New KTCO: Rowan Hisayo Buchanan
This week on Keep the Channel Open, I'm talking with writer Rowan Hisayo Buchanan. Rowan’s second novel, Starling Days, is a beautiful story about the complex love between the book’s two protagonists, Mina and Oscar, and their respective challenges in the wake of Mina’s suicide attempt. Starling Days explores family and love in many forms, and how people both connect and separate. In our conversation, Rowan and I discussed the depiction of mental illness in her book, how she approached writing the multifaceted relationships between the book’s characters, and why it was important to her to include multiracial characters. Then in the second segment, we talked about faith and how we make and find meaning.
Here are some links where you can listen to the episode:
You can also listen to the full episode and find show notes and a transcript at the episode page on the KTCO website.
Starling Days is now available in paperback, and you can purchase a copy wherever books are sold. I highly encourage you to pick up a copy from an independent bookseller like Pages of Hackney in London, Greenlight Bookstore in New York, The Book Catapult in San Diego, or your local bookstore.
A few pieces that I found helpful in putting both our conversation and the book in context:
- The first piece of Rowan's writing that I'd ever encountered was her essay "The Woman Scared of Her Own Kimono." The idea of being a stranger to your own ancestral culture is one that we discussed in our conversation, and one that's very relevant to the character of Oscar in Starling Days.
- In addition to being a writer, Rowan is also an illustrator. Her comic "An Agnostic's Longing" has a quiet, elegiac beauty to it, and I think it provides a good companion for some of what we discussed around faith and language.
- Right around the time of the US publication of Starling Days, Rowan published an essay with LitHub called "How To Write a Novel When Everyone You Love Might Be Losing It." In it, she writes about negotiating wellness and sickness, and how even though fiction draws from real-life experience, it's not the same as autobiography.
#MatteredToMe - April 16, 2021
- Anne Helen Peterson wrote about burnout and permission structure and American work culture. "If you struggle with your own relationship to work, you understand this: your best and gentlest intentions for yourself are readily compromised."
- I think Lydia Kiesling has a particular talent for writing very specific descriptions of very specific anxieties in ways that are specific and specifically personal but still feel like she could be dipping into my own personal stream of consciousness. She did that in her novel, and she also did it in this recent piece for The Cut about fearing the pandemic will end and everything will just go back to being garbage, the way it always was.
- Jess Zimmerman's "twisty little passages" does something amazing with its form, using a very old game to invoke nostalgia and the structure of exploration to tell a story about regret and longing and being unable to let go.
As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me recently. For whatever it's worth, I believe you can get through this—I believe in you.
Thank you, and take care.
What Would You Be If You Stopped Trying?
Do you ever wonder what you would be like if you stopped trying to be the person you want to be? I don't mean "the person you think you're supposed to be" or "the person you should be" or "the person your parents/spouse/friends/therapist/society want you to be." I don't mean "your best self," or at least I don't exactly mean that. I mean that maybe there is a way that you want to be, in order to live according to values that you hold deeply and dearly. Maybe there is a part of you that does naturally exist inside of you, and you feel good about yourself when you are able to turn toward that part, but you have to work at it. Maybe there is a way to be that really works for you, that reduces your stress, helps you feel at peace, helps you accept your life, that when you lean into this way of being everything is better, or maybe not everything is better but some things are, and even the things that aren't better are at least more tolerable, but maybe it doesn't come naturally for you to be that way, maybe you struggle with it, maybe sometimes you fail and the failure is hard, and even when you succeed it's still sometimes exhausting.
I like to think—although maybe I'm kidding myself—that if you've known me less than five years and especially if you primarily know me online, you might not know that I am, by nature, extremely argumentative. That sometimes the most alive I ever feel is when I'm debating somebody, when I can get into a good back-and-forth with somebody and my whole brain lights up with the effort of making points and counterpoints, not necessarily in order to win the argument, which usually ends up feeling like ashes in my mouth, but, yes, in order to win this point, and maybe the next point, and the next one. My parents and brothers and old friends know this about me, and of course J knows this about me, but I like to think that maybe you don't know this about me, and I like to think that maybe my kids don't know this about me, because I try not to be this way anymore. A while back, maybe five, six, seven years ago, partly through therapy and partly through just looking at myself, I decided I didn't like this about myself, that it wasn't working for me, that it was causing me problems, and that I wanted to change. I think I have changed, at least outwardly. I don't argue with people as much as I used to. I have an easier time seeing other people's perspectives and accepting disagreement than I used to. I am better able to both set my own boundaries and respect other people's boundaries. But none of that comes naturally to me.
I want to be a kind person. I want to be generous and gentle, nurturing, patient, understanding, supportive. I want to be a good and sensitive listener, someone who is open and vulnerable instead of guarded and defensive. I want to be someone who prioritizes healing over justice, collaboration over competition, love over intellect. When I am able to be those things, I don't just feel better about myself, I feel better in general. But it all takes so much work. None of that is what I would be if I didn't keep putting forth effort to interrogate and counter my natural impulses. It's not that I think that these things aren't me in some way, because I believe—or at least I want to believe—that my desire to be these things is an authentic part of me, and that it's okay to judge myself at least as much by my actions as it is by how I feel on the inside. It's just that I wonder if I'm trying to squeeze myself into a shape that doesn't actually fit me. I don't know what I'd be if I stopped trying so hard, and it's terrifying to contemplate the possibility that my authentic self might be the opposite of everything I value.
But even as I write this, I'm remembering saying something very similar to my therapist several years ago. A lot of what I worked on with her had to do with letting go of doing things out of a sense of obligation to others, and at the same time ceasing to place obligations on others, and to just do things because I wanted to, and to allow others to do what they wanted to. After several months of discussions, I said to her that I could see that if I accepted this framework I would probably be happier, but that I didn't know if I could accept it, even so. I didn't know if I wanted that, because it went so far against what I thought of as being a good person, and it was terrifying to contemplate letting go of that ideal. I did eventually accept it, and I think I am happier. I guess I can hear the echoes of that same resistance here. It feels different, though, because my desires to be a certain way aren't coming from a feeling of obligation now, of what I feel like I have to be for others—or anyway they're coming much less from obligation than they used to and much more from a consideration of what I want for myself and what my values are.
I'd like to think that there's a way to integrate all of this, a way to live according to my values that doesn't feel so hard all the time, a way to be the person I want to be while also accepting the person that I am. I don't know what that looks like, though.
Some Things That Are Not the Same as Having a Personality, According to Twitter
- Adult dodgeball
- Being an asshole
- Being depressed
- Being from Atlanta
- Being from the Midwest
- Being horny
- Being a newlywed
- Being a poet
- Being the new kid in town
- Carrying around a milk crate
- Cynical skepticism
- Disliking the word "moist"
- Drinking coffee
- Enjoying dumplings
- Following 666 people
- Getting a COVID vaccine
- Going to Nashville once a month
- Hating everything
- Having a book deal
- Having a dog
- Having a personality
- Having screeners
- Liking Adopt Me
- Liking Game of Thrones
- Liking Hollow Knight
- Liking hot sauce
- Liking IPAs
- Liking pineapple on pizza
- Liking natural wines
- Liking Taylor Swift
- Loving pizza
- Making money
- Not finding Adam Driver attractive
- Not liking Adopt Me
- The one Andrew Garfield scene from The Social Network
- Showing the finger while taking a picture
- A single character flaw
- Spoiling movies and TV shows for people just because you saw them early
- Taking AP classes
- Taking naps
- Thinking that Africa is a country
- Tim Burton
- Tweeting song lyrics with YouTube links
- Wearing those shoes that individually wrap your toes
- Working out
#MatteredToMe - April 9, 2021
It's Friday. Here are a few things that mattered to me recently:
- Lyz Lenz wrote about the loss of a beloved pet, about facing unexpected pain and sorrow, and choosing what kind of person you want to be.
- Anne Anlin Cheng's essay "A Dilemma of Intimacy" is about interracial love, the dance of familiarity and strangeness, the double bind of being an Asian American woman. I found it insightful and poignant.
- Min Jin Lee wrote a tribute to her late uncle, and about the world of books that he introduced her to, and how she found her own voice through reading. There's so much love in the piece, I thought it was beautiful.
- I got pretty choked up reading this NYT feature of Asian and Asian American photography, both Celeste Ng's essay and the wonderful, beautiful images from so many Asian and Asian American artists. There's a certain defiance in turning toward and depicting tenderness and love in a time of isolation and hate, which I found meaningful and moving.
As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me recently. I hope that some time soon you can find something that nourishes you and get your fill of it, and then some.
Thank you, and take care.
Searching for Meaning
Last night, after it had already ceased being last night and was on into today, instead of going to sleep I stayed up looking up different kanji for my name. This wasn't, perhaps, the wisest use of my time at that moment as I am now at the point of mild sleep deprivation where I have turned into a living Magnetic Fields song.
I should probably back up a little bit. I've been thinking a lot about my name recently. Partly that's because of a Twitter trend that started a few weeks ago where Asian Americans began including their native names in their profiles as a show of pride and empowerment in the face of anti-Asian hate. (I should note that this is not a new phenomenon in general—I know lots of people who have been doing this for years, but it did gain some new significance and momentum recently.) It's also partly because I read Beth Nguyen's excellent and moving essay about choosing to change her name. I'm finding the discussion around names and Asian pride interesting, and it makes me happy to see people make the choices that are right for them. For myself, "Michael" is the name that my parents gave me and the only name that my family called me until I was old enough to ask them to call me "Mike." So there's no separation between "me" and "Mike."
Still, I do also have a Japanese name. Legally, Kenji is my middle name, but in my family it's more of a second first name, even if no one has ever called me by that name. Neither of my parents and none of their siblings have Japanese names, and I've always liked that I've had one, though at times I have been envious of my brothers, one of whom doesn't have a Japanese name but was named for our dad and the other of whose Japanese name came from a beloved great-uncle, while I was stuck with "second son."
But, as my mom's mom—the one close family member I have who is from Japan—would point out, a Japanese name's meaning depends on how it's spelled. Kenji is one of the most common names in Japan, and there are many different combinations of kanji that are used for it, each with a different meaning. And the thing is, I don't know how my name is spelled. Neither of my parents speak or read Japanese, so they never picked kanji for my name.
I do know how my family name is spelled: 酒瀬川. I can't write it, and I always have to look up the second character, but I know what it means. 酒 is "sake" (as in the drink). 瀬 is "rapids" or "shallows." (My grandmother used to say it was like "edge" but would then say she didn't know the right English word.) 川 is "river." Thus you get the derivation of my website and Twitter handle.
In the past when I've had to write out my name in Japanese, for a class or whatever, I've written it as 酒瀬川マイク (Sakasegawa Maiku). I could certainly keep doing that, but lately I've found myself thinking more and more about how to use my Japanese name. If I were going to start doing that, I'd have to pick a spelling on my own. But that means that I'd also have to pick a meaning. I'm not sure why it feels less strange to define your child's name than your own, but for me it does. It's always felt... presumptuous? But I've become more and more curious about how I would spell it, if I were going to. It's been sort of a strange journey.
If I were to go with the meaning I'm most used to, it would be 建二, where 建 is "build" and 二 is "two." This is the meaning that my grandmother told me when I was young, something like "second built." This would be in some ways the closest to having my family pick the name for me, I think.
On the other hand, the meaning that appeals to me most is 謙実, which (if I understand it correctly) is "humble" followed by a character that can be "sincerity" or "kindness" or "fruit." Though, there's something about calling myself "humble kindness" that doesn't feel, well, very humble.
If I were to pick based solely on which characters look the most visually beautiful to me, I would probably go with 健次. This is "strong/healthy/vigorous" and "next," which is often translated as "strong second son." I'm not sure how I feel about that meaning, but just look at it:
Then again, maybe the most honest thing to do would be just to spell it phonetically in katakana: ケンジ. That would be closest to how I was actually named, but somehow it doesn't sit right with me to have a name with no meaning at all (even if that's not at all unheard of in Japan).
I haven't come to any conclusions or made any decisions at this point. There's something about the idea of picking my own name that feels both exciting and like a heavy responsibility. I mean, I have a hard enough time picking out a new pair of glasses, and those just go on my face. This actually feels a lot like the process of naming our kids, an experience that was both fun and that I felt the gravity of. With each of them we narrowed down to a short list and then waited to see which one fit the best. I'm not sure exactly how that would work here, but on the other hand it's not as though I have a deadline. If I end up not deciding at all, I'll still have two names and I'll still be myself. So, I'm thinking about it.
New KTCO: Farrah Karapetian
This week on Keep the Channel Open, I'm talking with artist Farrah Karapetian. Known for her large-scale photograms, Farrah’s wide-ranging practice incorporates sculpture, performance, and different forms of mark-making to stretch the photographic medium as she is driven by her intense and rigorous curiosity. In our conversation, Farrah and I talked about the appeal of the photographic medium, the tension between constructing an image and the happy accident, and the ethics of artistic beauty. Then in the second segment, we discussed the Nardal sisters and how we develop a language around issues like exoticization.
Here are some links to where you can listen to the episode:
You can also listen to the full episode and find show notes and a transcript at the episode page at the KTCO website.
Scattered, vol. 7
- I got my first vaccine dose this week. I was prepared beforehand for an immune response, which has so far been barely noticeable. I was not prepared for the emotional response. Sitting in the monitoring area after my shot, I noticed myself sniffling and was briefly concerned until I realized that it was only that I was crying a little bit. I've been saying for a while now that I don't mind waiting, that I'm not sure I'll ever actually be ready to go back out into the world again. And that's true, but it still felt like letting my breath out for the first time in a long while.
- I think something that has been eating at me both with the virus and with the anti-Asian violence is that I just don't know how much danger I'm actually in. I'm not sure I can know how much danger I'm in, really. By any objective measure, an educated, affluent, professional, fifth-generation Japanese American is at much lower risk for both than someone with closer immigrant roots, or who has a blue-collar essential job, or who is of a different Asian ethnicity. But lower risk isn't the same as no risk. The richest person I've ever met died of COVID a few months ago. People not too far from my neighborhood who look not too different from me have been picked up in ICE raids. And I've been punched in the face before by someone who was calling me a chink and telling me to go back where I came from.
- It's been 26 years or so since the last time I was punched or kicked or shoved or spit on by someone who called me a chink. That wasn't the last time I was called a racial slur, but the last time the slur came with physical violence was almost two-thirds of my lifetime ago. And, at that, I never suffered worse than a bloody nose or a few bruises where it didn't show. I don't know that it makes much rational sense that I feel as much fear as I do. But I guess feelings don't have to be rational.
- Yesterday, Arden Cho shared a story on Twitter about a time when she was 10, when a teenage boy beat her into unconsciousness, knocking out two of her teeth and hospitalizing her. I think the thing that caught me the most was when she was talking about now, and said "I honestly didn’t realize I was living with all this trauma, I thought I was okay. But seeing countless videos of violent attacks has triggered a lot of these memories and it’s been so heavy and painful."
- I saw that thread because my friend Grace shared it, adding "As Asians we are taught to hide our pain & be grateful it wasn’t worse. That lifelong training has taught us & others that our pain doesn’t matter."
- I guess what I'm saying is that I don't know if it's okay for me to feel afraid right now.
- I can't help thinking, too, about how tenuous Asian American solidarity is and has been, how often the exclusion and perhaps even danger comes from within this so-called community. When my mother's mother first came to Salinas, she was met by a community of nisei and sansei who were skeptical of war brides. When I was a kid, my Japanese/Filipino American cousins and I would laugh at people for being fobby. And it's not like it's over. One of the first things the algorithm showed me when I signed up for TikTok was an Asian American comedian whose whole schtick seems to be making fun of Asian immigrants' accents.
- Nobody can give you permission for your feelings, and if you find yourself seeking permission it's important to ask yourself whether what you're actually seeking is exoneration.
- It was Friday when I started writing this list of bullet points and now it's Saturday. I think I'm too tired now to bring it to a real conclusion.
#MatteredToMe - April 6, 2021
It's Friday. Here are a few things that mattered to me recently:
- Jad Josey is so good at writing wistful flash stories that are full of longing. His story "You Will, You Will, You Will" was just lovely.
- Beth Nguyen wrote a nuanced and very personal essay about choosing a name. I know others have made different choices with their own names, but this seems just the point to me: that it is a choice. I'm glad and grateful she shared hers.
- Noah Cho wrote about his grandmother's hands, and how things can be unsaid but still communicated and understood. As always, I loved it.
- Jason Fitzroy Jeffers wrote about Tina Turner's "We Don't Need Another Hero," apocalypse as revelation instead of ending, and what true freedom might look like.
- Finally, Maggie Tokuda-Hall hosted Sarah Gailey in a Drunk Safari IG Live last night. It was the hardest I've laughed in recent memory, and exactly what I needed.
As always, this is just a portion of what mattered to me recently. I just noticed that my shoulders were pulled up toward my ears. Check in with yourself: is there a tension you can release? If you can, I hope you will.
Thank you, and take care.
Reclaiming Asian Names
I read an interesting article yesterday about Asian Americans reclaiming their native first names, giving some background into a recent Twitter trend of adding your Asian name into your display name. A common theme in the stories shared by people interviewed for the piece is having had to change their names in order to make it easier for white Americans—or, more to the point, to give white Americans fewer opportunities to exclude them. I love the idea of taking pride in Asian American culture and identity, and displaying one’s Asian name is something I can understand as empowering for people who have been othered or shamed. For me, personally, it doesn’t feel completely applicable.
One of the people interviewed for the article was Susan Kiyo Ito:
Susan Kiyo Ito from Oakland told me Kiyo is legally her middle name, despite the fact that her parents had wanted to make Kiyo her first name.
“My parents had wanted to name me Kiyo after my late aunt, but then they changed their minds and decided to make that my less visible middle name because they didn’t want me to be teased," said Ito.
Her father had a similar story about his own name.
“My father’s name was Masaji (Mas), but white people struggled with his name, so he joked that they could call him Sam — Mas backwards — to make it easier for them to remember and pronounce.”
“Many of my Japanese relatives used English names in public for assimilation and white folks,” she added.
For me, like Ito, my Japanese name (Kenji) is legally my middle name. I think of it as my Japanese name, but I have never felt comfortable going by that name. And, more to the point, no one has ever called me by that name, inside my family or out. Being gosei and biracial, my relationship to Japan and Japanese culture is very different from someone who has immigrant parents. It’s always been a lot more… tenuous? Neither of my parents have Japanese names, and neither they nor I speak Japanese. Three of my grandparents also didn’t or don’t speak Japanese (though, of those, one was my white grandfather). My Japanese American grandfather also didn’t have a Japanese name, as far as I know, though some of his siblings did.
In some ways, my relationship with my name feels similar to my relationship with identity in general. It’s not that I have ever tried to hide my Japanese-ness (nor is that something I could do even if I wanted to), and my parents didn’t pick my name for assimilation. They didn’t have to pick my name based on some idea of making it easier for me to assimilate because assimilation is something that my family already did fairly thoroughly several generations ago. I think of myself as “Mike” or “Michael” because that’s my name.
It’s not that “Kenji” isn’t also part of my name and my self. It’s just that there isn’t a conflict or separation between “Mike” and some more authentic version of me. “Mike” isn’t a mask that I’ve assumed (or that was put on me) to make “Kenji” more palatable or to make things easier for white people to understand. It’s just my name.
I think that the discourse around Asian American identity tends to very entwined with the immigrant narrative, with things like assimilation or rejection of assimilation. And there are good reasons for that. That sort of leaves someone like me out of the discussion, which used to bother me a lot. But as I’ve grown older and learned more I’ve come to understand that there are good reasons not to center my personal experience with identity in what is fundamentally a political discourse. I guess I do think that there is room for an interesting discussion about the ways Asian American identity discourse can be, I think, a bit essentialist. Or about what is or is not my “authentic” culture. But that isn’t and shouldn’t be the center of the larger discourse.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying that I really like seeing other people put their Asian names in their profiles, or including their names written in Asian characters, and I support everyone in doing that. But I don’t think it’s something I’ll do, myself.