In So Many Olympic Exertions (Kaya Press, 2017), Anelise Chen’s first novel, autofiction mutates into exhortation, a call to action directed first at the author herself and then at everybody else. Chen is an American writer and journalist born in Taiwan and raised in Temple City, California. She currently lives in New York City. Her articles and essays have been published in The New York Times, BOMB, the New Republic, VICE, The Rumpus, and others. She currently teaches creative writing at Columbia University and writes a column about the life of mollusks for the Paris Review.
Grafias interviewed Chen not only to share with readers her voice, her work, and her ideas, but also to discuss important issues in the contemporary cultural debate: the meaning of words such as “identity” and “immigration,” and what it means to create a community of writers living in a foreign country — in this case, a community of Asian writers living in the United States who are defining the Asian-American culture of tomorrow. This means taking into consideration how much literature and publishing are intertwined with cultural issues as well as historical, social, and political ones.
Grafias thanks the Los Angeles Review of Books for giving space to the English version of this interview at the same time that its Italian version will publish on grafias.it. This is a further step in Grafias’s effort to build connections that allow professionals in cultural fields from all over the world to have common ground for exchanging ideas and information at a moment in history when this seems to be a primary need.
GRAFIAS: You were born in Taiwan and moved to the United States as a child. How did you go through growing up in a different cultural system? Were you completely absorbed by it or could you keep some elements of your native environment?
ANELISE CHEN: I grew up in the San Gabriel Valley, which is now a predominantly Asian suburb east of Los Angeles. I think my experience was unique to a specific moment in time. When my family arrived — this was the early 1990s — our neighborhood was still transitioning from a predominantly white community to a predominantly Asian one. Before that, our town had this sleepy, idealized, all-American vibe — like what you’d see in the movies. Episodes of the Wonder Years were filmed there. So there was a lot animosity and resentment when Asian immigrants began to make their mark on the landscape, when they started opening businesses in the commercial area. There weren’t many attempts to bridge across communities, to try to ease the culture and language divide. So these hidden negative emotions came out through debates about other things, like immigration or taxes or social services or crime. Or whether business signs had to be written in English.
And I have this other really incredible example, which I’ll write about eventually because it’s something that’s been almost forgotten. In the early ’90s, Temple City used to be called “The Bridal Shop Capital of the World.” It got that nickname because a handful of Taiwanese business owners came and opened bridal photography studios on the main street, which was a totally normal thing to do in Taiwan. Businesses clumped together according to type, so you had districts for socks or flowers or herbs. But this wasn’t typically how Main Streets were organized in the United States, so when these bridal shops started popping up right next to each other, the older residents were completely baffled. How was it possible that there were so many people getting married? It didn’t seem economically viable.
They weren’t aware of the size of the Asian diaspora and weren’t taking into consideration the couples that traveled from elsewhere to take their photos in Temple City. The older residents assumed the worst: these shops were fronts for prostitution. A man even ran for mayor on a platform to “clean up” the main street of our town. These bridal photography businesses endured random audits and raids for years. It’s so interesting to me how even the most innocent, straightforward, virtuous businesses (I mean, we’re talking about wedding photography!) can be immediately criminalized just for being unrecognizable. These immigrants were running legit businesses, they were paying taxes, they were keeping the vacant storefronts occupied, they were keeping everyone else’s property taxes up, and yet they were maligned. In school, kids would joke about our street of prostitution, and we sort of just accepted it. We didn’t know any better.
There was so much cognitive disconnect during this time because our teachers and principals and coaches and city leaders were still mostly white. We were trying our best to assimilate, but at the same time we wondered whether they secretly resented us. We weren’t doing anything wrong, but somehow the strength of our presence was an automatic violation. We were tipping into the majority, yet we still sang Christmas carols and celebrated Thanksgiving and worshipped football and upheld “traditional” American white culture. Some of us even wished we were white.
Anyway, it made very little sense to me at the time. Eventually I even wondered if I’d made everything up in my head. So a few years ago I tried to write an essay about this transition period, and I went online to see what the popular opinion was on issues in my hometown. That research led me to these forums and chat rooms made up of people who used to live in Temple City. One Facebook group was called “I USED to love Temple City.” And so many of their complaints were about these “prostitution dens” and their first-person experiences with them. It was unbelievable, the racism on these pages. Outrageous anecdotes about discovering secret harems full of women. It was totally crazy.
I tried to imagine what these people could have seen to lead them to misinterpret something as a harem, and I couldn’t think of anything. I’ve been to these studios many times to get family portraits taken, and I’ve never encountered anything even remotely salacious. Perhaps they saw a group of female employees eating lunch? Was it something as innocent as that? A storeroom of mannequins? That just goes to show how powerful confirmation bias can be.
So in a way I felt vindicated. I wasn’t imagining all the racism. It was really there. Mostly these former residents felt nostalgia for a place that was no longer possible. Their posts were like, Remember our old soda fountain? Remember the drive-in theater? Remember when there were no Asian immigrants? The big-picture reasons for a city’s decline and rebirth can be complicated and painful, so simple narratives serve as a sort of palliative. It’s much harder to say something like: “Oh, our former industries moved overseas; the blue-collar worker was replaced with automation; white flight happened; plus, globalization,” than to say, “Asian immigrants ruined our hometown.” But anyway, that’s the artist’s job. To start telling a different kind of story.
So Many Olympic Exertions has been defined as a blend of “elements of self-help, memoir, and sports writing” and it’s been compared to the work of some of the most important contemporary autofiction authors. You also write a column about the life of mollusks for the Paris Review, which is really a daily life story that uses a mollusk as a metaphor for the narrator’s character. What is your idea of autofiction?
I was on a panel recently with three other amazing writers — Chris Kraus, Tisa Bryant, and Q. M. Zhang — and we were discussing this same question. Our books are very different, but they can all be described as autofiction. We were debating whether or not this is simply a marketing term and not useful as a genre distinction. I think that when something is marketed as autofiction, it means that there is an intentional blurring of the author and the narrator. The reader is invited to read the narrator as the author, either because they share the same name or because they share other critical biographical elements. But the author also doesn’t want to say whether or not something really happened. Because we would just be writing memoir.
I’ve gleaned from other autofiction writers that we often share one thing in common: lots of us feel an unexplained revulsion toward “fiction” or the feeling that we’re “making something up.” It’s not something we can explain — the moment we feel like we’re making something up, we feel disgust. So autofiction might be the logical end result when a fiction writer can’t stomach fiction. I remember that when I was writing the novel, I kept wishing that I could just write a conventional book with scenes and characters and plot. My very first drafts were “made up” in that sense. People spoke in full sentences, and every once in a while the narrator would interject little bits of exposition. But something always felt wrong to me, and it was only when I adopted this very journal-like narrative style, where I could describe things as I truly saw them and experienced them, in a fragmentary, haphazard way, that I was able to finish the book.
Which authors influenced your writing style?
I’m not sure who I “sound” like because everything I write ends up sounding like myself, and I have been influenced by different writers at different points in my life. For Exertions, I was mostly influenced by Bernhard, Kafka, Handke, Walser, and Rilke. It must be a coincidence that they all wrote in German! I read a lot of journals and journal-like texts, like Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, Peter Altenberg’s Telegrams of the Soul, Handke’s The Weight of the World, Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co. These narrators are all failures in some way trying to write through silence, blockage, and incoherence.
However, I wrote my book over a span of five or six years, and of course I read a lot during that time, so I can’t say for sure what filtered into my consciousness. I read Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd when I was almost finished with my book, and it helped speed me toward the end, because the structure is also built around a void. I also read Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, which is composed of fragments, and Leanne Shapton’s Swimming Studies, which I carried around in my bag for months. I needed some reassurance that the form I had constructed wasn’t a crazy one, so it was very validating to encounter these books. I’m also deeply indebted to the books that sustained me spiritually during those years, and those are too many to list here.
What’s the last book you read?
Last night I stayed in and read László Krasznahorkai’s The World Goes On. It’s really wonderful, a quick read. I was taking notes feverishly the entire time. I also enjoyed The Manhattan Project, a very short book about his time in New York City, when he briefly became obsessed with retracing the steps of Herman Melville.
As the former fiction editor of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, you worked on the very important project of “building the Asian-American culture of tomorrow.” It seems a very demanding and important responsibility. What are your beliefs regarding contemporary Asian-American culture and literature? And how much of your work as a writer influenced your work as an editor, and vice versa?
As an editor, I was always very careful not to let my own personal style seep into the piece. A friend who is an excellent editor has a saying: “A good editor should be a ventriloquist.” Your job is to help your writer heighten and clarify whatever it is they’re trying to do.
Regarding what I think about contemporary Asian-American culture and literature — that’s a huge topic. Kaya Press is dedicated to publishing works of diasporic Asian literature, and that was one of the main reasons I decided to work with them. Growing up, I was never exposed to Asian-American stories in school, with the exception of Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston. I loved both of these writers, but it seems egregious that we had no one else to read. And I grew up in a predominantly Asian-American community in the San Gabriel Valley. We weren’t reading Jessica Hagedorn or Chang Rae-Lee in school. For a long time, I didn’t know what it meant to see my experience represented in literature. Maybe this is why, when I first started writing, all of my narrators were unnamed, generic, and without a specific race. I could only write what I knew, and in literature, anyway, I knew the universal white male character. Now I think Asian-American kids fare better. They can turn on the TV and watch Fresh Off The Boat. It no longer seems so strange to inhabit an Asian-American subjectivity. It’s important that the publishing industry continues to embrace different viewpoints and backgrounds so we can learn how to be empathetic and recognizable to each other.
You’ve worked in many different cultural environments, such as universities, magazines, and fiction writing. As a researcher, journalist, editor, and writer, do you have an idea, a theme, a central core that you are trying to bring out and express? Something that connects your research and all of your differently shaped narratives?
The way I teach and the way I write are united by the fact that I’m a panderer. I want to be of service. I want to feel useful. I want to please. So when I’m writing, I try to think of my audience as someone who could benefit from reading my work. I want to be of service to them, even if that person is just myself. I love teaching for the same reason. I love classroom time because it’s the only time a writer can share something in an immediate way, face to face. A book is something that is consumed alone, out of view. But in the classroom everyone is together and the exchange of ideas is open, circulating, collaborative. I would probably suffer from serious depression if I didn’t get to teach on the side.
The interview was curated by Cecilia Raneri and Serena Talento. The illustration was made by Veronica Leffe.
Grafias is an Italian literary magazine.