Notes from New York

Way back in March, I spent a weekend in New York City with a dear friend for her birthday.

Since I was in town, I also met up with my agent Tina Dubois for the first time in person. It was magical.

Her delicate beauty is almost as captivating as her passion and intellect, the force of which is tempered by kindness and humor. We talked for over an hour, and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute. I felt like we could have gone on for hours more.

My last Writer Unboxed post — “What Motherhood Has (and Hasn’t) Changed About My Writing” — touches on much of the same territory that Tina and I covered in our conversation that day. About my publishing journey so far, the successes and the failures. About becoming a parent, and how that impacts the creative process. About how my sense of identity has evolved. About the way forward from here.

Two other highlights, which didn’t fall under the scope of that post:

  • When thinking about which ideas to commit my time and energy to, I have typically asked myself, Do I have enough to give this story? Can I sustain it over the many months and years that I will likely be working on it? Tina flipped the script on me and said, What about asking, Can it sustain you? What does this story feed you? I had never ever thought to ask myself that, and I think it’s an amazing, possibly revolutionary mindset to apply to my work.
  • Most of all, I walked away reveling in the incredible feeling that Tina gave me — and has always given me — of being understood, of being safe, of being supported. It’s exactly what I need to feel confident and do my best work.

One evening, the birthday girl and I met up with two other friends from high school. The four of us shared bowls of ramen in an alcove at a quiet restaurant in the Flatiron District, reminiscing about the years we had spent together, and catching up on the years we had spent apart.

We talked about #metoo — the movement, and our own stories — sometimes saying the words “me too” literally.

Between the four of us, there was quite a bit to unpack, big and small. Trauma that we didn’t even realize (or want to admit) was traumatic until the stories poured out of us, hot and strong, like cups of tea that nobody wanted to drink.

It was sobering, but it was healing too.

I don’t want this to sound melodramatic, because that’s the irony. It was a big moment, and yet we were all so close, and our stories so commonplace, that there was a very casual feel about it too.

I hope someday my daughter has friends like this. I hope she and her friends have even more laugh lines, and fewer scars.

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Live with it (Fountain Square, Cincinnati, September 6, 2018)

I drove my daughter to daycare this morning, and passed the square — the heart of downtown — where three people were senselessly murdered last Thursday.

I wasn’t here that day, so in some ways I don’t feel entitled to the grief and outrage that I feel. To the tears and the trembling.

On the other hand, this is my home now, and I have stood in that square dozens of times. This place lives in my heart, and in my daughter’s bones. Is that not entitlement enough?

This was the “acceptable” kind of shooting. The gun was not an AR-15. The police responded quickly and effectively. (Thank goodness for them.) The number of dead can be counted on one hand.

I don’t know how to feel about that. As someone who advocates for “reasonable” gun regulations, I suppose this is the sort of scenario “I can live with.”

Except that I can’t.

I am. I have to.

But I can’t. I don’t want to.

The whole city is “living with it.” Surviving, moving on. Except for the ring of flowers around the fountain on the square, and the yellow caution tape around the front doors of the building where it happened, you would never even know about our little tragedy. I’m both proud of my city for this, and deeply sorry. We are #CincyStrong, but we deserve to be unmoored. We shouldn’t have to go on as normal, because this — people getting shot at work, or at an ice cream shop — shouldn’t be normal.

This should not be normal.

But it is.

This is our normal now. This is what we made.

Can we do better? I believe so. I have to.

Day by day, brick by brick, I will do my best to build something better.

I know I’m not alone, and that is how I “live with it.”

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Seen on screen

On Friday, I indulged in two movies, one on the big screen, and one on my iPad mini. Both filled my heart with joy, and made me cry several times, because of the stories themselves, and also because of what these stories mean. I haven’t stopped thinking about them all weekend, and I can’t wait to watch them again.

Based on the novel of the same name, Crazy Rich Asians is part rom-com, part fish-out-of-water story, part family drama, and part extravagant party.

It’s also the first Hollywood production to feature an all-Asian cast since 1993’s Joy Luck Club. (Which is one of my all-time favorite movies, by the way.)

When the movie started, I was overcome with emotion. Seeing all those Asian faces — faces like my aunts, my cousins, my friends, their parents — and for them to be the stars? For them to be the focus of a lighthearted contemporary story, as opposed to something historical or niche? It was just so…

It was everything.

Crazy Rich Asians is not perfect, but it’s genuinely enjoyable. Henry Golding is a gem, and Michelle Yeoh is great as ever. The last third of the movie is especially strong, which is significant, because endings are hard. (The wedding reception! The mahjong scene! The plane scene!)

The more I look back on the movie, the more I appreciate both the big things (romantic love vs. family love; mother-child relationships; self-sacrifice) and the little things (Araminta with glasses and no make-up at the night market; Rachel and Peik Lin going barefoot through the Goh family mansion; everyone making dumplings together and sharing family stories in a mix of English and Chinese).

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, now streaming on Netflix, is also based on a novel, and features a half-Korean main character. The whole cast is charming, but especially Noah Centineo (Peter, one of the love interests) and Anna Cathcart (Kitty, the younger sister). To be honest, I was just expecting this to be a bit of fluffy fun, and it was, but it was also much more.

This piece does a great job explaining how TATBILB manages to succeed within its genre, while also setting itself apart:

The story plays out with familiar beats and set pieces, bits I remembered from beloved predecessors like “A Walk to Remember,” “She’s All That” and “10 Things I Hate About You,” movies designed to make you remember, viscerally, the terrifying thrill of first love.

But damn, does “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” stick just about every landing, in part by reshaping misogynistic and shallow tropes of the genre in ways that make it feel more honest and yet also more optimistic.

Specifically: The dad is not stodgy and oblivious; When couples break up, they don’t instantly hate each other, because that’s not how first love usually works; And maybe most importantly, the heroine doesn’t require a sexy makeover in order for the hot guy to fall for her.

[It’s] a gentle, witty, nuanced movie about family, grief and growing up, wrapped around a love story that’s both believably bumbling and an irresistible fantasy.

Also: That hot tub scene.


My daughter IB is too young to watch these movies with me at the moment, but I hope when she’s old enough, she’ll want to. Because if seeing them healed pieces of my own 30-something-year-old heart, then I can only imagine what they might mean to her growing up. Maybe she’ll watch them dozens of times, like I did with Mulan and Joy Luck Club. Or maybe, if we’re lucky, she won’t have to, because there will be so many stories with good Asian representation that these won’t stand out like they do now.


I would like to be a part of that. Like many writers of color, my earliest work defaulted to whiteness, but as I’ve matured, all my best writing has reflected my mixed race identity, in one way or another.

Sometimes I wonder whether the world really needs my stories or not. I ask myself, What can I add? Why does anything I say matter?

This weekend, Crazy Rich Asians and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before reminded me that you don’t have to change the world, or be perfect, to make a difference.

#RepresentationMatters

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Stuff worth reading

“Writers Aren’t Who They Think They Are” by David Ebenbach

What the novel says, I think, is that any single event is the result of many, many things. That’s why you have the hundreds of pages leading up to the climax; those pages suggest the philosophy that you can only fully understand that climax and its significance if you know a whole lot about all the things that led up to it… The short story says something different—not contradictory, but different. The short story suggests that any single moment or detail, in some sense, contains everything: the characters; their problems and promise; the significance of the events; human nature, more generally; the past, the present, and the future.

Here’s my point: Writers rarely know who they are as writers. Well, if you grab hold of one of the most insightful ones and ask them, they might be able to articulate who they are in that particular moment. At that moment they’re obsessed with coming-of-age stories, maybe, or they only believe in first-person narrators, or everything they do is stream-of-consciousness. But that’s only who that writer is for that one particular moment. That one fleeting moment. And only a fool would decide that that’s how things have to be forever.

Actually, each one of us can do anything. We are not limited to one defining thing.

“To Understand Rising Inequality, Consider the Janitors at Two Top Companies, Then and Now” by Neil Irwin

In the 21st-century economy, many millions of workers find… Rather than being treated as assets that companies seek to invest in, they have become costs to be minimized.

“Beesting, Kneecap, Lozenge” by Dan Murphy

I write for two hours every day. When I burrow into an uninterrupted state, and succeed in ignoring the infinite distractions at my fingertips, the practice of it makes me better for it. Seems obvious. But the locked in time plus repetition is what produces. Reading, of course, helps too. I know that when I am reading I want to write more. I know that when I’m writing I want to read more. Words beget words. You’ll never get through them all, and thus you’ll never run out. I find a great deal of comfort in that.

“The ‘New York Times’ Books Desk Will Make You Read Again” by John Maher

“I am ever bullish on the book industry, because I think that people like to hear stories, and books remain one of the great ways in which to tell them. And as everything else gets faster, quicker, shorter, smaller, people look for balance in their lives and want to turn to books for a broader context, deeper context, a sustained narrative.”

“Things That Are Not Failure” by T.S. Bazelli

Failure in writing is not:
Still having a lot to learn.
Reaching a certain age and not being published yet.
Unexpected things getting in the way of writing.
Watching other people succeed while you don’t.
Needing a break now and then.
Finding this hard. It is hard.

“You Aren’t Lazy — You’re Just Terrified: On Paralysis And Perfectionism” by Jenni Berrett

“I think the problem here isn’t the writing – it’s you. You’re expecting a product without respecting the process. I’m not interested in getting something perfect from you, and you shouldn’t be either. Just do the work. Write the story. And then write it again, as many times as you need to.”

Mistakes are essential to human progress and personal development, so why do I keep telling myself I’m not allowed to make any?

“A Constitution for a Young Artist” by Maxime Kawawa-Beaudan

Work until the work speaks for itself.

There is only the pen, the excuse you make not to pick it up, and the reason you find to pick it up anyway.

“On Star Trek: Discovery and Michelle Yeoh’s Accent” by Swapna Krishna

As a young girl of color, Star Trek was the first place I can remember seeing myself represented. Through characters like Uhura, Sulu and Geordi LaForge, I saw people that looked a little like me — that shared the first thing people notice about me, a darker skin color — and for the first time understood that I could achieve anything, even serve on a starship. I, and people who looked like me, existed in this future. It was one of the major forces that shaped my childhood and the adult I have become.

But still, nothing could have prepared me for the moment when Yeoh utters those first words. I personally do not speak English with an accent… But my parents, immigrants to this country, speak with an accent, though they’ve lived here the bulk of their lives.

It’s hard to put into words what it feels like to watch a thing you so badly want to love and, all of a sudden, being emotionally devastated (in the best way possible) because they included you in such a seemingly effortless way. When you’re used to having to fight for every small morsel of representation you get, having it granted without even having to even ask, and in such a thoughtful way, is overwhelming.

“Let’s Talk About the Fantasy of the Writer’s Lifestyle” by Rosalie Knecht

It’s easy to forget that Hemingway and the rest went to Paris because it was cheaper than staying at home, and that it was cheaper because a catastrophic war had just laid waste to the continent. These writers produced so much material about each other, in fiction and in letters, that they accidentally crystallized a specific time and place in the American imagination as the essence of what a creative life looks like.

This fantasy image does us a disservice. It leaves us with no model to follow when we try to integrate art-making with functional lives. That period when a person could make a living writing fiction for periodicals was a blip, and it’s over; we’ve long since returned to the baseline, which is that the vast majority of fiction is written around and beside a whole lot of other work, and it’s the other work that pays the rent. As such, there is no writer’s lifestyle; your lifestyle is determined by what that other work is.

Those of us who are lucky enough to be living this fairly obvious reality can feel at times like we’ve failed. I have the pleasure of my work, but where’s my glamor? Why doesn’t it look the way I thought it would when I was 14? The cruel edge on the bohemian fantasy is that it pretends that leisure can be had for free. As every adult knows, leisure takes capital.

Setting aside the catalog fantasy means being able to interrogate the idea that the writer is always observing, standing at the edge of the party, never unpacking all his suitcases or renewing his lease. Most writers are, in fact, as deeply rooted in their communities as anybody else. But that’s hard to picture. … How would it look if we pushed that rootedness to the center, valorized it, acknowledged it as the norm?

If I were speaking to my 14-year-old self, who had already fully assimilated the writer-lifestyle-fantasy from various sources, I would say this: First of all, good news. You’re going to write books. Second, you’re going to spend very little time on terraces or piazzas of any kind. … The important thing is, though, that you will get to write.

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Work-life “balance” lately

WORK

“Mother Courage” by James Wood

In Offill’s original book: a young mother and ambitious writer, committed to her daughter and to her writing, tries to find energy and ambition for both; she must claim for writing the authority of necessity that usually attends parenthood. Art-making, unlike the great bourgeois panoply of family life, comes without society’s automatic sanction, and is in some ways hostile to it.

But her plan “was never to get married. I was going to be an art monster instead.” … The “art monster” lament is a recurring theme. In a way, it is the novel’s true subject, and a steady source of pain: thwarted aspiration, a sense of life as a slow lapse from high ambition. The narrator was twenty-nine when she finished her first book, and now the head of the department where she teaches creative writing is asking her where the second one is.

I’m lucky to have part-time childcare, and every time I get to go to a café, or close my bedroom door, and sit down at my laptop to work, I have the highest of aspirations. But all too often, when those precious hours have ticked away, I have little more than half-starts and disjointed scraps to show for it.

It is difficult, and it feels unfair, and I worry about sounding like a broken record, when I talk about not having enough space for myself and my art now that I’m mother. It is not actually my intention to complain. I fully recognize and appreciate that I am in a better position than most. But still, this is my reality. That’s all I’m saying.

I should also clarify that even before motherhood, I was not the best at managing my time. Motherhood is not to blame for my lack of discipline. But it hasn’t helped, either.

Anyway, I am currently at work on a Young Adult novel about family secrets, architecture, and falling in love. I started this story just before becoming pregnant with IB. Who knows when I will finish. Last year I had a sort of crisis of faith, and so I took a break from the book, experimenting with other ideas in my queue, giving myself permission to write “just for fun,” partly to see if I even knew how to do that anymore. I did. I do. And reminding myself of it allowed me to see that there could be fun in this story too. My faith was renewed, and I recommitted to the manuscript.

LIFE

On nice days, we take IB to the zoo. That’s our thing now. We’re definitely getting our money’s worth out of our membership.

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She walks all over the zoo grounds like she owns the place. Not bossy, but confident, curious, exploring. Tireless. It makes me so happy.

She likes to people-watch, and I wonder what she thinks about everyone.

She also waves and says hi to the animals. It’s painfully cute.

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Though the weather started trending warmer in April, we still got a few random snow days, and on one of them, I made a tiny snowman for IB. She wasn’t sure what to think of it. But she really enjoyed tromping around in her boots.

Later, Andy made her this snow bunny. She kept saying, “Hop hop,” whenever she saw it. And then, after it melted and collapsed, “Uh oh!”

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Now spring is truly here, and while I’m not looking forward to the heat, I do love spending the afternoons and evenings outdoors with IB, picking wildflowers, splashing in water, and just generally kid-ding around.

BALANCE

“How Motherhood Affects Creativity” by Erika Hayasaki

The competition between raising children and creative output is real. It may be impossible to balance in the ways society expects us to. But I don’t believe that parenting is the enemy of the work.

“The Ambition Collision” by Lisa Miller

The lesson of The Feminine Mystique was not that every woman should quit the burbs and go to work, but that no woman should be expected to find all her happiness in one place — in kitchen appliances, for example. And the lesson for my discontented friends is not that they should ditch their professional responsibilities but that they should stop looking to work, as their mothers looked to husbands, as the answer to the big questions they have about their lives. “I think possibly work has replaced ‘and they got married and lived happily ever after,’ and that is a false promise,” says Ellen Galinsky, co-founder of the Families and Work Institute. “Everyone needs to have more than one thing in their life. We find people who are dual-centric to be most satisfied. If people put an equivalent stress on their life outside of their job they get further ahead and are more satisfied at their job.”

“The Time It Costs to Write” by Natalia Sylvester

We forget that time is not just a ticking clock but a life constantly filling with experience that we bring, like gifts and offerings, to the page.

Relish the words, the story, the process. Be kind to yourself and your fellow writers. It costs so much to write, and for each of us it costs something different, but we keep doing it because we are proven, time and again, that it is worth it.

“Are Kids the Enemy of Writing?” by Michael Chabon

Once they’re written, my books, unlike my children, hold no wonder for me; no mystery resides in them. Unlike my children, my books are cruelly unforgiving of my weaknesses, failings, and flaws of character. Most of all, my books, unlike my children, do not love me back.

Before getting pregnant, I worried that motherhood would take away from me. Take away time, take away energy, take away ambition, take away creativity. Now, eighteen months in, I know that motherhood does indeed take a lot — but it gives a lot too.

I truly believe that motherhood can make my work deeper and richer. And on top of everything else, I want to make IB proud.

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