storytelling

On Writing What I Feared

 

*Dusts off blog*

It’s been way too long since I last updated. So much has happened since, and I still can’t believe that my senior year is almost over. I’m definitely getting antsy for graduation, but at the same time, I do want these next few weeks to slow down a bit. Everyone has been asking me how I feel about graduating, and I didn’t know how to answer, but it’s finally starting to hit me that I won’t be walking this campus anymore, and I won’t be seeing all the familiar faces of classmates, professors and friends.

My thesis project has changed and grown beyond ways I could have ever foresaw. A part of me is excited to share it with others, whereas another part of me is completely terrified. It’s become something so close to me, and the thought of letting it out into the world makes me so nervous, I could throw up. I’m not scared about the judgment of others and whether they’ll think it’s good or not, but rather, I’m scared of putting these stories out there because they’re so personal to me. They’re not fiction anymore. They’re about my family.

This lack of updates from me has been because I went through period of time where I was struggling with my project. I lost faith in it. Over the summer, in the Dietrich Honors Fellowship program, I was working on a collection of fictional short stories surrounding the coming of age of a young Vietnamese-American boy. I had hoped to draw on my own experiences to craft these stories. It was exciting to see some of them come together, and I grew invested into the lives of these characters, but somehow, along the way, I lost the passion for it. Not because I didn’t believe in them anymore or that I thought what I was trying to portray wasn’t important, but because something about the project felt dishonest. And after talking about my lack of inspiration with my advisor, Jane McCafferty, we both came to realize that maybe it was because I wasn’t able to truly achieve the goal I had set out when I first wanted to pursue my honors thesis project. My goal was to portray an honest coming of age story, influenced by Vietnamese culture and values. But doing so through channeling all my emotions, experiences, and the experiences of those around me into these fictional characters felt inauthentic.

As I sat in Jane’s office, we talked about why I was inspired to pursue the theme of this project in the first place. And it was because I felt that the stories I had heard from my family and friends growing up wasn’t truly represented in literature. We talked about the experiences of my mother and my grandmother, about religion in Vietnam, about war, about violence, about daily life there, and how it was almost tragic that the amazing lives they’ve lived won’t necessarily get to be heard by others. They’re just normal people, and we tend not to focus on the stories of normal people’s lives, even though these normal people may have had extremely important experiences.

So, Jane encouraged me to tell that story. Write about my family. At first, I wasn’t excited. I was nervous. For one reason, it sounded incredibly self-indulgent, and for another reason, it felt too personal. If I wrote about my family, I would have to write about myself too, and I hated the thought of that. I definitely would consider myself more of a fiction writer, so writing about things that really happened and about real people I knew was so nerve-wracking. I felt such a weight on my shoulders to portray them in a way that was honest, and fair, but I didn’t know if I could handle that responsibility.

I started with small steps. Interview those around you, Jane had told me. Gather your inspiration, take notes and record your conversations, but don’t write anything just yet. Jane has always been great at keeping me calm throughout all my moments of anxiousness and insecurities, so I’m beyond grateful for that. I did as she had suggested and talked to those close to me. I found that it was my grandmother’s stories that truly reeled me in. I learned so many things about her life that she never told me before, that she never told anyone before. I felt inspired again. And I hadn’t felt so inspired to write in such a long time.

I had to race against the clock (and I still am! That deadline…) But I’m so happy to say that I’m actually proud of what I have accomplished. I’m proud that I wrote what I was scared to write. This collection of short stories I have put together documents my grandmother’s coming of age as a Vietnamese woman. The pieces within this collection touch upon the violence of the Vietnam War, domestic abuse, religion and discrimination against Amerasians, all through her perspective and personal experiences. The final project will hopefully take the form of a nicely bound book, so I can share it with others, but I truly hope that I can give her the first copy. The title of this collection is 9 AM, in honor of the conversations my grandmother and I had every week, at 9 AM. And when I told her that I was writing about her life, about so many intensely personal aspects of her life, I was afraid she would feel uncomfortable about it (understandably so). I was expecting a lot of questions, but the only question my grandmother asked was “Is it any good?” Haha, I sure hope so.

And even though the I’m not using any of the pieces I wrote in the summer, I don’t think of any of it as waste. I did at first. It freaked me out when I completely changed the direction of my project in the middle of my fall semester, especially when I already had completed a good chunk through the Summer Fellowship Program. But I knew that this project could have only become so important to me if I made that change. I don’t think of the time I spent over the summer was a waste. In fact, that time helped further develop my craft, read stories by other Vietnamese-American authors, and give me a space to be excited about other people’s projects and ideas. And I still am excited to see the final projects of all the other fellows. I am so incredibly grateful to the Dietrich Honors Fellowship Program because it allowed me to explore my own passions in such a safe environment. I don’t think my project could have grown into something that means so much to me if I didn’t start it as early as I did, if I didn’t have that time to be confused, to fail and to wander a bit.

As cheesy as this all sounds, it’s been a hell of a journey. So, for anyone that’s reluctant about whether they want to pursue their own honors thesis project or not, I’m a complete supporter for it. I want others to be able to have the fulfilling experience that I am lucky to have had. There’s almost no other better feeling in this world than that feeling in your gut that says “This is all actually starting to come together, and this might actually be good.” Despite all the stress, those fears and worries that come along with doing something like this, it’s worth it.

~

 

 

Learning From Refugee Youth

Student example from Story Exchange

Student example from Story Exchange

“There were questions, of course. But they were casual in nature; the kind you would ask while having a drink with someone; the kind he would ask you. In short, it was conversation.”

– Studs Terkel

As I continue to prepare to conduct interviews (which will likely begin around the same time as fall semester), I’ve been working with PRYSE Academy, which stands for Pittsburgh Refugee Youth Summer Enrichment. At PRYSE, we encourage the students to tell stories through a variety of media. The story doesn’t have to be their own, however, it usually ends up being their own, and it usually begins with “I like…” The PRYSE Academy students have given me some ideas about narrative inquiry before I’ve even begun the interviews.

The students, who are in middle and high school, love talking about themselves. Last week, we had educators teach a workshop on storytelling. Rather than giving each of the students lined paper, the students were given a large piece of white construction paper. The instructions were simple: At the top of the paper, write “I am…” and fill the rest of the paper with words, pictures, or drawings of your own. They were asked to answer the question, “Who are you?” through words and pictures creatively. As expected, many of them began with their name. The educators encouraged them to use adjectives to finish the sentence as well. However, very few chose to complete the sentence, “I am…” Rather, the students completed the question, “I like…”

Using a variety of craft supplies including markers, colored pencils, crayons, scissors, glue and glitter, the students made collages covered in soccer balls, music artists and food – posters of what they liked. When they are asked to talk about themselves and who they are, the first things that come to their minds are what they like and what they are passionate about.

From the combination of words and drawings on the students’ posters, the students were asked to share a narrative that showed a little bit about who they were. This was the most difficult part for the students, but their poster boards served as an outline for their narrative. One student had drawn himself playing soccer and basketball. He had his arms crossed unsure of what was being asked of him.

He said, “I don’t have a story to tell.”

I asked, “Why do you like soccer?”

He clasped his hands together, placed them under his chin and said, “I tried out for my middle school team and got in. That’s it.”

“Tell me more about the team. Do you like playing with your team?”

“Yes! We won our first game by 20 points! That felt great.”

“That’s great!”

“But then we lost our last game of the season…”

“Aww.”

“But that’s not important, because I had fun.”

We had a story. We spent a little more time piecing together more details for the presentation. His narrative shows his peers his favorite sport as well as a glimpse into who he is – a team player. It took a bit of time for him to find the pieces of his story to tell.

The narrative process is not an easy one that will simply come to my interviewees. They won’t be middle and high school students; however, the Bhutanese-Nepali adults will also need time to piece together their own narratives. Narratology and narrative inquiry researchers agree that the interviewee should get the opportunity to express himself about the things that matter to him. This is often called “nondirection.” The interviewer should not always try to steer the interviewee into one direction. However, the interviewer should never lose control of the interview.

Just as I let the PRYSE Academy students navigate their own stories through creative processes on the topic of identity, it may be beneficial for my interviews to prepare example narratives on the topic of economic self-sufficiency, which will give them time to think about how to begin forming their narratives around this topic. This will hopefully keep what researchers call “specificity” in play during the interviews. For me, this means listening for what the interviewees want to talk about and ask follow-up questions about specifics when appropriate. Interviewing is a skill that I am working on and hope to develop through this research. I’m learning to do this with the students where they often make it very clear to us when something does or does not matter to them.

Learn more about my project.

Mangoes, sunsets, and other things you can’t bring through customs

For the past three weeks, I have been on an annual trip my family takes to Taiwan, where my parents grew up and where many of my relatives still live. It’s a magical place to me. It was there, through the humid air of my grandmother’s apartment that I heard the stories that inspired my thesis project. During the trip, I took a bit of a break from the main work of my thesis project, but I had my ears wide open for stories and even began to experiment a little on the interview procedure with some of my relatives. More on that later. I brought a few postcards a few souvenirs from Taiwan to remind me of the magic of the place, but here are a few of the things I really wish I could’ve brought with me.

The delicious fresh tropical fruits I can only dream about here. Definitely not allowed through customs.

A sunset on the river. I wish I could carry it around with me

These flowers smell absolutely gorgeous, but the scent only appears at night

My grandma grows these adorable oranges in her yard

The most peaceful view

Learn more about my project.

Peeking Around Corners (What I’m Doing This Summer)

Finally, it is the summer, and with it, the pleasure of working on my thesis project as a Dietrich Honors Fellow here in Pittsburgh with my wonderful advisor, Professor Sue-Mei Wu.

To explain what the heart of my project is, I commissioned a drawing from my sister.

lucy1

I am the child of immigrants: I grew up speaking first Chinese and then English, I grew up listening to stories that ranged from fantastical to depressing to inspiring to thrilling to terrifying to silly to thinly-cloaked-guilt-trips. Grandparents and aunts and parents all painted these stories in both English and Chinese, some of them mixing the two, while other used only one or the other.

My goal is to understand how immigrant families who speak two languages use the two languages to tell family stories, and how the use of languages and the purpose of the stories are related to each other and also to the identity formation of school-aged children in the families. Through my experience working with English as a Second Language (ESL) students at Allderdice High School and Brashear High School this semester, I’ve developed a special interest in how this applies to the English learning of ESL students and the maintenance and further development of their heritage languages.

I’m going to be spending the summer partially burying myself in books, to understand the theory around bilinguals and code-switching and family storytelling and immigrant identity building. This may not sound that enticing, but actually I cannot wait to curl up with some books and fill my mind with these topics.

The rest of my summer will be spent developing contacts with immigrant families in Pittsburgh, and developing the ways I’ll be observing and interviewing them about their language use and family storytelling. Hopefully I will be able to get some interviews and observations done over the summer as well. In any case, I will be updating this blog with my activities and discoveries, and I know (from having done research before) that they will be twisty and turny and unexpected, but always enlightening and interesting and worthwhile.

Read more about my project.