Kim Liao on Writing and Taiwan's Suppressed Historyby Kim Liao, Lizzie Stark • 06.13.2012
When we printed Kim Liao’s nonfiction short short, “How to Be a Good Chinese-Jewish Hapa” — her first creative publication – we knew she’d go on to verb our world. Now a Fulbright Research Fellow working on a book about her grandfather’s role in the Taiwanese independence movement, Kim talked with us about the piece reprinted this week and her research for her book Girl Meets Formosa.
What inspired this story?
So, it’s funny, but Fringe’s call for submissions to the ETHNOS issue actually inspired this piece! I had been working on a few different essays about the difficulty of establishing a multiracial identity, in school, relationships, and as a writer, so all of these themes were in the forefront of my mind. I had also just begun to commit time and energy to working on a family memoir about my father’s Chinese-Taiwanese family, and the long-lost stories that neither he nor I had ever known about. So this was the content.
For the form, I really wanted to try to write something targeted for Fringe, and then shop it around to other places if your magazine didn’t like it! And I knew that Fringe was best represented by sharp, shorter, punchy pieces that would read well online. So I happened upon the “How To” story form (always a fan of Lorrie Moore and Junot Diaz and all those other 2nd person stories, ha), and the opening image of not knowing which checkbox to check, when I was applying for college. Once the opening solidified, the piece wrote itself with anecdotes, and an evolution of identity that I was going through during that year of my life. Many friends looked at it before I submitted it, and gave me feedback about which images were coming across as the strongest.
Looking back at this now, four years after publication, is there anything you’d change?
Hahahaha, um, I never really want to think about that question. Having revised pieces so many times before sending them out into the world, I figure, once it’s out there, it’s out of my hands. It’s an accurate representation of the writer I was four years ago, and as my first creative publication, I am still very proud of it as such.
Tell us about what you’re working on right now.
I’m continuing work on that family memoir that I began four, no, five years ago. It has evolved considerably, from a family history query to a year-long adventure in Taiwan, where I went on a Fulbright Grant to research the political independence movements that my grandfather helped spearhead. In Taiwan, I really found the narrative thread of this manuscript in progress: a quest for identity, for the long-forgotten truth about my family, and also, the discovery of a suppressed national history in Taiwan, since the country had been under martial law for several decades and is only now finally free to talk openly about the past. Many Taiwanese young people have never known about the human rights violations that happened in their own country fifty years ago, and my family’s story is very much tied up in that time– all of my aunts and uncles and cousins were arrested, and some were tortured, just for trying to give voice to political change and rallying for self-determination and democracy.
So now, I am working on several shorter pieces and a book manuscript about those stories in Taiwan: mine, my grandparents’ and family’s, and Taiwan’s evolution to a democratic state. Quick plug: an excerpt of the book manuscript will be published by Cha: An Asian Literary Journal later this month!
Having lived in Taipei, do you feel more connected to your Chinese heritage? To what extent has coming to terms with this been a part of your book research so far?
That’s a really funny question when I think about it– since yes, of course, going to Taiwan really put me in touch viscerally with where that half of me is from. I got to meet many family members, learn basic Mandarin Chinese, and see the site of my family’s ancestral home. However, in Taiwan, I was known of as the “white foreigner,” and although people thought it was funny that I had relatives there, they certainly didn’t ask me how I wanted to be known or represented– it was already decided that I was “white,” because I didn’t look like everyone else. So it really turned my own idea of my multiracial identity upside down a bit– I felt more and more like an American, by contrast.
However, now, I do feel so grateful to have had that experience since my “Asian-ness” doesn’t feel like a mystery anymore to me. That has been a major part of the book research: first, doing interviews, meeting people, and doing historical research to find out the truth of this mysterious story of my grandparents; and then, also, separating out what were my own obsessions, concerns, about my own identity or the decision to pursue this story. Basically, my year in Taiwan gave me a ton of material, and it also offered me a great deal of perspective on the project as a whole.
This piece is undoubtedly “creative nonfiction” — it uses the second person to place the reader in your shoes. Will you be using similar techniques in the book? Will it have a memoir frame, or will you take a more narrative, journalistic approach?
Okay, so right now the book has a few different narrative threads that I’m weaving together: the reconstructed story of my grandparents’ past, which is absolutely an imaginative leap of “creative nonfiction”; my own experiences searching for and discovering these stories in Taiwan, which are personal nonfictional narrative; and then finally, layering in some of the historical context, interviews, and academic sources — which I am working on balancing in terms of tone, narrative, etc.
In the end, I am trying to write a story that reads like a novel, or a many-voiced creative narrative, but that is based in very detailed research, so one can go to the notes section in the back and continue to research the topic. I’m also working on really drawing distinctions of what has absolutely happened, what probably may have happened, and what is impossible to know for certain– especially since so much of Taiwan’s history has been so censored and suppressed up until now. Writing creative nonfiction really is a delicate balancing act!