Welcome to my fourth interview for my [belated] Taiwanese American Heritage Week series!
About the Book
Title: The Balance Tips
Author: Ren Iris
Cover Artist: CB Messer
Publisher: Interlude Press
Release Date: October 5th, 2021
Genre: Adult Fiction
Fay Wu Goodson is a 25-year-old queer, multiracial woman who documents the identity journeys of other New Yorkers. She finds her videography work meaningful, but more importantly, it distracts her from investigating the challenges of her own life and keeps relationships at a distance. When the family’s Taiwanese patriarch dies, Fay’s Asian grandmother moves to America; and Fay, her mother, and her aunt learn unsettling truths about their family and each other. They must decide to finally confront themselves, or let their pasts destroy everything each woman has dreamed of and worked for.
An unconventional story of an Asian-American matriarchy, The Balance Tips is a literary exploration of Taiwanese-American female roles in family, sexual identity, racism, and the internal struggles fostered by Confucian patriarchy that would appeal to fans of Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You.
Interview with Ren Iris
Q: The Balance Tips plays around with narrative form quite a bit, employing letters, transcripts of orally conducted interviews, screenwriting scripts, etc. How did you decide which form to use for which scenes/chapters?
A: I’m a lover of documentaries, scripts and correspondence in their many forms, and oral histories/traditions. I knew I wanted to write a documentarian character into being, so before, during, and after my first draft, I consumed a lot of content in these various forms. When deciding which form to use for a given scene/chapter, I put myself into the persona of the character of focus. What are they thinking about? What do they want to avoid thinking about? What makes them feel defensive, powerful, and/or confused? How do they vacillate between celebrating/facing their vulnerabilities and repressing/avoiding said vulnerabilities? I used these questions to drive my selection for each form.
Q: The Balance Tips jumps between multiple narrative viewpoints as well as timelines. How did you create order out of chaos when drafting and revising?
A: I used to conform to a restrictive outlining structure (for my first book, I outlined each chapter in detail). But for The Balance Tips, I knew I wanted to write in a manner that felt natural to me, based on how I think—and I think heuristically. So, I embrace chaos, iteration, and revision. I revise as I go; when I make a decision that will potentially have a ripple effect, I note whatever I’ll need later to conduct a helpful control + find search. I revise each draft with the critical eye of a developmental/copy editor. I aim for intentional chaos, for writing that captures how unmoored a character feels.
Q: Language can be used to hurt or to heal, to divide or to connect, among many other things. What would you say is the role of language in mediating the relationships between the women of the Wu family?
A: There are points where the Wu women try to soothe each other and repair their intrafamilial relationships with shared language. The language they use with each other is rooted in memory, in nativity, and Fay is usually the hinge person. They use Mandarin and/or Taiwanese to remind one another to return home—often metaphorically, but sometimes literally. For the Wu women, English is the colder language, one that can be the language of legality, of alienation, of negotiation from a distance.
Q: Do you have a particular literary or rhetorical device that you favor in your writing? If so, what about it appeals to you?
A: Subtext, subtext, subtext. Idiom. Metaphor. Conceit. Synecdoche. Metonym. What I find appealing about all of these devices is the inherent homage to symbolism and implication. We as humans make and take so much meaning from the unsaid, the half-said, the communication intent that exists between and behind the lines.
Q: I think most writers would agree that they learn something with every work they write. What has writing and publishing The Balance Tips taught you, about writing, about the world, and/or about yourself?
A: When I began my first draft of The Balance Tips in 2015, I wasn’t out, not even to myself. I was continually brushing off what I’ve known in one capacity or another since at least the third grade—I’ve always been queer and genderqueer, even if I didn’t know how to phrase or claim it. I think there was a subconscious element to my writing about queerness in this novel. With each draft, I created clearer characters, a clearer fictional world, and as I was changing my fiction, it was inevitably changing me. There’s so much pain in the world—pain we create for ourselves, pain we experience from others, pain we give others, and/or pain we exchange. While that pain is true, it’s not the only truth, and it’s not the lead truth, either. Yes, we hold great power to hurt ourselves and each other, but so too, do we hold great power to help ourselves and each other. There is always a mix. Always many nuances. And, too, there is always possibility, capacity for self-led change. There is no need for shame or shaming. We can learn from kind, revitalizing teachers. We can, as activist and professor Loretta J. Ross has urged, hold ourselves accountable and call each other in instead of out. When we learn to love and accept ourselves, we can at least learn to mutually accept and support one another; we can lead with the Confucian value of ren—with humaneness.
Q: Do you view The Balance Tips as in conversation with any particular works of fiction (of any medium)? If so, what are they, and what aspects of those works does it speak to?
A: Definitely. I have many more than reasonable to list, so I’ll just list 10.
Porcelain and a Language of Their Own: Two Plays by Chay Yew; Água Viva by Clarice Lispector; Edinburgh by Alexander Chee; The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston; Skin Folk by Nalo Hopkinson; Aliens in America by Sandra Tsing Loh; Rolling the R’s by R. Zamora Linmark; The Red Letter Plays by Suzan-Lori Parks; The America Play, and Other Works by Suzan-Lori Parks; Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven and Other Plays by Young Jean Lee
All of these works queer concepts, form, and content. By queer here, I sometimes mean the queer in LGBTQIA+, but also, I’m referring to an expanded application of Merriam-Webster’s verb definition, use 1a: “to consider or interpret (something) from a perspective that rejects traditional categories of gender and sexuality: to apply ideas from queer theory to (something).” As I aimed to do in The Balance Tips, these works reject assumed, traditional notions of a variety of foundational topics and societal constructs. They offer alternative, expansive styles of being, and encourage a self-exploration that imagines identity as a continuous, fluid journey. They underscore the existence of at least a pocket of hope. And they celebrate our capacity for connection and resilience.
Ren Iris* (pronouns they/them; 鳶仁 Yuān Rén) was raised in New Jersey by a Taiwanese mother and a white father. They hold a BA in English from Rutgers University and an MA in Creative Writing from Newcastle University in England. Whasian (Harken Media, 2015) was their debut novel. Iris’s second novel, The Balance Tips, was released in October 2021 (Interlude Press). Their writing has been featured in The Shanghai Literary Review, The Black Scholar, and Side B Magazine.
*The Balance Tips, was published under the author’s deadname. They have since legally and professionally changed their names. They are solely Ren Iris and solely use they/them/their pronouns—including in historical references.
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.
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.
Hello again! I hope everyone is faring okay. I just started school last week and am trying my best to juggle school and blogging. This week I’m pleased to be a part of the blog tour hosted by Colored Pages for a middle grade debut novel featuring a biracial Mexican/Chinese American protagonist.
Title: Lupe Wong Won’t Dance Author: Donna Barba Higuera Publisher: Levine Querido Publication Date: September 8th, 2020 Genres: Middle Grade, Contemporary
Lupe Wong is going to be the first female pitcher in the Major Leagues. She’s also championed causes her whole young life. Some worthy…like expanding the options for race on school tests beyond just a few bubbles. And some not so much…like complaining to the BBC about the length between Doctor Who seasons.
Lupe needs an A in all her classes in order to meet her favorite pitcher, Fu Li Hernandez, who’s Chinacan/Mexinese just like her. So when the horror that is square dancing rears its head in gym? Obviously she’s not gonna let that slide.
Not since Millicent Min, Girl Genius has a debut novel introduced a character so memorably, with such humor and emotional insight. Even square dancing fans will agree…
There’s nothing like middle grade fiction to remind me of my bygone days as an awkward tween/teen. In some ways, reading Lupe Wong Won’t Dance felt like peering into my own middle school memories. This book really evokes the way school is basically your entire life, your peers and teachers have the power to make your existence a living hell, and having friends you can lean on means everything.
The story is told in first-person narration from Lupe’s point of view and is imbued with the humor and emotional honesty expected from a kid who’s trying to assert her will in a world where she only has so much control over her life. I honestly related so much to Lupe’s stubborn opposition to the concept of square dancing. If I had been forced to dance as part of my P.E. class I would have hated it with every fiber of my being as well. Unlike me, however, Lupe actually acts on her will and begins a campaign to cancel the whole affair, with mixed, surprising, and even hilarious results.
Lupe Wong Won’t Dance is a wonderful representation of different friendship dynamics and the ups and downs of those friendships. The struggles of causing and mending a big falling out with your best friend, watching your close friends make other friends who either hate you or don’t vibe with you the same way–all of these experiences are explored in the story, along with the exhilaration of having friends who will stand up for you and make you feel less alone.
I enjoyed the family dynamics portrayed in the book. Lupe’s brother is annoying yet somewhat endearing, and her mom is the epitome of “I love you but please stop embarrassing me.” Her grandparents on both sides are doting, and her grandmothers have a funny competitive streak against each other. The book touches on grief a bit as Lupe’s father passed away prior to the start of the story. Her obsession with meeting the baseball player Fu Li Hernandez is motivated in part by the resemblance he bears to her dad in her mind.
Aside from grief, the story also addresses issues like bullying and racism. Lupe’s mixed race background isn’t the primary source of conflict or the main focus of the story, but some of the microaggressions surrounding that are present. More salient to the plot is the hidden history of square dancing and quintessentially “American” traditions that are steeped in racism and how schools can work to make educational environments safe and inclusive for students of color.
One last thing I liked about this book was the representation of one of Lupe’s best friends, Niles, who’s autistic. I was pleasantly surprised by the way Niles’ sensory issues and boundaries around touch and other neurodivergent traits were brought up in the story organically and without too much fuss. He receives accommodations for certain things, such as navigating crowded hallways, something that I think is important to depict and normalize in children’s literature. Disabled people exist and we deserve equal access to education just like everyone else.
If you’re looking for a diverse middle grade story that will make you laugh and maybe even cover your face in secondhand embarrassment, read Lupe Wong Won’t Dance!
Donna grew up in central California surrounded by agricultural and oil fields. As a child, rather than dealing with the regular dust devils, she preferred spending recess squirreled away in the janitor’s closet with a good book. Her favorite hobbies were calling dial-a-story over and over again, and sneaking into a restricted cemetery to weave her own spooky tales using the crumbling headstones as inspiration.
Donna’s Middle Grade and Picture Books are about kids who find themselves in odd or scary situations. From language to cultural differences in being biracial life can become…complicated. So like Donna, characters tackle more than just the bizarre things that happen to them in their lives.
Donna likes to write about all things funny, but also sad, and creepy, and magical. If you like those things, she hopes you will read her books!
Donna lives in Washington State with her family, three dogs and two frogs.
Tour the World in 30 Books is a blog tour focused on introducing readers to our favorite diverse books. It’s in conjunction with a Diverse Book Drive hosted by the CCPL—a small, rural library in an area with a high poverty rate and a very homogeneous population, where people rarely have the means to travel or experience new perspectives. However, the library doesn’t believe that should stop people from learning more about the world around them, so they’re running a Diverse Book Drive through the month of September in an attempt to bring the rest of the world to the county instead. With a focus on MG and YA books, the CCPL aims to expose especially its young patrons to new and diverse perspectives and cultures.
WANT TO DONATE?
The CCPL is accepting monetary donations sent via PayPal to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For donations of new or gently used books, send them to:
Sammie Betler Casey County Public Library 238 Middleburg St. Liberty, KY 42539
I’ve also put together a wish list of all the books that will be featured on this blog tour. Hardbacks are preferred but not required.
(If you order something from the Book Shop wishlist, please DM @srbetler on Twitter or email email@example.com, because I don’t believe that site automatically removes books from the wish list.)
Need more ideas? The library has a general Amazon wish list with suggestions, too.
Donations are used at the discretion of the library.
If you can’t donate, that’s fine. You can still join me for a little virtual visit to Taipei, Taiwan via one of my favorite books, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan. This book is the first young adult contemporary book I ever read that is set in Taiwan, so it was very special to me. I interviewed Emily about the book back in 2017 as part of my Taiwanese American Heritage Week series but never reviewed the book after, so I’ve decided to make up for that with this post, which isn’t actually a review but rather a post discussing the Taiwanese elements to the story and its setting, complete with pictures. For some, it will be an introduction to a few aspects of Taiwanese culture, and if you are Taiwanese/have been to Taiwan, hopefully it hits the nostalgia buttons.
Leigh Chen Sanders is absolutely certain about one thing: When her mother died by suicide, she turned into a bird.
Leigh, who is half Asian and half white, travels to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents for the first time. There, she is determined to find her mother, the bird. In her search, she winds up chasing after ghosts, uncovering family secrets, and forging a new relationship with her grandparents. And as she grieves, she must try to reconcile the fact that on the same day she kissed her best friend and longtime secret crush, Axel, her mother was taking her own life.
Alternating between real and magic, past and present, friendship and romance, hope and despair, The Astonishing Color of After is a novel about finding oneself through family history, art, grief, and love.
Note: All photos are taken by me unless otherwise specified. Please do not repost without permission or credit.
Vertical signs hang on both sides of the streets–lit-up stripes in yellows and blues and pinks and greens, bearing logos and Chinese characters.
Taiwan is a small country that’s densely populated, so buildings tend to be small in width and length while extending up many floors. Stores usually occupy the first floor of buildings while the remaining floors are residential compounds. Chinese is traditionally read from top to bottom, and many stores have a vertical sign extending perpendicularly out above their storefront that reads from top to bottom so you can see the signs from a distance before you actually reach the store.
“There’s a Seven-Eleven on every corner–people just call them Seven.”
Although 7-Eleven originated in the United States, they are more ubiquitous in Taiwan, where they constitute the largest convenience store chain and have the second highest per capita store count (second after Japan). The “convenience” in convenience store goes beyond what you would find in the U.S., as you can pay your credit card bill, receive packages, print and scan documents, and more at a 7-Eleven in Taiwan. I associate 7-Eleven with grabbing a quick bite to eat or a drink to quench your thirst.
Here’s a video from a Filipino YouTuber showing what’s inside of a nicer, bigger 7-Eleven in Taipei:
“Their garbage trucks play music; it’s so random.”
Taiwan has a reputation for being relatively eco-friendly. Trash collection and recycling is taken very seriously, and you can be fined for not sorting your trash properly between recyclable and non-recyclable items. On set days of the week, at the same time each of those days, garbage and recycling trucks stop at designated places on the streets where the people living nearby can come out to dispose of their trash bags. The most interesting aspect of the trash collection ritual is that the trucks play adaptations of classical music as an alert that they have arrived. Some play Beethoven’s Fur Elise while others play Badarzewska-Baranowska’s The Maiden’s Prayer.
Objects and Symbolism
Jade Cicada Necklace
“She makes a beeline toward the nightstand and picks up my mother’s necklace, holding the cicada pendant up to a sliver of sun peeking out from behind the curtain. The light catches on the jade.”
An important object that Leigh holds onto is her mother’s jade cicada necklace. Jade is a semiprecious stone that has a lot of significance in Taiwanese culture. Jade jewelry is very common, and I own a few jade accessories myself, including several jade roosters (my zodiac animal). Taiwanese American figure skater Karen Chen wears a jade necklace shaped like a rabbit (her zodiac animal) for good luck. My name in Chinese contains a character with the radical for jade.
Feng’s apartment is in a residential alley, tucked deep inside a tangle of narrow roads. I march us right up to the wide concrete step and double dooors of shiny steel, and buzz number 1314.
Chinese has a lot of number homophones, so there are a ton of puns and coded messages that can be made using numbers. 1314 sounds like the Chinese phrase that means “for a lifetime.” As a result, this number is a romantic symbol.
The eighty-ninth floor of the Taipei 101 tower is the observatory deck, where you can look out at the entire city through walls of glass. Buildings in miniature. Mountains layered in the distance like gentle strokes of watercolor, the farthest ones fogged and fading into the clouds. It’s a strange juxtaposition: the city so tightly packed, everything build so closely together–and beyond that, the sprawling greens and blues of lush forests.
Feng won’t shut up. She’s going on and on with all sorts of tourist facts. “So it’s the only wind damper in the entire world that’s on exhibit for people to see.”
Taipei 101 was, at the time of its completion in 2004, the tallest building in the world. As its name suggests, it’s 101 stories tall. Elements of traditional Chinese architecture and symbolism are incorporated into the design, which evokes a pagoda. The indoor observation deck is on the 88th and 89th floors (88 is an auspicious number representing prosperity).
The wind damper inside Taipei 101 is the largest and heaviest mass damper in the world. It’s become such an iconic tourist attraction that there is an official mass damper mascot called Damper Baby.
Light rain pricks its way down into the narrow alley between the little shops and stands. It’s impossible to take two steps without running into someone, but the crown thins as the rain picks up. Red lanterns swing overhead in long lines. The sound of rhythmic drumming winds its way down to the street. Outside a shop selling carved stamps, a little dog with floppy ears and caramel fur sleeps snugly curled, oblivious to the bustling around him.
In the teahouse, we sit all the way up on the third floor against the windows, peering out over the town and the water.
Leigh visits Jiufen with her grandmother and takes shelter at a tea house that is probably A-Mei Tea House. Jiufen is a seaside town located in the mountains in New Taipei City. It’s a very scenic place and has become a popular tourist attraction over the years, fueled in part by the acclaimed historical film A City of Sadness by renowned Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien, as well as its resemblance to the setting of Studio Ghibli’s feature film Spirited Away.
The next morning, we hire a car that drives the four of us to Danshui, to the sea.
Leigh goes with her family to scatter ashes in Danshui, officially romanized as Tamsui. It’s a port district that was historically a key holding for various colonial powers controlling parts of Taiwan, including the Spanish, the Dutch, and the Qing Dynasty. Today it’s a popular tourist destination due to its rich cultural heritage and scenic seaside view.
Waigong is already seated, his wooden cane leaning against the table by his elbow. He picks up one of the sesame-dotted flatbreads, digs his finger into the side, and opens the two layers like butterfly wings. He stuffs it with a section of cruller, and dunks the whole thing in his soy milk–just the way Mom would have eaten it.
Breakfast shops that serve fresh, hot food in Taiwan are usually a short walk away from home. Some of the most common and iconic items on the menu that are mentioned in The Astonishing Color of After include shaobing, youtiao, doujiang, luobogao, danbing, and fantuan. My personal favorite is danbing, which is an omelette of sorts made of a scrambled egg rolled up inside a savory crepe-like wrapper made of dough with scallions mixed in.
Waipo bought us bubble tea, and we sat on a park bench people-watching as we sucked the tapioca up through fat straws.
Although bubble tea has only been around for a few decades (it’s a Millennial!), it’s become extremely popular across Asia and beyond. While milk tea has existed for a while, the tapioca pearls were first added to the drink in Taiwan in Taichung during the 1980s. There are competing claims to which tea shop invented bubble tea from Chun Shui Tang and Hanlin Tea House, and in 2019, the Taiwanese courts ruled that neither side won the claim. I visited a Chun Shui Tang location in Taichung back in 2016.
Bubble tea shops are everywhere in Taiwan and a large cup usually goes for 40 to 60 NTD, which is between a little more than $1 and not quite $2 (USD). The big chains have expanded outside of Taiwan and can be found in some cities in the United States.
All around us are shelves bearing trays of baked goods. Which of these would my mother have picked out for herself? The cheery yellow tarts? The fat buns? Or the strangely shaped rolls, embedded with corn and scallions?
East Asia is known for its bakeries that have remixed European baked goods with an Asian twist. The word for bread in Taiwanese Hokkien is “pháng,” which comes from the Japanese “pan” (パン), which in turn came from the Portuguese “pão.” Taiwan boasts a baker named Wu Pao-chun who won the international baking competition Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie in 2010. He has his own bakery chain and a movie based on his life story starring Taiwanese actor Lego Lee called 27°C – Loaf Rock (available on YouTube but not with English subtitles, unfortunately).
“Baozi,” says Waipo, pushing the basket toward the center where we can both reach. A little white napkin unsticks itself from undereneath the bamboo structure.
Baozi are fluffy steamed buns usually stuffed with pork and/or vegetables. It is one of many foods that are steamed in bamboo or metal baskets. Taiwan is known for its gourmet dumpling restaurant chain Din Tai Fung that specializes in xiaolongbao, or soup dumplings. There is one located inside Taipei 101 and several locations have opened in the United States (but not near me, sadly).
The night market feels like a special sort of festival, except Feng tells me it comes alive every night. People walk by holding sweets like shaved ice and red bean ice cream. I see some things I’ve never tried but Dad’s told me about, like stinky tofu, and yellow wheel cakes filled with custard. One stand sells skewers of tiny brown eggs, and other kebabs that look dark and marinated. On the other wise of the crowd, there are stalls lined up in no particular order, some of them peddling trinkets and clothing accessories, others smoky with freshly cooking foods–
“The snacks here are called xiaochi,” says Feng. “That translates to little eats, literally.”
In most towns or cities in Taiwan, on designated nights (or sometimes every night) of the week, certain streets will close to vehicle traffic (minus motorcycles) and street vendors will set up stalls and carts to sell food, electronics, clothing, accessories and more. You can buy a lot of random things for very cheap at the night market. I usually don’t do anything besides eat the xiaochi, which is sometimes likened to tapas. Scallion pancakes are a must for me, and I also eat jidangao (small cakes usually shaped like cartoon characters), and popcorn chicken (which is nothing like American popcorn chicken and a thousand times better).
Waipo hands me a scrap of paper that was in the box–a pink piece of Hello Kitty stationery.
Hello Kitty hails from Japan, but she enjoys immense popularity in Taiwan as well. You can find Hello Kitty themed merchandise and decor in many places. Famously, Taiwanese airline Eva Air has a special flight where the entire plane, interior and exterior, is decorated with Hello Kitty. My dad rode one of those flights by chance, but I sadly have not the chance to do so yet. Every time I visit Taiwan, McDonald’s seems to have Hello Kitty toys with their Happy Meal.
The name of the singer is Teresa Teng,” says Feng. “Deng Lijun. Have you heard of her?”
“Ni mama zui xihuan,” Waipo says. Your mother’s favorite. She brings over the CD case. The album cover shows a rosy-cheeked woman, her black hair curled and fluffed, the expression on her face soft and demure.
Teresa Teng is a Taiwanese singer who was immensely popular in Asia in the 70s, 80s, and up until her death in 1995. She sang in multiple languages, including Mandarin, Hokkien, Cantonese, Japanese, Indonesian, and English. Her most famous song is “The Moon Represents My Heart” (月亮代表我的心). Google honored her with a Google Doodle celebrating what would have been her 65th birthday on January 29th, 2018.
Back at the apartment, Waigong’s lounging on the couch, hogging all the cushions under his back and elbows. He stares into the television, watching a music video with the volume all the way down. A dozen Asian men are dancing in a hexagonal tunnel filled with flashing lights.
I strongly suspect this is an nod to the popular Korean-Chinese boy band EXO, which formerly had twelve members and whose logo is shaped like a hexagon. Boy bands have a few decades of history in East Asia, and kpop/cpop bands like EXO are popular in Taiwan. Their music videos can be seen on the MTV channel. One of the most famous Taiwanese boy bands is F4, which was formed by the four male stars in Meteor Garden, the Taiwanese drama adaptation of the bestselling Japanese manga Boys Over Flowers. Asian boy band members can often be seen endorsing various lifestyle product brands.
Religion and Spiritual Practices
Waipo points to the magnificent temple. Sweeping red roofs curve up at their square corners. Stone dragons guard the highest points with open mouths and hooked claws. Fire-bright lanterns hang down from the eaves, strung together like lines of planets, their tassels angling in the wind.
The majority of Taiwanese people of Han descent practice a blend of Taoist and Buddhist traditions. Temples are found everywhere, with over 20,000 across the island. Most temples follow traditional Chinese architecture and are elaborate structures.
The book takes place during Ghost Month. According to folk beliefs, the ghosts of the dead are able to cross into the human realm during Ghost Month, which is the seventh month of the lunar calendar used in various parts of Asia, including Taiwan (between August and September of the Gregorian in 2020). Food offerings are left out for the ghosts to satiate their hunger, and incense and joss paper are burned for the dead.
While digging into her family history, Leigh finds out that one of her relatives had a ghost wedding.
The custom of ghost weddings originates in China but is practiced by people in diaspora in Taiwan and throughout Southeast Asia. Such marriages can occur between a living person and a dead person or between two dead people. It’s generally more common for these unions to be between a living man and a deceased woman due to patriarchal and heteronormative practices surrounding ancestor worship. Traditionally, daughters are not worshiped by their birth families after they pass away; instead, their spirit tablets are kept with their husband’s family.
In keeping with this tradition, my late mother’s spirit tablet is in the ancestral shrine of my paternal grandfather’s house. Last year, I learned that my paternal grandfather took a ghost bride, who appeared to him in a dream asking him to marry her. He asked around the village and found her family and agreed to the wedding.
Typically, a match is found for a deceased woman by placing a red envelope on the street for an unsuspecting stranger to pick up, as is the case with Fred in The Astonishing Color of After. This practice is also depicted in the Taiwanese drama The Teenage Psychic. I also recommend the Netflix show The Ghost Bride, which takes place in 1890s Malaysia and is based on the novel of the same name by Yangsze Choo.
Burning Items for the Dead
“Your grandparents put this package together, planning to send it. But they changed their minds. Instead, they burned it. The photos and the letters. The necklace, which I mailed to them. They burned all of it.”
Leigh is given a box that contained items relating to her mother by the mysterious bird. After people die, it’s customary to burn items for the dead to use in the afterlife. Paper money is the most common, but small paper houses with furniture and even cars are also burned at funerals, and in the past decade smart phones have joined the list of amenities for the afterlife.
The 49 Days Between Death and Rebirth
“They’re chanting sutras for the ones who have passed. Especially those still within the forty-nine days. After a person’s death, they have forty-nine days to process their karma and let go of the things that make them feel tied to this life–things like people and promises and memories. Then they make their transition. So the temple will keep each yellow tablet for forty-nine days. After that, they’re burned.”
I’m late by 3 days, but I’m posting for the blog tour for Anna K by Jenny Lee.
Meet Anna K. At seventeen, she is at the top of Manhattan and Greenwich society (even if she prefers the company of her horses and dogs); she has the perfect (if perfectly boring) boyfriend; and she has always made her Korean-American father proud (even if he can be a bit controlling). Meanwhile, Anna’s brother, Steven, and his girlfriend, Lolly, are trying to weather a sexting scandal; Lolly’s little sister, Kimmie, is recalibrating after an injury derails her ice dancing career; and Steven’s best friend, Dustin, is madly (and one-sidedly) in love with Kimmie.
As her friends struggle with the pitfalls of teenage life, Anna always seems to sail gracefully above it all. That is, until the night she meets Alexi “Count” Vronsky. A notorious playboy, Alexi is everything Anna is not. But he has never been in love until he meets Anna, and maybe she hasn’t either. As Alexi and Anna are pulled irresistibly together, she has to decide how much of her life she is willing to let go to be with him. And when a shocking revelation threatens to shatter their relationship, she is forced to ask if she has ever known herself at all.
Dazzlingly opulent and emotionally riveting, Anna K is a brilliant reimagining of Leo Tolstoy’s timeless love story, Anna Karenina—but above all, it is a novel about the dizzying, glorious, heart-stopping experience of first love and first heartbreak.
I have very mixed feelings about Anna K. It was hard for me to get into at first because of how removed the characters’ lives were from mine, with the vast majority of them being part of the literal 1%. I grew up comfortably middle class, but faced with this level of wealth, I felt like I was observing an alien culture. There is wild shit in a lot of contemporary YAs, but add in extreme wealth and you get next level wild shit. The high class setting also comes with an even more rigid set of social expectations and pressures than your average teen might be subject to.
It was also hard for me to get into the story toward the beginning because the characters felt a lot more shallow, and everything happening to them simply felt like petty drama. What the characters were calling love felt more like infatuation. And yeah, I get that this is a common experience for teens, confounding the two, but I wasn’t understanding even the source of the infatuation except the stereotypical teen hormones and encounters between people who conform to hegemonic beauty standards. Even as the story progressed, I still wasn’t convinced that the two main characters were really in love because I felt like the narrative placed so much emphasis on their physical/sexual attraction to each other over more substantial emotional bonding. I wasn’t invested in the main romance at all.
On the plus side, I got to experience the train wreck of this story with no expectations or prior knowledge since I have never read Anna Karenina, the original story this is a retelling of. So I was just popping my figurative popcorn watching shit hit the fan more times than should be possible in a single novel. Whether there was True Love or not between the leads, there was definitely a lot of teens making Truly Terrible Life Choices and facing the consequences, and that was a source of entertainment for me, somewhat.
The final third of book was probably where the story hit the hardest and I started to feel the story pull its own weight. And despite some of the petty drama aspects I alluded to, the book did also explore (to varying degrees) serious topics such as drug addiction, depression, grief, misogyny/slut-shaming, and there was even a bit of commentary race and class (though far less of it than I wished there had been, but maybe that’s just my ethnic studies background speaking).
My disappointment in the main couple aside, the supporting characters’ story arcs and relationship dynamics were comparatively more engaging and interesting to me, especially those of Dustin and Kimmie. Another point in this book’s favor: Anna, a teen girl, unapologetically owns her sexuality, is shown taking initiative in sex, and sex isn’t treated with kid gloves. I’m actually fairly surprised by how explicit some of the scenes were; it was not your usual figurative language-laden, fade to black kind of fare.
I guess if I had one more comment/critique to add, it’s that this book was overwhelmingly heteronormative (and completely cisnormative; there was no mention of trans people even existing). There were four named queer characters, but only one had a more important role in the story, two of them made zero actual appearances in the story, and one was just there to be a “gay BFF” (direct quote from the book) to a straight girl. There were a few unnamed queer characters mentioned once in passing, and they were literally referred to as “gays,” which, coming from an author who is as far as I know, straight, was rather off-putting to read. Moreover, the overarching framing of the narrative was completely focused on the m/f relationships and gender dynamics, so the commentary on patriarchy and misogyny lacked nuance.
In conclusion: I didn’t completely hate the story, but I ultimately didn’t love it either, though I wanted to because I had high hopes for it going in. It might just be a taste thing.
CWs/TWs: drugs (use/addiction/overdose), alcohol, depression, death (human and animal), infidelity, explicit sex, mentions of self-harm, suicidal ideation, misogyny (some challenged in-text, some not), racist microaggressions against Asian and mixed race people
About the Author:
Jenny Lee is a television writer and producer who has worked on BET’s Boomerang, IFC’s Brockmire, Freeform’s Young & Hungry, and the Disney Channel’s number-one-rated kids’ show, Shake It Up. Jenny is the author of four humor essay collections and two middle grade novels. Anna K: A Love Story is her debut YA novel. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and 135-pound Newfoundland, Gemma (and yes, it’s a toss-up on who’s walking who every day). Instagram: @jennyleewrites
Hi, everyone, I’m pleased to be posting again as part of the blog tour for Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at the ALA annual conference in New Orleans earlier this year. I hope you take some time to check out his book and read my review. 🙂
Darius doesn’t think he’ll ever be enough, in America or in Iran. Hilarious and heartbreaking, this unforgettable debut introduces a brilliant new voice in contemporary YA.
Darius Kellner speaks better Klingon than Farsi, and he knows more about Hobbit social cues than Persian ones. He’s a Fractional Persian–half, his mom’s side–and his first-ever trip to Iran is about to change his life. Darius has never really fit in at home, and he’s sure things are going to be the same in Iran. His clinical depression doesn’t exactly help matters, and trying to explain his medication to his grandparents only makes things harder. Then Darius meets Sohrab, the boy next door, and everything changes. Soon, they’re spending their days together, playing soccer, eating faludeh, and talking for hours on a secret rooftop overlooking the city’s skyline. Sohrab calls him Darioush–the original Persian version of his name–and Darius has never felt more like himself than he does now that he’s Darioush to Sohrab.
Adib Khorram’s brilliant debut is for anyone who’s ever felt not good enough–then met a friend who makes them feel so much better than okay.
I’m not sure how best to describe this book except to compare it to a weighted blanket. It settles onto you in a loving embrace and makes you feel at home.
Darius expresses his doubt and his hope so candidly that it makes you want to give him a hug. His use of SFF pop culture references gives him a distinctiveness and nerdy sense of humor that grounds his character.
Darius is someone I can relate to strongly for multiple reasons: being part of diaspora, dealing with depression, and feeling socially estranged from peers. He struggles with feeling adequate and comfortable in his own skin, an experience that has defined pretty much all of my life, so it was hard not to see myself in him.
The depiction of depression in this story resonated with me in a lot of the details, from the neveremding quest for the right meds, to the self consciousness about taking meds and the unhelpful comments from ignorant people and the difficulty talking about it to family because of language and cultural barriers.
The beauty of this book is that it is so incredibly validating of people like me and Darius. Disappointment, insecurity and despair are tempered by warmth, solidarity, and love.
I love the way Darius’s various relationships are portrayed in this book because they feel so nuanced and real in the way he navigates the line separating distance from intimacy. It’s hard to let yourself be vulnerable when you feel under attack from all sides: from your family, from your peers, from your country’s mainstream culture, from your heritage culture. But Darius is given the chance to do that and he gains so much from it. His friendship with Sohrab is so pure and wholesome, and his interactions with his extended family are bittersweet as they try to bridge the gap between them.
Although I’m not Persian/Iranian, there were aspects of the culture that were relatable for me, such as the centrality of food in all occasions, the range and specificity of familial terms, and the concept of taarof, whose Taiwanese equivalent I just tweeted about the day before reading the book.😂
On a different note, this is one of the few books I’ve read where boys are allowed to be sensitive, to cry, to feel the emotional spectrum fully without the narrative shaming them, and I really appreciate that given the prevalence of toxic masculinity in fictional boys.
Overall, I have to say this is one of my favorite contemporary reads of the year, and i confess it made me tear up near the end in a key scene, so I’m recommending it wholeheartedly.
Adib Khorram is an author, a graphic designer, and a tea enthusiast. If he’s not writing (or at his day job), you can probably find him trying to get his 100 yard Freestyle (SCY) under a minute, or learning to do a Lutz Jump. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri. This is his first novel.
Note: This review is based on an ARC that I received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The finished book will be released on September 26th, 2017.
My Summary: Kiko Himura wants nothing more to escape the suffocating environment of her home and her very white hometown in Nebraska, and acceptance into Prism, her top choice of art school, is her ticket to freedom. Much to her dismay, rejection from Prism ruins her plan, but a new unforeseen opportunity takes its place: she will go on a trip to California with her former best friend, Jamie and visit art schools on the West Coast. Desperation and the nightmare of being forced to live in under the same roof as her predatory uncle are enough to outweigh her intense anxiety, so she goes. More than just a vacation, this is a trip to find herself, reconnect with Jamie, and forge a new future.
Trigger/content warnings: anxiety, emotional abuse, childhood sexual abuse, suicide ableism
I have a lot of feelings about this book because I related to Kiko so much. Growing up in a very white environment as an Asian person messes with your self-esteem and self-image, and like Kiko, I definitely felt that I would never really be seen as attractive by people because I was Asian. I literally had a white friend tell me he generally wasn’t attracted to Asian people (he is no longer my friend, in case you’re wondering). The various microaggressions she experiences are all too familiar to me.
In addition to sharing Kiko’s experience of being Asian American, I also have generalized and social anxiety, and the descriptions of Kiko’s anxiety in Starfish resonated strongly with me. There’s a scene at a classmate’s party that was especially relatable and brought back some painful memories of parties I went to in college. Another aspect of Kiko I saw myself in was her anxiety over having romantic relationships as someone with mental illness(es). The fear of falling into toxic and codependent relationships is so real. In general, the portrayal of anxiety was just so incredibly on point for me, to the point that it actually triggered my own anxiety at times because I was empathizing with Kiko’s experience on a visceral level.
Besides being really relatable, Starfish was simply gorgeously written. Kiko is an artist, and the author expresses her artist’s point of view through poetic language. Each chapter ends with a brief description of Kiko’s latest work of art, which is thematically related to the chapter in question and serves as a visual representation of Kiko’s inner emotional landscape and how she relates to the world and the people around her. These added details create a distinctive voice for Kiko’s character.
If it wasn’t obvious from the trigger/content warnings, this story deals with some heavy topics. Kiko’s home environment is incredibly toxic. Her parents are divorced, and she lives with her two brothers and her white mother. Her mother is emotionally abusive toward her. This abuse has a racialized dimension, as she uses her embodiment of white beauty ideals to belittle Kiko, whose features are more typically East Asian. Kiko craves her mother’s love and approval even while knowing that her mother does not really care about her except as it benefits or is convenient for her. It really hurt to follow Kiko through her interactions with her mother, the pain was so raw.
To make matters worse, during the events of the story, Kiko’s maternal uncle moves into the house with her family, which amplifies her anxiety. It is first strongly implied and then explicitly revealed that he sexually abused Kiko when she was younger, and she has lingering trauma from those events. Although Kiko told her mother what happened, her mother never believed her and sided with the uncle instead.
Despite the serious topics, the book isn’t all doom and gloom and angst, nor is it a tragic story. Kiko’s physical journey doubles as a psychological journey as well, allowing her to process everything she has lived through, refute the victim-blaming messages she’s gotten from her mother, and see that there are people and things outside of the cage of her toxic home. Her relationship with Jamie is very sweet and wholesome, and she also finds a role model who is Japanese American who sees her talent and gives her the push she needs to really chase her artistic dreams.
These parts of the story bring hope and light and an empowering message that were so lovely and satisfying to read. Perhaps others readers might think the ending/resolution is too much of a fairy tale happy ending, but personally, I loved it and think it’s necessary and important for readers who see themselves in Kiko. Her mental illness is not magically cured by the end of the story (which would be a very terrible message to readers), but she has greater self-awareness, a robust support system, and a means of channeling her creative energy and expressing herself honestly, all of which are critical to coping.
My one criticism of this book was the pattern of ableist language. Disabilities, including mental illnesses, span a huge spectrum, and while the rep for one disability may be great, other disabilities may not get the same treatment. In this case, the anxiety was portrayed wonderfully, but there was still ableist language that was insensitive toward other illnesses/conditions, including bipolar disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and psychosis. Specifically, these illnesses were effectively used as a scapegoat/explanation for Kiko’s mother’s abusive behavior. (Unfortunately, it’s common even for mentally ill people to use words like “psychopath” to label people who behave in violent otherwise horrible ways.) The author did mention on Twitter that she removed the words “crazy” and “insane” from the final version of the book, but I don’t know whether these other references to mental illness were taken out or rewritten. If you’re planning to read the book, just be warned that there may be several instances of stigmatizing language.
Recommendation: Overall, I highly recommend this book because it did so much for me and covered a lot of ground and was just breathtaking to read and experience. If you have anxiety or other related mental illnesses or are an abuse survivor, I’d recommend taking it slow and taking breaks because it definitely has the potential to be triggering.
This is the fourth in my author interview series for Taiwanese American Heritage Week. Today’s special guest is Emily X.R. Pan. Her debut novel, The Astonishing Color of After, is coming in spring 2018!
Since there’s almost nothing out in the wild (i.e. Goodreads) about the book, we’ll get an exclusive first look at what it entails through this interview. But first, an aesthetic collage to represent the story that I put together.
Since I haven’t read the book, this is based on what I gathered from the interview below. As usual, my comments and questions are in bold and labeled “SW.”
SW: First question is mandatory and the standard for this interview series: What’s your favorite Taiwanese food? (You are welcome to list multiple because it’s probably impossible to choose just one.)
Emily: Ooooh. I think it would have to be the breakfast dan bing. But I’ve been vegetarian for quite a long time now…if I were to go back to my non-vegetarian days it would probably be a toss-up between oyster omelettes and ba wan.
SW: Danbing is the ruler of all breakfast foods, in my humble opinion. I eat so much of it when I’m in Taiwan. Simple but satisfying.
Since the Goodreads synopsis that’s available is rather cryptic, can you tell us a little more about your upcoming book, The Astonishing Color of After?
Emily:Sure! So the Goodreads synopsis says: “A girl is convinced that her mother has transformed into a bird after dying by suicide, and attempts to find her in Taiwan.” Well, the main character is named Leigh Chen Sanders, almost sixteen years old, and she’s dealing with quite a lot. She’s a dedicated visual artist, butting heads with a father who’s not exactly supportive of that pursuit. She’s navigating the complications of falling in love with her male best friend. She’s also biracial, and has never met the Asian side (her mom’s side) of her family, and has no idea why. It’s in the midst of all this that she loses her mother. So Leigh goes to Taiwan to find the bird, and there she meets her Taiwanese grandmother and Chinese grandfather for the first time, and starts to uncover all these deeply buried secrets that help her connect the dots of her broken family history.
SW: I was already sold when I first read the book deal announcement, but now I’m even more invested. I’m honestly super excited about this book because it’s set in Taiwan, where my family is from. Which part of Taiwan does it take place in, and why did you pick that particular location?
Emily: It’s all in the north. Leigh’s grandparents live in an unnamed part of Taipei that mostly feels like Shilin but in its fictionalization has elements of Beitou, and at one point Leigh also makes a trip up to Jiufen. My grandmother lives in Beitou and she was such a huge inspiration for the story that I knew I wanted to draw from her neighborhood. But also, I made a research trip to Taiwan, and when I was picking an Airbnb to be my home base I wanted somewhere that would feel just like where Leigh was staying with her grandparents. I asked friends and family to help me figure out a neighborhood that felt right, and ultimately landed with Shilin. So it was partly the places I went and saw during my research trip that dictated where the various pieces of the story happened, because I wanted to have a really solid feel for the setting.
SW: I actually visited Jiufen in 2015 and while it was pretty, I was also kind of scared because the elevation is high and everything is steep and built into the mountainside. I’ll admit I’m not super familiar with either Shilin or Beitou since the part of my family that’s in Taipei lives in Xinyi district.
What other research did you do for the book?
Emily: In previous drafts, some of the novel was set in Shanghai (where I’d lived for a year in college) and for the sake of the book I made two research trips back to Shanghai. Later when I changed it so that all of the time in Asia was spent in Taiwan, that was when I made the aforementioned trip to Taipei to help me rework the book. (I’d been to Taiwan to visit family before, but not in a long time.) All the (non-historical) steps that my characters take, I actually walked myself in effort to really capture the atmosphere.
I’ve also done a lot of character research over the last several years; I interviewed several Asian American friends and biracial friends about their experiences both inside and outside the states. Many of those conversations happened for the sake of other projects I was working on, but what I learned from them made its way into this book all the same. And since so much of the novel is inspired by my family, I spent quite a lot of time interviewing relatives, collecting their stories. Even within just my family there’s so much variation from person to person in their customs and religious activity and level of superstition, for example—I gathered up every bit of detail I could.
Probably the most difficult and time consuming aspect was that I did a lot of sociological / cultural research through books and documentary films and various articles on the internet, for example about people’s beliefs surrounding ghosts and Ghost Month in Taiwan, and about various Buddhist and Taoist ideas and practices, both in history and currently. I wanted to get a lens on this stuff outside of any potential bias from my family, and even the material that didn’t actually make its way into the book still informed how I told the story.
SW: It sounds like you learned a lot from your research. What was your favorite part about writing the book?
Emily: My favorite part is that I got to know my family on a completely new dimension. Even with my parents—I’ve always been incredibly close to them (like we talk on the phone every single day and really struggle to keep our calls short). But in the course of writing and revising this book, I kept asking them about things we’d never talked about before, and from that I was constantly learning something new about their beliefs and values, and even their own histories.
SW: I’m glad you got to deepen your bond with your parents. On the flip side, what was the most challenging part about writing the book?
Emily: The hardest part was figuring out what the story actually wanted to be. I started writing this in 2010 as a very different novel. It was originally an adult literary / historical fiction project spanning the first forty years of this woman’s life beginning in 1927 in Taiwan—that woman being a fictionalization of my waipo (maternal grandmother), who’s lived a fascinating life. But all the historical stuff grew unwieldy and overwhelming, so I reframed it as a contemporary story with a teen narrator discovering the stories of her family. After that it still morphed several times—I’ve lost track of all the ways I tried rewriting it but the various iterations spanned the realistic and the fantastical across middle grade, young adult, and adult literary—until finally in January of 2015 I wrote a new opening, and the rest of THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER poured out from there.
SW: I can only imagine the amount of effort that went into rewriting the story. In my experience, finding the heart of a story can take a while, but once you find it, it’s usually much easier to write.
Now, the last question: What are some writers or books that have influenced your writing?
Emily: As one might guess based on the kind of book I’ve written, I love writers who explore human instincts and experiences through the lens of something weird or perhaps slightly magical. Some of the amazing authors who immediately come to mind: Nova Ren Suma, Anna-Marie McLemore, Aimee Bender, Haruki Murakami, George Saunders, Laura Ruby. I also love the writers who just tell a story so sharply I can’t get it out of my head. I’m thinking of Celeste Ng, Emily St. John Mandel, Alexander Chee, Jandy Nelson, Hanya Yanagihara. But really my writing is influenced by everything I consume, whether it’s an advertisement or a graphic novel or the libretto of an opera.
SW: Time to bookmark a few titles for my TBR. Thank you very much for participating in this interview. I can’t wait to read The Astonishing Color of After next spring!
Emily X.R. Pan is the author of THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER, coming in spring 2018 from Little, Brown in the US and Orion in the UK. She is also a 2017 Artist-in-Residence at Djerassi. During her MFA in fiction at NYU she was a Goldwater Writing Fellow and the editor-in-chief of Washington Square Review. She is the founding editor-in-chief of Bodega Magazine and lives in New York, where she also practices and teaches yoga. Find her on Twitter and Instagram: @exrpan.
My Summary: Cilla Lee-Jenkins has ambitions to become a bestselling author, an achievement she is certain will ensure her family won’t forget about her in favor of her soon-to-be-born younger sister. Since you’re supposed to write what you know, she writes a book about herself and her life, including her experience as a biracial girl with a family divided by cultural differences.
This book is in sort-of-epistolary format, in the sense that what you’re reading is supposed to be the book that Cilla is writing. The narrative is addressed to the reader, so it doesn’t hesitate to break the fourth wall, if there even is a fourth wall to begin with, ha.
Cilla’s voice is very distinct and full of spunk, so it grabs you from the beginning. She’s precocious, but she’s still a kid in second grade, and the author does a great job of striking the balance between showing off Cilla’s wit and keeping her voice age-appropriate.
A substantial part of Cilla’s story is about being caught between cultures, which is something I could relate to as a fellow Asian American. For example, I was amused by her insightful and direct commentary on the cultural differences between white American and Chinese table manners, having pondered those disparities myself at various points in my life.
Cilla’s particular experiences are also affected by her background as a mixed race kid with a Chinese dad and a white mom. Some of Cilla’s anecdotes involve racist microagressions, not only against Asians but against mixed race people. Since the reader is experiencing the events through Cilla’s perspective, these microaggressions are treated in a different way than they might be in a story for older audiences, in which the character has a greater awareness of and vocabulary surrounding race to address what is happening. Given the younger narrator and audience, I feel like the framing was handled pretty well, showing that Cilla is aware of things being off or hurtful about these incidents, even if she doesn’t quite understand their root causes. In general, these microaggressions are either handled by any adult bystanders in the situation, or they are cleverly subverted through Cilla’s own innocent responses that effectively sidestep the original aim of the microaggressive questions/comments and interject something that was outside the realm of the perpetrator’s expectations.
Both sets of Cilla’s grandparents feature prominently in this story, and I loved reading about her relationships with them and her quest to bring the two sides together despite their years of avoiding one another. As someone who has never been close to my grandparents, physically or emotionally, I always appreciate seeing positive and intimate grandparent-grandchild relationships portrayed in fiction.
Along with family bonds, this book also explores friendship and socialization in a school/classroom setting. I adored Cilla’s bond with her best friend Colleen, who’s Black and wants to be an astronaut or something space-related when she grows up. Despite their vastly different dream jobs, they make a perfect pair who have each other’s backs and share in the other person’s excitement. One of the things I appreciated was that the story depicted and worked through a part of their friendship where they messed up and said the wrong thing and had to figure out how to apologize. There was great modeling of healthy and constructive approaches to relationships and communication, something that is always welcome in kidlit.
There’s another really cute friendship featured in the book, which is between Cilla and a boy in her class named Ben McGee. She starts out finding him annoying for various reasons, but eventually warms up to him and finds more common ground with him. I guess in general I enjoy reading about dynamic friendships in kidlit because they’re realistic and also a good learning/teaching tool for topics like change, conflict, and empathy.
Last thing I wanted to comment on is the lovely interior illustrations by Dana Wulfekotte, who is also Asian American. They were a wonderful complement to the story and helped bring Cilla’s personality and imagination to life.
Recommendation: This is going on my mental Favorites Shelf for middle grade alongside Grace Lin’s The Year of the Dog and sequels. The target age range is a bit young for some of y’all among my blog followers, so it may not be to your taste, but if you’re a parent or teacher or librarian of elementary school age kids, this is perfect for them. 🙂
My Summary: Just when Nix thinks she has her fate in her hands, she learns of a terrible prophecy: she is destined to lose the one she loves to the sea. Desperate to save Kash, she sets off on a quest to a mythical utopia to find a man who claims he can change history and therefore the future. Except this utopia isn’t quite the perfect place it’s said to be, and changing history may create more problems than it solves…
The Ship Beyond Time has all of the charms of The Girl From Everywhere and continues to build on the relationships and themes from the first book while introducing a few new characters and conflicts.
The central relationships between Nix and Kash and Nix and Slate are deepened and complicated through their new adventures and obstacles. Plus, we get to see more of Bee and Ayen, who are married with Nix, Kash, and now Blake as their adopted children (so cute!), as well as Rotgut, who reveals that he once had a lover who became a monk instead (I am 100% down with queering up the cast even more, yes).
My favorite thing about the scene involving the latter is that the crew asks Rotgut about this unnamed former lover with, “What was their name?” One important way of challenging cisheteronormativity is by using gender neutral pronouns to refer to unknown or hypothetical people in general and when it comes to crushes, partners, spouses, etc. It’s small but significant because the language we use matters.
Although some people might call it a love triangle, I never really saw Blake as genuine competition for Nix’s affection because it’s pretty clear from the beginning of the book that Nix loves Kash and only sees Blake as a friend. What was more interesting and engaging to me was the interactions and dynamic between Kash and Blake, who share certain things in common and are in this adventure together despite their [perceived] rivalry over Nix.
One of the things I really liked about the character arcs and development was that they always connected back to a common theme of exploring the implications of Navigation. With Blake, it’s about the question of whether to change history when it involves injustice like the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. With Kash, it’s the sort of existential crisis that inevitably arises when you consider that he came from a place that was imagined and made up by a random French author. With Nix and her father Slate, it’s about whether the sacrifices are worth it when it comes to trying to save the one you love.
From the beginning, this book grabs your attention and your heart and doesn’t let go. It is fast-paced and hard-hitting with so many twists and revelations. Beyond driving the plot forward, most of these twists and revelations also pack an emotional punch and saturate you with so many intense feelings. I don’t want to spoil anything important, so I’ll just say that I spent a lot of time screaming internally while reading this book (partially because everyone in my house was asleep), and the ending was unexpected but still great. Even after you finish the book, the story and the characters will stay with you and live on. Although this book is the conclusion to the series, there is room for more adventures with Nix, and I would not object at all to more books being added.
As with the previous book, there is bonus material at the end of the book discussing the origins and histories of various characters and locales that come from real life or myth. I always love reading background information about the books I read because it adds to my enjoyment and understanding of the book.
Recommendation: Highly recommended for fantasy-lovers who want to be emotionally ruined by a book.