The Four Words for Home, a memoir by Angie Chuang, was a Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Awards winner in 2011. The book also won the 2013 Willow Books Literature Awards grand prize in 2013 and was published by Willow’s imprint, Aquarius Press, in 2014.
The story is tied to Chuang’s background as a journalist as well as to her own cultural heritage. She worked for many years as a newspaper reporter and is on the journalism faculty of the American University School of Communication in Washington, DC. The daughter of Chinese-American immigrants, Chuang created one of the first regional race and ethnicity beats while at The Oregonian. Soon after the 911 terrorist attacks, she took an assignment that required traveling to Afghanistan to “find the human face of the country we’re about to bomb.” In doing so, she became intimately involved with a family there and recognized many similar issues with her own family, including the trouble of dislocation and taboos that are often part and parcel of an immigrant’s identity.
“There are people I meet, often in a journalistic capacity that becomes personal, whose stories and general vibe, for lack of a better word, I can’t forget until I figure them out,” she says. “And I figure them out by writing about them. I’m intrigued by the mysteries of my own life, the big existential questions that manifest in both mundane and dramatic ways, and how other people’s stories help me figure them out.”
I’m intrigued by the mysteries of my own life, the big existential questions that manifest in both mundane and dramatic ways, and how other people’s stories help me figure them out.
“Certainly, both traditional journalism and creative nonfiction have basic principles in common,” Chuang continues. “Deeply researched stories; a drive to illuminate the broader human experience, often through specific stories; a commitment to transparency and factual truth; a realistic understanding that objectivity and infallible Truth—capital T—are unattainable, but need to be respected and addressed. I never wrote about myself in great depth until I made the transition from journalism to creative nonfiction/memoir. It’s still an ongoing journey for me to fathom how first-person storytelling can actually lend greater depth and dimension to third-person subjects.”
Chuang’s work has also appeared in Creative Nonfiction, The Asian American Literary Review, Vela, The Root, Washingtonian magazine, CALYX, and multiple editions of The Best Women’s Travel Writing and The Best Travel Writing. “In many ways, travel journalism was my gateway drug to creative nonfiction and memoir,” she says. “Many newspaper journalists who travel on assignment are encouraged to spin off a travel story while they’re on location. I started doing that in places that ranged from Saigon to rural Montana, but soon became drawn to the creativity (and perhaps the first-person writing, one of the few places in the newspaper where the “I” is expected).”
Chuang can’t remember a time she wasn’t writing stories of some kind: “even before I could write well enough to construct a full narrative, I drew multi-scened stories out on the back of scrap paper my dad brought back from the office,” she said. “In ninth grade, I entered a national contest that involved writing and illustrating a book, and then binding and assembling the book. I didn’t win, but I understood for the first time the weight of writing a book, literally and figuratively.”
These voices from Americans who have grown up feeling between Otherness and belonging, neither here nor there. The theme makes me think of all the mixed-status families, US citizen or DACA children and undocumented parents, who are at great risk now.
Currently, she is working on a book proposal for “a memoir-literary journalism hybrid work about how, when I was a child, my family nearly took a flight from Florida that crashed,” Chuang says. “We chose not to take it because my brother and I begged our parents to stay an extra day to visit Sea World. From that moment forward, I was fixated on the idea that mundane choices might lead to life-changing outcomes. So many things that happened to me as I got older forced me to reckon with how being the child of immigrants shaped my views about free will versus fate, and how unrealized parallel lives were a part of my inherited legacy.”
Additionally, an essay adapted from Four Words for Home will be published in the anthology, Two-Countries: US Daughters & Sons of Immigrant Parents, in October. “The topic feels particularly urgent now,” Chuang says. “These voices from Americans who have grown up feeling between Otherness and belonging, neither here nor there. The theme makes me think of all the mixed-status families, US citizen or DACA children and undocumented parents, who are at great risk now.”