Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

My multiracial self

with 2 comments

I’m multiracial. On my mother’s side, I’m Finnish and Estonian; on my father’s side, Chinese. And yet I’ve rarely, if ever, discussed or treated this subject in my fiction. There are a lot of reasons for this. Partially it’s because I don’t want to be pigeonholed as a writer whose work is grounded in questions of ethnic identity, which unfortunately tends to be the case for any novelist who explicitly addresses the topic, especially early in his or her career. We’re all tempted to read novels, especially those with clear autobiographical elements, as veiled works of confession, and this tends to restrict the subjects that a writer can credibly engage, at least once certain labels are attached. As a result, my novels are almost absurdly nonautobiographical, and although they express a great deal of my personality, you have to read between the lines to see it. In this regard, my model is a writer like Kazuo Ishiguro, who has written extensively about his own heritage, as a Japanese-born British novelist, but has also brilliantly explored a wide range of subjects that have little to do with easy notions of authorial identity. Ishiguro’s feelings on his cultural background are similar to mine:

People are not two-thirds one thing and the remainder something else. Temperament, personality, or outlook don’t divide quite like that. The bits don’t separate clearly. You end up a funny homogeneous mixture. This is something that will become more common in the latter part of the century—people with mixed cultural backgrounds, and mixed racial backgrounds. That’s the way the world is going.

Which brings me to the second reason why I’ve rarely treated identity issues in my fiction, which arises from what I imagine is the peculiar situation of many individuals with multiracial backgrounds, particularly Eurasians. Race wasn’t a central part of my life growing up, because I found myself in an odd liminal category that didn’t have a lot of baggage attached. I didn’t identify strongly with any particular ethnicity, and liked the idea of occupying the middle ground, which I hoped would allow me to put together a life for myself without labels. This may be part of the reason why I was so drawn to the idea of a classical education, almost as if I were constructing a value system from first principles—and why the experience, much later, of marrying into a Chinese-American family has been so rewarding and surprising. (At the risk of sounding ridiculous, this is a big reason why I identify so strongly with Obama, who was multiracial and raised in an unconventional household, and responded by becoming an overachiever in the most conventional, Ivy League sense—only to find his greatest personal happiness by marrying into a strong black family.)

But of course, as I’ve only recently begun to realize, race is central to my identity, and as a writer, I’ve been drawn repeatedly to the problem of how to reconcile the various pieces that make up my own life. When I stand back, I can see this in my fiction, in larger patterns that weren’t obvious at the time. Nearly all of my published short stories, for instance, include at least one character of Asian descent, with the notable exception of “Ernesto,” where the setting, during the Spanish Civil War, made this rather difficult. This wasn’t a conscious decision, at least not compared to the choice, which was fairly deliberate, to work on developing strong female characters. Part of the reason may be that, like most writers, I tend to seize on whatever happens to be ready at hand when it comes to assembling the elements of a story. It may also be partially due to my awareness that interesting Asian characters are somewhat underrepresented in fiction, although this is hardly something I set out consciously to correct. And race is rarely a central theme of these stories: for the most part, it’s taken for granted, allowing me to focus on subjects I find more interesting, like cannibalistic octopuses.

The real surprise, at least for me, is how subtly these issues have also been woven into my novels, which return obsessively to issues of Eastern and Western culture, although not in the ways you’d expect. My first, unpublished novel was set in India, with a strong thematic focus on the legacy of colonialism and imperialism, and the trilogy that began with The Icon Thief and is about to continue with City of Exiles centers on the problem of Russia, whose history, perhaps more than that of any other country, expresses the tension in what it means to be European and Asian at once. In short, it turns out that I’ve been writing about multiculturalism all along, but displaced into unexpected forms, which I think may be the best way of doing it. If I’d tried to attack these themes directly, drawing on my own experience, I’d lose much of the objectivity that I’m convinced is key to writing good fiction. By finding a fictional canvas on which these issues can develop organically, I can focus on telling an interesting story and let the material do the rest. And the result has told me a lot more about myself, on rereading, than if I’d written about my identity in more obvious ways.

Written by nevalalee

October 24, 2012 at 9:59 am

2 Responses

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  1. I am always amazed at the process of our writing that sometimes can only be seen in retrospect.


    October 24, 2012 at 12:41 pm

  2. I know! And the themes that emerge are always more interesting than if we’d decided on them beforehand.


    October 25, 2012 at 8:22 am

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