Anne Liu Kellor’s profound and lyrical memoir, Heart Radical: A Search for Language, Love and Belonging, spans the author’s journey from Seattle to China, Tibet, Germany, England and back again. As she explores the world as a mixed-race woman raised in the U.S., Kellor seeks to understand her identity, refracted through others’ eyes. Kellor plays various roles as a friend, lover, niece, daughter, granddaughter and increasingly proficient speaker of Chinese. She is by turns a teacher and an artist, a dancer and an activist, a pilgrim and a seeker. Above all, Kellor is a writer, tending to a daily journal and giving voice to the vicissitudes of her rich inner life as she experiences learning, love and losses.
Near the memoir’s end, Kellor reflects on her earlier three-year relationship with a mild-mannered, Chinese man, Yizhong, a devoted lover and artist with whom she could speak Chinese but only well enough for shallow communications. She muses, “How could anyone truly know the workings of my mind and my heart without the full capacity of my language?” The question sheds light on the dissolution of this otherwise stabilizing relationship founded on tenderness and care. But it also captures one of the memoir’s most important themes: that we live and love through language, and without it—without an ability to express ourselves fully and deeply in language—we cannot truly know another. However, the memoir also shows us how we become through language; learning to speak, read and write, transforms us, gives us the power not just to speak but to speak up. By deepening her Chinese language skills, Kellor found an authentic identity and a way to belong, in the larger world and at home in her family.
I had the opportunity to interview Kellor:
Said: First of all, thank you for writing this powerful memoir. I relate to it so much as a multilingual Arab-American woman who has struggled to find her place in the world, at different moments and around the globe. The ways you connect language and affect ring so true for those of us who straddle several cultures and find ourselves craving words and collecting them, just as you did so often in your journey. When did you realize that this was a book not just about spirituality or exploration but about language, specifically?
Kellor: When I first took off for China, although I knew that I wanted to improve my Chinese through immersion, I was more focused on loftier goals and questions around what is my work or spiritual path in life? As such, my Chinese studies ebbed and flowed, often remaining in the background as I became consumed with work, romantic relationships, or feelings of displacement.
But after I came back to the States, I began studying more rigorously, and writing about my connection to language more explicitly. At some point, as the book took shape, I began to connect the dots between the theme of learning Chinese, and the theme of learning to express myself in any language—in other words, pushing up against my life-long propensity to stay quiet or hidden. So, I don’t know exactly when I “realized” that the book was largely about language and finding one’s voice. I still struggle with easily summing up what my book is about—because there is the surface story, and then there are all the underlying themes…. At the end of the day, so many of us are writing about finding our voice—and writing to find our voice. I just happened to be writing about doing this in more than one language.
Said: You did a silent meditation retreat upon your return to the United States, and your chapter, “Learning to Speak,” seems to reflect that you found your spiritual center, as well as your voice, in silence. Can you say more about the relationship between your travels in Tibet and your current spiritual practices? Does language, or perhaps silence, play a role in your sense of faith or spirituality?
Kellor: Yes, I do feel like so much of my spiritual awareness resides in this wordless place of awe and trust. I’ve always been suspicious of dogma and resistant to categorizing myself or my beliefs. Even if I feel more or less Buddhist in the way that I see the world and my spiritual path, I also don’t 100% believe everything that Buddhists believe (and of course, even Buddhists believe different things depending on the lineage), so a big part of my spiritual path as a young person was about learning to trust in the things that resonated, and learning to not fixate or worry about the things I still didn’t know. I do think that growing up mixed race and bilingual contributed to my resistance to easy categorizations of myself and my beliefs. I also can now name how I gravitate more towards Zen traditions and Taoism—traditions that emphasize silence and not-knowing and non-binaries—than, say, Tibetan traditions or Western traditions. If I need to sum it up, I now refer to myself as an agnostic Buddhist.
Said: The narrator of your memoir paints a vivid picture of being both on the margins, at times, and integrated, recognized as being of China—huaren—not a complete outsider like non-Chinese tourists but still a foreigner, a laowai. Your memoir captured an earlier era in your life. Has your relationship to China changed since then? Did writing this memoir—and studying Chinese, perhaps—shift things for you in that regard?
Kellor: After returning from China, at first I thought I would go back to live and work there—I thought that my life would be forever tied to this kind of lifestyle, living in between two countries, languages, and homes. Then, after I got married, had a child, and settled into a home in Seattle, that lifestyle gradually seemed less desirable—and less practical to attain. Motherhood and sleep deprivation consumed me for several years. And I was learning the value too of putting down roots in one place. China seemed farther and farther away, so much so that for years I barely thought about it.
Now, in the process leading up to publishing the book, I have started to read more about China again, and to interrogate how I feel about being removed once again from speaking the language regularly. I do feel sad,on some level, that I’m so out of touch; sad that I get to live my privileged life in America whereas, despite growing opportunities for wealth, those in China now live under an even more repressive system that monitors their speech and daily actions, and censors outside sources of news more than ever. But on another level, the connection that I forged while I was there—to speaking Chinese, and to a felt sense of my ancestry and the long lineage of people I belong to—will never go away.
I will always care deeply about that part of the world, and wonder if or when my connection will pull me back physically, or in other ways.
Said: One of the challenges of writing in English about languages like Chinese, for you, and Arabic, for me, is how much to translate for the Anglophone reader. Even the conventions of italicizing foreign words and the decisions about what concepts to treat as foreign can be contested and controversial. I think you do a nice job of providing a middle ground. Your vivid conversation with Popo, for instance, contains some back and forth that you transliterate and also translate, as though certain phrases in your dialogue carry special significance while the rest can be rendered in full English translation. How do you think about these issues with a view of different possible audiences?
Kellor: I’m so glad you asked about this, because although I originally wrote the manuscript with italics for the Chinese words, I spent a lot of time in the editing process thinking about whether I wanted to change this, as I became more aware of the critiques and conversations around these choices. At the end of the day, I kept the italics, because I felt it mirrored my own process in going back and forth between languages—I am always translating things for myself or for others. Even if I grew up speaking some Chinese, most of the dialogue I am rendering reflects Chinese words or phrases that I learned later in life through study and immersion.
Also, as a mixed-race Chinese American, I must ask “who are the so-called ‘people like me’ that I am writing for?” I am not just writing for other Chinese Americans who speak Chinese. For example, I am also writing for the many children of immigrants who are not bilingual but still share common experiences. At the end of the day, the vast majority of my readers will not speak both Chinese and English. My audience, I hope, can be wide, as people will be able to resonate with my book in different ways.
But I do appreciate the trend towards not italicizing nor always translating non-English words. I especially appreciate the permission that gives non-Western writers to stop seeing ourselves so much through the white gaze or through an outsider’s lens.
Said: I always find it so interesting to reflect on how authors relate to things they’ve written earlier; when I’m reading memoirs and know that they were based in part on snippets or experiences recorded in earlier journals, I find that I think more about memory and memoir’s ability to capture snapshots of our present, past, and very early selves. Can you tell us more about your journals?
Kellor: For over two decades, I’ve completed on average maybe one notebook a month filled with freewriting—lists, processing the day, generating ideas for future writing. Sometimes I go back after several months or a year and reread them, taking notes or highlighting passages that I may want to return to for a future essay or poem. And then, sometimes I go back many years later searching for details if I am writing about a period that has long passed. So I definitely went through a couple rounds of that as I was writing Heart Radical. It’s how I was able to remember so much detail, but more than this, it’s how I was able to remember how I was interpreting my experience at that time. It’s so easy to remember ourselves differently, to impose more wisdom—or less—on ourselves in hindsight.
Said: Did you draw in your journals at all? I was struck by how visual the book’s imagery was; Yizhong is a visual artist, of course, but your writing itself is imagistic and you paint the scene so effectively whether you are describing Chengdu or Hong Kong or Los Angeles. In addition, your relationship to the Chinese language is one that you characterize in terms of craftsmanship and visuality: “For hours I sit and copy characters over and over, relaxing into the simplicity of repetition.” Do you consider yourself a person who is very inspired by the visual? What can you tell us about your visual art or the way images relate to your writing?
Kellor: Yes, I am very inspired by the visual, by lines and color and the beauty found in nature, and during my twenties especially I drew and painted a lot—my journals were filled with both images and words. Nowadays, it’s been a long time since I’ve considered myself a visual artist, although I know that the impulse is still in me, and someday I’ll return to it more when I have more time.
For me, making visual art requires more mental spaciousness, in a similar way that I need to be in a more spacious place to read and write poetry than I do to access prose. This has to do with tapping into feelings and intuition, and letting go of to-do lists and intrusive thoughts. Whether writing or drawing, we must tap into the same process of becoming aware, of letting go of judgments and concerns in order to access an intuitive space. It’s always about letting go of the censor and judge who gets in the way of allowing us to make our most authentic art.
Ann Liu Kellor has two upcoming online book events for Heart Radical’s including on Sept. 14: Anne Liu Kellor in conversation with Joyce Chen, co-hosted by Hugo House and Elliott Bay Book Company; and on Sept. 28: Anne Liu Kellor reading with Kristen Millares Young, hosted by Third Place Books.