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Alexander


Chee

Alexander Chee

He // Him // His

[ID: Alexander, a mixed race Korean American man of 53, is dressed in a navy cable-knit sweater and dress shirt. The wallpaper behind him is charcoal and black, and his face is lit by the sun coming from the window.]

Novelist and Essayist
Bradford, VT
2021 USA Fellow

This award was generously supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
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Alexander Chee is the author of the novels Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night and the essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, all published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Chee is a contributing editor at The New Republic and an editor at large at VQR. His essays and stories have appeared in a range of publications, including The New York Times Magazine, the Sewanee Review, The Yale Review, Guernica, and the 2016 and 2019 Best American Essays anthologies. He is winner of a 2003 Whiting Award, a 2004 NEA Fellowship for prose, a 2010 Mass Cultural Council Fellowship, the Randy Shilts Award for Gay Nonfiction, the Paul Engle Prize, and the Lambda Literary Trustee Award. He has also received residency fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, VCCA, Civitella Ranieri, and Amtrak. Chee is an associate professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College and lives in Vermont.

Portrait photo by Robert Gill.

alexanderchee.net

[Excerpt]

How to Unlearn Everything, 2019

People don’t often know their blind spots until they do a simple audit of their bookshelf. When I go to literary parties at editors’ homes, I experience the shelves upon shelves of white writers like a rebuke. Most of what has survived to us thus far is literature written by white male writers. The last three decades especially have seen a struggle to revive the books we’ve lost—books by women, people of color, and queer writers—and to then try and write out of that recuperation a new tradition. But most of us writing now were not educated by that expanded canon.

I teach roughly seven writing workshops a year, and have since 1996. For the 24 years I’ve been teaching creative writing, the stories I see have predominantly been about white people, or characters that mysteriously don’t have any declared ethnicity or race at all. This is true no matter the number of students of color in the class, and no matter the amount of writing I assign by writers of color, and even, to my surprise, no matter the declared radical politics of the students. In general, the beginner fiction that writers produce is what they think a story looks like. Those stories are often not really stories—they are ways of performing their relationship to power. They are stories that let them feel connected to the dominant culture. There was one day last year when two queer Korean-American students both submitted stories about queer Korean-American characters, and it felt like the dawn of a new era.

This brings me to the flip side of this question of how to write about the other, a question for the rest of us who aren’t white men: How do we write our own literature? I am thinking of when I interviewed Ursula K. Le Guin and she told me she had to teach herself to write as a woman. Or my own first stories, when I did much the same as these students. In the 1980s, I had to learn how to write myself and people like me onto the page. My own life on the page felt impossible to explain in any detail when I was a student writer. I had to ask myself why I was embarrassed to mention that I was Asian-American, much less to center it in a story. Strangely, it took finding writers like Mavis Gallant and Gregor Von Rezzori, whose works described characters who had lived among several cultures, as they were writing about Europeans. Reading about someone who was of Austrian and French heritage may not feel like a mix of cultures, but I unexpectedly found permission there—white writers teaching me how to write mixed-race Asian-American characters like me.