Dmae Roberts is the author of The Letting Go Trilogies: Stories of A Mixed-Race Family. TaiwaneseAmerican.org’s editorial director Anna Wu chatted briefly with Dmae about the powerful, beautifully vulnerable memoirs.
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Dmae Roberts: Through the decades, I’ve written personal essays that have been published in magazines and other anthologies as well as in my monthly column in The Asian Reporter here in Portland. I also have been producing personal narrative documentaries and features beginning with my 1989 documentary “Mei Mei, A Daughter’s Song” and stage plays such as “Mei Mei” and “Breaking Glass.” Last year I applied for a Regional Arts and Culture Council grant to publish my collection of essays and personal writing into a book. I hired editors who advised me to push harder and create a book that’s more memoir than loose collection of essays. I had to throw a lot of essays out in order to find more connection between the remaining ones.
I found through this process, I was left with sets of three essays that focused on identity, my three family members and my three trips to Taiwan as an adult. So I toyed with using the word “trilogy” in a different way. There’s a trilogy for my identity as a biracial Asian American, my brother, father and mother and a trilogy for Taiwan in the book.
A: Pain is so central to many of these stories: the pain of racism and growing up biracial in rural Oregon, your mother’s recurring pains of abandonment; your brother’s pain of bullying. Has it been difficult writing about such painful experiences that are so personal to you?
D: For me the best material is personal. It’s a way to document your world and turn it into something more artful. I’ve been doing this kind of personal writing for several decades. It used to be more difficult. I’m not saying I didn’t shed some tears during this book-writing process, but through the years, I’ve learned to be objective and perhaps that’s my journalism background, but you need to look at your own work as a stranger might. Then after you do that and you read your finished work, you can cry and let the emotion in. In theory… I cried quite a bit writing the sections about my brother because he still lives near me. It was the most recent of my writing. Through this process I came to accept Jack for who he is as someone shaped by the racism and violence he experienced in his youth. He still lives as a shut-in except when he comes to watch sci-fi TV shows with me. I felt it was important to include how much science fiction bonded the two us as kids when we watched Star Trek together. He’s still the one person who gets how important that experience was for both of us. And really he’s my last family member and carries that history within him too.
I always want to learn from painful experiences. My book is also a document about the changes mixed-race people have gone through in the last four decades. Though there are themes of overcoming pain and racism, I hope that people can gain insight and inspiration from my writing and perhaps can see themselves in my stories. At best these are survival stories as a 1.5 generation biracial Taiwanese American who witnessed the destructiveness of racism against my brother and mother. I hope I can help people of mixed-race feel better about their lives and know that someone else understands how the world may treat them.
A: Your mother is such a powerful figure in your life. You won a Peabody Award for your 1989 audio documentary Mei Mei, A Daughter’s Song, which explored your mother’s heartbreaking childhood through WWII. In this book you not only explore the story behind that documentary but also document your experience of taking care of your mother through the end of her life. I think many readers can relate in some way to your conflicted feelings toward your relationship with your own mother. How has she shaped your work and this memoir?
D: My mom was a primary influence not only for my work but also in my personality. I inherited her survival instinct, ambition, drive and persistence. Her experiences as a war survivor also shaped her fears of abandonment, lifelong anxiety and tendency to hoard “just in case” there’s another war or disaster. That’s common with war survivors. I inherited some of those negative traits, as did my younger brother. When you’re biracial, you also wonder how much of your personality is because of cultural reasons rather than your own. I think many children of immigrants feel conflicted about their parents especially those who have survived great trauma in their lives. When she was a child, my mom was sold twice by her parents, (and stepparents), to work as servant. She barely escaped starvation and being blown to bits. Then she experienced racism when she came to live in what she hoped to be the American Dream. You have to have compassion for what your parents went through but still have difficulty communicating with them and understanding why they put such pressure on you. Rarely do immigrant and refugee parents understand what their Americanized child is going through because from their perspective, the child has it easy. And that’s understandable. But this conflict caused us to argue and have periods of not speaking to each other during my adulthood.
When my mom got breast cancer again, we were on better terms. I knew I didn’t want to live with the regret I carried when my dad died in my early 20s. So I made the choice to be my mom’s caregiver for three years when she was dealing with her illness. I was ahead of the curve then taking care of a parent. Now many of my friends and colleagues are struggling as caregivers of their parents. Though it was the one of the most difficult experience in both of our lives, my mom and I became closer than I ever imagined. During this time, I started writing a memoir, which is now a chapter in “The Letting Go Trilogies.”
A: Your memoir is beautifully titled the “Letting Go Trilogies.” Holding on and letting go are recurring themes throughout the book: you are always holding on to memories; your brother finds himself compulsively collecting bottles as he becomes more and more of a shut-in. Has writing this helped you to let go? What do you find yourself letting go of or holding on to?
D: I always joke about how your title will become your mantra so beware! Since I’ve written this book, people ask me “have you let that go yet, Dmae?” And I often stop myself now when I have a negative emotion because I’ve written this book and I should be “letting it go” rather than feeling regret or getting upset or angry about something.
In all seriousness, yes, I have let a lot go and it’s been freeing. The one thing I haven’t let go of is my anger about any form of racism and discrimination. But I channel that into the work I do and let it guide my mission.
Regarding all else, I’ve let go of caring about what others think of me. And I’ve been practicing greater kindness not just for others, but also for myself. Life is a process of being easier on yourself when you’re a driven, type-A personality like I’ve been. I hear my mom’s critical voice still though. I think it’s important to have standards and push yourself to be the best person, the best artist, writer or whatever your profession might be. But it’s also important to remember we’re only human and to forgive one’s self and practice compassion. When you can be more compassionate with yourself, I believe you’ll have that same compassion and empathy for others. We all do the best we can with the circumstances we’re given. I don’t hold onto my resentments about my mom or have the value judgments against my brother and his life. I’ve let go of the regret for not having loved my dad enough while he was still living. And I try to not judge myself too much for being overweight or not as driven professionally as I once was. Life for me used to be about professional success. Now I try to practice living in the now more and learning to be happier with the life I’ve built. It’s easier some days than others but it’s an everyday exercise of holding onto what’s dear and letting go of the rest.