and warn of an uptick in hate crimes.
At the same time, existing fault lines in the United States have only deepened. I see numerous writings from prominent Asian American writers and thinkers, but very few that look beyond ourselves. We still have a humanitarian crisis at our Southern border, driven by similar xenophobia and antipathy for Latinx refugees and migrants. It carries the echo of Japanese American internment and the Chinese Exclusion Act, but it is also undoubtedly scaffolded by the infrastructural failings that disproportionately affect Black and Native people.
As Asian Americans remember Vincent Chin, there is Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, and militarized law enforcement that continues to target unarmed Black protesters. Indeed, there are Asian Americans who are complicit or active participants in this ongoing practice of anti-Black racism. As Asian Americans mourn the loss of cultural enclaves and landmarks to the current economic downturn, Pacific Islanders also still carry the violent colonial and hegemonic history of our forebears who brutalized their cultures.
I see all of this while scrolling through social media feeds for work. I see my own city mentioned again and again in undeniably ugly, horrifying ways. Some are new. Some are all too familiar.
I know people who left New York before the lockdown began; I knew from the start that for better or worse I would stay. There are multiple privileges inherent in my ability to do so, and I feel like the least I can do is use them to find where the fault lines intersect.
The purpose of bearing witness is to retain collective memory, so that we may fill the well of collective compassion and—most importantly—act upon it.
The old world is gone but its broken skeleton remains. What will we build in its place? For whom will we ensure space?
The philosophical question “What do we owe to each other?”—a philosophical exercise posed by T.M. Scanlon—has been turning in my mind recently. At some point, another question emerged alongside it.
Who are we to each other?
Despite assertions to the contrary, Asian Americans do not have a single story. It is impossible for any group of cultures, let alone one that spans a continent.
In recent years many of us have been guilty of believing the toxic lie that model citizenry will inoculate us from harm, even or especially as we harm others. Yet it is also true that in generations past, we have ignored this myth and formed coalitions to achieve common goals for disparate peoples and needs.
Holding space for the specificity of our own identities means we are capable of holding space for others who have also been forced to live on the margins. We can and must answer urgent, specific crises by learning, listening, and advocating. We should at the very least begin with responding to the current moment by supporting the Black community. Then we should continue this practice well beyond the moment and into the future.
We are defined by the places we hold in the web of others’ lives, writes Ken Liu in his short story “Mono no aware”.
My first country is no longer a country, but a world. I have taken my early years of reading, catching parts of my reflection in window panes in the absence of mirrors, and used it to become a better reader, to purposely fill my present with stories that venture far beyond the limits of the land I used to call home. I cannot answer every anxious, looming question or cure every ill, but I can begin with myself.
The act of honoring one’s heritage during a time in which a larger catastrophe has deepened existing divisions can feel small and precarious, a dubious priority. It has for me, anyway. But it also holds opportunity.
Whenever I long to be in Taiwan, I have Cindy Pon, Abigail Hing Wen, and Emily X.R. Pan’s writing to transport me there. For heroes, super-powered and everyday, I have stories from Gene Luen Yang, C.B. Lee, and F.C. Yee. For sci-fi/fantasy thrills, I have Marie Lu and Andrea Tang’s high concept books. For romance, I have Gloria Chao’s uniquely Taiwanese-American love stories.
Elsewhere in the Asian diaspora, Desi writers like S.K. Ali and Aisha Saeed are sharing joy through fiction; Adiba Jaigirdar and Sandhya Menon in particular are using some of my favorite tropes. I also recognize the push and pull of being not enough or too much, as well as the complexity of navigating mental illness alongside that, in the works of mixed and biracial authors like Heidi Heilig and Akemi Dawn Bowman.
I see flashes of my own relationship with my immigrant parents in Elizabeth Acevedo’s books. My small-town experience bumps right up against the kind about which Cynthia Leitich-Smith writes. If I feel perpetually foreign, it pales in face of the Black experience in all of its complexity as written by authors like Jason Reynolds, Kekla Magoon, and Echo Brown. Reading widely, inclusively, helps me better understand not only myself but how I exist in relation to others.
I am in isolation but I am not isolated.
I am finding it difficult to read at the moment, but I am comforted by the knowledge that these books are there, that more are on the way. We are still building our world.
The only way to ensure none of us are defined by a single story is to keep telling as many in as wide a variety as possible, finding the points where they touch while also honoring our differences, and uplifting one another.
Here, then, is home: in the space between, new strokes we are learning to write until they belong to us.
JoAnn Yao is the Social Media Manager for We Need Diverse Books. Among other things, she has conducted research for the American Film Institute, provided book and script coverage for a Hollywood agency, designed an online narrative game, and written a comic for a New Frontiers anthology. She lives in New York City with her dragon’s hoard of books. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram.