Some Other I Before Me: On Seeking Guidance From AAPI Memoirs

For AAPI month, Rajpreet Heir writes about the creative guidance she’s found in memoirs by AAPI authors.

Some Other I Before Me: On Seeking Guidance From AAPI Memoirs

I WAS AT A house party in Brooklyn a few years ago when an Indian American med school student asked, “What do you do?” “I’m a creative nonfiction professor,” I answered. He scooted away before returning: “Wait, so you”—here he waved at me—“studied creative writing, and now you teach it?” I nodded. Visibly shocked, he replied, “You’ve broken all the rules and you’re basically a stripper.”

The comment made me proud. Clearly, he understood how radical it was for me, a young woman of Indian descent, not only to live away from my family in Indiana but also to work as a professor in a creative field. His reaction reflected the extent to which, in doing so, I’d overcome gendered and cultural expectations; often, I’m as shocked as he was. My parents were the first in their families to attend college. I was the first on both sides to get a graduate degree. Now, I’m both the first educator and the first to pursue a creative career. All the while, I’ve never had an Indian teacher or professor myself.

My experience is far from unique. In addition to shared educational obstacles and firsts, many artists in the Asian American and Pacific Islander community deal with other, similar structural inequities as well. And because many of them have found success, there’s often a desire to say, “We did it—we fixed the problem.” Yet these artists achieved success despite the odds. When I read the memoirs of AAPI writers and creators, I study more than just their craft—I study their career and life choices. The impulse is born out of twin desires: to understand my experience, and to source permission to take up artistic space.


It was the fall semester of my senior year in college, and my creative nonfiction writing professor encouraged me to apply to MFA programs. Ultimately, he suggested, I could go on to teach nonfiction writing myself. But when I mentioned this to another professor weeks later, I was met with deterrence: “There are already a lot of good Indian writers,” she warned me.

The comment sent me back to my room, where I did something rare (at least for me): I took a three-hour nap in the middle of the day. I didn’t know how else to respond. I respected that second professor and figured she was looking out for me; I was also devastated. During the weeks between those two interactions, I had really thought I could chart a path to my dream career.

Other Asian Americans have received similar messages. Eddie Huang, author of Fresh off the Boat (2013), wanted to be a sportscaster. Once, while watching TV with his dad, he pointed out ESPNews’ Michael Kim, a Korean American. “There’s one of him already,” Huang’s dad responded, “they don’t need another.” In Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations (2018), Mira Jacob informs people she wants to be a writer. “Too bad we’ve already had our Indian Lit moment!” replies one acquaintance.


Years passed. Still, I couldn’t articulate why that professor’s comment was problematic until I read a passage in Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H Mart (2021). Zauner, the lead vocalist of the band Japanese Breakfast, worshipped Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs as a kid. “My first thought,” she recalls, was “how do I get to do that, and my second, if there’s already one Asian girl doing this, then there’s no longer space for me.” From there, Zauner demonstrates how the construct of “The One” structurally upholds white supremacism, writing, “I didn’t have the analogical capacity to imagine a white boy in the same situation, watching a live DVD of say, the Stooges, and thinking, if there’s already an Iggy Pop, how could there possibly be room for another white guy in music?”

Looking back, it’s as though my second professor was highlighting the presence of Indians in literature so that we wouldn’t add any more.


Are there enough AAPI artists doing what we want to be doing? A handful of AAPI creatives isn’t nearly enough—volume- or diversity-wise—to populate the dreams of future artists. Take my MFA professor, Kyoko Mori (yes, I went on to do the degree). If, while younger, Mori had imagined herself as a boy, she would have had plenty of examples within Japanese literature for how to live an adventurous life. In her latest memoir, Cat and Bird (2024), she references the Momo Taro legend, a story her mother read to her, about a boy who could grow from a peach, vanquish monsters, and bring back the treasures the monsters had stolen from villagers on the mainland. She writes, “For Momo Taro, home was a base camp where he could gather his strength and prepare for his journey. For my mother, home was a prison where she contemplated her failures and decided to die.” For Mori, Momo Taro is a reflection of the entrapment of her childhood.

Mori leaves Japan, experiences freedom in adulthood, and claims her own home. Yet she had to go back 10 centuries to find an example of an ordinary Japanese woman writing about her life—a model for this phase in her journey. Mori closes her memoir with a tribute to the work of Sei Shōnagon, a lady-in-waiting who wrote about her impressions of court life, including the most trivial matters, in The Pillow Book (1002). Shōnagon had a short career; she worked for an empress for five or six years, after which the empress died. And not much is known about Shōnagon—it’s almost happenstance that Shōnagon’s work persevered at all. But many other women like her must have had pillow books in which they preserved their innermost thoughts.


In How to Write an Autobiographical Novel (2018), Alexander Chee relates: “I was always having to be what I was looking for in the world, wishing that the person I would become already existed—some other I before me.” He’d find “even the tiniest way to identify with someone.” In her recently released memoir They Called Us Exceptional: And Other Lies That Raised Us (2023), Prachi Gupta acknowledges that, “[a]s creative as I was, my imagination was limited. I never thought about what was possible for people like us.” As a kid, Gupta wrote a short story and didn’t make her main character an Indian American girl because, she writes, “the decision to cut myself out of my own story was automatic and subconscious.”

To look only at the success of these writers is to obscure how hard it was for them to get there.


It felt more comfortable to think the dissuading professor was right about me than the affirming one. The idea that anyone could or would care about my personal essays seemed ridiculous—I was a middle-class 21-year-old Indian girl from the Midwest. Not only had I lived a sheltered life, but Indians also didn’t exist in mainstream culture anyway.

I now know it’s okay to take my artist origin story seriously, something I thought only white people could do. I know this because Cathy Park Hong led by example in her memoir, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning (2020). Hong’s portrayal of herself as a messy subject reveals why taking yourself seriously as an Asian American artist is so hard—and why it’s necessary. In one of the book’s essays, “An Education,” Hong devotes 40 pages to her coming-of-age as an Oberlin College student alongside two other Asian American creatives, Erin and Helen. Hong frames the essay by pointing out the art world’s appreciation for “bad white boys.” Accordingly, as she told The Yale Review, she used her experiences to demonstrate how we don’t often see women of color artists behaving badly. “I didn’t want people to just think through my argument,” she explained of her decision to include her and her friends’ own bad behavior in visceral detail. “I wanted people to feel through my argument.”

I was surprised by how unprepared I was for that essay. It wasn’t just the volatility of her friendships (Helen punches Hong and later uses her poems in an art installation, Hong frequently compares herself to her friends, Helen and Hong disapprove of Erin’s boyfriends, etc.); it was the way Hong took their aesthetic influences seriously. In doing so, she offers a guide for other Asian Americans to do the same. You can’t say that! Hold back! I kept thinking as I read about their fights, their clothing choices, their promiscuity, their outspokenness (at one point, Erin and Helen dress down a visiting photographer), their diets (Helen’s consisted of heroin and sour Skittles), their mental health struggles, their housing situations, and the work and passion they put into their creations. Reading, I worried for Hong; she was sharing information that might make her look unprofessional to white readers and make them uncomfortable.

As an uncomfortable reader myself, I realized the sheer force of the message I’d internalized: if I behaved well and wrote about “serious” things (see: nonpersonal things, things that were not my life), I’d be accepted as an artist.


What was I risking by telling my story? A story with me, an Indian British American, as the main character? It turned out to be a lot. In undergrad, my parents let me choose my major. But they had definitive expectations about my pursuing a practical career—and strict expectations about where I would pursue it. I didn’t want the humdrum life that lay ahead for me in Indiana; it was becoming clear, though, that flouting their expectations could mean never having a home to return to.

Asian American literature taught me that it was worth potentially upsetting my family to pursue my creative dreams. Memoirs and stories by AAPI authors empowered me not only to venture into a society that didn’t feel like home but also to risk the only home I’d known. To invoke Gupta, I felt that the people I’d met and continued to meet in college and beyond “understood who I wanted to be”—that “[a]rt was my entry point to learning how to love myself.”

I managed to get a job in Chicago. Yet, over a decade later, I still deal with guilt for leaving. A line from Ly Tran’s memoir, House of Sticks (2021), has helped me reframe my departure in a more favorable way. “Was I supposed to remain the obedient daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, bound for a life in the nail salon,” Tran asks, “or was I supposed to do what other immigrant children and children of immigrants were doing all around me—finding ways to live out their American dreams, to move beyond the constricted lives of their parents?”

Socioeconomically speaking, I grew up in a more privileged situation than Tran. But we both shared a fear of hurting our families by living freely.


Books like the ones I’ve mentioned didn’t exist when I was leaving Indiana. Even if they had, I might not have searched for them because I didn’t understand that I needed them. I also didn’t realize the importance of having a professor with a similar background until, during my MFA program, I studied with Mori.

Mori’s life has been shaped by what she rejected. Had she stayed in Japan rather than moving to the United States for college, she would have ended up married to someone she didn’t pick. She’d have spent the rest of her life in constrained service to others.

Mori promised that she would find meaning in the life she made on her own. But, as her memoir clarifies, “What [she] had accomplished along the way—leaving Japan, getting an education, becoming a writer—felt more like defensive tactics than successes worth celebrating.” In this way, Japan serves as a kind of negative space, outlining the contours of and adding definition to Mori’s experiences, to the person she has become. Cat and Bird is about turning that negative space from one of escape from her culture’s expectations into one in which she could create additional beauty. Really, the memoir is about transforming her life from that of Momo Taro into that of Sei Shōnagon.


Negative spaces like Mori’s can and could represent more formidable obstacles for Asian and Pacific Islander writers than we might expect. We’re fighting for a future that might not exist—and for some of us, that war is waged at the potential cost of losing the families and cultures that we know. We’re attempting to draw energy from our anger at the default—effectively, creative nothingness—as motivation to create something out of the different kind of nothingness in front of us.

The task ahead is to expand and complicate existing AAPI narratives. To determine how we’re being represented, by sharing our stories in all of their idiosyncratic textures and specificities. As Huang points out, “[S]tereotypes have the power to become self-fulfilling prophecies if we aren’t aware.” We need, bravely and unapologetically, to be ourselves—to assume the shapes carved out by negative and positive space alike.


Featured image: Francis Bruguière. [Cut-paper Abstraction], ca. 1927. The J. Paul Getty Museum, CC0. Accessed May 23, 2024. Image has been rotated.

LARB Contributor

Rajpreet Heir is an assistant professor of creative nonfiction at Ithaca College. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, The New York Times, Brevity, Literary Hub, Teen Vogue, and The Atlantic, among others, and in three anthologies. Many of these essays are part of a memoir-in-progress entitled Indian in Indiana..


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