Kyle Lucia Wu: “We were stripped of any way to understand mixedness”
The author on existing outside of struggle, being authentically Asian and the mixed voices she loves
Hi, welcome back to Mixed Messages! This week I’m speaking to author Kyle Lucia Wu, whose debut novel Win Me Something explores belonging. Protagonist Willa is a biracial Chinese American, and feels that familiar sense of being too Asian to fit in at her predominantly white school, but too white to connect with the Asian community around her. I was excited to speak to Kyle about her own story and how the conversation needs to develop. Read it below.
How do you define your race and ethnicity?
I normally say biracial Chinese-American, which doesn’t disclose all the details about me. My stepdad was Filipino, my dad was Chinese and I grew up in a house with a lot of Filipino customs and foods, but that’s not my ethnicity.
I used to say that I was half-white, half-Chinese, but I’ve been moving away from quantifying myself in halves. A lot of the terminology around being mixed is very flawed.
What I say changes depending on the situation. I think I’ll probably always have a slight defensiveness towards this question, because it was asked or demanded of me growing up by people I didn’t know.
Has your sense of self shifted over time and place?
Growing up, I had no language for how I felt or the experiences I was going through. We were stripped of any way to understand it. I grew up mostly with my mom, who was white, at a time when being ‘colourblind’ was the in vogue way to deal with racism. There’s a disconnect when our parents are our foundations and are supposed to understand us. Now, there’s so much more language around mixedness.
Did you connect to your Chinese culture?
We celebrated Lunar New Year, went out for dim sum every weekend and visited China, but it felt superficial but those traditions and history felt so far away from me. When I got older, I became aware of the contemporary Asian American experience, saw artists, writers and activists, and felt like I could locate myself within that.
Is that authenticity something you’ve struggled with?
These things half-existed in my head, but I didn’t have the tools to fully process them. I thought that when I went to China I’d be welcomed with open arms. I’d grown up being told that I was Chinese and not part of this American community. My grandmother taught me a phrase to say, “I’m sorry I can’t understand you,” but I never got to use it because everyone immediately knew I was American.
Do you think there’s a stereotype of what it means to be mixed?
There have been moments where being mixed has been trendy or desirable. I’ve had comments about my future kids and how they’d be so ‘mixed’, almost as if they’re a cupcake or paint palette or something. I listen to the Feeling Asian podcast too and they had model Sarah Hiromi on it. She said that her career started because there was a moment when people were desperate for mixed models. It’s interesting to think about the way being mixed can be exoticised into this profitable trend.
How do you want the mixed conversation to change?
We need more multifaceted stories about being mixed. There can be a lot about the confusion of the experience, which I would have loved to have seen documented when I was younger. But for any marginalised community, you want to exist outside of your struggle. You want to exist in joy, without the nonstop questions.
Did writing Win Me Something spark any thoughts on mixedness for you?
I wanted to write a story about characters like myself; biracial and growing up around different backgrounds. It was difficult and people didn’t get it. I’d seen it be suggested that if you’re going to bring up the fact that you’re biracial then it should be dominating the story, rather than just an aspect of their existence.
There’s this book called Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong, and she’s biracial but her identity is not made a thing of in the book. She just has one white parent and one Asian parent. I think that’s great, because not everyone grows up with a traumatic experience of being biracial.
Was there anyone mixed growing up that you looked up to?
The only person I can think of is Kristin Kreuk, from Smallville. I was infatuated with her.
Today, we have a wealth of people speaking wonderfully about being mixed. One of the first books that I thought spoke to my facet of being mixed-race was Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Harmless Like You. Rowan is mixed-race, and although the book isn’t about a mixed-race character, it talks about this loneliness that I felt was so inherent in my experience.
Youngmi Mayer from Feeling Asian does some of the best content around being biracial. There's also Maya Erskine who writes for Pen 15; the show is a comedy but I’ve cried watching it because it felt so close to my experience. Ruth Ozeki is amazing too. We have such a wealth of mixed-race artists who are leaving such a good blueprint for the future.
What’s the best thing about being mixed for you?
The ability to see from different angles. You can see that as both a burden and a curse, not neatly fitting into or being welcomed into one identity. You’re let into different worlds and can see things from an outsider’s perspective by necessity. That’s a gift.
Can you sum up being mixed in a single word?
Buy Win Me Something here (or if anyone can find a UK seller that isn’t Amazon, please do let me know!) Next week I’ll be talking to writer and poet Nina Mingya Powles. Subscribe to get Mixed Messages in your inbox on Monday.
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Mixed Messages is a weekly exploration of the mixed-race experience, from me, Isabella Silvers. My mom is Punjabi (by way of East Africa) and my dad is white British, but finding my place between these two cultures hasn’t always been easy. That’s why I started Mixed Messages, where each week I’ll speak to a prominent mixed voice to delve into what it really feels like to be mixed.