The fear and thrill of writing #ownvoices

I want to write an honest post about something that has always worried me and probably will always worry me as I keep writing about my heritage. It’s a special kind of imposter syndrome, the fear that I am appropriating my own culture for my art.

 

There are so many conversations about #ownvoices and #ownyourown. There are so many people saying meaningful and important things. Sometimes I try to chime in, but I always feel like others say it better, so signal boosting has been my main activity.

The way I see the world is a bit of a hybrid. I’ve spoken to many POC Americans who admit to feeling like they live in-between. Between the world of their parents/ancestors and the world they were born into. We are American but we have a qualifier in front. We are Something(-)American.

But, I chose to write a book about my culture as a Korean girl. And I also chose to write a book ONLY about being Korean (aka, not about being Korean American). So, I had to accept a few things about myself and my book.

1) I am Korean but I was not raised there, so I still see my heritage through a version of an American POV.

2) My parents picked what Korean ideals to raise us with so I lived their version of Korean culture.

3) I learned new things about my roots as an adult, but those aren’t as deeply ingrained in me as what I was raised with.

How I try to keep learning in my writing and in my identity

I am Korean 100% by genetics and blood, but I am a Korean American by upbringing. That means that I need to own what I know and fill in what I don’t with diligent research (just like any other writer).

The book I wrote is my heritage and my culture. But I knew being a Korean girl and being a person of color does not give me carte blanche to write whatever I want. I went to a semester abroad in Korea and visited many times as a child, but that doesn’t mean I instinctively know what I’m talking about when I write a contemporary Korean story. So, I went to Korea (multiple times) and I asked Korean people to clarify things as I wrote it. I asked Korean beta readers to read it. I asked my grandmother questions, my aunts, my cousin, my Korean language teacher. I wanted to ensure that I wasn’t just coasting on my bloodline to assume that I was getting it right.

I believe that we need to own our heritage in our writing. I also think we need to know our limitations and be sure that when we present our stories we are always doing due diligence.

I am proud and excited about this book I’ve created. But I am always learning and that excites me. I never want to stop learning. When we stop learning life can get pretty boring. And I refuse to live a boring life.
That’s why I’m a writer.

As a final note, someone recently shared THIS ARTICLE called “The Year in Hyphenates.” It’s a very honest and insightful article about what it’s like to be raised Asian American/Canadian and the in-between identity that is often created. I gotta be honest, I actually teared up reading it because it resonated so deeply with my own struggles as an Asian American. Often times I felt not Korean enough and not American enough at the same time. And I know that these struggles have bled over into my creative identity. I want to say this to any POC/Native/marginalized creators of #ownvoices reading this post. You are NOT responsible for representing your whole community. You can only tell YOUR story fully and honestly. As long as you love your story and feel like you’re representing YOUR experience well in your #ownvoices, then I’m sure you’re doing a wonderful job.

Keep dreaming! Keep creating!

#OwnYourOwn: How I found my #OwnVoice

This week is the start of #OwnYourOwn started by the lovely Kaye (@GildedSpine).

YA Interrobang wrote a wonderful intro article about it HERE. I’ll just blurb part of it to explain the gist of it:

We are going to #OwnYourOwn, with advice, with encouragement, with anecdotes so that you can know just how long we’ve been where you are, and how eagerly we’re waiting for you to take our hands and step forward to where we are. You are not alone on this path. You are not alone in your #ownvoices.

For my post, I wanted to write about how I finally accepted my voice as an #ownvoices in writing. Often times in writing (especially in the beginning) we have a healthy dose of imposter syndrome. This can occur not only with our style of writing but very very much with our voice.

To get to the meat of it, I have to tell you a bit about how I gained, lost, and regained my identity. (warning this gets a bit wordy, so if you just want to skip to the writer part of the journey, skip down a section)

Baby Kat hamming it up in good ol’ Central Florida

A little bit of my personal history
I mostly grew up in Orlando. That’s important to my story because it shaped a lot of my self-identity. It’s not a bad thing growing up in Central Florida. The weather is pretty decent, there are beaches, Disney World is close. However, my neighborhood was largely white. The main minority was hispanic/latinx. There were exactly 2.5 Asians in my class: Me, a Chinese boy, and a half-Malaysian girl (who was my best friend). That meant that to all of the non-Asian kids we were all “Chinese” weirdos. This was both upsetting and a fact of life for me.

My parents did what they thought was best for our family when they moved us to Orlando. However, my parents were raised in a time when they were told to just be American. A time of nationalism and when moving to America meant opportunity. Their Koreanness wasn’t something they spoke of a lot even though both had lived in Korea as children. My mother didn’t learn English until she was nine. My father was the first son of the first son and therefore the future head of our whole extended family still living in Seoul. However, that still wasn’t something that was spoken about and dissected a lot in our house, because we were American.

So, I didn’t get a good handle on my Korean heritage in an obvious way. There were subtle things. I thought that Korean words were just another way to say things and didn’t realize it was a different language until I went to school. There, I was bullied out of ever saying anything Korean. Kids also spoke to me in a mocking way where they would replace all of their L’s with R’s. People still talk to me that way now.

I didn’t realize that other kids didn’t eat kimchee and side-dishes (panchan) with all of their meals. I didn’t think that instant Ramen was a “junk food.” I just thought it was normal. I also didn’t think it was Korean. I just thought it was my family’s thing.

It wasn’t until I went to college, spent a semester in Seoul, and began writing that I fully embraced myself and embraced my heritage (but I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Back to young-Kat…)

My Writing Journey Begins
This all matters because when I wrote my first full book (at the age of thirteen), I made the main character half Korean, half white. I did this, because I both wanted a character that looked like me and I knew the character *shouldn’t* look completely like me. Not based on the books I had read as a child. And to top it off, her Korean side was not acknowledged and played no part in developing her character. This was very telling. That at thirteen I couldn’t completely accept a full Korean main character, even though I was full Korean myself. I’m a bit sad for thirteen-year-old me because I know better now. (But what they say is true: hindsight is always 20/20).

Fast-forward a dozen years and I’m writing to actually publish. I wrote a space opera and I made the main characters (MC) white. However, this was just when We Need Diverse Books was gaining traction. It was inspiring and it made me really think about how I decided what story I wanted to tell.  It made me stop and think, “Why did I make my main character white?” The book was set in outer space. There were aliens with wolf-heads in my book. Why can’t my main characters be Korean? So I made my MC Korean. But I named him Eli. I did this because, even though I was trying to come around to the idea of embracing my identity within my writing, I still believed my culture in its entirety (e.g. Korean names) was not palatable for the current market.

That book didn’t gain me an agent. And I wonder if it’s because of my hesitation while writing that book. I didn’t put all of myself into that book both figuratively and literally. And I wonder if that made a difference.

The book that actually got me where I am now is based on Korean mythology, set in Seoul, with fully Korean characters with fully Korean lives and names. And that’s the book everyone was excited about. That was the book that got me an agent. That’s the book I want to sell to publishers.

Getting to that book was hard for me. What I mean by that is that I have not always been as comfortable with my “Koreanness” as I am today. No one actively tried to take my heritage away from me, but micro-aggressions and feeling like my culture was too “other” almost my whole childhood made me tuck it away so no one could see. I went to college and called myself a “twinkie” to appease the very Korean KA students that looked at me with suspicion when I didn’t speak fluently. And when I started to get into my culture more as an adult, some people who’d known me for 20+ years looked at me with doubt. Why now? Why suddenly have interest in my culture? Didn’t that make me “fake”? To be honest, the two main things that drove me forward was losing someone I loved and writing. I learned that I wanted to write about ME and what made me who I was. A huge part of that (whether I chose to acknowledge it before or not) was that I’m Korean. So, I wrote about it and I came up with the book that I eventually got my agent with.

It makes me deliriously happy that the book that’s my full self is the one that got me here. It’s almost like the universe waited until I could accept all of myself before it allowed me to take this momentous next step in my writing career.

So, any young writers reading this blog post, don’t wait over ten years before you write yourself into your stories. Be proud of who you are and who you could be. Write it onto the page. Create stories that are full of your personal journey and your personal heritage. Trust me when I say that there are so many people that want to hear it and support it and champion it.

And if you want to ask me any questions then feel free (you can write in the comments of this post or use the Contact Me tab on this blog).

Happy writing!