This Week’s Column:


It isn't easy being seen as an ethnic writer by the writing establishment . . . especially when they don't even get your ethnicity right . . .

a MobyLives guest column

by Marie Myung–Ok Lee

1 AUGUST 2005 — A friend had warned me that the famous X Writers' Conference had a "severe color deficit." Hopping off the bus, I saw she was right: a sea of white faces. Sure, people think all Asians look alike, but a bunch of white people can look like an undifferentiated pinkish glob as well. I was disappointed to find myself at yet another all–white literary event. However, born and raised in white–and–blond northern Minnesota, I felt eerily at home.

My new friends were mostly unpublished, or, like me, published–just–enough–to–receive–a–tiny–fellowship. At the top of the food chain was the faculty, the recognizable writers who at mealtimes segregated themselves at a table designated—as one of them half–joked—"for the real writers." Occasionally, a socially–myopic attendee, food tray in hand, tried to sit with them, only to be unceremoniously repelled. In the evenings, the famous writers were airlifted to some secret location while we sat around drinking E&J wine in a box.

However, during one of the enforced mingling times, one of the "it" writers walked over and started talking to me. As if we'd been friends forever, he talked about his work, his humanitarian projects, his fabulous friends. He never got around to asking my name, but he did ask where I was from. When I told him I'd been born and raised in northern Minnesota, he looked interested. It's not every day you meet a Korean–American from Bob Dylan's hometown, I suppose.

The next day, I was invited to The Table by the Famous Writer. It was like that time in high school when the homecoming queen decided I could be useful as her math tutor (she had no idea that although Asian, I was terrible at math). I remember heading to the cool–girls' table, looking back at my friends, as if I were being taken away on an orphan train. "Go ahead, blow us off!" my best friend shrieked.

With a similarly apologetic parting gesture to my new conference friends, I left.

Ah, to actually hear what was going on at The Table: how much Clinton liked so–and–so's work. How the Guggenheim was such a pain to apply for. And what to do with all that MacArthur money? At Famous Writer's urging, I told my growing–up–in–Minnesota stories, showed off my extensive knowledge of the feeding behavior of walleye. His colleagues looked on with weary tolerance. Still, I was invited back.

Later, my "old" friends and I gathered, trading stories.

"Famous Writer won't say boo to me even when I say hi to him and there's no one else around for a hundred miles," one complained.

I nodded sympathetically. At breakfast I'd been offered glittering promises of help getting in touch with editors at The New Yorker and Harper's. The Famous Writer had even begun asking about my literary opinions. Did I like the work of Sherman Alexie? And he wanted more recountings of stalking the elusive northern pike and walleye. He declared that white people exaggerated fish stories while Native Americans kept quietly modest. He said it in a way that suggested he thought white people (although he was one) were arrogant dolts.

As an Asian, I wasn't sure where I fit into this scheme, almost exactly the predicament my father found himself in when he was my age, trying to figure out whether to sit in the front or back of the bus in Jim Crow Alabama.

In a comic mood, I pantomimed what was my inimitable fish–tale: "The 'one that got away' kept getting bigger—bigger—BIGGER!" my measuring arm almost knocking over drinks. Famous Writer screwed up his face, and for the first time, apprised me with a look that was confused, if not suspicious. I was going to ask him if that magnificent bear–claw necklace he was wearing was real or not. There were admiring rumors that he had killed the bear himself.

In retrospect, I should have figured out what was going on. Famous Writer's constant professions of admiration for the "native peoples." My well–known proclivity for walking around at night without a flashlight (it was broken). My love of The Business of Fancy–Dancing, an early work of Sherman Alexie's, and how Famous Writer had subsequently made me a list of "other books you might like"—all Native American authors. And there was my little leather change purse sewn with plastic wampum, a souvenir from Indian Joe's Trading Post, from my youth.

It all came to a head when Famous Writer went into town for a booksigning. A friend in the claque accompanying him reported that at the bookstore's display of Conference participants' books was one of my children's books, laid out among the work of the more illustrious fellows.

The Famous Writer took a minute to stare. The shock and distaste reaction didn't come from the fact that I had authored a kids' book (also a kiss of death at the X Conference, which did not even accept children's book writers) but from its chinky–oriental cover and title: If It Hadn't Been For Yoon Jun. I wasn't the She–walks–close–to–the–earth–and–eats–wild–rice Ojibwe princess he thought I was.

The next day, my standing invitation to The Table was mysteriously rescinded. I skulked back to my old table, just as I had returned to my burnout friends after the homecoming queen dumped me. I'm sure the social magpies thought Famous Writer and I had had a lover's spat. But the rift was more serious than sex (there was plenty hanky–panky going on at X Conference, but that's for a different essay, by someone else). It brought into relief how a writer of color can end up as a mascot for a famous author who likes to collect brown–hued writer friends to accessorize his bearclaw necklace.

While Famous Writer resumed his happy life, I was enraged: "I'm not cool anymore because I'm just Asian American? Now my opinions on Sherman Alexie's work don't count? You don't care that I once caught a seven–pound walleye?—really, I did!"

Of course, this experience exposed some ugly truths about myself: I was happy to be someone's friend if they had contacts at The New Yorker. I would endure boring monologues and halitosis just to be in the orbit of someone who'd won a famous literary prize.

I spent the rest of the time with the people I simply liked—the same people, the "it" writers ignored. Famous Writer did not give me so much as a finger–wave when his limo came for him.

Epilogue: Many moons later, a card came in the mail: a grim picture of Sitting Bull. It was from one of my Conference buddies. But while on campus after hours to pick up this mail with two visiting friends, the three of us were mistaken for a computer–stealing, violent Asian gang that had been in the news.

I felt like calling up the Famous Writer and telling him, "Now I've got street cred—mistaken for an Asian gangbanger!" Instead, I went off to search for a suitable card for my pal, whose friendship is one of the good and lasting things from X Conference, and for which I will always be grateful.

Marie Myung–Ok Lee is a founder of the Asian American Writers' Workshop and the author of Somebody's Daughter: A Novel. She writes about the writing life at her website, Marie

©2005 Marie Myung–Ok Lee

Previous columns:

WHY ROBBER BARONS SELF–PUBLISH . . In a guest column, historian Edward J. Renehan, Jr. discusses why one of American history's leading financiers, Jay Gould, advised smart people to stay out of the publishing business.

KADARE IS NO SOLZHENITSYN . . The winner of the first Booker International Prize trashed "untrue" dissident writers for keeping silent. Guest columnist Renata Dumitrascu asks if he was really part of their suppression.<

GOOGLIZATION AND YOU . . Librarian Christopher Allen Waldrop says in a guest column that Google Print does more than break copyright laws — it opens the records of patrons up to more widespread scrutiny than the PATRIOT Act.

BOOKSELLER AT LARGE . . Guest commentator Dan Bloom says he moved to Taiwan and wrote a book that sold thousands of copies — after he took to the streets yelling, "Buy my book!"


All material not otherwise attributed ©2000 – 2005 Dennis Loy Johnson.