While at Trinity, I have enjoyed my English classes while simultaneously being frustrated by a lack of nuance in racial discourse. Reading Langston Hughes, it turns out it is hard to be black. Reading Aphra Behn, it turns out it is even harder to be black when you are a woman.
Even after “discovering” the historical import of intersectionality, I have found myself a bit frustrated. We have spent a lot of time delving into the nuances of the Victorian age and their diverse viewpoints. By contrast, it often feels like a tutorial leader is searching for a single answer, a single narrative of what racism looks like, explicit and usually situated in the past, rather than literature touching on the present reality of racism invoking microaggressions within Ireland.
As an Asian woman, I recognise that as there are very few of us comparatively speaking, there will always be difficulties inherent to being an ethnic minority in a majority-white country. Still, it is frustrating to encounter microaggressions even when people talk without malicious intent. Where are you from? No, where are you really from? While part of my alienation is due to being a weird American, my race undeniably sets me apart; even dressed in the most basic of fits, I will never be accepted as “one of the lads” (what a tragedy). Still, I have had reservations about expressing discomfort with these interactions when there is a lack of explicit racism. Junot Diaz once said: “If you want to make a human being a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.” At times, I can’t help but feel my feelings render me a bit translucent.
Accordingly, it was deeply cathartic to read Yan Ge’s Elsewhere. Although now based in the UK, she moved to Dublin in 2015 with her Irish husband. Within Elsewhere, Yan – originally from Chengdu, perhaps best known for writing The Chilli Bean Paste Clan – explores the impossibility of defining any ethnic group through a particular experience through stories ranging from Confucius-era China to modern-day Dublin. I found the latter particularly resonant as her stories invoke the loneliness and microaggressions of being a foreigner. Still, the humour, insight and themes of miscommunication will resonate with many. Last month, I spoke with Yan, who graciously agreed to an interview.
“I think this book is a journey for me to try and figure out what kind of writer I am in a different language”
Yan Ge is a celebrated author in China, where she has amassed awards and been lauded for her command of prose. Despite this, writing her first short story collection in English posed an entirely new challenge. She explained: “I think this book is a journey for me to try and figure out what kind of writer I am in a different language. I’m sure whoever has this experience of living in two or three different languages would probably feel that in a different language, you have a slightly different persona. And when it comes to [a] writer’s identity, it’s the same. Coming into English, I felt I didn’t know who I was, and that was [kind of] the fun part. I think I just went from roaming around to exercising muscles I didn’t know existed.”
She cites this discovery process as her primary inspiration behind the collection. Although her writing might be said to challenge overgeneralised ethnic narratives, this choice was not a conscious one. Instead, she was intrigued by certain narratives, characterising her writing process as “quite spontaneous.” That said, in the process of writing, she described herself as “surprised” as she realised there were linkages between the collection’s stories, which were “in conversation with each other. I think maybe one of the conversations, one of the things all those stories are trying to say is they defy stereotypes.”
In the past, there has been a “single story” that English writers of colour have been expected to cater to, perhaps at the expense of authorial complexity. For instance, ethnic writer Jhumpa Lahiri set a model for how a woman of colour is expected to write. It is only in recent years that the diverse experiences of minorities have been accepted into mainstream literary discourse.
“When writing in your native language, you are ‘defined without realising you are defined”
By contrast, Yan feels she gains energy from rejecting this antiquated model. She explains: “A Chinese woman writer is expected to write these kinds of stories. And I think my stories resist and challenge that pre-existing notion.” As she returned to the editing process, challenging the oversimplified ideas on who should write what became one of her main priorities. Beyond this incentive, she also finds freedom inherent to writing in English. She said that when writing in your native language, you are “defined without realising you are defined. This [writing] is not just the language you choose but also your culture, your upbringing, and pretty much it is all behind that and in your native language.”
Writing in a second language can be a personal choice without the same baggage. Unquestionably, English as the lingua franca is a postcolonial phenomenon. Still, Yan likens the experience to “a weird combination of both being a grownup, maybe artistically I’ve been writing for so many years, but also somehow being returned to the state of being just a child where you could just try out different things. I think, most importantly, you get to be curious about yourself.”
Yan notes that she finds her newfound literary adolescence intriguing. After writing in Chinese for almost two decades, she found herself secure in her identity as an author. English provided a completely different outlook, which benefits her as a female author who seeks to distance herself from the patriarchy. She states that all modern languages embody a patriarchal structure since well-educated and elite men invented them. Writing in her native language, then, can feel confining as a woman writing through a fundamentally narrow lens.
“I feel like my voice as a woman gets magnified when I write in English”
Essentially, linguistic microaggressions are accepted on a societal basis. Writing in your native language can be a bit like having a male manipulator infiltrating your mind and trying to match your energy. The author describes “certain words [in Chinese] that just carry a bit of a stigma, like words related to women’s body or sort of a pejorative adjective in Chinese would kind of have a woman as the part of the radical, as part of the character.” While these are subtle transgressions, Yan notes that “you are being manipulated, almost being oppressed by that [word] without even realising it in your native language.” Although English is also a patriarchal structure, she says that when you learn a language, you naturally possess an aesthetic distance without cultural, societal and gendered baggage. “So I feel like my voice as a woman gets magnified, maybe strengthened, when I write in English.”
Within the collection, Shooting an Elephant and How I Fell In Love With The Well-Documented Life of Alex Whelan were among my favourites for centring around the lives of Asian women living in Dublin. Both stories deal with the complexities and humour of occupying a predominantly white country. In the face of tired romantic tropes and narratives within contemporary Irish lit, they feel like a witty retort.
“Tellingly, the obnoxious Irish husband graduated from Trinity”
Notably, Yan did not intend for her writing to confront racism directly. “Shooting an Elephant,” deriving its title from the George Orwell essay, is about a Chinese woman and her obnoxious Irish husband. Tellingly, the obnoxious Irish husband graduated from Trinity.
Although many readers dislike the husband, she says she did not intend to “vilify anyone.” Inevitably, our lived experiences are political. The story depicts the “inevitable conditioning” inherent to the structure that permeates language and Western culture.
Microaggressions are part of this social conditioning. Yan acknowledges that most people are not consciously racist; everyone comes from specific backgrounds, cultures and upbringings that denote unique blind spots. Most Irish people in the story who make insensitive comments have good intentions. It is almost too subtle to be detected. Comments within the story: “Oh my god, you look gorgeous,” “Is she Chinese or Japanese?” and “Isn’t Chinese a great language?” are never malicious but reinforce the sense of never fitting in, somehow being Other. The narrator’s husband is shown to love her despite his orientalist worldview.
“I wonder if a typical Irish person [who] read the story would see that those are kind of strange moments where a racist microaggression was going on”
This uneasy parallelism is true to the author’s experience of Dublin. She muses: “I was talking to somebody else, and I said, I wonder if a typical Irish person [who] read the story would see that those are kind of strange moments where a racist microaggression was going on. After having the conversation, she concluded that they likely wouldn’t when the intentions were ‘purely innocent,’ and it was “not like anybody was really trying to shout to her to say, go back to your country.”
Simultaneously, George Orwell’s essay rejects the imperialist project and reduces the Burmese people to “little beasts” with “sneering yellow faces.” In some ways, racism has not changed. You can make grandiose statements, post about social justice issues, and still make thoughtless comments that speak just as loudly. Even here, Yan is careful not to impart judgment through her depiction of reality.
After all, everyone sees themselves as the hero of their story. Her interest in writing fiction lies in showing the tensions within the dominant narrative. Even in contemporary media, the Asian girl is often the side fling (Normal People’s adaptation, Harry Potter, Freedom-I hate Jonathan Franzen), the one-off (Derry Girls, same actor), the best friend (Emily in Paris, Gilmore Girls), et cetera. This reality isn’t wrong, but it reveals a limited scope. When we all see ourselves as the hero, it is disconcerting to realise that this contradicts a plot that says not everyone can be.
“I didn’t think I was Irish. How could I be an Irish writer?”
That said, Dublin is a city experiencing rapid change. Becoming increasingly globalised, the definition of what constitutes Irish has also shifted. When living in Dublin, Yan was commissioned to write How I Fell in Love with the Well-Documented Life of Alex Whelan for a short story anthology. She says she felt surprised and gratified. “I didn’t think I was Irish. How could I be an Irish writer?” But agent Lucy wanted to further the boundaries of what it means to be Irish, and “How I Fell in Love…” became the earliest story in Elsewhere.
Like Shooting an Elephant, How I Fell in Love… is also about the author’s relationship to a text. In this instance, Yan says the story emerged from her obsession with the archives of David Foster Wallace. Taking an online deep dive into his juvenilia from university and past videos prompted her to reflect on the fundamental unknowability behind a person’s online persona. “How do we define whether we know a person or not?” Despite having passed away, she says that David Foster Wallace’s archives made her feel like she “could almost picture a person out of all this data.”
Perhaps the only time when stalking someone online has led to a productive relationship, this experience inspired the story. It’s a classic love story: girl meets boy. Boy dies. Girl stalks his social media, and nurses elaborate fantasies about what he is like. Yan was wondering: “could it be possible for somebody to be convinced that they have formed a relationship with a different person just through their online footage rather than knowing this person in real life?” Based on modern celebrity culture, our generation knows the answer to this question.
“In a way, all of us, we don’t forget. We used to, and now we remember everything”
“In a way, all of us, we don’t forget. We used to, and now we remember everything. I could just Google, or I could search through my history.” She continues: “But eventually, it…became this industry. Every individual now is potentially a small PR company that promotes themselves, but then that creates our better selves. The online images are always a better version of ourselves and how they came back to affect our actual selves.”
In the future, she is also interested in exploring political structures. In the wake of increased tensions, especially with China, she hopes to “create conversations between polarised ends,” acknowledging China is increasingly detached from the world in what resembles a cold war.
Fiction can link polarised groups or encourage empathy between diverging viewpoints. She says: “I think fundamentally, when you write fiction, you are writing about individuals. Whatever it is, when we break it down to an individual story, it’s always empathetic.” Despite not having any solutions to geopolitical strife, she feels literature offers a way to make sense of what can otherwise seem like insurmountable differences. People can tend to oversimplify issues and reduce entire groups of people to a single story or abstraction. However, when occupying someone else’s lived experience, it isn’t easy to look at people without compassion, even those you might otherwise dismiss or look at without seeing.
“Although I am not a politician or activist, the earth is on fire”
Incorporating political themes is not only inevitable but critical. “Although I am not a politician or activist…the earth is on fire; it’s really urgent for people to think about that more.” Yan feels her attention is being directed towards an increased degree of responsibility.
Throughout the collection, Elsewhere exemplifies how the personal is inherently political. Whether conscious or unconscious, whether you are a new emigrant or have lived in a country your whole life, you carry societal norms that shape how you see the world and other people. Yan concludes our conversation: “Especially when you’re an immigrant when you leave your native country and everything becomes this. You have all those tensions around you then because everything is like a difference.”