Below is a brief excerpt of Jean Chen Ho’s interview with Dickson Lam, entitled “Severed Ties.” The interview was originally published on July 11, 2018 in The Margins (the online magazine of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop). To read the full interview, visit their site here.
You write in several different modes. Besides the “traditional” memoir/confessional narrative, you often situate your particular experience within a cultural and historical context, whether it’s placing your family’s story within Chinese American migration and social history, or your past as a graffiti writer as part of a discussion on race, poverty, and street art in 1990s San Francisco. Tell me about the choices to insert information that weren’t necessarily directly a part of your story. Did you have to do a lot of research?
I don’t think there’s anything in the book that I didn’t already have some sort of familiarity with, before I wrote the book. All the stuff about Chinese history, Mao, Richard Aoki, [the] Asian American Movement—I’d known about all that before, so I only had to do research just to make sure I had my facts down. But it was already in my background knowledge.
There’s a story in the book where I join a tagging crew called 3F [Fresh Fillmoe Funk]. When I was trying to research the San Francisco tagging scene, looking for images to jog my memory while I was writing, I came across this blog on a guy’s personal website about 3F. I liked the effect of having outside information bolstering the story, making it a bit more complex. So I started thinking about me, as an Asian American kid, joining this all-Black graffiti crew, and it reminded me of Richard Aoki, who joined the Black Panthers, and I wanted to see if I could somehow fit that story in.
Then I started seeing more connections. The stuff about Mao, Chinese history and culture, made sense because the book is trying to answer the question of what it means to be Chinese American. What does it mean to be separated from your “homeland,” or not even thinking of it as your homeland, but the ways it can still influence and impact you. I wanted to play with that. So I have a father who visits once a year. That made me think of how that’s not a new, or an uncommon thing, among Chinese immigrants. I wanted to give some context to my personal story.