How far do you need to travel to unlock the truth of your own heart? This is the central question in Anne Liu Kellor’s lyrical memoir Heart Radical: A Search for Language, Love, and Belonging, forthcoming from She Writes Press on September 7. Propelled by a spiritual quest and a longing to reconnect with the language her mother spoke to her growing up, Kellor left the comfort of her Pacific Northwest home to embark on a journey to Tibet and China in her twenties. Although it wasn’t her first time there—she’d visited before in college—this time she returned to China with a stronger resolve to find a sense of purpose and renew a part of her identity that felt stifled at home.
After traveling to Lhasa, visiting a remote monastery, and almost losing her passport, Kellor set up a home base in Chengdu, a bustling metropolis in Western China that’s bigger than New York City. She found work teaching English to college and graduate students but quickly became overwhelmed with the workload and the stress of having to be a role model and tiptoeing around sensitive topics such as Tibet and Tiananmen. Without a job and determined to stay in Chengdu, she moved in with an artist friend, Yizhong, who soon became her lover.
The safe shelter of her tender relationship with Yizhong allowed her to explore more confidently, develop her vocabulary, and pursue her creative impulses to paint and write in her journal. But even as her Mandarin fluency grew and she settled into a comforting rhythm, as a mixed-race and bicultural woman living in China she ultimately decided she wanted more—choosing a life that would be expansive enough to embrace all of her various identities.
I spoke with Kellor in late July about her debut memoir, her relationship to language, her evolving impressions of China, and having the heart of a seeker.
The Rumpus: How did you decide on the name Heart Radical for your memoir?
Anne Liu Kellor: Back in 2005 I wrote a lyrical piece called “Searching for the Heart Radical” during a period where I was immersed in studying Chinese. Part of its central metaphor explored how mainland China’s communist government simplified Chinese to increase literacy, sometimes even removing the radical or the etymological root of the character. They took the ideogram for “heart” out of the word for “love,” which just seemed so symbolic of the way that the Chinese culture had been stripped of so many freedoms during the Cultural Revolution and beyond.
I clung to this metaphor for a long time, sensing that it could reveal more to me about ways in which I myself have disguised or hidden parts of myself away. I wondered, how can I live a more courageous life, or how can I live more fully as the person I am at heart? These are questions that consumed me from my twenties until this day. I needed to somehow figure out what the heart radical metaphor meant to me. By choosing this as the title for my book, I knew it would force me to stay connected to my deeper spiritual questions.
Rumpus: What was it initially that called you to China?
Kellor: Initially, it was because my mom was born there and because I spoke Mandarin as a young child, but I gradually lost my close ties to the language as I grew older. Then came college where I started studying it formally. As a heritage speaker, my spoken Chinese was far more advanced than my peers, but I had to start at the beginning since I couldn’t read or write characters. It soon became obvious that I needed to learn by immersion.
Then, as I prepared to go to China and Tibet, I became obsessed with learning about their shared history of suffering—all the death and cultural destruction that happened over a relatively short span of time shook me and my awareness of the world as a young woman. It felt somehow tied to my destiny to ask how I was related to this suffering, and how could I give back in some way. I felt like my life’s work was tied to China. While I’ve long since abandoned living or working in China, the period I was there affected me profoundly for the rest of my life.
Rumpus: The common thread through the book is that you are always seeking something. Were you always a seeker growing up? Where did this seeking nature come from?
Kellor: I’ve always been curious about what lies inside of things—inside of books, closets, drawers, but also the human psyche—what’s inside our beliefs and our silences. Being an especially sensitive person and growing up with parents who don’t talk easily about their feelings or past traumas, I’ve always felt things deeply but not understood where my intensity comes from. So when I was first reading about genocide, for example, I mourned in a way that felt as if I had experienced more pain in my life than I could rationally know. And then I wondered, maybe I have experienced more pain—in past lives, or through ancestral trauma I’ve inherited. But regardless of the source of my feelings, I know that I often sense more than what is being said by others. I always want to know more of people’s vulnerable stories—more of what’s going on inside.
Rumpus: What do you make of the fact that you lived in China to connect with your Chinese roots, but most of your Chinese relatives live in America? Were you disappointed that your parents and relatives weren’t more interested in serving as a bridge to Chinese culture and identity?
Kellor: My mom was very committed to me knowing that I was Chinese from a young age—teaching me characters as a little kid, speaking to me in Mandarin, and encouraging me to use my middle name, Liu, when writing my name. Growing up I went to monthly potlucks with my parents’ Chinese friends and we would visit my mom’s relatives in Los Angeles each year, so I wouldn’t say my family didn’t serve as a bridge. It was more that I became distanced from my Chinese identity when I went to school and began to unconsciously identify with whiteness as something to aspire to.
At first my mom and my relatives discouraged me from traveling to China because they were fearful of me taking off alone like that. But I know that somewhere inside my mom was proud that I was claiming—or reclaiming—my Chineseness. It’s just that she valued security and establishing a stable career path more than my interests in backpacking or pursuing spirituality and the arts.
Rumpus: You kept detailed journals throughout your visits to China. What did your writing and revision process look like as you were putting together the memoir? Did your perspective change as you looked back on it?
Kellor: Originally I wrote the book as a series of linked essays. And yes, most of the pieces were born out of copious details I kept in my journals. However, since the book was also a travel narrative, it made sense to try to fill in some of the gaps and create more of a seamless narrative arc. But that was a lot harder to do than it sounds because the layers of my journey and intentions were multifold and my writing kept getting bogged down in too much reflection—reflection that I couldn’t fully penetrate yet to its essence, because I was still too close to the events.
As time went on and I couldn’t find a publisher, I had more opportunity to keep deepening the reflection from a more mature perspective. I decided to change the book to present tense so I could lock the voice in time because I realized that otherwise I might keep revising my perspective forever. Also, the book felt stronger in present tense, more immediate. I eventually wove in some more lyrical chapters to serve as a different kind of reflection. But yes, even now my perspective on that time in my life and its lessons continues to change. What you are getting in the book is a crafted hybrid version—not entirely the young Anne’s voice and views, but also not quite the Anne of now, who has since gone through marriage, motherhood, and divorce, all of which have affected how I see my younger self.
Rumpus: Your sense of your own capability in speaking Mandarin seems to shift throughout the book. Early on you were confident and took pride in ordering restaurant meals for other foreign travelers, but then later you were full of doubt and frustration trying to converse with Yizhong’s friends and parents. How would you describe your language learning journey?
Kellor: That’s a great observation. On my first trip to China, I was so amazed by my ability to speak and get by as a traveler, to even have those surface “where are you from” kinds of conversations with locals, that I emerged with a sense of relief that I could only improve my language skills from there. But after living in China for three years, my desire to be able to express myself only grew. I wanted to have conversations on a deeper level, to be able to talk about spirituality or politics or anything with nuance. This kind of language learning can take a lifetime—for at the same time that you grow ever-closer to being “fluent,” you also continue to realize all that you still cannot express. Being in a relationship with Yizhong had a huge impact on my ability to become immersed in the language, and for that I am forever grateful. Because even now, though I rarely speak Chinese in my life in Seattle, speaking it every day for three years allowed the language to enter me on a level that I trust will always be with me, even if my vocabulary has since receded.
Rumpus: Do you consider China your homeland, or one of several homelands? What is your relation to it now?
Kellor: I consider it an ancestral homeland, but it never felt like home when I lived there; I was always clearly still a foreigner—both in the way I looked, and in the privileges and views I assumed as a middle-class American. When I left, I thought I would go back and work there again, be tied to China in a more physical, obvious way, but instead, I became rooted in my birthplace of the Pacific Northwest. The smells of the forests and salt water of the Puget Sound will always feel like home to me more than any other place, on a visceral level. But the sounds and rhythms of Chinese are also a homeland for sure. And as such, any place where Chinese is spoken can feel like a kind of home, but mostly in this private, internal way. I’m sad to say that I’ve yet to return to the mainland. But now that this book is coming out and I am steeped again in so many memories and conversations about this period, I want to go back soon, I feel it calling again.
Rumpus: Heart Radical is filled with many observations about Tibet, China, and the foreigners (Westerners) that visit or live there, but you are careful not to fall into tropes or stereotypes. What do you want people to know about China that gets lost in stereotyped narratives?
Kellor: One of my biggest takeaways was how much I could relate to other artists there, how much of a common thread I could find with them simply because we understood what it means to be writers or musicians or painters, to feel that essential pull to create and to express our deepest emotions—and how the arts are not valued in China or the US when compared to pursuits of status or making money.
The other thing that people who never travel outside of the US don’t realize is how much of a global consciousness there is when it comes to trends or fashion or music, at least amongst the privileged or more educated populations. So, if we are thinking in binaries, it becomes less about “China versus the US” but more about privileged/urban/globally connected people versus rural/poor/isolated people. But I’ve been away for so long that I am out of touch with people who live there now, who might give me a more contemporary sense of how people feel about America and capitalism, or communism, censorship, and surveillance. It’s easy to make assumptions about a whole country or mass of people from the outside looking in, but truth is always way more nuanced. A lot has changed in twenty years, no doubt! A lot changed just in the 1990s, while I was there. That is another big thing that is hard to grasp—the rapid speed of development in China and how fast people’s lives changed from the 1980s onward.
Rumpus: Many travel memoirs end with the narrator being fundamentally changed. Heart Radical closes the loop on the relationship with Yizhong but feels open-ended in terms of your relationship with China and the Chinese language. How would you summarize how the experience changed you?
Kellor: It’s true. My journey was anything but over when I returned to the US. While I could paint a happy ending when it came to my love life, I did not want this to be the book’s takeaway. And while I initially returned to the US more committed than ever to become fluent in Chinese, that in time faded, too. In fact, for many years I felt guilty or confused about how I’d once again abandoned my ties to Chinese and China—and to Tibet. But over time I realized that my life’s trajectory has been about claiming my voice—as it is for so many of us, especially for women. For me, this meant reclaiming Chinese, but it also meant claiming my voice in English, both in speech and in the written word. Writing this book over many, many years, changed me just as much, if not more, than the time I spent in China.
Also, being able to take off and leave everyone I knew and my whole identity and sense of myself—of who I am in America and in English—while I was still so young, allowed me to loosen my grip on what I’d been taught by my family, my schooling, and by white supremacy culture. Traveling helped me to trust in the ever-unfolding unknown, the way in which you never know how so-called random people you cross paths with each day might change the trajectory of your life. And then speaking Chinese connected me to my past—to a past that I began to realize stretches farther back in time that I can grasp. To ancestral memory. To lineages of silence I carry, and lineages I am trying to give voice to and disrupt. So, it was not just my travels but the long, hard process of birthing this book that led me to a place where I could begin to better grasp how the past and future were coming together to meet me, now, in the present moment.
Rumpus: The relationship between you and your Chinese boyfriend, Yizhong, is so moving, and the breakup isn’t due to cultural incompatibility but the restlessness of your own heart. Do you ever dream about what might have happened if you had stayed with him in China?
Kellor: At heart, we got each other on the level of artist and respected each other’s need to make art at all costs, so I imagine that would have stayed at the forefront of our lives. But I don’t think I could have survived living in Chengdu, or even China, for the long term. The pollution and crowds and lack of community really got to me. If anything, I think we would have had to create a life where we moved back and forth between countries—and languages. That can be super exciting; it’s definitely the kind of life I envisioned for myself when I first returned from China. But living a transient life also can be extremely tiring. Getting older has taught me about the value of stability and community, of showing up more consistently with my full self. That’s harder to do if you are moving around all the time. You might be more aware of impermanence, but less able to build enduring community and let your full self be seen.
But ultimately, the language of my adulthood is English, the language through which I can express myself with the most complexity and nuance. English is also the language through which I now teach creative writing, and help others find their voice and stories. This has been the greatest gift to me.
Photograph of Anne Liu Kellor by Anne Liu Kellor.