Tag Archives: Taiwanese

Taiwanese American Heritage Week 2021 Wrap-Up Post

This is my fourth year doing this series on my blog and also the year I’ve had the most posts to fill the week. It’s been a busy, hectic week but also a rewarding one. To wrap things up, I thought I’d share some books that I read recently, am currently reading, or want to read that are by Taiwanese authors and that I haven’t prominently featured on my blog. I’m also sharing some upcoming books by Taiwanese authors that you should keep an eye out for.

Recently Read:

  • Reading with Patrick by Michelle Kuo – This is a memoir by a Taiwanese American lawyer who works in immigrant and prisoner justice advocacy. When Michelle Kuo was younger, she did a two-year stint with Teach for America at an underfunded, majority Black public school in the Deep South, naively thinking she would be like the teacher in Freedom Writers. Not-So-Spoiler: It didn’t pan out like that. The memoir discusses her teaching experience and delves into the pitfalls of her initial approach and mentality. It also probes her regrets in leaving her teaching position for law school after finding out that one of her favorite former students, Patrick Browning, is in jail and going to be tried for murder. It chronicles the ways she tries to help him improve his literacy and sustain hope while he is imprisoned. The book is extremely candid in a way that I cannot imagine is easy to be public about, and I think it makes a good read for class-privileged East Asians who want to be better about allyship and solidarity. One of my dissatisfactions is that I wish Patrick had been given an equal voice in the book.
  • Hot Pot Night! by Vincent Chen – This is a quick but fun read. It’s a colorful, joyful picture book about food and community and a hot pot dinner bringing together some neighbors.

Currently Reading:

  • The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé  Weijun Wang – This essay collection explores the author’s experience with mental illness, specifically schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type. It approaches mental illness from a number of angles, such as the history of the DSM and the changes it underwent, the hierarchies of mental illness created by the psychiatric field, the way mentally ill people may try to distance ourselves from those who are visibly “crazier” than we are, the personal experience of trying to mask one’s mental illness or pass as “normal” (with mixed results), and so on. I’m only about halfway through, but I find it very compelling.
  • Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin, Translated by Bonnie Huie – This is a translated novel set in the years following the lifting of martial law in Taiwan (after 1987). The main character is a lesbian in college who befriends a bunch of misfits, and the story full of queer yearning and infatuation, as well as a deep ambivalence and even antipathy toward society’s suffocating norms. I’m not sure I get everything that’s happening in the book, but it’s still fascinating to read as a window into my own queer Taiwanese genealogy.
  • Bestiary by K-Ming Chang – This book follows the stories of three generations of Taiwanese American women, the youngest of whom is queer. There is a lot of viscerally gross imagery that’s super unsettling, but I’m making my way slowly through it to sift through the layers. The central motif of the tiger comes from a well-known Taiwanese folktale called 虎姑婆 (Auntie Tiger) that I grew up with that is similar in a lot of ways to stories about wolves in Western folktales (e.g. The Three Little Pigs, Little Red Riding Hood).
  • Love, Love by Victoria Chang – This is a middle grade novel-in-verse that’s inspired by the author’s experiences of being a second generation Asian American. The story takes places several decades ago, but a lot of the experiences are still relevant because unfortunately, people are still racist. The main character’s older sister has trichotillomania, which is rare mental illness rep for Asian kidlit.

Want to Read:

  • Two Trees Make a Forest by Jessica J. Lee – This is a memoir that documents the author’s journey to reconnect with her heritage while exploring the natural landscapes in Taiwan. It contains reflections on geography and colonial mapmaking practices.
  • This is My Brain in Love by I.W. Gregorio – Jocelyn Wu’s family runs a Chinese restaurant. Will Domenici, who’s biracial Black and Italian, signs up to work at the restaurant. They fall for each other, but their family’s prejudices and their respective mental illnesses make it a rough ride.
  • Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu – This just won the National Book Award. It’s about a guy delving into family secrets and the history of his Chinatown.
  • Ghost Month by Ed Lin – Murder mystery and Taiwanese night markets. Enough said.
  • The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming-yi – I read another book by this author, The Man with the Compound Eyes, in one of my undergrad classes, and I liked it, so I’m trying out this one, too. It is also about searching for family secrets and touches on the history of Japanese occupation of Taiwan.
  • A Thousand Moons on a Thousand Rivers by Hsiao Li-Hung (original Chinese title: 千江有水千江月) – This book is set in the 80s and is considered a classic of Taiwanese literature. My dad said the main character shares a lot in common with him, and I’ve been meaning to read it for several years.
  • Chrysanthemum: Voices of the Taiwanese Diaspora edited by Andrea Chu, Kevin Ko-wen Chen, and Albertine Wang – I am angry that I missed the deadline for submitting to this and that I also missed the Kickstarter for this, buuut, I managed to find a copy through Eastwind Books (if you’re interested in this one, go see if they still have any in stock). My copy is on the way to me as I speak/type.

Upcoming Releases:

2021

  • Bone House by K-Ming Chang (June 29th, 2021) – A queer Taiwanese micro-retelling of Wuthering Heights!
  • City of Illusion by Victoria Ying (July 27th, 2021) – This is the sequel to City of Secrets, which I interviewed Victoria about last year.
  • I am an American: The Wong Kim Art Story, written by Martha Brockenbrough and Grace Lin and illustrated by Julia Kuo (November 2nd, 2021) – This picture book covers an important chapter of Asian American history from the late 19th century where an American-born Chinese man with parents who were non-citizens fought for his right to U.S. citizenship. It was something we learned about in my Asian American studies courses, and I’m glad that history is being made accessible to young people.
  • Feather and Flame by Livia Blackburne (November 9th, 2021) – Mulan retelling, second in a series of Disney retelling/spinoffs called The Queen’s Council that connects different Disney stories. I am here for all of the #OwnVoices Mulan retellings tbh.
  • Jade Legacy by Fonda Lee (November 30th, 2021) – The long-awaited conclusion to the Greenbone Saga. If you know, you know. And if you haven’t already, READ JADE CITY!!!
  • Win! by Cynthia Yuan Cheng – This is supposed to come out this year but since we don’t have a cover or an official synopsis yet, there’s a possibility it’s gotten pushed back, which is okay because we’re in a panini and graphic novels are incredibly labor intensive, but also I NEED IT!!! It’s a graphic novel memoir about Cynthia’s experience joining her school’s football team as the only girl.

2022

  • Let’s Do Everything and Nothing by Julia Kuo (March 1st, 2022) – Julia illustrated I Dream of Popo and a bunch of other books, but this is her second (I think) picture book where she is both author and illustrator.
  • A Magic Steeped in Poison by Judy I. Lin (March 22nd, 2022) – Judy was among the first people I interviewed for Taiwanese American Heritage Week back in 2017. This isn’t the book we talked about in her interview, but it’s her debut. The cover is absolutely stunning. Please support it!!!
  • Untitled (#AATTMBook) by Emily X.R. Pan (April 2022) – I read an early draft of this in 2019 and I am waiting until I am allowed to yell about how great it is in more detail. I’m also looking forward to reading the new and improved version.
  • Unhappy Camper by Lily LaMotte and Ann Xu (Summer 2022) – Just announced recently. It’s a middle grade graphic novel in which a girl and her sister rebuild their sibling bond and learn more about their heritage at a Taiwanese American summer camp.
  • Boys I Know by Anna Gracia (Summer 2022) – Also just announced and no Goodreads page for it yet. “18-year-old June, a Taiwanese American girl, navigates sex, love, and Planned Parenthood in her small Midwestern town.”
  • When You Wish Upon a Lantern by Gloria Chao (Fall 2022) – Just announced earlier last week. A teen girl whose family owns a wishing lantern shop in Chicago’s Chinatown tries to revitalize it by helping make the customers’ wishes come true behind the scenes. She teams up with the boy whose family runs the mooncake bakery next door and romantic shenanigans ensue.

2023

  • Hungry Ghost by Victoria Ying – A contemporary YA graphic novel about a Chinese American girl who struggles with an eating disorder.

Thanks to everyone who has read my posts for this past week! Hope to see y’all again next time.

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.

page 221

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!

Review for The Boba Book by The Boba Guys with Richard Parks III

Welcome to Day 7 (and post #6) of Taiwanese American Heritage Week! As promised, I am posting the first of my two reviews of books by Taiwanese authors.

If you know me, you know I love bubble tea like no other. When I found out there was a book about bubble tea from a mainstream publisher, I was pretty excited because it’s about time this icon of Taiwanese culture got the spotlight.

However, my excitement was immediately tempered by the fact that the book is by The Boba Guys. If you live in San Francisco, LA, or New York, where they have locations, you may have had bubble tea from The Boba Guys before. Personally, I’ve only heard of them through the Internet, and my impression of them was not the greatest, considering that the founders expressed support for former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang. If you are fortunate enough to not know who Andrew Yang is, let’s just say he’s a clown, the type of assimilationist Asian who makes cheap, tired, awful Asian jokes to curry favor with white people and Asian people who have internalized racism to unpack. Not the kind of “””#representation””” I want or need, to say the least (Yang is, unfortunately, Taiwanese American like me).

Knowing this, I went into the book (which I managed to get for free by redeeming a coupon) with reservations, and after reading it, I have a lot of thoughts. Even though this is a cookbook, I’m not going to be reviewing the recipes themselves. (I don’t know if I have the patience to make my own tea, lol.) Instead, I’ll be offering some critical commentary and personal reflection on the way race and culture are presented in the book with the hope of contributing to the dialogue on the politics of food.

As a disclaimer: I’m not a culinary expert or a tea connoisseur; I’m approaching this review from the perspective of a layperson who loves bubble tea, a Taiwanese American diaspora kid, and someone with a degree in Asian American studies.

The Boba Book

Synopsis:

A beautifully photographed and designed cookbook and guide to the cultural phenomenon that is boba, or bubble tea–featuring recipes and reflections from The Boba Guys tea shops.

Andrew Chau and Bin Chen realized in 2011 that boba–the milk teas and fruit juices laced with chewy tapioca balls from Taiwan that were exploding in popularity in the States–was still made from powders and mixes. No one in the U.S. was making boba with the careful attention it deserved, or using responsible, high-quality ingredients and global, artisanal inspiration. So they founded The Boba Guys: a chic, modern boba tea shop that has now grown to include fourteen locations across the country, bringing bubble tea to the forefront of modern drinks and bridging cultures along the way.

Now, with The Boba Book, the Boba Guys will show fans and novices alike how they can make their (new) favorite drink at home through clear step-by-step guides. Here are the recipes that people line up for–from the classics like Hong Kong Milk Tea, to signatures like the Strawberry Matcha Latte and the coffee-laced Dirty Horchata. For the Boba Guys, boba is Taiwanese, it’s Japanese, it’s Mexican, it’s all that and more–which means it’s all-American.

Review:

(Warning: This is long and vaguely rant-y at turns.)

Before I get into dragging the authors the more critical part, I’m going to be gracious and talk about the parts that I enjoyed and found relatable or informative.

First of all, I’ll concede that true to its description, the book is very beautifully designed and aesthetically pleasing to look at. The photos, illustrations, and diagrams were a feast for the eyes. Perhaps driven by pandemic-induced restlessness, I’ve frequently found myself picking the book up to thumb through the pages just for the visual (and tactile, if you’re considering the texture of the cover/pages) stimulation. The cover is embossed and laminated with transparent circles the size of tapioca pearls, which I found charming.

Additionally, I think the book lays out the basic facts of tea, its history, and taxonomy in an accessible manner. I definitely learned a few things from reading the book. For example, although I can name different categories of tea (black, oolong, green, etc.), I did not know that the classifications are based on how oxidized the tea leaves are. (The more you know~)

I also appreciate that the authors did their research and traveled to Taiwan to dig into the origins of bubble tea and interview one of the shops that claim to have invented it, the famous Chun Shui Tang in Taichung (I’ve been there myself…their tea was okay, but to my layperson’s tongue it didn’t seem all that special, to be honest). They also made an effort to use and explain various relevant terms and concepts from Chinese and Taiwanese language/culture, such as QQ (arguably the king of food textures in Taiwan), guanxi (關系), and chiku (吃苦).

The book also offers a number of personal anecdotes and cultural details that resonated with my experiences. On the inside cover, there is a nostalgic depiction of bubble tea shops from Bin Chen’s perspective that reads: “It’s tucked away in a strip mall on Bellaire, in Houston, where we take Sunday afternoon Mandarin classes, next to that arcade where kids smoke cigarettes and make out.” Bin is older than me by maybe 10 years, so the description is a bit dated compared to my own memories, but I’ve lived in the Houston area since I was 10 and frequented the Bellaire area on the weekends for the same reasons. That imagery tapped into a very specific wellspring of emotions for me.

Similarly, there’s a comment illustrating a cultural tendency toward delayed gratification that notes how Taiwanese people often back into parking spaces so they can drive out facing forward. Having just come back from living in Taiwan for the last year, I thought, “ha, too real.”

That’s pretty much where the good stuff ends. Now, on to the critique.

My first critique of the book is the way it overwhelmingly caters to the white gaze. This is quite apparent based on the person The Boba Guys chose to collaborate with for this project. There’s a section of the book called “Bridging Cultural Operating Systems” that talks about the co-writer in detail.

In this section, Andrew and Bin say they “searched far and wide for the white right voice to pair with [their] Asian-ness.” (In case it isn’t clear, the crossed out part is their wording and emphasis, not mine.) They “needed someone who could help [them] broaden [their] perspective.” Notably, they didn’t want to pick another Asian writer because they didn’t want people assuming the book was “For Asians, By Asians;” they clarify that the book is “for everyone.”

So who did they pick? Richard Parks III, a white man they describe as “old-school American,” whose family has been in the U.S. since before the Revolutionary War. (You know who else has been here longer than that? Black and Indigenous people.)

The implications are pretty clear: By liberty of his whiteness, Richard is positioned as the quintessential American, the universal every-man who represents the idealized assumed audience for the book.

The Boba Guys further justify their selection with the following factoids:

“[Richard] was already a self-proclaimed ‘xiao long bao snob.'” I don’t know about other people, but I personally do not care for more white people policing the “authenticity” of Asian food.

“We saw him use the only three Mandarin words he knew to get a hat down to half price in Taipei.” Did they ever consider that his whiteness was what gave him an advantage in the transaction, not his actual bargaining skills? (I also question the use of one’s haggling ability as a metric for determining a co-writer for a book about bubble tea, but you know what…never mind.)

I don’t know for sure how much of the book is written by Richard. Some parts have a byline while others do not. Some of the content is clearly presented from one of the two main writers’ perspectives, given the way it references their particular background and life experiences, while other places use an ambiguous “we.”

However, there are color-coded text bubbles in the margins containing meta-commentary from Andrew, Bin, and Richard (blue for Andrew and Bin, green for Richard, based on the fact that the former use iPhones while the latter uses an Android, as explained in-text). A fraction of the remarks from Richard are random and harmless (albeit somewhat pointless), but many are simply Richard being oblivious about the topic being discussed, thus giving Andrew and Bin the opportunity to explain things for the benefit of the audience. It’s probably supposed to come off as cute and quirky, but I was not amused. There is an exchange where Richard ends with “Namaste.” I mean, seriously?

There’s definitely a level of irony to this situation considering how much time they spend in the introduction waxing poetic about diversity, referencing nonwhite cultures as they relate to bubble tea, and appealing to the notion of the multicultural melting pot as the “American Future” (their words). In the end, they still center whiteness. The apparent contradiction is easily resolved by examining the ways in which the above are used to reinforce whiteness-as-default and white supremacy. But that’s beyond the scope of this review, so I suggest Googling for critiques of the concepts and discourses of “diversity” and the “melting pot” if you’re not familiar with them already.

My second critique is leveled specifically at the section titled “How Every Boba Tea Contains Thousands of Years of History,” which consists of a brief timeline of bubble tea history. I stated earlier that the facts of the book were presented in an accessible fashion, but I’d like to qualify that statement: I took issue with the relative attention to detail, commentary, and framing of this section.

As far as the details are concerned, the primary problem lies in the naming of geographies. In introducing and discussing the cassava root (the plant tapioca is made from), the book says it “has been a staple food in South America for 10,000 years.” South America is an entire continent and not a monolith. This vagueness stands in stark contrast to the mentions of specific countries such as China, India, Japan, the United Kingdom, and Portugal in the rest of the section. Later, it does note that cassava is “an ancient staple of native peoples in what is now Brazil,” which is a slight improvement, but it neglects to mention any specific tribe. This may reflect broader societal biases and erasure in the way Indigenous people are written about, but a relatively brief Google search on my part turned up the name Tupinamba[1][2], so there is a level of laziness or oversight at play.

Next is the commentary and framing. Although the authors make use of headings like “The West ‘Discovers’ (Eye Roll) Tea,” they also play into and reinforce Eurocentric narratives and the whitewashing of history. For example, while explaining the introduction of cassava to Taiwan, they state that “the Spanish and Portuguese made their presence felt on the Ilha Formosa (‘beautiful island’).” First of all, that is a very roundabout way to say “colonized.” (Interestingly, there is no mention of tea being central to Taiwanese culture due to Chinese settler colonialism in Taiwan.)

Secondly, Ilha Formosa is the Portuguese nickname for Taiwan. I’ll admit that when I first learned of it when I was younger, I thought it was cool, but I’ve since grown weary of this “fun fact” because it ultimately privileges white people’s view of the island. Even as the authors roll their eyes at Westerners “discovering” tea, they also choose to emphasize the name given to Taiwan by Westerners upon “discovering” it. The hypocrisy is awkward, to put it lightly.

As we proceed further down the timeline, it gets worse: “Our eye rolling aside, the truth is: Without British imperialism in Asia, there’d be no boba, because the U.K. is where tea was first mixed with milk and sugar. Lactose intolerance is rare in Northern Europe, but in parts of Asia, we’re genetically wired for it. We’d never have thought to put milk in tea. So…thanks? For your conquest? U.K.?”

They might be joking, but I really did not find this part funny at all. The violence of British imperialism continues to have detrimental effects all over the world, but you’re “thanking” the U.K. because you now have a bubble tea business to run and money to earn? History cannot be changed, the facts are what they are, but I think it’s an incredible failure of the imagination to frame this cultural diffusion as the inevitable result of imperialism. It is possible for people to exchange cultural artifacts and traditions through peaceful methods, on equal grounds, without the violence imposed by colonization. The British chose to take over the world for the profit; it was not a natural event, as much as many people want to argue that this is “human nature” in order to justify the current world order.

In a similar vein, they explain that “It’s important to mention that without tea, there probably would be no United States of America. [Rundown of Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution] …because of the British fixation with tea, Americans turned away from it from the start. This part of history is actually important to us, because it sets up the way boba is perceived as a novelty in America. You couldn’t bridge cultures with boba if we’d always drunk tea here.” Again, I dislike the romanticizing of violent histories for the sake of a small favorable outcome. Moreover, here it becomes even more obvious that their primary concern is selling boba, literally and figuratively, to those who find it to be a novelty.

My third critique focuses on a conversation between Andrew, Bin, and Richard about being a “third culture” kid and the Boba Guys’ “obsession with remixing,” as Richard puts it. I’ll be quoting a long passage below, so bear with me.

“ANDREW: Right, in food, fashion, music–basically anything cultural–we tend to see everything as binaries. People like to ask us, ‘Can a non-Asian wear a Chinese qipao?’ or ‘Can white people run a boba shop?’ But we don’t think of everything in terms of is it ‘cultural appropriation’ or ‘cultural appreciation’? There’s another way we think about it. It’s how we run our company and train our team…

BIN: People shouldn’t just show up, cherry pick their favorite things about a culture and start thinking they can rep it, leaving the people who actually grew up with it behind. Culture is inherently contextual. You take parts of it out of context, it doesn’t carry the same meaning and significance.

RICHARD: So it’s always better to appreciate?

ANDREW: Yes, but what or who defines ‘appreciation’? The world is always changing the more cultures come into contact with each other, the closer they can become. It’s exhausting to sit there and be constantly judging: ‘Hey you, ramen burger guy, you’re doing it right. You honor the ramen code. But foie gras pho guy, you’re doing it wrong!’ Who’s the culture police?

RICHARD: The first time somebody put boba pearls into sweetened milk tea….that was a cultural remix. Was it appreciation? Was it appropriation?

ANDREW: Or before that, the first time somebody put milk into tea.

RICHARD: Tea came from the East, but then it went to the West, where milk and sugar were added, and then it came back to the East, where tapioca pearls got dropped in.

BIN: It’s like music producers passing around their samples, adding layers to it each time.

ANDREW: That’s why we think it isn’t about appropriation versus appreciation. It’s about attribution.”

I concede that two good points were made here. One is the importance of attribution. The other is Bin’s commentary on not cherry picking and so forth. However, the rest of the conversation contradicts Bin’s initial points. You can’t harp on the importance of context when it comes to culture and then completely fail to contextualize conversations about cultural appropriation. Andrew’s characterization of people who call out appropriation as “the culture police” is reductive and adopting the rhetoric of people who deny the harm of appropriation and use such a framing to paint themselves as supposed victims of aggression from militant POC/Indigenous folks.

While it’s true that there are flaws in the way cultural appropriation is discussed, it’s important to understand that these conversations and critiques are fundamentally about unequal power dynamics in cultural production, consumption, and representation. It’s about avoiding and critiquing material exploitation of marginalized people. Richard’s East-to-West, West-to-East summary of how bubble tea came to be flattens the geopolitical landscape and strips the history of its context. Go figure that Andrew and Bin spent several pages talking about imperialism in bubble tea history in the most lukewarm way, only for the white guy to come along and subtract it from the equation completely.

There’s an added layer to the irony and hypocrisy when you realize that Andrew and Bin appropriate AAVE (African American Vernacular English) throughout their book. At the end of the introduction, they describe themselves as “culturally wildin’.” When they react to Chun Shui Tang admitting they don’t care about proving they were the first to make bubble tea, they quip, “As the kids say, we were shook.” They attribute “shook” to “the kids” without realizing that it actually comes from AAVE and was subsequently appropriated into mainstream slang. In fact, a lot of popular slang comes from not just Black culture but specifically Black queer culture, so there are layers to the appropriation.

My fourth and final critique (I could probably say more, but this review is too long as it is) concerns the final section, “Reflections from Asia.” Bin shares a story about his Agong (his paternal grandfather) in Taiwan while Andrew talks about his Uncle Michael in Shanghai, reflecting on their family histories and the connection between their relatives’ darker pasts and their own brighter present as successful entrepreneurs. The basic gist of their stories is “look at how much our elders suffered, but now we the younger generation are living the American Dream.” It’s both implicit in the way the stories are narrated and explicit in the heading of the section that immediately follows the stories: “Our (New) American (Boba) Dream.”

Aside from being incredibly trite, this narrative reinforces the myth of American meritocracy and exceptionalism. It’s the model minority myth all over again, packaged in platitudes about “making progress as a society” through cultural remixes. It ignores history and context and big picture thinking about race and class in favor of personal anecdotes of success. I’m tired of it.

In conclusion, this book was disappointing. I had an idea of what to expect based on my first impressions of The Boba Guys, but they somehow managed to fail even the low bar I had set up. Some of my critiques may seem a bit nitpicky, but I honestly don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect people who are positioning themselves as experts on “boba culture” to be more self-aware about how they’re presenting that culture. Food is political, as is culture. By refusing to engage with that reality, they’re doing themselves and their readers a disservice.

If you want to buy the book for the bubble tea recipes, I suggest looking for reviews that address that aspect. If you want thoughtful and nuanced information and commentary on bubble tea culture and history, look elsewhere.

ETA: I just found out from Twitter that the Boba Guys are very blatantly antiblack and have participated in gentrifying the neighborhoods they open up locations in, so do not give your money to them.


If you made it to the end, congratulations and thanks for reading.

I normally don’t do this, but since this review actually took a considerable amount of labor, I’m linking my PayPal for anyone who wants to tip me: paypal.me/theshenners.

Author Interview: Cindy Lin

For Day 4 of Taiwanese American Heritage Week, I interviewed Cindy Lin about her middle grade fantasy series The Twelve. The second book and conclusion, Treasures of the Twelve, releases July 28th, 2020.

Synopsis:

Usagi can hear a squirrel’s heartbeat from a mile away, and soar over treetops in one giant leap. She was born in the year of the wood rabbit, and it’s given her extraordinary zodiac gifts.

But she can never use them, not while the mysterious, vicious Dragonlord hunts down all those in her land with zodiac powers. Instead, she must keep her abilities—and those of her rambunctious sister Uma—a secret.

After Uma is captured by the Dragonguard, Usagi can no longer ignore her powers. She must journey to Mount Jade with the fabled Heirs of the Twelve, a mystical group of warriors who once protected the land.

As new mysteries unfold, Usagi must decide who she stands with, and who she trusts, as she takes on deadly foes on her path to the elusive, dangerous Dragonlord himself.

Interview:

Q: What sparked the idea for The Twelve?

It happened to be Lunar New Year right around the time I was taking my first creative writing course, and so there was a lot of mention of how we were entering the year of the Ox. And my sister is born in the year of the Ox, as well as other friends and family, and I was struck by how we usually identify ourselves as the zodiac animal itself, like “I’m an Ox!” or “I’m a Tiger!” That got me to thinking — what if people actually had the power of the animal that ruled their year? Like, what if someone born in the year of the Ox had incredible strength? Or if a Tiger-born person had super keen night vision? It seemed like it would be a fun concept to explore and write about, and it was! But it took me a long time to figure out how to make it work in a way that made sense to me. I initially tried setting the story in our contemporary world, but in the end, setting it in an imaginary mythical time and place unlocked it for me.

Q: What is your zodiac animal and what powers would that give you in the universe of The Twelve?

My ruling animal is the Dog, and I made sure to include a character with dog powers in my books — more than one, actually! I gave them different talents associated with dogs, like a hyper-powerful sense of smell, and the ability to communicate with and command dogs. Other talents might be strong jaws and a fearsome bite, or the ability to hunt anything down. There are so many types of dogs that the possible talents are endless, but I definitely had to start with a super sensitive nose that could identify all sorts of things near and far.

Q: In the book, there are twelve legendary treasures, each with a special power. If they were real, which of these treasures would you want to possess, and what would you use it for?

I’ve asked myself that question a lot! One thing about power is that it usually comes with a price, so I wanted to make sure that the powers of the Treasures were tempered somewhat. As a writer you don’t want an object that gives you unlimited power without consequence, because what’s the fun in that? It’s always more interesting when there’s a catch and a downside to having power, I think. I feel like I already have one of the Treasures — my smart phone is a lot like the Mirror of Elsewhere, and I struggle with its pull all the time. I wouldn’t mind having the Conjurer — the hammer that grants you whatever you wish for (albeit for just a day). But at this moment, in the midst of a global pandemic, what I really want is the Apothecary — the pillbox that holds cures for ailments — as well as the Bowl of Plenty, which fills up with whatever you put in it. We could really use those two now.

Q: What was your favorite part about writing The Twelve?

All the fun I had doing research! I visited museums, read countless books on all sorts of topics, tried different sports (including kendo, or Japanese fencing, which ended up being so fun that I joined a dojo), and generally got to geek out. It was also really gratifying to put in little mentions of things that are meaningful to me. For example, though the island kingdom of Midaga is inspired by many different places, I did write in a little shout-out to where I lived in Japan (Stone River Province is in honor of Ishikawa Prefecture) and gave some locations the names of actual landmarks in Taiwan, where my family is from. I loved the feeling of discovery as I wrote, and I also met so many great fellow writers as I worked on The Twelve. When I started all this, I didn’t realize I would find such an amazing community and kindred spirits.

Q: What was the hardest part about writing The Twelve?

Not knowing what I was doing, as it was my first attempt at writing a novel! It was hard to eke out a sentence, a paragraph, a page for the first time, and wonder if I could string together enough to make a coherent long-form story. It took many tries and many versions, and a lot of lost sleep and sacrifice. I wrote when I was on vacation with family, I got up early before my day job to write, I wrote in the middle of the night and wouldn’t get to bed until dawn — it was like I was possessed. I couldn’t not do it, but I gave up a lot for it, and at the same time, I was riddled with doubt. That was hard to wrestle with. And writing itself is so solitary. That can be lonely at times. Rejection is also no picnic, though all of the difficult stuff really does make you better and stronger.

Q: Who is your favorite character in the duology and why?

Of course, I love my main character Usagi, as I’ve been carrying her with me for years. But I did find a couple of supporting characters surprisingly fun to write, and so I feel a lot of affection for them. One is the hermit, Yunja — I have a blast with him every time I bring him into the story. I also love the Tigress, because she’s like my personal Yoda. Honestly I love all my characters for different reasons, but I’ll stop with those three!

Q: Sequels and sophomore novels have a reputation for being difficult to write. Did you find Treasures of the Twelve, which is not only a sequel but the conclusion to a series, to be a challenge compared to the first book?

It was a challenge for sure, but in a different way from Book 1. I had to figure out how to develop things that I’d set up in the first book, and how to start the book in a way that wouldn’t be horribly confusing for anyone who hadn’t read The Twelve, but not too repetitive for those who had. I tried to balance introducing new ideas, places and characters with including familiar bits from Book 1. I also had to wrap things up in a satisfying way. And I had to do it all in a compressed time frame. It took me many years to write Book 1, and just a fraction of that for Book 2. That said, it helped that I had already spent so much time building the world of my story — it did make some things easier as I drafted Treasures of the Twelve. I kept reminding myself that other authors have written sequels for publication in consecutive years, so it was in the realm of possibility — but I definitely worried about pulling it off. Given the constraints of time, I did the absolute best I could, and take heart in the fact that my publisher gave it the green light. I think it goes to show that there’s nothing like a deadline to help kick you in the pants!


About the Author:

Cindy Lin author photoA former journalist with degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University, Cindy Lin has worked for Sony Pictures Entertainment and has written and produced many multimedia news features for children, one of which received a Peabody Award. The Twelve is her debut novel.

Author Links:

Website: https://www.cindylinbooks.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/cindylin_tweets

Author Interview: Henry Lien

Hi again! Today’s Taiwanese author interview is with Henry Lien on his debut middle grade fantasy novel Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword.

Peasprout Chen Future Legend of Skate and Sword

The synopsis from Goodreads:

Welcome to Pearl Famous Academy of Skate and Sword, where the blades are sharp and the competition is fierce. 

Peasprout Chen dreams of becoming a legend of wu liu, the deadly and beautiful art of martial arts figure skating. 

As the first students from the rural country of Shin to attend Pearl Famous Academy of Skate and Sword, Peasprout and her little brother Cricket have some pretty big skates to fill. They soon find themselves in a heated competition for top ranking. 

Tensions rise when the dazzling pearl buildings of the Academy are vandalized and outsider Peasprout is blamed for the attacks by her rivals … and even some friends. 

Now, she must uncover the true vandal to ensure peace between Shin and Pearl – all while becoming a champion.

Now, buckle-in for this in-depth interview!

Q: To start off, what is your favorite Taiwanese food? (You’re allowed to pick more than one.)

A: What a great question! Food is identity. I choose dan-dan mian (peanut butter noodle). It’s classically Taiwanese, naturally vegan, appeals to young and old, and serves as an eminently charismatic introduction to Taiwanese food. It makes an appearance in the second PEASPROUT CHEN book. In fact, there are a lot of cameos by Taiwanese food in the series.

Runner up would be a traditional Taiwanese breakfast spread with ride porridge, three kinds of pickled vegetables, simmered tofu, fried crullers, warm soy milk, etc. Truly the best breakfast in the world and I will fight, kill, and toss into the sea anyone who says different.

Q: Tell us a little more about Peasprout and the world of Pearl beyond what’s in the synopsis.

A: Peasprout is a huge personality. She is courageous, has a huge heart, is expressive (when she’s not reticent), is warm (when she’s not being icy), makes grand, gorgeous, generous gestures, says things that no one else says, does things that no one else thinks to do or has the guts to do. She is always the most original, most talented, most unforgettable person in the room. When you meet her, you will think about her later that day. She is also self-aggrandizing, deluded, extreme, a bit of a weirdo, and rather lonely. She’s pretty much me.

It was excruciating to write such a deeply flawed character based so candidly on myself while forbidding myself from shading her more flatteringly. However, writing this way was an exercise in a) learning to applaud the parts of myself that I am proud of while; b) gazing at my flaws fully and hideously lit; and c) accepting that I’m perpetually a work in progress and will probably die that way. Sigh.

Regarding the world of Pearl, I could go on and on. It’s a world where you can skate on any surface, any rooftop, handrail, balustrade, etc. The entire city was built to accommodate this fictional sport of wu liu, which combines figure skating with kung fu. The city is essentially a figure skating, kung fu amusement park. It was my own personal parkour course on a city-scale, my own private Disneyland built from a brain-scan of what I liked and cared about. I feel like joy is pretty thin in science fiction/fantasy and the world in general these days. I wanted to create a city that while far from perfect, was in one primary way an exuberant expression of pure joy.

Q: Why the name Peasprout?

A: I wanted a name that that was gender-neutral, equally adorable in English, Mandarin, and Taiwanese, didn’t actually exist, and had a lot of personality. I wanted something that was as rich in Chinese/Taiwanese flavor as the names that Tolkien made up to express essential Englishness in his works.

Q: Given the history and current presence of Asian Americans in figure skating, from Michelle Kwan and Kristi Yamaguchi to today’s Karen Chen, Nathan Chen, and Alex and Maia Shibutani, it feels appropriate to have an Asian ice skating story. Did any of these skaters influence or inspire your story?

A: Massive influence! I don’t feel equipped to make generalizations about why there is such a high representation of Asian Americans in the sport. However, Kwan and Yamaguchi had to both deal with a lot of misstatements and nonsense regarding their Asian heritage in media coverage about their performances, endorsements, etc. That unfairness influenced the book since Peasprout herself is an immigrant and a dawning awareness of unfairness in the world is a classic theme in middle grade fiction.

On a more fundamental level, it felt right to write an Asian skating story because I always saw figure skating as the soulmate of traditional wushu (kung fu).

Q: What kinds of research did you do for this story, if any?

A: I took figure skating and kung fu lessons and was appalling at both. I wrote a blog about it, actually. If you want a good laugh, here’s a link: http://henrylien.com/writer-suffers-devastating-injuries-while-researching-kung-fu-figure-skating-childrens-book/ Despite the farcical tone, it’s actually 99% true. Read it and laugh at my woe.

For the worldbuilding, I also did a tremendous amount of research about language, culture, history, international relations, the complex history among Taiwan, China, and Japan, marine biology, architecture, engineering, meteorology, fashion, puberty, culinary fads, superstition, and on and on and on. A lot of that is happening under the hood but there’s so much solid research supporting the book that I in fact don’t really consider it fantasy. The fantastical worldbuilding is actually just exaggerated/extrapolated real stuff. I deliberately set out to write a fantasy that had no magic because I wanted to show that culture and history are in themselves magic enough.

For the characters and the interpersonal dynamics, I spent a lot of time in conversation with women including my sister, my agent, my editor, beta readers, etc., to make the representation of girls diverse and realistic, since I was writing from outside my own lived experience. I particularly wanted to examine the oft-bandied generalization that girls are socialized to be more relational and to develop instant relationships, positive or negative, with every other girl in their social unit, which instinctively felt super-sweeping and super-binary. Whether or not there is truth in this generalization, I wanted to explore the idea that not all girls are like this, want this, or agree with this generalization. Appreciating the differences of opinion about this idea was one of the things I spent the most time on.

Q: What would you say has been the hardest part of writing Peasprout Chen?

A: This question is hard to answer because everything about this book was hard. Perhaps the hardest thing was the puzzle nature of the plot. I was determined to write a puzzle plot that was as ambitious as “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkhaban” or “Abre Los Ojos”. The engineering required to pull off such a plot while staying mindful of all the other elements that go into a book while serving my particular plot’s unusual requirements for pacing, frequency of clues, scaling of transparency of clues to a vast age range of potential readers, passage of time in the book’s world (mapped onto a rigid academic schedule and seasons that don’t match with our world’s seasons but have plot impacts), number of pages elapsed, etc., while also making the book as enjoyable on a second read after you learn its secrets, all while striving for a feeling of effortlessness in the choreography of story elements, was a staggering amount of work.

Q: I went and listened to the podcast of Pearl Rehabilitative Colony for Ungrateful Daughters, which was posted on Asimov’s Science Fiction (links: Part 1, Part 2). According to your site, Peasprout Chen’s story is a sequel to this story but also the first in a trilogy of its own. Why did you choose to Peasprout Chen’s story as the start for the series?

A: “Pearl Rehab Colony” was always intended as a contained experiment, a sort of proof of concept for the larger series. It’s told from the POV of Suki, the villain of the Peasprout Chen series. As such, it was intended as an experiment to test my powers of empathy and ventriloquism. However, Suki’s head is a cramped, claustrophobic, forbidding place in which to situate a viewpoint. I don’t think readers would have been able to bear spending 360 some pages in the head of such a nasty person. Peasprout is quite the pill herself but a different sort of pill, one whose edges break off as it goes down, one that sweetens while being broken apart. In some ways, Peasprout’s story is not the story of a winner, but of a loser, and it takes a tenderer, more complex narrator than Suki to bear such things with dignity and beauty. I wanted a narrator that showed that being vulnerable was not incompatible with being strong.


Henry Lien author headshot

Henry Lien is a 2012 graduate of Clarion West, and his short fiction has appeared in publications like Asimov’s, earning multiple Nebula Award nominations. Born in Taiwan, Henry currently lives in Hollywood, California. Before becoming an author, Henry worked as an attorney, fine art dealer, and college instructor. His hobbies include vegan cooking, losing Nebula awards, and finding excuses to write and publicly perform science fiction/fantasy themed anthems. He is the author of Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword.

Author Interview: Fonda Lee

Hey everyone, sorry for the gap in posting. Today’s interview is with Fonda Lee. Aside from addressing more general writing questions, this interview will touch on the first book of her adult fantasy, Jade City, which came out late last year, as well as her YA science fiction duololgy that began with Exo and concludes with Cross Fire, which is coming out later this month on May 29th. For context, I’m giving y’all the summaries of the books. (There won’t be any spoilers in the interview.)

Exo and Crossfire take place in a future in which Earth is colonized by aliens called the zhree. Here’s the Goodreads summary for Exo:

It’s been a century of peace since Earth became a colony of an alien race with far reaches into the galaxy. Some die-hard extremists still oppose alien rule on Earth, but Donovan Reyes isn’t one of them. His dad holds the prestigious position of Prime Liaison in the collaborationist government, and Donovan’s high social standing along with his exocel (a remarkable alien technology fused to his body) guarantee him a bright future in the security forces. That is, until a routine patrol goes awry and Donovan’s abducted by the human revolutionary group Sapience, determined to end alien control.

When Sapience realizes whose son Donovan is, they think they’ve found the ultimate bargaining chip . But the Prime Liaison doesn’t negotiate with terrorists, not even for his own son. Left in the hands of terrorists who have more uses for him dead than alive, the fate of Earth rests on Donovan’s survival. Because if Sapience kills him, it could spark another intergalactic war. And Earth didn’t win the last one…

And the Goodreads summary for Jade City:

FAMILY IS DUTY. MAGIC IS POWER. HONOR IS EVERYTHING.
Magical jade—mined, traded, stolen, and killed for—is the lifeblood of the island of Kekon. For centuries, honorable Green Bone warriors like the Kaul family have used it to enhance their abilities and defend the island from foreign invasion.

Now the war is over and a new generation of Kauls vies for control of Kekon’s bustling capital city. They care about nothing but protecting their own, cornering the jade market, and defending the districts under their protection. Ancient tradition has little place in this rapidly changing nation.

When a powerful new drug emerges that lets anyone—even foreigners—wield jade, the simmering tension between the Kauls and the rival Ayt family erupts into open violence. The outcome of this clan war will determine the fate of all Green Bones—from their grandest patriarch to the lowliest motorcycle runner on the streets—and of Kekon itself.

Jade City begins an epic tale of family, honor, and those who live and die by the ancient laws of jade and blood.

Now, for the actual interview!

Q: Unlike many aliens we see in sci-fi, the aliens in Exo and Cross Fire, the zhree, are very clearly non-humanoid. Are there any real life-forms that inspired their design?

A: I was very intentional about not making the zhree humanoid. There are so many humanoid aliens in science fiction because Hollywood has human actors; I don’t have that constraint as a novelist. I wanted the aliens to be truly alien, but they needed to have certain characteristics to satisfy the premise of humans and aliens coexisting and cooperating on a future colonized Earth. I made a list of what traits would make an alien race compatible with us; they would be land-dwelling, use vocal communication, and be intelligent tool users. I also knew, from all the research I did into space travel for my previous novel, Zeroboxer, that radiation and harsh conditions are a major barrier to astronauts. An alien species with natural body armor would have a huge advantage over us in creating a galactic civilization. So that’s how the zhree came about: I envisioned them sort of as six-limbed, armored land octopi.

Q: The main character of the Exo duology, Donovan, has a unique position of privilege within the zhree-dominated colonized society because of his father’s political influence and his own integration of zhree technology into his physiology to become more like the zhree. What made you decide to center his perspective exclusively as opposed to, or without the addition of, that of someone with less privilege or even someone in the anti-colonial organization Sapience, like Anya?

A: I’d read plenty of young adult dystopian novels in which the protagonists are rebels fighting oppression: The Hunger Games, Divergent, etc. They’ve become a staple of the category. It’s easy to root for and identify with a character who’s downtrodden and trying to forcibly overthrow an evil empire. It’s more challenging to understand and change the system from within. I love moral ambiguity in my fiction; I don’t want to make it easy for readers to identify good guys and bad guys (in fact, I never write them), because the real world is rarely so simple. If I’d written the book from Anya’s perspective, or written it in dual-POV, it would’ve been like a dozen other YA dystopian novels. Here’s the thing: the world is NOT dystopian from Donovan’s POV. In fact, it’s pretty darn good. Which goes to show that dystopia is all a matter of perspective. You could say that I wrote EXO and CROSS FIRE specifically as a way of challenging myself to make readers like, understand, and even root for, the “other side.” Donovan and his friends are good people who try to do what they believe with their own solid reasoning is truly right, which is to uphold the alien colonial regime. I want that to mess with reader’s heads.

Q: One of the hardest aspects of writing speculative fiction is avoiding excessive infodumps. How do you manage the balance between action/suspense and providing information on the world the characters inhabit?

A: One of the keys to seamless worldbuilding is to weave information into the narrative in a natural way. The story should keep plowing forward and readers should be able to absorb everything they need to know in context. This also means giving the characters opportunities to interact with the world and examine the backstory in a way that informs the reader, without it ever seeming to inform the reader. For example, I don’t open EXO with an infodump on how the aliens came to rule Earth. It’s not until about a third of the way through the book that Donovan happens to see some old footage of the invasion and that’s when the reader gets it, in an almost “oh, by the way” as the story progresses.

Q: I know you have a background in martial arts, which must be helpful for writing the action and combat scenes in your books. What advice do you have on writing such scenes for people who don’t have that background?

A: Don’t get caught up in the nitty-gritty blow-by-blow details. Action scenes have to have narrative purpose and emotional consequence for the characters; that’s the most important thing. That said, action scenes should have rhythm, freshness, and clarity. Don’t use the same old clichés, “Her heart was pounding,” or “He saw red.” Come up with better ways of conveying the sensations of the fight, and make sure the reader can clearly visualize what’s happening. Finally, there’s no substitute for research. That might be first hand (take martial arts classes, learn to safely handle weapons) or second hand (for me, that included watching a lot of live MMA, action movies, videos on YouTube, and seeking out good action and fight scenes in other books.)

Q: I’ve only gotten to read a small part of Jade City, but I got very distinct Taiwan vibes from some of the worldbuilding. I know you’ve mentioned Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Hawaii, Japan as influences on the worldbuilding for Jade City in another interview. Are there any parts of the setting based on very specific real life locations, e.g. a particular neighborhood, street, building you’ve seen or visited?

A: The city of Janloon in Jade City is very much a world entirely of my own imagination. Think of it like Wakanda in Black Panther; it’s a place very much formed out of real world cultures and geography and aesthetic cues, but it’s also magical and completely its own place. I want the reader to feel like this setting is familiar, but they shouldn’t be able to identify anything that’s obviously from our world. Even the brands of cars and motorcycles and guns are invented; but my goal was to render everything so specifically that it feels real.

Q: Your debut novel, Zeroboxer, was a standalone whereas Exo and Jade City are both the first books in series. How has your writing process for these series differed from your writing of Zeroboxer, if at all, and do you have any advice for writing multi-volume stories?

I’ll hopefully be able to answer this question in a few years! Right now, I’m in the thick of working on the Green Bone Saga, so the one thing that I can tell you is that writing a sequel comes with its own set of challenges and is just as hard as writing the first book. (Not least of all because of the more aggressive deadlines.) The only way that the writing process really differs is that I have to think further ahead. For example, as I’m writing the second book now, I’m thinking about how certain thing might have repercussions in the third book. And I have my eye not just on the story arc for this book, but for the entire series.


Fonda Lee photoFonda Lee is the author of the gangster fantasy saga Jade City (Orbit), a finalist for the Nebula Award and named a Best Book of 2017 by NPR, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s Books, and Syfy Wire, among others. Her young adult science fiction novels Zeroboxer (Flux) and Exo (Scholastic) were Junior Library Guild Selections and Andre Norton Award finalists. Cross Fire (the sequel to Exo) releases in May 2018. Fonda is a recovering corporate strategist, black belt martial artist, and an action movie aficionado living in Portland, Oregon. You can find Fonda online at www.fondalee.com and on Twitter @fondajlee.

Book Playlist: Want by Cindy Pon

WANT

So this is my first time attempting to put together a playlist of songs to complement a book. Not surprisingly, I chose Cindy Pon’s Want as the inaugural title for my playlist experiments. Most of the music I listen to is in either Mandarin Chinese or Korean, so I ended up with a combination of mandopop and kpop. These songs span quite a few years in terms of release date, so hopefully for those who aren’t familiar with the genres, it will make a brief introduction to some East Asian pop music (plus some #cuteasianboys!).

WANT Track List

Note: I can’t embed videos on WP, so you’ll have to click the links to go to YouTube and listen to the songs.

風雲變色 – KOne+5566

The song title literally means “Wind and clouds change color,” and it’s an idiom for a changing, volatile situation. This song is the theme song for Top of the Forbidden City, a very old Taiwanese idol drama from 2004 full of tacky dance battles (performed by the artists of this song, both Taiwanese boy bands from the same label who starred in the drama). I chose the song because it represents the high-stakes, tense atmosphere of Want and the complex, shifting feelings that Zhou experiences as he infiltrates the ranks of his sworn enemies.

Lyrics of note (translated by me, please do not repost or claim as yours):

Each era has a new legend/I have already changed history
Bearing whatever divine mission/Consigned to whatever capricious fate
Perhaps you and I have nearly forgotten/How to prove the truth
In the lightning and flame, I can’t make out your silhouette
What should I do to win this battle?

Is my courage heavy enough?/Determined to ruthlessly decimate the enemy
Are you an enemy or a friend?/The winds keep changing
Yin and yang are about to fuse/The universe is watching me
I’m standing at the top of the forbidden city/Searching for an escape

Bad – Infinite

This song is from a 2015 album by my favorite kpop group, Infinite. The lyrics tell the story of a guy who falls for a girl who is ostensibly bad for him, yet alluring all the same. There’s a sensual tension conveyed by the song that I felt was perfect for Zhou and Daiyu. Also, the line “betting on you” maps onto the story in Want so well, in a very literal way, as Daiyu is the key to success for Zhou’s mission.

Lyrics of note (translation credit: popgasa)

You come to me like you have me,
you wrap around me
Then you disappear like a dream
With no time to touch, I’m captivated by you

I’m afraid that I’m being ruined by you
Though you’ll shake me up and turn around

Betting on you
I’m betting on you
Betting on you
I can’t just let you go like this
Whenever I see you, you’re such an unfamiliar girl
You always make me so nervous

迷魂計 – 183 Club

183 Club is yet another Taiwanese boy band, also under the same company as KOne and 5566. This song was the opening theme for the Taiwanese idol drama, The Prince Who Turns Into a Frog from 2005. The English name for this song is “Enticing Trick.” It’s a less serious song than the others and expresses the feeling of falling for someone that you shouldn’t because you can’t help but be charmed by them.

Lyrics of note (translated by me, don’t steal, thanks):

Hurry and wake up/There are no miracles on this earth
Hurry and see clearly/Don’t fall for her enticing trick

It’s already determined by Fate/I’m just too hopelessly smitten
I love your courage/More steady than anyone
It’s already determined by Fate/Don’t disbelieve it
A few words from you/Become my scriptures
Your importance to me/No one can replace it

One Shot – B.A.P.

Another kpop song, this one from 2013. Although the lyrics are actually referring to a different context/situation, the focus on there being “one shot” to determine your future, plus the dramatic orchestral instrumentation and dark tone to the song, felt perfect for Want and Zhou’s mission that everything hinges on.

Lyrics of note (translation credit: popgasa)

I can’t step back
On this endless path
Woo woo woo, don’t be shaken
I can’t trap myself
In this time of confusion
Woo woo woo, there’s only one chance

Only one shot only one shot
Bite down hard and go against them, one shot
Only one shot only one shot
Throw yourself at the world, one shot
Only one shot only one shot
You only have one chance, you know?

西界 – 林俊傑 (JJ Lin)

For those who don’t know, JJ Lin is a Singaporean Chinese singer-songwriter who’s active in Taiwan. Released in 2007, this song  has the English title “West Side.” The main theme of the song is living in a different world than the person you love, and it’s symbolized by two places that are opposite as day and night. The speaker of the lyrics is trapped in the dark and reaching toward the light. This felt like an apt way to characterize the stark class divide between Zhou and Daiyu.

Lyrics of note (translation by me, please do not repost/claim as yours):

I can only look toward the east side/Your world is too distant
Enduring until the limits of my imagination/A happiness so sweet
But the night has already consumed me/I just can’t reach your hand

Review for Want by Cindy Pon

want

Note: My review is based on the ARC I received from Simon & Schuster. The book will be released on June 13th.

My Summary: Taipei is coated in smog, and the line between the privileged you (“haves”) and second-class mei (“have-nots”) is stark. While the you wear suits that shelter them from the pollution, the mei are left to slowly die from a poisoned atmosphere. Worse, the Jin Corporation that manufactures the suits may be actively destroying the environment to reap the profits. Jason Zhou and his friends are determined to take down Jin Corporation and put an end to the corruption. To do this, Jason needs to pose as a rich boy and get close to Jin Daiyu, the spoiled daughter of Jin Corporation’s CEO. But the closer he gets to his goal, the less he is able to separate the act from reality.

Review:

There were three major reasons I was super excited about this book. The first is that I’ve read Cindy’s previous books and was interested in seeing how she would tackle a different genre than usual. The second is that I’ve read “Blue Skies,” the original short story that Want was based on, so I wanted to see how the novel version builds upon it. The third is that it takes place in Taiwan, where my family is from, and there is basically no Taiwanese representation in YA, so I was glad that my motherland was finally getting the spotlight in the fiction I love so much. There was a lot pinned on this book, and by and large, Want did not disappoint.

An alternate version of the Taipei I know and love comes to life in this story, familiar in many ways, such as its night markets, karaoke joints, 7-Elevens, and landmarks (Taipei 101 included), but also different, having evolved into a near future dystopia where high tech commodities and abject poverty brush against each other in stark juxtaposition. The sights and sounds, smells and tastes give the setting texture and presence. In particular, the descriptions of food will leave you desperate to take a trip to Taiwan to indulge multiple cravings.

Want is a great example of diversity within diversity when it comes to the cast of characters. Although our protagonist, Jason Zhou belongs to the ethnically Han majority, we also have supporting characters who reflect some the increasing ethnic diversity in Taiwan. One is the dapper Victor who works and sends money back to his family in the Philippines, and the other is the pragmatic Arun, who is Indian and comes from a family of brilliant research scientists. In addition to the ethnic diversity, we have two Asian girls in a relationship: bisexual glasses-wearing hacker girl Lingyi and silent but deadly and athletic Iris. Together, the five of them form the perfect team and supportive family to one another.

In order to accomplish their mission, Jason and friends have to break through both physical and social barriers. The latter means that Jason must pass as a rich boy to infiltrate Jin Corporation, and this is by far the toughest part of the mission. Jason comes from a poor family, and his mother died of sickness because they couldn’t afford healthcare, and he has to adopt the mannerisms and attitude of the wealthy elite for whom money has never been an issue, of the people he resents the most. His disorientation and discomfort and heightened class consciousness while navigating privileged spaces are visceral and tangible and portrayed very well.

Jason is a very relatable character for me. His love for books and use of books as escapism resonated with me and show in his references to both Western and Chinese literary classics. His struggle to trust others, especially those in the privileged class that treats him as disposable, is familiar to me as well. Also, his desperation to do something to change the toxic system he lives in is basically the story of my life. I empathized with his frustrations, doubts, disgust, and conflicting feelings.

Much of the conflict of this story centers on class tensions. In particular, it explores systemic oppression and how privilege affects someone’s worldview. This conflict is played out in Jason’s interactions with Daiyu, who is sensitive and kind but also sheltered and ignorant due to her upbringing. Her individual niceness and good intentions don’t negate her privilege or complicity, so Jason struggles with his affections toward her as an individual while he is plotting to destroy the foundation of her unearned privilege.

If you’re looking for a slow-burn, angst-filled romance, this book has that. Jason and Daiyu manage, in spite of their differences in class, to gradually find common ground and let down their barriers enough to be vulnerable around and real with each other in key moments. For those who live for it, there is an abundance of unresolved sexual tension that both frustrates and entertains.

The story balances the heist with the romance and character arcs, stringing the reader along with a mix of suspense and action. The final one-third of the book ups the stakes and packs an emotional punch several times over with twists and revelations and a heart-stopping climax. The ending ties up enough loose ends to satisfy but is realistic in its developments as systemic change doesn’t happen overnight.

My one minor critique of this book is the mixed treatment of beauty standards. Although it recognized the ever-changing nature of fashion and beauty trends, it also uncritically described certain people’s bodies as “perfect” in one or two places without addressing how factors like racism, colorism, sexism, cissexism, ableism, sizeism, etc. affect what society views as aesthetic/physical “perfection.”

Recommendation: Highly recommended for the thrills, the feelings, and the food.

P.S. If you haven’t read my interview with Cindy, go check it out here!

Author Interview: Mina Li

This is the fifth in my author interview series for Taiwanese American Heritage Week. Today’s special guest is Mina Li. In this interview we will be talking about two of her published short fiction pieces and her writing experiences.

As usual, my comments and questions are in bold and labeled with “SW.”

SW: Asking this of everyone: What’s your favorite Taiwanese food? (Feel free to list as many as you like if you can’t pick one.)

Mina: This is going to be a really disorganized list, so in no particular order: scallion pancakes, bubble tea (50 Lan has this oolong bubble tea that is just the right amount of smoky, creamy, and sweet), aiyu jelly, sheng jian bao, pineapple cakes with actual pineapple bits in the filling, custard apples, wax apples, and beef noodles.

Oh, and one thing I was introduced to in the US from my mom: green mango pickles. I have some in my fridge right now.

SW: Scallion pancakes, bubble tea, pineapple cakes, and beef noodles are also among my favorites. I’m sad that there are no Taiwanese bubble tea chains anywhere near me. 😦

So I just finished reading “Of Peach Trees and Coral-Red Roses” and loved it. It strikes me as a very Asian American story, with a heroine who has been displaced from her homeland and is fighting to preserve her connection to it. What inspired this story?

Mina: There was a fairy tale meme going around with a writing group of mine, where we could request retellings starring our OCs. A good friend of mine requested Tam Lin with the heroine of another story I had, and a side character that she had Unresolved Romantic Tension with. As in, the only story that had them remotely as a pairing was a drunk kiss during a wedding reception.

And then it turned out some of the readers were into that pairing, so I took it and ran. That was back in 2012 or so. The story written wasn’t “Peach Trees” since it was mainly for readers familiar with my OCs, and also, it was from “Tam’s” point of view.

Around 2013-2014 I was really considering submitting my work, and I thought of rewriting that story from “Janet” (now Kairu’s) PoV. It really does strike me that you liked the diaspora aspect of it, considering an editor I’d spoken to at the time said they wouldn’t have taken the story. I still remember their words: “Why can’t it take place in her own country?”

It does bother me that there are those out there that don’t recognize that Asian diaspora characters aren’t white people with Asian faces, that we’ll have different experiences that aren’t quite the same as our white or Asian-in-Asia counterparts. So when I was writing “Peach Trees,” I took special care in how Kairu perceived The Borders v. the kingdom of Yue. That took more work than I was anticipating, since there were a lot of internalized things I had to confront, like beauty standards and perception of environment. I suppose one of the points I was trying to make was that an Asian character in a Western environment isn’t necessarily going to be the same as a white character in a Western environment. There seems to be a notion that when people immigrate to the West, they abandon their culture and adapt right away, and when it comes to my immigrant family, immediate and extended, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Warning: SPOILERS for “Of Peach Trees and Coral-Red Roses.” Highlight to read:

Jumping off of that point, that’s actually where the peach tree came in. Fairies are weak to iron, but in Chinese folklore, if you want to keep away demons, peach branches and peach wood are used in exorcising demons. The original weapon I was going to have for Kairu would have been some MacGyvering of iron and a peach branch. A beta reader, R.P., suggested a different idea where the peach tree was magic, and the rest is history. (I really, really owe her for suggesting that–it was such a good idea that I managed to rewrite the draft in two weeks!) I like how it has Kairu triumphing over the faerie queen using a weapon from her own folklore, and what that implies for diaspora–that despite their new surroundings, their culture is still viable and valid. (End spoilers.)

SW: To be honest, I’ve been wanting to write secondary world diaspora stories because diaspora seems to be missing from a lot of high fantasy. In most fantasy stories, racial/ethnic groups tend to be very self-segregated, which feels unrealistic given that the migration of people has happened since as long as there have been people.

I also read “Dreaming Keys” because I bought the An Alphabet of Embers anthology a while back. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the main character/narrator was Taiwanese American and that the story used actual Chinese characters (hanzi) in dialogue, as opposed to pinyin and/or translations. What motivated this decision, and how would you say your multilingual background plays into your writing?

Mina: A good friend of mine showed me John Chu’s “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere,” and that was really the first story I’d seen that had hanzi instead of pinyin or translations. It was revelatory, in a sense, because before that, I would have thought “no, I can’t do that, it’s simply not done, how are readers going to understand what the characters are saying?” Chu showed that it could be done, and extremely well, too–that story won a Hugo! So I’d have to say that that story had a major influence in writing hanzi dialogue in “Dreaming Keys.”

Prior to that, a lot of my multilingual background was trying to directly translate proverbs or hanfu items into terms that non-Chinese/Taiwanese readers could understand. I remember adding notes at the end of stories that explained the proverbs or any terms/items that readers might not be able to get.

When it comes to Bethany being Taiwanese-American, I guess the motivation in its simplest terms is that I don’t see a lot of Taiwanese protagonists in books or stories outside of Taiwan. Fresh Off the Boat was a big deal for me when it aired (despite the first season finale where they apparently thought the mainland and Taiwan were interchangeable) because it was the first TV show that immediately felt familiar and like home.

SW: Yeah, I can practically count on two hands the number of Taiwanese protagonists I’ve come across (book list coming soon) in my years reading Anglophone lit. Which is why I always jump for joy when I see another.

One of the things I’ve experienced during my years writing as a Person of Color and Asian American is a shift from writing European-esque settings (for fantasy) and white characters (mostly for contemporary) to writing fantasy inspired by my own Taiwanese heritage and characters who look like me and share parts of my identity. Did you ever go through such a phase or transformation? How would you say your approach to writing has changed over time?

Mina: I think I always leaned toward Asian characters, when it came to fanfiction or RPs. The few times I’ve written sympathetic protags that aren’t explicitly Asian, it feels…off to me, for lack of a better word. I have to work a bit harder at getting inside their heads from time to time. With Asian characters, it’s easier, for lack of a better word.

When it came to fantasy (the genre I write the most), I don’t know if I ever thought of writing Western-style high fantasy? I’ve done urban fantasy with Western settings and Asian protagonists, and I have an wuxia fantasy story that takes place in both fantasy versions of Asia and Europe. The main character is Chinese, and it’s basically four years of her growing up in those circumstances. It’s currently on ice now, but if/when I do go back to it, I’d probably redo a few backstories and try to be more inclusive on marginalizations. I’m still rather fond of it.

SW: When I was younger I wrote high fantasy with European-esque settings, but a lot of my stories had dark haired characters who were coded as Asian. As I got older I converted over to writing explicitly Asian characters and #ownvoices narratives.

For marginalized writers, writing #ownvoices stories is often a means of speaking back to a society that others us and erases us. How do you approach writing #ownvoices narratives, and what are your goals, if you have any, when writing them?

Mina: I don’t know if I have any goals at the moment. When it comes to writing #ownvoices narratives, I tend to pull from my own experiences, which tend to come from the majority in some cases (Taiwanese Mandarin is the only dialect I speak, and my parents immigrated to the US for grad school, for example). It does bother me from time to time when outsiders are all, “this is just another narrative of X” sometimes. I did see a book review critiquing the fact that the main character was another high achiever kept from her artist dreams, and the author commenting quite politely that while she could understand that, that those were her actual experiences she was writing about.

I think we have to be careful not to internalize the myriad demands of what diverse audiences wants–that it’s totally okay if you yourself cannot provide them. I think what we could do instead is that if there is someone writing #ownvoices from PoVs you can’t provide, to support them by boosting their work and purchasing it. But even if your voice falls within the majority or the mainstream, it’s still important and deserves to be heard.

SW: I think as Asian Americans we get our writing policed as either “too Asian” or “not Asian enough,” and in my case I always wonder if people are going to question the authenticity of what I write because I’m not writing oppressive Asian immigrant parents.

Although Asian American literature is often pigeonholed as being about “the immigrant struggle,” there’s so much more to it than that. What aspects of Asian America and Asian American identities and experiences do you find yourself drawn to? What kinds of Asian American stories do you want to write about?

Mina: So the “immigrant struggle” doesn’t do a lot for me personally; my folks had no tragic backstories, and their memories of growing up in Taiwan aren’t particularly hardship-filled or tearjerking. They go back every now and then and seem to have a grand old time, so.

I’m a bit more focused on Asian American stories that don’t take place on the coasts, where there isn’t a Chinatown–we certainly have a strong Taiwanese community here, but there’s no area in my neck of the woods that would be considered a Chinatown, you know? And of course not all Asian-Americans are raised in California or New York.

I have a novel planned that’s got a Taiwanese-American protagonist. She wasn’t the perfect daughter in high school because she didn’t get straight As, never really smiled, and basically had interests that were outside the mainstream. At that age, she discovered certain powers that she had, but due to bullying, used them to hurt instead of help. The novel begins when she’s in her thirties, where she’s tried to bury that really hard, but also still isn’t the perfect daughter (unmarried, occupation is respectable but doesn’t pay a lot, body issues, etc). Another character in the novel is her rival, someone she was unfavorably compared to growing up, and how his boyfriend comes to her for help.

When I was a kid, one of the things I hated most was being compared to other kids. It really made me feel inadequate, like I would never be good enough. So and so spoke better Mandarin; so and so smiled; so and so was better looking; so and so excelled in sports/math/whatever. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that they’ve had their own issues growing up, or actually were really cool people. And it surprised me a lot later to hear from one of those kids that his mom had been comparing him unfavorably to me!

SW: I’m totally with you on wanting to write (and read) Asian American stories that aren’t on the coasts, having spent the majority of my life in the South in Texas (14 out of 24 years, welp), where it is a very different environment than, say, the Bay Area.

I’m also on board to read this Taiwanese American novel if/when it happens. In many ways I was very much a model Asian student in high school. Now that I’m out of college, I’ve fallen into a not-so-perfect Asian life, off the beaten path of conventional success that I once envisioned for myself. Because of this, books that explore Asian Americans’ quarter-life crises in their 20s and 30s appeal to me.

But enough about me. Next question…Are there any writers who have influenced you, and if so, who are they?

Mina: John Chu has been an influence with the hanzi, at least, although I’m still trying to find my way with that. (It’s been noted when I write in hanzi that the dialogue sounds very waishengren, so make of that what you will!)

David Mitchell has been one as well. I remember getting Ghostwritten at fifteen and just reading it over and over until the spine cracked. My copy of Cloud Atlas has the cover coming apart from the binding. I just love how he writes his prose, and I’d love to write like that one day.

SW: I think I need to read more John Chu since you’ve mentioned him twice now. I’ve only read one of his short stories to date.

Last but not least, because I’m a youngster looking for guidance, I have to ask: if you could give your younger self writing and publishing advice, what would you say?

Mina: You don’t need an MFA or to take a ton of creative writing classes to get published. Even if you have a day job, you can still write, and you’ll be grateful for the stability. And if you keep at it, you’ll find your folks will come around.

Also, no matter how off the wall an idea sounds, just…just write it. People are more receptive than you think, really. More often than not they’ll think the idea is cool.

Also also: don’t self-reject. Send in the story anyway–the worst they can say is no.

SW: I’m definitely going to keep these words in mind as I continue on in my writing career and graduate to submitting things. Thanks a ton for answering these questions so thoughtfully! I look forward to reading whatever you publish next.


Mina Li’s Self-Intro/Bio: I’m a Taiwanese-American writer, Michigan born and raised. When I’m not writing I like to knit my own sweaters and socks, try out new recipes, and go for long walks. I’ve also got a thing for mermaids, considering The Little Mermaid came out when I was six. Also, a guilty pleasure of mine is watching online reviews of bad movies.

You can find her online at https://minasli.wordpress.com/ or on Twitter @CodenameMinaLi.

Author Interview: Emily X.R. Pan

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.

The Astonishing Color of After aesthetic collage

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. PanEmily 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.