marginalized voices

Capturing a Culture: Representation Matters! by Kailee Haong

As I try to piece together stories about my refugee grandparents who I could hardly communicate with, I ask myself many questions: How much of this will I have to explain to my white colleagues? How many pages do I spend defining words I originally wrote in Chaozhou or Khmer just so my colleagues feel invested enough to keep reading? 

Me, being and feeling contemplative. 

Me, being and feeling contemplative. 

A caveat: Prior to my first year in this MFA program, I never wrote stories about my culture or my heritage. Part of the reason for that is because I wasn't reading stories about my culture or heritage. I didn't know there were any. I was (and sometimes still am) a bit tied up being forced to praise Hemingway for his ambiguity and Steinbeck for his endurance and *sometimes* if we were lucky, we'd get a little female representation—albeit a white female—with a Woolf piece. These are great authors, no doubt. They're heralded for their works for a reason. But in the moment I allowed myself to drift outside the confines of the literary canon, I found myself falling in love with stories I'd never heard before. In 2017, I read 46 books. 26 of those books were by authors of color or queer authors. Over half! I've never read such a diverse, beautiful collection of writings until just last year. I encourage you to do so, too.

This year, I wrote characters that paid homage to my grandparents for the first time ever, and they were two of the stories I've felt most content with writing thus far. My grandparents, two ordinary people fighting extraordinary odds to save our family from a massive genocide by coming to the United States. I did not know them well, but my memories of them will live on in the stories I tell. I hope to do them justice.  谢谢 (xiè xiè), thank you for everything, Mama and Gōnggòng.

Mama, Gōnggòng, & the cousins.

Mama, Gōnggòng, & the cousins.

For my thesis, I'll be putting together a collection of short stories that highlight Chinese American and Cambodian Americans narratives. I hope to create a voice for people like my Mama and Gōnggòng who are no longer around to share their stories and experiences. Right now, I've been buried in novels and short story collections by a number of Asian and Asian American authors and I'm getting more and more inspired every day. Ideas and drafts are floating around, and I can't wait to share what I create with all of you. Thanks for your endless support. 

If you want more recommendations on books by authors of color or queer authors, just ask! I have so many! And, a personal plug, you can come to my writing workshop in the fall. It's called "Writing on the Margins," and we'll dive into the different ways you as a writer can incorporate marginalized voices into your own work. More details as it gets closer. 

This time, a quick quote:

Stories matter.
— Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie