Beyond a Book Review: Timeline(s) in Becoming AppalAsian

beyond a book review_timelines in becoming appalasian, purple text over lightened image of an open book
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Shawna Ayoub moves "beyond the book review" in not only recommending great books by diverse writers, but highlighting a technique to apply to your own writing.


Becoming AppalAsian by Lisa Kwong

So often, we try to make sense of our lives by remembering, conducting a thorough examination of the past up to today. We ask ourselves how we got where we are. What moments in our lives were definitive? Why are we the way we are? And we expect our histories to hold the answer. 

Becoming AppalAsian can be best described as the memoir in poetry of Asian American writer Lisa Kwong. Beginning with her father’s swim across Tai Ping Bay out of Tai Shan to Hong Kong, this memoir tells the story of Kwong’s American and Asian origins. Kwong defines who she is and where she comes from by looking back to before her birth. She is not just as I described her above, “Asian American;” she is an American of Asian heritage born and raised in Appalachia. Thus, she coined the term “AppalAsian” for herself.

Kwong examines her origins with the sharp eye of an American Other, which is to say she must actively stake her claim to belonging. In her book, she explores the limits of being culturally Appalachian and ethnically Asian. Visually, she did not fit in her physical location. Linguistically, she was never able to connect to her heritage. We get the progression of these lived explorations through a largely chronological telling in verse—a structure that aids in choosing what pieces of the story to tell, which to hold back, and how to order them.

Memory feels limitless. When we sit with it, small details we never paid attention to before will crop up, fleshing out what before seemed singular or lacking in complexity. New experiences layer emotional meaning on old. Said another way, memories grow as memory grows, with us as we age and live, love, fail, or succeed. Memory is tempered by the present. It has a nasty habit of being slippery and interwoven. We start remembering one thing and end up recalling another. To make sense of it, we often bring it an external structure.

Creating a timeline

Kwong’s poems make sense of her life for the reader by marching along in time. This allows her to alternate between literal and metaphorical in her poetry. Her father swam across the Tai Ping Bay. The waters were shark-infested. This is where we begin—with her father’s incredible risk for the dream of a better life. After, Kwong is born, we learn what it’s like for her to be an ABC: Appalachian-Born Chinese. And we strike even further, beyond her childhood, into an adulthood where she exists AppalAsian outside Appalachia.

Chronology combined with an abundance of sensory detail make this literal telling of Asian experience in America hard not to read in one gulp. Consuming this story is like fine dining with several courses, each is as good as the last. The result is a complete story that exists in layers outside of the external structure time provides. The story of a complicated human being having a human experience in a country where it’s hard to be the other. 

To be honest, choosing one literary technique from this book to highlight and share with you stumped me. I know it’s a collection I will read again because it’s a comfort object for me. It speaks to me on deeply personal levels, especially when it comes to being the cultural Other in a homogenous area (I grew up Arab American in the northwest corner of Arkansas in a town small enough to throw a rock across). But what I really connected to was the idea that our lives can be beautifully summarized in a series of chronological dots along a writing map.

A writing exercise

So, what can we, as writers, take from this? Obviously, order your copy of Becoming AppalAsian and read the book. But also, let’s use time in a new way in our writing. Take one memory from your life and write it literally, as a list of what happened. Make a timeline of it first. Then go back and add the details that make the picture whole and real. I don’t believe that was Kwong’s process when writing, but I think it’s one that can serve us in creating the landscape of our lives in way that is highly digestible even while rich.

Create a timeline in three steps: 

  1. Get some notecards and write a formative memory on the front of each. On the back, write a few details that feel essential about that memory. Also write your age at the time of the memory, or a date if you know it. Aim for five memories, five note cards.
  2. Put the five note cards in order as a kind of timeline. Read them in order, and see what comes up for you. Is there a narrative arc? Make whatever connections you can make. 
  3. What memories do these memories jog? Add them to more notecards. See how quickly you can create a master list of meaningful moments in your life.

Not only can you organize memories into a chronology with this method, but see also that you have created a deck of writing prompts for future writing sessions.

Will you try this exercise? Read this book? Share with us in the comments.

Buy Becoming AppalAsian on (and support independent bookstores across the U.S.)

Related reading: Beyond a Book Review: Unwieldy Creatures

Beyond a Book Review: Containers as safe spaces in Nonwhite and Woman

Beyond a Book Review: Footnotes in Belly to the Brutal

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