I write to fill in the blanks. I write to fill up the silences. I write to remove the hands that have been placed over my mouth. I write to compose the face of my biological mother. I write because when I was three, a woman fell out of a fifth story window at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Her camera took off the ear of the man who stood beside me and the weight of her body broke my father’s feet. The woman survived. I stopped going to parades. And that’s why I write. I write to choose a side, to shame my absentee father and polish the pedestal my mother stands on. I write because my grandfather’s youngest brother was a poet, who kept his poems in tea tins and never married the woman from Australia, a woman who refused to return with him to Ireland to live with his mother. I write to keep from screaming. I write to scream. I write to tell strangers that I am American. I write to tell them to stop speaking slowly. I write to tell them that I can write “good” English. I write to stop having nightmares. I write so I can walk upright, instead of sideways. I write to practice breathing underwater. I write to force myself to take inventory of all my ugly parts. I write so my left eye stops twitching. I write to reach you. And I write to push you away. I write because something has shattered and I want to put it back together. I write because it is all I know. I write because, perhaps, there is something left to be written.
This process is uncomfortable. I don’t feel I have achieved enough, or read enough, or learned enough to begin to tell you why I write. I picture a much older me answering this question. A version of myself that’s more at peace with what she’s lost and more settled in what she’s gained; someone less angry, lost, or searching. But I am none of those things.
I have a hole that I’m in the process of filling with words. Some days I wake up and know, with complete certainty, that it’s the mother I left in Korea. Or rather, the mother that left me. I don’t say this to victimize myself. I am not an unusual case (as I have been reminded countless times by those who find discomfort in my truth). I spend my days filling in the blanks, the curve of her face, the way she held me to her breast, the sidewalk she left me on before turning and walking away. I strain to hear her voice in my voice as I remind myself that this is my life, the one she meant for me to have – that I am lucky, that I should be grateful. Some days I wake up and I cannot forgive her.
I am afraid of being labeled an Asian American writer. I’m afraid of being revealed as a fraud. I used to imagine filling in the bubble next to “Caucasian” on the census reports. My parents are Irish and Portuguese. My cousins are various shades of blonde. They never get asked: “Where are you from?” by strangers in supermarket lines or doctors’ waiting rooms, strangers who can’t wait to tell them about their one Chinese friend.
I’ve spent a lot of time writing from the white perspective. Growing up I avoided mirrors and Asian food restaurants and the trend of wearing chopsticks in hair. I didn’t want to be influenced into writing something I didn’t know. When people asked I said I was Irish.
I used to write in secret. I would stay up all night scribbling away in my journal with a flashlight propped up under my sheets. I wrote poems, stories, and lists of words I wanted to add to my vocabulary. I was ten. And then I was bipolar. And I was angry – angry that if I read a book in a day or wrote ten poems in a week that they said I was manic. I was angry when the medications they gave me made me too tired to get out of bed for weeks at a time. I was angry that I heard voices and saw people no one else could see. I was angry when I reported this to my doctor he added it to my list of symptoms instead of side effects. I was angry when I went from one hundred to one hundred and eighty pounds, a “reasonable trade off” for stabilization. I was angry when I was told at fifteen that I would never go to college, that I would never hold a job, that I would never live outside of my parents care, that I would never have a family of my own. And I was angry when, at sixteen, an on-call doctor on a children’s psych ward told me he didn’t think I was bipolar.
I am not bipolar, but I am a writer. After the last of the medication left my body, I had lost nearly seven years of my childhood and adolescence. I am only now, piecing it back together – the gaps in memory, the hospital stays, the absence of my dad, the heroics of my stepfather, the removal of my bedroom door, the poison I ingested that ironically offered me a new beginning. There are things I can’t remember, but I do remember writing. In so many ways it’s what saved me both during and after.
When I was eight, my first written story was published in the school literary magazine. This is the story:
I heard this story from my mom’s friend.
Well, once there was a man waiting in a waiting room for his doctor. A year before he and ten others were shipwrecked. He made a raft. When they were sailing a boy pushed a little girl off. The man dove in and saved her.
So it had been an hour. The doctor was still not there. A little girl about eight came over to the man and said, “Have a cookie and you won’t be hungry any more.” Her mother came over and said, “Don’t talk to strangers.” The girl said, “Mom, it isn’t a stranger. I know him from the raft. He’s the one who saved me.” Her mother put on a confused face and sat back down. The man whispered to the girl, “Thank you. I was hungry.”
Like this example, life can be full of surprises.
My life has been full of surprises. I have holes and gaps that I am trying to fill with words and sentences. I have fear and uncertainty. I have a hunger. I am trying my best to embrace it with both arms spread wide.
This process is uncomfortable. I am afraid that I have shared too much. I am afraid that I have been too self-indulgent. I am afraid that I will be read wrong or misinterpreted or written-off. I am afraid of so many things. But, for the first time, in a long time, I am not afraid to write.
Olivia Worden is adopted from Seoul, Korea and grew up in Dartmouth, Massachusetts. She holds an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. She has taught Creative Writing and Diversity/Inclusion Training at Roger Williams University, Sarah Lawrence College, Andrus and the Westchester County Correctional Facility. She is currently a faculty member at Pace University and through the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in CutBank Literary Magazine, Post Road, Dark Phrases, The Sarah Lawrence Literary Review and Point of View Productions. She lives in the Bronx.