Thoughts on the Fourth of July

Photo credit: Debka Colson

Photo credit: Debka Colson

When I think of the Fourth of July, I think of stories. Fifty-nine years ago, my grandparents took advantage of cheap reception hall prices and got married on the afternoon of July 4th. That night, when the July 4th fireworks went off, they were already on an airplane, off on their honeymoon. Decades later, at the day-long party they always held on the 4th, celebrating both their anniversary and Independence day, my grandfather had me convinced that the fireworks that went off at night were in honor of them: my grandmother and grandfather.

I was four or five at the time, and it wasn’t long before another family member set me straight. But what I remember isn’t indignation at the joke, or any kind of deeper appreciation of the Fourth. What I remember is the story. I loved my grandfather’s stretching of the truth, I loved that on the anniversary of a cheap reception, he would turn to his granddaughter and say “these are for us.”

Recently, I’ve been thinking about why I love stories. It’s very much connected to my current project: a semi-autobiographical middle grade novel about a young girl who’s convinced she’s destined for literary greatness. She loves to read, and she loves to create. But when a reader asked me, earlier this week, “why does your character want to write?”, I found myself unexpectedly stymied. Yes, she writes because she loves books, because she loves narratives. But why does she love them? And of course (as with any writing, semi-autobiographical or not) the question turned to me. Why do I want to write?

Which brings me back to stories, but really, to family. For me, I realize, these elements have always been connected. I remember other afternoons, also in the summer, when I would go to the grocery store with my other grandfather, my Ye Ye (Chinese for ‘grandfather’). Ye Ye had spoken English quite well in his younger years, but a stroke later in life had decreased his fluency substantially. He was a warm but serious man – a minister – steady, kind, and grounded.

Which made it all the more magical when he told me, when I was six or seven and couldn’t yet read, that he knew a secret to finding watermelons with no seeds. It was through sound, he explained, very seriously in somewhat halting English. You had to knock on the watermelon, and by the sound it made, you could hear if there were seeds inside.

We would spend some time by the watermelon display at the grocery store, tapping on the melons–first me, then him–discussing his Very Special hearing ability (which I could never quite get the hang of), and trying to find the best watermelons. And then, when we went home, our first task was to cut open the melon, which always, miraculously it seemed to me, had no seeds. Of course, this was then followed by eating the watermelon (a just reward for our commitment and his use of his powers).

I learned to read late, so it was a solid year or so later when I realized, finally, that Ye Ye was picking from the table labeled “seedless watermelons.” I remember so clearly, the shock of the realization, as the words came into focus and the truth became clear, and the sheer joy that came with it. My Ye Ye, my serious, thoughtful grandfather, had brought enchantment to the grocery store. To this day, I can never eat a watermelon without thinking of the wonder which his story inspired in my child self. It’s magic was twofold: first, I reveled in his seeming power, then, I reveled in his story itself. He had shown me that the most mundane, everyday thing had a story lurking within it. And, maybe most astounding of all, he had shown me how alike we really were.

It’s only recently that I’ve realized that a writer is what I truly want to be, and even more recently still that I’ve begun to articulate why. As I peel back the layers, and ask why I and my character write, it’s been a wonder all its own to find that my love of story is inherited, that my delight in fiction is something given to me by two very disparate sides of my family. I’m reminded of why I write when I walk into the grocery store, when I see fireworks in the sky, when I visit my grandfather, and when I see my Ye Ye’s picture on my bureau. It’s a heritage I see in holidays and the everyday, a passion I find embedded in my earliest memories. And it’s an answer that in its simplicity and intimacy, is a magic all its own.

-Susan Tan, 2015 Gish Jen Fellow for Emerging Writers

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