When my mother asked to read my book, Red Envelope, I told her, “You don’t have to read it.”
She said, “I want to read it.”
“It’s in English.”
“I can read English.”
I knew she could, but I knew she also struggled with it and probably hadn’t read an entire story, even a short story like mine, in ages—if ever. This all danced around the issue of not wanting my mother to read Red Envelope because I knew she would react to it a certain way. I threw up another smokescreen.
“There’s sex in it,” I said.
“I’m seventy,” she replied. “I know about sex.”
“Yeah, but it’s gay sex. Are you prepared for that?”
She giggled. “Sure! Now quit stalling and send me a copy.”
I want to be clear that my mother is supportive of me and my work. She knows how long I’ve worked to get published, what writing means to me, and she even wrote the calligraphy you see on the [original] cover of Red Envelope. I wanted her involvement, and she felt honored to be involved. I just didn’t want her reading my book because.
“Oh, alright. Take your time. You don’t have to finish it. Maybe one day, it’ll be translated into Chinese by someone with better translation skills than me,” I said.
So my mother started reading her first gay romance story. She’d seen The Wedding Banquet, Lan Yu, and other movies about the experiences of gay people. She knew me, about my past relationships, and about the wonderful man I met a little over a year ago and with whom I was engaged. She knew about the gays. But that wasn’t what I was worried about.
“You are writing about me,” she texted me a week later.
I picked up the phone and called her. No way did I want to have this discussion through text, let alone her second language. By phone, I could speak to her in Mandarin Chinese. “Hi, Ma. No, it’s not about you.”
“Isn’t this how I talk? Didn’t your uncle die this past year?”
“Yes and no. My stories are drawn from my experiences, but it isn’t about real people. It’s made up. I’m writing fiction.”
“I think Maggie is your cousin.”
“No, Ma, she isn’t. She’s a character in a story. And if she’s based on anybody, she’s based on my best friend from high school.”
My mother was quiet on the other end.
“Ma, you there?”
“The characters all talk like we do. Are you sure you’re not writing about us?”
This is exactly why I didn’t want her to read my book. “Yes. How far have you gotten?” Did she get to the sex yet?
“Not far, just the beginning, I’m sorry.”
“That’s okay. I told you, don’t worry about reading it.”
“But I want to read it. I’m proud of you!”
Yeah, hey, that’s sweet—but you know what? This is why I use a pseudonym. People will tend to see themselves in fiction (and art) because that’s what you’re supposed to do with most art these days—not only see yourself reflected but also to see deeper into yourself. Art helps us to know ourselves in a way we couldn’t have without it.
However, if you know the author, you might assume they’re writing about you. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t.
It’s hard to convince someone that their perception isn’t accurate, because it’s their perception. With something innocuous like Red Envelope, which my aunts now want to read, I don’t think there’ll be much trouble. Awkward silences and conversations at the next Lunar New Year gathering, maybe, but no lawsuits or tearful accusations.
But in my other line of work, there could be. And this is why I use a pseudonym. We have our reasons, from Sting’s yellow and black sweater back in the day, to Ralph Lauren wanting something more appealing to the mainstream. I use a pseudonym not because I might be ashamed of my work, which has been suggested by some friends who think of romance as “trashy” and genre writing as “hack work,” but because I know people I work with will see themselves in my writing and then, acting on that belief, will fight me about how they believe they should be depicted. I’d rather not go through those battles, legal or otherwise.
My mother, on the other hand—well, it’ll get more interesting if she ever gets to the love scene between Clint and Weaver. And if my aunts get involved, I wonder how those conversations will go. Any puns involving the words “joy” and “luck” and “club,” you can keep to yourself.
Originally published on Prism Book Alliance on February 16, 2016