If the creative artist worries if he will still be free tomorrow, then he will not be free today. If he is afraid of the consequences of his choice of subject or of his manner of treatment of it, then his choices will not be determined by his talent, but by fear. If we are not confident of our freedom, then we are not free.
-Salman Rushdie from the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture 5/12/2012, Pen World Voices Festival.
Dedicated to Jimmy Lia, the founder of Hong Kong's Apple Daily newspaper, and the courageous reporters who kept working at constant risk to their lives and freedom.
During the long months of lockdown, I could not read or write any fiction. I read poems but the muse for writing poetry had fled. I abandoned a collection of novellas—two written before the pandemic—and a collection of prose poems—ten written before the pandemic. Daily life had become surreal. Time slowed, but it was a mobius loop, a tunnel, with no end in sight, a constant barrage of statistics, importunities, and logistics. How will we get food in the house? How will we do our laundry, visit a doctor, stay safe? We concluded emails, texts and phone calls with those very words: "stay safe." I began a dedicated blog book, Virus Without Borders, and this seemed to be enough to keep my writer's muscle supple. I didn't want to do much more. But no one was telling me what to write about and what I couldn't write about. As a writer, no matter the illusion of incarceration during the pandemic, I remained free. Without the censorship of the marketplace, I was even more free. My goal was not to sell Virus Without Borders, but to witness the event and create a well-written document for a post-pandemic digital archive.
After vaccination, the muse loosened and I began working on a new short story idea set in the colonial past. It moved slowly and I could not figure out why; once I begin to write, I usually write rapidly. What was different? Why was I hesitating, and worse—self-censoring? The answer is unsettling: Given the mood in the country right now and all the unpleasant –often uncalled for—white shaming, I was concerned that the story may not be well received by Black readers.
Of mixed heritage, I do not consider myself "white," unless that is also a synonym for "privilege," but there it is: according to some who choose to label me with racial epithet, I am "white." Even an Asian American college friend refers to me as "Caucasian" these days. How sad is that, not to mention genetically and biologically mistaken.
Nonetheless, as I was drafting the first few paragraphs of my new story, I asked myself: What right do I have to imagine what it felt like to be an enslaved child, to tell a story from that child's POV when I am so utterly removed from that experience?
The muse ground to a halt. And no matter how many times I told myself that every writer and artist must feel absolutely free to create compassionate, empathetic work, without restraint, I could not continue, not for a while anyway.
Years ago, when Robert Olen Butler, a Vietnam veteran, received the Pulitzer Prize for A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain: Stories, I devoured them all in one sitting. They are beautifully written. But I was in a post-Vietnam politically correct outrage, and wondered why he had "appropriated," these stories, rather than encouraged the Vietnamese immigrants he had befriended in New Orleans to write the stories themselves. Well, they couldn't, or not yet, not at that time. Olen Butler had served as a translator during his stint as a soldier in Vietnam, he loved the people he encountered, and cared about their fate. The collection was an act of empathy, what the Europeans, in their greater wisdom and maturity, would call un homage.