An adjustment of belief

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I have always told myself not to expect too much. I can’t remember how or why I struck upon this repentant logic (I have a few hypotheses) but this modesty of expectation has served well through the dry years, the months and weeks and days of scarcity.

My restrained expectations, however, have not prepared me for outcomes that exceeded anything I could’ve imagined for my first book of poems. My book is a year old, and it’s been a year unlike any other, a year that has nearly unraveled me. I’ve visited nine cities across Canada, had my book on three university course reading lists, been asked to speak on panels and conferences, was shortlisted and nominated for awards, and most amazingly, joined Poetry in Voice as a poet-in-residence where I workshopped with around 1000 students in high schools around Toronto.

Looking back on this year I feel as though someone has played an enormous joke on me. I didn’t expect to perform. I didn’t expect to go on tour. My sense of disbelief at each invitation combines with an almost crippling sense of gratitude and a stunned confusion that festival and conference organizers, academics, writers and editors think me fit to put in front of an audience. It’s easy to imagine that they expect someone even physically bigger, taller, funnier, more charming, articulate and informed. I know these trepidations are common, but this knowledge, like knowing there’s a virus going around, doesn’t prevent one from succumbing.

What saved me was that I had agreed to so many obligations that there was no time for doubt. I could sit and stare in panic at my calendar but there were emails to respond to, activities to plan, workshops to teach, students to tutor, and class visits to schedule. Now was the chance to jettison some unproductive habits and ways of thinking. Exiting the depression, paralysis and perfectionism of my twenties, my notion of adulthood meant being prepared, prompt, helpful, respectful and agreeable to any and all requests. These were good notions at the time. Yet they are also gendered and a result of acculturation, a part of a bundle of expectations I saw modelled by other Asian women and women of colour and that I held myself to as if they were strictures, as if they were an antique costume I eagerly assumed.

It sounds simple-minded now to say that I can’t help everyone, I can’t be everywhere, I can’t do everything. I also saw this year that neither is it necessary, nor expected. In fact it’s counterproductive for me to try to be as helpful as possible, resulting in guilt, exhaustion, my voice giving out and my health in pieces. The more good fortune I received, the more I felt I deserved, somehow, to suffer, to give away my time and energy away in handfuls. Should they ever offer an entry-level course on Martyrdom, I would be overqualified to teach it. (Intermediate and Advanced Martyrdom, though, should be taught by parents/editors/volunteer medics/after-school programs staff/living saints).

It was also counterproductive to assume upon my own lack of preparation, resulting in lack of sleep and endless hours making powerpoint and worksheets and activities when I had improvised entire poetry lessons. I had done it before, so what was I afraid of? Fear itself became a time-consuming self-indulgence. If others believed that I was suitable for the roles they saw me in, it would be irresponsible not to appreciate the very great privilege of that position and to focus on my imagined inadequacies. That is, my own notions of success or failure are beside the point.

What helped was not to think of Phoebe Wang as an instance of the author as an performance, but rather my symbolic presence as an Asian-Canadian of my generation placed in front of students many of whom are themselves first generation. It’s a historic reversal, where those writers whose identities, experiences and contribution to Canadian culture have been previously undervalued and invisible are now given an attentive audience. It will take some time for these switching priorities and moves towards a diverse literary landscape to catch up with writers of colour, even though these have been changes we have been pushing for for decades. The suddenness is causing me a sense of whiplash, like riding in a fast car suddenly changing directions. Quite understandably the surge of validation will evoke suspicion or a tentative attitude, as often the motives for this upswing in interest in Indigenous, Black, Brown, Asian and mixed-race perspectives may lack transparency and clarity.

Out of my tiredness and weakened health, my packed calendar and inboxes, my doubt and my gratitude, I began to see the shape of a life that would sustain me. I had been feeling for the shape of it for a decade, and now that it’s outline was clear and unwavering, I could hardly believe it. Doubtless I’ll still have mornings where every limb feels undeserving. Yet if I am continue to stand in front of a group of young people to shift their ideas about who poetry belongs to and who gets to create it, I had better start with adjusting my own expectations.


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