When she was in her 20s, Anne Liu Kellor began to immerse herself in studying Chinese characters.
Born and raised in Seattle, she grew up in a multiracial family and found peace in the water and forests of her Pacific Northwest home. But she also felt drawn to China, where her mother was born, and language has always been a guiding force for her. It was in studying characters that Kellor found a metaphor that resonated with her.
“Each Chinese character has a radical, which is the part of the character that speaks to its root meaning,” Kellor says. “In the character for love, there is a heart. When the Communists simplified the characters, they took out the heart from the character for love. And so I seized upon this as a metaphor.”
Thus, the title of her debut memoir, “Heart Radical: A Search for Language, Love, and Belonging,” out Sept. 7 via She Writes Press, was born.
The book chronicles the years Kellor spent living in China, writing, teaching English, and connecting with her own heritage and spiritual journey — and learning the complex cultural and political history of China, especially relating to Tibet. Kellor’s experience in Tibetan rights activism in Seattle, she writes, was complicated by the experience of moving to China, traveling to Tibet and becoming aware of false binaries.
“The way people experience life there is very different than what we as outsiders see,” Kellor says. “All binaries are overly simplistic. In everybody, there are seeds of generosity, love, redemption and goodness, and also seeds of selfishness, self-preservation, and the desire to control things and to come out on top. Nobody can ever be classified or simplified in such a way.”
In the process of this awakening, Kellor’s self-discovery expanded into a deepening relationship to self and identity, to language, to place and home, and to love.
“I think it always takes leaving or missing a place for me to realize how that place is a deep home to me,” Kellor says, when asked what the idea of home means to her. “It wasn’t until I left the Pacific Northwest … that I realized how much the landscape of this place was a part of me. Similarly, a big drive for me to go to China was realizing how much I missed speaking Chinese, the language of my childhood, and needed to reconnect to that as a home.
“Then, in China, I felt very displaced. I didn’t feel like it was home to me,” Kellor continues. “But I did reclaim the sense of home. I also deepened my practice of writing and realized how much that was a home to me, that I carried wherever I went. So, I think, for me, home exists on all these different levels and it can never be found in one place. It’s always about coming back to what I start to miss inside, and reconnecting to that.”
The memoir is also a love story.
“It’s a love story to myself and my voice,” Kellor says, as well as to her mother, to her then-partner Yizhong, and to a place. “It’s also a love story to all of the people of China in that, as much as I struggled while I was there and was very critical of some aspects of Chinese culture, there was this deep essential connection to the place that was born of love. Now I feel like it’s my chance to offer this as a love story to the world.”
“Heart Radical” is also a love letter to humanity, and to the importance of telling one’s story. In the decades since Kellor returned to Seattle, where she lives today, she has been teaching writing at Hugo House, leading writing retreats and mentoring local writers. She recently finished teaching her first yearlong manuscript class.
Kellor started working on the “Heart Radical” manuscript after returning from China, and it has been a long, educational process to publish it.
“One of the big lessons that I’ve learned in life, and through writing this book, is to trust in the value of writing, and telling my story, and helping other people tell their stories,” Kellor says. “That goes way beyond any career path or desire to publish. That’s more rooted in our society’s lack of valuing individual stories and how much wisdom anybody’s story holds, especially women’s stories and especially women of color.
“‘Heart Radical,’ to me, is about living from your core essence,” she says, “and tapping into the roots of who you are and where you come from.
“To be radical does not have to mean that you’re somebody who’s out there on the political fringes; it can be something much more quiet or understated, much more about tuning in to who you really are and what feels natural to you in your life.”
It’s an ethos that might guide many on their own journeys.