“They were like all other parents. My mother liked to feed us. My father liked to take pictures.”
from The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon
Recent news of Lionel Shriver donning a sombrero to protest identity politics in the creative-writing world reminded me of Jenny Zhang’s Buzzfeed response to white poet Michael Derrick Hudson’s use of the Chinese pen name Yi-Fen Chou to wiggle his way into a Best of American Poetry collection.
I ignored the controversy over cultural appropriation but “took” from the Zhang essay to compare and contrast her parents’ fear of a child’s future as a writer to my own parents’ feelings about my choices. In “They Pretend To Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist,” Zhang noted: “[My father] sure as hell was not jumping with joy and support when I said I wanted to be a writer. My mother cried for weeks and threatened to tell Stanford I was a convicted criminal so they would revoke my admission if I didn’t promise that I would not try to be a writer. I didn’t promise and my mother never made good on hers. They were scared for me. . .”
Of course, there are no universal parents; rather, we have parents who survive wars, poverty, oppression, penniless immigration, or worse, and parents who buy new cars for children when they graduate college, or even high school. Parents come in all shapes and sizes and from vastly different cultures, countries, and historical moments. We have big, tall, fat, and thin folks, and fathers who ditch because they can, or as Tillie Olsen wrote in “I Stand Here Ironing,” because “he could no longer endure. . . sharing want with us.” So obviously there are no universal parents, yet it can be awfully hard to imagine much beyond the Hemon quotation above.