As part of a series of interviews with students participating in the upcoming conference, Thinking its Presence: Race and Creative Writing, CutBank asked some questions of Candie Sanderson about her experience with race in acadamia, creative writing programs, her own writing, and what she reads. The conference will push literary institutions—from MFAs to journals, we hope—to engage in conversations about race in writing. Register for the conference so you can hear Candie speak and read.
CUTBANK: You’re working on a memoir that contends with your mother's experience as a Vietnamese-French immigrant. Have you discovered anything surprising as you've worked on it? Has your understanding of your mother's experience changed or been challenged?
Candie: You know, if someone had told me a year ago – which is when I started the project, roughly – that I'd have the kind of relationship I have with my mother today, I wouldn't have believed them. I never listened to her growing up, dismissing her stories because they were too uncomfortable or didn't fit in with the idea our family had of itself. The biggest surprise was just to realize that if I had taken the time to ask, to listen, not to judge but just to try to understand, do the story justice, then I would have been able to access that true part of my mother earlier. I always thought she was a performer, or maybe even shallow, but the truth is no one had ever bothered to give her voice. For example, it never occurred to me that the reason why her stories seemed to have holes was simply because French isn't her native language so there are things she couldn't express. How did I not figure that out when I have the same problem speaking English and not French every day? I'm ashamed now to have been so dismissive but glad I changed my attitude at 24, not later. It's amazing what this project has done for our relationship. Now she's even flying in from France to hear me read.
[How] has your exploration of your mother's experience altered your perspective or informed your own experience? You've mentioned feeling that your ethnic identity is hard for others to easily categorize—how does that perception affect your identity?
These two questions for me belong together. See, I never thought of myself as Vietnamese until I moved to the U.S. Of course, I always knew my mother was: she never hid and neither did her family. But there was a shame associated with that and so it's something no one in their family passed on to their children. They wanted to be more French than the French and so that's how I thought of myself. But here in the U.S., I was immediately identified as Asian. I remember moving in to an apartment in Berkeley, CA with Korean and Filipino roommates and the first thing they said was “You're Asian! We have a rice-cooker!”
Reading about Vietnam and speaking with my mother has been a huge part of the journey towards understanding my own ethnicity. I feel like such a fraud when, as with this conference, I get invited to speak as a “person of color” or a multi-ethnic individual. Who am I to say? I have never been to Vietnam, do not speak Vietnamese. My mother does and Vietnamese culture was part of my life growing up, but so what? It's hard to move away from the idea that I'm just a White French girl from the countryside. And yet, I get so passionate about race and get really angry at the supremacy of white stories in literature, at least in academia. Actually, I had this talk with my boyfriend and he was trying to understand my grandfather's identity as a Vietnamese man who served against his own country in the French army, and I got so upset, shouting ideas of “us” versus “them,” throwing my little fists at him, accusing, although he wasn't saying anything racist whatsoever. I go back and forth. It's confusing. That's a huge part of why I'm writing the memoir.
Do you think that there is pressure to be able to check a single box under ethnicity?
Yes and I always refuse to do so. I check White and Asian and if I have to check only one I check Other. “Other;” what does that even mean? It's interesting though because France is supposedly race-blind: you can't ask someone their ethnicity on paper like that. Both models create problems.
What author do you admire in his or her engagement with race identity?
I'm reading Bliss Broyard's One Drop right now, about her finding out about her father's black ancestry after he spent his whole life passing. I identify with her quest a lot: she also feels like a fraud and yet, she starts seeing where “blackness” appeared in her life. It's an amazing book.
Also, lê thị diễm thúy (she doesn't capitalize her name) wrote that gorgeous memoir The Gangster We Are All Looking For where she explores with a lot of poetry and tenderness the legends surrounding her father, the life he left in Vietnam versus the one they have in America.
How does your ethnic and cultural identity affect your writing?
It's hard to say for now. Obviously it's at the origin of the memoir, but I think I'm too concerned with passing for an English speaker to fully understand what it means to be half-Vietnamese, half-French and be writing in English. I think about it a lot though and it's the object of almost everything I've written lately.
What do you feel are the issues schools face when teaching—and re-envisioning—the canon?
It's so hard to promote literature that's outside the white canon because, in a way, you have to teach that canon, right? It's what students expect, it's what they'll need to succeed, it's how the US still understands a lot of its literature etc. I wish I was braver and included more multi-ethnic writers in my creative writing class. Obviously I include some but I myself feel too ignorant to really teach those texts. I wish you didn't have to take an “ethnic” class to read authors of color though. I want to be more engaged in those discussions, but I lack confidence. Here again, I feel like a fraud.
How do you feel MFA and Lit Programs recognize or silence voices?
Same idea as what I answered for the previous question I think. But also, I'm interested in how race can be over-valued, you know? Almost, you're half-Vietnamese so this has to be good. Being French (see how I don't say half-French? I just noticed that), it's still difficult to wrap my mind around “positive discrimination.”
Tell us a little about your panels.
Aside from the final reading where I'll be sharing an essay about the first time I wrote about my mother, I'm participating in two panels. One is a Graduate Student Panel where I'll be presenting a paper I wrote last year about Vietnamese Women as the locus of conflict during the French and American occupation: how their bodies were used in power struggles, colonized, occupied, but also how these women redefined themselves in resistance to oppression.
The other panel is called “Let's Not Go There,” and I was told I'd have to speak about my experience creating as a “person of color.” Mostly I'm excited to meet the other people on the panel and hear about the different ways we have of understanding ethnicity in our work. You should all come and chat with us. I think it'll be honest and true, and I'll say contradicting things and embarrass myself.
Are you nervous about anything? Is there anything you're particularly excited about—a panel, a speaker?
I'm nervous about everything! Because of that mix between being so eager to speak about this and feeling like a fraud. Also excited to meet people who maybe feel the same way and will be open to talk about those complex dynamics.
I'm excited about the final reading. I enjoy readings more than panels because I feel like the best way to understand a person's ideas is simply to hear or read their work.
Candie Sanderson was born in France to a French father and Vietnamese mother. She moved to the US at the age of 21 to attend UC Berkeley and is now a non-fiction candidate at the University of Montana. Candie also olds a Masters of Comparative Literature from La Sorbonne Nouvelle. Her work has appeared in TOAD, BlazeVOX, and Two Serious Ladies. She is currently working on a memoir about her mother's experience as a French-Vietnamese immigrant and her own relationship to her multi-ethnic identity.