I am 21 years old and I have never published a poem. More importantly, I am 21 years old and I do not have a driver’s license, and my best friend Chelsea has driven me an hour to Skylight Books in Los Angeles to hear three of my favorite poets read: Emily Jungmin Yoon, Morgan Parker, and Muriel Leung. Chelsea takes photos of me as I stand in the book signing line, clutching books written by all three authors, and then I am asked the question everyone before me has also been asked: are you a writer, too?
It occurs to me that the cooler answer would be no, that it is cooler to read poetry without the pretension of calling myself a writer, especially given that I have yet to be published. Being a poet is so cringe, I tell my friends half-jokingly as I scrub my Instagram of any Google Docs screenshots. What I mean is that I wish I didn’t have to do or be good at something to know or love it. I wish I didn’t have to make it about me.
I have always romanticized the idea of being a fan, of loving something fervently without necessarily wanting to be it. At high school football games, I would lead the chants, dressed in my school colors as I competed with the other dyke for a free pizza. I was fake, though––I didn’t actually love football, I loved the noise around it.
Being a true fan requires devotion, which in fan culture is often gendered. Men’s fandom is primarily curative, focused on gathering and organizing knowledge about a source material: ranking lists of characters’ strength, manuals on the language the characters speak or the world they inhabit. A good curative fan is an expert, someone who knows everything about the canon’s world and characters. Women’s fandom, on the other hand, is mostly transformative, focused on changing and expanding the source material through fanart like fanfiction, fan videos, and cosplay. Transformative fandom, then, threatens curative fandom in that it devalues the notion of expertise and knowledge of a source material alone, challenging and opening up the canon and the singular authority of the original artist.
Fanfiction is often called cringe because anyone can write anything about anything, meaning in reality, mostly young queer women and trans people can write mostly queer stuff about pop culture they love. Meaning there are millions of readers of fanfiction, and that’s cringe because who would want to read work without the curator coming first: the agent, the publisher, the journal, the journal’s reader? Cringe because who would care so much about something that they would write without money or fame or originality as the motivation? Who would write just because they loved someone else’s universe; who would write when it’s something anyone could do?
I am a fan of fanfiction in the least transformative sense: I have never written it or even left a comment or a “kudos,” but I am a devoted reader of Archive of Our Own, a popular fan-created fanfiction website. For example, for this essay, for research purposes, I finally read the most “kudos”-ed Harry Potter fanfiction, a 526,962 word saga by MsKingBean89 titled All the Young Dudes, narrating Remus’ and Sirius’ love story from childhood to wartime. I love the work for its meticulous character development and for the way it thoughtfully embeds queerness into a world originally created by J.K. Rowling, whose “disgusting transphobic views” are explicitly denounced by MsKingBean89. And I am not alone: fans have left 99,271 kudos, commented 23,851 times, translated the work into 22 different languages, made numerous fan art covers, and written countless spinoffs.
All the Young Dudes is not unique as far as fanfiction goes, which is maybe the best thing about it, that it does away with any pretense of originality in its devotion. There are hundreds of thousands of stories on the same platform and within the same fandom that I can just as easily access. The most popular fictions often include a long list of notes at the end or beginning honoring their betas (editors), translators, illustrators, and other works inspired by their own. In this case, fandom acts non-monogamously: devotion toward one thing begets devotion toward those who share that devotion with us, such devotion proliferating outward far beyond the canon.
Poets—particularly poets in a North American context—often joke that their readers are only other poets. There’s a certain self-deprecation in this, but also a sense of intimacy, the feeling of belonging to a secret club. This attitude promises that we are writing for us, not for money or prestige. Or, perhaps more truthfully, that prestige is bestowed not by the general public but by other “expert” poetry readers who are, inevitably, other poetry writers.
I read for the Translation Department of The Offing, a gig where I often feel out of place. I know I was invited to offer an outsider’s perspective: as a transnational, transracial Korean adoptee, I understand what it means to have a history with a language and to encounter that same language as something new. At the end of the day, though, I read in a genre and for a department I could never submit to. I sometimes feel hypocritical, like I am rewriting the old adage of “those who can’t do teach” to “those who can’t write read.” Even worse—“those who can’t do judge those who can.”
I don’t name my imposter syndrome to elicit pity or reassurance but because I am curious about what makes someone’s reading legitimate. Should one’s reading be curative, and thus depend upon the reader’s knowledge of the canon, or must it be transformative, based on the possibility of reading leading to writing. Is it about what—or who—we’re reading for?
Translation and fanfiction are genres that interest me for the same reason: they are both about inhabiting another writer’s world and language; they are both art forms that create new ways of accessing or encountering the original work and writer. In American contexts, translation and fanfiction are often dismissed and deprioritized; American exceptionalism and misogyny take different routes, with similar results. Only three percent of books published in the United States are works of translation, less than 1,000 titles annually. It’s even rarer for fanfiction writers to cross into mainstream publishing, though there are notable recent exceptions. It’s no surprise that these genres are often held in low regard—at their very foundation, such works are rooted in a lineage that trumps the individual. And there’s nothing more embarrassing to an American audience than devotion to someone or something else.
As a translation reader, I am asked to read work without a sense of the original source material or the ability to translate that material myself. Neither curator nor creator, I often need to remind myself that what I can offer is a deep understanding of what it means to honor and celebrate the original work. Fanfiction taught me this: devotion reaches not for total understanding but into a more generative space.
My beloved sends me a meme and I laugh so hard I make it the background on my phone. A cow stands at the beach, facing the ocean, the water lapping around its cow-ankles. The text reads: “I am cringe / But I am free.”
We write love poems that we workshop together; we send memes and long letters and emails. We are obsessed with each other, we tell everyone else. We tell each other I am your biggest fan, and laugh at our unoriginality. Fans not in that we know everything about each other as much as that we inspire something new and remembered in each other: a certain kind of opening, a freedom beside the cringe.
Chae(lee) Dalton is a wintertime writer and summertime ice cream maker. They are the author of the poetry chapbook Mother Tongue (Gold Line Press 2021), and their work appears in The Offing, Pinwheel, Penn Review, and elsewhere. A queer Korean adoptee, Dalton currently lives in New York, where they teach kids science and make stuff with their friends.