An Interview with Author Anne Liu Kellor
Sept 22, 2021
Interviewed by author Mary Pan
Anne Liu Kellor is used to living in an in-between space. Her debut memoir, Heart Radical, chronicles her search for belonging as a mixed-race individual who travels to her mother’s homeland of China and navigates her own internal landscape to shape the trajectory of her life moving forward. Through her memoir, Anne offers herself, and the reader, the gift of interrogation, an exploration of how ancestry and language and environment both create and dispel belonging.
In straddling and embodying two worlds, Anne gains a broader understanding of oppression and privilege, and expands her perception of communal belonging and the ways we both inherit and perpetuate silence and pain. Anne’s frequent disruption in her young adulthood alters her values and priorities, even as she discovers a broader definition of self.
I was searching for my own identity as a new mother when I stumbled upon Anne’s “Writing Your Birth Story” class. As a mixed-race Seattleite exploring the meaning of belonging, Anne’s encouraging spirit allowed me to be vulnerable and interrogate my own sense of worth, values, and privilege. Anne herself has found a kind of redemption in not only writing, but also teaching and fostering community, especially for mixed-race women. She has a gift for connecting people to their writerly selves.
The cultivation and necessity of such community amongst writers and artists, especially at this moment of time, is one that Anne has championed throughout her teaching career. Now, more than ever, we need to cut through the world’s insistence of isolation and acknowledge we need each other. Anne learned this lesson at an early age, and her life’s work as a teacher and mentor illustrates this necessity. Ultimately, the story of Heart Radical highlights the need for community and connectivity to our ancestry and to humanity as a whole. It is a search for not just who we are, but how we exist together.
Mary Pan: Early in Heart Radical you share that no one in your family wanted you to go to China. What was it like to have a deep desire to understand this part of you and your heritage but also be discouraged to do so by your family members?
Anne Liu Kellor: I understood on some level that my family’s response at the time was coming from fear—from not wanting their twenty-one-year-old daughter to go somewhere far away by herself.
As a mother now, I can better understand that fear. But back then, it just felt like another way in which my parents were firmly planted in advocating for so-called safe and practical paths. They wanted me to go to college and get a good job. For me to want to be a writer and travel in Asia instead—that felt risky to them. But I was used to them discouraging risk. Perhaps I hoped that on another unspoken level, they also admired the decision. Both of my parents have always shouldered a lot of responsibility in their families—but they also were the first to travel far from home. So after they got used to the idea that I was going to do what I wanted, maybe I sensed they were proud of that independent, brave part of me; maybe it reminded them of parts of themselves or other paths they might have taken. I do feel that as children, we live out a part of our parents’ unlived paths.
I do feel that as children, we live out a part of our parents’ unlived paths.
Mary: Speaking of influence across generations, how do you think intergenerational trauma impacts both what we feel drawn to as well as what we might avoid in our lives?
Anne: I’m so thankful that many of us are leaning into this question these days. Trauma can impact us—and our descendants through many generations—in different ways. Either we run from past trauma, don’t want to look at it or can’t—because our bodies are protecting us from the pain, or we become aware of it and move towards it—remembering, questioning, and paying attention to how it shows up in our bodies.
I would not say that I’ve experienced much direct trauma, so it used to puzzle me why I felt so much sorrow. But, through writing this book and digging into my Chinese heritage, I’ve come to see how my mother and her mother and many generations on that side have experienced trauma—being refugees and growing up amidst war. Whether that has been passed down to me through my DNA or simply in the way that I was raised, nature versus nurture, isn’t that important for me to distinguish. What is important is simply acknowledging that I have inherited legacies from my ancestors, and perhaps because I feel more of the residual impact versus the blunt force, I am more capable of turning towards it, and being both direct and gentle with my questions and treatment of it.
Mary: You note how your second trip to Tibet felt different than the first and opt to omit your involvement in Free Tibet activism from a fellow traveler you met, Zhang Jie. Why did you withhold your views on China and Tibet from those you met in China?
Anne: Learning about modern China and Tibet’s history was my earliest introduction to cultural genocide, famine, torture, and the great suffering that humans can inflict on one another. However, when I was drawn into Tibetan rights activism in my early twenties, it was easy for many to frame the conflict as good vs. evil—evil Communist army against pure, spiritual Tibetans—and thus to speak of “the Chinese” with a negative connotation.
I was never satisfied with this narrative, and nor did it align with what I was learning about non-duality from Buddhism and the Dalai Lama. I was, of course, deeply moved by the Tibetan people’s plight, but I could not separate that from the suffering that Chinese people had been through as well, especially during the Cultural Revolution. And when you drill even deeper into the nature of karma and suffering, you can see of course how even the perpetrators, even the murderers and torturers, are suffering and deserving of compassion—how everything is a part of a chain of cause and effect, no one is just born “evil,” we all learn our behaviors from our ancestors and those around us. But I was not able back then to express these kinds of ideas very well, especially in Chinese. So instead I just avoided having conversations about politics and spirituality—which ironically was what I wanted to be talking about the most.
Mary: This gets to the fact that in Heart Radical you note many of the challenges to existing between and within two different cultures. What are the benefits of belonging to two different cultures?
Anne: I think if you are able to do the work of interrogating your many layers of experiences, feelings, and identities, you can emerge into a place where you understand what it means to embody “both/and” as opposed to “either/or.” For many of us, our embodied experience of how we are seen in the world, or how we experience it, rejects binaries and embraces an innate sense of complexity. This can be interpreted as a burden, especially when we are younger and pressured to fit into narrow boxes or social groups. But ultimately, I now see my mixed heritage as both a responsibility and a gift. I understand how my Asian and white American lineage can both embody the oppressed and the oppressor—it’s not abstract exercise for me to think in this way. It’s my blood line, it’s my inherited privilege, blind spots, and habits. It’s a gift to be able to feel like you have an in-road into being heard or seen as “one of us” by more people, at the same time that it can feel like you are hiding something, like you are afraid that you will be exposed as a fraud. So I feel compelled to look at this directly, to digest it, and attempt to make meaning of it through which I can connect with others who might share similar experiences.
If you are able to do the work of interrogating your many layers of experiences, feelings, and identities, you can emerge into a place where you understand what it means to embody “both/and” as opposed to “either/or.”
Mary: Yes, this kind of intentional reflection is so important. I do want to ask about your experience of being perceived in a certain way. You note the scrutiny received just walking down the street in some of the places you lived in your early twenties. What did being a societal minority, a kind of novelty, during that time teach you about others’ experience?
Anne: It taught me what it felt like to be othered, to continually guess how people see you, how you may be judged. And as such, it gives me a more universal awareness of what it feels like for anyone who feels singled out for looking or acting differently, or even feeling differently inside. Understanding this on a visceral level versus an intellectual level makes my commitment to others more personal. For example, Black Americans. I would never overtly compare my experience of being othered or scrutinized to theirs. And yet, when I was in China, the intensity of people’s gaze and mistrust of me made me more aware of this dynamic—let’s call it the Chinese gaze I experienced there, versus the white gaze. Nevertheless, while living as an American with Western features and light skin in China, while I may have been resented at times, I also was often envied or admired. So it’s not an equal comparison. Just a continual widening of empathy and awareness that I took with me back to the States where I would go on to interrogate how my racial identity operates on this side of the world, which is very different than in China.
Mary: Did your relationship with Yizhong give you insight into your parents’ possible experience as a mixed-race couple?
Anne: It’s kind of amazing to me that I’ve never directly considered this question. But of course there are parallels, right? As a foreigner, alone in China, I was both incredibly independent as I forged a life for myself and incredibly dependent on others for help, especially my boyfriend at the time, Yizhong. I can see how my mom when she came to the States for grad school was operating in a similar space. The difference was that while we both might have been perceived by others as foreign, I was simultaneously experiencing a kind of homecoming through speaking Chinese. But I’m sure people stared at my mom and dad in Wisconsin, as they stared at us. And I’m sure that my mom and I both experienced culture shock on a similar level. Also, a lot more hinged on her success in America—future opportunities for her family, who all followed in her footsteps and came to the U.S. Whereas for me, traveling was more of an adventure. My family wasn’t dependent on me. I hoped to stay in China and create a home for myself in some way, but I always knew it was my choice to stay or leave.
A sense of belonging doesn’t have to be so binary or tribal—you can never find one group that shares all of your traits, customs, or beliefs, but rather you can form allegiances and connection across many groups and intersecting layers of identity.
Mary: Whether in Germany, Hong Kong, Chengdu or Seattle, your self-perception is shaped by your environment. How does being mixed-race allow for such shapeshifting? Is this a benefit of being mixed-race or do you think it creates a challenge to finding a true home?
Anne: Again, the answer is paradoxical and nonbinary. This awareness of how others perceive or misperceive you is one of the universal experiences that mixed-race folks have. It then leads to continual choices around what you choose to divulge in any given situation—which in turn can often feel like code switching or shapeshifting or like coming in and out of hiding. Living with such a consciousness can create a lot of stress, and it can also lead towards a greater understanding and acceptance of how you are made up of many influences and layers. While you may never achieve an easy sense of belonging within one ethnic or racial group, you can learn to find belonging across many identities. A sense of belonging doesn’t have to be so binary or tribal—you can never find one group that shares all of your traits, customs, or beliefs, but rather you can form allegiances and connection across many groups and intersecting layers of identity.
Mary: That’s so powerful, this idea of finding belonging across many identities. How does being mixed-race and your experience of living in China in your twenties impact your values of success and worth? Has your experience during the pandemic enhanced or altered those values?
Anne: As a child of a Chinese mother, I’ve received many of the same messages that children of immigrants receive—work hard, get a good paying job, value wealth and security for your family over creative or spiritual pursuits. I think this is one reason why I felt at first like my journey to China had to be tied to achieving something tangible—if not becoming fluent in Chinese, then gaining some insight into my life’s work. After I returned to the States and gradually lost my hard-won ties to China and speaking Chinese regularly, it did feel in a way like I’d failed. I wasn’t going to become some China expert or translator. Instead, I just kept coming back to my writing. And while finally publishing Heart Radical after working on it for so long does make me feel more “successful and worthy,” what has felt the most redemptive of all is being able to teach writing and foster community. My students and my writing community have been essential to me not feeling like all of my writing-work is selfish or ego-driven. To hear your story in someone else’s story, to foster more empathy and love towards humanity, to feel less alone—there’s little that feels more important than this, especially right now, during the pandemic and during a time of such division.
To hear your story in someone else’s story, to foster more empathy and love towards humanity, to feel less alone—there’s little that feels more important than this, especially right now, during the pandemic and during a time of such division.
Mary: During your travels and time living outside of the States, did you encounter communities of communal belonging, of taking care of others above ourselves? How might we learn from those communities?
Anne: I can’t say that I ever fully entered a community while in China, but I did experience so many instances of people extending kindness towards me. Strangers taking me into their homes for a meal, or literally offering me their shoulder to lean and sleep on during a long bus ride. An old Tibetan beggar man once invited me into his shack to drink a cup of tea. A wealthy Tibetan family invited me in for a day of feasting and watching a Sylvester Stallone movie on their TV. It didn’t matter how rich or poor they were—people in China, and especially in Tibet, welcomed me into their homes in a way that is hard to imagine happening in the U.S. These kinds of experiences made me ask: how can I give back with my life? How can I make use of all of this wealth and privilege I’ve been born into? Most of the time, I do still focus on taking care of myself before others—it’s wired into me in a big way. But at least I am aware of this impulse now, and continually interrogating it. Asking myself: when does it make me more secure to live like this, or when does it harm me—when does it make me more fearful and closed off, and as such less fully alive?
I find value in exposing. Anything I keep hidden is usually linked to fear or shame. That doesn’t mean that everything is ready to come out or needs to come out in a public way—sometimes we simply need to expose things to ourselves.
Mary: There are themes of exposure, of being hidden in Heart Radical. How did your experiences show you the value of being exposed? Of keeping things hidden?
Anne: The more I write and publish, the more I find value in exposing. Anything I keep hidden is usually linked to fear or shame. That doesn’t mean that everything is ready to come out or needs to come out in a public way—sometimes we simply need to expose things to ourselves. But for writers and artists, we often live so much of our lives in our heads and creations, that to finally share our work brings a cycle of discovery to full fruition. But we have to be ready and choose it for ourselves. I stayed hidden for a long, long time. Being quiet and watchful was safe for me. I developed an inner trust in my voice and who I was, a core that can’t easily be shaken. For me, I needed a long gestation period.
Mary: What has it meant to you to teach classes to help others explore their own multiracial identity?
Anne: It has meant so much to me to connect with other mixed-race people and writers, when for most of my life, I never had any community around this part of my identity. It has validated for me how universal some aspects of our experiences are, and how different it can be depending on what we look like, what mix we are, what generation we are from, or where we live. It has strengthened my trust in my voice and vulnerability when it comes to writing around race, my trust that there are a lot of us out there who are hungry to hear more voices speaking to the multiracial experience. And that in sharing our stories, we can contribute to the incredibly urgent conversations our world is having around binaries, around racism, colorism, anti-Blackness, privilege, and responsibility. Mixed-race people are not a monolith, nor are we especially enlightened in our views. But most of us do carry a lot of inherited silence and pain—the tensions of racial dynamics embodied in our very being. And as such, we carry a lot of potential for transcendence, for the rupturing old silences, and for healing.
In sharing our stories, we can contribute to the incredibly urgent conversations our world is having around binaries, around racism, colorism, anti-Blackness, privilege, and responsibility.