The home my family and I have forged and nurtured is a remnant of our histories. When I was a kid, my parents chastised me when I spoke English in the house, told me the occasional ancient Korean myth during story time, fed me jjigae and banchan, and when I grew older, taught me about our past, especially Korea’s turbulent and oppressive 20th century (including the dictatorship, coup and military regime they grew up under). They ensured that, though I may be a gyopo, I would remain committed to my roots. I grew up in the Korean immigrant community, spending Friday nights at whichever first-generation parents hosted that weekend, moms chatting over coffee, dads playing poker and drinking beer and their kids and I chasing each other around and pretending to cast random spells from the “Harry Potter” series on each other. And I grew up observing how my parents’ marginalization was markedly different from my own as a native English speaker, when their accent wasn’t “respectable” enough to some; my mom sometimes jostling me awake from a nap by shoving the landline in my face and gesturing frantically when in need of translation, while you could practically hear the bank teller or insurance representative — whomever it was at the time — rolling their eyes through the signal.
The home I grew up in was intrinsically an immigrant household: my parents, by turns naturally and very intentionally, enshrined my Korean identity and the memory of their displacement in my being and sense of selfhood. And now most of my friends, the people I gravitate to, are children of immigrants like me. I consider my support for immigrant justice to number among the few beliefs that glue me together, but recently I was forced to confront, for the first time, the fact that I had never once actively pondered with any intention and time even one of the many reasons why I stand with immigrants of all nations.
I realized this on November 2, when the Student Community of Progressive Empowerment (SCOPE), a University of Michigan student organization dedicated to advocacy and support for immigrants and undocumented students, held a day of action at the Shapiro Undergraduate Library in collaboration with the U-M Beta Omicron chapter of Lambda Theta Alpha Latin Sorority, to promote their “I Stand With Immigrants” initiative. I lingered awkwardly at their table for a couple minutes that felt much longer, when finally a couple SCOPE volunteers approached me. They greeted me with warmth and entreated me to fill out an index card for their posting wall in response to the prompt “I stand with immigrants because…”
My support for immigrants has always been an automatic and instinctive conviction, one which requires no debate or second thoughts — so the question of why I stand with immigrants took me aback.
I feel similarly born into the question of why write? To put pen to paper has always been a ritual for me — one which I have often taken for granted. As an eight-year-old, I used to write endless “novels” that were essentially poorly plagiarized amalgamations of whatever fantasy or science fiction series I was consuming at the moment — horrible dystopian time travel thrillers about plucky white women with dumb names like Eliza Hunt — until my right hand cramped and the flesh where it met my pen was flushed and stamped with the BIC logo, and my mom insisted I set my binder down. And when I learned how to write in Korean at the age of seven, I tried, briefly and also wildly unsuccessfully, to write stories in the hangeul characters. I wrote one about a 나무 괴물, or “tree monster,” that had barely any premise beyond the fact that I thought the phrase 나무 괴물 (“namu gwaemul”) sounded cool in my head. On some nights, my family congregated in the living room to watch Korean variety shows while I pulled my IKEA swivel chair close to them so we could share space while I produced pages, careful to number each one in the top corners lest they slip out of their rings. All this to say, writing was habitual for me, and helped calm me in the hours before my mom would tuck me into bed every night.
My commitment to writing has since waned through the years. Several important people in my life initially discouraged me from writing, and I don’t harbor any bitterness about that; writing isn’t stable, and they had been fighting for stability their entire lives. But whenever I found myself lingering on a page again, or crafting new phrases in my head and committing them to memory, it felt like a small homecoming washing over me. I never once questioned why writing had that power over me.
When I stood at the SCOPE table explicitly asking myself for the first time why I stand with immigrants, I gave it some thought and eventually scrawled, “everyone should be able to make their own decisions for their future,” and taped my card onto the easel. I have at least a hundred reasons why I support immigrants, but many of them can be boiled down to those simple words. An answer that had always been a given for me had concrete reasoning after all, reasons that make sense to me.
And now as my years at Michigan in Color come to an end, I’ve been giving thought, finally, to why it is that I write.
Writing isn’t demanding. It asks for nothing but your bare honesty and in that regard it is one of the most terrifying yet accessible pursuits. Terrifying in that vulnerability is difficult and truth-telling often resembles pulling teeth; accessible in that everyone has stories within them they can retrieve (though many have historically been blighted and omitted from our consciousnesses). Writing can be painful, masochistic even. It can simultaneously be one’s sole salvation. It isn’t lucrative; in fact, it yields practically nothing monetarily, but remains the single most rewarding solitary endeavor I have ever committed myself to.
I can’t discuss the question of why I write without first explaining this: in college, I took up literary fiction writing and journalism because I wanted to frame the world through the eyes of another as a sort of personal shield, without ever having to explicitly declare my own beliefs and intentions — to shed the yoke of blame off myself and share it with someone else, real or imagined. And though I love fiction and believe in journalism, in doing so, I’ve increasingly avoided writing personal narratives out of a gnawing fear that my own reflections are unimportant or inconsequential. To write about the self, to write about myself, would be an open and brazen admission that I matter, and that my feelings and thoughts and experiences matter. I’ve struggled to believe that for years. I was and remain hyperaware of peppering my sentences with too many “I”s and “me”s; I have always felt selfish, and juvenile, and naked in writing about myself. I have, in recent years, grown to believe that in many ways I don’t matter, nor do I deserve to be heard. My trust in my own intuition has waned, and I have begun to think I have nothing new or interesting or valuable to say. I would sooner hide behind the mask of characters of my own construction, or the stories others entrust to me to interpret and translate.
To write is a radical act of self-assertion, and I have too long been afraid to assert myself.
In the words of Audre Lorde as crafted in her 1985 essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” “For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence.” She continues, “The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The Black mother in each of us—the poet—whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free. Poetry coins the language to express and charter this revolutionary demand, the implementation of that freedom.” While Lorde speaks specifically to poetry in this essay, writing about the self, in my mind, is not so dissimilar. Both require the assertion of one’s lived truth, usually unaccompanied by apology. Both are accessible and life-giving, especially for women of Color.
I have a hard time writing down how I feel, because over the years I have numbed myself to the acknowledgement and understanding, much less the expression, of my feelings. I have found, by living in the body I occupy, that needless apologies and performances of self-doubt are well-received, and so through the years I have shrunken myself in vigilant efforts to submit and appease; to do otherwise would invite people to label me a bitch, and a bitch, of course, is above all the worst thing a woman can be.
Spaces of thought centered on the craft of writing, too, have been dangerous for me in the past, especially the fiction workshop. I recall one in which a cis white male peer gave me no feedback beyond the simple suggestion, in just a couple clipped sentences, that I extend a rape scene, because a paragraph is inadequate and “inappropriate” time to illustrate something so important. I’ve been told by white peers not to write “confusing gibberish” (meaning Korean romanizations, which I subsequently translated in the following sentences), and I’ve witnessed a white Queer person make the assertion, which was not met by dissent, that people of Color tend to “hate Queer people a lot.” The workshop depletes me.
Sometimes the act of simply surviving in a space is difficult, nearly unbearable, work — especially when that space was not built for you, and remains unrestored, refusing still to accommodate your occupation.
For too long in history, the kinds of people who felt, and continue to feel, their voice is the only one worth listening to have largely been confined to white cis-het men. The vast majority of the publishing industry remains white, and many folks of marginalized identities within the field of journalism also perceive their newsrooms lack racial and ethnic diversity. The Michigan Daily itself remains a predominantly white and wealthy institution.
For this reason, among many others, I feel overwhelmed, as a writer, with gratitude for my time spent in commitment to Michigan in Color.
Many outside of MiC seem to believe that our mere existence is a condemnation of them, individually and as a collective. But safe spaces for people of Color are special and will always be necessary, along with the creation that happens within their walls.
Through reading, jotting edits and publishing over the years, within and outside of MiC, my awe and reverence for the granular craft of writing grows. Writer’s envy assails me constantly, but more often than not, I feel a sentiment I can only describe as “writer’s thankfulness”: those rare moments when words wrap you in their comforting bliss, when they heal you simply through their capacity for memory or levity or closure, when they reach inside of you and pull something out — or when you look around at the writers in your life and feel gratitude to be in creative community. For me, that community in college was Michigan in Color.
Yesterday, I read over the first pieces I wrote for Michigan in Color for the first time since they were published years ago, and I felt confusing tensions of embarrassment and pride, vehement disagreement and assent, regret and triumph.
I once complimented an old boss’s tattoo of an ampersand; when they asked me if I had any of my own and I replied that I was too afraid of their permanence, they told me that if you no longer feel resonance when you look at your tattoos, this just shows that you’ve grown — that tattoos merely chart this growth. So now, instead of wincing at every not-so-hot take or overly-rendered passage from my past, I can choose, instead, to rejoice at how far I have come, how much I have expanded and evolved in both my personal principles and craft. I will start to see my own interrogation of the self as a strength rather than a hindrance, thankful for the intention, craft and keen eye for meaning I’ve developed and continue to develop. And if I reflect on my past writing in that way, then nothing matters. I never have to aim for perfection because there is no such thing. There is no threat of regret. Writing is, indeed, a heavy responsibility. But I can also write whenever I want, at any whim.
I want to write. Every day, I should write — not out of obligation, but rather as a form of rest. In the words of Octavia Butler, “First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.”
Writing alone is not enough. I want to write for myself, and not for some looming, skeptical audience of my own internalized imagination. I’ve spent too long cowed by feelings of apprehension and self-doubt. I have dozens of half-baked ideas and haphazard drafts saved in my phone of pieces I wanted to write at some point that I never returned to, whether because they seemed like they missed their moment or because I was simply too afraid to sit down and commit myself to the act of their creation. I feel guilty for relegating my thoughts to notes app drafts that will never see the light of day. Stories, I’m coming to realize, are valuable beyond measure, and I have a wealth within me. To release them would be to sigh in relief; after all, nothing matters.
In her 1993 Nobel Prize lecture, Toni Morrison said, “Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created”; it is vital that people who are not cis white men create us with their stories. I don’t care if anyone reads this essay, my final MiC publication as co-managing editor. I wrote this essay, and it has value simply because I took the time to sit down to do so.
Even now, sitting at this café as the aroma of coffee beans wafts over me and my left foot taps out the beat to familiar holiday carols, I feel euphoric for having taken this moment to step into a reality of my own making, unencumbered by the outside world, and to commit these feelings to paper, capturing forever some of the uncertainties I feel at this moment in my life, on the precipice of the new and unfamiliar. That labor is too easy to find excuses not to execute, but I’ve done it at last. If you are reading this right now, thank you, for participating in this sliver of my legacy.
I do say that I write. I still struggle, however, to say that I am a writer. I usually feel compelled to qualify that statement with “I’ve never had any meaningful publications,” or “I’m terrible at writing,” or “I’m really bad at making the time to write.” I have self-identified as a writer “in the loosest sense of the word,” and said I’m a writer “like a squash is technically a fruit.” But I am a writer. I am a writer. Those four words are true. They don’t quite sit comfortably with me right now, but someday they will.
In the meantime, I say I write because, like activism, my writing has a history; my writing ancestors are proof that the written word existed in the past, my writing exists in the present, and therefore has a future. I write for the writers who made me, who have wrenched me open and demanded I unravel my notions of what writing can and should accomplish.
I write because I am a woman. Women rarely get to explain themselves, but when I set myself to a page, I own it. The reader can do what they will with it, but it is mine alone.
I write because I am a daughter of immigrants. Children of immigrants are not inherently indebted to their parents, but I am thankful to my own parents, for my own reasons. I’m a daughter of immigrants who came from Korea and, with the few cards they were dealt, were able to fashion choices and gift them to me and my sister, their children. To write is my choice.
I write for survival. I write to survive. I write to brace myself for tragedy. I write, if only to anchor myself on those days I want to permit myself to be whisked off by the wind. I write as the ocean and a salve, to find catharsis and reprieve.
I write because I am real. I can be treated as if I am vapor, but I have not been and I am not intangible. I exist on this earth, this earth that words can sustain.
MiC Managing Editor Jessica Kwon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.