Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 487
In probing his childhood and youth to uncover how he became a writer, Alexander Chee looks at every aspect of experience that influenced the way he now examines the world around him.
Chee is Korean American; one of his parents is a white American and the other is Korean. While he was growing up in Maine, his family hosted a Mexican exchange student, and the following year, Alexander went to spend a summer living with Miguel Angel’s family in Chiapas, Mexico. Learning Spanish and learning about his identity as a foreigner—although some people tell him that he could “pass” as Mexican—is tied up with his adolescent understanding of his sexual identity as gay, which is another line separating him from the Mexican people he meets.
I was young enough, naïve enough, to imagine we could be friends, and I did eventually write a short story about a boy like me on a trip like this, the two of us in love. But this was a fantasy. I was learning there was a gulf between us that could not be as carelessly crossed by my learning Spanish.
He summarizes this experience: “It was the summer of wanting impossible things.”
One episode, telling of his efforts at self-transformation, concerns planting roses in the yard behind a basement apartment he rented in New York. While his family did not believe he could become any sort of gardener because he was so impatient, the rose garden idea takes hold in his imagination.
[A]s I enter the apartment and the sun fills the back window, I see, like an apparition, roses tossing in the air like a parade, pink, orange, red, white, all lit up by the sun. They appear and then are gone by the time I am fully inside the apartment, as if painted on a curtain someone drew back.
He understands that the whole situation creates the possibility for him, something bestowed upon him.
[I]t was some gift of the apartment’s, an otherwise unmystical, unmagical place . . . And if not of the apartment, then it was a gift of the garden, given when I looked through that window, into the space the garden would fill. Given before the garden existed at all.
One incredibly difficult aspect of Chee's life was his having been sexually abused. When he was finally able to write about it, he did so within a novel. Once, during a meeting with a book club, he was asked why he had not written a memoir about this. After answering truthfully about the shape or “boxes” of appropriate expression, he later thought more about it.
That afternoon, I tried to understand if I had made a choice about what to write. But instead it seemed to me if anyone had made a choice, the novel had, choosing me like I was a door and walking through me out into the world.
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