“American Born Chinese” or How One Reconciles with the Hyphen

755081My mother once told me an old Chinese parable.

Gene Luen Yang is not our mother and his story is not old nor strictly Chinese but what he offers in his award-winning graphic novel is, at its heart, a parable about the hyphen. What do I mean by hyphen? The much maligned one that Toni Morrison refers to in her famous quote, “In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” The hyphen as a metaphor for then tension, rejection, and discrimination African-American, Mexican-American, Asian-American, EthnicOther-American communities face within their own country has been frequently examined in a myriad of academic and sociological ways. I can’t help but wonder, though, if the hyphen can’t also be a locus for the unification of the multiple identities that make up one person. And if so, if that hyphen can’t itself be a source of empowerment and reconciliation.

This might be the first time I’ve used the word “locus” since grad school. Bad blogger, bad! Moving on…

These were the questions that popped into my mind as I read American Born Chinese. The novel begins with three distinct storylines. The first is that of the Monkey King, a deity who is nonetheless rejected from the heavens where the immortal gods live. The second and core story is that of Jin Wang, a Chinese-American student who wishes nothing else than to not be the token Chinese-American student. The last is the tale of Danny and his absolutely, over-the-top, cringe-worthy cousin Chin-Kee, who looks and acts like Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s but with some updated pop culture references under his wing.

As each of the three stories unfold, the smart reader will realize that they’re interconnected. More over, each one seems to speak to a fragment of Jin, who is experiencing the micro-aggressions that can turn insecurities about your place in the world into horrifying ordeals. Through his story we see the frustration of being automatically grouped into a category that might not fit, the different cultural upbringings that can wreak havoc on a first date, and the fact that those around you might never see you as being worthy of their care or respect. Chin-Kee, with his buck teeth, perfect grades, and retro views on women, is the embodiment of what Jin fears: being seen as a stereotype. As for the Monkey King, his spiritual journey becomes a vital component to Jin’s own personal development. (No spoilers for now.)

All three of these characters meet at an end that is a somewhat bizarre, but hopeful in terms of answering Jin’s existential questions. From a fragmented stories, a novel becomes  whole. Those connecting tissues, that hyphen that binds all three characters together, ends up being their saving grace and what ends up saving them from social isolation. Even better, it’s what ends up saving them from being isolated from themselves.

 

Already Failing Your New Year’s Resolutions? Me too.

resolution I, my friends, am an overly ambitious person trapped in the body of a procrastinator. Want proof? Here are all my goals for this year:

  • Polish my 1st novel: The manuscript is finished but I have yet to resolve two plot holes and line-edit. Oh, and cut about 20,000 words.
  • Finish my 2nd novel: It’s crawling along at a glacial pace.
  • Get an agent: Cause maybe I need professional eyes on my first manuscript and I’m not getting any younger.
  • Apply to low-residency MFA programs: I just can’t help but accumulate as many degrees as I possibly can.
  • Read at 6 shows: My desire for immediate acceptance and validation borders on the neurotic.
  • Get 100 rejections: Finally! A resolution for the perpetually pessimistic!
  • Launch my Podcast: Jay did it. That’s not what the podcast will be about.

This list is insanity. I’m well-aware of that. I’m also very conscious of the fact that it might all be damn near impossible, especially when my energy levels will also be divided into other plans and objectives that have nothing to do with writing. (Ukulele! Trapeze! Portuguese! Travel to two new places, one in the US and the other abroad! Succumb to my vanity and go back to my New York City weight!) The person that created that list did so with my most ideal self in mind. The person who has to execute the list is the watered-down, messy, imperfect, TV-addicted, Facebook-stalking, web-surfing lazy butt. How, I pray, can we get these two opposite sides of me to work together? No, really internet strangers, how? You weren’t expecting an answer, were you? Over the years, I have created a strategic blueprint that is in no way fail-proof and is only moderately successful. If it were a food, it would not be FDA approved. If it were machinery, it would only be sold to struggling nations with lax regulations. If it were a dude, it’s the guy you settle for because he seems NOT crazy and can hold a steady job. It has, however, been better than anything I’ve imagined over the years. So until I can download infinite amounts of will power, here is what I do to finish a solid 17% of what I set out to do.

1. Know My Energy Levels I’m the person who gets fired up at  new beginnings, transitions, the first day of the month, the early hours of the day, the dawn of time. You catch my drift. There was a wind chill warning for Chicago yesterday and I actually went to the gym for the hour-long torture session that is yoga. Why? Because I’m riding the delusion that comes with the New Year, the totally false notion that I’m a much better person than in 2014. This will fizzle out in a month. Therefore, I must seize the day now, Newsies-style, and run myself to the ground.

2. Forgive Myself Once I fall from grace and collapse back into my lazy-self, I can’t wallow in self-pity. No teenage-like tantrums about how it’s all or nothing. I didn’t write for a week? Too bad. Give yourself a pat on the back and commit to changing. Today. Take it one-step at a time, like a recovering alcoholic.

3. Divide Large Projects into Smaller Chunks I’ve been doing this since college and it’s what got me through those years without ever pulling an all-nighter. Writing a novel can throw anyone into the largest, darkest,  existential abyss. Writing one page? Not so much.

4. Embrace Mediocrity If all you can muster is 5 minutes of writing time, then give yourself a high-five. That’s more than zero minutes. In fact, it’s more than 95% of people who claim to be working on The Great American Novel do in any given year. (You can identify them by their ironic tees, their penchant for divey bars in gentrifying areas, and the way they like to school others on how their reading preferences are so not mainstream. Extra points if they reference a foreign author but completely botch the pronunciation of their name.)

5. Make It Interesting A lot of people feel comfort in the ritual of their craft, whether by making sure their coffee is just so before starting or doing it only when the blood of an innocent virgin is spilled onto a pink crystal under the full moon. If that works, you do you. I think those structures can sometimes be incredibly stifling and a perfect excuse to not get your butt on the chair. Every time you feel like you’re incapable of writing in a particular environment, I dare you to try it anyway. Chances are you’ll do just fine.

6. Reward Yourself I’m the kind of dork that is still chasing the totally meaningless A+ whenever I write. No one is going to pat my head and give me a gold star anymore. Therefore, I do it myself. Brag, boast, drink champagne, indulge in a Netflix marathon. Realize that worrying about writing is a huge privilege that only a select few can afford. Cause most people are trying to survive wars and famines and whatnot. Perspective.

What are your writing goals? Tips? Suggestions? Comment below!

Prairie Writers’ and Illustrator’s Day 2014: YA Is Not the Easy Way to Publication

A few days before heading to SCBWI-Illinois‘ regional conference, an acquaintance of mine mentioned how many of his MFA classmates are writing YA. “It’s what’s getting published,” he said, by way of explanation. Yes, the market is booming. Yes, the genre is getting more respect and recognition than before. Yes, those who make it big are reaping in insane amounts of accolades, book deals, and movie contracts.But what bothered me about his comment, or about his classmates’ attitudes to be more exact, is that there is the underlying assumption that it’s somehow easier to be a writer if you choose YA. It wasn’t the first time I had heard something like this. Usually, when I mention I write YA, I hear something about its trendiness, its market share, its accessibility compared to adult, literary fiction.

In other words, I hear a lot of remarks that are rarely based on any real knowledge of the YA industry.

Prairie Writer’s Day was the last of the three SCBWI conferences I attended this year. All of them have been wonderful, informative, and inspiring. And all have also stressed the difficulties of trying to break in. There are hundreds of pre-published writers (as SCBWI likes to call them) furiously writing down every single tip the can get. All the speakers–award-winning, crazy successful writers–mention they 1, 10, 100 rejections they received. There are talented people who have been at if for most of their adult lives, and still haven’t been anointed the next Rowling/Myer/Green.

Why? Because it’s NOT an easier way of becoming a writer.

This year’s theme at Prairie Writers’ Day was “From Inspiration to Perspiration to Publication.” The vast majority of it was focused on the  part where you use blood, sweat, and tears to shape your writing. Much like adult writing, sitting your butt in a chair and coming out with something of worth is the hardest part. But I learned a little bit about each of those phases,and it makes me wonder if these fair-weather YA writers are even aware of them:

Inspiration

Ideas can come from nowhere, but do they know that many of us work within a rich tradition? That we actually draw from it, respond to it, poke at it, the same way literary writers work within a canon? Of the many things that were discussed in Caroline Abbey’s session, “A Hook for Every Reader”, the importance of being able to insert your own piece within the marketplace and how it differs from what’s out there was stressed. It’s the same thing I’m sure they repeat in MFA programs all over the country: If you want to be a good writer, you must learn to be a good reader.

Perspiration

Jordan Brown’s talk on revision was everything I needed since I’m about to embark on pretty lengthy editing process. He mentioned so many great ways of tackling an unruly manuscript, but the first one is that your character must be the sun around which all your editing decisions revolve.On the one hand, that’s good writing. On the other hand, YA is one of the few genres where treating your reader with respect and awareness is paramount. Kids can smell phoniness from thousands of miles away.

Publication

Um, yeah, even if you get that first book out the door, all the industry experts said that it better sell. If not, your second book might never see the outside of your desk drawer. Whatever hustle you were expecting to avoid by writing YA, is going to be there waiting for you.

Let’s say you somehow manage to game the system. You write a novel that appeals to teenagers, parents, teacher, librarians alike. You find an agent and an editor that believe in it. Your writing is place between two professional covers. Congrats, you’ve succeeded at getting published. But have you really succeeded as a writer? This is a legit question. Isn’t writing, in the end, about discovering, honing, and exposing your own vulnerable voice? If so, then what’s the point of hiding it behind a story that was used as an easy way out instead of as a well-earned destination? These writers that choose projects based on market trends feel sad, in the way the wannabes at high school did: needy, a tad desperate, and with a very blurred sense of who they are. They were sad because they were scared of their own identities. If you’re one of these writers, then I do suggest YA: reading it, not writing it. After all, the protagonists are going through similar growing pains. Hopefully, by the end of their journey, they’ll be a little wiser and a little more grown up.

Things I’m Thankful for During a Thankless Year

1. Therapy.

2. My ability to gawk at the Tribune Tower from my cubicle window.

3. Falling asleep to Gilmore Girls because Netflix is nothing but sorcery.

4. Nick Jonas’ rebirth.

5. The three-hour stew I made last week, which keeps getting better with age.

6. The simple existence of bulldogs: aberrations of nature, thieves after my own heart.

7. Only having to hide 3 people and unfriend one after Midterm Elections, Immigration Reform, and Ferguson. Progress?

8. Having a short commute when I’m tired.

9. Taking long treks on the CTA when I need to get some reading done.

10. Renewing the same eBook from the library, over and over and over again.

11. Vanderpump Rules‘ capacity to make me feel like a functioning adult when everything else is falling apart.

12. “You Learn to Live Without” from If/Then.

13. 2014 being almost over.

 

Three Moments At CWC 2014 That I Can’t Get Out of My Head

I must miss fall’s back-to-school vibes because I attended not one, but TWO writers conferences this season: Chicago Writers Conference and Prairie Writer’s and Illustrator’s Day. The latter was held by the Illinois chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and I will talk about it on a future blog post. For now, I want to focus on CWC.

I had the great pleasure of working for Chicago Writers Conference in the past, and I was more than happy to be invited back as a moderator. The best part about being a moderator: I get to ask questions that have been burning in my soul. The second best part: Getting to attend the other panels and talks, and CWC had a wide variety to choose from. What I truly appreciate about this conference is that its main focus is the career side of writing, as opposed to craft. My delusions of grandeur are such that I’m not terribly worried about developing my talent as a writer–at the end of the day, it’s something that’s within my control. But the industry part of the whole experience? Yikes! CWC helps to unveil the mysteries that lie behind the closed doors of literary agencies, publishing houses, readers tumblrs and what-nots. With panels like “Ask the Agents” “Breaking Into (and Getting Paid) for Online Writing” “Successfully Submit to Literary Magazines” and others, the conference is a crash-course on how to turn your writing dreams into reality.

There were a lot of juicy, practical, hands-on tips I learned over the weekend, but here are three moments that I keep turning to, again and again for their ability to reassure and inspire me to do more.

1. Eric Charles May and his writing journal full of questions. 

One of my favorite talks at the conference was given by Eric Charles May, author of Bedrock Faith. on the topic of cohesive plot. May read passages of his writing journal that described a scene he was having trouble visualizing. His entries were mostly a barrage of questions about character intentions, reactions, future plot points, past set-ups, and so on. It hit me: Keep moving forward with the story, even if you haven’t quite figured out how every scene fits. Just never stop asking questions about it. The answer will eventually come.

2. Dana Norris and her 100 rejections. 

Dana Norris, non-fiction writer and storyteller extraordinaire, made me a believer in the power of literary journals. That’s not the best part. The truly miraculous transformation was turning me into someone who wants to actively seek rejection. She mentioned how she once heard another writer say that their goal is to receive 100 rejections a year. That’s how you should view the job: produce and submit so much that you hear the word “NO” 100 times. If you do the math, that’s two query letters/pitches/submittables a week, which is totally doable. The best part is that you are freed from the pressure of actually being successful at it. Simply doing it is already considered a win.

3. Sara Paretsky and the joys of sisterhood.

Trailblazer and best-selling author Sara Paretsky spoke candidly about her journey from aspiring writer into total badass in a genre that was still considered the domain of the Menz. She minced no words about the fact that second-wave feminism helped her carve out the opportunities to achieve her goals. And since she’s one classy lady, she decided to pay it forward by founding Sisters in Crime, an organization to support women crime writers. Her story, and that of many others, is a welcome reminder that other writers might be competition. More importantly, though, they are friends and colleagues that can cheer you on in this difficult path.

You too can have epiphanies next year! CWC is an annual event. I encourage you to check out their website and consider attending the conference, or any other. You’ll come out feeling a little less lonely and a little less scared.