We live in a new America, I tell my students. A diverse America, a multicultural America, and our stories matter more now than in any part of our history. I tell them we are no longer under the thumb, but rather we are the thumb, and we are here to make an imprint on this country. I am melodramatic when I say all of this. I talk with wild hands, sermonizing in the classroom, using idioms like an idiot. Still, my speech has purpose. What I want to ingrain in my students—whether they will become writers or not, whether they will go on to write a memoir or not—is that they and their stories matter, that their tellings of their stories matter, that how they tell their stories matters most.
The truth is our stories mattered before, too—the before of the sixties and seventies, the before of women’s and civil rights, the before of religious persecution and slavery. At no time in America’s short history have the stories of the people not mattered. This is the reason for the founding of the country, a collected story of freedom and peace, a search, a journey to find happiness in place and mind. Our stories mattered, even when we told them only to each other, even when we whispered them, even when we feared what would happen if we put our thoughts on to the page.
Why then are such terms as “narcissistic” and “self-absorption” being thrown around as the umbrella elements of all memoir? Such criticisms subscribe to the keep-it-in-the-closet mentality, tell us we do not matter, let alone our stories. Such disparagements become an attack on the person and not the work. But we, creative nonfiction writers, know this. This is the risk we take. When Phillip Lopate digs into his bellybutton in his essay “Portrait of My Body” and tells us the smell of his findings—“…a very ripe, underground smell…a combination of old gym socks and stuffed derma,” Lopate finds himself in the center of the Coliseum with an audience of cringing faces, much like my students every time I teach the essay. When Ann Hodgman decides to eat dog food and describe her experiences in her essay, “No Wonder They Call Me a Bitch,” Hodgman expects the chorus of ewwwwws that will rain down on her, as it always does in my classes. Or one of my experiences during a reading at a university in the Bible Belt, when a student raised his hand and asked why I had written such a dirty book. In nonfiction, there is no surrogate narrator, and no matter how much we try, as Annie Dillard says, to “fashion the text,” the main character of nonfiction and the writer are one.
Yes, there are bad memoirs, as there are bad novels and poems, as there are bad music and movies. The memoir as an art form is not about the subject but about the telling of a subject. The memoir as an art form is less about plot but more about the understanding of the plot. Phillip Lopate writes that “’plot’ to the skilled writer is how far one can drop past his or her psychic defenses toward deeper levels of honesty,” and here I would like to add deeper levels of humanity. What is Angela’s Ashes about, if not perseverance through poverty, if not the light in such darkness? "You might be poor, your shoes might be broken, but your mind is a palace.”
I used to draw Buddhas wherever I went. I was obsessed. When I was 9 or 10, I had Buddha on the mind. Not because I was the best Buddhist in the world. Far from it. I had Buddha on my mind because of his absence in my world, because I was living in a country, in a city, Chicago, surrounded by Jesus and God. As an immigrant son I wanted to locate myself. This, in many ways, is what most immigrant sons and daughters do. We spend our time locating ourselves. We watch the world and act accordingly. My days in my Thai home were dictated by Buddha’s doctrine. But outside, Buddha seemed to evaporate, seemed to be only the comical and jolly man one saw at Chinese restaurants. Friends asked if I rubbed Buddha’s belly for good luck, and when I was younger, I didn’t have the heart to say that my Buddha was not fat; my Buddha was skinny and did not like belly rubs.
I’ve been asked on a number of occasions when I started writing my memoir Talk Thai. The truth: my memoir began when I first put pencil to paper, and it was not a word I wrote, but a hand I drew. Buddha’s hand. And then it was his lips. And his eyes. His wise and long earlobes. And the top of his head, which to me looked like an upside down ice cream cone. I drew other Buddhas. At my parents’ friend’s house, at temple, at Thai restaurants, at the Chicago Chinatown shops. Buddha looked different. In some poses, he would be standing. In some poses, reclining on his side. Buddha, my art model, never looked the same. Each time I drew, I was drawing something different. I was seeing something different. I was not a skilled artist. Not by any means. In some portraits Buddha’s eyes looked like aliens, large and uneven. In one portrait, he appeared to have an African shrunken head. Perfection was not the goal. Discovering was. Somewhere in my nine-year-old mind, I believed this act of drawing would lead me to something. And that something was big. Big and vague. And that something started with the self and became larger and larger and larger, like an inverted Chinese box. You open the smallest box, only to find a larger one.
This is what I want my students to understand. I tell my students their memoirs won’t shock me. I tell them that what happens is secondary. That behind a story is another story and another one behind that. How hard are they willing to dig? How many layers are they willing to excavate? Because in the end, the easiest part of memoir is drawing Buddha’s hand. The hardest part is finding out what’s underneath it.