The Fire Started

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and it’s a reminder to me that there was one day, one era, in the past where anyone who looked like me was considered to be alien, wrong, and unwelcome.

Though there are times today when this sentiment seems as raw as it was during that day and era, and there are feelings that perhaps nothing really has changed at all, I think, if anything, this year’s Asian Pacific American Heritage Month should also be a reminder that, more than ever, there is an urgent call to deliver a stake into the ground to let others know that we’re here to stay and that – in no time – we’re here to take over.

One way to do that is to create art, to tell stories, to reconstruct our identities, and push the boundaries of what’s expected. For me, it’s about writing fiction.

I look at Pulitzer Prize winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen who, as an Asian American, became one of the most revered writers of our time. There are times when I feel like I can be like him, that I can pull of the work, get published, win prizes, and find an audience who will find my writing to be pleasurable. Then there are times when I just feel like quitting and feel like my writing is complete and total shit.

But as I think about what this month brings to Asian Pacific Americans and all peoples of color, I simply cannot let the idea of quitting take over because there is an obligation, that urgent call, that forces me to think beyond what I can or cannot do, that there are generations beyond mine and yours that will one day look back, as I look back now, at this time and wonder – can I do what they can do?

A sign from the front of a hotel in Stockton, California, circa 1930.

I’ve been imagining and dreaming of becoming a fiction writer since I was a teenager, having written plenty of works in progress but never anything to completion, and it’s really only been two years since I’ve started writing fiction in earnest. There have been many times where I feel broken and feel like a failure, and there are times when I see writers of color like Mr. Nguyen and say, yes, it’s definitely possible.

I had bookmarked and recently summoned an article Mr. Nguyen wrote for the L.A. Times in 2016 that have two awesome quotes that I need to share to remind myself that quitting is not option and that the road to becoming a better writer is a long one:

“The constant reworking of sentence and narrative through writing short stories was my version of rubbing two sticks together. Suddenly, at a decade’s culmination, the fire started, and I could write with greater conviction and concentration than I had thought possible.”

And:

“The scale of the audience bears no testimony to the worth of the work.”

I relate to Mr. Nguyen because he is an Asian American writer, and I want to be on his level of writing one day. And with the context of this month and with the urgent call constantly ringing in my head, I don’t see why I cannot be like him one day.

And that what’s important is not who’s reading my work but it’s whether or not my work is valuable to me because if it doesn’t sting or hurt, make me cry or laugh, make me want to jump or crawl under the bed, then what’s the point? It’s called “life’s work” for a reason – it’s work that’s most important to me.

Asian Pacific American Heritage month is a celebration of what we’ve done in the past, but it also is a reminder that we should never stop chasing what’s most important to us – for the next generation’s sake and for those who sacrificed so much in generations past.

And I thank Mr. Nguyen for having the courage to keep going and for providing a guiding light for writers of color like me.

Roel F. Concepcion

Chief Explorer

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