by Annabeth Leong
I often come back to the special sort of panic that would set in for me when a certain sort of worksheet was handed out in elementary school. A list of seemingly innocent questions, with neat blank lines laid out beside them. Who is your best friend? What is your favorite color? What is your favorite food? These worksheets often had titles such as “About Me,” and yet the way they approached the world was fundamentally not about me.
If no one had ever told me I was supposed to have a favorite color, I would not have had one. I would have just had colors I liked. The same goes for friends and for food. I like easily, and I like that about myself. I am also a very complicated thinker, for better or for worse. I am and have been always aware of situations. Who is my best friend? Are we talking about the person who is best to go to the movies with or the person who is best at keeping secrets? What is my favorite food? Are we talking about dessert food or snack food or actual dinner?
So I find that the question of what’s most important to me discomfits me in exactly this way. Is the question about what’s most important to me as a writer? As a person? In this exact moment in my life?
As I contemplate possible answers, I worry, as I often do, about how they might be perceived. I feel like I’m culturally allowed to say “family,” or “God,” or perhaps name a value such as honesty. If I say career, I can probably get away with it, though I may sound selfish. Other stuff starts heading into shaky territory where I have to put my case forward in a very persuasive and creative way or risk sounding shallow or antisocial.
But the list of acceptable answers doesn’t sit right with me. Let’s take the example of family. It’s a good and acceptable answer, a cliche but a deep one, and it’s true for a lot of people. Family certainly is very important to me.
But then the situations come to my mind. When my father died, I got onto the next plane home, but it was the first time I’d been there for twenty years. My family there would very much agree with statements like, “Blood is thicker than water,” and, “When it comes down to it, family is the most important thing.” I have treated those things as true in my own way, as best I could. If family weren’t very, very important to me, I would not have stayed in touch with my dad at all. He was a dangerous and violent man, and though we loved each other very much, it wasn’t good for me to be around him. On the other hand, I hadn’t seen the aunts and uncles and cousins I grew up with for two decades. I was an exile from a home, a stranger who had lost her culture, a person they didn’t know or trust.
As he lay dying in the hospital, his girlfriend asked me why I hadn’t come to visit him when he was healthy (I allowed him to visit me twice in those twenty years). “It would have meant so much to him,” she said. I remember feeling stunned at how naive she was. I knew he would have wanted that, but I also knew I wouldn’t have been safe. Because the home where I grew up is far from my current home, and isolated, and an expensive place to visit, I would have always had to go there on his terms. I never wanted to do it if I couldn’t afford my own place to stay, my own car, my own escape route. The especially complicated part is that my dad was the one who taught me to pay attention to that sort of thing, to never walk into a bad situation without cab money tucked into my sock.
I can’t say, though, that I lived my life valuing family above all else. If I had, I would have taken the risk and gone to see him. After all, as he liked to remind me sometimes, he was still my father no matter what.
I remember the way I felt when I read War and Peace. Princess Marya remains utterly devoted to her cruel father (who does love her underneath), and is in the end rewarded with his acceptance and the true love of a handsome soldier. I remember wishing I could have been that person. But I am not and never have been devoted in that entirely self-sacrificing way. And so I chose self-preservation over family most of the time—but not often enough for me to say self-preservation is the most important thing.
When I was getting divorced, I did not want to be a person who got divorced. I did not want to declare to the world that I honored myself and my happiness above family and commitment and promises before God. I believed I was doing something wrong by walking out of a marriage—and there were plenty of cultural messages around to tell me so—but I couldn’t turn my back on myself anymore. So I again chose self-preservation and authenticity over family.
I hadn’t always, though. I spent eight years sacrificing myself on the altar of that commitment, being praised by friends as a martyr and a saint, aware of the bittersweetness of that praise. So it took me quite some time to get around to self-preservation, partly because other values are also very important to me.
There is emerging in this post the possibility that I could say “authenticity” is the most important thing to me. That comes out in the way I’m writing about important things, and in the way I’m telling these stories about my father and my divorce. I certainly value authenticity deeply.
But how authentic can I say I am when I spend so much time hiding? I am that rare writer who does not like to talk about her work, mostly because I fear how much it tells people about me. I avoid giving out my pseudonym, and I am quite skillful at redirecting conversations so people don’t notice that I’ve never actually answered any of their questions. I frequently live in fear of some sort of discovery.
It’s not just the erotica. I fear being found out as queer (I know there is increasing societal acceptance, but “increasing” isn’t the same as “acceptance”). I fear being found out as polyamorous. In places where people know me as a person who has a girlfriend, I fear being found out as a person who has a husband. In places where people know me as a person who has a husband, I fear being found out as a person who has a girlfriend. On the occasion of a recent death in the family, my girlfriend sent flowers, and I didn’t know what to think about hearing them described as a gift from my “friend.” Part of me wanted to stand up and say, “She’s not my friend.” Part of me sneered at that idea. What were people supposed to say? Was I ready to come out in all those ways to all my cousins, close and distant, in that conservative town where people were already having trouble grokking the concept of me as a person who is choosing not to have children?
As a writer, it is deeply important to me to be as authentic as possible, to be responsible for the words I put on the page. I wrestle a lot with what that means. I write stories even if they’re ugly and don’t represent my values for the world, but then I wonder what it would look like if I tried to embody my values more fully. I frequently feel concerned about what messages will come across in what I write, and yet there’s another part of me that doesn’t give a fuck and wants to fling myself into wherever the wild winds of creativity take me.
When addressing the question of importance, all those points about context come out very strongly for me. I have often chosen self-preservation, and I think that’s good. I’m trying to choose that more. On the other hand, I choose authenticity as much as I have the courage for it. I choose family when I think I can survive the choice. I choose tradition when I’m able to hide the ways I’m deeply nontraditional. I choose love when it doesn’t cost more than I’m willing to pay. I choose truth when I don’t believe it’s unkind. I choose kindness when I feel safe enough to do so. I choose art when I have the will, and distraction when I don’t.
All this talking is so abstract, though. I love being a person with a body. I spend so much time using that body, enjoying the blissful relief it gives from all the thinking I do. I work out hard, sweating until it feels like it’s raining from my head. I love being a person with a mind, and I spend so much time gathering new knowledge, satisfying my curiosity about my obsession of the month. I love being a person with a soul, and I spend so much time pursuing what I call the “spooky feelings,” those mysterious things that touch on love and religion and the unknown.
It is not in my nature to rank things. It strikes me, though, that I’m still answering that worksheet, still trying to get at the question of what it is that makes me myself. Funny that talking about what’s most important becomes a discussion of oneself, a statement of identity. That outside-looking question quickly turns into one that points within. And perhaps that is the real discomfort underneath it all. Saying what’s most important to me amounts to saying something big and personal about me, and subjecting that to scrutiny, hoping there is something universal in the particular, hoping it does not all come out sounding too self-absorbed.
Of course, that’s what I do all the time when I write. When I write, though, I get to tell more than one story, create a stable of characters, run multiple plots all at the same time. I get to show the situations and the context, and the different answers that come up at various times for various people.