Almost exactly twelve years ago, I had one of my more notable publication credits to date: a short story, "Steps," appeared in the online edition of Mississippi Review, the respected literary journal then edited by Frederick Barthelme.
The story's acceptance was memorable in more ways than one. Anyone with a computer had just survived the Y2K scare. So weeks after a techno-apocalypse that vaporized, I had an email from a Mississippi Review editor about a story I'd submitted twelve months earlier. The email asked if I had another copy.
The editor noted s/he'd had a hard-drive crash and lost the first copy, but s/he recalled it was a "good one."
Of course, I promptly replied with another copy.
In weeks, "Steps" went up at Mississippi Review.
But the real story of how I got published at Mississippi Review is why I wrote the story in the first place.
I was indirectly told I could not write such a story.
A year or so before, I talked with a young Vietnamese-American woman and mentioned my fiction writing class with Robert Olen Butler at Wesleyan. The young woman knew, as well as I, Butler won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for the story collection, A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain, profiling the lives of Vietnamese-Americans in Louisiana.
The young woman said Robert Olen Butler was quite controversial among her friends for "appropriating" their culture. He could not truly know what it was like to be Vietnamese-American.
I replied "I see" a few times and left it there.
But the more I thought about it, the more untenable I decided the woman's position. Are we only to write a fiction of autobiography? What supposedly we really know?
No. At Wesleyan, Butler stressed the need of the artist to enter the Other. Only by such an effort to empathize--to achieve Keatsian negative capability--can we create enduring literature.
So, sticking to a Pulitzer Prize winner's advice, I sat down one day and donned the mask of a young Vietnamese-American actuary and created her world. Yes, there's a lot of me behind the mask. I once studied for and took actuarial exams! But I also made an effort to enter the Other, noting, for example, the grammar of Vietnamese and guessing how someone who adopts English as a second language might tweak it.
Let's agree, hyphenated Americans that we all are (excepting Native
Americans), we have more in common with our cultural DNA than the
slivers of difference separating us. Those slivers are worth
trying to transcend, even if as art contemplating the Other.
Read Charlie Dickinson's
story collection, The Cat
at Light's End, as an ebook in these downloadable
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