This is the second of three pieces inspired by my visit to the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown MA.
Although Roger Fenton journeyed to the Crimean Peninsula to document the war there in 1855, his so-called “Orientalist Suite,” comprising fifty photographs, did not require any travel beyond his London studio. Fenton called upon his friends, manservant, and a professional artist’s model to portray a range of ethnicities – a jarring discrepancy noted by some nineteenth-century critics. The assortment of costumes, furniture, and accessories collected from across the Middle East may have been borrowed, brought up to the studio from Fenton’s home, or purchased for the occasion. As with his models, Fenton’s deployment of these props to connote a range of cultures results in vague pastiche rather than ethnographic accuracy.From the curatorial card at the Clark associated with the photograph above.
The story I’m writing now scares me. It scares me for a lot of reasons, but most centrally because its two main characters—high school kids who’ve fallen in love—both have Anglo fathers and Asian-American mothers. I didn’t choose that, exactly. It’s a common enough circumstance in the South Bay of the San Francisco region, and it absolutely makes sense that David, the son of two elite table tennis players, would have parents who reflected the state of US table tennis thirty years ago.
I was a serious table tennis player myself in college, absolutely terrible, which means I was better than almost anyone else at my school of 6,000 students. (In any endeavor, the gulf between “pretty good” and “good” is often the most visible and insurmountable.) So, although the story is filled with specificity that I know well, David is just an immensely better player than I ever was. Which means he would have grown up in one of the two serious table tennis metropolises of the US, San Francisco or New York, and I know the Bay Area far better than I know NY/NJ. So Milpitas it is. And my former research life included years of ethnography among American teenagers; I have an ear for the pace of conversations, and the constant laughter of young adult life. The dialogue will be true.
So I have a lot of research to draw upon for this story. And I can watch YouTube video of contemporary tournaments to see what the state of the art of competition strategy looks like. I can read the USATT Olympic Trials structure to get the tournaments and the training right, and the USOC’s nutrition guidance to see what David would have been eating. I can use Google Streetview to see what’s down the block from Milpitas High School, and visit all of the admissions-department websites of major universities to see when he and Gwen would have been receiving their early-admission college decisions. I can closely describe the campus of Laney College in Oakland, where David’s first tournament is held and where I went to school myself for a couple of years back in the ’80s.
Those are all just facts, and I can get those right. What I can’t possibly get right is the daily lived experience of being an Asian-American teenager in 2019. (As though that were one thing anyway…) What I can’t get right is the way in which David feels like the whitest kid in the room with his Asian friends, and the most Japanese kid in the room among his white friends—more borrowed research, from a conversations with biracial friend who did her dissertation on the fixed-ness or fluidity of biracial identity. I can’t get his mother’s experience right, a second-generation Japanese-American scholar who teaches physics at Smith College. I know a lot about academic life, but I don’t know physics, and I don’t know what it’s like to teach at a women’s college (and even if I had, I wouldn’t know what it was like to be a woman who taught at a women’s college…)
There are a ton of things I can’t get right in fiction. I can try to get them true, which is all fiction can ever do. But truth is less certain than factual correctness, more open to dispute. Every reader who comes to a story brings her own life, her own data pool with a tiny n, and asks whether this book is reflective of her experience. Whether the story is trustworthy.
Of course, I can’t get any of my characters “right.” I don’t know the daily life of a tavernkeeper in 1956 Saginaw, or a structural engineer at work on college science buildings around the country. I don’t know the daily life of a young woman in a doctoral program in philosophy at Stanford, or of a young man in Vermont asked to temporarily adopt his friends’ daughter when they’re deported. But my troubles are multiplied with each variable of distance from my own experience, and the trustworthiness of representation matters to people who’ve far too often had their experiences reduced to “vague pastiche,” a museum-card term for stereotype.
It’s entirely likely that, even if writers reduced our output to nothing but memoir, we wouldn’t get that “right” either. We protect the innocent and shame the guilty, and decide all on our own who deserves which label. We avoid the sensitive topics that would inflame friends and family, or humiliate ourselves beyond some self-set boundary. We sanitize. We glamorize. We decide which scraps of the life should be framed and which discarded from our carefully structured tale. Even memoir, that most indisputably correct genre, can still be pastiche.
It’s always hard to be true. It’s hard to know when we’ve been true. And there will be no agreement about whether we’ve been true. And that places a vast obligation on any writer. To use the words of Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, we can never get it right, but we have no right to be wrong.