The official site of author Ed Lin.

Ed Lin Granted ‘Observer’ Status

Posted by on May 3, 2008 in Asian American, Ed, Writing | 3 comments


I’d figured this would happen sooner or later.

During the Q&A at the Asia Society reading, I was called out by an elder stateswoman of Chinatown for being merely “an observer” not only of the place, but the time (1976).

Sure, I hadn’t grown up in Chinatown. Sure, I don’t understand Cantonese and my Mandarin sucks. But apart from that, she wanted to know when my parents and grandfather came over! Shit, my whole family was under attack for not having street cred!

So far, I had shown the manuscript people who had grown up in Chinatown during that time and got their OKs. Not that I was looking for approval. This Is a Bust is a novel — not a history of Chinatown and far from a sober, objective account.

I completely understand where this elder stateswoman was coming from. “You didn’t live through it, you didn’t experience it, so you can’t understand it.” Moreover, “You have no right to tell it!”

Ah, but if we live with the conceit that no one else can understand our experiences, our culture, our struggles, then we put up these protectionist walls and in turn we stop trying to understand other people. That attitude leads to wonderful things such as homophobia, segregation by sex, ethnicity and race, colonization and wars.

My aim as an artist is to forge understanding. I believe people can find themselves in the stories of other people, no matter how radically different the observer and subject seem to be.

I try to compromise as little as possible and I’ve rubbed a lot of people the wrong way in the past. I remember one woman standing up, asking me why I tried so hard to offend people with my book Waylaid. I don’t remember exactly what I said (something like, “the purpose of an artist isn’t to please”) but I do remember thinking, “Gee, I didn’t try that hard. . .”

In any case, the audience at Asia Society was great, and Helen Koh, Associate Director of Cultural Programs, rocked like an angel. John Woo, acting director of Asian Cinevision, was his wonderful self. Thank you so much for having me!


Join the conversation and post a comment.

  1. J.P. Chan

    Totally with you on this.

  2. Chez

    That fact that you even tell a story does more to share experiences than to simply hold onto it like a new found penny. Old lady is being self fish. She probably has issues with anyone that writes history books too I bet.

  3. Doris

    I think it’s good that you recognized that you are not the best authority on 1970s Chinatown. It’s important to aknowledge that, and I wish there weren’t so many white Asiaphiles who pretend to understand what it’s like to be Asian. But that doesn’t mean you can’t write a novel that takes place in 1970s Chinatown. I’m guessing Michael Crichton never cloned dinosaurs, and Scott Turow never murdered anyone. But Stephen King probably has conjured up a boogie man or two.

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