on fiction

As a child, I lived to read—every trip to the library brought immeasurable joy as I checked out armloads of novels at a time, picked out by a methodical scan of the children’s section (and then, as I got older, the YA section) from “AAA-ADE” to “YEA-ZZZ.” I had a system: starting from the A’s, I’d take as many interesting-looking books as my mom would allow me to borrow (around six or seven), then remember the call number I had stopped at. The next time I went, I’d skim the first section again just to make sure I hadn’t missed anything new, before picking up again where I had left off. In this way, I got to know my local library very well, as well as a couple of favorites: I’d always double-check the W’s (for Laura Ingalls Wilder), the M’s (for Lucy Maud Montgomery), and the A’s (for Louisa May Alcott). I lived in the stories I read; I identified so closely with Laura Ingalls in the Little House series that I begged my mom to make me a dress with a puffy skirt and calico fabric, that I imagined was similar to what Laura described in her books. (I really truly saw no absurdity in this, thinking nothing of race or ethnicity. Jia Tolentino has written already, much more eloquently than I ever could, about the classic canon of little girls’ books—their whiteness and my strangely race-blind sense of identification, about the ending of their lives with marriage—so I won’t belabor the point.)

Sometimes random phrases would pop into my head, and I’d imagine sentences about myself in the third person, like I was simultaneously the main character and the narrator in some imaginary novel. Whenever that happened, I’d briefly wonder what it would feel like to be the main character of my own story, or the main character of a story someone else was writing; for some reason, it never occurred to me that I could be the one to write my own story. I never really thought about how these books came into being in the first place, or why they were written. I knew, abstractly, that Wilder’s books were semi-autobiographical, and that the author Laura Ingalls Wilder was the same character Laura Ingalls Wilder in her books. But they were written in the third person, and book-world and real-world felt so incredibly distinct. Even throughout high school, when English was one of my favorite subjects and I was introduced to some brilliant literature, it still felt like the works we were discussing came into existence more or less spontaneously, out of strokes of genius. To produce work that said something meaningful about the world felt like a possibility reserved only for those who somehow already knew profound truths and could rearrange them into coherent stories. Sometimes I’d be struck when books carried themes that seemed to have lifted straight from my life—Everything I Never Told You for the painful love between mother and daughter, Normal People for the magnetism between two mismatched lovers, each unable to escape the other’s orbit. But even then, what I marveled was the authors’ ability to write a world into existence that so closely paralleled mine. I didn’t stop to consider that maybe they were writing worlds that already existed—their own.

All this is to say that in hindsight, this should have been much more obvious: it was something of a revelation when I realized halfway through this semester of Asian-American Literature that I realized that novels were very often the product of their authors’ angst, worries, questions—not just a semi-random instantiation of their dreams and imagination. I used to think that whatever themes or messages that could be drawn out of a piece of literature necessarily reflected an author’s deliberate and explicit argument about how the world worked—and maybe occasionally this is true (Ayn Rand). But maybe they’re more like hypotheses than anything—an exploration of what it might look like to love someone a certain way (On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous), to have a certain relationship to work and pretty things (Severance), to think about existence a certain way (A Tale for the Time Being). Maybe it has to be fiction, because it’s only the characters they write into existence that can explore the full range of life’s possibility, unencumbered by earthly concerns like physical or historical reality. Maybe it has to be fiction, because only then can Chang-Rae Lee spend the better part of a chapter meditating on the nature of labor and our obligations to those whom we love, and the better part of a novel as a test case for those ideas put into motion; only then can Ruth Ozeki question quantum physics and alternative realities, and have her characters marinate in the tension of not knowing.

I’ve bought more books in the past six months than I have in the past six years combined, not necessarily because I wasn’t reading in the past six years, but because I haven’t felt such close identification with what I’ve been reading in such a long time, and because I wanted to have these characters with me for the long-term. In a period of my life marked by almost-constant anxiety and an ambient sense of unease—not just about the pandemic, but about everything—the word that comes to mind to describe the reading I’ve done in the past few months is delicious. I’m definitely much more selective with my reading now than I was as a child, but rediscovering what it feels like to live in a parallel universe is so refreshing.

I guess what I’ve been trying to say is that it’s good to know I’m not the only one with weirdly existential angst, and it’s good to know that some brilliant people have even figured out how to turn that angst into something beautiful.

(originally part of a reflection on Extravagant Texts: Reading the World Through Asian-American Literature, a seminar taken spring '20.)

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