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An Interview with Annie Tan

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Annie Tan is an educator, writer, activist, speaker, and storyteller from Chinatown, Manhattan. Annie is working on her first book, Learning to Speak: A Daughter’s Journey Toward Languages, Activism, and Legacy, a memoir of not sharing a common fluent language with her parents while wanting to uphold the legacy of her cousin Vincent Chin, whose 1982 Detroit murder sparked an Asian American civil rights movement.

Annie’s writing has been supported by the Vermont Studio Center, Tin House Writers Workshop, Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and the Changemaker Authors Cohort. Her work has appeared in the Huffington Post, PBS’ Asian Americans, PBS’ Stories From The Stage, Edutopia, New Republic, and The Moth Radio Hour on NPR. Annie manages a virtual mentoring program for Asian American youth and was an elementary special education teacher for over a decade in New York City and Chicago Public Schools.

What inspired you to start writing this book?

I am a child of Chinese immigrant parents and haven’t seen a memoir documenting the tensions and gaps that occur when the children of immigrants don’t learn their heritage languages fluently and thus can’t speak fully to their own families. In my case, I grew up in Manhattan’s Chinatown, where my parents didn’t have to learn English, but English is the only language I became fluent in. There were many reasons for this: my parents worked six days a week to support us, were too tired to speak to us at night, and overall didn’t want to talk about their pasts in aai luk, which I didn’t realize until fifth grade meant China. (My parents speak Toisan, Cantonese & Mandarin.) We had to focus on survival, meaning doing well in school—I would translate at my own parent-teacher conferences! This book is foremost dedicated to my parents.

Thus, I took it as a given that I wouldn’t be able to have the deep connection I longed for with both my parents and the Chinese culture I came from. But, almost as if by chance, I found out at 13 that I am related to a man named Vincent Chin, who was killed in 1982 in Detroit; his case led to a historic Asian American civil rights movement and was the first federally tried hate crime on behalf of an Asian American. His story has inspired countless activists, lawyers, changemakers, and organizations. For me, Vincent became my way to understand my family—his story was in English, after all. The everyday story of the relationship of a child of immigrants with their parents, tied with the outsized story of Vincent Chin and his mother, my great-auntie Lily Chin, who spoke and made this movement happen, inspires me to no end. Documenting the journey, merging the two stories, and deciding what I would do with both, has been exhilarating.

Tell us the story of your book’s current title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?

The book’s original title was “Speaking Into Existence,” which one of my closest friends rightfully said sounded like a new-age meditation book. I wanted the book title to sum up the larger themes of needing to speak a language in order to keep it, needing to speak up to maintain a legacy, and knowing what matters to speak about to maintain the most important relationships in life, with my family, friends, and community. I realized the journey my main character (me) takes is a journey of learning to speak. Within a few minutes, I proposed a new name for the book: Learning to Speak: A Daughter’s Journey Toward Languages, Activism, and Legacy. My friend enthusiastically agreed; thanks, Ai-Lin.

What books are you reading (for research or comfort) as you continue the writing process?

A linguist friend suggested I look at the research of Maria Polinsky and her book Heritage Languages and Their Speakers (2018), which sums up the academic theory of people like myself who have limited acquisition of their home heritage languages. It has also provided a lot of respite, knowing I am not alone in this experience, and even some hope. More people are covering this experience of language loss and reclamation, including Jenny Liao in The New Yorker and Kat Chow in The Atlantic, and some books like Rajiv Mohabir’s memoir Antiman and Julie Sedivy’s Memory Speaks: On Losing and Reclaiming Language and Self, all of which have come out in the last three years. I hope to add to that list and help others feel less alone.

I also wanted to call out Paula Yoo’s From A Whisper To A Rallying Cry, which chronicles my cousin Vincent Chin’s case in depth. It was through her book that I learned Vincent wanted to be a writer but was dissuaded by his family because it wasn’t practical. Writing has been vital to processing this experience, and I’m glad to carry on Vincent’s legacy in this way.

What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?

I started writing in earnest when I had to learn how to teach writing to my elementary special education students, who I taught for over ten years. I learned from my English as a New Language training that in order to master a language, one has to continually speak and write it. After about five years in the classroom, I told my first story onstage at a Moth StorySLAM. Less than a year later, I told publicly for the first time how I found out about Vincent Chin and his story’s impact on my life; that ended up on NPR’s The Moth Radio Hour. Another story of mine aired as well, about how my dad and I attempt to overcome our language gap. After telling about twenty stories over a four-year period, I found a connective tissue with fifteen of them: the longing for family connection. This was right as the pandemic started and when I knew I had a book to write.

Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?

Kimarlee Nguyen was, like me, an Asian American female teacher in NYC public schools, and who was working on her first book. Sadly, she, like almost a hundred NYC public schools staff, died of COVID-19. Kimarlee and I had many mutual friends, some of whom were her colleagues. I started writing my book when she passed in April 2020, knowing tomorrow isn’t promised. I also look to other Asian American femme writers paving the way with their advocacy, namely Chanel Miller, Stephanie Foo, and Qian Julie Wang, who happens to be a special education lawyer and who fights for the rights of my former students.

Do you have any writing rituals?

I realize now, like Nina Sharma, who was my first-ever writing workshop teacher, I don’t have one ritual. I know I do better when I hand write: I wrote my first draft on my subway commute with my multi-subject Rocketbook, essentially a dry-erase notebook where you can scan the pages and it’ll digitize your handwriting into typed text; it’s about 90-95% correct, and I can use the scan to fix any errors. For my third draft, and for this interview, I used a reMarkable 2 tablet to digitize my handwriting. I have the draft on me on my tablet at all times and I will read through the draft and write my notes, edits, and revision ideas on the side to work into my draft later. I find I’m more honest when I am handwriting: it forces me to slow down and think of what’s important to say. My schedule and energy levels fluctuate, so I just have to find pockets of time where I can do the work, even if it’s just ten minutes here and there.

What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?

This book will be for anyone who has struggled to communicate with the people in their lives they want a closer relationship with, and for anyone dealing with a legacy of intergenerational trauma, whether within their own family or community. Whenever I feel in doubt, I am reminded of my great-auntie Lily Chin, who went all over the nation to speak about her dead son Vincent Chin, just as so many mothers and family members across history have done. Because of Lily’s advocacy and refusal to silence or hide herself, so many have been empowered to also speak up for justice. My hope is that, while protecting our communities from being re-traumatized as much as we can, readers will learn they must speak up in small and large ways, from having the courage to say what they mean to parents and loved ones, to fighting for change for the greater good. Lastly, I hope my book can prevent things like what happened to my cousin Vincent Chin, especially with the recent rise in anti-Asian hate, from happening again.

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