Rowan Hisayo Buchanan has edited an anthology ‘for and about the people who have heard the cry ‘Go Home!’ too many times’.
Where is home for you? Is it a place? A person? An idea? A bowl of soup? Your notebook? Nowhere? Everywhere? Has anyone ever tried to make you feel not at home? Taken your home from you?
We asked twenty-four Asian and Asian American writers for work on the topic of home. The result is Go Home!, a collaboration between the Asian American Writers Workshop and the Feminist Press in New York. The pieces show how many things a home can be:
Alice Sola Kim’s short story is about Korean adoptees who summon a demon that may or may not be their mother. Alexander Chee wrote an essay about his beautiful, gay, mixed-race roommate and a scarring dog bite. Wo Chan offered a poem about working at a make-up counter. Amitava Kumar’s ’Love Poems For The Border Control’ addressed the ritual humiliation of the border control, but also the letters his mother wrote to him in Hindi. Sharlene Teo wove together London, packaged drinks, teenage love, and drug smuggling.
As the editor, I hoped that the depiction of so many different ways of being at home might show how facile the famous insult ’Go Home!’ is.
I took the anthology on a US tour from Tampa, to New York, to Boston, to San Francisco, to LA. At each stop, we were asked a simple question with a complicated answer— ‘Is the anthology a response to Trump and his supporters?’
We conceived of the book before the recent political and social upheavals. At the anthology’s inception, Trump seemed a distant comical figure. Many of the liberal people in my life declared that racism was, if not dead, dying. Obama was President. Britain was part of Europe. In a few months, Sadiq Khan would be elected mayor of London. People kept telling me the future was beige, as if I, a mixed-race person, should take this as a personal triumph.
And because we were supposedly moving into this perfect future, there was no need to talk about the everyday exclusion, injustice and lack of representation that many Asian Americans and British Asians experience. An academic who was trying to help me understand the competitive world of research funding explained gently, ‘Post-colonialism isn’t really fashionable anymore.’ He was a white man, but he was supportive, not a villain. He was simply warning me that interests had moved on. I didn’t know what to say. It was like being told that sexism isn’t really a big deal.
When talking to people who had never doubted their own acceptance, I began to be a little shy about describing my excitement at our having won a contract to create an anthology of Asian and Asian American writers. To say that we needed to collect and to celebrate this work felt like pointing out to the host that the chicken was not fully cooked, that there was blood around the bone. It felt like a faux pas to say that racism had not been grilled out of society.
I was not alone in feeling the disjunction between the view that racism had almost vanished and what I perceived. Sunny Singh, author and activist, recalls that, ‘I noticed the big shift in rhetoric [towards xenophobic and racist ideologies] in the 2014 local elections and mentioned it in some press appearances. I was met with noticeable disbelief. Yet, the racism continued to build.’
Then Brexit happened. Bigots took it as a triumph and were singing a victory song full of bile and spittle. Hate crimes spiked. Immigrants, white and non-white, spoke of suddenly not feeling at home in a country they thought of as their own. Across the Atlantic, the American election was heating up, much of the rhetoric pitching so-called Real Americans versus everyone else. Trump won. Had hate won?
I found it hard to write in those dazed weeks. A Chinese American friend and I ate lunch together a few days after the election. She’d been writing a novel, but she wondered if she should stop. What, she wondered, was the point of art?
But writers, like the demonstrators on the streets and others who did not want to live in a world of toxic division, began to see that this was also an opportunity to build community. Nikesh Shukla’s essay anthology Good Immigrant got the attention and praise it deserved. Jesmyn Ward’s beautiful collection of black nonfiction, The Fire This Time hit the shelves. Meanwhile, our editorial team was sifting through submissions to our open call. I found joy in reading every one of our five hundred stories, essays and poems. I no longer felt isolated. There were so many smart, lyrical voices giving literary life to so many different ways of being at home in the world. The bones of this book were formed before Trump, or Brexit. But it joins its voice to those opposing the hatred that has come to feature all too often in our public discourse. It is for and by writers who have been told they don’t belong in books, in their hometowns, and in their countries. It is for and about the people who have heard the cry ‘Go Home!’ too many times.
One Filipino man brought his entire family to our Tampa reading. He personally thanked each speaker because he’d never been able to hear Asian American writers in Florida before. And even on the famously diverse coasts, hands shot up to ask — Did you ever feel the pressure to whitewash your writing? The questioner would usually confess that as a writer, she or he had. Some contributors confessed that their first stories were about white people and that it was only later that they had the confidence to write about people more like themselves. As young people, they’d assumed that literature had to be about people the shade of Lizzie Bennet or Holden Caulfield. However excellent those protagonists are, pinky-pale should not be the only palette available. Many of those who asked the whitewashing question were young writers starting out on their own careers. They told me they’d come to the reading because they needed to hear stories about Asian people.
When PEN asked me to write about hope after revolution, I knew what I hoped immediately. I hope that we can take this political moment to spread alternative stories to the ones offered up by hate-mongers. I hope we can listen to each other. I hope that when we read each other’s work, we are better able to comprehend the struggles of those around us. I hope it helps us perceive the humanity of those with lives different from our own. And I hope that the next generation of writers never thinks bodies like theirs don’t belong.
Rowan Hisayo Buchanan is the author of the novel Harmless Like You. She has a BA from Columbia University, an MFA from the UW-Madison, and was an Asian American Writers’ Workshop fellow. Her short work has appeared in Granta, The Guardian, Guernica, Apogee, and the White Review, among other places. She has received residencies from the Gladstone Library and Hedgebrook.
Go Home! is out now with Feminist Press.
Image credit: Heike Steinweg