Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

How Do You Define ‘Home’?

This roundtable with the editor and contributors of “Go Home!” along with Viet Thanh Nguyen, who wrote the foreword, was originally published by Shondaland.

“Is home a real place? Is it a memory?” asks Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, editor of the new anthology “Go Home!” (out from Feminist Press, in collaboration with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop). “Who gets to decide when you’re at home? What does it mean when you lose a home? How do you respond when someone tells you to go home? What if you don’t know where that is?”

In “Go Home!” — a collection that feels particularly timely in the midst of attacks on immigrant families and communities — Asian diasporic writers are both thoughtful and generous in their reflections about who they are, where they have been, and where they belong. Their stories will provide illumination and hope to readers grappling with their own questions about family, identity, and belonging. Shondaland reached out to Rowan Hisayo Buchanan (editor of “Go Home!” and author of the novel “Harmless Like You”), Viet Thanh Nguyen (author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Sympathizer,” who wrote the foreword to “Go Home!”), and contributors Alexander Chee (author of the national bestseller “The Queen of the Night” and “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel”), Karissa Chen (editor-in-chief of Hyphen and author of the chapbook “Of Birds and Lovers”), T Kira Madden (editor-in-chief of No Tokens and author of the forthcoming “Long Live the Tribe of the Fatherless Girls”), and Esmé Weijun Wang (author of “The Border of Paradise” and the forthcoming “The Collected Schizophrenias”) to discuss this powerful and timely new anthology.

Nicole Chung: Rowan, how did this book come about? When and how did the idea come to you?

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan: When I was asked to be the editor for an Asian American Writers’ Workshop and Feminist Press collaboration, I knew I wanted [the concept of] home to be the central idea.

Home was on my mind. Perhaps because it was a time when I was moving a lot. Perhaps because I’ve had a lifetime of people asking me where I was from, and not knowing if they were curious about my face or my accent. As a Japanese-Chinese-British-American person, I’ve always found the idea of home complicated. As I got older, I was lucky to meet Asian American and Asian diasporic writers who had equally complex feelings. Is home a real place? Is it a memory? Is it a stack of books? Who gets to decide when you’re at home? What does it mean when you lose a home? How do you respond when someone tells you to go home? What if you don’t know where that is?

Nicole Chung: Were there any unexpected challenges in finding or selecting pieces for this anthology?

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan: We had always hoped to feature authors at different stages of their careers. So one of the steps was reaching out to do an open call. We received almost 400 submissions, the overall quality of which were very high. It was both a wonderful surprise and a huge challenge. Many included cover letters about the writer’s personal experiences of home, and of how fraught they found the subject. We knew we could only publish a small number of these submissions. In the end, I worked with both Jyothi Natarajan at the AAWW and Jisu Kim at the Feminist Press to narrow them down from a long list to a short list. Together we chose the final pieces.

Nicole Chung: Does this anthology feel especially important given ongoing attacks on immigrants and refugees?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Absolutely. We who are Americans have to claim the United States as home. We’ve had to do that regularly throughout American history. So the work of going home remains urgent and will likely be urgent again at some point in the future. At the same time, because of Asian diasporas, perhaps not all of us feel as if the United States is our only home.

Esmé Weijun Wang: For this anthology, I wrote about food and what that means to me in terms of home, which isn’t capital-P Political. But I’m thinking all the time about politics and their effect on immigrants and refugees. I hear about ICE raids more than I used to; my husband and I talk at the dinner table about DACA because he works with undocumented teens in his job as a college counselor.

Karissa Chen: The call for the anthology was in early 2016, before Drumpf was elected, though of course attacks on immigrants have been constant for years. Personally, I wasn’t making the direct correlation between those political attacks and this anthology, so much as I was thinking about my own questions of home. I’d only been living in Taiwan for several months, and I was wrestling with a lot of questions of where I belonged. Suddenly, my Americanness was being pushed the forefront: not having perfect Mandarin was something I was deeply embarrassed by; the political questions of being “Chinese” versus “Taiwanese” versus “Chinese/Taiwanese American” were confusing and, to be honest, painful for me. I spent a lot of time thinking about how what I was going through was only a fraction of the discomfort that my grandparents and parents must have gone through when they immigrated to America, and yet in some ways it was more complicated, too.

But I think that even though I wasn’t consciously thinking about this political moment while writing my piece, on a baseline level I am always conscious of the fact that being the child of immigrants is something that informs everything I write, everything I am. So I’m grateful that this anthology is coming out at a moment when we need these stories to be voiced more than ever.

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan: The work in this anthology helped me through news-cycle blues — whether it be Amitava Kumar’s explicitly political “Love Poems for the Border Patrol” or Esmé Weijun Wang’s rendering of her struggle with the way illness changed her relationship to Taiwanese food. Racism is a way of reducing people; racism denies complexity and nuance. It comforted me that these writers were creating art.

But I think it can be dangerous to imagine that our diversity is only important in the face of this explicit threat. It has always been important, and always worth celebrating. So while I hope the anthology speaks to this time, I hope that it can speak beyond this time, too.

Nicole Chung: Why do you all think it’s so important to have a collection focused on the Asian diaspora? Why did you want to be involved?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Jyothi Natarajan told me about [this anthology] and asked if I wanted to write a foreword. I said of course. Going home, being at home, the problems and pleasures of home have always been important concerns for me. I wanted to see what a wide diversity of Asian American writers had to say about home.

It used to be that Asian Americans concentrated on the United States, and left Asia to Asians and Asian immigrants. But a new generation has claimed Asian diaspora as a way of negotiating with the realities, conflicts, and opportunities of having two countries. For some it’s a symmetrical relationship and for many it’s asymmetrical. Either way, the Asian diaspora offers a powerful imaginative frame for thinking about culture, belonging, and politics.

T Kira Madden: I think readers will see themselves in this collection. The transplants, the outcasts, the Not Asian Enoughs, the Not White Enoughs, the wanderers, the queers, the homes of those who’ve held you, the home of your own hands.

Esmé Weijun Wang: I wanted to be a part of Rowan’s project in part because Rowan is amazing, and I knew she’d do an amazing job with this anthology. The project is important to me because the question of where “home” truly is, and the question of where someone truly belongs (which comes up so often in discussions of home, as well as via invectives thrown by others who think that you don’t properly share their home with them) is one that, as the daughter of immigrants, I’ve been dealing with all my life. In Taiwan, it’s pretty obvious pretty quickly that I wasn’t born and raised here, even if Mandarin was technically my first language; in the States, I’m asked how long I’ll be visiting the country, simply because of how I look. So there are those questions, and those feelings of home not being anywhere.

Karissa Chen: In high school, I moved from New Jersey, where I grew up, to Hong Kong — which, as you can imagine, was not an easy transition for me. At that time I really began to think about what home was. Was it a physical place? People? A sense of security? It’s something I’ve continued to ponder as I’ve gotten older — not just because I’ve continued to move (from New York to San Diego back to New York and now to Taipei), but because in each of these places I’m searching for the place that most closely aligns with some internal sense of peace.

Since moving to Taipei a few years ago, I’ve marveled at how at ease I am here. In some ways it’s the most comfortable I’ve ever been, because all the parts of me that are “weird” in America are normal in Taiwan, and I’ve never experienced that before. Yet my family and friends are still in the States. So where is “home,” then? I think as Asians Americans we often feel frustrated because we can feel homeless — not really fitting into a mother country, but often not wholly embraced by the country we grew up in (or have adopted). We (and our immigrant families) have had to be imaginative and open-minded in creating homes and lives for ourselves. Our concepts of home are so rich and nuanced and difficult to parse. I love the concept of an anthology that explores all the angles of what “home” means and looks like for people in our communities.

Nicole Chung: Can you all talk a little about your specific pieces for this collection?

Alexander Chee: My essay is a story of my face no one ever believes, about the time a dog bit me in the face. I can still see the mark, but everyone else always says they can’t. It’s come to join in my mind with the other story of my face, which is about being mixed, and which is also something some people say they can’t see. It has always reminded me of a fairy tale, but especially, Korean folk tales, which often end in severe punishment — but if so, it begins with a tale I ultimately told myself, about this man who reminded me of myself but also what I hoped I could belong to, or be.

T Kira Madden: The idea of home has been so nebulous and blurred around the edges for me. I like the idea of a person standing in for home. A moment. A weather. I grew up in Boca Raton and Parkland, Florida in a Jewish community. My father was an Eastern European Jew, and my mother is Native Hawaiian and Chinese. There weren’t, and aren’t, many people like me in Boca Raton.

My essay in “Go Home!” is about domestic violence and drug addiction. It’s the most difficult thing I’ve written so far. In the piece, my mother, my father, and I are all mentally running away from the dazzling catastrophe of our life together at that point in time, until my mother and I literally run away to another state to hide.

Home, for me, has always been my mother and father, and it has always been on the move.

Karissa Chen: I’ve thought a lot about how difficult and brave it is for immigrants and refugees to start all over again, to make new lives and new homes (sometimes against their will), and what it must be like to yearn for the home of your memory, one that may or may not exist anymore. It’s this obsession that led me to Taiwan to research stories of Chinese mainland soldiers who fled to Taiwan at the end of the Chinese Civil War and were cut off from their homes. One of these stories is included in “Go Home!”, which I felt was a perfect venue for this story of yearning.

Esmé Weijun Wang: My essay is about having to be gluten-free due to late-stage Lyme disease, and how that impacts my relationship with Taiwanese food. It was an essay that I’d wanted to write for a while, but I had no idea where such an essay might be able to be published; this collection wound up being the perfect place. Food is such an essential tie to my heritage, to Taiwan, to that “home” that I try to claim, and I’ve been cut off from large parts of it now. I jumped at the chance to be able to write about that experience.

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan: Esmé, it’s wonderful to read that you always wanted to write that essay. Giving a home to stories we needed to tell was exactly why this anthology felt so important to me.

I am primarily a fiction writer but I chose to make my piece an essay. It is about a Japanese tiger painter who had a breakdown. He was asked to represent his school of painting and his country in the Chicago World’s Fair. The pressure was huge. He tore up painting after painting. By the time the fair had started, he had stopped believing he was a man and had come to think he was a tiger. The essay is about art and tigers, but also about the stress of being asked to represent your people. I suppose I wanted to acknowledge the difficulty of what I was asking my contributors to do.

But if they ever felt this stress, they handled it beautifully. As far as I know, none of them are tigers.

Nicole Chung is the author of the forthcoming memoir “All You Can Ever Know”and the editor-in-chief of Catapult magazine.


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