Welcome to my Taiwanese American Heritage Week feature series! Taiwanese American Heritage Week is celebrated every year in May starting on Mother’s Day and ending the following Sunday. Each year during TAHW I spotlight Taiwanese authors and books in some form or fashion on my blog. You can find all of the past features in my Post Index.
The first author interview in my 2021 TAHW series is with Addie Tsai on her debut YA novel Dear Twin.
Poppy wants to go to college like everyone else, but her father has other ideas. Ever since her mirror twin sister, Lola, mysteriously vanished, Poppy’s father has been depressed and forces her to stick around. She hopes she can convince Lola to come home, and perhaps also procure her freedom, by sending her twin a series of eighteen letters, one for each year of their lives.
When not excavating childhood memories, Poppy is sneaking away with her girlfriend Juniper, the only person who understands her. But negotiating the complexities of queer love and childhood trauma are anything but simple. And as a twin? That’s a whole different story.
Q: You have said that Dear Twin started out as a memoir but evolved into a fictionalized story of your younger self. How did you decide which parts to keep true to your real life and which parts to fictionalize?
A: That’s a great question. There were aspects of the story I knew I would fictionalize from the start in order to protect the privacy and ownership of my family’s stories. But I would really say that when I created Poppy and Lola and the world they inhabited—inspired by my life but certainly not real—the fictional world and details emerged from there. Of course, there were moments that I wanted to bring into their world that were very much true, but those were few and far between.
Q: Your book explores some very heavy topics, ones that are stigmatized and need more space to exist within YA because they are relevant to so many teens. How did you navigate the intense vulnerability that comes with writing such personal trauma on the page?
A: Thank you for that observation! When I was a teenager reading YA, I felt isolated having never read YA that dealt with these harder themes and experiences that I knew were in many young adults’ lives, not only mine. It was incredibly difficult to navigate and it took time to get it right. It was hard to revisit some of these experiences, but also it took great care to do it in a way that wouldn’t retraumatize the reader or that wasn’t inappropriate to young adults. I took my time, and tried to consider the reader at every turn, as well as my young self in their position.
Q: I really loved the use of epistolary format and footnotes within your book. How did you decide what to place within the main narrative versus in Poppy’s letters or the footnotes?
A: I’ve always been attracted to the epistolary form, first with The Color Purple as a teenager and then Frankenstein. For Dear Twin, however, I knew I wanted this book to be the book of a single twin’s experience, and that I wanted there to be a way for Poppy to tell her story somehow. The best way to do that seemed to be the epistolary format. It also gave Lola a way to exist within the pages while also being absent from the present of the story at the same time. The footnotes, I think, work more the way they traditionally do–as asides, or a kind of nod or citation. I see the footnotes more as parentheses to the narrative than the narrative itself.
Q: I was delighted by a lot of the references to YA authors and books within the story, especially Malinda Lo, and Emily X.R. Pan’s The Astonishing Color of After. How would you say your book is in conversation with other YA novels?
A: YAY! That makes me happy. I want the characters I create to largely live in the real world where these books exist. For me, Poppy is a way of reimagining my queer future and past at the same time, if that makes sense. What would it have been like for me if I had come of age in a world that was accepting of queerness, in which I knew that queer Asian teens (and adults) existed? How much larger would my world have become if I had been able to read books like Malinda Lo’s and Emily X.R. Pan’s at that age? These are the books I read now and the books my young self would most certainly have read as a teen, all collaged and integrated into Poppy who is both me and not-me.
In terms of how my book is in conversation with other YA novels, Dear Twin is intentionally a hybrid of YA and literary fiction, and although aesthetically in conversation with elements of The Perks of Being a Wallflower and We Are Okay, is in communion with writers like Malinda Lo and Emily X.R. Pan, among many others. I wrote against popular YA writers at the time who I felt weren’t speaking to the YA experience, or were speaking to a very cishet experience. I wrote against the trope of twins I saw playing out over and over again in various YA that I was reading then, or that I saw playing out on television marketed to teens. It is an exciting YA world these days, but we still have a long way to go. I wrote this book for queer Asians and I wrote this book for the teens that couldn’t just go on a road trip or quit school and chase after a missing girl and I wrote this book for twins who never get to see themselves as the center of the stories.
Q: Language barriers and the diaspora disconnect play a significant role in Poppy’s story, and the narration at times uses Hanyu Pinyin to transliterate certain words or phrases. How did you go about choosing whether to transliterate versus translate?
A: This is such a hard question for me! The truth is that I know only a few words in Mandarin. I did take Mandarin for two years in high school, and learned Pinyin during that time, but I’ve lost a lot of the language I acquired then. Some of the Mandarin in the book I knew, but some of it I had to look up. My publisher, Metonymy Press, hired a Pinyin editor, which I was grateful for. It felt important to me that there were times that the Mandarin existed without translation. I’m working on a new novel now in which I’m using characters and then adding footnotes with the pinyin, we’ll see how it goes!
Q: I really enjoyed the gift-giving scenes in the story. If you could curate and send your teen readers a Dear Twin themed book box and care package, what would you include in it?
A: OHHHHHHHHH. This is such an amazing question. If I had no limitations, I think it would include: a mixtape (on cassette), curated by either Poppy or Juniper, Emily X.R. Pan’s The Astonishing Color of After, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, poppy flower seeds, an enamel pin (which I have!) of Poppy and Juniper, a jasmine candle, some cute stationery that Poppy would love, a pair of colorful knee-highs, and a Hayley Kiyoko CD, or at the very least, a downloadable link.
Q: Children’s literature as a publishing category has only just started to open up to more marginalized voices. While many think of diversity as a trend, it is essential to changing the publishing landscape on a foundational level not only as far as inclusion of marginalized characters are concerned but also at the level of storytelling as a craft. What far-flung corners and frontiers of children’s literature do you want to explore in the future, if any?
A: I absolutely agree with this. I would really like to explore all levels of children’s literature, including picture books and middle grade, collaborating with a queer Asian illustrator from the outset instead of being matched with one. Although I’ve never seen myself writing fantasy, I’ve been remembering more often how my first love of writing fiction began when I wrote fanfiction (though no one called it that then) of Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles. I recently fell in love with Mark Oshiro’s queer Latinx fantasy Each of Us a Desert, and it’s awakened in me an interest to consider fantasy as a writer (although I admit to feeling intimidated!), but from a more realistic (in worldbuilding, not in believability) point of view than a lot of the most commonly sought out YA fantasies being published these days.
About the Author:
Addie Tsai (she/they) is a queer nonbinary artist and writer of color, and teaches courses in literature, creative writing, dance, and humanities at Houston Community College. She also teaches in Goddard College’s MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts and Regis University’s Mile High MFA in Creative Writing. They collaborated with Dominic Walsh Dance Theater on Victor Frankenstein and Camille Claudel, among others. Addie holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College and a PhD in Dance from Texas Woman’s University. She is the author of the queer Asian young adult novel Dear Twin. Addie’s writing has been published in Foglifter, VIDA Lit, the Texas Review, Banango Street, The Offing, Room Magazine, The Collagist, The Feminist Wire, Nat. Brut., and elsewhere. They are the Fiction Co-Editor at Anomaly, Staff Writer at Spectrum South, and Founding Editor & Editor in Chief at just femme & dandy.