Paper Daughter: A Memoir, M. Elaine Mar MPP 1996 reveals
her tension and uncertainty as she sought balance growing up
in two different worlds: at home with her Chinese family and
at school with her American peers. At home, Mar was expected
to adhere to the values her parents brought from Hong Kong.
Her mother, for instance, never let her drink water when she
ate because she didnt want her to wash down food
like that, says Mar. You needed to be grateful for
that food. At junior high in the 1980s, she saved her
lunch money for clothes, knowing her mother would never let
her have money to buy the Izod shirts the other kids wore.
had intended to write a very different book, one based on
an article she had written for Harvard magazine (Blue
Collar, Crimson Blazer, November/December 1995) about
working-class students and their experiences at Harvard. Once
she and her agent started to flesh out ideas for the book,
however, they needed to make a decision: Would the book be
autobiographical or based on interviews with other working-class
students? The parts about me were getting in the way,
says Mar. I had lived with myself my whole life and
was happier writing this book in a more literary way. Mar decided to write a memoir about her experiences. But the
aim of Paper Daughter was the same: to talk about class
in this country.
Daughter started off as the title of one chapter about
her mother, then Mar realized that the words paper daughter
resonated on so many different levels. Her mother was Mars
grandfathers paper daughter because Mars
mother only really knew her father through the letters they
exchanged after he had moved to the United States. Mar, who
considers herself a working-class paper daughter to
Harvard, also realized that she is tied to this world
by so many different pieces of paper: a high school diploma,
her British passport, and her American Social Security card.
of this book focuses on her identity: from when she arrived
in the United States and was forced to take on the American
name of Elaine, to her role as a daughter and her journey
toward self-discovery. Looking back, she remembers the first
time one of her poems was published in her high schools
literary magazine. The author was listed as Elaine Mar. I
was troubled by that, says Mar. My teacher thought
it was very arrogant of me to want it to run as M. Elaine
Mar, but I felt the name Elaine Mar was very naked. It hadnt
come from anywhere. The initial is everything I brought into
it. My name was always written differently: on my Social Security
card, on my British passport. But theyre all me. I couldnt
claim just my Chinese name, or just Elaine without the initial.
A piece of me was missing.
critic questioned how someone so young could have enough distance
in her life to write a memoir. But Mar, in
her early 30s, says, If I wrote about these events 20
years from now, it might be different; it might not.
She feels that shes had enough distance from the period
of her life that she wrote about from age 6 to 22.
was certainly on her mind as she wrote Paper Daughter. There isnt a lot of distance between the reader
and the character because I wanted to bring the reader into
my experiences. Most people who read literary-type books dont
know about this kind of experience. My intention was to write
a story for those who didnt grow up the way I did.
admits that its revealing that this book
has been marketed toward the Asian reading market. Its
frustrating because Ive written about an experience
that is universal to others, says Mar. I wrote
about being embarrassed about my emerging sexuality, about
feeling out of place
.I wanted to bring the reader into
my experiences, and most people who read literary-type books
dont get to see what its like to grow up in an
ethnic enclave. People eat in Chinatown, and they go there
to buy cheap fabrics, but they dont understand that
people actually live there.
Harlem, the South Side of Chicago: theyre ethnic ghettos
in the old sense of the word ghetto, says Mar,
who doesnt think the United States is the melting
pot many others believe it is. Does that mean
that eventually everyone can attain economic status and still
hold on to a vestige of their old culture? Or does that mean
that theyre able to make an ethnic dish for Thanksgiving?
Its a good thing to have a memory of where you came
from. The question is whether you have a choice to remember
that or you dont, says Mar.
coming to the Kennedy School, she worked as a youth caseworker,
a career she felt constrained by. Im not saying
I wasnt doing any good. If you manage to talk to a suicidal
child, and he or she finishes the eighth grade, youre
definitely making a difference to that individual. But I wanted
to do more, on a bigger scale, so I decided to pursue an MPP, she says.
graduating, she worked in Dorchester, Massachusetts, with
a family strengthening program but realized that shes
not great with the political process things, like crunching
numbers. Again, she struggled. Im not great
at being a cog in the machine, so I decided that writing is
another way to make change that was more appealing to me.
It drew on talents Im better at. But I havent
given up. Its become a force of habit to care about
the public sector.
living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Mar has received great
professional feedback about her narrative voice since Paper
Daughter was published, so shes leaning towards
fiction these days. Sometimes, in fiction, you can get
your point across better. You can take liberties, and youre
able to make the message part of the background, instead of
the foreground. That communicates better to people. They can
spend more time thinking about the message, instead of being
told, says Mar.