Tag Archives: Chinese

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.

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Review for The Crystal Ribbon by Celeste Lim

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My Summary: Li Jing lives in a village that is protected by the Great Golden Huli Jing. Her name promises a great destiny but also invites mockery from other children. Because her family is poor, at the age of eleven, she is sold to be the bride and caretaker of a three-year-old boy. Her new home brings her suffering and more danger, until she decides to run away. With the help of some friends, she sets off on a quest to go back home and find herself.

Review:

After reading Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon series, I was craving more [#ownvoices] middle grade Chinese fantasy, and The Crystal Ribbon was exactly what I needed. Set in the Song Dynasty and drawing on Chinese folklore, this book brings to life a wonderful tale of resilience, family, and friendship.

The Crystal Ribbon has some Cinderella-esque elements to it. Instead of an evil stepmother and two stepsisters, she has a mother-in-law and two sisters-in-law who are nasty to her and treat her like a servant because they can. Thankfully, she’s not alone. There is a kind cook who looks after her well-being, and she meets a spider and a nightingale who help her along the way, among others. She also has a letter from her younger brother and memories of her family to hold onto.

Far from being helpless, Jing fights against the people and forces that try to beat her down. She plots and acts to escape her horrible situations and doesn’t give up despite the odds being stacked against her. Her story is one of hope and light in dark times, something I needed for my current low in life.

One of the magical things about reading this book was the familiar cultural references woven into the story. From the history, to the literary allusions, to the holiday celebrations, to the superstitions and religious/spiritual practices, I felt at home. Even some of the language used was taken directly from common Chinese sayings/idioms.

Though it’s not a horror story, there were definitely some creepy elements and scenes to this book. Jing is forced to be out at night during the Ghost Festival and witnesses the supernatural come to life. Also, a prominent part of the story are the jing (精) that Jing’s name is a homophone for. I’d loosely translate jing as fae. They are supernatural beings that can take different forms, and you never know whether they are friend or foe, for the sinister jing feed on the chi of humans. The good and powerful ones serve as protectors of villages.

I have two minor criticisms of the book. One is that the romanization wasn’t consistent throughout. In some places, ch was used instead of q. A notable example was chi, though that might simply be because chi is familiar to English-speakers. Another thing that didn’t follow consistent rules was the spacing in disyllabic names. Some had spaces between syllables and others didn’t.

My other criticism was that the prose read awkwardly in some places because it sounded like the narration (first-person from Jing’s perspective) was directed to someone who’s a cultural outsider. As a result, it came off as overly explain-y and heavy-handed with the info-dumping.

For example, the dizi, which is a transverse flute, was described as being a “Chinese transverse flute.” However, you would call it a Chinese flute and not just a flute when the default “flute” is assumed to be the Western flute. In a story where Chinese culture is the norm, there wouldn’t be a need to refer to dizi as a Chinese flute.

Another example is the references to the “lunar calendar” and “Lunar New Year.” To someone who was immersed in Chinese culture during the Song Dynasty, the calendar they used wouldn’t be referred to as a “lunar calendar,” nor would the New Year be called the Lunar New Year since the lunar calendar was the default calendar. When someone in the West says “lunar calendar,” the lunar descriptor is marking it as in opposition to the solar/Gregorian calendar, which is used as the standard calendar.

Other than those small nitpicky things though, I absolutely adored the story.

Recommendation: Lovingly recommended. Trigger warnings for extreme physical punishments/abuse.

Review for The Ship Beyond Time by Heidi Heilig

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Note: This book is the sequel to The Girl From Everywhere (review linked).

My Summary: Just when Nix thinks she has her fate in her hands, she learns of a terrible prophecy: she is destined to lose the one she loves to the sea. Desperate to save Kash, she sets off on a quest to a mythical utopia to find a man who claims he can change history and therefore the future. Except this utopia isn’t quite the perfect place it’s said to be, and changing history may create more problems than it solves…

Review:

The Ship Beyond Time has all of the charms of The Girl From Everywhere and continues to build on the relationships and themes from the first book while introducing a few new characters and conflicts.

The central relationships between Nix and Kash and Nix and Slate are deepened and complicated through their new adventures and obstacles. Plus, we get to see more of Bee and Ayen, who are married with Nix, Kash, and now Blake as their adopted children (so cute!), as well as Rotgut, who reveals that he once had a lover who became a monk instead (I am 100% down with queering up the cast even more, yes).

My favorite thing about the scene involving the latter is that the crew asks Rotgut about this unnamed former lover with, “What was their name?” One important way of challenging cisheteronormativity is by using gender neutral pronouns to refer to unknown or hypothetical people in general and when it comes to crushes, partners, spouses, etc. It’s small but significant because the language we use matters.

Although some people might call it a love triangle, I never really saw Blake as genuine competition for Nix’s affection because it’s pretty clear from the beginning of the book that Nix loves Kash and only sees Blake as a friend. What was more interesting and engaging to me was the interactions and dynamic between Kash and Blake, who share certain things in common and are in this adventure together despite their [perceived] rivalry over Nix.

One of the things I really liked about the character arcs and development was that they always connected back to a common theme of exploring the implications of Navigation. With Blake, it’s about the question of whether to change history when it involves injustice like the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. With Kash, it’s the sort of existential crisis that inevitably arises when you consider that he came from a place that was imagined and made up by a random French author. With Nix and her father Slate, it’s about whether the sacrifices are worth it when it comes to trying to save the one you love.

From the beginning, this book grabs your attention and your heart and doesn’t let go. It is fast-paced and hard-hitting with so many twists and revelations. Beyond driving the plot forward, most of these twists and revelations also pack an emotional punch and saturate you with so many intense feelings. I don’t want to spoil anything important, so I’ll just say that I spent a lot of time screaming internally while reading this book (partially because everyone in my house was asleep), and the ending was unexpected but still great. Even after you finish the book, the story and the characters will stay with you and live on. Although this book is the conclusion to the series, there is room for more adventures with Nix, and I would not object at all to more books being added.

As with the previous book, there is bonus material at the end of the book discussing the origins and histories of various characters and locales that come from real life or myth. I always love reading background information about the books I read because it adds to my enjoyment and understanding of the book.

Recommendation: Highly recommended for fantasy-lovers who want to be emotionally ruined by a book.

Review for The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie

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My Summary: Cassandra Leung has been part of the family business to train Reckoners, sea monsters that protect ships from pirates while crossing the Neo-Pacific, for her entire life. Her first mission with the Nereid is supposed to be a walk in the park. But everything goes wrong, and she is captured by pirates and forced by pirate queen Santa Elena to train a newborn Reckoner pup to protect the Minnow. If she succeeds, it will disrupt the delicate balance of power in the Neo-Pacific. If she fails, she’s dead meat.

Review:

I have mixed feelings about this book. I did enjoy the story for what it was. The premise, the plotting, and the worldbuilding were solid. I was definitely hooked by the story and enjoyed watching the progression of the Reckoner pup’s training and Cas’s inner struggle with the gray areas of her moral landscape. The story combined high-stakes suspense with thought-provoking questions and themes.

But under the surface, several things felt off to me about the racial representation. Cas herself is supposed to be Chinese, but aside from a few small touches, there are virtually no references to her Chineseness. It felt really superficial. And then my inner Chinese-speaker went “umm…” when Cas brought up a possible variant for the Reckoner pup’s name. His name is Bao (包), the Chinese word for “bun,” as in steamed bun, pork bun, etc. The pronunciation of 包 is basically the same in both Mandarin and Cantonese, with a high flat tone.

When Santa Elena asks Cas about her naming him after steamed buns, the narration follows with “‘If you’d like, you can call him Bao Bao instead,’ I tell her, shifting the vowels slightly as I speak.”

Bao Bao does indeed mean “precious baby,” as the story points out a few sentences down, but there are two things that are off about this sentence.

One is that Bao Bao is the Mandarin pronunciation of the Chinese word/phrase, 寶寶. The Cantonese equivalent is Bou2Bou2 (using Jyutping for the romanization), with a different vowel sound than Bao. Mandarin and Cantonese are related but distinct languages that are not mutually intelligible (Cantonese and other regional Chinese languages that aren’t mutually intelligible with Mandarin are referred to as dialects for political reasons), and while it’s possible Cas knows both, the narrative doesn’t ever indicate that she understands anything besides Canto. Her last name is Cantonese, she hears some Cantonese while she’s on the docks somewhere, and that’s it.

Even ignoring the Mandarin vs. Cantonese part, the  bit about “shifting the vowels slightly” is an inaccurate way of describing the difference between the pronunciation of Bao and Bao Bao. In Mandarin, Bao for bun involves the first tone, Bao Bao has the third tone for both syllables (usually pronounced as second tone-third tone though). The vowel sound is the same for both Bao and Bao Bao, it’s the pitch that’s different.

Although a majority of the supporting cast were POC, their characterizations were likewise superficially diverse. Santa Elena’s race/ethnicity isn’t explicitly mentioned as far as I can remember; I read her as being Filipina because of her physical features, her name (Spain colonized the Philippines, so Spanish names are a thing), and the fact that the Philippines is in the Pacific, but she could be Latina.

Two different characters are described as being Islanders. In this future world, the Pacific Islands have been flooded into nonexistence due to rising sea levels, and there is a group of artificially created islands known as Artificial Hawaii, where I can only assume the Islanders, who are descendants of original Pacific Islanders, live. This generalization of these characters as Islanders with no reference to their specific heritage/ethnicity strikes me as problematic because it homogenizes Pacific Islanders, who despite their linguistic and cultural similarities and ancestral relations, are still a very diverse group of peoples.

The narrative doesn’t give us any details as to the history of the Pacific Islanders following the flooding of the Pacific Islands due to Global Warming. Did they all move to the islands of Artificial Hawaii or some of them flee elsewhere? How many of the nations survived? Did they retain their distinct cultures or intermix and blend their cultures? These are important questions because in the present day real world, Pacific Islander cultures have been and continue to be threatened by the effects of colonization and globalization. Given this reality, the loss of these cultures in an imagined future would be a big deal.

One of these two Islander characters is Chuck, who’s described as a “princess,” specifically the daughter of “the man who owns Art-Hawaii 5.” That’s all we get about her background. To me, this reads as a thing that was thrown in for the hell of it to “spice up” her character, as there is no deeper sense of where Chuck comes from, i.e. her roots, which is an important part of Pacific Islander cultures from what limited knowledge I have.

The other Islander is Hina, the cook aboard the Winnow, who aside from being described as brown and “giant,” is completely in the background and does not contribute to the plot in any meaningful way. Where is she is from and her exact ethnicity is a complete mystery.

There was a third reference to Islanders, when Swift tells another character to “dream of an Islander prince who’s going to take you away from this wretched life,” which to me reads as “fantasy of an ~exotic~ brown man sweeping the white woman off her feet to take her to his exotic utopian island kingdom.” That line did not sit well with me, and I’m wondering why it was even necessary.

One other more significant supporting character who’s a POC besides Chuck is Varma, who’s Indian and Hindu. My quick Internet search told me that Varma is a surname. It’s never mentioned whether Varma is supposed to be his given or family name, it’s simply what everyone calls him. If that was supposed to be his given name, that’s poor research on the author’s part. If not, then the narrative should have been more clear about that. The only other reference to him being Indian and Hindu is one line where he says a prayer in Hindi.

The last POC is Lemon, who I remember being described skinny without any other memorable physical details. Going back to skim the book, apparently she’s Aleut and can “speak the ocean’s language.” There’s something a little “mystical POC guide” about that description, but maybe it’s just me.

I think the author tried to go against the “white-as-default” trend, but it didn’t quite work for me. Although one character, Code, was explicitly labeled as white when Cas first laid eyes on him, Swift’s character was not similarly described in racial terms. I can’t remember either of Code or Swift having their skin color described the way Santa Elena, Chuck, etc. were described as brown. The only physical characteristic I can remember about Swift is her blonde hair, which isn’t exclusive to white people, whether naturally or dyed, but generally gets coded as white.

Throughout the story, the only [human] characters that get much development are Cas and Swift. Cas could have been white and not much would have been different. I started off excited about the POC but walked away feeling a bit cheated.

I’m still going to read the sequel, The Edge of the Abyss to see what happens (I have the eARC from NetGalley). I’m hoping maybe some of the POC will get more development.

Recommendation: If you want a quick and action-packed sci-fi read, go for it. If you’re looking for good POC rep, this isn’t the book for that.

 

 

Review for Dove Arising by Karen Bao

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Note: I read this book as part of the Dumbledore’s Army Readathon challenge. You can find out more about it here.

My Summary: Phaet Theta spends her time cultivating plants in Greenhouse 22 on the lunar colony she’s grown up in. All she wants is to become a bioengineer. Unfortunately, she is forced to set aside that dream and join the Militia to earn enough money to keep her family afloat. Just when she thinks she’s reaching her goal, her mother is arrested, and nothing can be the same for her ever again.

Review:

Well, I’m glad I picked this book off my extremely long backlist to read. I walked into it with some reserve because of the 3.5 star average reviews on Amazon and came out the other end wondering why it’s underrated (in my opinion).

If I were to describe this book succinctly by referencing a familiar work, I’d call it scifi Hunger Games, minus the fights to the death on live TV, and with POC. But that’s not really doing it justice, which is what the rest of this review is for.

There are familiar tropes in this story: a corrupt government, a love triangle (sort of), and a high-stakes mission for the protagonist. What makes it stand out to me is the worldbuilding and characterization.

The author has a background in science, an ecology degree to be specific, and that definitely shows in the book. The integration of scientific facts into the story lends it a sense of realism that keeps the speculative elements grounded. It’s hard for me not to read scifi with a critical eye due to my background in aerospace engineering.

Though it’s not mentioned in the jacket blurb, Phaet is of Chinese descent. The major characters include four other POC. One is Umbriel, Phaet’s best friend, whose ancestry is never explicitly named but who is described as having dark hair and eyes and thick eyebrows (I might be misreading the text but it seemed to imply he was also Chinese?). Two of Phaet’s fellow Militia trainees are WOC: Vinasa, who is Indian and Irish; and Nashira, who is half Saudi, a quarter Nigerian, and a quarter Jamaican. The last is Yinha, the person who’s in charge of training the Militia recruits; like Phaet, she’s Chinese.

While race and ethnicity don’t have the same level importance in Phaet’s time as they do in our present-day world, the society she lives in isn’t entirely race-blind either. Someone makes a racist joke about Yinha’s eyes at one point. Also, Phaet, Vinasa, and Nashira have a brief conversation about their respective hair textures while they are getting to know one another, which was refreshingly real to read. Nash’s hair is difficult to keep in the style required by the Militia, which echoes the ways in which natural hair is stigmatized in the U.S. military.

Nor have people completely lost connection to their Earthbound roots. Bits and pieces of Chinese culture are referenced throughout the story, making Phaet’s Chineseness more than just a superficial thing. She knows the story of her great-grandmother’s migration from China to the United States, and then to the Moon, so in her own way she’s part of Chinese diaspora, with an extra migration and nationality (Lunar) added.

Phaet’s character is built around her competitive spirit and her loyalty to and love for her family. Her motivations are strongly tied to the desire for her family’s well-being, making her a sympathetic character. Though she does compete for the top rank among the recruits, a lot of that is driven by necessity–the salary will be enough to get her family financially stable–rather than personal, individual ambition. The centrality of her relationships with her mother, younger brother, and younger sister made the story compelling to me as someone with close bonds with my own family.

I mentioned a love triangle, and there are hints of one, but it’s far from being the primary plotline of the story, so if you’re sick of/averse to love triangles, don’t worry, this is not Twilight or The Hunter Games. Romance isn’t that important in general, which is a relief. (Though I’m disappointed that there are no queer characters to be found, except for one that maybe could be read as queer, but what’s new, sigh.)

Phaet’s ascent in the ranks of the recruits is not a given or an effortless task. She has some muscle from the manual labor of working in a greenhouse, but it’s not enough to make her an excellent athlete and trainee from the get-go. She has to work hard and do extra exercises and training in order to progress. There are no shortcuts.

The book doesn’t shy away from exploring the psychological effects of her Militia training. She becomes more desensitized to violence and even power-hungry, which creates conflict between her and her family and Umbriel, who are uneasy with the changes they see.

Speaking of conflict, the conflicts that drive the plot are multiple: interpersonal conflict between Phaet and other Militia recruits as well as between Phaet and the people she loves, and then also the broader conflict between Phaet and the oppressive society and government she lives in, and even within herself in the form of conflicting values and priorities.

From the beginning, the pace of the story is set at a brisk clip. Although Phaet spends half the book training, it’s not without incident, marked by fights with people who are out to sabotage her and dangerous, even deadly evaluation exercises. Then, the political intrigue kicks in, as well as the conflicts with her family caused by the changes she’s undergone, and at the end, we have a cliffhanger that sets you up for the second book.

And I’m ordering that second book (Dove Exiled) right now. The third book (Dove Alight) is due later this year, so I guess I picked the best time to read this book, as reading it earlier would have meant a longer wait. Woo.

Recommendation: Based on the Amazon ratings, I’m guessing it might be hit or miss depending on the person, but I say give it a try! It’s a solid debut novel and first installment to a science fiction series. (The author is my age and already published, I’m envious.)

Review for Flying Lessons & Other Stories edited by Ellen Oh

flying-lessons-and-other-stories

As soon as I found out about the existence of this book and saw who was going to be contributing to it, I hit that “Want to Read” button on Goodreads faster than you can say “gimme”! And then I pre-ordered the book, and waited, and waited, and waited, and I finally got my hands on my copy of it, and it did not disappoint.

In order to do this anthology justice, I’m doing a mini-review for each story. At the end, I’ll give my thoughts on the anthology as a whole.

“How to Transform an Everyday, Ordinary Hoop Court into a Place of Higher Learning and You at the Podium” by Matt de la Peña

Summary: In San Diego, a young Mexican American boy from a working-class background finds his place among Black basketball players at the Municipal Gym and learns to navigate the dynamic of a team.

Review:

This story is told in the second-person, which can be pretty hit or miss for me. In this case, it worked. I felt like I was being given a pep talk that guided me through the figurative basketball court of the main character’s life. There’s a certain kind of rhythm to the writing that captures both the vivacity of urban environments and the suspense and maneuvering action of a basketball game. It sucks you in.

At its core, this story is a celebration of urban POC, and it doesn’t hesitate to address the racial tensions that structure the urban social landscape. The narrative references racial profiling and internalized racism as well as inter-POC, specifically Black-Latinx/Mexican, relations. Stereotypes are brought up and then unpacked. The author pays tribute to the artistry that pervades basketball, which is overlooked because it’s a physical exercise that’s not really associated with finesse.

On top of that, the story is also about father-son relationships, and the different ways people choose to express their love and care.

There’s something high energy yet also subtle about this story that leaves you in a good mood and ready for more and makes it a great pick for the first story in the anthology.

“The Difficult Path” by Grace Lin

Summary: Lingsi grows up not expecting much out of her mundane life and the path that is prescribed to her by her lower social status. By luck, she is given the opportunity to learn to read, and this skill, rare for a girl of her station, takes her somewhere she would never have imagined.

Review:

So while I was reading this story, something felt strangely off about it. Then I realized why: there are no illustrations, and I’m used to seeing illustrations in Grace Lin’s work. Illustrations would have made a nice added touch, but the story itself was lovely on its own.

This story had a surprising twist that I wasn’t expecting, but it was a great one. To me, it’s a celebration of words: poetry, stories, and so on. It’s also a story of girls claiming agency and finding their path, as the title suggests. I don’t want to give away anything too major, so you’ll have to read the story to find out the details.

“Sol Painting, Inc.” by Meg Medina

Summary: Merci Suarez comes a working-class Cuban American family. In exchange for waived tuition to the fancy school Seaward Pines, her family will do a paint job for the school building. Unfortunately, this job leads to an unpleasant encounter that teaches her a lesson about a harsh reality of the world.

Review:

Narrated in the first-person, this story delves into the life of a young girl who’s about to enter a new environment. There’s a sharp contrast between the world of her comfort zone and the school she will attend. The burden of the American Dream is on her generation’s shoulders, and the story hints at the conflict once she starts school. It’s a poignant tale of the sacrifices people make to get a leg up in a stratified society.

The story contains English-Spanish code-switching without translations, which was nice to see as someone who’s multilingual and code-switches when talking to my family/ethnic community. I am fairly fluent in Spanish (6 years of study in secondary school plus 6 weeks of study abroad in college), so I understood exactly what was being said, but those who aren’t hispanohablantes should be able to infer through context clues the gist of things.

“Secret Samantha” by Tim Federle

Note: I’m using they/them pronouns for the main character because the story is in first-person and doesn’t explicitly mention Sam’s pronouns and they/them seems to be the most fitting pronouns to use for Sam’s gender expression.

Summary: Sam’s class is playing Secret Santa, and they happen to pick the name of the new girl, Blade, who fascinates Sam with her clothes, black-and-white painted nails and wicked shoes, so different from what they’re used to. They want to give Blade the perfect gift, but their mother has other plans in mind.

Review:

Okay, I was not expecting this story be so cute and queer. It’s largely a light-hearted story, but it touches on the policing of gender. Sam is gender-nonconforming but is forced to present femininely and go by “Samantha” because they don’t want to deal with the prejudice that comes with it. They’ve addressed the issue of wanting to be called “Sam” with their mom but getting her to gender them properly is a work in progress.

The story is also about first crushes, and this story is so important because we rarely get to see non-hetero attraction portrayed in middle grade fiction because it’s so often automatically sexualized. Here, the attraction is emotional and age-appropriate and honestly I dare anyone who finds it “scandalous” that a twelve-year-old feminine-presenting gender-nonconforming kid might crush on a girl to fight me.

One of the little things I liked about the book was the inclusion of diverse supporting characters. They weren’t described in detail but you can tell from their names that they’re POC.

“The Beans and Rice Chronicles of Isaiah Dunn” by Kelly J. Baptist

Summary: Isaiah struggles to keep his family afloat; his single mother has an addiction problem and he’s tasked with taking care of his younger sister even though he’s still a kid himself. He finds solace in the notebooks his dad left behind, which contain stories about a fictional version of himself in larger-than-life situations. These notebooks may just be what he needs for a better future.

Review:

My heart went out to Isaiah and his family because they’re short one person, his dad, and I myself recently experienced a similar loss when my mother passed away last year. However, unlike me, Isaiah doesn’t have the same support system, and he’s still a kid, whereas I’m an adult, albeit a young and inexperienced one.

His only escape is the stories his dad wrote, which allow him to see himself empowered while connecting with the memory of his dad. It reminds me of the way I listened to a bunch of cpop and Taiwanese pop songs after my mom passed away because my memories of them were associated with her; those songs came from dramas that I watched with her as a kid.

Although Isaiah situation isn’t looking good, with the help of a caring adult, he’s able to take steps toward healing and hope.

AAVE (African American Vernacular English) is integrated into both dialogue and narration, not as a cheap accessory but to add realism to Isaiah’s character and his voice. Fiction has a tendency to play into the stigma against AAVE as a non-standard English dialect, [mis]using it as a tool to other Black characters and depict them as being uneducated or unintelligent. But in this case, the story normalizes the use of AAVE. It’s familiar and fundamental to Isaiah.

One of the small details I enjoyed about the story was a part where Isaiah mentions watching Bruce Lee movies with his dad. It reminded me of what I read in my Asian American Media Cultures class about Afro-Asian intersections. Bruce Lee was a cultural icon with special significance to Black Americans, particularly Black men, because they empathized with his position as an outsider struggling against a society that devalued and subjugated him.

“Choctaw Bigfoot, Midnight in the Mountains” by Tim Tingle

Note: The narrator’s gender and pronouns are never specified or described in this story, so I will use they/them pronouns.

Summary: At a large family gathering, the main character, nicknamed “Turtle Kid” by their Uncle Kenneth, listens to their uncle tell a story about Naloosha Chitto, Big Hairy Man, a Choctaw analogue to Bigfoot, against their mother and other relatives’ warnings. Soon, they and their cousins are gathered around Uncle Kenneth for an outrageous tale full of twists and turns.

Review:

The whole giant family gathering scenario isn’t altogether foreign to me. Though it hasn’t happened much in recent years, I can recall a time when I was younger when a large number of my paternal extended family gathered together for meals and celebrations during the summer, when I was free to visit relatives in Taiwan. I have a ton of cousins myself, so Turtle Kid’s situation felt familiar to me, though I was one of the younger ones.

Uncle Kenneth’s way of storytelling is interactive in two senses of the word. One is that he allows for audience reactions to interrupt the story, thus making it more organic in how it takes shape and the plot proceeds. The other way is that he plays with his audiences expectations, throwing red herrings before revealing what really happens, giving the impression that it’s over when there’s still more complications ahead. The result is funny and engaging. And at the end, even if the kids are scared or confused by the tale of Naloosha Chitto, they have fun, and it’s a family tradition that brings them all together.

“Main Street” by Jacqueline Woodson

Summary: Nicknamed “Treetop,” the white protagonist reflects on her experiences of loss and love. Her mother passed away a few years ago, and her best friend, who is Black, has moved away.

Review:

I was surprised that the viewpoint character was white, but as people have said, when a POC writes white characters, it’s different than a white person writing white characters because they have a different perspective on whiteness.

Treetop’s losses are intertwined. Following the loss of her mother, a Black girl named Celeste moves into her neighborhood, and the two become best friends. But eventually, Celeste moves away, leaving Treetop to cope with a new loss.

Family is central to the story. The main character feels pain because of her mother’s illness and then death, and that pain is compounded by her father’s lack of empathy toward her.

Her friendship with Celeste brings to the fore interracial interactions. They each come from very racially homogeneous areas where everyone looks like them. It’s Treetop’s first time meeting a Black girl, and she doesn’t hold much explicit bias. However, her curiosity and entitlement to satisfy it (e.g. touching her hair) cause some friction between her and Celeste. Until she learns to respect Celeste’s boundaries.

Reading this story made me feel a sense of longing for times past that can’t be changed. I have experiences with moving as a child and losing my mother, so the narrative resonated with me on a deeply personal level.

“Flying Lessons” by Soman Chainani

Summary: Santosh gets dragged on a trip to Europe by his grandmother. He goes in expecting cultural learning expeditions to increase his worldliness and is instead caught in one awkward situation after another. Eventually, his grandmother comes clean about the purpose of the trip, and he gains something completely unexpected from it.

Review:

Usually in anthologies there’s one story with someone from the LGBTQ+ umbrella, and that’s it, token diversity quota met, so I’m happy that there is a second cute and queer story in this anthology. I can’t say too much about it because I don’t want to give anything major away, but I was thoroughly entertained.

Santosh’s nerdy awkwardness is so familiar to me since I was That Kid at that age, and in some ways I still am That Kid. More bookish and academic than social, a wallflower, a person who declines social invitations because I don’t think people actually want my company, etc.

His relationship with his grandmother and his grandmother’s quirky personality make for a great deal of comedy. Aside from offering humor, she also offers him some wisdom.

This book’s ending was slightly confusing and hard to categorize, but I’m labeling it magical realism. It shocked me, but at the same time, it was bittersweet.

“Seventy-Six Dollars and Forty-Nine Cents: A Story-In-Verse” by Kwame Alexander

Summary: A seventh grader named Monk Oliver is given an assignment to write a memoir about himself. Because he finds his life boring, he decides to exercise creative license and spin a wild story about mindreading and vindication that mixes fact and fiction.

Review:

Unreliable narrators are always interesting because you’re given the task of trying to puzzle out how much of what they say is true and how much is false. The most obvious truth is that Monk is a nerdy type of kid. His detailed knowledge of various subjects pervades his verses, often in the form of figurative language or pointed asides.

When his semi-fictional memoir self acquires mind reading powers, he experiments a little and then sets out to use it to his social advantage, canceling a pop quiz, winning favor with his classmates, and getting revenge on his crush, Angel, who spurns him as a lowlife.

The verses seem to take the mood up a notch with each trial Monk faces in proving his psychic ability. It builds up and up and up in a crescendo until the grand finale, which then slides into a blissfully perfect denouement and an epilogue that leaves you wondering what Monk’s life really looks like, without the hyperbole and supernatural additions. It’s a riot to read.

“Sometimes a Dream Needs a Push” by Walter Dean Myers

Summary: Chris Blair becomes a wheelchair-user due to an accident. His dad, a former pro basketball player, thinks it’s the end of his hopes for Chris to follow in his footsteps. But Chris joins a newly formed wheelchair basketball game, and his dad may just be the key to making the team shine.

Review:

This story echoes the first with its focus on basketball and father-son relationships, thus making it a fitting closing story.

In this case, the main character is disabled, and from my limited knowledge, he seems to be portrayed fairly respectfully. The narrative doesn’t objectify him or reduce him to his wheelchair. Offensive language like “wheelchair-bound” is never used.

Refreshingly, the story does not center on the trauma of losing the use of his legs or any kind of struggle with internalized ableism. Instead, it chronicles Chris’s adaptation to a different kind of movement, a new way of playing a familiar sport. He doesn’t talk about wheelchairs as a hindrance. Instead, he admires some players’ chairs for having specialized features that make them more suitable for the game.

Here, Chris’s father is the one who has to unpack his ableism and learn to see his son’s disability through a new lens. Once he is able to do that, he becomes a more empathetic person and assistant coach for the wheelchair basketball team.

Overall Impressions and Miscellaneous Notes:

There were a few places where I noticed problematic language, but it was relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. Overall, this was an outstanding anthology, each story with its own appeal and strengths. The order of the stories was arranged well.

My only regret is that there weren’t more stories included. I think it would have benefited from a story showcasing religious diversity, one about a Muslim or Sikh or Jewish character, especially given the recent rise in Islamophobia and antisemitism. It would have rounded out the racial, ethnic, gender, attraction/orientation, and disability diversity.

I hope to see more like this from We Need Diverse Books, and I’m eagerly anticipating the YA counterpart, Lift Off, which is coming summer 2018!

Recommendation: Enthusiastically recommended!

Review for Serpentine and Sacrifice by Cindy Pon

Note: This series takes place in the same same universe as Silver Phoenix and Fury of the Phoenix, which were published first, but you don’t have to read those books to read these.

My Summary: Skybright is content with her life as the handmaiden and best friend of Zhen Ni. However, her comfortable, structured life is thrown into disarray when she discovers that she can grow a serpent’s tail. In the wake of this troubling discovery, she reevaluates her relationship with Zhen Ni, experiences unexpected romance, and becomes ensnared in a supernatural conflict that threatens the mortal world.

Review:

Cindy is back at it again making me hungry and creeped out (not at the same time) with her vivid descriptions. I liked the first series for its lush worldbuilding and kickass heroine; this series has that and more, including a broader scope and greater complexity.

In a departure from the tone set by the first Xia duology, Serpentine and its sequel explore the moral consciousness of demons and half-demons, who are more than just cruel monsters. Skybright’s journey to understand and accept her demon heritage functions as a metaphor of being the “other” in the real world.It puts into painful relief the struggles of living between identities, called “liminality” by academics.

Chief among the “and more” that makes this duology great is the female friendship that lies at the core of the story. Skybright and Zhen Ni are sisters of the soul. They love each other deeply and stick by each other, but they also struggle with secrets and lies and hurt each other sometimes.

In addition to the female friendship, there’s girl/girl romance! In a historical Chinese-inspired fantasy! Finding representation as a queer and Asian person is like looking for a needle in a haystack, so I have to thank Cindy for making that step in the right direction toward full diversity and inclusivity. YA needs more of this. My only complaint is that there isn’t more from the perspective of Zhen Ni (novella/sequel/companion, maybe?).

Another thing I loved about this series is the dynamic characters. All of the major characters grow and change in some way throughout the course of the story. Just when you think you know them, they surprise you with something new. The second book was narrated from three different points of view, giving readers the opportunity to become more emotionally invested in characters besides Skybright.

The second book also contains a number of surprises and twists that I did not see coming, and I liked it even more than the first book. My only regret is that there wasn’t more on what happened to Zhen Ni and Stone during the interlude between the climax and the ending.

Recommendation: Read it! You can order signed/personalized copies of the books from Cindy’s local indie bookstore, Mysterious Galaxy.

Review for Silver Phoenix and Fury of the Phoenix by Cindy Pon

Notes: I read the paperback edition of Silver Phoenix. I posted the hardcover jacket illustration above because I like it a lot more than the quasi-faceless, probably-not-even-Chinese/Asian model on the paperback edition.

My Summary: When Ai Ling’s father goes missing, she decides to go in search of him, running away from an unwanted marriage while she’s at it. As she journeys on, she discovers a strange new power, befriends the handsome Chen Yong, meets many supernatural creatures and larger-than-life beings, and comes face-to-face with the ghosts of her past life.

Review:

So, I saw Silver Phoenix on the shelf at my high school’s library back in 2009, and for whatever reason, didn’t read it. Shame on younger me. I finally read it and its sequel, Fury of the Phoenix last year during the inception of my Asian American reading spree. I was particularly excited by the existence of the book as a fantasy lover. There are so few fantasy novels with Chinese-inspired settings and so many of the ones that exist are orientalist messes written by clueless and/or fetishizing white people. Reading an #ownvoices Asian fantasy was great.

First thing: worldbuilding. Cindy Pon’s eye for detail is wonderful, and the setting came alive (helped by my experience watching far too many Chinese/Taiwanese historical dramas). In particular, I really wanted to eat the food she described. I got so many cravings reading these books.

Beyond worldbuilding, the descriptions of demons never failed to creep me out. I’m not the book-throwing type (I like to keep my books in pristine condition), but if I were, I totally would have thrown it from being majorly grossed out.

The main character, Ai Ling, is daring and determined. She is willing to take risks for the things she cares about, even if it means flouting misogynistic social norms and facing demons. She is placed in some pretty terrifying situations, and while she’s not completely fearless, she manages to overcome the fear to do what is necessary and make progress in her journey. She saves herself, and she saves others, making her a heroine worthy of cheering on.

Chen Yong, Ai Ling’s travel companion and love interest, is a biracial hottie with a mysterious past, but thankfully, he’s not a) an “~exotic~” prop (quite the opposite, there is exploration of how he is “othered” by people for his mixed heritage) or b) an asshole whose past is used to excuse his horrible personality. He has his own story and struggles, especially in the second book, making him a character with depth, but he doesn’t usurp Ai Ling’s story and centrality, nor does the romance hijack the plot.

The first book concludes with loose ends. The second book picks up shortly after where the first book ends, bringing new conflicts and new characters as Ai Ling and Chen Yong travel to Jiang Dao to find Chen Yong’s birth family. It introduces a new perspective, the main antagonist’s, telling the story of his former life, in alternation with current events, thus adding greater depth to his character as and offering insight into his eventual transformation into a villain. It also brings the story full circle to a satisfying conclusion.

The only major thing lacking in this series was female characters/interaction. Thankfully, Cindy wrote Serpentine and Sacrifice to make up for that.

Recommendation: Read this duology! Recommended for fantasy lovers and older teens.