You may have heard folks talking about their grandma stories, especially folks from various diasporas. But if you don’t know where these stories come from, or why they’re so important in diasporic cultures, or why they’re called grandma stories—well then, pull up a chair and stay awhile, because have I got a story for you.
The term diaspora comes from a Greek word that means ‘dispersion.’ And oh, how apt that word is to describe how peoples and cultures throughout history were scattered across the globe when expelled and wrenched from their homelands. Cultures have also seen dispersion when leaving their homes as refugees—of war, of politics, of all types of persecution—seeking safer ground to put down new roots and survive. In modern times, cultural dispersion has only accelerated with the advent of faster and easier methods of travel, disseminating immigrants around the world more thoroughly than a wind might carry pollen.
Such immigrants, set adrift from their homelands by geography and time, may find it difficult to remain culturally tethered to their origins when they don’t live immersed in that culture day in and day out. Just ask any immigrant kid what their childhood was like, and I’ll bet you’ll find common themes in all of our stories, no matter where our heritage lies—one foot in one world, one foot in another.
The one thing that more often than not bridges the gap between worlds are the stories that get passed down from our parents, our grandparents, our great-grands. Especially if you come from an isolated nuclear family—meaning no one other than your immediate family immigrated with you, so all you’ve got are your parents and siblings—these stories, more than anything else you’ll see on TV or read in a book, connect you with the extended family and the heritage that you left behind.
And, just like a game of telephone, these stories morph. As they get passed down, they change and shift just a little bit, shaped by the vagaries of imperfect recall. Depending on how many generations removed you are from your homeland, the classic myth that you hear from your grandma might vary just a little—or a lot—from that same myth told by another grandma who grew up in the same village.
It’s how, in one version of the story of the Chinese zodiac race, we wind up with clever Rat who tricks Ox into agreeing to let Rat piggyback on Ox’s back so that both can cross the river at the finish line—while in another version, it’s calm and dependable Ox who offers to carry Rat. And in yet another version, Rat doesn’t bother with verbal trickery at all, and hides in Ox’s ear. Despite their differences, the stories remain holistically the same and deliver the same ending: at the last moment, Rat jumps ashore before Ox can set a hoof on the riverbank and wins the race, becoming the first animal in the Eastern zodiac. It’s a story as much about Rat as it is about the results of the race.
And that’s the beauty of our grandma stories: there’s no one right version. There’s the version that’s taught to you, evolved from the experiences and memories of countless storytellers before you, and there’s the version that you’ll pass on. In between, there are many marvelous chances for learning and exploration as you internalize these stories into your own mythology, and re-present them in your own voice.
I don’t know that I have all of the minutiae of the Chinese zodiac race down pat. I can’t tell you who the Jade Emperor—the one who called the race in the first place—was based on, historically speaking, because I haven’t the faintest clue. I never studied Chinese history or literature. But I do know that it’s a story that my mother loved to tell us kids, with gleeful delight at Rat’s antics. It’s a story from her childhood, and so it became a part of mine. It’s a piece of who she is and where she came from, and in turn, who I am and where I came from—a bridge to help me navigate between my past and my future, between one world and the next.
And that’s why grandma stories exist, and why they’re so crucial to those of us who only had stories to rely on to help us flesh out our complex identities. The stories connect the heritages we’ve left behind with the heritages we’re building now, so that we can preserve these stories for future generations, in whatever form that takes shape.
So the next time you hear someone speaking about their grandma stories, ask them to share one with you. Because even if you’ve heard that story before, you haven’t heard their story.
• • •
The first storyteller who taught me the value of stories was my Taiwanese immigrant mother. Her lessons and advice always came couched in a long-winded story or parable or anecdote rather than as a simple, straightforward admonishment, delivered in an “are you listening?” tone that demanded her audience’s attention more forcefully than did the most skilled orators’. I’m telling you, Rome’s best senators had nothing on my mother.
As an impatient teenager, I perfected the art of the eye-roll thanks to the hours I’d had to listen to her recount the fable about the frivolous prince who pierced his ear and thus pierced his destiny and died a poor, penniless man, just so our mother could tell me that I shouldn’t pierce my own ears. (Because simply telling me “no” was not, apparently, enough. I won’t lie; I wasn’t an easy teenager to raise.) I envied my American friends, whose parents didn’t hold them hostage to the same stories, told over and over again until our mythology—like that of the Tamarians, who warned Picard, “Shaka! When the walls fell…”—became a shorthand for cautionary tales.
When I morphed into a storyteller (to my mother’s dismay), I shied away from telling Chinese-flavored tales. As a Taiwanese-American immigrant, of course I didn’t fit in anywhere—so neither, I assumed, did my mother’s stories. I was too American to be Taiwanese, and too Taiwanese to be American, and hell if I knew how to define my mother’s tales other than… well, her unique brand of overprotective motherhood. So I hid them, those weird stories rattling around in my head, because I didn’t know where else to put them.
When I grew older and wanted to reconnect with my heritage? Well, by then, I figured it was too late. I wasn’t Taiwanese enough to do justice to the thousands of years of Chinese history and culture and literature that had been boiled down and distilled into the tales my mother had passed on to me. I didn’t want to get something wrong—some detail or nuance that I wasn’t aware of because I didn’t grow up in Taiwan. A cousin once laughed at my mother twenty-five years after we’d immigrated for using a phrase that had been out of style for almost as long. I was terrified that strangers would call me out on the same things in my writing, if I dared to call up my mother’s stories and integrate them into my own, because I could still hear my cousin’s laughter strangling my mother’s voice.
So I kept my mother’s stories buried deep in my silent heart, cherishing them more and more as I grew older and wiser and finally understood that she’d poured her love and hopes for her children into those stories, and gifted them to us as only a parent could. The stories I told were just fine, but there was something missing that I couldn’t put a finger on.
Then I stumbled across a Twitter thread from Astounding Award-winner Jeanette Ng that illuminated for me so many cultural expectations I didn’t know I carried, until she articulated them in a way that set me free from those burdens.
Here’s the start of that thread:
And it hit me. Here was why I’d held myself back. Here was why I was afraid to pull out my mother’s stories and pass them on and say, “We, too, are part of this community. And that community. And that community over there. We came from you, but we evolved to be us, and our stories have evolved, too. But that doesn’t make us or our stories any less you or me or us.” It hit me so hard, I felt like I could finally breathe me into my writing.
What my stories had been missing was my voice. I was afraid that laughter from strangers, from those more knowledgeable, from those more Chinese, would strangle my voice, so I didn’t put it in. Because if I didn’t, then I wouldn’t give anyone a chance to kill my voice before I could use it.
This is how a culture’s diaspora loses touch with its communities, and how identities get lost—when one becomes too afraid to claim their heritage, and another becomes too rigid to accept its evolution.
My mother’s stories did have a place. They were stories that had morphed alongside my mother’s migration to a new world, where she barely understood its language, much less its cultures and norms. She feared that her children raised here would forget their ancestors’ culture, so she told us the stories her mother had passed down to her, and her mother before that, and her mother before that, and so on and so forth, evolving through generations, from a coastal fishing village in Taiwan to the skyscraper forests of Taipei to the urban sprawl of LA. These stories my mother told, they were my cultural inheritance, even though they weren’t learned from history books or university lectures. They were my bridge to my past, and to my parents’ past, and to a key part of my identity. They were my grandma stories, and they were mine to tell, because they were my reality.
Now when I tell a story, no matter what flavor it is—Western, Eastern, a mix of everything in between—I hear my mother’s voice. I hear her tell me about a frightened young woman who left behind everything dear and familiar to join her husband in a new land on a new continent, among strangers who would laugh at their foreign origins. I hear her tell me about raising children at her breast who didn’t speak her mother tongue well enough to converse any deeper than superficially (“plain vegetable talk,” she called it), about evolution and adaptation, and about achieving that elusive American dream.
I hear her fearlessness, and I put it down on paper, and I know that the story I tell is the right one, because it draws upon my reality, not anyone else’s nor their expectation of what my reality should look like.
And I know I am me enough for this story.
• • •
In the year before the Age of Covid, I had just started raising my hand for speaking gigs—tentatively, of course, because I had and still have a very young career in writing, and always with a sense of a shock whenever my applications were accepted. And whenever I shuffled to my seat on a panel or stepped up to a podium to deliver a presentation, I’d scan the crowd—deliberately, methodically, checking each row and each face.
I was looking for something quite specific. I was looking for those faces that, like mine, don’t look like “the norm” here in Utah. Hell, let’s be honest—that difference applies even outside of geographic boundaries. So seeing more of us that weren’t “the norm” always bolstered my spirits, and made me even more determined to do right by them. And one of the ways I could do that was by showing them that someone understood where they were coming from—understood in a way that went deep down to the root of their identities and unearthed their fears and insecurities until they came tumbling out like grubs to be squashed underfoot.
I knew I could do that because someone else had done it for me—done it in a manner as distant as social media, and without knowing of their impact on me. They did this simply by saying that we all had grandma stories, and that we shouldn’t be afraid of telling them. We shouldn’t be afraid of purists who sniff and say, “Oh, well, what do you know? You might look like us, but you didn’t grow up here, so you’re not really one of us.” We shouldn’t be afraid because we should own our stories.
Truth be told, I am afraid. I am constantly afraid that I’ll run into someone who looks like me, who’ll listen to my heavily accented Mandarin (because I speak it like a foreigner), and watch me laugh too loud and too openly, and shake their head over how brash and direct I am with colleagues, and think, It’s too bad. It’s too bad that her parents didn’t raise her right, that she is so American that she’s not really one of us anymore.
They’re right in that we didn’t grow up wherever our ancestors did. Fate had sent us elsewhere, and we had to adapt in different environments. And, truthfully, we are all the stronger and more flexible for it. I can’t say the same for the purists, who would attempt to control the gates to… what? An immaculate culture devoid of the heft and flex of movable time? A standard gone stagnant because it’s been held hostage by the purists’ steadfast refusal to admit that, as humankind evolves, so, too, do its countless cultures and the stories that comprise them?
Pfbt. Puh-lease. I reject the reality you project on me and substitute mine—one in which we with mixed-up stories have as much right to tell them, in our own way, as classicists who study and retell the classics. In my reality, we had hot pot and a roast turkey on the table at Thanksgiving. We kept track of our ages twice over—once by the Gregorian calendar, and once by the lunar calendar. My mother taught us zhuyin, and my college professor taught me pinyin. Neither is right, neither is wrong, both just are. In the same fashion do our grandma stories exist—have the right to exist—and it is up to us to tell them, if we have the wherewithal to become storytellers. If we’re brave enough to own them.
It’s this kind of ownership on the part of writers of color that has helped pave the way for more diverse stories to flourish in publishing today. Okay, sure, a lot of that has to do with allies promoting our work in ways that we cannot (the spin-off blog post on that could derail into another novel by itself), but it all starts with us, the writers. We have to have the confidence to grab ahold of our stories and fly them triumphantly and say, “This is the story I want to tell, that comes from my heart of hearts and from my experiences and from the family I grew up with, if not the one I was born into.”
And those of us who heard a different story, who didn’t have the exact same experience—even if we identify within the same culture—need to make way for those differences and acknowledge that change and dispersion have created gaps in our experiences, gaps that have allowed these differences to put just a slightly different spin on old tales, and made them fresh and new for everyone again.
I share these ideas with writers I meet now, looking into their faces for the light that dawns when they realize that they, too, have stories to tell. Stories that they want to tell, rather than the ones they should.
At the last in-person writing conference I attended before the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down, I saw that same earthshaking epiphany light up another young writer’s face in a way that made me catch my breath. He was one of those folks I look for, when I scan the audience: dark-skinned, with hair as thick and rich and black as calligraphy ink. His manner, when he introduced himself to me after my panel was finished, was unassuming, polite, in that “perfect English” that some folks like to “compliment” us for. He looked about college-aged, a kid who didn’t look white enough to bluster his way through the world with the swagger that his paler peers assume as their birthright.
We got the niceties out of the way, and then his previously stolid expression melted into dynamic energy.
“Oh, my God,” he said, “oh, my God. You have no idea what you just did for me. I didn’t think I could write Indian stories. Couldn’t do them justice.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because.” He gestured at himself. “I didn’t grow up in India.”
I smiled. “Doesn’t make your stories any less authentic.”
“No,” he agreed. “I guess not.”
“Write them,” I suggested. “Worry about the rest later.”
He tugged at his backpack strap and I swear to God, I thought he was about to pull out his laptop and start typing right then and there. Instead, he nodded, gave me one more brilliant grin, mumbled his thanks, and melted back into the crowd that was already rushing into the room for the next panel.
I remember seeing myself in his eyes, my fears and insecurities mirrored in his. Learning how to take ownership of my grandma stories had helped me overcome my fears—not completely, but enough to make do. I hoped that by empowering him with the same tools, he could overcome his.
Because we need more diverse grandma stories out there in the world to light the way for all of us looking to celebrate our differences and our unique experiences.
• • •
This essay was originally published as a three-part series on the World Fantasy Convention 2020 blog.