Writer of [generally] long-form fiction
Latest novel: The Balance Tips
(Interlude Press, October 2021)
NEW RELEASE: THE BALANCE TIPS
My parents told me the earliest stories I remember. These are true stories, they said, part of your mother’s Taiwanese family history; these throughlines are part of you, too. Most stories were tragic, violent, or both. At first, I didn’t understand what domestic violence, military rule, and Confucian patriarchy meant, so I wasn’t scared. My grandmother’s, aunts’, and mother’s experiences were just facts expressed in narrative form.
“Your ama [grandmother] is naturally left-handed. The family thought this was bad luck, so her parents taught her to be right-handed. They used chopsticks to hit the knuckles and fingers of her left hand each time she tried to use it. Because society upheld being right-handed, and girls weren’t to draw attention to themselves.”
“Your agong [grandfather] arranged a marriage between your big aunt and his best friend’s son. While Agong didn’t know that the son was abusive, he later learned that his best friend did. But by then it was too late; your aunt had already married him and learned from experience. Still, it was her duty as daughter to uphold the arrangement.”
Relatives expected me to nod and believe. And with each retelling, moral lessons emerged. I was a girl, and culturally, that was a failing from which I could never recover. Their stories taught me to fear, avoid, or obey men. To always protect the family standing over the self. Let filial piety guide you; your elders will always tell you the truth. And I listened wholeheartedly, at first.
But I learned that absolutes are rare. The truth can be not only slippery, but also contextually
and culturally dependent. And even when an idea, mentality, or practice is widely accepted
as the “norm,” such acceptance doesn’t mean we should forgo further examination.
I began writing The Balance Tips during my master’s program. A year after I submitted 16,500 words for my dissertation, I finished the first draft. It was August 2016, three months before the election of the forty-fifth US president, long before the realities of COVID-19, and I was living in Seattle. While I let the draft sit, I took stock of the country in which I had been born. Current events centered on the flagrant murders and shootings of Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color, some of whom were part of the greater LGBTQ+ community. I was horrified and constantly learning about the systems that condone police brutality, mass incarceration, and the funneling of toxic water to “marginalized communities.” (Marginalized by whom? Pushed to the margins not by choice.) Whatever naïve beliefs I had held about the US were evaporating, and it was hard not to despair after the election, after the first one hundred days, after the reports of immigrant families torn asunder and their children being housed in cages, after more fatal shootings and police abuses of power, after, after, after...
The United States is an ideal; we live in a country composed of various states, but the state of the union has been in crisis since white people treated Native and Black people with abhorrently inhumane, recursive violence. White supremacy, genocide, theft of lands, slavery, rape, torture, colorism, classism, capitalism, colonialism, colonization, xenophobia, imperialism, unethical experimentation, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and eugenics enabled not just 1776, but where we are today. Our monumental wrongs, which we as a country still struggle to acknowledge and attempt to forget—which we have yet to take meaningful responsibility for—have in turn haunted each generation. The echoes of such traumas pass down as ghastly heirlooms. There has been too much assault, strife, and murder.
My here and now is 2021, and we have failed to follow through on foundational promises of liberation and justice. We have not given reparations to Black people, nor have we provided commensurate restitution to any group. Some of our representatives are trying to pass bills and policies to help, but often these efforts are blocked and end at “trying.” And we keep adding to the already disgraceful bloodshed.
I cannot list the names of all the people whose lives have been unjustly abused or taken since I finished the first draft of this novel in August 2016. How many names are absent from our media? How many people are still missing, or their deaths unknown? The statistics are unending; numbers and names do not begin to encapsulate who these people were, what they wanted to pursue in this life, and who they loved and were loved by. Unjustly abused or taken. Because they were Black and/or Native, Asian, Brown, Muslim, Jewish, gender nonconforming, trans, queer, disabled, neurodiverse, an immigrant, undocumented, feminine, female, a BLM protester, a sex worker...ultimately, just being and living when someone decided they were not equally human and deserved violence or death.
After the Atlanta spa shootings in March 2021, more media/news outlets published articles and think pieces on anti-Asian sentiment and hate crimes. Why were Asian women targeted in these shootings? Was fetishization involved? What occurs at the intersection of Asian and woman? How could sex work or perceived sex work justify these murders? What effects did the forty-fifth president cause with rhetoric like the “China virus”? What about exclusion acts, and internment, and migrant workers? How has the model minority myth been used to criticize and gaslight other people of color—usually Black people?
People in my network reached out to me after the Atlanta shootings. How are you doing? Has everything been okay over by you? How are you feeling about that situation? Hope you are doing okay…
Truth is, nothing has felt okay for a long time. The more I learn about the atrocities committed in the US, the more unsure of myself and despairing I feel, despite years of therapy and self-work. But I have also (re)learned the power possible in positionality awareness, in seeking overlooked perspectives. My recurring comforts are reading and writing about the resilience of people. Even if my autodidactic actions are relatively small, they make me feel better informed and situated to support advocacy and activism. I am glad we are pursuing difficult, uncomfortable discussions about inequality, compliance, complicity, and accountability.
Because unearthing truths, upending silence, discussing traumatic experiences—i.e., reclaiming our narratives despite repercussions of “losing” face—these are acts of bravery and growth, not victimization and shame. Without self-reckoning, we fall short of healing our generational wounds, of addressing how we have been affected by intergenerational trauma.
I am the child of a Taiwanese immigrant mother and a white father whose family has been in the States for generations. Not only have I overheard anti-Black and anti-Brown rhetoric used in Asian and white communities in attempts to “justify” racism, I have experienced racism from both sides for being mixed—simultaneously too white or too Asian or too much of both. In hindsight, it is unsurprising that my racial reckoning took two decades. Coming out as queer and genderqueer took even longer. I had never felt safe to contemplate what “being myself” could entail, let alone how to support others in their identity journeys. I spent my childhood and young adulthood trying to survive personal traumas, afraid I would take my own life before age 25. I made the mistake of folding into myself instead of recognizing how my threads wove into a greater tapestry.
By the time this novel is released, my 30th birthday will be fast approaching. I have learned a fair amount in the art of surviving. I want to pay forward the moral lessons from my own stories. To create a new narrative cycle, one free from the interdictions inherent in the stories my Taiwanese family passed down to me. I hold a different place in this lineage. I can think about choice, responsibility, and my role as “I.” And I can offer stories beyond tragedy—I can create stories centered on the possibilities after trauma. I wrote this novel as a small contribution toward building a more just country and world. I wrote hoping to reach someone, to inspire and be found. As a child, I had scoured library shelves, desperate for non-white, “alternative” representation, hoping to recognize a potential version of myself between the borrowed pages of a book. I wrote for them. I wrote to offer alternatives; to imagine a self beyond the confines of the past. Of my past, of the assignment of cishetero womanhood—an assignment I learned to question, and upon recognizing myself as queer and genderqueer, to reject. And, selfishly, I wrote to soothe the most wounded parts of myself.
I did not write this novel knowing its publication would take place against the backdrop of a global pandemic, in this polarized, violent climate. Unfortunately, this has come to be. Despite appearances, capitalizing on book sales is not my aim. (Again, if my work reaches one person, I will have accomplished my small objective.) Instead, I hope this novel offers spaces for resonance and recognition, as well as opportunities for self-reflection and betterment. I hope we can remind ourselves to be kind to ourselves and others, and to strive for intersectional solidarity. With all this context, I now list content and potential trigger warnings for The Balance Tips.
Discussions of/characters’ experiences with:
familial abuse and estrangement
On a final note, despite what cancel culture argues, when we err, we are not canceled as people. We are not automatically, irrevocably bad or inhuman by dint of our mistakes. We can seek repair and we can (rare absolute incoming) always do better, so long as we listen and learn. We can revise our approaches “for betterment,” as Ma would say. But we must actively make the choice to do better, to be better—all the time. Yes, we must try to make that choice daily, in every moment, especially knowing that despite our best intentions and efforts, we will have many flawed moments, many learning-curve moments.
To partially quote Grace Lee Boggs’s sign-off,
In queerness, love, and struggle,
PRAISE FOR THE BALANCE TIPS
"In The Balance Tips, [Ren Iris] writes about the spaces in between races, cultures, identities, histories, & also their endless points of intersection. This is a powerful & necessary novel about queer hapa identity that forces us to (re)consider the damage that has made us, the damage we create, & our inevitable negotiation with ourselves as members of the AAPI community. This is the mixed-race novel we all need in 2021."
"Ambitious and brave, this book is a lyric meditation not just on identity, but authenticity, which for me is the Mt. Everest of oneness, you can see it from afar, but few ever get there. This book got me closer on my own journey."
Jackson Bliss, author of Counterfactual Love Stories & Other Experiments, Amnesia of June Bugs, & Dream Pop Origami
Jamie Ford, New York Times bestselling author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
The Balance Tips
The View from Here
PRAISE FOR WHASIAN
"Ava Ling Magee, the central figure in [Ren Iris's] debut novel, is a work in progress. She struggles to come to terms with a domineering mother and an absent father, with self-doubt, with being a friend and having friends, with shocks that emerge from the past. Stoffers weaves an engaging tale about searching for identity and growing toward self-knowledge and independence."
Paul Spickard, author of Race in Mind, and Professor of History and Ethnic Studies, UC Santa Barbara
"How exciting to see [Ren Iris] join the ranks of writers like Sarah Jamila Stevenson and Matt de la Pena who write about the challenges of being a mixed-race teen. Anyone who has lived betwixt and between cultures and racial identities will find their stories reflected here in this honest and enriching tale."
Heidi W. Durrow, author of the New York Times bestseller The Girl Who Fell From the Sky
"Whasian deftly tackles the difficult task of naming an identity that continues to be invisible; we mixed race Asian Americans have found a powerful voice in [Ren Iris], who, as she tells her story, reveals so many of ours."
Wei Ming Dariotis, co-editor of War Baby/ Love Child: Mixed Race Asian American Art, and Associate Professor of Asian American Studies, SFSU
Ren Iris* (pronouns they/them; 鳶仁 Yuān Rén) was raised in New Jersey by a Taiwanese mother and a white father. They hold a BA in English from Rutgers University and an MA in Creative Writing from Newcastle University in England. Whasian (Harken Media, 2015) was their debut novel. Iris's second novel, The Balance Tips, was released in October 2021 (Interlude Press). Their writing has been featured in The Gay & Lesbian Review, The Shanghai Literary Review, The Black Scholar, and Side B Magazine.
[*My latest book, The Balance Tips, was published under my deadname. I've since legally and professionally changed my names. I'm solely Ren Iris and I solely use they/them/their pronouns—including in historical references.]
Interviewed by Shenwei on READING (AS)(I)AN (AM)ERICA
Featured on the Gay and Lesbian Review's Here's My Story
Interviewed by Kelly Gallucci on We Are Bookish
Reviewed by Kirkus Reviews
Featured on Asians Doing Everything
Interviewed by author and Mixed Remixed Festival Founder Heidi Durrow on The Mixed Experience
Interviewed by Pastor and educator Ken Fong on The Ken Fong Podcast
Featured on The Other Stories, hosted by writer Ilana Masad
Interviewed by comic and social-justice advocate Alex Barnett on The Multiracial Family Man
Interviewed by documentarian Vanessa Yee and psychology specialist April Balotro on The Bull & the Badger