Labels and Charlottesville | Karen Kao

This week marks the second anniversary of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. You remember: neo-Nazis, torches, one fatality and a US President claiming “You also had some very fine people on both sides.”


But that's not what this post is about. It's about labels, how we use them and, perhaps, how they use us. This is what I wrote on my own blog Shanghai Noir in the days following this horror show.

last week 

I ran into an article by Lan Samantha Chang entitled Writers, Protect Your Inner Life. Sam’s day job is director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. When school’s out, she gives writing workshops in Paris (2014) and Napa (2016).

At Napa, Sam gave a craft lecture on the interior life. She gave us a handout called “Ways to Nurture Your Inner Life”.  3 of the 14 tips involved getting off social media. I thought her article would cover the same territory but I had missed the subtitle .
A Writing Life and a Writing Career Are Two Separate Things.

these past few months


Ever since the publication of The Dancing Girl and the Turtle, I’ve been obsessed with social media. My own, of course. I’m looking for a cool photo to post on Instagram. Trying to grab hold of the merry-go-round called Twitter. Even this blog had become part of my social media image.

This is not an experience unique to writers. As Sam so aptly notes, there is
considerable pressure in this [US] society to have a strong and well-defined outer life. In New York, that might include real estate and private schools. In Iowa, this might include regular family dinners made from personally gathered, wild edibles. This pressure began way back with our country’s founders, many of whom believed in the existence of the elect – in the idea that some of us are predestined to salvation. This idea can be logically extended to mean that some of us are not. Because we have no way, when we’re alive, of knowing which of us is predestined, it is important to behave as if.
For a writer, this pressure to groom our outer lives is sales-driven. Our publishers, agents and peers tell us that we must talk about our writing. We must expose ourselves. There is no other way to attract and retain readers. Yet most writers struggle to do so. It’s like grasping mercury with your bare hands: painful and ultimately impossible. Again, Sam says it best:
the sincere reaction to making meaningful art is often speechlessness. We make art about what we cannot understand through any other method.

right now


Writing should be my priority, not winning the Miss Congeniality award. All the blood should be going into my novel-in-progress. But just as the creative process is near impossible to dissect, you can’t control its ebb and flow either.

Thinking, fast and slow was once a business school mantra. It’s also a great metaphor for the act of writing. A novel contains a million moving parts, all of which connect in ways known only to the author. But my mind can only hold so much information. So I’m in a tearing rush to get it all on paper before the words leak out my ears.

At the same time, I need to slow down. Let life seep into my novel because it’s life that informs and deepens writing. By life, I don’t mean autobiographical arcana. I want my novel to burst with living, breathing human beings in all their wonder, beauty and horror. I’m referring now to Charlottesville.

last night


Like most people, I’ve read numerous of eyewitness accounts of the nightmare now known as #Charlottesville. Some called it a reversal of the civil rights movement. Others saw the rise of the Third Reich. In both cases, it’s unabashed violence against the helpless, merely because they can be labelled as “other”.

Danica Bornstein has written a powerful and painful exploration of her own reactions to Charlottesville. She’s fully cognizant of the privileges her white skin accords her. Yet, as a Jew, she is also deeply afraid. Nazis surround a synagogue and the congregation hides the Torah for safekeeping. We’re not talking about Nuremburg 1937 but Charlottesville 2017. Bornstein reminds us that we’re not so removed from the Holocaust as we’d like to think.
Every oppression is special and unique and one of anti-Semitism’s key qualities is its rhythm. It is not relentless; it is cyclical. During the good times everyone but us starts to forget anti-Semitism and starts to think of it as a thing of the past. […] But then something goes wrong in that place – the economy crashes, unemployment rises, the wheels begin to fall off – and the active phase of anti-Semitism begins.

long ago

New York City taxi
Image source:

When I was in my 20’s, I went to New York City with some girlfriends. In those days, it was possible to jam a taxi full of giggling girls. I was smooshed up against the cab driver, who proceeded to tell me his life’s story.

While a student at the music conservatory in Vienna, he lost his hearing. He needed surgery and the US was the only place he could get it. And so he went, thus becoming the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust. He remarried and raised a family. He was terribly proud of his daughter the lawyer and his son the doctor.

At the end of the ride, this fellow offered me a piece of hard white candy. Of course, my mother had taught me never to take candy from strangers. But I knew that if I refused this gift, I would break this gentle soul’s heart. Besides, I was with friends who could rush me to the hospital. And so I took the candy, popped it into my mouth and lived to tell the tale.



I don’t think I’d do the same today. Life feels so much more dangerous. There are assholes and creeps everywhere it seems. Not to speak of the crazies who come with semi-automatic weapons to Charlottesville. It’s getting hard to know who to trust.

Our prehistoric forefathers had it easier. They could tell, just by looking or smelling, whether safety or danger lay ahead. We’ve inherited that same instinct for survival but have somehow lost our ability to read the signs. We mistake skin color for intent, religion for acceptability, clothing as a political statement. We like to over-generalize, categorize, and label.

But our labels are all wrong. Should I fear every white man with a shaved head and tattoos? Can I safely associate only with those people who look and act and sound like me? When I cross the street at night, am I being foolish, racist or both?

in retrospect


A month ago, I wrote an article for called We Are Not Labels. I fulminated there about the various labels affixed to my forehead: female, Asian, immigrant. But my conclusion was that, for a writer, labels are a necessary evil. They’re how readers find you. I wrote:
Labels are shortcuts. They function as signposts or runes for the initiated to discern the truth. That’s all. No need to get our knickers in a twist.
I was wrong. Labels aren’t shortcuts; they’re pitfalls. They don’t all wash off. Some of them can get you killed. As long as we navigate through life using only labels, we don’t have to think. And in our thoughtlessness, Charlottesville is doomed to recur.

Danica Bornstein reminds us that skin color cannot be the only measure of friend or foe. That beneath whatever shade of dermis you might have, lies a wealth of complexity.

Sam Chang teaches me not to worry about the outer life. Look instead to the place inside that gives birth to your creativity. It’s the same place that makes me, me and you, you.

No more labels, please.


Bill Kirton said…
Fascinating and edifying, Karen. Thank you. You've managed a broad sweep of very troubling, complex issues over a long period and kept the essentials clear and focused. I wish our 'leaders' could find and act on such clarity.
Susan Price said…
What you said, Bill.

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