Writer Profile: Jana Meisenholder
We are delighted to hear from Jana Meisenholder, a freelance journalist who is always looking for people to talk to, ideas to explore, and stories to tell. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and fur baby, Benji. We are thrilled to feature diverse writers and hope you’ll join us as we learn about experiences that are different than our own. Enjoy our conversation with Jana!
Eight Hundred Words: Can you give us a glimpse into your background and heritage?
Jana Meisenholder: I was born in Japan to an Australian father and a Taiwanese mother. That is where I spent the first five years of my life. Japanese and Chinese (Mandarin) were my first languages. After their messy divorce, my mother migrated to Australia to take advantage of my natural citizenship status within the immigration system so I would be raised with a "Western education." For the first couple of years, the new language and environment was a humongous cultural shock, and it wasn't helped by my entering the school system in the middle of the year. The transition period was thought to have felt cushioned by our living with a blood relative, my father's mother, who could be easily classified as multi-generational, through-and-through Australian. But unfortunately, there was deep-seated racism and resentment issues which manifested into deliberately vicious treatment on her part, so we eventually moved out and found shelter elsewhere.
Additionally, my mother ran into visa issues, so the first seven years were particularly traumatic given the imminent threat of deportation and the feeling of instability that naturally followed. Kevin Rudd, the former Prime Minister of Australia who had spent some time in China and is bilingual, reviewed her case, met us, and actually advocated for her in his earlier days as a Member of Parliament. Despite the turmoil, I received a decent education at both the elementary and high school level. The Australian school system follows the United Kingdom's so there are a lot of Catholic and Anglo-Saxon private schools with varying levels of prestige (I attended a lower-ranked school). The common denominator among all the institutions was the mandatory fixture of "Religious Education" being taught in the school curriculum at basically all levels. So to add to the bubbling mixture of identity crisis was the pious guilt I magnetized as a cradled Catholic who attended an overly scrupulous private Catholic school.
EWH: What does being a Taiwanese-Australian writer mean to you?
JM: I'm basically a genetic amalgamation of misfits, rejects and wanderers... which makes sense because I came to the United States by myself when I was twenty years old and am often attracted to similar subjects. Australia is basically a land of ancestral convicts; I think my Irish ancestors stole bread or something like that. And my other half is of Han Chinese ancestry, originally from Southern Fujian Province, but they settled in Taiwan long before 1949 when people fled Communist China (this point of view is also probably an incredibly shameless and unsophisticated 'nature versus nurture' argument). It's a significant contributing factor, but I don't think who I am is strictly defined by my ethnicity or where I have lived. Having said that, I am incredibly grateful to have lived in and crossed over so many different time zones and cultural borders. Not a lot of people, for lack of resources, time, good health or whatever, have that kind of access. Because it is so minute, it's an overlooked talking point, so I do actively try and offer some nuance to the cultural discourse by bringing to light personal experiences I've lived through. And I think that's an advantage for people of color, particularly writers.
EHW: What words of hope do you wish to pass along to inspire other women of East Asian descent who might have first or second generation immigrant parents?
JM: I know this sounds hypocritical, but don't get too fixated on your identity. I say that with the hope that children of first or second generation immigrant parents don't feel pigeon-holed into writing about race. You're just as capable and qualified to write about everything and anything you want. Having said that, certain demographics who have been institutionally and socially marginalized in the past should most certainly be given the priority to write about subjects pertaining to racial identity. I have zero flexibility on that.
EHW: What is your native tongue and how has learning a second language affected your experience as a writer?
JM: My first languages were Japanese and Chinese (Mandarin). English is my primary language, now, because I grew up in Australia and have lived in the United States for the past five years; however, I still do speak Chinese (Mandarin). A majority of the internal battles, which included not being able to speak fluent English immediately after migrating to Australia, was almost always mitigated by consuming literature, art, books, television, and film. I credit those mediums for not only positively impacting my childhood experience but also improving my vocabulary. If ever I was unable to articulate an emotional response that could potentially manifest into existential dread, I'd watch something play out in a book or film and the third person perspective immediately produced mental clarity that I would've otherwise not known how to decipher and subsequently handle. That's why I find solace in writing. I'm also naturally introverted, so reading and watching films was and is probably still, my greatest joy.
EHW: Who is your greatest inspiration?
JM: It has changed through sections of my life. As an innocent child, and for all her efforts described above, it was my mother. When I was ten, it was Jackie Chan. There wasn't (and still isn't) a lot of Asian representation in cinema, so I enjoyed watching him in leading roles. When I was fifteen, it was Barack Obama. I didn't even care about politics, but I bought his book anyway and he articulated the feeling of not belonging anywhere as the son of a Kenyan father and Caucasian American mother. When I was seventeen, it was Nora Ephron because there is no better storyteller, and Julie & Julia had just been released a year earlier (Australia is super delayed like that). From eighteen to my early twenties, I started becoming comfortable in my own skin and was adamant on forging my own path so I didn't really have anyone to aspire to. That sounds pompous, but I don't want to make one up.
Something I struggle with as I'm getting older is fatigue. With the exception of ideas and knowledge, interactions and experiences can feel repetitive by the time you reach your late twenties. It inevitably grows into a layer cake of overindulgence and boredom, and that neophytic zest for life grip begins to loosen. But at this point in my life, at twenty-six, my greatest inspiration is my husband, David Meisenholder. Objectively speaking, he's the most intelligent, hard-working person I've ever known and somehow manages to maintain the perpetual optimism of a Yellow Lab (without the derp). The biggest takeaway from spending time with David is his ability to counter that feeling. He invigorates himself by constantly staying curious and energized, which are essential traits for a writer, and I'm lucky that his energy is contagious. Also, it'd be criminal to sum up this paragraph without mentioning my greatest inspiration for unconditional love, my dog and soul mate, Benji!
EHW: How did you become a storyteller?
JM: I was never the storyteller around a campfire. I was never picked in a social setting to retell a funny event ("Wait, wait, let Jana tell the story!"). That never happens. I also accidentally skip details in real life, my mind gets convoluted with extreme tangents so my mouth has trouble keeping up. I'm inarticulate and bad at telling stories for that reason. On top of that, I get performance anxiety, even if I’m in a small group setting with friends, so that exacerbates the problem tenfold. I haven't built a reputation as a storyteller among the people who know me so when I do have articles published and it's put out there into the world, I immediately suffer from impostor syndrome.
But I care so much about telling a good story. Being able to theorize what makes a good story isn't difficult. I mean, that's textbook stuff. I think wherein lies the nuance is the ability to garner empathy. People aren't usually driven to crime, murder, self-harm, cheating, deception, etc. without some sort of external influence. Sure, there's genetic predisposition, but when exploring a subject, it's important to not only target the protagonist driving the narrative. What does he or she hold deep in their hearts? Whom do they love? Who loves them? What feeds their soul? What destroyed it? All of this comes from empathy, from being able to put yourself in their shoes while maintaining professional integrity. And while recent research shows you can learn empathy, not everyone has it.
EHW: How would you describe your storytelling process?
JM: I'm at the beginning of my career, so I'm still trying to find my "writing niche." It's definitely a priority but not something I actively try to attain on a daily basis. I think it has to happen organically. Having said that, I've been mostly drawn to writing about marginalized subjects. My favorite piece of writing is the article I published on Helen Geisel, Dr. Seuss' first wife. I also like writing about China because of its rapid expansion into a full-fledged global powerhouse without the adoption of traditional Western democratic values. But that came at a huge cost to its citizens, so my curiosity is reserved for the stuff that they try and hide from the public, the fringes of China's dark underbelly.
There are other pieces of interest which don't fall into either of those categories, like scam artists. I like the idea of exposing scam artists. But it has to be done carefully and with a deeply reported, nuanced take because you're basically about to ruin someone's life (although my empathy varies depending on the severity of the crime). I did an internship at a production company last year and learned afterwards that one of the employees had been exposed by the media for being a major Silicon Valley fraud five years earlier. But the most she ever did during my time there was brag about being friends with Orlando Bloom, which was juicy among the interns but not really worth writing about. There has to be a distinction between gossip and an actual story. While both can contain a clearly driven narrative with interesting character arcs, one speaks to the bigger picture and the other, not so much. What every writer wants is fame and recognition, which admittedly can arrive without totally destroying integrity, but the path of least resistance in a technological world comes in the form of click-bait headlines, puff pieces, and stuff like that. I try to steer away from that; that's not a story to me.
EHW: What are three of your favorite fun facts about East Asian culture?!
JM: Tom Cruise isn't a samurai; submerging sushi in soy sauce is considered disrespectful to the chef but I do it anyway; and Taiwan became the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage this year!
EHW: What other unique traits make you who you are?
JM: I have a red birth mark visible on my left eyelid that, according to my husband, makes me approachable. In fact, he says it was the one reason he believed I wasn't completely out of his league. If, by approachable, he means having people ask if you've scratched the eye too hard or got bit by a mosquito, then he's technically right. If you watch Chernobyl on HBO, you'll notice the character Mikhail Gorbachev, based on the former Soviet Union leader, has a large, red birth mark situated right smack bang on his massive forehead. And, you know, he fought for democratic freedom and made peace with the West, so maybe it is a thing.