I heard you before I saw you. Friday morning, late February. One by one we gathered at Tin House—the real Tin House on NW Thurman Street in Portland, assembling for our ride to Sylvia Beach Hotel, venue for our winter workshop. I was searching for the toilet, I think, when your loud, hearty laughter reverberated within Tin House’s echoey walls. We met shortly after: I was relieved to see another Asian face, and from the Bay Area too. I remember thinking your laugh felt almost too big for your tall, thin frame. I remember wondering where it came from.
That same laughter woke me up that night, or perhaps it was the next night, at Sylvia Beach Hotel. I was jet lagged after flying 17 hours across the Pacific, and my room was located almost directly next to the lounge. I marched out, told you and the rest to keep it down, probably not scoring any popularity points with anyone at the workshop. After that, I didn’t think we would become friends.
But we did. Not during, but after the workshop. Maybe it was a sense of solidarity about being Southeast Asian in an overwhelmingly white American industry. Maybe it was the surprising sense of familiarity that hit when I read your New Yorker short story, Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts, about a Cambodian woman and her two daughters who run a doughnut shop in small town America. I read it on the plane from Portland to San Francisco. When I landed, I immediately messaged you, asking for recommendations for Cambodian food in the Bay.
Cambodia is a two-hour flight from Singapore. It is the land of the Khmer, an ancient kingdom that was once Southeast Asia’s largest empire. I knew nothing about Cambodia growing up besides that it was poor, war-torn, and Hun Sen had taken power in a coup. But at college in Berkeley, my friend N from Sacramento told me about the other Asian America: the Hmong, Vietnamese, Khmers, displaced by decades of war, still struggling to find a toehold in a very white, and very unequal country. Until then, I hung out with, and felt a shared identity with other Malaysian Chinese, Taiwanese, Hong Kongers, Japanese and Koreans. But wasn’t Singapore smack in the middle of Southeast Asia? In that moment, my eyes were awakened to a rather odd and very real ‘pecking order’ not just among Asian American migrants, but also a very unequal economic hierarchy of nations in Southeast and East Asia.
It is a pecking order that persists in English language publishing today, and one big reason why Tiffany and I started Real Asian Lit. Selling Japanese or Korean literature outside of Murakami Haruki or Han Kang? How about a book on Thailand’s 1976 massacre? Why do Singaporean novelists writing for a Western audience, myself included, almost never write about Singapore in their debuts? Where is Cambodia even? That was my delight in discovering your work, Anthony.
There is a turning point in every friendship, where a chance comes up for you to show something in your hearts to each other. Something raw. Something true. Miss it, and that friendship falls to the periphery, the equivalent of someone you follow on Twitter but would just click ‘heart’ if they died. One afternoon, I told you about what I was going through. You listened, and you told me I needed to write that movie (after I finished my book). It’s funny that our most meaningful conversations took place online, because that’s one of the things we talked about: connections in the digital, pandemic age. How real are friendships that develop online, or are they just distorted reflections of who we are, who we want the other person to be? How well can we know someone via words typed on glass, zipping around the world in a split second, like morse signals on invisible cables? I wrote earlier about how Tin House made me appreciate my isolation, far from the publishing centres of the world. But it has also been long-distance friendships with writers around the world like you, that sustained and kept me going in a very difficult year.
I last saw you at Portland Airport. We were supposed to meet after baggage check, since as a foreigner I had to take a different lane. When I came out, you and S were gone, and I didn’t have your numbers. But I saw you briefly, just before I boarded my flight. We were both headed for SFO, but on different flights.
That’s how it feels now. We have the same destination, but you got there first.
If only I found you earlier at the airport. If only we had more time. But time moves on, with or without us. Tomorrow will come, and I still won’t get another chance to find you or say goodbye in person. And so I write, because writing is how you live forever, unbound by time or space.
Thank you for your light. Goodbye, Anthony.
Tin House Winter Workshop, Feb 2020. Photo taken by Lance Cleland