Lia Dun is a nonbinary chinese american writer living in San Francisco. Their writing explores the intersections of asian american and queer identities. Lia's work has appeared in The Rumpus, Catapult, Exposition Review, and Autostraddle.
Why do you write? What compels you to write?
I usually give a smartass response to this, like "I write because I don't know how to have a real career" or "I enjoy being useless to humanity." It feels embarrassing to take myself seriously, but I'm trying harder now. These days, it's become even more obvious how art keeps us connected and helps us imagine new possibilities. Also, it makes me happy, another thing I'm making an effort to believe is important.
What upcoming writing projects are you working on?
I'm working on a few essays. About a year ago, I switched from writing mainly fiction to personal essays, and I'm still getting used to putting all these cringey things about myself on the page.
What are some of your artistic influences/inspirations?
I'm so bad at picking people! I'm obsessed with Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha's writing. I hadn't heard of disability justice before I read her work, and it changed the way I think about basically everything. Also, her work is just so direct, angry, full of joy, and funny at the same time. Another writer whose work I really love is Kai Cheng Thom, especially her poem "trauma is not sacred." A few months ago, I read We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby, and I want to be hilarious while writing about deep shit like that.
In middle school, I liked to read and write fanfiction, mostly for the anime Yu Yu Hakusho, which is about a teenage boy who saves the world from demons. Most of it was pretty awful, but it was also so gay and overflowing with feelings in a way that wasn't self-conscious at all. I think a lot of my writing practice as an adult has been trying to recapture that experience of writing because I wanted to and not knowing or caring if it was good or bad.
"Butcher Knives at the Ready" originally published at The Rumpus
When I moved to the East Coast for college and encountered large numbers of white people for the first time, I learned that there are people who do not eat pork, not for any particular health or religious reason, but because it is something they consider dirty, fatty, uncouth. This came as a shock to me, someone who does not think a vegetable dish is complete unless it is sprinkled with ground pork. The first time I heard a classmate say, "Pork just feels unhealthy to me," I felt exposed. It was similar to the feeling I got when tourists in Chinatown gawked at the ducks hanging in restaurant windows. It also confirmed something that I had long suspected, something that had lodged itself into my subconscious despite my "multicultural" upbringing in Los Angeles: that the food my family eats is somehow barbaric, that we are somehow monstrous.
For many years, I tried to civilize myself. I took a class where we read Paradise Lost and another where we read John Locke. I asked my mom to buy me two cardigans and a pair of suede boots, leaving any piece of clothing that looked remotely colorful back at my parents’ house. I smiled more and tamped down the volume of my laugh. When people called me cute or adorable, I told myself it was a compliment.
The year after graduating from college, I even tried to be a vegetarian. I did this partly because it was better for the environment but mostly because I felt unhealthy, like I was something that needed to be fixed. On the fifth day of vegetarianism, I was chopping a cucumber for a salad and started crying. A couple hours later, I blocked a sidewalk and devoured a 菜肉包, weeping at the taste of pork.
My father grew up watching men curse and slam cleavers into sides of ribs at his family’s meat market in Stockton, California. As a child, he stood on a step stool to fry himself a pound of bacon for breakfast every morning. When he was a teenager, he worked at the market, spending his afternoons making deliveries in a stick-shift truck that he once crashed into a pole. The first time my mom visited his family for Christmas, she was shocked at the spread: roast beef, a whole turkey, 叉燒, 燒肉, barbecue ribs.
When I was in first grade, my dad performed a one-man show about three Chinese American men, all with connections to his family’s meat market in Stockton. My parents pitched a tent in the corner of the rehearsal room so that I would have somewhere to play while they wrote and rehearsed. Being a first grader, I didn't pay much attention to what they were doing, but I do remember this line-- one of the characters, recently divorced, is complaining about his ex-wife.
"She always picked the worst steaks," he said. "No fat, no marbling."
Acting is my father's passion, but in the absence of steady work, he cooks. He did all the cooking when I was growing up, every meal a thoughtful, loving array of meat: black bean spare ribs, taro and pork, lamb chops with big chunks of marrow that I liked to suck out of the bones. Trying to help him was always frustrating because he didn't want anyone else to interfere with his creations. The stove at my parents’ house still always smells like oil and seared fat. The freezer is packed with chickens, steak, and pig feet. The balcony is my dad’s second kitchen, where he keeps his deep fryer and the barbecue, from which he regularly produces pot roasts with fat that melts in your mouth and cha siu that glistens a bright, violent red.
"What do you think?" he asks as soon as we sit down to eat, before me or my mom has gotten a chance to take a bite. "There's not enough soy sauce. Do you think there's enough soy sauce? I should add more soy sauce next time."
When I was in third grade, my dad had a heart attack. In addition to eating large amounts of meat, his side of the family is prone to high blood pressure and cholesterol. We are also four generations in to the feeling of perpetual foreignness, anger swallowed, rage flowing through the bloodstream.
After the heart attack, my dad became a vegetarian and replaced all the salt in his food with Mrs. Dash, an herb blend used as a substitute for sodium. "I want to meet my grandchildren," he said, shaking too much Mrs. Dash onto his vegetable and egg white stir-fries.
Still, in those first years after his heart attack, my dad cooked more meat for me and my mom than ever before. "Living vicariously," my mom said when he came home with a bag of steaks or a side of ribs that he found on sale. He always tried a bite of what he made and then spit it out. "Is it good? How is it?" he asked, even more intently than before, staring at us as we ate.
The neighborhood in LA where I grew up is a ground zero of gentrification, something that my middle class East Asian family of artist types has undeniably contributed to. When I was a kid, one of my family’s favorite neighborhood restaurants was a pupuseria. In high school, the pupuseria seemed to get more expensive every time we went, which I realize now had to do with the rising rent. Soon after it closed, the space reopened as a Berlin currywurst take-out. I remember not liking this change but did not yet possess the language to explain why.
The Berlin currywurst place closed a few years ago and was replaced by a pan-Asian noodle restaurant whose menu included spinach noodles with kale and a tom yum soup with chicken meat balls. I peered inside last year when I was home. A white hipster in skinny jeans was sitting on the patio. They smiled at me. I didn’t smile back.
My dad doesn't like it when I complain about the gentrifiers. A couple years ago, the two of us were walking around the neighborhood and passed a newer restaurant with minimalist decor and high metal stools instead of chairs. “Look, there are maybe five people of color in that entire restaurant.” I said, pointing through the window. I had just returned to LA after two years of living in Hong Kong and resented being a racial minority again. "And they're all the token non-white friend in their group."
"Why are you being so rude?" my dad said, quickly turning away from the restaurant. “That’s just who lives here now.”
It annoys me when my dad dismisses my anger. A Chinese American actor, he's seen his own career stalled by Hollywood's racism. When I tell him stories about my friend’s experiences with racism, he is always indignant (“You mean, all the people of color got passed over for promotions?”), but whenever I complain about a rude thing a white person did to me, he says something like, "You can't be this angry. You're going to be dealing with white people for the rest of your life."
To some extent, I understand why my dad is wary of my anger. He knows better than I do that racism is something inescapable. More importantly, he is familiar with the way untamed anger can be misdirected at people you care about, the ways resentment can leave a person bitter.
But my father’s anxieties aside, I am not the kind of person most would describe as angry. I’m more likely to be seen as shy, sweet, kind of awkward. For most of my life, anger was something I turned inward, manifesting as a brutal perfectionism and periods of vast, crushing sadness. I hid it because I was afraid of appearing monstrous. Only recently have I begun trying to harness anger for the powerful tool that it is: a force that transforms shame into action, an unwavering guide that leads us forward, butcher knives at the ready, in search of a better world.
When I was living in Hong Kong, my friends and I did the privileged Westerner thing where we "explored" the "local" restaurants. One of our favorites was a dai pai dong that specialized in roast pigeon. The pigeons came on a large plate, quartered and accompanied by their heads. My friends never ate the heads, something that I secretly hated. What if someone killed us for food and then threw our heads in the trash?
One night, after we finished eating, I asked my flatmate if we could take the heads home. My flatmate looked at my suspiciously. "Why?" I usually liked my flatmate, but sometimes she grated on me in the way that white liberals inevitably do. Hearing the annoyance in her voice, I insisted on taking the pigeon heads and clutched the take-out container to my chest the entire subway ride home.
A few days later, I ate them for lunch. I felt squeamish placing the heads on a bed of rice. Was I immature for bringing them home just to spite a white girl who was also my friend? But then, as they microwaved, I was relieved by the rich smell filling our apartment. No, I thought, this was so right.
I sat at our table and ate each head one by one, relishing the residue the skull and the brains left on my tongue. Sucking on the last pigeon head, I was filled with a happiness that seemed monstrous, a joy so powerful and consuming that I knew it could not be taken away from me.