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I started out writing an essay about my life as a reader. And then someone opened fire on a Sikh temple in an apparent act of hate. And I started thinking about the power of words, and the power of appearances.

My life as a reader is inextricable from the power of words and appearances. I am adopted. I came to America when I was two-and-a-half, adopted by white parents, both teachers. As a child, I felt different from other children, and I read in part because of that feeling. My parents were always willing to support my reading habit. I couldn’t get everything I wanted, but I could get books.

This availability of words is something I am trying to pass on to my daughter, now. She is 13 months old and has about 200 books. One reason for this is our need for stories in two languages (my wife is Korean). The bigger reason has to do with how we want to raise her: to value wisdom, to value empathy, to think deeply about others, to try always to understand.

In many ways, trying to understand is what we do as readers and writers. It is also what we do as children and parents. Since my daughter’s birth, I have found myself thinking more and more about my own childhood, writing essays instead of fiction, trying to understand my fears and hopes and self-deceptions, so that I can do better by her. I have spent my life struggling with my adoption, what it means and meant to have been abandoned by my birth parents, and knowing I never will come to grips with that abandonment. I wonder how much of a role adoption has had in my life as a reader. I realize that as a child I read because I was forced inside my head, unable to get comfortable with the outside world, with what I looked like and the way people (including myself) judged me on that appearance.

Sometimes we read because we are outcasts. Sometimes we read because our parents give us books. But maybe these are only reasons to start reading.

Why have I continued to read (and read and read and write and read) when many others begin to leave books behind as adults? It is a matter of the power of words and appearances. In books, I saw a possibility of other lives entirely. I grew up on books like A Wrinkle in Time, and the Dark Is Rising series. I grew up on the Timewarp Trio. I grew up, in other words, on stories of children who could leave the world in which they were so misunderstood, for a world created to fit their abilities. A world in which they made almost perfect sense (partly a function of plot, which I of course didn’t realize then). In A Wrinkle in Time, Meg tesseracts to a planet where the one thing she is truly good at—empathizing—is the one thing that can defeat the evil Brain and free her father. This is how fiction works.

My entire life, I have been missing something. But it took me a long time to stop thinking that the world was missing something that would make it right for me. I liked the idea that there was a world out there, somewhere, that had always been mine. Where people didn’t make fun of me for being different, where I wasn’t teased or bullied for my skin color, and where I didn’t believe I should be teased or bullied because I couldn’t reconcile my skin color to my parents’, a fact that was so confusing I couldn’t see how much it got to me. I continued to read because in books, I didn’t have to think about myself and yet I could imagine that what was happening for these other children could happen for me, perhaps.

Later, I read because I knew it couldn’t happen for me, and I realized the power of those words, that words made those magical things happen, that words made the escape. And later still, I read for the desire to create words of such power myself. To create a truth that I knew to be true.

Why do we become writers? How much does it have to do with feeling different, with being made to feel different? How much does it have to do with being put in front of books? For me, it was both.

I am different, and I want the ability to express my difference, now, in a way that other people will try to understand, will want to try to understand.

Matthew Salesses was born in Korea and adopted at age two. He is the author of The Last Repatriate (Nouvella). His stories have or will appear in Glimmer Train, Witness, American Short Fiction, West Branch, and others. He writes a column about his Korean wife, their baby, and their two cats for the Good Men Project. His new book, I'm Not Saying, I'm Just Saying, is forthcoming from Civil Coping Mechanisms in February 2013.

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  1. Beautifully written. Your last paragraph is haunting.

  2. Powerful piece Matt–I’m going to be adding a link to my blog. Hope you are well–I was just thinking of you also because I just finished a draft of my TRA/TN chapter.

  3. Yikes, Lara, this is exactly what I’m talking about. The focus here should be on educating people that violence against a person/people for their religion/race/etc is bad (and terrorism), not on the difference between Muslims and Sikhs.

    Jennifer, thank you!

    • Ack! Read too quickly and seeing now that the point is made later in the piece.

  4. Thanks for this Matthew. I have always lived my life feeling different. I understand what people like us must go through. Thanks again for giving life to feelings like ours in superb prose.

  5. Write more!

  6. This was such a great piece — the part where you mentioned that you write more essays rather than fiction ever since becoming a father really made me think a lot about parenthood, and how it motivates you to make the world a better place, somehow.

  7. You and I have some things in common when it comes to reading and writing,Matthew. I, too, write to understand the world around me and in me. And I read because I couldn’t access the world around me as a child. I had to enter the worlds other people created.

    A Wrinkle in Time is my all time favorite book. I love all the books in the series, but the first one the best. And I love it for the same reasons you state: finding a place where it is exactly right to be yourself. I refer to the tesseract a lot in my own life when I feel the need to get away from it all. My youngest daughter is named Margaret, and called Meg, partly because I liked the Meg in the book so much. Charles Wallace was also a fascinating character for me because he was even more unusual than Meg. And I loved that there was a combination of science and the esoteric. Again my first experience with the latter.
    When my children were growing up our home was filled with books. Each child had their own books and there was a library for everyone to share. We had encyclopedias and visited the library frequently. When there was something I wanted to share with them but didn’t know how to approach with them, I sought out books to give us a framework for discussion. We wrote books together and the kids wrote and illustrated their own books. They all write in some way either for their jobs or just for pleasure.

    Thanks for sharing this with us.

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