I first said I wanted to be a writer in second grade. It was quite incredible, really. Somehow I knew at age nine what my lifelong dream was going to be. That moment foreshadowed a passion that I followed wholeheartedly for the rest of my life—so far.
This is the story I used to tell everyone, including myself, when asked about writing. It’s the narrative that got me into Princeton as a “writer.” And it’s not entirely wrong. I did say that I wanted to be a writer in second grade, just as I said I wanted to be a basketball player, a fashion designer, a teacher. I had no idea then that it would become my high school “brand” as much as my passion. I would struggle for years between an actual love of writing and finding validation within prestigious competitions, publications, and programs.
YoungArts. Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. Iowa, Kenyon, Sewanee. These esoteric names were all too familiar to the specific niche of “serious” high school writers. I memorized the guidelines and deadlines and submitted one, ten, twenty poems and stories. The nature of these esteemed programs, and the college process that loomed over them, meant that I had to define myself as a writer before I even had any idea how to define myself as a person. I found a series of practical boxes: I would be a short story writer. Not a poet, because the judging was too subjective. Not a novelist, because I had no time to write longer works. I rarely experimented with structure, style. I didn’t have that luxury, after all. And I won the awards, got into the programs, made it to Princeton.
But navigating this process as an immigrant, Asian writer meant marketing my work as a certain type of racialized writing. I felt that I was given two choices: to write solely about race or not to write about it at all. The first felt suffocating and scary, so most of the time I chose the latter. All my characters were race-ambiguous, which is to say white. The few times I did write about race, I wrote in the ways I’d seen other Asian female writers my age write and win. I wrote passive, overthinking protagonists. Inserted artistic similes, wrote “lyrical” prose. Fit myself to a certain reserved, poetic style that seemed to be expected of a young Asian female writer.
I wrote about my grandmother, or making kimchi, or language barriers. I wrote about foreignness and double-consciousness. This is not to say these topics aren’t good or even important, but they felt very restrictive, as if my heritage story was already told from the very beginning. I wanted to write funny, cynical, rebellious Korean characters. I wanted to write different kinds of families, friends, and lovers. I wanted stories that thrilled and challenged. But the rigidity of high school writing followed me to Princeton, and in my first year, I felt like I made little progress even with the great resources of the Creative Writing program.
Then, as these stories often go, I took a gap year when COVID hit. I knew that I might never get this much concentrated time to write for a while. So I told myself that I would write with no reader and no ambitions. For the first time in years, I did not regularly scroll through submission deadlines. Instead, I sat at my desk and looked to writing as an escape from quarantine life. Having no external pressure actually made me crave writing, not the accomplishment of finishing it, but the thrill of doing it. I didn’t show my work to anyone for a year, and I wrote more regularly than I ever had before.
At first, I made an explicit goal to write mostly Korean, Korean American, and Asian American protagonists, which allowed me to avoid making race the central part of any of my stories or characters. These were stories about heartbreak, obsession, nostalgia. They were set in Austin, Seoul, the Bay Area. Eventually, I stopped keeping that rule; I write characters as they come to me. Often, they are Korean, or Korean American. Some are not. For the first time in my writing life, I also started to experiment with style. Writing a murder mystery. A love story. A snarky first-person, and an omniscient third. I took inspiration from Ling Ma, James Baldwin, George Saunders. I still struggle with my writing voice to this day; I often have to remind myself that I too am allowed and can succeed with charismatic, unapologetic style.
But being a writer of color has always meant taking risks, devoting yourself to a form of writing that was rarely respected by institutions and awards. It means taking up space in your own right, telling the stories that people might not care to hear. More than anything, it means that once you realize that no one defines what your art should be, you have infinitely more exciting possibilities. The most important inspirations to me are artists of color who made active choices to create outside of the white gaze, who saw the power of art to not only explain or justify their experiences to others, but to complicate them and bring them to life. I’ve realized that I have a certain duty to them, and to myself, to see myself as an abundant and intricate artist.
What matters for me is that writing became fun. Terrifying. Life-giving. My attachment to writing now is first my own. I choose what I explore. Sometimes I return to my grandmother, or language barriers, or Korean food. But it’s a deliberate decision, one I make with the knowledge that it fits into a larger, more complex story. If I want to share my stories, that is my choice too. A year without any competitions or submissions has taught me that that validation is secondary. What makes up ninety percent of being a writer—scribbling in your room under a dim light with characters you come to know like family—that, I know, is mine.