INTERVIEW WITH LORI ARDEN
Rappahannock Review Nonfiction Editors: “Your Father Is Chinese” shows us how damaging and isolating “playful” racism can be for a child. We see that a boy, smaller than yourself, could make you feel as though you were “different,” “strange,” and “ugly.” Can you discuss how this affected your childhood self-image and self-esteem?
Lori Arden: I don’t think that one incident in itself sunk my self-esteem or anything, but I definitely remember struggling with a persistent sense of being misunderstood as a child. Looking back I think it had a lot to do with being so quiet, and being made to feel like I was doing something wrong because of it. It’s funny to me now, but I remember in preschool getting a report card that said “Lori is very sweet but needs to engage with the other children more.” As an adult, I’m still very much an introvert, and still sometimes feel a little weird or outside of things because of it. It doesn’t help that American culture valorizes outspokenness and extroversion; by being quiet I sometimes feel like I’m exacerbating my own otherness, corroborating the stereotype of the silent Asian or something. But my voice has always been in other places—my writing, my films—and I feel more at peace with that now than I used to.
RR: We loved how we were able to spend most of the piece with your thoughts and reflections, instead of just focusing on what the boy said. Was this a stylistic choice for this particular piece, or do you prefer that your readers have a more intimate connection with the narrator in your works?
LA: When I first began exploring autobiographical writing, I had a certain bashfulness around fully sharing myself. I was scared to be vulnerable, and in some of my previous work I see how this translated to evasiveness. I’d write over and around myself to the point where there was barely an ‘I’ there anymore; the character of ‘me’ was absent. Since then I’ve tried to be a lot more conscious about being present and transparent in my writing, particularly in those pieces where I’m sharing perspectives and experiences that might not be familiar to every reader. I will say in this specific case I did feel it was especially important to prioritize my subjectivity over the little boy’s. I think it’s easy to read about a racist interaction and see the victimized party as sort of faceless, an anonymous member of a persecuted monolith, and I wanted to show that there’s always more going on there than just the passive exterior or open wound.
RR: Outside of writing, your focus seems to be on video production and direction. Do you feel that some narratives are better conveyed in a written form? What influences your decision for choosing a medium for your art?
LA: Some narratives are certainly better conveyed in written form. As eloquent and expressive as film can be, it’s an external medium, not an internal one. You observe what a character is seeing or experiencing, but rarely witness the full stream of consciousness happening inside their mind. I think that’s why screenwriters sometimes default to voice-over monologues in an attempt to capture that intimacy that’s so easily expressed in written form.
As for choosing a medium, I’ll be honest that for the most part it’s fueled by pragmatism. Film requires resources that are often difficult to come by—money, time, people to collaborate with. I love the simplicity of sitting down with a laptop or pad of paper and seeing an idea find form right there in that moment, in between work and the other responsibilities of life.
RR: At the end of the piece, we hear a little bit about the aftermath of the event, and your reaction as a child to try to make yourself “smaller.” How would you react as an adult in a situation similar to the one you describe in the piece? Would anything be different in your reaction?
LA: As a child, I don’t think I fully grasped what racism was. In this particular instance, I understood the incident as a violation of facts: I wasn’t Chinese or Japanese, and that’s why the boy was wrong. An underlying unease was there too of course, but I didn’t know what it meant. As an adult, I can identify that unease as a fledgling sense of internalized otherness, and I’m able to grapple with it in a way I wasn’t able to as a child. When I’m confronted by racist incidents now—someone on the street yelling “Konnichiwa” at me, or demanding to know where I’m from—I recognize the racism behind the interaction, and that allows me to respond with anger rather than helplessness. Within the anger is empowerment; I don’t feel a sense of shame or a need to hide, but rather an indignation, a “Wow dude, are you serious?” I’m no longer hiding on the edges of the playground.
Lori Arden’s work in Issue 9.1: