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Speechless: the politics of gratitude

One early Saturday in April, I woke up and checked my phone in my bed, like I always do first thing every morning, mostly to clear spam messages that have come in the middle of the night. It’s a neurotic thing I do to tell myself I’m ready to get up. I saw an email from the Association of Asian American Studies (AAAS) and almost deleted it until I remembered that I had signed up for their conference in June. So the email might contain some useful information. Then as I read the first few sentences in the message, I realized that this was not a mass email. Still a little groggy at the time, I at least registered that the email was about their book award. Then I thought, oh, this is a rejection email about how I didn’t get the award. As a writer, I’m used to rejections, often in bed. Since many agents and publishers are based on the east coast, these emails show up in my inbox around the time the sun comes up on the Pacific. In the second paragraph, the email went on to say how many books the judges had to review and how long it took. The next sentence is usually along the lines of, We like you, but we don’t love you.

But this time, they loved me. They went away and looked at other people, but the judges kept coming back to me. Congrats, the email said, your book Love Your Asian Body: AIDS Activism in Los Angeles won our book award in history this year.

I had to read the email twice.

The first person I told was Jury, my community partner and the director of Asian Pacific AIDS Intervention Team (now Access to Prevention Advocacy Intervention and Treatment). We had been texting about an event we were planning about the book. I just mentioned it like, Oh, BTW, this just happened.

Similarly, I told a couple of other people that morning to whom I happened to be texting, including my mom, who asked me if this was a cash prize. (It wasn’t.)

As early as that afternoon, even though I only told maybe three people, the congrats texts started to come in. I knew the first few had heard it from Jury. And soon enough he texted me to let me know he was indeed the locus. And a few more came in the evening, I jokingly asked him how many people he had told. He listed seven names, all accounted for. It was nice to have friends who will toot your horn when you don’t feel comfortable doing it. My good friends think I’m too humble or modest. Better friends know I shrink from attention, even the good kind. But there is more to that.

My non-reaction is part of my emotional management as a writer. For every award I win (and I have one), I get hundreds of rejections (and counting). If I get too disappointed with rejections (especially those that come at the crack of dawn), I wouldn’t be able to work on my craft all day. So I have to lower my expectations. Every time I send out a query, I expect a no. When the actual no comes, I can then easily shrug it off with the refrain of Ariana Grande’s Thank You, Next in my head. I’m so fucking grateful for my nix. It builds character. The most important relationship I have is the one I have with myself, and that one’s gonna last. Thank you, Ari. But that also means I can’t get too excited when I get published or get a good review, or in this one instance, win an award. It’s a mental balance I’ve worked out (ironically from a long history of drug binge where I had to suffer a few days of depression after a weekend of euphoria). My therapist and I had talked about this. He asked me if I wanted to try something different. I flat-out said no.

To be honest, the email about the award also didn’t feel real at the time. It felt like they were going to write back a few hours later and said they had sent the message to the wrong Eric Wat. I knew my publisher had nominated me to AAAS, but I didn’t expect to win. I’m not an academic; at least I’m not affiliated with any academic institution. I do not have a Ph.D. in History or anything. Oral history, which is what I do, is the bastard sibling of History, anyway. I didn’t write Love Your Asian Body as an academic text. There was no lit review and barely any footnotes because I had wanted to lead it with the stories of the activists and survivors I interviewed. Save for a few academics I name-checked, no theory was mentioned. I didn’t want to give the impression that their stories needed to be justified or backed up. I eschewed the five-chapter structure and instead treated the book like a collection of short stories and weaved an eighteen-chapter arc with a cast of thirty, in which I am a sometimes obtrusive narrator and not a disinterested academic. In other words, I favored storytelling over field-building. I thought I was a rebel. Rebels don’t win awards. (That’s not humility or modesty. That’s just ego.)

On Monday, one of the judges, someone I had met when he was a grad student at UCLA in the 90s, wrote to congratulate me. I think that was the moment when I felt for certain that this was something they were not going to take back. Like a journalist, I guess I needed two sources to confirm.

I was given a chance to make a one-minute thank-you speech at the award ceremony at the AAAS conference (in Long Beach, practically my backyard). The organizers asked the winners to be brief. There would be no orchestra to cue our coda, just the emcee hovering over our shoulder to let us know our time was up with their heavy breathing. I debated whether to take that option or just shake someone’s hands, pose for a picture, and slink the two steps down the raised platform so we could all just enjoy the buffet and keep the program to its impossibly tight schedule before everyone heads to the hotel bar.

I thought about what I would say in a given minute. There are so many people to thank. Not to be dismissive of the AAAS awards, but I don’t want to give a speech like I had just won the Oscar. It felt a little too self-important to the introvert in me. There is a politics of gratitude. The longer your list of people to thank, the more slighted people would feel when you leave them out. Really, Serena the butcher who saves you the bacon ends made it to your acknowledgement? (Um, yeah. Bacon ends.)

People think writing is a lonely profession, but that’s far from the truth. Winning is a team effort, and there are always plenty of people to thank (besides your possibly lesbian butcher). Jury, my friend and community partner, mobilized most of his staff to support it from beginning to end. My therapist asked me tough questions that helped me figure out what non-academic tone I should use for the book. My writing group read everything I put in front of them. Friends at universities booked me for talks on their campuses even before the book came out. Then there were lay friends who cheered you on from the sidelines, never faltering in their belief that I was the right person to write this book and that some publisher would take it on even with my lack of academic credentials. If that’s not faith, I don’t know what is.

One minute is not a long time at all. Someone will be left out.

And what’s an award, anyway? It’s a small group of people saying you’re better than other people. I mean, do the Golden Globes really matter? Again, not to be dismissive, because the judges spent countless hours reading many books and making what I imagine to be a very difficult conversation. But one substitute on a selection committee, and it could’ve gone another way and I’d be emotionally managing my weekend instead of dodging congrats texts from friends.

In the end, even though I had prepped some notes on an old envelope, I opted not to make a speech. When the first two winners before me didn’t say anything, the pressure was suddenly gone. Also, aside from a handful of people in a room of a couple hundred, I really didn’t know many of the conference-goers. If you made a speech thanking people and most of the people you thanked were not there, you didn’t really make a speech. It was really just to hear your own voice, and I know how my voice grates me. So, no thanks.

Back at the banquet table, Abe Ferrer from Visual Communications, the documentarian of all things Asian American in Los Angeles, snapped a photo of me with my newly minted award. He texted me the photo that night. What grates me more than my voice is my face. (This is not self-deprecation. This is a real problem for extro-performing introverts everywhere.) But this was a good picture, almost dating profile good. I was joyous and carefree, genuinely so, and impervious to negativity, especially from myself. I liked it so much that I even asked Abe if I could share it on my social.

Still, if I had felt so indifferent about winning my one and only writing award, I had to ask myself why I was grinning like an idiot.

Maybe indifference was the wrong word. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about winning. Maybe it was ambivalence. As in, I’m glad that people recognize me, and I also hate that I have to rely on other people for that. I have control over the work I put out in the world. I have no control how the world would feel about it.

On an episode of Abbot Elementary, brash teacher Ms. Schemmenti gave some advice to the rookie Mr. Gregory, who doesn’t think he deserves the Educator of the Year award. She said, “You can’t choose when people acknowledge you. This is your moment now. Think of it you’re accepting an award early. Because when you really deserve it, they’re not going to see you.”

From that show, I learned that winning an award is not the only definition of success. Getting back in front of your laptop after the umpteenth rejection, with no promise of an award, or even publication, is also a win.

I recognize that smile in the photo. It was the smile that my friends, my therapist, and yes, my butcher Serena, make me feel every day - even before I was an award-winning writer.

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