Michigan in Color: A 'mild' story

Photo by Catherine Huang
Buy this photo

By Carlina Duan, Michigan in Color Editor
Published April 16, 2015

One recent evening, a friend and I walked down Main Street. The night was busy. Cars rushed; wind rushed. Boots clucked. We touched strangers’ elbows by accident as we passed them down the street.

“Yeah, all the Michigan in Color pieces recently just haven’t been … that good,” my friend said, laughing, as we passed the pasta restaurant where inside, diners twirled curls of spaghetti on silver forks. “I mean, they’ve just been mild, like … eh,” she made a dark noise with her tongue, “It’s all just reiterations of the same thing.”

Outside, dusk began to spill across the pavement, and just as suddenly, the streetlights snapped on — automated and glinting across my friend’s pale face.

I paused. In front of us, a small dog peed into the brush, and I said nothing, watching the black hairs on my wrist rise in the wind.

As a writer, I have thought often about “good stories.” What makes a story “good,” as opposed to “mild,” or, in simpler terms, bad?

In my English classes, we learn that good stories require a “driving question.” We learn that good stories don’t “tell,” they “show.” We read Virginia Woolf and Chaucer; we learn how to use metaphors and footnotes; we learn how to craft.

But what we don’t learn, and what, I suppose, some might never learn, is what makes a story ours: How do we pass judgment — and how do we lay claim — over what is inherently our own meat, our own blood?

What do we do when our stories, as People of Color, are dismissed by others as too “easy,” “mild,” “the same” — clumped together and labeled as homogenous in anger, rage, pain, shame? How do we still find the humility and self-power to celebrate? How do we still find the urge within us to share, expose, listen?

At times, writing about how I move through the world — Chinese American, woman, black-haired, with two fists and a pink lip — feels risky. It feels frightening. It feels like yanking out many thick threads — pain and joy and violence and loss — tugging them from my body; threads which, sometimes, do not want to be unraveled. They want to sit, stuck. My stories contain as much pain as they do joy: I have felt used. I have felt trampled upon. I have felt loved.

When I write, and choose to give up my story to the world, it so often feels precious and painful. To lose a story outside of its safe nest: the body. To let a story be bitten into by other teeth.

How specific do I need to get to make my stories “good” enough — real enough — for an “audience” to “believe”?

If I write that, my sophomore year of college, at the intersection between North University and State, a woman rolled down her window and blared, “Hey, CHINK; What’re you lookin’ at, CHINK,” and I did not make eye contact, and the light changed, and I pressed the balls of my feet upon the sidewalk and kept walking fast, fast, away … If I write that, at a retreat, another woman told me, “I never even have to think about your race; it’s just not something I’ve ever noticed about you at all … ” If I write that a friend once asked me to show him how to use chopsticks, and when I refused, he laughed, “Are you even a real Asian?”

If I write that I feel, so often, pummeled and seared to invisibility? Or brandished as exotic, alien, prop?

How much more bone do I need to show to make myself visible?

My white friends and peers are, at times, skeptical that the racist experiences within my poetry and my world can be so “tidy.” They ask me to complicate my claims. They do not believe the hurt in me. They do not believe that the racism can be the same knife making clean cuts — again, again, again.

Oftentimes, I am deeply offended when I hear my white peers speak about “good” stories with regards to race. Frequently, the conversation revolves only around craft: how “entertaining” a story is, how much it lives up to their expectations of what a PoC writing about race should be…

But Michigan in Color was not created for “craft.” Michigan in Color — and spaces akin to it — exist in order for People of Color to voice their narratives — not because we have “good” or “easy” stories to tell; not because we have the desire, frankly, to tell them … but precisely because these stories thrash inside of us. We are pulling them out of us, which is, in itself, a revolutionary act. These stories will not be killed. They are alive; they are injured. They are in love; they are tender. They are fearful; they are brave. So what if our stories are not different “enough”? Why should we have to dilute — or dress up — our experiences for an audience? These stories are not meant for outsiders, who purport themselves to be allies, to call “mild.” They are meant to nourish ourselves.

I am tired of hearing white “allies” and readers express that every East Asian woman writing for MiC has the “same story”; that every Black man writing for MiC has the “same story”; that it is all “reiterations of the same thing”; that acts of racism in literature can be “overdone,” “too much,” “too obvious.” I call: bullshit. You cannot tell our hearts to shut up when they cannot, instinctively, shut out our lived histories of brutality, rage, love, shame. Over, over, over again. We will not shut up. We will not shut up. We will tell the “same” stories — and they do not need to be made glossier in order for them to be worth your attention.

Of course, stories should always be constructively critiqued. We would not be made stronger sisters, humans, or artists if our stories were not questioned, or prodded at. But I am reminded, again and again, that the conversation needs to center around storytelling not only as “craft,” but also as tenderness and as loss. All stories are, in part, lived experiences, embedded into our muscle and skin. It is unfair — an act of erasure, even — to treat them as otherwise.