Author Interview: JC Kang

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 final author interview in my 2021 TAHW series is with self-published fantasy author JC Kang on his recently republished series starter Songs of Insurrection.

Synopsis:

Only the lost magic of Dragon Songs can save the world. Only an awkward girl with the perfect voice can rediscover it.

The Dragon Singers of old summoned typhoons and routed armies, liberating mankind from the orcs before fading into legend. Now, with the world again facing a new cataclysm, the power of music stirs in Kaiya, a naïve misfit with the perfect voice.

Without a master to guide her, she must rely on Hardeep, a disgraced foreign paladin, to help awaken her latent magic. His motives might not be entirely noble. When he leads her to the fabled Dragon Scale Lute, which only a Dragon Singer can wield, it is up to Black Lotus Clan to intervene. Because the instrument’s fell power can save the world…Or destroy it.

Interview:

Q: Obligatory food question! You told me you worked in Taiwan for some years when you were younger. What are some of your favorite Taiwanese foods, and what are your favorite memories of living in Taiwan?

A: One of the best part of living in Taiwan was the food! Because so many chefs from all over China fled to Taiwan, there were so many wonderful regional cuisines. Since I hung out mostly around 師大, I had several favorite haunts in the day/night market: a northern potsticker/dumpling/tricolor noodle dive; a man who flew in from Hong Kong on the weekends had a stand where he made amazing beef chow fun; and a restaurant that had delectable 滷肉飯.

Also, a peppered fried-chicken stand a block away from my apartment. It might be sacrilege, but my favorite beef needle soup was not on 永康街, but from the chain restaurant, 三商巧福.  Is it embarrassing to say, I actually loved McDonalds in Taiwan, too? I miss their fried pork sandwiches and teriyaki burgers!

Besides just the fun of being in my 20s and hanging out with friends, probably my favorite memory was the 1996 Presidential election. We were playing Mahjong at a friend’s apartment on Ren Ai Rd, and as the ballot returns were coming in, a huge commotion erupted on the streets. Honking horns, people marching and chanting, firecrackers… As someone used to seeing less than 50% turnout for American elections, it was so exciting to see the people being involved in the democratic process.

That said, I also met my wife in Taiwan, so I should probably include that as a favorite memory?

Q: I read Songs of Insurrection several years ago, so I was surprised to see that you recently republished it with not only a gorgeous new cover but also some content revisions. What motivated the update, and what was it like giving your book a makeover?

A: Even though it was the first book in the Dragon Songs Saga, Songs of Insurrection was actually the last one of the series that I wrote. I was misguided and arrogant in thinking that I had the skill to write a book that would appeal to everyone, and my goal was to create an insta-love situation which would eventually turned on its head and subvert that trope.

Many of the critical reviews mentioned a dislike for the insta-love, and Kaiya’s lack of agency because of it. Therefore, I revised the story to make her love interest, Hardeep, suspicious. It’s probably still too subtle for some readers.

The series ended up selling very well—60k copies and 35 million Kindle Unlimited page reads—so I wrote a prequel series following the most popular character, Jie. I also learned my audience was mostly women 30+ who liked romantic arcs, so I had the covers redesigned to target that demographic more.

When it came time to do the audiobooks, I decided to tweak The Dragon Songs Saga. I included some references to the prequel series, and added a few chapters with one of its popular characters. I simplified stuff like units of measurement and translated some Mandarin terminology into English so that it would be easier to follow on audio.

How do I feel about it? I probably spent way too much time in money for very little return, so there is a level of regret. However, it’s helped me find some new readers, and sell hundreds of hardbacks to existing fans. So, not a total loss.

Q: Indie authors, for lack of access to the same resources as traditional authors, tend to become a jack of all trades in order to advance their career. What kinds of useful skills have you developed since you started writing and self-publishing?

A: I would argue that the Big 5 put most of their marketing budgets into a handful of authors, and therefore, indie authors actually have an advantage over the average trad debut author (at least, in eBooks). However, they’re services we have to pay for out of pocket, and, as you point out, it requires developing a wide array of skills.

For me, that’s meant basic Photoshop. Data analysis to learn about audiences. Networking and alliance building. Learning how advertising platforms work. Using emerging big data technologies like pixels.

Q: Unlike in traditional publishing, where you have an agent who matches you up with an editor at a publishing house, self-published authors have to find their own freelance editors (to my knowledge, anyway). How do you decide who to go to for editing?

A: For me, it was word of mouth. I’ve used the same editor (Alexis at The Quick Fox, formerly known as Word Vagabond) for line edits and proofreading for years. For the Dragon Songs re-releases, I hired a second proofreader (Sarah Chorn of Bookworm Blues), who is very well-known in indie fantasy circles.

Q: I saw from looking at your past interviews that you watch a lot of East Asian media, which you cite as being among the influences for your work. Do you have any particular East Asian movies, dramas, etc. that have inspired your work and/or that you want to recommend to your fellow fantasy fans?

A: I am probably going to show my age with this one, but I’m a huge fan of 1990s Hong Kong movies and early 2000s Japanese Samurai dramas. Some of my favorites:

  • Once Upon a Time in China 1 & 2
  • Fist of Legend
  • Fong Sai-Yuk 1 & 2
  • The Taiji Master Zhang Sanfeng
  • Swordsman 2
  • A Chinese Ghost Story
  • Dragon Inn
  • Fearless
  • Hero
  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
  • House of Flying Daggers
  • The Myth
  • Drunken Master 1 & 2
  • Toshiie to Matsu
  • Shinsengumi
  • When the Last Sword is Drawn
  • Twilight Samurai

Q: I noticed the illustrations of your character Zheng Tian look suspiciously like the actor Hu Ge. Is he the inspiration for the character’s appearance by any chance? On a related note, who would you cast to play Kaiya, Jie, and Tian in a live-action adaptation of your work?

A: LOL, I’m probably showing my age, but Takeshi Kaneshiro was my visual muse for Tian. I pictured Vickie Zhao for Kaiya, and Maggie Q for Jie. I am not up to date on current Asian media, except tangentially through the K-Pop and K-Dramas that my kids follow, so I’d have to go with those three actors from 15 years ago!

Q: Please shout out some Asian indie authors whose work you’ve enjoyed with a short pitch for their books!

A:

  • M.L. Wang, Sword of Kaigen. Winner of Mark Lawrence’s Self-Publishing Fantasy Blog-Off. It’s a mix of Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Poppy War. Emotional Roller Coaster with deep, deep themes.
  • Jeannie Lin (hybrid), Gunpowder Alchemy. Opium Wars re-imagined as Steampunk.
  • Tao Wong, A Thousand Li. Wonderful character interactions and lush worldbuilding. Probably the second-most popular Xianxia series after Will Wight’s Cradle.
  • Sarah Lin, The Brightest Shadow. Epic Fantasy x Xianxia, with compelling characters and fabulous worldbuilding.

Book Links:

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Bookshop | IndieBound

About the Author:

Born and raised in the capital of the Confederacy’s urban blight, JC Kang grew up a total Twinkie. Though he savored the irony that his GI Joe: Greatest American Hero toys were made in Taiwan, he didn’t know where that was, or that his parents had once lived there. Interestingly enough, his father had been staunchly anti-KMT, and fled to Taiwan in 1947 to escape authorities in Xiamen, never expecting the Nationalist government to flee there; and his mother’s family had deep ties to the  KMT, her uncle eventually serving as the personal attaché to Madame Chiang Kai-Shek in New York. Apparently, love—or at least, young lust—conquered political differences.

JC’s life changed the summer between his first and second years at UVA, when he was accepted to the University of Paris for a summer program. Instead, his father sent him to the Mandarin Training Center in Taipei. It was such a life-altering experience that JC returned after graduation (and a year in Japan) to Taipei, where he worked as a translator and technical writer, apprenticed under an acupuncturist, and trained in Wing Chun Kung Fu under Grandmaster Ip Man’s nephew, Sifu Lo Man Kam.  Many of these influences found their way into his writing.

Author Links:

Website – jckang.dragonstonepress.us
Twitter – @JCKang804
Instagram – @jc.kang
Facebook – Legends of Tivara

Author Interview: Jennifer Yen

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 fifth author interview in my 2021 TAHW series is with Jennifer Yen on her debut YA novel A Taste for Love.

Synopsis:

To her friends, high school senior Liza Yang is nearly perfect. Smart, kind, and pretty, she dreams big and never shies away from a challenge. But to her mom, Liza is anything but. Compared to her older sister Jeannie, Liza is stubborn, rebellious, and worst of all, determined to push back against all of Mrs. Yang’s traditional values, especially when it comes to dating.

The one thing mother and daughter do agree on is their love of baking. Mrs. Yang is the owner of Houston’s popular Yin & Yang Bakery. With college just around the corner, Liza agrees to help out at the bakery’s annual junior competition to prove to her mom that she’s more than her rebellious tendencies once and for all. But when Liza arrives on the first day of the bake-off, she realizes there’s a catch: all of the contestants are young Asian American men her mother has handpicked for Liza to date.

The bachelorette situation Liza has found herself in is made even worse when she happens to be grudgingly attracted to one of the contestants; the stoic, impenetrable, annoyingly hot James Wong. As she battles against her feelings for James, and for her mother’s approval, Liza begins to realize there’s no tried and true recipe for love.

Interview:

Q: Food is such an essential part of Taiwanese culture. What is your favorite Taiwanese food (or one of your favorites since I know how hard it is to choose), and what memories or feelings do you associate with it, if any?

A: A lot of my favorite Taiwanese foods are street snacks (or derived from them). Some of my most vivid childhood memories come from eating and sharing them with my family. Stinky tofu is still one of my go-to guilty pleasures, but it’s definitely an acquired taste—or rather, smell—for most non-Taiwanese.

There was also this fried chicken stall in the day market my mom would take us to for groceries. It was run by an elderly man, and it was his family business. There was something about his batter and spices that made his chicken out of this world. Sadly, his children opted not to carry the recipe on after he retired.

My favorite sweet street snack were these soft animal-shaped waffles. They were made from a batter very similar to Hong Kong egg waffles, and the vendors would cart around their iron molds and make them on the spot for you. What I wouldn’t give to have them again!

Q: It seems to be a common thing for second generation Taiwanese writers to first try med school or some other STEM field before becoming writers (this was a thing for Gloria Chao, Livia Blackburne, and also me). What advice do you have for Taiwanese and other Asian youth who are thinking about venturing off the beaten (and often expected) path of the doctor/lawyer/engineer trifecta to write or do other creative work?

A: This is such a tough question, because I went down the same path you did (and am still in STEM to this day)! To me, the key is compromise. Many immigrant parents drive their children towards STEM because of the perceived financial stability in those fields. Mine were definitely that way, and it stung to have them dismiss anything they didn’t consider worth my time. Now as an adult, I understand their point of view, but there’s also a middle ground. Pursue your passions, but do your research and know how to deal with the financial ups and downs of creative work. That could be a “fallback” career, or a job that at least helps you to pay the bills. It’s also important to remember that it’s never too late to be creative. There is no age limit to your imagination!

Q: If you were to pick a combination of a baked good and a bubble tea mix (base+flavor+topping) to represent Liza, Grace, James, and Ben, respectively, what would you choose for each of them, and why?

A: Hmmmm this is another great but challenging question! I would say the following:

Liza is probably charsiu bao and jasmine green milk tea with boba, because she’s sweet and salty (haha) and your go-to person for any occasion!

Grace would be egg tart and cheese foam peach oolong tea! She’s well-loved, looks impeccable, and always on trend.

James is definitely boluo bao and Japanese matcha. He’s crusty on the outside, but soft and sweet on the inside. While he isn’t for everyone and takes getting used to, there’s lots of perks if you give him a chance.

Ben would be milk custard bun and brown sugar black tea with boba, because he’s sweet outside and in, but has layers you might miss if you only fall for his looks.

Q: Your story mentions Taiwanese and Korean dramas. Did you draw inspiration from any of these while you were writing? What other sources served as inspiration for the story (aside from Pride & Prejudice and GBBO)?

A: I would say that I draw inspiration from the themes and tropes we see in all dramas. However, there’s obviously cultural complexities that I weave into A Taste for Love that fall more in line with what you see in the Asian ones. One of my favorite things is the multi-layered twists Taiwanese and Korean dramas throw at their audience, and I tried incorporating a small version of that into the story (if you’ve read it, you know what I’m talking about). 

Q: A lot of Asian immigrant parents don’t necessarily show love through “I love you”s or physical affection. If you were to analyze Liza and her mom using the 5 Love Languages model (https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/the-5-love-languages-explained), how would you rank the two characters for each “language” on a scale from 1 to 5, 1 being the least important, 5 being the most important?

A: Funny you mention that, because I feel a lot of immigrant families struggle with communication because the generations have different love languages.

For Mrs. Yang, she’s definitely acts of service (5), quality time (4), gifts (3), words of affirmation (2), and physical touch (1), though the last three are fairly equal (and minimal).

For Liza, I would say her primary love languages are words of affirmation (5) and gifts (4), followed by quality time (3), acts of service (2), and physical touch (1), though again, the last three are fairly equal.

One thing to keep in mind is that you’ll see Mrs. Yang and Liza switch between their love languages depending on who they are with. It’s not uncommon to see that, because all relationships involve common ground and compromise!

Q: I love how this book pays tribute to Houston and its Chinatown. Did you base any of the locations in the story on real places?

A: The majority of the places in ATFL are based on real places. Mama Lee’s is loosely based on 85C Bakery, while Mrs. Yang’s bakery is an amalgamation of the smaller, local bakeries in Houston’s Chinatown. Yin and Yang came from a joint restaurant-and-bakery my family used to frequent up in Plano (I am not sure if it still exists), and all the boba and shaved ice shops are also a combination of the many wonderful places you can find here!

Q: Since the pandemic started, a lot of East and Southeast Asian restaurants across the US have seen decreases in traffic due to racism and xenophobia. What E/SE Asian restaurants and bubble tea shops are your favorites to visit in the Houston area? (Note: Hyperlinks redirect to Google Maps!)

A: Oh my goodness! Honestly, there’s so many I could write a whole essay on them. I tend to go to restaurants for specific dishes or specialties, so it really depends on my mood! Some of the ones I’ve been eating at lately are:

  • San Dong Noodle House – Taiwanese cuisine, also the inspiration for Dumpling Dynasty…and yes, their leek dumplings are to die for (note from Shenwei: I also love this place, they have amazing dumplings!)
  • Mein – I’m obsessed with their wonton noodle soup, Sansai egg tofu, and shaking chicken/beef (along with so many other things)
  • Tofu Village (yup, it’s Tofu City in the book) – Korean BBQ
  • Pepper Lunch – Japanese DIY teppanyaki steak and seafood
  • Banana Leaf – amazing Thai food (note from Shenwei: it’s a Malaysian restaurant with different Asian regional dishes from East, Southeast, and South Asia)

As for boba shops or dessert shops, the ones I go to the most are The Teahouse Tapioca & Tea (they singlehandedly fueled ATFL while I was drafting), Sharetea, Tiger Sugar, Modern Tea, and Gong Cha. I also love the red bean soups at Meet Fresh, as well as the shaved ice there (try their brown sugar boba one—it’s heaven) and at Bing Su and Snowy Village!

Book Links:

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Bookshop | IndieBound | Indigo

About the Author:

Jennifer Yen began her writing career in the fourth grade, when her teacher took the detective story she wrote and turned it into a printed book as a gift to her. The encouragement of her teacher, as well as her love for reading and telling stories, kept her writing about the worlds that exist in her imagination.

While Jennifer’s penned everything from poetry to fanfiction, her passion lies in young adult and adult fiction. Drawing from her own experiences growing up as an Asian American, she especially loves writing about family, food, and of course…love!

Jennifer now lives in Texas with her adorable rescue dog. She spends her days healing the hearts of others, and her nights writing about love, family, and the power of acceptance. She believes in the magic of one’s imagination, and hopes her stories will bring joy and inspiration to readers.

If you find Jennifer wandering around aimlessly, please return her to the nearest milk tea shop.

Author Links:

Website – www.jenyenwrites.com
Twitter – @jenyenwrites
Instagram – @jenyenwrites
Pinterest – jenyenwrites

Author Interview: Livia Blackburne

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 fourth author interview in my 2021 TAHW series is with NYT Bestselling author Livia Blackburne on her first picture book, I Dream of Popo, illustrated by Julia Kuo.

Synopsis:

From New York Times bestselling author Livia Blackburne and illustrator Julia Kuo, here is I Dream of Popo. This delicate, emotionally rich picture book celebrates a special connection that crosses time zones and oceans as Popo and her granddaughter hold each other in their hearts forever.

I dream with Popo as she rocks me in her arms.
I wave at Popo before I board my flight.
I talk to Popo from across the sea.
I tell Popo about my adventures.

When a young girl and her family emigrate from Taiwan to America, she leaves behind her beloved popo, her grandmother. She misses her popo every day, but even if their visits are fleeting, their love is ever true and strong.

Interview:

Q: Writing a picture book feels like a pretty big departure from your previous work, which were all YA fantasy. While it’s often assumed that writing picture books is “easier,” it’s not. It’s simply a different medium for storytelling. How is your process different for writing picture books versus for writing YA prose novels?

A: In comparing novels and picture books, I like to make the analogy of building a full-size ship versus a ship in a bottle. With novels, you’re working on a large scale. You’re taking giant pieces of prose and plot and moving them around. It takes a lot of hours, and you end up with something pretty massive. And while you do end up putting a little detailing here and there, but it’s impossible to give the same amount of loving detail to every single word.

With picture books however, you’re in there with your magnifying glass and your tweezers, putting everything in its exact place. And instead of worrying about getting enough material for the entire ship, now your problem is that you have too much. You have to figure out what to put in and what to leave out. It’s more delicate work. I wouldn’t say it’s easier, but it takes less time and you have chance of running out of steam on it.

Q: I know for I Dream of Popo, you got to work with both a Taiwanese American illustrator (Julia Kuo) and a Taiwanese American editor (Connie Hsu). What was that experience like?

A: It was a dream come true! It was just such a wonderful feeling, to be in a team where everybody saw themselves uniquely in the story. Everybody knew the need for the story, and everybody was completely invested in telling it and as authentic away as possible. Since we had this common cultural background, there was a lot less explaining to do. We all knew what New Year’s celebrations were supposed to be like. We all spoke mandarin , and also bonded at how bad our written Chinese was. In terms of artistic collaborations, this one was very special.

Q: For picture books where the author isn’t also the illustrator, there’s a level of trust and surrender of creative control required to craft the story into its best and final form. Did you find that aspect difficult? How much did you communicate with Julia about the illustrations? How much of what appears in the book was your idea versus hers?

A: This is my favorite aspect of writing a picture book, the chance to write the story, and then pass it for someone else to create something more out of it. Julia and I hardly communicated at all throughout the process. I think the first time I saw the pictures, they were already in an almost finished state. So in traditional publishing, a writer’s role really is just as a writer. The art director and editor take care of the book creation process. While it might be difficult for some writers to let go, I am so bad at art that I am pretty much impressed by anything, and it was fun just to sit back and see what they could come up with. As far as my contribution versus Julia’s, basically the words you see on the page are mine. All the interpretation of the words into pictures are hers. In picture book manuscript, you do have illustrator notes, which are kind of like stage directions for the artist, but I don’t think I included that many, if any.         

Q: I know during the time when you were writing the book, you had your own young daughter to take care of. Did her presence in your life affect your approach to writing the book, and if so, how?

A: Well, she’s the one I have to blame for getting me into picture books in the first place! When you’re going to the library every week and reading hundreds of picture books a year, it’s hard not to fall in love with them. I do think having my daughter also had me thinking more about family legacy, and passing on my Chinese heritage to her.

Q: Just for fun, do you have any favorite foods or places to visit in Taiwan to share?

A: I love street vendor food! Stinky tofu, especially the steamed kind that is super stinky but oh so flavorful. Rice balls and vermicelli soup are other favorites. I’m also a huge fan of Taiwanese breakfast places. My breakfast of choice is a bowl of hot sweet soy milk and a shaobing with egg and pork sung. Soooo good.

Book Links:

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Bookshop | IndieBound | Indigo

About the Author:

New York Times bestselling author Livia Blackburne is a Chinese/Taiwanese American author who wrote her first novel while researching the neuroscience of reading at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  Since then, she’s switched to full time writing, which also involves getting into people’s heads but without the help of a three tesla MRI scanner.

She is the author of the MIDNIGHT THIEF (An Indies Introduce New Voices selection) and ROSEMARKED (A YALSA Teens Top Ten nominee), as well as the picture book I DREAM OF POPO , which received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus.

Author Links:

Website – liviablackburne.com
Twitter – @lkblackburne
Instagram – @lkblackburne
Facebook – Livia Blackburne’s Author Page
Pinterest – lkblackburne

Reflections on 15 Years of Taiwanese Diaspora Children’s Literature

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.

In this article and personal essay, I trace the 15-year history of #OwnVoices Taiwanese representation in English language children’s literature, with a primary focus on middle grade and young adult novels (including graphic novels). I also reflect on what Taiwanese representation means to me, discuss some of the difficulties of finding Taiwanese representation, and draw attention to some of the gaps in Taiwanese representation that I want to see filled in the future.

The First Taiwanese Diaspora Children’s Novels

2006 was a watershed year for Taiwanese representation in English language children’s literature. In February of 2006, The Year of the Dog by Grace Lin was published. In April of 2006, Nothing But the Truth (and a few white lies) by Justina Chen (referred to here on out as Nothing But the Truth) came out. Later that year, the graphic novel American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang1 was released. These three books were my first exposure to Taiwanese representation in English language media and, if I’m not mistaken, the first of their kind, at least in traditional publishing.

In 2006, I was 13. That spring, my parents attended the North American Taiwanese Women’s Association Annual Conference, where Grace Lin and Justina Chen—as well as Alvina Ling, the editor for their respective books released that year—were the guest speakers. My parents returned from the conference with a set of signed books from the two authors, personalized for me and my younger sister2. Avid reader that I was, I devoured both The Year of the Dog and Nothing But the Truth in no time.

Although I had consumed plenty of media with Taiwanese people up to that point, courtesy of my mother’s love for Taiwanese romance dramas, this was the first time I’d really encountered any stories featuring Taiwanese people like me in diaspora. Reading The Year of the Dog and Nothing but the Truth, I felt seen in a way that I had never experienced before.

As for American Born Chinese, I didn’t read it until several years later as an older teen. However, Gene Luen Yang was the first among all the Taiwanese children’s authors that I got to meet in person. In 2010, he appeared as one of the author guest speakers at the Montgomery County Teen Book Festival, which was hosted at my high school that year. Because of my limited book-buying budget, I did not get a copy of American Born Chinese signed when I met him. Instead, I asked him to draw a llama (one of my obsessions at the time) for me since he was taking doodle requests from readers. I remember him looking at me with surprise and telling me that it was the first time he could remember getting such a request. Needless to say, I felt special. I kept the signed llama drawing safely tucked away in a folder, and it remains among my treasured mementos of my high school years.

The following year, I met Justina Chen at the same book festival. As a member of my school’s Literary Club, I had the special privilege of volunteering as an author escort for the festival every year, making sure that the author in my care knew where to go for each session and that they had access to pencil, paper, water, and tissues as needed. Justina was one of the authors I served that year. I was so stoked. Her debut had left a deep impression on me when I read it several years prior, to the point where I emulated aspects of the book’s epistolary format and writing style in my own personal journal narrating my life in 8th grade. It was a book that helped me realize that I could write stories about people with my own background and get published. The personalized inscription she’d written in my copy of the Nothing But the Truth, “Taiwanese girl-writers3 are STRONG & SMART,” stayed with me for years.

The Search for Representation

Fast forward several years to my undergrad life. In 2014, I declared Asian American studies as a second major after having a quarter-life crisis about my future career and feeling that aerospace engineering had lost all of the appeal it once had when I was applying to college. As a result of taking multiple classes relating to race and media, I understood the importance of representation in shaping perceptions of marginalized groups. With a newfound hunger for books representing Asian Americans, I began a quest to read as much Asian American literature as possible. For various reasons, I had practically stopped reading for leisure altogether starting in my freshman year of college, so I had a nearly four-year gap to catch up on. While I did seek out a number of adult titles, I also returned to children’s literature, which had fostered my love for reading to begin with.

Since their respective 2006 releases, Grace Lin, Justina Chen, and Gene Luen Yang had all published more books. Of the three, only Grace Lin had written any with explicitly Taiwanese main characters, found in two additional books about her fictional alter-ego Pacy: The Year of the Rat and Dumpling Days. Dumpling Days was especially important to me because it emphasized Pacy’s specifically Taiwanese American identity. The Year of the Dog had mentioned Taiwan as the place where Pacy’s parents had immigrated from, but the language of the story used Chinese as a descriptor. Since writing The Year of the Dog, Grace had undergone her own journey of understanding the differences between Chinese and Taiwanese; Dumpling Days reflected that evolved understanding. I distinctly remember reading the following passage from the book and posting a photo of it to Facebook:

“You’re Taiwanese-American,” Mom said. “And, no matter what, that’s what you’ll always be.”

Forever, I thought. I’d always be Taiwanese-American, no matter if I spoke Chinese, made my eyes bigger, or was called a Twinkie. Even if I didn’t like it. Being Taiwanese-American was like making a brush stroke. The mark couldn’t be erased, and the ink and the paper could never be separated. They were joined forever.

“Mom!” I said, grabbing her arm before she walked away. “For my name chop, can I have my name carved in Chinese and English? Can they do that?”

“Yes.” Mom nodded, a little surprised. “I’m sure they can. I’ll order them today.”

“Good,” I said, and I felt as if I had just taken off a winter coat after discovering it was summer. I was glad I had found my identity.

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Sometime in 2015, after catching up on all of Grace Lin’s middle grade novels, I wrote her a fan letter, a physical one sent by snail mail4. I wrote about how important her work was to me, among other things. As promised on her author website, she wrote back. Since I hadn’t met her in person yet at the time, this letter was the next best thing on the reader fan bucket list.

I did eventually meet Grace Lin in person a few years after, at the 2018 ALA Annual Conference in New Orleans. Despite the weight it added to my luggage, I brought along all of the middle grade books by her that I owned and didn’t already have signed. At that same conference, I also met Alvina Ling, whom I mentioned earlier, the editor behind a good number of the Taiwanese American children’s books that exist today. Like 2006, 2018 was the year of the dog. It had been twelve full years, a whole zodiac cycle, since I’d first read The Year of the Dog, and I was meeting the author and editor of that book in person. It felt like my childhood had come full circle.

Dumpling Days was published in 2012. Between 2006 and 2012, the only other children’s novel with an #OwnVoices Taiwanese American protagonist that came out, besides the ones I’ve already mentioned, was Peiling and the Chicken-Fried Christmas by Pauline A. Chen5. Published by Bloomsbury in October 2007, this short middle grade novel did not have nearly the same amount of exposure as the Taiwanese American-authored books of 2006, which received various awards and accolades between them (notably, the Asian Pacific American Book Award/Honor and the Printz Award). I had to order it from a third-party seller on Amazon because it was out of print.

Upon reading Peiling and the Chicken-Fried Christmas, I discovered, much to my ire, that the synopsis on the dust jacket referred to Peiling as Chinese even though the content of the book mentioned her Taiwanese heritage, and the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) on the copyright page also labeled it as being about Taiwanese Americans. Amazon’s synopsis for the book said Taiwanese rather than Chinese, but that error in the book bugged me all the same because it mirrored the constant microaggressions about my identity I’d faced throughout my life and still have to contend with even today.

A Golden Age of Taiwanese Diaspora Representation

After 2012, there was a dry spell of almost five years where, to my knowledge, no middle grade or young adult novels with #OwnVoices Taiwanese representation were published. While Grace Lin had managed to build a successful career writing Asian main characters, the publishing industry was still largely hostile or apathetic to diversifying its output at the time. Then in 2014, We Need Diverse Books was founded, representing a critical turning point for diversity in children’s literature. The seeds of change planted that year bore fruit for Taiwanese representation in summer 2017 with the publication of Want, a sci-fi dystopian YA novel by Cindy Pon set in a near-future version of Taipei. I was already a fan of Cindy through her Chinese-inspired YA fantasy duologies, but Want was extra special because it was Taiwanese through and through.

Around the same time that Want was published, several other Taiwanese diaspora authors had started breaking into the kidlit industry with agents and book deals. That year, I decided to put together the inaugural Taiwanese American Heritage Week author interview series on my blog to shine a spotlight on them. Out of the five featured authors from 2017, four write for young readers: Cindy Pon, Gloria Chao, Emily X.R. Pan, and Judy I. Lin6.

Since that 2017 interview series, Gloria Chao has published three books featuring Taiwanese American main characters (American Panda, Our Wayward Fate, and Rent a Boyfriend), and Emily X.R. Pan has published one (The Astonishing Color of After) with a second book on the way in 2022. Their debuts both came out in early 2018, but I had a chance to read them in late 2017 thanks to some friends and acquaintances who sent me advance reader copies. Although neither really claimed any “firsts” in Taiwanese diaspora children’s literature (with maybe the exception of mental illness representation in The Astonishing Color of After), they still felt groundbreaking in their own way. The only other contemporary YA with a Taiwanese American main character in existence at the time was Nothing But the Truth, which had resonated with my younger self but felt rather dated in 2018. These new debuts heralded what I like to think of as a mini Golden Age of Taiwanese diaspora representation in children’s literature. A few #OwnVoices Taiwanese diaspora books a year isn’t much when the total of children’s publishing amounts to several thousand books published annually (most of which are very white), but it’s a welcome step up from the near invisibility of the past.

As far as middle grade is concerned, I’ve been heartened to see fantasy series inspired by Taiwanese geography, history, and culture appear in recent years. Henry Lien’s Peasprout Chen trilogy was the first to come along, with book 1 in the series published in 2018 (the year that I interviewed him). In 2019 and 2020, Cindy Lin (no relation to Grace Lin) published a fantasy duology drawing on her Taiwanese heritage, mixing Japanese and Chinese influences that reflect Taiwan’s layered colonial history. Neither one is prominently as marketed as Taiwanese-inspired, and it would be easy for a cultural outsider to miss those influences and think they’re simply Chinese or more broadly East Asian, but to me, there were obvious aspects to both stories that pinged the “look, a Taiwanese thing” alerts in my head. Fantasy set in alternate universes obviously carries different implications for representation than fiction set in the real world, but seeing those little bits of Taiwan in fantasy books was still affirming in its own way.

The Struggles of the Search

One thing I think is important to note about Taiwanese representation in children’s literature is how hard it can be to find it even where it exists. This difficulty is in part a function of the fluid, dynamic, and contested nature of Taiwanese identity, as well as the publishing industry’s biases in labeling and classifying books by authors of color.

Just recently, Pew Research Center released a report in which they analyzed U.S. Census data, and they made the decision to count anyone who wrote in Taiwanese for their ethnicity under the Chinese category in a blatant act of erasure and data manipulation. The problem is not that no Taiwanese people are or identify as Chinese, but rather the assumption that all Taiwanese people are Chinese and identify as such. For those who aren’t aware, people who trace their roots to Taiwan typically identify as exclusively Chinese, exclusively Taiwanese, or both/either Chinese and/or Taiwanese, with the first being the least common and on the verge of fading out completely. I won’t explain the history behind this trend in too much detail, but suffice to say that due to this Venn diagram of identification patterns, it’s very easy for Taiwanese representation to fall through the cracks if the book uses the term Chinese in the synopsis and/or promotional materials.

While gains have been made in representation for people of color in literature, the labeling of race/ethnicity by publishers and catalogers is often either done tokenistically or discouraged, especially when it comes to talking about the content of children’s books. When a book is about [or is perceived as being primarily about] racial/ethnic identity, it is usually labeled with that specific race/ethnicity in the synopsis and in the LCSH, if those are provided on the copyright page. However, for books that are not primarily about identity or racism, the likelihood of the character’s race/ethnicity being mentioned in the synopsis or LCSH goes down. This may sometimes be done with the intention of reducing the Othering of people of color as a “marked category” in opposition to whiteness, but the reality is that gatekeepers often treat race and ethnicity as unimportant and irrelevant in stories that aren’t about identity struggles or racism. In these cases, the “colorblind” approach to labeling stories dominates, which ultimately erases how people of color move through the world differently from white people beyond experiencing racism. The tendency to only label race and ethnicity for “issue books” also stigmatizes racial/ethnic difference by tying it exclusively to trauma and suffering.

Given the above problems, I sometimes have to do a lot of digging to find Taiwanese representation. Many Taiwanese diaspora books appear on my radar through book deal announcements and official synopses that explicitly state that they are Taiwanese. However, those summaries don’t always mention a character’s ethnicity. Some of the gaps are filled by my book community network since I follow tons of people who talk about racial/ethnic diversity and representation and make a point of mentioning it for all the books that include it. However, it’s impossible for me to see every single tweet, and my network doesn’t always catch everything.

To compensate, I spend a lot of time at bookstores just methodically combing through the books on the shelves, hunting for any POC representation that slipped through the cracks. Author last names and cover illustrations are my first indicators that there might be POC representation in a book. Then, I check the synopsis.

For many ethnicities, the name of a character alone is a fairly reliable indicator of their ethnicity, but for Taiwanese people, most of whom have Chinese family names, last name alone isn’t sufficient. While Taiwan uses a different romanization system for personal names than China, there is overlap in the romanization of certain sounds and therefore names, and the correlation between romanization and country of origin isn’t quite one-to-one. If the synopsis doesn’t have any conclusive information, I check the copyright page for LCSH tags. Unfortunately, not all publishers include LCSH assignments in the book. Another option is to Google the author’s name and “Taiwanese” to see if anything comes up.

If all else fails, I start skimming the book or read it to see if it references a particular label or country. This is how I figured out that the main character in The Way to Bea by Kat Yeh is Taiwanese American prior to its publication. The ARC I received did not have the LCSH tag “Taiwanese Americans—Fiction” that appeared in the final version, so it took a bit of reading to find what I needed. I followed a similar process to ferret out the existence of the Taiwanese representation in This Is My Brain in Love by I.W. Gregorio.

The Future of Taiwanese Representation in Children’s Literature

Despite all the gains made in the past few years, there is still so much more I want to see in terms of Taiwanese representation. One experience I’m desperately craving more of is that of people who identify as Taiwanese and only Taiwanese. There are only a few I can think of in the Taiwanese diaspora children’s books that exist right now (one of these being Lily LaMotte’s middle grade graphic novel Measuring Up). There’s an entire array of microaggressions and political tensions that come with that experience that hasn’t been fully explored yet in children’s literature, only hinted at in a few places.

I also want to see more queer Taiwanese representation. I can only think of one queer Taiwanese main character in children’s literature by a Taiwanese author (Poppy from Dear Twin by Addie Tsai). Even though Taiwan is touted as the most queer-friendly Asian country, I don’t really see that reflected in diaspora narratives.

Another type of representation I want more of is books with disabled Taiwanese characters. In particular, I crave stories about mentally ill Taiwanese characters and the complexity of navigating multiple cultures that don’t make much space for those tough conversations about trauma. On a related note, I also want to see the history of the White Terror explored in children’s literature. It’s a heavy topic, but a necessary one to reckon with Taiwan’s history and the intergenerational trauma that lingers in the diaspora.

Additionally, I think the intra-Taiwanese diversity of origin and migration histories needs to be reflected in children’s literature. Taiwan is home to many different groups: the dozens of Indigenous tribes, the Hoklo and Hakka people who have been in Taiwan for hundred of years, and the Southeast and South Asian people who migrated to Taiwan more recently—and beyond. The diaspora is spread out across different parts of the U.S. as well as outside of the United States and so far there haven’t been any books with multiracial Taiwanese main characters that are by multiracial Taiwanese authors.

Translated Children’s Literature from Taiwan

Another area of Taiwanese literary growth I long for is more English language translations of children’s literature from Taiwan. The Western Anglophone literary sphere is rather averse to translated literature with the exception of adult literary fiction, leaving behind everything else that doesn’t conform to elitist standards of artistic value. Taiwan has a much smaller publishing industry than the U.S., but it still has much to offer—in general and as far as children’s literature is concerned. The Taiwanese government’s Ministry of Culture has a sub-agency called the Taiwan Creative Content Agency that maintains a site, Books from Taiwan, showcasing some of the literature from Taiwan with the intent to convince foreign publishers to acquire the rights to these titles. There are so many titles on the list that have caught my eye and made me wish I were an industry professional who could acquire them and/or translate them. Some are books I will eventually buy in Taiwan to read in their original Traditional Chinese form, but I want others who can’t read Chinese to be able to enjoy them, too.

Among the books I hope to see translated are several comics, sometimes referred to in English as “manhua,” the Mandarin equivalent of the Japanese word “manga,” to distinguish their origins. Unlike their Japanese (and to a lesser extent, Korean “manhwa”) counterparts, Taiwanese comics do not have the same global distribution and cultural influence. During the summers I spent in Taiwan in my youth, I read multiple manhua series by Selena Lin (林青慧), nicknamed Taiwan’s 漫畫小天后, the “little heavenly empress of comics,” and I wish there were more people I could talk to about her work.

Bilingual/Multilingual Children’s Books

Last but not least, I wish there were bilingual/multilingual books for children by Taiwanese authors, in English plus any languages commonly spoken in Taiwan. Unfortunately, the Anglophone supremacist tendencies of publishing means that the use of non-English (and more broadly, non-Western European) languages is discouraged to cater to an assumed monolingual English-speaking audience. As far as children’s books are concerned, Spanish is probably the only language with bilingual books available in a significant number. I own one bilingual children’s book in English and Mandarin that’s not explicitly meant for language-learning purposes. It’s called Alice in Dreams艾莉絲夢遊記 and was a limited print run picture book written by Hsuan-fu Chen and Scott Alexander and illustrated by Martin Hsu. There are more out there, but they are mostly independently published, some through crowdfunding, making them more difficult to find and obtain.

Writing the Stories I Want to See

Those of you who have been following me for a while know that I write children’s literature in addition to maintaining this blog. I hope to fill some of the gaps in representation I’ve identified through the stories that I myself write. I’m not query ready yet at this time, but I’m getting there, slowly but surely. Hopefully, in a few years, you’ll see my books on the shelves, too.


Footnotes:

  1. The protagonist of American Born Chinese is identified as Chinese American, but one of the major supporting characters is from Taiwan, so I counted it here, with consideration for the long-lasting influence ABC has had in children’s publishing.
  2. I also have an older sister, but at the time she had mostly stopped reading English language novels, and she was a bit older than the target age for the books, so I’m guessing that’s why my parents didn’t have it personalized to her as well.
  3. This was prior to realizing I was trans, when I still identified as a girl.
  4. Grace Lin doesn’t accept emails from young readers for privacy and safety reasons, so instead you can write physical letters to her. If you include a self-addressed and stamped envelope with your letter, she’ll send you the response with bookplates and bookmarks!
  5. Not to be confused with Pauline F. Chen, a Taiwanese American doctor and the author of an adult memoir called Final Exam: A Surgeon’s Reflection on Mortality.
  6. Judy is actually Canadian, not American, but I included her because I believe that everyone in Taiwanese diaspora is welcome to be featured and celebrated in the heritage week series.

Bibliography of Books Referenced by First Publication Date

 Here’s a list of all the middle grade and young adult books with Taiwanese representation (or that are inspired by Taiwan, in the case of secondary world fantasy) organized chronologically by first publication date. I incorporated as many as I could into the body of the article, but there were at least two I didn’t touch on here but are featured in this week’s author interviews. If I’ve missed any #OwnVoices middle grade and young adult books with Taiwanese representation that are already published, please let me know. I’ll be talking about upcoming releases with Taiwanese representation in another post featuring upcoming books by Taiwanese authors more broadly, regardless of content.

  1. Lin, Grace. The Year of the Dog. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2006.
  2. Chen, Justina. Nothing But the Truth (and a few white lies). Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2006.
  3. Yang, Gene Luen. American Born Chinese. First Second, 2006.
  4. Chen, Pauline A. Peiling and the Chicken-Fried Christmas. Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2007.
  5. Lin, Grace. The Year of the Rat. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2008.
  6. Lin, Grace. Dumpling Days. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2012.
  7. Pon, Cindy. Want. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2017.
  8. Yeh, Kat. The Way to Bea. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2017.
  9. Chao, Gloria. American Panda. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2018.
  10. Pan, Emily X.R. The Astonishing Color of After. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2018.
  11. Lien, Henry. Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword. Henry Holt & Company Books for Young Readers, 2018.
  12. Lien, Henry. Peasprout Chen: Battle of Champions. Henry Holt & Company Books for Young Readers, 2019.
  13. Lin, Cindy. The Twelve. HarperCollins, 2019.
  14. Tsai, Addie. Dear Twin. Metonymy Press, 2019.
  15. Chao, Gloria. Our Wayward Fate. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2019.
  16. Chang, Victoria. Love, Love. Sterling Children’s Books, 2020.
  17. Gregorio, I.W. This is My Brain in Love. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2020.
  18. Lin, Cindy. Treasures of the Twelve. HarperCollins, 2020.
  19. LaMotte, Lily and Ann Xu. Measuring Up. HarperAlley, 2020.
  20. Lin, Ed. David Tung Can’t Have a Girlfriend Until He Gets Into an Ivy League College. Kaya Press, 2020.
  21. Chao, Gloria. Rent a Boyfriend. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2020.
  22. Yen, Jennifer. A Taste for Love. Razorbill, 2021.

If you liked this post, please consider tipping me since it totals just over 4000 words and took a lot of labor. Thanks!

Author Interview: Lily LaMotte

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 third author interview in my 2021 TAHW series is with Lily LaMotte on her debut middle grade graphic novel Measuring Up, illustrated by Ignatz-nominated cartoonist and illustrator Ann Xu.

Synopsis:

Twelve-year-old Cici has just moved from Taiwan to Seattle, and the only thing she wants more than to fit in at her new school is to celebrate her grandmother, A-má’s, seventieth birthday together.

Since she can’t go to A-má, Cici cooks up a plan to bring A-má to her by winning the grand prize in a kids’ cooking contest to pay for A-má’s plane ticket! There’s just one problem: Cici only knows how to cook Taiwanese food.

And after her pickled cucumber debacle at lunch, she’s determined to channel her inner Julia Child. Can Cici find a winning recipe to reunite with A-má, a way to fit in with her new friends, and somehow find herself too?

Interview:

Q: This is a question I ask most of the Taiwanese authors who I feature, and it’s also relevant to the theme of Measuring Up: What’s your favorite Taiwanese food?

A: That’s a good question! I have to say my mom’s dumpling soup. When we visit my parents, my mom, my kids, and I sit around the kitchen table to wrap the dumplings. It’s one of those things that not only is delicious but creates memories. At home, although I don’t make dumpling soup, my husband, son, and I will do movie night where we make and eat potstickers while watching that night’s movie pick.

Q: At times the publishing industry fetishizes youthfulness in authors, putting spotlights on the so-called prodigies who get published at a young age. However, everyone’s path to publishing is different, and there is value in learning from people who transitioned into the industry at an older age. What has that process been like for you, and how has your life experience before becoming an author informed your writing?

A: I think that as we age and gain life experiences, we bring some of that into our writing. I started my writing journey twelve (!) years ago. I am pretty sure that I didn’t have anything worthwhile to say at that time. Hamline University’s low-residency MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults changed how I thought about my writing. Prior to Hamline, I had taken writing classes, webinars, gone to SCBWI conferences to further my craft but it wasn’t until I went to Hamline where we were involved in intense discussions about diversity that I thought it would be possible to write a diverse character and story.

Q: I saw from your other interviews that you were drawn to writing for children because of your experiences reading with your kids when they were younger. Children’s literature contains a wide array of subcategories segmented by age. What drew you to writing middle grade in particular?

A: I write middle grade because those stories of families and friendships speak to me. Despite my advance age, I think about family and friendship relationships because they are universal no matter one’s age. I also write picture books and have my debut picture book CHLOE’S LUNAR NEW YEAR from HarperCollins coming out Winter 2023. I had such fun reading board books and picture books to my kids when they were that age. I want to capture some of that fun in my writing for both the picture book and the middle grade groups. There is also less cynicism and more happy endings. I really like happy endings!

Q: I think it’s super cool that you had Gene Luen Yang as a writing mentor since he was one of the first Taiwanese American children’s authors I ever read when I was younger (around 14-15). When I first met him at the book festival hosted at my high school, I asked him to draw me a llama, and I still have the drawing saved. What was your favorite part of working with him?

A: I love that you still have the llama he drew for you!! Gene is not only a wonderful mentor but just a wonderful person all-around. He is so smart and was able to steer me through my story. And he did it in a way that was so supportive.

Q: I read in another interview that you had to do extremely detailed panel descriptions for Measuring Up. As someone who’s interested in writing a graphic novel script someday, I’m curious about the process of working with an illustrator. I know that you and Ann Xu collaborated through your editor. What was that triangulation like? Did Ann surprise you in a good way with any of her interpretations? And what is your favorite page or panel from Measuring Up, illustration-wise?

A: Ann is an amazing illustrator and I am so happy she not only illustrated MEASURING UP but is now working on UNHAPPY CAMPER coming next summer. As part of working with Gene, he required extensive illustration notes. It was the first time I thought about story details in that depth and I think that it helped me tremendously in figuring out who my characters were so that I could write their story. When my script went to Ann, I pulled out some of the descriptions so that she could bring her own brilliance to the book. I love the full-page panel when Cici is at the restaurant and sees herself for the first time as belonging to a place like that. I described the page as having Cici surrounded by puzzle pieces of the restaurant and equipment. I specified certain things that I knew would be restaurant versus home equipment to be helpful to the illustration process. Ann blew me away with that fantastic page. I love it so much that I created fabric with that image to make tea towels for giveaways.

Q: I love the variety of dishes that show up in the cooking competition. Did you have any systematic/meaningful way of deciding what each challenge would be and which dishes each character would make, or was it more random?

A: I thought about what kind of person each character in the competition would be so that I could decide what dish the character would make. As far as the challenge in each round, I wanted to make some of them kid-friendly but also have meaningful challenges like the sweet potato which has such a strong link to Taiwan.

Q: I’m super excited for your second graphic novel, Unhappy Camper, and can’t wait for it to hit the shelves. The premise of going to a Taiwanese American summer camp is super appealing to me because it reminds me of my own experiences attending TAA summer conferences as a kid, except those were geared toward adults with a few children’s activities on the side rather than being for children/youth. Can you tell us a little more about Unhappy Camper?

A: I’m not sure what I can say yet except that it is a sister story where my protagonist’s sister loves everything Taiwan. But for my protagonist, not so much. It isn’t until my protagonist goes to a Taiwanese American summer camp that she reclaims her cultural heritage. There’s crafting, singing, language lessons (much to her disappointment) with a tiny bit of what makes the Pacific Northwest so special.

Thank you for thinking of me for Taiwanese American Heritage Week!

Book Links:

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Bookshop | IndieBound | Indigo

About the Author:

Lily LaMotte is the debut author of the middle grade graphic novel MEASURING UP from HarperCollins/HarperAlley. When she isn’t writing picture books and middle grade graphic novels, she’s cooking up new recipes. Sometimes, when she sees the gray clouds outside her window in the Pacific Northwest, she loads up the campervan for a writing retreat camping trip with her husband and two dogs.

She is a graduate of Hamline’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

Author Links:

Website – http://www.lilylamotte.com
Twitter – @lilylamotte
Instagram – @lilylamottewrites

Author Interview: Ed Lin

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 second author interview in my 2021 TAHW series is with Ed Lin on his debut YA novel David Tung Can’t Have a Girlfriend Until He Gets into an Ivy League College.

Synopsis:

David Tung is a Chinese American high-school student who works in his family’s restaurant, competes for top rank at his upscale, Asian-majority, suburban New Jersey high school, and hangs with his “real” friends at weekend Chinese school in NYC’s working-class Chinatown.

When popular girl Christina Tau asks David to the high school Dame’s Dance, David’s tightly regimented life gets thrown into a tailspin. He soon realizes that he actually has feelings for Betty, the smartest girl at Chinese school. But, as his mother reminds him, he’s not allowed to have a girlfriend! Should he defy his mother and go to the dance, or defy Cristina’s wishes and spend Saturday night studying for the MCATs?

Ed Lin’s YA-debut explores coming-of-age in the Asian diaspora while navigating relationships through race, class, young love, and the confusing expectations of immigrant parental pressure.

Interview:

Q: Prior to publishing David Tung Can’t Have a Girlfriend Until He Gets into an Ivy League College, you wrote several mystery and crime novels for adults. What drew you to writing a young adult novel?

It was a bit of a natural progression. When writing stories set in Chinatown and Taiwan, I can’t help but see my family’s story in the course of research, and naturally, it makes me think about my own youth. I grew up in Jersey in the 80s, and I haven’t seen that reflected at all in coming-of-age stuff for those of East Asian descent. So much stuff is set on the West Coast, maybe too much. There’s a certain tougher, sarcastic edge to the Northeast, and it lends a great sense of humor to those lucky enough to have lived in the tri-state area, and I marinated the book in it. I’m doing it for the kids, but I’m also doing it for me.

Q: David Tung’s story is filled with a large cast of characters. Who was your favorite supporting character to write in this book and why?

All the characters are just different shades of me, really. I love them all, even the horrible ones, because they’ve been hurt, and this is how they react. Chun was out shoplifting because he wanted more attention from his mom, and also probably craved discipline. Andy can’t wait to be 20, so then he can procure his real-estate broker license, and try some international gray-market commercial-building deals. Jean probably won’t be happy until she moves back to L.A., which is something her family should heavily consider. Christina will probably double-down on studying just to make sure David can’t top her GPA, which would be especially humiliating.

Q: In an alternate universe where being a doctor isn’t his priority, what field(s) would David study and pursue instead? (Alternatively, what kinds of electives would he take while doing the pre-med track?)

Electives? Wow, this is really drilling down! I don’t think anything would dissuade him in this universe, but in a parallel, grimmer existence, maybe David would look into being a lawyer. Or, if he manages to work on his relationship with Betty, she might influence him into getting into global finance, or property development. The latter would be apt considering all the gentrification going on in Shark Beach. I guess he’d take electives in astronomy and geology, because the natural sciences do hold their appeal to him. He’d still do track in college if he can make the team.

Q: Food seems to come up a lot in your work, which isn’t surprising given your background. What do you think is the role of food in literature? And what are your favorite Taiwanese and/or Chinese foods?

I don’t know about the role of food in literature, but in terms of being authentic about having East Asian characters, they’d better be into getting good food! Don’t they say that Asians eat to live, and live to eat? Haven’t you ever had that experience in Taipei when you think you can’t eat another bite, and then 15 minutes later you see something that you have to eat right then? Get this. I’m allergic to seafood, including shellfish, so there are many things that I cannot eat. my favorite foods right now in my mind are: turnip cake (no dried shrimp, though!), pan-fried until crispy; a spicy beef-noodle soup with pepper grit on the bottom for texture; mango shaved ice; red-bean wheel cake, right out of the grill mold; and those giant boneless fried-chicken fillets sprinkled with chili powder.

Q: Since your debut in 2002, you’ve covered a lot of ground with 2 books set in New Jersey, 3 in New York City, and 3 in Taipei. What’s next for you in your writing career?

Make that three books set in Jersey: Math Paper Press, an imprint of Singapore’s Books, Actually, has just published Motherfuckerland, which is set on the Jersey shore. I plan to continue the Taipei series, and write some other weird books, as well. I don’t lack ideas.

Book Links:

Goodreads | Kaya Press | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Bookshop | IndieBound | Indigo

About the Author:

Ed Lin, a native New Yorker of Taiwanese and Chinese descent, is the first author to win three Asian American Literary Awards and is an all-around standup kinda guy.

His books include Waylaid, and a mystery trilogy set in New York’s Chinatown in the ‘70s: This Is a Bust, Snakes Can’t Run and One Red Bastard. Ghost Month, published by Soho Crime, is a Taipei-based mystery, and Incensed and 99 Ways to Die continue that series.

David Tung Can’t Have a Girlfriend Until He Gets Into an Ivy League College, his first YA novel, was published by Kaya Press in October 2020.

Lin lives in Brooklyn with his wife, actress Cindy Cheung, and son.

Photo Credit: Anrong Xu

Author Links:

Website – http://www.edlinforpresident.com
Twitter – @robertchow
Instagram – @edlinforpresident

Author Interview: Addie Tsai

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.

Synopsis:

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.

Interview:

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.

Book Links:

Goodreads | Metonymy Press Shop | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Indigo

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.

Author Links:

Website – www.addietsai.com
Twitter – @addiebrook

[Blog Tour] Book Playlist for The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He

It’s Part 2 of my tour stop for The Ones We’re Meant to Find. As usual, you may want to read my review before reading this to find all the relevant information about the book.

You can listen to the whole playlist on YouTube or click the individual hyperlinks below.

1. Bring Me to Life – Evanescence

This song evokes the emptiness and fear that Cee feels.

2. Divin’ – Kim Sunggyu

This song represents Hero’s feelings. Here are some of the lyrics (translated by Dark Space):

I’m swimming somewhere
I can’t see the end of it
I don’t know your invisible thoughts
I’m in the circle you drew

I’m breathless to the tip of my chin
Why are you staring at me?
Don’t wait, just save me now
Now give me your hand

I’m floundering in your eyes, in the sea of you
Divin’, divin’
I’m struggling, but even if I try to get out of it, it’s getting deeper and deeper
Divin’, divin’, divin’

Your eyes are fluttering and tense
I guess I was the only one who felt it
I don’t know, I don’t know how you feel
And lost a place to go surfin’

I knew it from the start
That I can’t avoid you
Don’t wait, just save me
Now come to my side

3. 月牙灣 (Crescent Bay) – F.I.R

I feel like if I explain it might be kind of spoilery, so just enjoy this one if you haven’t read the book. Here are the lyrics from the chorus (translated by me):

Whose heart is it that’s forlornly left behind?
Is he doing well? How I want to love him
Grasping the tears of forever, a solidified sentence
Perhaps they may evaporate

Whose love is it, that’s stronger than teardrops,
Softly calling out? Just let me dissolve
Every drop of rain evolves into my wings
Let me chase after the person I love

4. 姊妹2016 平行宇宙版 (Sisters 2016 Parallel Universe Version) – 張惠妹 (A-Mei)

Anyone who recognizes this song knows that the original version is ancient (from the 90s). I thought this version was better suited to the mood of TOWMTF. The lyrics are the same though. It’s a song about sisterhood. Here’s the chorus (translated by me):

You’re my sister*, you’re my baby**
No matter how far apart we’re separated
You’re my sister, you’re my baby
Cherish this feeling

Translation Notes:

*”Sister” here refers to platonic bonds between girls that’s ride or die rather than actual kin, but I still felt it was fitting for Kasey and Celia.
**The use of “baby” here isn’t quite the same as it is in English but suffice to say it’s being used as a term of endearment.

5. The Power of One – Donna Summer

I’m a nerd who listens to the Pokémon movie soundtracks, yes. This song felt representative of Kasey and her struggles with feeling responsible for saving humanity from climate catastrophe and how it takes cooperation from everyone to save the world.

[Blog Tour] Review for The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He

Hi again! Welcome to my stop on the blog tour for Joan He’s The Ones We’re Meant to Find, hosted by Paola. If you’re on Book Twitter you’ve probably seen the gorgeous cover for this book floating around, and now it’s time to probe beneath the surface (puns intended).

Book Information:

Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
Release Date: May 4th, 2021
Genre: Young Adult Science Fiction/Dystopian

Synopsis:

One of the most twisty, surprising, engaging page-turner YAs you’ll read this year—We Were Liars meets Black Mirror, with a dash of Studio Ghibli.

Cee awoke on an abandoned island three years ago. With no idea of how she was marooned, she only has a rickety house, an old android, and a single memory: she has a sister, and Cee needs to find her.

STEM prodigy Kasey wants escape from the science and home she once trusted. The eco-city—Earth’s last unpolluted place—is meant to be sanctuary for those commited to planetary protection, but it’s populated by people willing to do anything for refuge, even lie. Now, she’ll have to decide if she’s ready to use science to help humanity, even though it failed the people who mattered most.

Review:

Reading The Ones We’re Meant to Find felt like putting together a 3-D crystal puzzle without knowing what the completed puzzle is supposed to be or look like. Even when I managed to get adjacent pieces of the mystery together, I still wasn’t sure what I was looking at until about 50 percent of the way through the story, where suddenly the pieces are all coming together.

You have two storylines told by two narrators, Cee/Celia and Kasey, and there’s an obvious connection between the two threads, but there are also many mysteries and gaps that make it hard to figure out how exactly they connect at first.

Kasey’s character is a tech wiz and part of a political committee responsible for managing the climate crisis, making her the perfect empirically-driven narrator to explore the physical and social architecture of her world, where many people live in soaring eco-cities encasing them in a protective bubble against the destructive forces of a Nature out of equilibrium. Cee’s perspective, by contrast, is more poetic, the artist to Kasey’s scientist. She relies more on passion and impulsive emotion to drive herself. Her life is one of physical isolation from other people as she is stranded on an island without her memories to guide her. Nature is what surrounds her, inescapable, powerful, and as unsettling as it is magnetic.

Between Celia and Kasey, I definitely saw more of myself in Kasey, being introverted, awkward, and having a rough time dealing with other people even while strongly committed to making the world better for everyone. But both sisters have secrets and insecurities and flaws. The story explores their sense of loneliness and the critical choices they make when the stakes become impossibly high. Even though they seem like polar opposites and envy each other’s strengths, they share an unabiding love for each other at their core that keeps them linked together.

The futuristic worldbuilding for this story is incredibly textured and detailed. It’s obvious the author put a lot of thought into the scientific and political implications of survival in a precarious society approaching environmental apocalypse. Beyond its aesthetic value, it also serves as a vehicle for the story’s meditation on humanity, both individual and collective. Even as the story probes the darkness and selfishness of humankind and the temptation of a eco-fascist mentality, it also offers hope and altruism and belief in human goodness to balance things out. It doesn’t provide a neat resolution per se, but it offers some catharsis and space to believe, and that’s the beauty of it.

Book Links:

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository | Books-a-Million | Bookshop.org | Booktopia | IndieBound | Indigo | Powells | Waterstones | Signed and Personalized Copies

About the Author:

Joan He was born and raised in Philadelphia but still will, on occasion, lose her way. At a young age, she received classical instruction in oil painting before discovering that storytelling was her favorite form of expression. She studied Psychology and East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Pennsylvania and currently writes from a desk overlooking the Delaware River. Descendant of the Crane is her debut young adult fantasy. Her next novel, The Ones We’re Meant to Find, will be forthcoming from Macmillan on May 4th, 2021. 

[Blog Tour] Book Playlist for The Forest of Stolen Girls by June Hur

If you missed my review for the book you can read that first. This post is dedicated to the playlist I made for the book.

You can listen to the playlist on YouTube or click the individual hyperlinks for each song below.

1. Scream – Dreamcatcher

Scream is an atmospheric and creepy song that fits the vibe of the book. A lot of the lyrics match up with aspects of the book. Here are some selected lines (translation from Genius): 

My covered eyes are stained with blood
Tell me why, I don’t lie

A cold wind blows, I feel their eyes on me
All pain flowing through my veins

My tied up hands are getting numb
Everyone is throwing rocks at me
But I can’t escape

Please, I don’t want to scream
(Devil eyes come, open my eyes, open my eyes)
Please, I don’t want to scream
(Scream, scream, scream, scream)
Spreading in the darkness, scream

Tricks behind the mask, a ridiculous freak
A hatred that only grows is born and aimed at random targets
I swallow up the burning thirst, but hypocrisy claims that it’s all my fault
At the end of the cliff lays the end
Such choice will have only regrets remaining

Words that cut like a sharp sword
They dig deep into the scars
But the breath doesn’t end

After everyone leaves, I open my eyes again
All traces are gone, they can’t believe me
Forget everything you saw
Pretend that nothing actually happened
Like that, one by one, everyone goes crazy

2. Going Crazy – Song Jieun ft. Bang Yongguk

The lyrics are technically about romantic love, but I felt like in terms of tone, it fit the story well. It’s a song about a dark and twisted longing that turns controlling and suffocating. Here’s some of the translated lyrics (translated by me):

It’s not love
This isn’t love
It’s just your obsession
Wherever I am, whatever I’m doing
It’s frightening, the you that watches me

3. Unbreakable – B.A.P

As the title suggests, Unbreakable is a song about not giving up or caving under pressure. I thought it was a great song for Hwani and her dogged determination to solve the mystery. Here’s the translated chorus (translation by Jane Doe on LyricsTranslation):

I won’t ever break
I won’t ever fall down
Even if the storm tries to swallow me
I’m unbreakable
Even if I die, I won’t break
Even if I die, I won’t give up
Even if my wings are trampled in the darkness
You know? I’m unbreakable

4. Sorry (Dear.Daddy) – f(x)

This song is a melancholy song about the distance between father and daughter and the attempt to mend the rift between them that I thought was fitting for Hwani and Maewol and their father. Here are some of the translated lyrics (translation from Kimchi Color Coded lyrics, credited to kpopviral):

You can still hate me for your sorrowful feelings
There’s no need for any expressions, to me you’ll be here forever

Even if you don’t say everyone knows, both your eyes are immersed with tears
Sorry, so sorry, this is my heart
You know the day I’ve opened up my heart I’ll do better
Sorry (sorry) I’m sorry (sorry) I can’t say anything other than this, yeah

I can’t do anything (other than this) I can’t imagine (a world without you)
Although I’m lacking and deficient, I love you

5. – 徐嘉良 (倩女幽魂)

Oh, look, a song without lyrics. This is a cello piece from the soundtrack for the 2003 cdrama Eternity: A Chinese Ghost Story. The title means “Tragedy” or “Mourning” and the song feels like an appropriate tribute to the victims of violence within the story.