long read | essay

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The Changeling –– an essay by Alexander Chee





In a personal essay, The Changeling, Alexander recounts the moments from his past that moulded, catalyzed and nurtured the writer in him. Essays like these run the risk of falling into a cause-and-effect certainty (and then it all fell into place), but not this one. Here, honest moments come up for air.

“Why am I this person?” This is what we imagine the author thinking out loud, a lot. It may be both agonizing and reassuring to read about how many times this question confronts him. We get the sense that it will keep popping up, too. In this, we are reassured that making a living and making sense of who we are anything but linear paths.

Does excluding ethnicity from his stories render the stories, and its readers, colorblind? Maybe only temporarily. Is this desirable? If we believe in a post-racial future—perhaps. What do we lose in doing so? We lose the chance to imagine, in full color, lived experiences not our own. These are some of the questions Alexander allows us to wrestle with as he wrestles with them himself.

On finding one’s many selves

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“I am a person who is used to being mistaken for someone other than who he is. It is a kind of disappearing act, one I wasn’t initially in control over, though I did — do — also like to disappear…Other people’s mistaken perceptions of me have taught me a kind of dance, as if it were all a long game of jumping rope.


…I write to find myself within my own shifting relationship to myself, and to make sense of the way that shifting self is interpreted by others.”



On unlikely mentors

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“(Joan Didion) may not have seemed like the most obvious teacher for someone like me, but she was the teacher I found. One of my favorite quotes of hers is, “I have already lost touch with a couple of the people I used to be.”


…I love her for how the sight of her that day taught me to at last value what I had always been bothered by in myself: the unpredictability of my own appearance, the way no one seemed to reliably know who I was, or what, or where I was from. That I learned to see this as a strength, a tool I could use as a writer, well, I learned that from her.”



On writing lies vs writing fiction

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“In college, when I finally began to write short stories, I started with stories that had characters with no discernible ethnicity, as if that were something everyone in the world of that particular particular story had forgotten existed. I wanted the ease of not having to explain myself that seemed so much a part of every book I read, and yet I also experienced the same feeling looking at them that I felt when I saw my closeted high school play — as if I’d written a lie and not a fiction.

… I write to make myself visible. Legible on my own terms first. When I write, I ask myself, What do you see in your life that you don’t see in what you are reading? How can you put it there?”



Read the full essay on Longreads


Photographs from Longreads.
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Mark