What have you been looking at specifically? And where?
I’ve been exploring my own hometown of Flushing, Queens, through various personal lenses: the Tai Chi scene that includes my dad, photo essays of Main Street by my sister, my own emotional associations to place names in Ha Jin’s A Good Fall, and pretty much anything else that moves me.
How do you (personally) define urban change?
When my parents first moved to the house where I grew up, my sister and I used to get taunted for being the only “Chinks” on the block, which was traditionally Italian. By the time I was in high school, the line for my bus, the Q26, was almost entirely composed of Asian Americans, and one day, I heard the (Caucasian) bus driver mutter, “Another handful of macaroni.” That line took me some time to parse (especially given the originality of the racial slur, not to mention its Italian roots), but I think these episodes, taken together, encapsulate so much of urban change: how rapidly it happens, how an entire population can go from alien to dominant, the dance between what is gained and what is lost.
How are you going about investigating urban change in this project?
I take urban change as the given, the great, constant stream that we often forget to notice. And so any moment that I document, any snapshot that I take, is one drop of that stream frozen in time, held up as a tiny prism.
As a writer, in what ways do you find blogging a useful medium of investigation of or communication about this topic?
As a novelist, I work in long periods of isolation, always with the sense of building brick by brick by brick. Blogging, especially a collaborative blog such as Open City, provides a wonderful sense of immediacy. It’s an instant conversation. And I love the freedom of knowing that, on any given day, my little contribution can be just that. I don’t have to know how it fits into the grand scheme of things; I can trust that it’s part of a collective effort, that the interests and creative energies of my fellow bloggers and our readers and myself all add up to something bigger together.
As someone who grew up in Flushing, what can you tell us about your personal perspective on the difference between noticing urban change in the place of your upbringing versus investigating it as part of a investigative writing project?
This is a really interesting and complicated question. I remember how my friends and I used to feel when a mob of Mets fans or tourists boarded the 7 train, gawking as if they were heading into some wild territory. Even now, I still feel irked if I sense that Columbus-style tone of discovery in, say, a Times review of a Flushing restaurant. For immigrant communities, there can be a sensitivity to simply being noteworthy. You know, why is it blog material for a group of middle-aged Chinese Americans to gather in Kissena Park and practice Tai Chi? To them, it’s just their morning routine. I get that, even as I’m drawn to investigating their personal histories, their daily journeys, what defines their place in this city. I don’t have any easy answers. I just know that this is a tension that often emerges, bidden and unbidden, in my writing.