A Conversation With Asian American Writers’ Workshop Cofounder Marie Myung-Ok Lee
By Editor Joyce Chen
Of the many things that are valuable to the creative process — stillness of mind, bouts of inspiration, and lots of caffeinated beverages (iced or hot) — perhaps the one that is most often underappreciated is community. Prior to the start of my time in the creative writing MFA program at The New School, I assumed that the next two years would serve as some sort of solitary time during which I’d be the only one working on my writing, with just the occasional comment or critique from peers. What I found instead was a family of like-minded souls who challenged and encouraged me to truly understand my small role within the larger microcosm of the literary community. And to always, always, dig deeper.
I began working with Marie Myung-Ok Lee at the start of 2015 at the recommendation of a professor, and have since been introduced to a truly beautiful extension of this grad school community, wherein writers from varying levels of experience and expertise bolster one another’s work and spirits throughout the inevitably trying creative process. Marie helped to co-found the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in 1991 exactly because she and other writers felt like there was a lack of cohesive metaphysical space within which they could exercise their creativity. They wanted a place where they could belong.
And since then, AAWW has come to be a hub of new and innovative work, nurtured by veteran voices like Jhumpa Lahiri, David Mura, Alexander Chee and Hua Hsu. The idea of giving back as a way to invite others into a community is one that Marie extols, and I think it has been a big part of my own education in the ways of the writing world. Being one part of a constantly moving, shifting entity means staying alert and engaged and giving, and this lesson has deeply enriched what I understand to be a writer’s life.
Marie is an author, an activist, an educator, and a very involved, caring citizen of the literary community. She has been published in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, Salon, Guernica, and The Guardian, among others. She was the first Fulbright Scholar to Korea in creative writing and has been a Yaddo and MacDowell Colony fellow and has served as a judge for the National Book Award and the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award.
Here, she chats with The Seventh Wave about the importance of “finding your tribe,” the positives and negatives of being a writer plugged into the social media realm, and how finding her voice on the page gave her more confidence off it.
THE SEVENTH WAVE: So our third issue is all about belonging, and I think one thing that I’m realizing as we get deeper and deeper into this issue is that there are so many different layers to that concept. Because when we ask, “Who gets to belong?” we’re really also asking, “What do we want to belong to?” and “What do we naturally belong to?” and “Who gets to determine who belongs?” So I think maybe a good place to start would be to look at the question of what different communities you feel you belong to.
MARIE LEE: Oh, interesting. Okay. That is actually really interesting because I was just talking to my husband about that today. In a basic way, I belong to a writing community. I belong to an Asian American community. I belong to an Asian American writing community. And then I’m in an academic community, although it’s been only recently that I’ve felt comfortable as an adjunct being a peer to other people in my community. Oh, and of course my progressive, political community.
TSW: I know they all kind of intersect, but is there any one community in particular that you connect most strongly to?
ML: I think probably the communities that intersect the most are my writing community with my Asian American, progressive political community.
TSW: Got it. I know you’ve spoken before about working in a completely different field prior to entering the writing community. But you naturally belong to the Asian American community. And then those two realms intersected. Can you tell me a little bit about what it was like to transition from working in a different field into a writing community?
ML: That is a good question. So I was in a field — investment banking — that monetized everything. It was the opposite [of what I do now]. Anything that was not immediately realizable as a profit, particularly reading and writing, was not something of interest. I never got an MFA and I majored in econ at Brown, so I didn’t really have very much of a community. Except! One of my colleagues wanted to be a poet, and so subsequently after I quit and was sort of flailing around by myself, this colleague did come to some of my early readings. But you know, really, for a long time, I didn’t have a community at all. I didn’t know how to meet other writers. I was just doing a lot of it on my own, so I was extremely lucky that I met this core group of five other writers, and we started the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. I think once I had a solid foundation there, it was just easier to branch out and feel like I was a writer, because I felt like I had a very nurturing home.
TSW: Was there an “a-ha moment,” or a series of those moments, where you felt like, “Ah! I feel like I’m a part of this writing community now,” or was it a gradual process?
ML: What was great about the Asian American Writers’ Workshop was that we were all pre-med at one point, a bunch of us were lawyers — Min Jin Lee, Ken [Chen] was a lawyer, a bunch of people were lawyers, and we really were at that stage where we wanted to say that we were writers and it was difficult, but with all of us together, we felt good about that. I think for me, unfortunately, the “a-ha moment” happened when I started getting published. I felt like “Oh, I’m a writer.” But I keep looking back at it and feeling like, I spent 10 years after I quit my job and when people asked, “What do you do?” and I said, “I’m a writer,” and then they’d ask, “What have you written?” — and that was just a horrible 10 years. I don’t feel, today, that I’m any more of a writer than I was then.
TSW: Right, because it’s kind of an evolving thing. It’s not like, “Ah, and today I am officially a writer.”
ML: Exactly, it’s not. But that amorphous part where I knew I was a writer but I didn’t feel like a writer — I just feel kind of sad that it really was that, though. It was like, if I could say, “Well, I have this actual book,” then I was officially a writer. I feel like as an artist, that’s kind of an arbitrary thing entering into the market with a published book.
TSW: Do you remember the first piece that you had published and, as you mentioned, feeling like, “OK, now I can call myself a writer”?
ML: Well, the funny thing was, I had my first piece published in high school. I had one of my essays published in Seventeen magazine. And then I got published a few more times at Brown, but it wasn’t like, “Oh, I’m published.” And then I got my first op-ed published when I was in my 20s. It was the [New York] Times. But even though each one of those things happened, I never felt like, “Oh, I’m a writer.” I think maybe now I feel slightly more like I’m a writer, but I still feel just as bad when I get rejections. [laughs]
TSW: Right, it’s more that we’re aware of ourselves as people and not just as writers.
ML: Yes, exactly. I think it’s less like, “Oh, I’m published” than it is “I know myself better.” It’s like, I know myself because I’m older and I just feel more confident and feel less like, “Oh, I gotta do anything I can to do published.” Now I just know that I don’t want to get published if I don’t feel a certain way about this piece.
TSW: Something that I’ve been thinking about a lot, and it pertains to this idea of belonging, is that the literary scene is very, or can be very, exclusionary. Like, “Oh, well, if you can’t exactly label what kind of writing you do, or if you’re not yet published, or X,Y, and Z,” — it can feel like you don’t particularly belong. Do you think that the writing community is more welcoming now than it was when you first started out? Do you think it’s changed at all? Or do you think that’s a matter of an individual moving along a spectrum versus the industry changing?
ML: Well, I think one thing that does help people enormously is I think social media makes it so much faster to find your tribe. And so people now are really lucky. People of your generation are super lucky because you can find your people. So there’s that. But then the flip side of that is that it can feel really easy to be excluded if people don’t Friend you or you think that people are having so much fun but you’re not. I think it can be dangerous comparing yourself. But then at the same time, I’ve had two friends who don’t live in New York come by recently and they’re like, “Oh my god, I don’t want to hang out with the writers in Boston because everyone’s just talking about not living in New York and it’s this attitude of [FOMO].” So I do think, “Oh wow, because we live in New York, we do get to go to a lot more events and see our friends.” I enjoy belonging to this community and I’m unapologetic about it. So basically, I’m saying I have no idea. I mean, the community is good, and it’s bad, and it’s easier and it’s harder. And people can be jerks and I think as writers, one of the things we’re trained to do is basically judge. Do you see what I’m saying? Because a detail tells you so much. But then in social situations, in terms of community building, a lot of times these things just get super blown up.
TSW: That’s interesting. I mean, that’s true — as writers, we’re critical of ourselves, obviously, but of our peers too, whether or not we realize we’re doing that. A lot of times we do realize it and pretend like we’re not. And that was one of my questions too about social media, because it’s this added layer of do you participate in it? Do you not? And if you do, then how much time do you spend on it, and is it just a lot of noise? Is it a welcome noise? Is it voices? What’s your take?
ML: My take is basically that I used to worry about it because other writers would say, “Oh, people spend blah blah blah [amounts of time] on it,” and so I used to get a little worried, but then I realized that no, I genuinely enjoy the time I put into social media. And then I didn’t worry about it. What I would worry about more is if my publisher said, “You need to be on Twitter,” and I was dutifully tweeting crap out. I worry about that. But at the same time, I understand that social media affects productivity too, and you may or may not notice, but when I go on residencies, I block everything. I do allow myself Instagram, because it’s pictures. So I do agree that it can be a total productivity and time suck, but at the same time, I genuinely enjoy it.
TSW: Yeah, and I think it is such a great way — you were mentioning before about how it’s easier to find your tribe, in a sense — it’s like, “Oh, yeah, you’re also interested in this? And you live halfway around the world? We wouldn’t have had the chance to meet otherwise.”
TSW: Have you met a lot of other writers of your tribe or of your ilk through just social media?
ML: Yes. But then there are also purists. I have friends who are purists and they don’t do any of that, and actually my friend’s place I’m staying at now, she doesn’t have a cell phone. So I don’t know. But that in and of itself is a “thing,” you know what I’m saying? A thing to stay away from all that.
TSW: Got it. So it’s kind of just whatever you operate best with. Each individual person versus a blanket statement.
TSW: Can you tell me a little bit about when you were starting the Asian American Writers’ Workshop? You mentioned that everyone else who had started it was not of the literary community, but had come together. What was that experience like, finally finding people who were similar-minded and understood what it was like growing up Asian American with expectations placed upon you, and then defying those expectations?
ML: Well, what’s kind of random is there used to be only one main way (at least for me and my friends) to find out about literary events, and it was this thing called the Poetry Calendar. It was a single sheet of paper that basically crammed all of what you’d see in Time Out of something into that one little sheet, and there was one 1-inch square about the Asian American Writers’ Workshop forming. And if you think about the Poetry Calendar, it was a tiny, tiny spot, and that would just give you all the stuff that was going on. And it was in bookshops. So one day my friend said, “Oh, you have to come with me to the next meeting.” And she’s Asian, I’m Asian — it’s Christina Chiu — and it was just these random other people. And Curtis Chin is the guy who was our leader —he’s really outgoing and stuff — and it was just such a relief to be at a place where, all of a sudden, because people already understood [cultural] things, you didn’t have to explain, “Oh, this is why I don’t write about rice,” or that kind of crap. I felt like finally, I just get to write. And we could have these critique groups. And I feel like because we all became friends, we all knew where the criticism was coming from. And there were no other motives; it was super duper supportive.
TSW: Right, and maybe you would’ve been more doubtful or more unsure of whether this was the right way to approach something like this.
ML: Yeah, and it was kind of like, because we’re all of this tribe, it wasn’t just one person’s comment, because with one person’s comment, it can feel like, “Oh, super violent ending, it’s so lyrical and it’s not doing it for me.” And then someone else mentioned making sure the reader knew the robber wasn’t black, and it was almost a cumulative thing. It really helped me figure out how the story worked.
TSW: Got it. And also because — I guess that idea segues into one thing that I’m curious about — because the actual process of creating is such a solitary activity, can you speak a little bit to the balance between the creating, which is solitary, and having a group like this, where you can bounce ideas off other people and get outside of yourself a little bit?
ML: The funny thing is so Karl, my husband, was in grad school at the time and I’d be laughing because I’d go to these grad school parties and everyone would be talking about their dissertation and he said he liked coming to the writers’ workshops because we would never talk about writing. We would just laugh and have fun and be goofy all the time. So in a weird way, even though it’s called a workshop, because it’s so solitary [writing], you need human contact, and you need humans who understand you. So I think a lot of the stuff that we did besides the workshop was helpful. One of the big motivations to publishing our own stuff is that there was a huge anthology of Asian American writing that came out with a major press—and none of us made it in there. And we were just all super mad about that. So we ended up publishing our own anthology, and that’s how we ended up starting the writer’s journal and this and that, and I think part of it is it’s a collective. You know, when you’re by yourself, you have all these neurosis and anxieties, but together with your friends, instead of being like, “Oh why didn’t I get into this anthology?” You can be like, “Well, I’m going to make my own damn anthology.” You see what I’m saying? You’re actually physically muscling out and doing stuff when you’re with your friends. You know, it’s like what you put out your journal [The Seventh Wave]. It makes material of all the stuff that’s in your head.
TSW: Right. We used to joke, my friends and I, whenever we wanted to very pointedly not talk about writing, we would call it “research.” Because we have to learn about ourselves better anyway, and what better way than just to talk about anything but what we’re working on?
ML: Exactly, exactly, exactly.
TSW: We thought it just sounded more productive if we said “research.” [laughs] So one question kind of related to social media and there being so many voices, and people having opinions and expressing them, is that I think social media has, obviously, shifted the way that there are gatekeepers to who can be part of the conversation, which is a beautiful thing because now more people can participate. But I think sometimes there’s also a cycle that happens in terms of having no gatekeeper, and opening it up to just a flood of so many different perspectives. And then it cycles to where there is a gatekeeper, and people feel like they can’t express themselves enough. Do you think that the cycle exists, and if there is one, if there’s a good balance to be found in that?
ML: Do you mean The New York Times versus Medium?
TSW: Right, yes. Because, say, for Medium, if you have access to a Twitter, an email account,or a Facebook account, you can write and publish your thoughts. Versus, say, you have to submit to or court these other more traditional publications.
ML: I’m kind of two-minded. As a writer and a reader. As a writer, I think it’s cool that there are other outlets and even though that means it’s 80 million publications, I think more is always better. And recently, I have had stuff that’s been rejected by the Times, and it’s like “We really love this,” and then the next day they’re like, “No, we have to kill it,” and I know it’s because it was either too pro-union or it’s usually too left-wing for them and then I can usually place it immediately at The Nation. So I think having other places like Medium means we get to try out our pieces and see what reactions they get.
But then as a reader, I find it difficult because there are a million different things out there, and I understand the uncertainty — like, if it’s on something like The Times, I might want to read it, but if it’s on Medium, I can’t tell. So what I try to do personally is I very carefully curate friends on my Twitter feed and to some degree my Facebook feed, and then I feel like, “Well, if this person likes it, it doesn’t matter where it is,” whether it’s on Medium or just on a blog that I might be interested in. But I think unless you become your own gatekeeper, you’re gonna go nuts with the content.
TSW: I love that idea. I have thought about that, and that is very true. It’s kind of shifting responsibility to the reader — instead of just saying, “Oh man, you’re inundated with so much stuff.” It’s like no, you can control what you choose to let in, and I guess there’s the good and the bad. One thing when we were starting The Seventh Wave that we were kind of tussling with was how do we bring perspectives that people would have not considered or thought about into one space without forcing anything down anybody’s throat? We wanted to just say, “Hey, here’s the full breadth of it. Here’s the full thing side by side.” I don’t know, I guess that is an interesting thing. Readers can pick and choose what they want to, but I wonder how to get readers to read things that they might not be interested in.
ML: Right. But in a way, for The Seventh Wave, then, I think it’s a lot about getting things in the right hands of people who would tell the other right people. People who would post it on Facebook, who their friends who are like-minded, they would see it. You know, every day, there are people who are like, “Would you post this? Would you post this?” and I’m not gonna do that. I feel like it’s a disservice to anybody who likes my stuff, because I’d rather just post my own things and if you don’t like it, it’s because it’s my own weird taste in stuff.