“Have you still got your space? Your soul, your own and necessary place where your own voices may speak to you, you alone, where you may dream. Oh, hold onto it, don’t let it go.” – Doris Lessing, Nobel Prize Lecture 2007
Holding Onto Space
The name of my childhood hometown conjures images of midwestern suburbia, a safe, secluded enclave where generations of white families have lived together playing baseball and heading PTA committees. A quiet confidence cuts through the exteriors of Victorian-style houses and neatly trimmed pristine lawns, as if to say this is what the American Dream looks like.
We moved to this neighborhood ten years ago. There was nothing downright hostile about the environment; like any other Midwestern suburb, our neighborhood was a place where you couldn’t walk outside without being greeted by neighbors smiling and saying hello. It was never the people themselves that I felt discomfited by, rather by the fact that their lives were anchored to a sort of stability, the sort of assumption that everyone else lives like you, or will mold their own lives to fit yours. I, by contrast, understood my life from the absence of stability, plagued by the unsettling feeling that our lives might be uprooted and replanted in the blink of an eye and no one would notice.
I have inherited precious little from my mother: not her nose, not her eyes. Only her worrying. She instilled in me an endless stream of what-if scenarios meant to remind me that our place in this town was conditional, to never grow complacent or accept things for granted the way that others seemed to have. To her, everything was a piece of a chain reaction waiting to topple over. My brother might become sick and she would have to quit her job to take care of him and then our family would have to leave, maybe go back to Indonesia rather than see me finish high school and go to college in the United States. This, on some level, was understandable. She grew up in Jakarta, watched her possessions float away before her own eyes when she was nine years old and clawed her own way out by studying and obtaining a scholarship to study abroad. Complacency was a luxury.
My mother warned me that we faced additional barriers as women of color. As the daughter of immigrants, I could not afford to fail or indulge in distractions. We would not have the keys to the C-suite passed onto us because of our last name. We did not have anyone, no friends of friends of uncles who worked at XYZ and might help in securing a summer internship. Issues that spoke to my heart and that I itched to speak out and write about — immigration, human rights, violence — were out of bounds for me; my mother derided protests that we saw on the streets such as the March for Our Lives, believing they were luxuries inaccessible to us as minorities with tenuous standing in American society.
No: instead we would have to prove our own worth. We had to attend prestigious universities and take the hardest classes, not — god forbid — such trivial subjects such as the humanities or creative writing. So burying my head in standardized testing prep books and taking Advanced Placement Chemistry and Physics it was. Like many anxiety-ridden high school students, I worried endlessly about college applications and ‘doing enough’. When the time came to write my college essays, I sat down in front of the laptop, staring at a blank page as I wondered who I was and what I could have to offer to a college. I had strong test scores and academics, but without any outstanding leadership or awards, I knew that I would be written off as another diligent, uninnovative Asian. I wondered how to write about things like staying home from school to take care of my younger brother while my parents were at work or washing dishes, an unglamorous chore that I had spent more hours on than any extracurricular activity. I wondered how to write about how my parents, despite coming from educated backgrounds and living in a zip code where carefully-curated extracurriculars and college prep were the norm, didn’t believe in the importance of activities like varsity tennis or golf, how they were too consumed with our own family’s survival. None of these fit into the narratives that we were supposed to write, so I didn’t. I wrote instead about the debate team, the only true extracurricular activity that I had (in a forum dominated by white males, I had carved out a space for my own voice – an achievement that I remain proud of to this day).
A few weeks ago, a close friend and mentor sent me a quote from Doris Lessing’s Nobel Prize lecture on holding onto space. “Hold onto your space, Quinna,” she wrote. What did she mean, I wondered. I was doing relatively well in classes, taking a full load of hard classes, engaging in clubs and extracurricular organizations, meeting new people, running between activities. I was busy, as college students are, but busy and happy, or so I thought. Was I happy? Worrying about happiness felt like yet another luxury that wasn’t afforded to me, the daughter of first-generation immigrants, wondering whether I was doing enough and what doing enough even looked like anymore. One thing was certain: failure was not an option. If I felt overwhelmed or tired, I simply had to work harder instead of stepping back and dropping a class or commitment. It wasn’t until a week ago, staring at the slots on my Google Calendar with the looming feeling of dread, that I began to realize the importance of what she had said. I would take a step back and say no — not because I wasn’t ambitious or hardworking enough, but rather because I knew that the hyper-crammed schedule was stifling me of my space to engage with activities that make me happiest: learning about social inequities, writing, reading and forming meaningful relationships with people.
As I sit writing this, I worry about the space that I occupy at this university and how I might make my voice more palatable to certain readers. I worry about whether the act of writing this piece is an act of betrayal to my family, whether writing is another act of luxury. I write anyway because I believe that my voice and my space matter in a world where thousands of my fellow peers don’t think twice about raising their hand or speaking up. To all my fellow women of color: you are good enough. Hold onto your space.