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

From the very beginning by Kailee Haong

Four years ago today, I took my first baby step out of the world of science—which I had so convinced myself would be my world until the end of time—into a world of literature and writing.  

I joined my undergraduate school newspaper as a lowly staff writer. I had never written newspaper articles before. I had no idea what I was doing. I started out writing the leftovers—IT Department Updates Wifi, Cafeteria Adopts Fresh Food Program—you know, those kinds of stories. The quick, 500-word "updates" that no one really reads or pays any mind to. But I was excited. Each time I got to see my name in print, it ignited some kind of passion in me that writing—no matter my audience—is what I needed to be doing.  


I slowly ascended the ranks of the newspaper. I became a senior staff writer, then a news editor, then an arts & entertainment editor, until my senior year when I had two incredible jobs to balance: Head arts & entertainment editor, and the editor-in-chief of "Our Voices," the journal on diversity. These two positions dominated my senior year in the best way. I got to write, read, and showcase others' talents in my publications. It was incredible. I was on a writing and editing high. And then? I got the acceptance letter to Eastern's Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing. Game changer.  

Everything was a shock to me, but in the same beat it felt perfectly normal and absolutely right. I started college taking standard biology, chemistry, and math courses. I ended with courses like critical thought, feminist thought, creative writing—courses that changed how I think, helped me understand why I think that way, and how to put those thoughts on paper. I am so grateful and indebted to my professors for this knowledge.  


I'm not writing this summary of my accolades to be braggadocios by any means. I'm writing it because in that simple action of joining the school paper four years ago, I set myself on the track I needed to be to end up here, today. I have four short stories published in three local Spokane anthologies, I'm teaching an awesome spread of texts to my intro to literature students in Cheney, I'm writing things that make me proud of myself, and I'm reading some wonderful, inspiring books that keep me pointed in the right direction.  

Writing is not easy. Creating is not easy. But when you print out your x amount of pages that you've spent weeks toiling over, reading and re-reading, editing, and revising, it is an unparalleled feeling. I know there's so much more to come, and that I'm just a baby-writer right now, but I'm so excited for whatever lies down the road.  


Thanks for sticking with me on this blog I never use.  

As always, a quote: 

Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.
— Virgina Woolf