The instructor looks at the class, eight students scattered around a conference table in a fluorescently lit seminar room. “So, what do we think?”
We talk about the way the story frames and reframes an anecdote. Thom, whom everyone calls “the plot Nazi,” likens this device to a game of telephone, where the story is transmitted from person to person. “The wife tells her husband the story about eating Peking duck, the husband shares the story with the teacher, laying claim to it as his own happiness, the teacher writes a book incorporating this story. And then, in this piece, the writer describes what she read in a book, which is recounted by the narrator. It’s being reframed once again.”
We talk about the reframing and what we think the writer is trying to achieve. I tell them about “Iron & Silk,” which contains the same anecdote. “The Lydia Davis story doesn’t give credit to the Salzman memoir, but I can’t imagine that it isn’t a reference to that book.”
Matthew, the only other Asian student in our program, has read the book, too. He says, “This idea of framing and reframing the same anecdote raises a question: Can the writer, who’s retelling another’s story, really assume authorship? And, going along those lines, can Mark Salzman assume authorship for his student’s story?”
We kick this ball around for a bit—discussing the difference between appropriating someone’s story and making it new through retelling—without drawing much of a conclusion. At some point, Allie, the star student, declares, “By writing the story, the writer naturally lays claim to it.” To which Matthew responds, “But we know that’s just an excuse. Authorial license never justifies appropriation.”
In the ensuing silence, the instructor smiles. “Well, these are all great points,” she says smoothly. “Since we’re running out of time, we need to get started with workshop.” She turns to me. “Let’s begin with your story.”
My workshop story follows a Chinese immigrant nanny through the span of a Friday, when she brings her young daughter to the mansion where she is employed. The piece is written from the nanny’s perspective, as she moves through a seemingly ordinary workday, which is interrupted by the arrival of a door-to-door salesman, who persistently tries to sell her cleaning products. The day culminates in her losing her job. Her daughter observes the proceedings.
“Well,” the instructor says brightly. “This is a very interesting story. Let’s open up discussion. Any thoughts?”
Thom always speaks first. “The way English is rendered in this piece, it’s kind of artificial. I mean, the first-person narration reads too smoothly and is too well articulated for a protagonist who’s not fluent in English.”
Others in workshop echo some of Thom’s sentiments about the inherent awkwardness of rendering the experiences of such a character in English, but there’s no consensus on how to solve this issue. Someone suggests that it could be written in Chinglish instead, but another student counters that this would play into stereotypes. “Using Chinglish would exaggerate the character’s inarticulateness, and flatten her into an immigrant trope.”
From the far end of the conference table, Matthew clears his throat. Somehow, I’ve been waiting for his response. “Whether the story is written in English or Chinglish,” he says deliberately, “it’s just a tired Asian American subject, these stories about immigrant hardships and, like, intergenerational woes.”
I can’t look at Matthew. His thesis is a Western novel that, in his words, interrogates white masculinity. The few times we’ve spoken outside class, he’s talked mostly about his summers in Taiwan, which he spends playing basketball with his cousins. He continues, “It also doesn’t help that this is a stereotypical representation of a female Chinese immigrant.”
There is an uncomfortable silence. The instructor clears her throat. She says, “For those of us who may not be familiar, can you expand on this stereotype, Matthew?”
I look at him.
“Yeah,” he says. “Like, when the salesman invites himself inside, she just goes along with it. She’s very passive. It fits into representations of these meek, submissive women we see all the time. It’s unrealistic.” He doubles down. “It’s a kind of Asian minstrelsy.”
When no one wants to speak, Thom does. “Is this story autobiographical?”
“The writer isn’t allowed to answer during workshop,” Allie points out.
There is another lull in the room.
“Well, I found the story so interesting,” the instructor interjects, forced cheer in her voice. “It shows how differences in cultural assimilation, in English fluency, can alienate this immigrant mother and daughter from each other.” Her voice rises. “And then there are these startling moments of tenderness . . .”
My mother drinks only water in restaurants; any other drink order is an unnecessary expenditure. Because she is my mother, I do the same and order water, even though she’s long ago given up on lecturing me about frugality. A few weeks before my book release, I take her out to a fancy Chinese restaurant, a half-empty banquet hall with roast ducks hanging in the front window. The restaurant is famed for its Peking duck, which is ranked the second best in the world, according to a travel magazine.
When the waiter comes, I order for us in English, the usual dishes. “So, we’ll get B16, C7, and F22. To start, we’d like A5 and A11.”
My mother sets her menu down, looks at me. “Is that how you order? Like a computer.”
“O.K., sounds good.” The waiter, a Chinese teen-ager in Air Force 1s, also answers in English. “I’ll get those appetizers out first.”
Before the dishes arrive, I give her an advance copy of my book, a story collection with a vaguely Chinese cover image of persimmons in a Ming-dynasty bowl. “It comes out next month.”
“So this is the final copy? I’ll show your father when I get home.” She studies it skeptically, as if it were a lottery ticket that will never yield, frowning at the marketing copy on the jacket flap. “Haven’t these stories been published already?”
“Some have. They’re just all collected in one book.”
“People can just read them for free somewhere else?”
“Have you read any of them already?”
“I looked at the story about the nanny you sent me.” She slides the book into her purse. “So, where do you get your ideas?” She asks this in a lightly mocking tone, pretending to be an interviewer.
“For the nanny story? Well, it’s obviously based on your job in Salt Lake.”
Though we start off speaking English, all conversations with my mother eventually move toward Mandarin, the language in which she is the most agile, firing off insults and embedding her observations with acid subtext. Though I am no longer fluent in Mandarin, I try to accommodate. Her English is awkward and mangled, and it’s not easy to move through the world shielded from the unkindness of others by only their thin veneer of liberal respectability.
The teen-age waiter returns with the appetizers and the main dishes together, setting down mock-chicken bean curd, lotus root, garlic pea shoots, mapo tofu, and salt-and-pepper smelt sprinkled with tiny diced jalapeños. It all comes out so quickly that I wonder about the quality. Topping off our water, he asks, “Is there anything else I can get you?”
Not bothering to switch back to English, my mother asks for a little side dish of chili bamboo.
“I’m sorry, what?” he says.
“A2,” I tell him, and he rushes away. My mother helps herself delicately to a bite of pea shoots, then the smelt. “Do you think the food is good here?” I ask her.
“I like simple food,” she says, neither confirming nor denying. Maybe it was ridiculous to come to a restaurant famed for its Peking duck and just order regular dishes. Neither of us likes duck though, with its fatty skin. She pretends to correct herself. “No, no, that’s wrong. What I should say is: I love it, honey! This is the best.”
“But you would never say that.”
She smiles her Cheshire-cat grin. “But I don’t want to be like the usual Chinese mother, someone who is never satisfied, yells at her children, and keeps saying ai-yah all the time.”
Now I understand. “Do you think it’s you in these stories?”
“There are so many mothers in your stories, what am I supposed to think?” My mother is suddenly indignant. “But they’re all so miserable. Does there have to be so much suffering?”