Want to write (or get your elders to write) the Great Asian American Memoir?
By Frances Kai-Hwa Wang
Happy National Novel Writing Month! Also known as NaNoWriMo, every November, people around the country come together to write their Great American Novel. Founded in 1999, the premise is simple. A short novel like “The Great Gatsby” is about 50,000 words. 50,000 words divided by 30 days equals 1,667 words a day. So all one has to do to write a novel is to write 1,667 words a day for 30 days.
It may not be a very good novel, but it is a completed novel, and everything can be fixed in editing.
Last year, 552,335 writers from around the world participated in NaNoWriMo programs, including 97,439 students and educators in the Young Writers Program. Hundreds of NaNoWriMo novels have been traditionally published, including “Water for Elephants” by Sara Gruen and “The Truth About Twinkie Pie” by Kat Yeh.
This year, the folks at Creative Nonfiction decided, “Why should fiction writers get all the support this month? We’re proclaiming November as National Memoir Writing Month. Long live NaMeWriMo!”
And I am all for it. Let’s write and get our elders to write.
Last spring I taught a creative writing class at the New York Public Library in Mandarin Chinese to a group of lively Chinese grandmas, including my mom, aunties, and a lot of their friends and classmates. Some of them wanted to write in English so that their grandchildren would be able to read what they wrote. Some felt more comfortable writing in Chinese. The language did not really matter. We had so much fun writing and sharing stories about first days in America, favorite foods missed, and hopes and dreams for beloved grandchildren. The class was supposed to be one hour long, but people stayed on and continued chatting for two.
If 50,000 words seems daunting, don’t worry. There are many ways to tell the stories of one’s life, including audio recordings, video/Zoom/Facetime recordings, StoryCorps interviews (there’s an app), paintings, drawings, photographs, cookbooks, cooking videos, short memories, even just writing a love letter to our families. It does not have to be long.
My friend Gil made cooking videos with his mother, asking her to teach him how to cook his favorite dishes. And while she was distracted demonstrating proper chopping techniques, he asked her questions about her food and her life.
Our elders have so many incredible stories to share, all we have to do is ask.