Interview by Kelly Martineau
“What is the blood of the heart? Can we afford to give it away? Must we feel pain before opening?” With these questions, Anne Liu Kellor invites the reader into her debut book, Heart Radical: A Search for Language, Love, and Belonging.
This is characteristic of Kellor’s work, which is equally contemplative and vulnerable, and summons us to be in conversation with her journey and our own. Kellor’s essays delve into complex topics such as identity, inheritance, longing, and race, have appeared in Longreads, Fourth Genre, The New England Review, and The Normal School, among other journals.
Anne Liu Kellor is also an editor and teacher of creative nonfiction: I first met her as a student in her classes. I recall her saying that her impetus for selecting course topics was pursuing something she needs to explore; that conveyed to me her comfort with working and writing in the midst of uncertainty. Learning to nurture this ability has shifted my own process and writing. This confluence of teaching and writing recurs in our conversation about her debut book.
Kelly Martineau: The second chapter, “Sky Burial,” immerses the reader in your travel experience, opening on a bus to a Tibetan region in northern Sichuan province. In conversation with a Chinese traveler, you avoid talking about your connection to the Tibetan people because you lack the language to translate the complexity of your feelings and ideas into Chinese, including your emotional response to China’s history: “I mourn for the 30 to 40 million killed during Mao’s Great Leap forward,” that these are “numbers I can barely comprehend with my mind, but can attempt to grasp with my heart.”
How do you navigate between those feelings and the page, how do you translate that into language so a reader can understand the processes of your “heart … mind, feeling, … intention”?
Anne Liu Kellor: This question hits upon one of my greatest challenges while writing this book—how to convey the intensity of all I felt and was learning during that time. The brave spiritual seeker that I was at heart, against the reality of the cloistered and insecure girl that came through in many of my actions. I felt this huge sense of responsibility to give with my life, to learn more about the unspeakable suffering in the world, but I also was discovering my huge fears around speaking and living my truth.
Now, twenty years later, I have more perspective as well as better writing chops to convey more insight and nuance on the page through reflection. But back then, I had to learn to rely on scene and detail; I leaned into the moments where my body was crying out with tears, or when I was drinking or dancing or otherwise pushing my body into catharsis. I didn’t have the language then to fully express all I felt and knew, but my body already knew so I could show what my body was doing. Now, I have more language, so I’m still writing about the same themes, but in more lyrical forms.
KM: You have been working on this book over the course of twenty years. How did the form shift over those two decades as you gained new perspective and finesse for reflection on the page?
ALK: Although I am naturally more of a meditative writer versus a scene-based, narrative-driven writer, early drafts of my memoir were getting too bogged down in reflection. To counter this, I eventually changed the whole book from past to present tense, which in turn forced me to use reflection more sparingly. But then, the challenge of present tense was staying loyal to the perspective of who I was in my twenties. Since I edited the book for over a decade, I had to resist the temptation to continually deepen my insight from newly evolving vantage points.
Once I captured the overall linear time-frame that the book would cover, I had to go back and figure out how to deepen the reflective resonance of the journey—to find ways to show the growth that was happening in the moment, even if my character at the time didn’t have as much insight into what was happening. I did this by weaving in some more lyrical chapters, as well as some chapters that are purely backstory, and then finally by writing the introduction from the voice of me, now, letting the reader know that this is a younger me that is narrating the book (even if it was the older me that edited and crafted it!).
KM: Speaking of reflection, I was delighted to see literal reflection as catalyst for contemplation repeat in the first third of the book. In the Introduction, in a line that really resonated with me, you state that even in your loneliest moments of travelling, you “felt … increasingly witnessed by myself on the written pages.”
In “Mirror Face” and “Red Bird,” you are looking in the mirror, seeing your face but also confronting your self—the deeper layers of you beneath your appearance that are often in opposition. At what point in the process did this theme develop and how did it impact the two later sections, in which you begin to turn outward toward relationship, with a lover and then to interrogating the roots of your yearning in your family?
ALK: The decision to include scenes with me looking in mirrors was not a calculated one; those were just moments that emerged as significant in my journey—moments where I was either seeing myself from the outside-in and perceiving how I thought I looked to others, or conversely when I began to see myself from the inside-out and recognize a deeper essence inside. Call it my spirit or my soul—the part of me that is wiser than she knows.
But I love how you call this out with regards to how reflection shows up in the book as a whole because figuring out how to incorporate reflection one of my biggest challenges! In short, the process of writing this book was anything but linear. There was a lot of trial and error, a lot of experimentation, a lot of just figuring out what worked and what didn’t. Even if I try to write outlines, rarely do I follow them.
With memoir writing, I find it’s more about letting the material dictate what shape it wants to take, what shape it can take to convey the truth of your experience, rather than the other way around. Later, I could recognize ways in which themes weave through and try to draw out a dominant thread that one might call a narrative arc, but the natural process of writing about my experiences was more cyclical than linear.
With memoir writing, I find it’s more about letting the material dictate what shape it wants to take, what shape it can take to convey the truth of your experience, rather than the other way around.
KM: That distinction—that the writing process is more cyclical than linear—is one that I have known intellectually for years but that I have only recently to accept and write into. So much richness and texture develops in our ideas and our prose when we can just be with a memory or question rather than trying to force closure.
What were some of the earliest pieces and when did you begin to see it as a book? How did the book expand and deepen in meaning from early drafts to the final manuscript?
ALK: For most of my life, I’ve kept detailed journal entries nearly every day. I knew I had a book in me as I was living in China, but I didn’t know what shape it would take. So many chapters have lines or details in them that were seeded so long ago. I wrote part of “What Goes Unsaid” in college, pre-China, in 1999(!) and later merged it into the book when I realized I needed to include more of my mother.
The bulk material of the book was finished a decade ago but finding a publisher took so long that I inevitably kept refining it for years. It also took a long time to figure out how to make it less a collection of essays and more of a seamless narrative because I do like experimenting with voice and form. Yet the travel-based narrative also lent itself to a more traditional narrative arc.
I finally realized I was writing something in between—that the core of the book could be rooted in scene and a linear narrative, but that there were other ways I could layer all the interlocking themes, either through more lyrical or reflective chapters based in backstory, as I mentioned before. This is how I was able to include all of the overlapping themes of searching in the book—searching for identity, language, belonging, love, and voice. It wasn’t just one question I was exploring, but several, interwoven.
I didn’t learn one grand lesson at the end or even feel like I’d “succeeded” or arrived at closure, but the lessons were multifold and incomplete. This doesn’t match the industry’s idea of what a marketable memoir should be. I hope I made it work—both creating a book where readers want to turn the page to learn what happens, and a book that satisfies the philosopher in me, leaning more into white space and what isn’t said, as much as what is said.
KM: I am glad you brought up “writing something in between” because that tension of existing between two identities is palpable throughout the book. I think of your desire to bridge your child and adult selves, the parallel dichotomy of the languages and landscapes of the Pacific Northwest and China, and your passions for teaching and being a creative.
Despite the teaching struggles you experience in the book, you returned to teaching and have been developing your teaching alongside your writing practice. Recently, you have been teaching a series of classes for mixed-race students. Can you speak to the importance of providing a secure environment for these students? What have you learned from nurturing these communities?
ALK: I appreciate that distinction you name between being a teacher and an artist. Both are highly creative endeavors, but yes, writing or making art asks for a lot of solitude and delving into deep wordless spaces, even when you are working so closely with words, whereas teaching requires me to wear my extrovert hat and open myself to other people’s energy and needs.
Sometime writing can also feel selfish and myopic if it isn’t shared or if it consumes all of my creative energy. Teaching—and especially teaching classes for women of color and mixed-race students—has been such a life-giving endeavor for me, helping me to realize more fully how all the time I’ve spent writing and reflecting on my own story is not selfish, but part of a process I can share with others. I’ve gone deep into this path and alchemized the lessons into my own body and voice so that now I can help guide others.
For mixed-race people especially, who don’t often see their voices reflected in the outside world, it is especially important that they feel they have a guide that sees and hears them in their complexity, a guide they can trust. I’m not saying that all mixed-race people share the same experiences, of course. Just that this one important layer to our identity—that is steeped in paradox and complexity—is so rarely named or understood.
To write freely and discover new truths as we write, one must be able to let go of the censor, and the more barriers we can remove to our own self-censorship, the more we’ll be able to write what we need to write. There are so many communities that could benefit from being held in an intimate space where they feel inherently seen and heard, perhaps in a way that they never realized they needed.
KM: How have your classes impacted Heart Radical, and in turn how has writing and publishing this particular book impacted your teaching?
ALK: What a great question. I started working on the book in earnest around 2004 when I was getting my MFA, and then I started teaching writing workshops in 2006. For a long time, I felt a strong sense of imposter syndrome while teaching since I had not yet published a book. But over time I realized, I get to be the teacher who says, ‘Write no matter what. Write because you love it. Write what you need to write, even if it never gets published.’ There are good reasons to cling doggedly to your publishing dreams, but don’t let the challenges of the industry tell you whether your writing is inherently meaningful or not.
I’m always encouraging my students to be vulnerable in their work. To not censor themselves. To say the most important things. So inevitably, over time, as I edited my own book, it deepened. I was able to include harder truths, however subtle. I became more honest. And I was able to recognize and accept my own limitations—what I wasn’t yet able to convey on the page, whether because of crafting issues or because of the way that I was still living out the lessons of that time.
What I see now is how the layers I couldn’t fully get to get to in Heart Radical have become the seeds of my more recent work. We all have core obsessions and themes we circle around, and that of course there would be things left unsaid or unexplored fully in my memoir—and these I would carry forward into my next work. Having honed the trust and patience (and bouts of deep doubt and despair too) that comes with working on a project for nearly twenty years, I’m grateful I can share this journey of persistence with my students and show them that the writing path looks different for everyone.
KM: Using the image of the heart radical as a section break in the book is so affecting. That visual cue reminded me as I read of instruction in the first essay to “remember … as I speak of the heart” that “the word for heart, also means mind, feeling, or intention, as well as center, middle, or core.”
How did the heart radical section break come to be?
ALK: A friend I met in China and reconnected with recently suggested it while I was in the latter stages of editing, and I loved the idea. Because not only does the heart radical and character carry its own symbolic meaning, which I reflect on, but it also came to symbolize all the things I couldn’t say, all the ways that writing this book was a journey towards understanding what “heart radical” even means to me.
What was I trying to figure out or live into? Who was I trying to become? The answer is: a more authentic version of myself. Even if that meant a version that has to accept all of her own failures, self-deceptions, and limitations.
KM: The essays feel lush, personal yet expansive, and are so deftly shaped and written. These longer essays are effectively bookended by two brief pieces, “Searching for the Heart Radical” and the Afterword, “To Be Radical;” both offer intention and wisdom in declarative prose interspersed with white space that allows the reader space and time to let the ideas sink in. Where in the process did you write the Afterword and how did it come to be?
ALK: I wrote a version of this Afterword a few years ago, after several failed attempts. I knew I wanted to get to the root of things, to the essence, and as such to circle back to the meaning of the word ‘radical.’ But it took a long time for me to boil it down to so few words. Since I open with a lyrical chapter, it also made sense to end with lyricism. But mostly, I didn’t want the book to end with some kind of false “happily ever after” narrative, which in some ways one could infer from my narrative ending. I hoped that readers would take away so much more than my personal story, but read into the deeper, universal layers of self-discovery that I was living into—so that ultimately they’d come away reaching towards that vulnerable, searching part of themselves too.
KM: In the Afterword, you declare, “To be radical is to know when to withhold and when you must finally speak.” What are you writing and submitting now, and how is that (wisdom) shaping those decisions?
ALK: Over the many years that I’ve been writing and revising this memoir, I’ve also been writing essays and working on another intergenerational memoir. I have a completed collection of essays that I’m starting to submit. I trust now that I will always continue to have new writing and books spilling forth. So I don’t want to hoard my work; I want to put it out there in the word, the sooner the better, especially as I feel this collective sense of urgency and awakening in our society.
I hope that my writing can keep speaking to some of our collective essential questions—how do we live more courageous lives? How do we keep interrogating our own sense of responsibility, racism, or privilege? For so many years I felt so cloistered and hidden. Now, increasingly, I want to be a part of a larger conversation.
But I also know that a lot is out of my control. I would never have chosen for my first book to take so long to come out into the world. But perhaps the timing is perfect. In this last year, I’ve divorced, I’ve grown as a teacher and human being so much, and I feel more empowered to speak my truth than ever. It’s almost as if I had to complete another cycle of life in order to fully metabolize the lessons of Heart Radical and to be able to own how integral they are. What I can now share about the long journey to publish the book feels just as important as what is written within the pages.
More about Anne: Anne Liu Kellor is a mixed-race Chinese American writer, editor, and teacher based in Seattle. Her essays have appeared in Longreads, Seventh Wave, Fourth Genre, Witness, New England Review, Entropy, The Normal School, Los Angeles Review, Literary Mama, Brevity blog, and more. Anne is the recipient of fellowships from Hedgebrook, Seventh Wave, Jack Straw Writers Program, 4Culture, and Hypatia-in-the-Woods. She teaches writing workshops across the Pacific Northwest and loves to support writers in finding their voice and community. Heart Radical: A Search for Language, Love, and Belonging is her first book. Find her on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or her website.