Novelist Doris W. Cheng on invisibility, acculturation, and the genesis of Still the Water.
The way the water meets the sky on the outer length of Cape Cod is a Hopper painting come to life. The arc of the horizon—the purity of blue—reminds me that we are all made of light. It’s one of my favorite places. When I am alone, wind in my mouth, I’m loosened from the packet of skin I walk the earth in. But it is also a place that makes me acutely aware of my own particular packet of skin—Asian skin, often the only non-white skin in the seafood restaurant or supermarket or T-shirt shop. When someone approaches, I’m quick to start talking to my companion in the emphatic, perfectly colorless English used by TV broadcasters. It’s a preemptive habit I developed as an immigrant, my way of raising a flag that says, “Don’t shoot, I’m on your side!” But I can feel the eyes crawling across my skin like insects.
Other times, I’m invisible. I once stationed myself at a picnic table while my husband went inside a lobster shack to order our meal. A White woman sat down. “Sorry, I’m saving this table,” I said. She glanced in my direction but didn’t leave. Four of her friends sat down too, talking loudly and laughing. “Excuse me,” I said, “I’m saving this table.” No one paid any attention to me. They claimed the table as their own with their numbers, the careless spread of their bodies, their complete indifference to my presence. They simply did not see me. I shrank smaller and smaller until finally, I faded away, ghostlike, hoping they wouldn’t notice my humiliation. They didn’t.
Scrolling on the internet, I came across a photo taken at a Boston beach in 1975. A mounted White police officer charges a crowd of mostly Black beachgoers while behind him, a flotilla of boats sails serenely under hazy skies. The horse is nearly upon a fleeing man, hoof lifted, the whites of its eyes visible. According to the article accompanying the photo in the Boston Globe, Black protesters asserting their right to enjoy Carson Beach were met with violence by Whites, who claimed that piece of sand as their own. There was a history, it seemed, of marginalized groups being excluded from the seashore. I’d felt the echoes of that history.
How do you love a place where you’ll never truly belong? That question became urgent in 2017, when members of my husband’s White family supported the xenophobic policies of then-President Trump. “Did they forget I’m an immigrant?” I fumed to my husband. I couldn’t help but wonder if, in another era, the very people who claimed to love me would have supported the Chinese Exclusion Act and other laws that kept Asians like me out of America for more than a hundred years—laws that would have barred me from becoming a part of their family. In my years of marriage, I’d never been more aware of my Otherness. No matter the affection they had for me, the holidays and vacations we shared, the descendants I birthed, I knew on a cellular level I would never, ever, be one of them. And yet we were bound to each other.
I began to write Still the Water during Covid lockdown, after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, when the world churned with grief and rage and I lived every day with a hot coal in my chest. As attacks against Asian people grew, spurred on by the very president my White family members had voted for, my anguish swelled like a dead thing in the heat. I needed to understand how the people who said they loved me could install a politician who put my life, and my Asian relatives’ lives, in danger. What kind of love was this? They say love is blind, and I suppose it’s true: sometimes the people who love you are utterly unable to see you.
Every day, while others in my household worked and studied remotely, I brought my laptop to bed. Quickly, urgently, a story took shape. A biracial boy lives on the Massachusetts coast, lonely, invisible. He craves his White father’s approval and acceptance from his White community. He refuses the friendship of another Asian boy. He wants nothing to do with African American efforts to integrate the beach. Set in the early 1970s, before the effects of the Immigration Act of 1965 had become widespread and “Asian American” was still a nascent political category, my novel manuscript explores racial difference within a family—the ways we see and don’t see each other, the loyalties that keep us from our own. How we divide our selves in order to survive and become, along the way, specters haunting our own lives.
There is no one Asian American story—no model minority, no monolithic identity. Our narratives encompass a range of diasporas and experiences. Yet it’s true many Asians have benefited from acculturation and access to the privileges of Whiteness—educational institutions, workplaces, neighborhoods, culture—accepting the measure of power granted by the status quo. But what is the cost of White adjacency? Of living in White spaces, having White friends, being part of a White family? The historical challenges of Asian-Black coalition building (not to mention coalition building among Asian ethnicities and with other minorities) point to what is lost. For my character Sam, the realization that love is not equivalent to allyship is a painful one. As Brandon Taylor writes in Real Life, “There will always be good white people who love him and want the best for him but who are more afraid of other white people than of letting him down…No matter how loving, they will always be complicit, a danger, a wound waiting to happen.”
Maybe the real question is this: How do you live with—how do you love—people among whom you’ll never truly belong? I’m not sure of the answer. But it begins, I think, with finding solidarity among those who know what it is to be marginalized. Connecting in ways that sustain us, sharing common purpose—inside and outside our own communities—with those who are able to see the shape of our differences.