Tag Archives: Taiwanese American

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 committing 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.

Author Interview: Gloria Chao

This is the third in my interview series for Taiwanese American Heritage Week. Today’s special guest is Gloria Chao. Her debut novel, American Panda, will be releasing in Spring 2018, which cannot arrive soon enough!

Since there’s no cover for American Panda yet, here’s the aesthetic collage she put together for her book:

American Panda Aesthetic

Not surprisingly, there is food involved. But also the Great Dome of MIT, an MIT class ring, a stethoscope, traditional Chinese dance, and terracotta warriors, not to mention DDR, and are those wedding decorations? Time to find out more.

From Goodreads:

At seventeen, Mei Lu should be in high school, but skipping fourth grade was part of her parents’ master plan. Now a freshman at MIT, she is on track to fulfill the rest of this predetermined future: become a doctor, marry a preapproved Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer, produce a litter of babies.

With everything her parents have sacrificed to make her cushy life a reality, Mei can’t bring herself to tell them the truth—that she (1) hates germs, (2) falls asleep in biology lectures, and (3) has a crush on her classmate Darren Takahashi, who is decidedly not Taiwanese.

But when she reconnects with her brother, Xing, who is estranged from the family for dating the wrong woman, Mei starts to wonder if all the secrets are truly worth it. Can she find a way to be herself, whoever that is, before her web of lies unravels?

From debut author Gloria Chao comes a hilarious, heartfelt tale of how unlike the panda, life isn’t always so black and white.

My comments and questions are marked in bold and labeled “SW.”

SW: To start off, since food is such an important part of Taiwanese culture and because your book’s aesthetic collage inspired me/made me hungry, what’s your favorite Taiwanese food? (You are more than welcome to list multiple foods as I’m sure it is impossible to choose just one.)

Gloria: I agree, it’s not possible to choose just one. But if I absolutely had to, I’d go with soup dumplings because I will never say no to one, no matter how full I am. Other favorites include shredded turnip cake (drool), pork belly buns, braised pork rice, three cup eggplant, and oyster pancake. Aiyah, I’m so hungry now!

SW: Soup dumplings are everything. Too bad there’s no Din Tai Fung anywhere near me.

I feel like I have the Goodreads synopsis for American Panda memorized by now and need more teasers. Can you tell us a little bit more about the story and the inspiration behind it beyond what’s in the synopsis?

Gloria: Ah thank you so much! American Panda is the book I wish I had as a young adult, and I started writing it because I wanted other children of immigrants to know (1) they aren’t alone, and (2) it’s okay to feel stuck between two cultures without fully belonging in either.

Also, I wanted to write a Chinese My Big Fat Greek Wedding chock-full of cultural humor. An example: in the first five pages, a family friend compliments the main character’s big nose, referencing a Chinese superstition that having a big nose means you will make a lot of money. But of course, the protagonist, Mei, only hears that she has a gigantic nose, which is not something an American teen typically wants to hear. And yes, I am speaking from personal experience—I was cursed, er, blessed with a large “lucky” nose.

American Panda is also about figuring out who you are and how to be that person. Being different makes it hard to fit in, but I didn’t feel whole until I owned it. Mei Lu may struggle with her identity, but she doesn’t hesitate to own the parts she does know—like ordering hot chocolate in front of her crush even though she thinks it’ll look juvenile, or continuing to dance even though her parents want her to focus on her studies.

SW: *checks my nose* I think mine’s fairly average sized, but hopefully hard work will make up for that, ha. American Panda sounds like a book that I would have loved as a teen. I only had one #ownvoices YA featuring a Taiwanese American protagonist when I was a teen.

Writing a book that’s considered “own voices” means you’re writing about a character whose identity or experience(s) you share in some way. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s autobiographical (which is an assumption I’ve heard several marginalized authors say they’ve dealt with). How much of American Panda would you say is based on your own life? In what ways is it different?

Gloria: While Mei’s storyline is not completely autobiographical, it is rooted in truth. The themes, struggles, and emotional arcs are based on my experiences, as are the MIT setting and medical scenes. I also drew upon the lives of friends and acquaintances who trusted me with their stories. The novel is based on experiences, but it has been fictionalized and no characters or situations are exactly as they unfolded in reality.

For example, my parents did not insist I become a doctor, but they initially were not on board with my career change from dentist to writer. While I am not as germophobic as Mei, I always carry hand sanitizer with me, and I struggled with spit, pus, and cadaver bits in dental school. While my mother was supportive of my non-Chinese husband, she did try to set me up with her Taiwanese friends’ sons on multiple occasions.

As for Mei’s personality, she’s an exaggerated version of me, especially her awkward social skills and sweaty palms. When she tries to flirt with her crush, she pops these weird hip-level waves, and yes, I did that when I met my husband.

I worked hard to keep the book based on real experiences to breathe more life into the pages. Also, it was important to me to keep the story authentic. Since there aren’t enough Taiwanese-American stories out there (and I hope there will be more soon), I wanted to do everything I could to write an accurate representation of at least a few Taiwanese-American experiences, starting with mine. In the future, I plan to continue writing Taiwanese-American characters, exploring even more personal demons along with storylines that diverge from my own.

SW: The doctor thing is so real for Taiwanese kids, and I found out from my dad that there’s a historical reason behind it. During Japanese colonial rule of Taiwan, one of the few professions that offered upward social mobility for Taiwanese people was studying medicine. My dad himself was faced with that pressure early in his life, but thankfully my grandfather let it go later on. I was lucky that my parents never pressured me to become a doctor, but it’s still a career that’s highly valued among Taiwanese parents for sure.

After thinking about it a bit, I realized the synopsis for American Panda focuses a lot on what Mei Lu doesn’t like or want. So I’m curious, what are some things that do spark her interest and passion?

Gloria: Dancing is Mei’s passion. She loves to mix styles and music in her private dance sessions—the one place she feels like herself, where she doesn’t have to choose between her two cultures or identities. Her dream is to open a dance studio where she can teach Chinese dance to hip hop music, or ballet to Chinese pop.

Mei is also a nerd, but not in the stereotypical way. She’s intellectually curious and fits in at MIT in a way she never has elsewhere.

And of course, she loves Chinese food. There are food references and dumpling metaphors throughout the book!

SW: Food references are the greatest! Dumplings aside, I think this is only the second YA story featuring an Asian American whose passion is dance that I’ve heard of (the first being Tiny Pretty Things by Sona Charaipotra an dDhonielle Clayton, which features a biracial white/Korean American ballerina as one of the three main viewpoint characters). I’m constantly yearning for more Asian American stories that focus on sports and dance and art and so on because the stereotype is that we’re only good at academics and nothing else.

This next question is just for fun: If Mei Lu had a Twitter account, what would her handle/@ be and what would her profile bio say?

Gloria: @TwirlingPanda

TIM the MIT beaver’s sidekick. DDR maniac. Dumpling expert. Dancing is dreaming with your feet! 💃

SW: TwirlingPanda brings to mind the cutest image. I went to Google and this was among the image search results:

maxresdefault

I’m greatly entertained by how appropriate it is.

It’s rare for YA to tackle college since college students are generally considered to be outside of the range of YA. Personally, I wish there were more stories about the first years of college, not only because most first/second-year students are 18/19 and still technically teens (legal status aside) but also because it’s another stage of the coming-of-age period in life. If you’re not living at home, it involves a different environment than high school because you’re not as beholden to your parents, for better or for worse. Would you say that writing about a college student influenced the way you approached the story, and if so, how?

Gloria: I knew from the beginning that I wanted Mei to be in college for the exact reasons you mentioned. I wanted her to explore the fear, freedom, and self-discovery that comes with being on your own for the first time. I needed her out of her parents’ house to realize that what she wants isn’t the same as what they want. I also needed her doctor future to be closer on the horizon, and I wanted her to be struggling with what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.

And the more fun reason I wrote a college setting: I wanted to share some of MIT’s zany, unique culture with the world. Some scenes involve sneaking onto the iconic dome, chair surfing in the underground tunnels, hacking, and being nerdy in the best way possible.

Like you, I wish there was more college YA. Unfortunately, it’s a hurdle in the publishing industry. I’m grateful every day to have landed an agent and publisher supportive of American Panda’s MIT setting!

SW: I visited MIT with my family years and years ago, in 2007, and I remember the distinctive architecture and the lore surrounding the Great Dome and senior pranks. Later, I applied to MIT and didn’t get in, but no hard feelings. I’m excited to explore MIT through Mei’s eyes.

Last question set! What was the hardest part of writing American Panda? What was your favorite part about writing it?

Gloria: The hardest part of writing American Panda was finding the line between fact and fiction. The first draft of my book was essentially a memoir; I didn’t know how to separate my life from the narrative. It took three complete rewrites for the characters and plot to blossom from their real-life counterparts into fiction.

Funnily enough, my favorite part is closely related to the hardest. American Panda forced me to ask my mother questions about her upbringing, mine, and our culture, and it eventually improved our communication and helped us understand each other better. I drew upon all this while writing, and there’s one chapter toward the end of the book that always makes me tear up because it reminds me how far my mother and I have come.

Thank you so much, Shenwei, for these thoughtful, wonderful questions, and for putting this together for Taiwanese American Heritage Week! I’m honored to be a part of it!

SW:I also have to thank you so much for answering these questions so thoroughly. I’m honored to host on you my blog! I can’t wait for more news on American Panda and for it to hit the shelves next spring. 🙂


G.Chao--Author PhotoGloria Chao is an MIT grad turned dentist turned writer. She currently lives in Chicago with her ever-supportive husband for whom she became a nine-hole golfer (sometimes seven). She is always up for Dance Dance Revolution, cooperative board games, or spontaneous dance parties. She was also once a black belt in kung-fu and a competitive dancer, but that side of her was drilled and suctioned out. American Panda is her debut novel.

Visit her tea-and-book-filled world at gloriachao.wordpress.com and find her on twitter @gloriacchao.

The 228 Massacre: A Brief History and Book List

It’s been 70 years since February 28th, 1947, a day that marked the beginning of a very dark and bloody era of Taiwanese history. For those who don’t know, Taiwan has a very complicated history involving multiple waves of colonization. Taiwan was home to indigenous peoples for thousands of years. (The indigenous Taiwanese are Austronesian and have linguistic and genetic relations with the indigenous people Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Madagascar and Oceania.) In the 17th century, the Spanish and Dutch established bases on Taiwan for a time, followed by Ming Dynasty loyalists under Koxinga after the fall of the Ming Empire. The earliest waves of colonists came from southeastern China, mostly the Hokkien-speaking Hoklo people from the Fujian province and some Hakka people, who eventually became the majority due to many indigenous people’s intermarriage and/or assimilation into Han communities and society. The Qing Dynasty claimed Taiwan despite never fully controlling the island and after the second Sino-Japanese War, ceded Taiwan to Japan. From 1895 until 1945, Japan governed Taiwan and touted it as their model colony.

Following Japan’s surrender in World War II, Taiwan was ceded to “back” to China. At the time, China was still under the rule of the Chinese Nationalist Party (a.k.a. the KMT, from “Kuomintang”) and was referred to as the Republic of China (present-day China is known as the People’s Republic of China, controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP). The KMT installed a government in Taiwan that soon drew resentment from Taiwanese people due to its rampant corruption. On February 27th, 1947, a scuffle between a woman selling contraband cigarettes and a KMT soldier resulted in the soldier hitting the woman on the head with his pistol. In the ensuing chaos, another official fired a shot into the crowd, killing a bystander.

This event sparked protests and riots starting on February 28th that resulted in violent crackdowns from the KMT. Starting in 1949, the KMT instituted martial law on the island that lasted 38 years (until 1987), which is the second longest period of martial law after Syria’s (1963-2011). During the period from 1947 to 1987, otherwise known as the White Terror, anyone suspected of being against the KMT in words, ideologies, or actions was persecuted, tortured, murdered, or spirited away, never to be seen again. The persecution even crossed the Pacific Ocean to the United States, including the murder of Henry Liu. The total estimate for people who died ranges from 10,000 to 30,000 and remains a topic of debate.

Until the lifting of martial law, nobody spoke of what happened. The truth was dangerous, and it was heavy. In recent decades, a formal apology was issued by former President Lee Teng-hui, and a museum and memorial park were created and dedicated to memorialize 228 and the White Terror. However, some of the people involved in perpetrating the killing and persecution (e.g. government officials and soldiers) are still alive and have never been held accountable for their crimes. Until today, documents related to 228 were classified, thus impeding transitional justice. Without justice, there cannot be peace for the dead and the wronged. That is why it’s important to keep telling this story over and over and remembering the injustices that were committed.

That’s why I’ve created this book list for people who want to learn more about Taiwanese history, politics, and 228/The White Terror. The list includes four nonfiction titles and four fiction titles. The hyperlinks in the above paragraphs are for various Internet articles and sites.

Nonfiction

wealth-ribbonWealth Ribbon: Taiwan Bound, America Bound by brenda Lin

This autobiographical essay collection explores the author’s transnational identity as a Taiwanese American whose life has been split between countries. It tells the stories of three generations of her family, from her grandparents’ generation to her own.

my-fight-for-a-new-taiwanMy Fight for a New Taiwan: One Woman’s Journey from Prison to Power by Annette Hsiu-Lien Lu

This is the autobiography of Taiwan’s former Vice President from 2001 to 2008. She came from humble origins but eventually became an activist and leader of feminist and pro-democracy movements in Taiwan during the late 20th century.

maritime-taiwanMaritime Taiwan: Historical Encounters with the East and the West by Shih-Shan Henry Tsai

This book maps out the complex history of Taiwan and the various powers that claimed and influenced it throughout the past few centuries.

taiwans-struggleTaiwan’s Struggle: Voices of the Taiwanese edited by Shyu-tu Lee and Jack F. Williams

In this essay anthology, “leading Taiwanese figures consider the country’s history, politics, society, economy, identity, and future prospects. The volume provides a forum for a diversity of local voices, who are rarely heard in the power struggle between China and the United States over Taiwan’s future. Reflecting the deep ethnic and political differences that are essential to understanding Taiwan today, this work provides a nuanced introduction to its role in international politics.”

Fiction

miahMiah by Julia Lin

This collection of interrelated short stories traces the lives of generations of a Taiwanese Canadian family, from the time of Japanese occupation of Taiwan, to the White Terror under the Kuomintang government, to modern Taiwan and Canada.

the-228-legacyThe 228 Legacy by Jennifer J. Chow*

In this historical fiction novel set in the 1980s, three generations of an all-female, working-class Taiwanese American family struggle with their own secrets: grandmother Silk has breast cancer, daughter and single mother Lisa has lost her job, and granddaughter Abbey deals with bullying at school. When Grandma Silk’s connection to a shocking historical event in Taiwan comes to light, the family is forced to reconnect and support one another through their struggles.

the-third-sonThe Third Son by Julie Wu

Growing up in Japanese-occupied Taiwan, Saburo is the ill-favored third son of a Taiwanese politician. By chance, an air strike brings him into contact with Yoshiko, whose kindness and loving family bring hope and light to Saburo’s world. Years later, Yoshiko reappears in his live but at the side of his arrogant and boorish older brother. In order to make something of himself and win Yoshiko’s respect, Saburo pushes the boundaries of what is possible and winds up on the frontier of America’s space program.

green-islandGreen Island by Shawna Yang Ryan (review at hyperlink)

Told through the perspective of an unnamed first generation Taiwanese American woman, Green Island chronicles the life of the main character from her birth on March 1st, 1947, the day after the infamous 228 Massacre, to the year 2003, marked by the SARS outbreak, intertwining her personal, family history with the political history of Taiwan.

*Jennifer J. Chow is a Chinese American author married to a Taiwanese American. I’ve read the book and as far as I can remember, the facts checked out with the exception of a minor anachronism (regarding the year bubble tea was invented, ha).

Review for Green Island by Shawna Yang Ryan

green-island

Note: I read this book as part of the #DiversityDecBingo reading challenge. You can find my list of books that I read and the links to the reviews for those books here.

Note 2: Parts of this review were originally published in and adapted from my Favorite Books of 2016 post.

My Summary: Told through the perspective of an unnamed first generation Taiwanese American woman, Green Island chronicles the life of the main character from her birth on March 1st, 1947, the day after the infamous 228 Massacre, to the year 2003, marked by the SARS outbreak, intertwining her personal, family history with the political history of Taiwan.

Review:

Trigger/Content Warnings: mentions of death, murder, torture

One of the last books I read in 2016 but also one of the best, this book was an intensely personal read for me because it focuses on a dark, tumultuous, and bloody era of Taiwanese history, called the White Terror, that my own family lived through. Taiwan was under martial law for 38 years, from 1949 to 1987, surpassed in length by only Syria (1963-2011). My parents (and maternal grandparents) grew up during that time; they immigrated to the U.S. before martial law was even lifted.

The main character was born in 1947, the year my paternal grandparents got married. My maternal grandmother was born in 1944, and my oldest paternal uncle was born in 1948, so the main character is somewhere between my grandparents’ and parents’ generations. My paternal grandfather was trained to use firearms from his time serving in the Japanese military (Japan ruled Taiwan from 1895 to 1945), and he’d thought about joining the protests against the provisional government set up by the Chinese Nationalist Party (a.k.a the KMT and the loser of the Chinese civil war). If not for his marriage, he would have gone, and probably been spirited away, never to be seen again, in all likeliness shot to death by a firing squad like so many men were.

The main character’s parents are part of the intellectual elite of Taiwan; her father is a doctor, her mother was educated in French literature and art. This makes them prime targets for persecution. After the 228 Massacre, her father attends an assembly called by the provisional government and asks for democratic rule in Taiwan. Days later, he is dragged away by KMT officers to be tortured and interrogated on Green Island, where he is imprisoned for eleven years before returning, a changed man.

At the core, Green Island is a story of the psychological and intergenerational trauma of such continual, relentless political persecution. The narrative explores the effect of Dr. Tsai’s absence and his return on the main character and her family throughout her lifetime. Even after his return, the government is not done with him or their family. After she moves to America and settles there, the surveillance follows, eventually placing her in a harrowing situation that echoes that of her father years ago. There is almost no facet of the her life that isn’t touched by her family’s past and Taiwan’s politics.

Far from being removed or objective, the story entreats readers to empathize with the difficult moral dilemmas that arise when you are forced to choose between saving loved ones and standing up for your beliefs. That the main character is never named does not make her less complex or emotionally compelling. The first-person narration immerses you in her world with all its sights, sounds, textures, cultural and sociopolitical forces, and, of course, her inner emotional landscape, in all its subtleties and extremes.

Overall, this book is a great fictionalized account of 20th Century Taiwanese history. Aside from a few minor changes made for the sake of a more cohesive narrative, it’s a very accurate depiction of Taiwanese history, according to the author herself and compared against my own knowledge of the subject.

On top of being mostly accurate, event- and timeline-wise, the story rings true to me in the details: from the terms of address among family (the Romanization was weird to me because I learned the Pe̍h-ōe-jī/Church Romanization system, but I was able to figure it out), to the pejorative phrases like “mainland pigs” (used to describe the KMT and the Chinese people who immigrated to Taiwan post-1949), to the metal bento boxes that kids took to school, to the descriptions of shaved ice stands. Although I myself did not live in Taiwan during that time period, I’ve heard enough stories from my dad to have a decent mental picture of what it was like.

Toward the end of the book, the 228 Memorial Museum is mentioned and described. I actually went there with my family back in 2015, and it was a sobering experience, to put it lightly. My older sister was crying while reading the stories of the dead and missing. I mostly just felt numb inside, weighed down by unspeakable pain and horror. It’s hard not to think about how my own family members could have been on those walls, in those pictures, how a small twist of fate spared my family the experiences of Green Island‘s main character.

Recommendation: I’ve read a number of fictional depictions of the White Terror, and Green Island is by far the most vivid and powerful of them. If you’re going to read any historical fiction book about Taiwan, Green Island is the book to read.

Review for The Year of the Dog by Grace Lin

9780316030977

Background: Like Nothing but the Truth (and a few white lies), The Year of the Dog was a book my parents bought for me at the NATWA conference, and for the same reasons holds special significance for me.

My Summary: The book tackles the theme of fitting in and focuses on a semi-autobiographical character called Pacy, who is a Taiwanese American girl living in an area where she is one of few Asians. Like many books of its kind, it addresses the growing pains of being a person of color in a very white environment, but it also weaves in a lot of positive aspects of Pacy’s Asian American identity, showcased through scenes and stories-within-stories involving her family members.

Review: The Year of the Dog is the book I wish I’d had as a younger reader, in elementary school. I first read it when I was in 8th grade, which was beyond the target audience range, but I still found it highly enjoyable and relatable.

As I read about Pacy celebrating various Taiwanese/Chinese holidays, I couldn’t help but smile and recall my own similar experiences. And when I came upon the various microaggressions that Pacy deals with, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own history with racism, both blatant and subtle. Like Pacy, I grew up in an area with very few Asian people, so I was always hyper aware of my difference, my “other”-ness. Thus, Grace Lin’s inclusion of these details and the recognition of the power they have to influence your emotional state and long-term self-image was hugely validating for me.

Aside from exploring cultural and racial identity, the book also focuses on Pacy’s individual journey to “find herself” as she discovers her talent for drawing. Accompanying the text are illustrations by Grace Lin herself that help breathe life into the characters and setting of the book. You can really feel Pacy’s personality in the illustrations, which are a window to her world and a useful visual aid for people who are unfamiliar with the culture.

Recommendation: If you know someone in elementary school, give them this book. And if you’re older and don’t mind reading a book for younger reader’s, definitely give it a read.

Review for Nothing but the Truth (and a few white lies) by Justina Chen

332807

Background: I feel obligated to review this book first since it holds a special place in my heart. Why? Because it’s the first book about a Taiwanese American character that I’d ever read, and as a Taiwanese American who was raised to be conscious and proud of my heritage, having that representation meant so much to me. My parents bought a copy for me at the North American Taiwanese Women’s Association convention in 2006 and had it signed and personalized by Justina Chen, and it’s one of my first collectible books.

My summary: Half-white, half-Taiwanese Patty Ho has never felt completely at home in her own skin. She has her hands full dealing with her ultra-strict Taiwanese mother at home and fending off racists at school. When her mother decides to ship her off to math camp at Stanford, she’s convinced that her experience will be boring and miserable. However, the camp turns out to be a lesson in self-acceptance and embracing her biracial identity.

Review: I am terrible at quantifying my feelings for books most of the time, so I’ll stick to qualitative commentary instead.

First of all, this book was a great read in terms of character voice. The story is narrated in first-person from Patty’s perspective, and her personality jumps straight off the page. She doesn’t hold back on the honesty and the sass, and she uses unconventional styles for storytelling and emphasis. She puts a uniquely Asian American spin on every situation, and the results are equal parts painfully relatable and laugh-out-loud hilarious.

The central theme of the novel is self-acceptance as it relates to racial identity, and while this may feel like an overused trope of Asian American fiction, this particular narrative is important because it addresses the perspective of biracial Asian Americans, who are often left out of the picture when discussing and representing Asian American identity. Thus, while the story may be familiar to those who have read a lot of Asian American fiction, it’s also fresh and groundbreaking in other ways.

It’s hard not to talk about Asian American representation without delving into the issue of stereotypes, so I’ll talk briefly about that. I think there are two different ways of understanding the stereotypical elements presented in the book: on the one hand, the book attempts to overturn a lot of the stereotypes and combat the racist microaggressions that Patty deals with; on the other hand, there are times when the “stereotype” in question is really just an authentic representation of Patty’s personal reality. Yes, the tiger mom is definitely a stereotype, but for Patty and many other real Asian Americans, it’s their lived reality. Moreover, it’s reductive to simply call out any element that falls into the realm of stereotypes without addressing the exact execution. In the case of Patty’s mother, while she is ultra-strict, she is also allowed depth of character and complexity. I can’t go into detail about the examples since it would contain a spoiler, but a later revelation about Patty’s mother serves to round out her character and give her background and texture.

That all said, I still have some reservations about the book’s approach to race when considering it from a critical race studies and ethnic studies perspective. One of my major critiques of the book is that it treats race and racism in a very individualized way that obscures the social context in which race and racism are embedded. Patty’s issues surrounding race seem to center on individual attitudes and actions without any thought for the historical and structural forces that shape those attitudes. The boy who bullies her is portrayed as an individual acting on his individual bigotry; the potential origins of his racist notions of Asians and Asian Americans go unremarked upon.

The other critique I have is that while the book attempts to champion mixed race Asian Americans, it veers into the realm of fetishization in certain passages. There are instances where the fetishization of Asian American women is called out, but at the same time Patty seems to find empowerment in the idea that all “hapa” (originating from the Hawaiian term “hapa haole” or half-foreigner; the use of “hapa” to refer to all half-Asian people is considered appropriative by many Native Hawaiian community members and activists, so I would avoid applying it outside of the original intended context of mixed Native Hawaiian and white/foreigner; I use it here because that was the term used in the original text) people are attractive. It’s important to note the positionality that is involved in this situation. Coming from mixed race people themselves, who are often held to white supremacist or otherwise ethnocentric beauty standards, saying that mixed race people are attractive can be a form of empowerment. However, coming from people who are not mixed race, the statement can be a form of homogenization and fetishization. In particular, the notion that mixed race people are attractive usually manifests itself in the form of a hierarchy wherein those who are mixed with white, light-skinned, and look closest to white beauty standards are seen as the most attractive. Mixed race people whose racial background is solely comprised of POC backgrounds without any white are often sidelined or erased completely. This phenomenon is referred to as “colorism” or “shadeism.”

Overall Impression and Recommendation: I say read it. It’s a fast read and an engaging narrative that will probably elicit strong emotions if you can relate to the Asian American experience, particularly the Taiwanese American experience, as it addresses certain issues that are specific to Taiwanese Americans.

P.S. If you really want an extremely detailed analysis of the book, you can definitely ask me for the 8-page academic paper I wrote on the book for my Mixed Race Identities class.