Vol. 7: Val Wang Writes to Dream the Future Into Existence
In the lead up to last year's Muse and the Marketplace conference, we produced a series that explored the experience of working in a dominantly white industry as a person of color. This year, we're kicking off the #Muse17 conversation with another timely topic. In the face of a challenging political climate and amid reports that the NEA and other cultural programs face significant spending cuts and may be slashed altogether, we asked authors, agents, and editors presenting at the conference: What is a writer for? Why is now an important time to advocate for the writer's -- and literature's -- role in society? This installment comes from author and multimedia storyteller Val Wang, who will be leading two Muse sessions: We the Narrators and the Spitballing Event.
For the first time in my life I feel acutely that I should have followed my parents’ wishes and become a lawyer. Words, unless they are law, have no power, or so it feels sometimes in this country of ours. What use is a writer? In this time of “alternative facts,” what is the value of speaking the truth?
This past Christmas, three generations of my family sat around the kitchen table as my mom told my four-year-old son Momo the story of her escape from China in the back of a cargo truck in 1949, when she was only five. This is a story she’d told me numerous times as a child, one of many that fascinated me and that I retell in my memoir, Beijing Bastard. I’d encouraged him to ask her questions after he’d seen an ad at a bus stop that had disturbed him; it showed a Syrian girl looking pleadingly at us over her shoulder as adults in the background stood around a fire trying to keep warm. He couldn’t make sense of it. Who is she? Why is she looking at us? Why is she standing outside like that? Why doesn’t she have a home? Why? Why?
My mom went over the details I was so familiar with: the darkness of the cargo truck, the bumpiness of the ride, her task of keeping her little brother quiet, her mother’s belt sewn with jewelry that would finance their new life in Burma.
Momo listened, his big black eyes drinking it in as he has everything since the moment he was born. He was confused. Was there a house back there?
No, we told him, they weren’t supposed to be there, they were hiding in a tiny space between boxes, they had to be very quiet so the police couldn’t find them.
Why were the police looking for them? Did they do something wrong? What is a war? Is there going to be a war here? His questions went on and on.
It was important for me that he hear the story directly from her, so he would have a living connection with our past and understand more fully the miracle of our present. (We didn’t tell him the rest of the story, about their stateless years in Burma, my grandparents running a small teahouse and raising seven children, and the circuitous route that brought them to the States; there will be time for all that in the future.) I want him to understand the fragility of life, that the world around you can be dismantled in an instant. That fundamental sense of instability—political, financial, social, cultural, and, consequently, psychological—was something that my parents and I have desperately tried to overcome. But now that I have children, I view it as a real and valuable inheritance: Knowledge of the true nature of life, its tragedy and perseverance.
I suppose this is something writing can do, to connect us with the stories of how we, alone and together, got to be where we are.
I wrote the memoir Beijing Bastard and have also worked as a journalist, and it seems like there’s no better time than now to be a purveyor of verified facts. At the same time, I am weary of the idea that we—refugees, immigrants, people of color, LGBQT folks and others seen by some as not truly part of America and/or deserving of human rights—must trot out our true stories in an effort to yet again assert our humanity.
This is why I am reorienting toward fiction.
I think of my mom, her parents and brother crouched in that dark cargo truck as it wound over the mountains into Burma and them, particularly my Popo, dreaming us into existence. Could she ever have imagined her daughter sitting around a table in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her granddaughter who was a writer and professor, her grandson who was a lawyer, and her four-year old great-grandson who was asking to hear her story?
Dreaming the future into existence. This is something we all do. And now, in times of emergency, it feels even more crucial. To tell stories not only to delineate where we are now, but to imagine where we are going, or could go, in the best and the worst case scenarios.
Aleksandar Hemon, in a brilliant essay, “Stop Making Sense, or How to Write in the Age of Trump,” published in The Village Voice a few days before the inauguration, wrote about the election of Trump as a traumatic rupture that rendered our cozy bourgeois American reality (for those who experienced it that way) a fiction.
“‘Reality’ has finally earned its quotation marks,” he writes.
Later in the piece, he says, “The traumatic shock, however, never leads to instant understanding of the new reality. What takes place is merely the undoing of the familiar, with nothing to replace it.”
What better conditions for me to switch to fiction? Writing fiction, especially speculative fiction, seems like the logical response to this moment, to try to get out ahead of the nightmare being constructed on our behalf and in our names.
The term “alternative facts” isn’t just a misnomer for “lies,” un-truths that we can criticize, laugh at, and dismiss in favor of actual facts (though that too must be done). I see “alternative facts” as a battleground to be skirmished over. Fiction, after all, is a lie too. A fantasy. A dream. But one with the distinct ring of truth. Who gets to fantasize about our alternative futures? Who gets to dream? How can we pull those faraway possibilities closer to us so we can take a good look?
Val Wang is an author and multimedia storyteller interested in the intersection between the personal and the global. Shortly after college, Val moved to Beijing, where she shot her own documentary about a three-generation Peking Opera family. These years in Beijing became the memoir Beijing Bastard. Her multimedia projects work at the edge of digital innovation in journalism. She created and produced Planet Takeout, an interactive, multiplatform documentary on the role of Chinese takeouts as a vital cultural crossroads in America. Val is currently producing a documentary about Chinese circus artist Daqi (also known as Xia Zhengqi), who is now performing in Paramour, Cirque du Soleil’s debut show on Broadway. She teaches in the English and Media Studies Department of Bentley University. You can find out more about her on her website or on her Twitter.
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