Since last fall, I’ve organized and led a group of writers in Nashville who identify as Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPI), so they can meet each other, feel less alone in their mostly-white environments, and support one another’s work. Among us are essayists, novelists, journalists, poets, screenwriters, and a game writer. We gather almost once a month, and each time, I have everyone do a Focused Free Write, just like any other writing class I teach. It’s simple: I come up with a prompt, set a timer for 10 or 15 minutes, and encourage everyone to write whatever comes up, even if it’s messy, incomplete, or nonsensical. The free-writes are opportunities for writers to gather raw material, which they can revise later on in a more polished piece.
For the first meetup, I had everyone write down the story of their names, whether it’s the name they were given, the name they currently go by, or a nickname. This is a great prompt for any writer, but it sparks something particular for the AAPI community. Depending on what generation American they are, they might have two names: one in the parents’ native tongue, and another that is “Americanized,” easier for non-Asians to say and remember. In the case of my two Japanese-American sons, we chose names that conveniently work in both languages. And an AAPI person might have gone through a whole evolution of different names, as I have.
For the second meetup, I asked them to think about who they were writing for. Who is their ideal audience? Again, a great question for any writer to think about, but for the AAPI group, this exercise turned into a lively discussion about whether we were writing for non-Asians to be able to understand us better, or writing for other Asians who could feel heartened by seeing themselves in a literary work.
In a country that is experiencing an alarming rate of book bans in libraries and schools, these discussions are far from frivolous. For AAPI writers of all stages and genres, it would be difficult to ignore this politically charged landscape where we hope our stories will land. Even if the book publishing industry does everything it can to amplify diverse voices, a book might still end up like Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine, a beautifully written, heart wrenching story about Japanese incarcerees during WWII that was effectively banned from schools for being “unbalanced,” as the story did not consider the perspective of the U.S. government—in other words, the perspective of racism.
During our third meetup, I decided to have the writers think about Window Books and Mirror Books. This is an idea penned by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop in 1990 that has recently gained more traction in light of the rise of book bans. To put simply: a Window Book is where a reader can see into the lives of people outside of their culture, and a Mirror Book is where a reader can see themselves represented in it. Some books can be a little bit of both. As Dr. Bishop puts it, “When lighting conditions are just right… a window can also be a mirror.”
When the sci-fi Chinese-American family drama film, Everything Everywhere All At Once, won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, I could sense the AAPI community celebrating and sighing in relief. Representation Matters is a phrase that’s been thrown around since the #OscarsSoWhite campaign in 2015, and EEAAO’s success seemed to signal encouragement for more and more AAPI creatives to continue telling their stories, however unique, strange, funny, and ambitious.
As I asked the AAPI writers in the room to consider whether they might be writing Window stories or Mirror stories, I also nudged them to think about what stories they themselves consume: Window stories or Mirror stories? If we’re anxious about our stories getting across to as many readers as possible, it makes sense to question what we’re doing as consumers, for books that are outside of our cultures.
For much of my life, I admit that most of the stories I consumed have either been Japanese or White. Even among them, many were male, including throughout my MFA at Columbia. I think about why I read them, and for a long time, it was because that was what was assigned to me in class. When I sought to read for pleasure, I felt conscious of unlearning something when reaching for a book by a woman or an author of another race or ethnicity. While working in book publishing, I overheard an editor saying they couldn’t acquire a book they liked because they already had a book on the list by “another Black writer,” as though that would set an unpleasant pattern.
It was only in the last few years when I actively sought to correct my own education: to read more Window Books. Following 2020, I see how the book publishing industry has embraced this shift as well, but I still worry, perhaps presumptuously, that stories by AAPI writers will continue to be categorized as part of some DEI initiative, as opposed to stories that are appealing for other reasons. A seemingly simple yet complicated ask.
Our discussions in the AAPI writers group often end with me scribbling everyone’s thoughts on the whiteboard to the point where it looks like a conspiracy theorist’s basement. We don’t come to any clean conclusions—but we plan on when to meet next. We plan a public reading, as a way to share our work beyond this safe space. We dream of applying for grants and creating our own print anthology. I believe that the day will come soon, when our work is going to become that beautiful hybrid, a Window story that also serves as a Mirror, for readers we will never meet, but surely exist.
Speaking of books: here is my attempt to make Window Books less intimidating for non-Japanese readers. Join me on Zoom next Tuesday, April 11 at 6 p.m. CT for another round of “Reading Between the Lines with JAST”! I’ll be discussing excerpts from Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor, a gorgeous short novel that explores a delicate friendship between a housekeeper, her teenage son, and a mathematician whose memory only lasts 80 minutes. I chose the book to coincide with the Cherry Blossom Festival happening on Saturday, April 15, since there are some scenes featuring cherry blossoms, and the cover of the English translation does as well. Register for free here! As usual, no need to have read the book beforehand, though it’s highly recommended. Nashvillians, grab a copy at Parnassus for a special book club discount.
The Nashville Philharmonic Orchestra will be performing the last concert of the season on Tuesday, May 9 at 7:30 p.m. at St. George’s Episcopal Church, featuring their brand new organ. Free and open to the public. Hope to see you there!
My dear friends Joe Gomez and his partner Vanita Joines have been hard at work on a documentary about the Nashville Phil. Click here to learn more about ways you can support this project and have your name appear in the credits.
Last but not least: on Sunday, May 21 from 4-6pm is the Nashville AAPI Writers Showcase—where eight or so writers will read aloud from their poetry, fiction, nonfiction, screenplays, and even game writing. This event is the culmination of the work these writers have been doing since last fall, and I am so proud of the creative community they have built together. I will be MC’ing, and the event is free and open to the public (Register Here). The event will be held at The Forge, and is made possible by API Middle Tennessee and The Porch. It would mean the world to see as many Nashvillians there as possible!
I found this insightful! Thanks for writing this.
Beautiful Yurina! Will be contemplating on Windows and Mirrors after this <3 I love that concept