My debut memoir, Beautiful Country, places readers in my childhood shoes during my very first years in the United States, after my parents and I moved to New York City in 1994. Overnight, I went from being just another typical kid in north China to an undocumented child who attended school hungry and confused. I did not speak any English, but books and storytelling quickly became my refuge. My father had been an English Literature professor in China, and the social criticism of Charles Dickens and Mark Twain had been what called him to the Western world as he grew up in a family marked as dissidents.
During our early days in America, it also grew clear to me that fluency and literacy in the English language was the safest way to ensure that I would draw no suspicion about my immigration status. So, I threw myself into books. It was in the public library, and specifically the Chatham Square branch in New York City’s Chinatown, where I made my first American friends – all of them fictional characters – and built my first semblance of a home in the United States.
Reading his essay, and then his subsequent book, Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen, gave me the very first inkling that an action so brave and inspiring might be possible. But I was nowhere as courageous as Vargas, and it would not be until I became a naturalized citizen in 2016, 22 years after I first landed at JFK Airport, that I felt safe to begin putting my story down on paper. And when Karla Cornejo Villavicencio then came forward with The Undocumented Americans, shedding light on not just her hidden American experience but those of so many across the country, she supplied the fuel I needed to go forward with my agent in submitting my manuscript to major editors across the nation.
But even after I had secured a deal, I found guidance still from Cathy Park Hong who, in Minor Feelings, gave voice to the racialised misogyny that I had experienced as an Asian American woman for all of my American life. Yet, until Hong’s defiant work, I had never felt that I had the standing to express any of the things she so fearlessly brought to the page. All three – Vargas, Villavicencio, and Hong – courageously bared their own vulnerabilities so that it might become safer for others like me to do so. Without them, I would not be the author or person I am today, and Beautiful Country would not exist in its current form.
So many decades later, I find comfort in the fact that my father had indeed been right – it was storytelling and literacy that had been my way out – and there are no stories more defining or important than the ones we dare to tell about ourselves.
Qian Julie Wang will be in conversation on 30 September 2021. Find more details here.
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Image: Ryan MacEachern / Penguin
Photos at top provided by Qian Julie Wang