When I first saw You’ve Changed, I was immediately drawn to reading it, since it was my first time seeing a book by a Myanmar writer, let alone the collection was specifically about the experience of being from Myanmar, being educated in the West, and then moving back home. So imagine my surprise when I came across Pyae Moe Thet War’s essay, “Unique Selling Point,” where she writes directly about the reality that a lot of people might be interested in her writing specifically because it would be the first time they’d read a Myanmar writer. She encapsulated all the insecurities of her position, pitfalls, and joys, as well as refusing to see herself as a “Race Writer.” It was one of many times I got goosebumps reading You’ve Changed. Pyae’s self-awareness throughout the piece was so refreshing, as was her head on writing about what it means to be a writer whose words end up in a published book, what experiences have informed her ideas of womanhood. Tied up in her experiences are switching accents, learning to bake, explaining how to say her name, falling in love, struggling through mental illness, deciding about having children, and choosing to become a writer. Underscoring them all is a unique kaleidoscope—or the word Pyae used, “prism”— of the pieces that have made up her understanding of herself.
While Pyae is often writing about identity and its interactions with migration, her essays are uniquely hers, in a humorous and bright way even as she covers difficult topics and themes. What I was drawn to again and again was Pyae’s introspection, knowing what people were expecting her to write about in a book about migration and immigration and identity, and turning everything on its head to make it her own voice, her own telling. She takes control of the narrative in a way that isn’t bossy, but so charming and friendly that you’re up late reading.
Sarah McEachern: I really love so many of your essays and how Western ideas you’ve brought back to Myanmar feel like net positives: feminism, baking, embracing chosen family, self care, your thoughts about deciding to have children. Diaspora, identity, and immigration essays have at times, I feel, really been pushed into a formalistic model, which sometimes skews sad instead of joyful. In my opinion, probably the publishing industry itself, which is majority white, often prefers writing to be for white readers, instead of readers of color —and writers of color. But following a set template really limits people of color writing about their experiences in their own unique way. As well as not creating space for writers of color to write about their happiness, healing, and growth! Your essays in You’ve Changed really felt to break free of that prescribed model, finding the ability to embrace a full spectrum while also centering joy and humor. Even though your essays deal with racism, overt as well as ignorant microaggressions, I found your essays so full of hope and positivity. Can you talk a bit about how you’ve embraced your own unique voice?
Pyae Moe Thet War: I say this a lot, but to my mother’s exasperation, I’m naturally a very sarcastic person, and in general, I try to laugh and make a joke out of everything, and that just carries over to my writing. Writers like Samantha Irby and Scaachi Koul and Mindy Kaling have paved the way for the rest of us to tackle these serious, terrible, horrible topics with flippancy and humor and optimism in all the best ways, and I’m so grateful for the precedent that they’ve set. I think humor is such a difficult craft to master and to go back to your earlier question, one recurring horror that I have when I’m revising is suddenly going, “Oh god, is this actually funny or am I the only one who thinks it’s funny?” So to hear that my book is funny and joyful is one of my favorite compliments, so thank you! I think readers will know if a writer’s voice is inauthentic, and so I could approach these experiences and themes from a “serious” point of view, but that wouldn’t be me, and that would translate onto the page and it’d make for a dishonest and pretty terrible book. You have to stand by your work at the end of the day, and honestly, if this book didn’t make me laugh, I wouldn’t have let it go to print.
Can you speak a bit about how your debut collection, You’ve Changed, was assembled? Each of these ten essays is so unique and distinct, but they’re also each working closely together to offer a braided whole. Were the essays written with a theme in mind?
Yes and no. When my agent and I were drafting the book, one vague theme we honed in on was “self-acceptance,” and every time I wrote or edited a new essay, that was the word that I kept in the back of my mind. But I’m glad—and to be honest, still a little surprised, haha—that readers have found it to be such a cohesive collection despite only having had such a vague through line. But I think that’s also a subconscious thing that is true for most writers. I know fiction authors who worry that their books are too “repetitive” because they keep coming back to these same questions and themes, and I’ve found that the same is also true for nonfiction, in my case. But I also believe that that’s what you should embrace, because for me, a big motivation behind writing is to answer these questions and parse these themes for, if no one else, myself, and my favorite way to do that is to come at it from all of these different perspectives.
While I was reading You’ve Changed, I found your voice incredibly fresh, and it honestly swept me away. Part of what felt so refreshing was how much you were aware of how writing is received, both by a reader and by a publisher, and how different this can be from writing alone in your room. This is especially true in your essay, “Unique Selling Point,” where you sort of take on head first what it means to be a Myanmar writer. Even in the title of your essay, “A Baking Essay I Need to Write,” you’re doing something similar. Even though what you’re writing could come off as meta, I found your voice to be self-aware instead of feeling auto-fiction-ey. Could you talk about how you’ve approached some of these essays in such a self-aware way?
I’m the kind of writer who literally reads their draft out loud (even if I’m working in a public café, unfortunately) to make sure it sounds like something I’d say, so I feel like this self-awareness that you’re referring to is because I almost always view my writing as dialogue, to a certain extent. Some readers have said that the book reminds them of a podcast or like talking to a friend, and I love that because I do want these essays to be conversations or conversation starting points. Like I said earlier, I also use writing as a way to think things through, and you can see me basically having conversations with myself on the page. With “Unique Selling Point,” those were real questions and fears that I had as I was writing this book, and finally I just thought, “Screw it, let’s just work all of this out literally on the page,” and so writing that essay was super cathartic because it allowed me to voice basically all of my biggest fears regarding publishing.
I love your essay about baking so much, especially because of how it feels like a hybrid essay. It’s a food essay and it’s an identity essay, but the writing also defies bowing to a conscribed formula. I was constantly surprised and delighted reading it. I really enjoyed how much the piece was its own thing that follows its own path. I found that many of your essays fit this model of a hybrid essay that rejects either/or and embraces both/and. Can you talk a bit about how your essays hold together multiple concepts or themes throughout?
I think either/or is so dishonest and, frankly, boring, haha. Honestly, how much of life is actually either/or? I think I read Jia Tolentino explain the meaning behind her book title Trick Mirror, and (I’m paraphrasing here from something I read years ago, fyi!) how when she approaches a new topic, it’s like this prism that she tries to look through from every single side, and that’s similar to the approach that I take. When I write a new essay, I usually start off with a broad topic like “accents” or “baking,” and then I visualize that topic as a prism and try to go around and come at it from several different angles.
I also did a lot more research than I thought I would for this book, but that’s because once I got started, I loved it. I’d find this new article or study that made me go “Woah, I hadn’t considered this aspect before” and that’d help me realize all these new questions that I then further explored.
What does revision of these essays look like? You mention a few times in the essays themselves needing to think around an idea, or live something a bit more before starting to write about it. You’ve also written about having false starts to an essay, which then serves as the beginning of the finished piece. Your revision work was evident in your essay, “Paperwork,” about your long-distance partnership. The writing seems to bend around time throughout the entire relationship without offering a single viewpoint, because of course, where you are when you start writing an essay is so much different from where you are okay-ing copy edits. You can really feel the change over time in that essay in particular, but it’s also present throughout the entire collection.
A creative writing professor in college once told us that he gets asked a lot by students when you know a piece (a book, story, essay, etc.) is “done,” and his answer is always “when it’s the due date”—and it’s so true! Writers complain about how many revision rounds a book goes through and how we never want to read our own book again, but if we were allowed to, we’d probably just revise forever. In the case of this book, I’d say that the revision process was pretty standard. My brilliant editor read the whole manuscript and gave me editorial feedback including notes and questions at certain points where she felt like the themes could be explored even deeper or certain braids that weren’t working, and we worked out those knots together. That ending of “Paperwork” was definitely the biggest revision I made throughout the whole process, but I felt like it would’ve been misleading of me to not include it, you know? The book is literally named You’ve Changed, and that was hands-down one of the biggest recent changes in my life so I was like, well I have to include this. I’m also a big fan of just letting the story go where it wants to go. (Sorry to get all hippie creative writing professor on you.) You might start out thinking you know what this essay will be “about,” but I’m never particularly attached to my initial outlines because I think it’s so fun to follow a new train of thought and let the story become what it wants to become. I approach writing in the same way I approach reading, which is that I love to be surprised!
Sarah McEachern is a reader and writer in Brooklyn, NY. Her recent work has been published in Catapult, Pigeon Pages, Entropy, Pacifica Literary Review, and The Spectacle. Her reviews, criticism, and interviews have been published or are forthcoming in Rain Taxi, Pen America, Split Lip, The Believer, The Ploughshares Blog, and Gulf Coast.
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