Year of the Pig

Whether you call it Year of the Pig (a more gentle animal) or Year of the Boar (a wild animal with sharp tusks), this animal marks the end of 12-year cycle in Chinese astrology. A new cycle starts next year with the Year of the Rat.

The Lunar New Year began on February 5 with friends and family getting gathering for dinners to celebrate a new beginning. I appreciate having another chance for a fresh start. I celebrate New Year’s Day on January 1, then I celebrate the Lunar New Year whenever it falls according to the Chinese calendar. Being Chinese American, I can draw on both cultures for multiple celebrations!

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We in the Pacific NW will not likely forget the first few weeks of this lunar year. It’s unusual snow and freezing weather kept most of us indoors and off the roads for several days. I will remember it as the year of the “Snow Pig.”

When I was growing up in Honolulu, Dad had a store in Chinatown, Yuen Chong Co., Ltd. Because it was a retail and wholesale business, Chinese New Year was very busy, with sales to both store customers and Chinese restaurants. Crowds thronged the stores and sidewalks in Chinatown to shop for gifts, buy prepared food from various temporary stalls set up in the streets by various Chinese family associations, and be part of the festivities. Thousands of firecrackers were burned for good luck at each business, creating clouds of acrid smoke in the streets.

Here’s a brief excerpt from my memoir The Lava Never Sleeps that recalls the excitement of this holiday.

One of the busiest times was Chinese New Year. The Chinese community purchased ingredients for special holiday dishes, firecrackers, and presents, while restaurants increased their orders to prepare for New Year dinner parties. Our entire family descended on the store to witness the community celebration and absorb all the good luck and excitement floating through Chinatown. At night, streets filled with people waiting for the many-legged lion amid a cacophony of firecrackers, gongs, and drums that accompanied the dancing lion, which stopped at each business. Both were essential for good luck in the Lunar New Year. All the activity excited and frightened me. The smoke from the firecrackers burned my throat and eyes. The lion was huge, flapping its large gaping mouth and directing its large eyes at me. I had to be carried to see above everyone’s heads, but when the lion looked at me, I covered my eyes. Even though the black slacks of the teenage boys and girls, who brought this mythical creature to life, were visible, the wagging lion’s head seemed enormous and all-too-real.

Happy Lunar New Year to all! May the year bring good health and prosperity to you!

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2019: Year of the Book

 

Mark your calendars!

March 1, 2019: Publication date for my memoir

Mid-February 2019: The public can pre-order copies from bookstores

If you’ve been following my blog, you know that I have had moments when I seriously doubted that The Lava Never Sleeps: A Honolulu Memoir would ever be published. But persistence (or stubbornness) paid off.

It’s been a strange time. Between signing the book contract and the present, I have felt in limbo. I’ve been developing new writing, gathering information on marketing and promoting the book, sinking back into the manuscript during the editing process, and basically feeling like someone with multiple personalities.

Receiving the final artwork for the book cover helped to ground me. This was something physical, an important milestone in producing the book. I began to feel this is real, this is happening!

TA-DA! Here it is:

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In a bookstore, a well-designed book cover can determine whether a reader picks up a book or not. I love this cover and hope readers will too! MAHALO to the graphic artist at Aquarius Press for a terrific job.

Note: My mother made my ti leaf skirts for hula performances, as all mothers did in the 1950s. We had several ti plants in our yard, and I remember watching her cut the leaves with stalks long enough to bend. She used string to weave the stalks together. When it was done, she shredded the leaves into strands. I don’t remember if I was nervous about performing on a stage or any of the dances, but I remember the swish of these green skirts.

 

Writing Communities

Writers need people. We need community. Or as they say, “It takes a village.”

Truly.

In this Thanksgiving Season, as publication date of my book gets closer, I reflect on my journey as a writer and the many people who have contributed to my development as a reader and a writer. Many have inspired me, nurtured me, taught me, challenged me. They may be family, friends, readers, other writers. Writers must carve out time to write in solitude, but we cannot thrive without community.

My mother was a reader and took her children to the Honolulu Public Library. I fell in love with words and stories. Reading was addictive and I borrowed as many books as I could. The freedom to explore all the books in the library fed my curiosity. As a result, I love libraries and librarians are my heroes.

Raising a child is one thing. Raising a reader who chooses to be a creative writer is quite another. 

I am grateful to the many writers I’ve met and the writing events I’ve participated in over the past  twenty years. These are only a few. However, every event has contributed to my growth as a writer. And has led me to publishing my first book The Lava Never Sleeps: A Honolulu Memoir.

With many thanks to Willow Books and Aquarius Press, publication date is March 1, 2019!!

Meeting other writers and learning from each other can be exciting. It can bring unexpected rewards.

Writing groups have been essential to my growth. I am not the most disciplined writer, so our meetings have served as catalysts for writing, compelling me to produce something to share in our meetings. I learn so much from the other writers as we read and discuss their writing, as well as when they provide feedback on my pieces. 

One important lesson I learned is that while I hold the story I’m writing in my head, all the details in my head may not always get transmitted to the page; I need to read and reread my work carefully to ensure that the reader has what’s necessary to follow what’s happening. Writing groups have given me valuable feedback on what’s working and not working.

Someone in a writing group told me about the Port Townsend Writers Conference and I decided to apply. I dived in and took my first creative nonfiction workshop from Bill McKibben and Sue Halpern in 1997. This was my first foray into writing workshops and a very positive one. I felt validated to be accepted into this group of writers.

A decade later, Cristina Garcia took over as artistic director for this conference, and diversity flowered, both in faculty and students. Instead of being the only writer of color, I witnessed a conference peopled by many cultures, many colors and did workshops with Chris Abani and Denise Chavez. Too many conferences are too white. For any writer, especially an emerging writer of color, having other writers of color in the room, not only validates their voices, but also their dreams as writers. Garcia later moved on to organize Las Dos Brujas Writers Conference in New Mexico, then in San Francisco. 

Another writer informed me about  Hedgebrook, a writing retreat for women writers on Whidbey Island. In 2000, I was very much a beginner, but decided to complete the application even though I expected to be rejected. I thought it would be good practice, that I could apply again. I really had not intended to write a book, but during the application process, I began to envision the possibility of a book. I was surprised and thrilled to be given a residency in 2001. During my three weeks at Hedgebrook, I began to organize my writing into a manuscript with the title Once Upon An Island. 

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Hedgebrook took me seriously as a writer. Even though I had no publishing credits and had no completed pieces, they treated me with extraordinary respect and appreciation. This was life-changing for someone full of self-doubt. I began to feel like an authentic writer.

Hedgebrook opened up a whole universe for me. I did my first public reading of my writing at a Hedgebrook-sponsored event. On my list of writing workshops and conferences, I can draw a straight line from Hedgebrook or Hedgebrook alumnae to half of these events. I also found alumna Priscilla Long to edit my memoir, and she encouraged me to submit it to university and independent presses. The alumnae network has been a surprise bonus, an active force and a gift that keeps on giving.

One example is the VONA Writers Conference (Voices of our Nation Arts Foundation), which HB alumna/author Donna Miscolta recommended. I took a Creative Nonfiction and Memoir Workshop in 2007 from Elmaz Abinader and Faith Adiele; all the writers and instructors were people of color, the first conference where I experienced this kind of support and where I didn’t have to explain myself.

In 2008 I decided to set aside my original manuscript because it wasn’t working, and I wasn’t sure how to fix it. I began a new memoir from scratch. When Hedgebrook began offering master classes, I heard about a Master Memoir Class with Faith Adiele, and I knew I had to go. This was in 2010. IMG_3647

Faith asked me an important question. I workshopped a piece about sexual abuse and used only the initial of my abuser: “Mr. K.” Faith asked me an important question: “Are you still being silenced by not naming him?” I realized I had a choice and decided to provide his full last name in the manuscript.

I also met Janice and Connie here. We decided we wanted to continue to meet and support each other’s writing. We lived in three different cities–me in Seattle, Connie in Atlanta, and Janice in Santa Barbara. We met virtually on Skype once a month for 2-3 years. In addition, my Seattle writing group was meeting every other week. 

Two years later in 2012, I completed a first draft of my memoir The Lava Never Sleeps: A Honolulu Memoir.

In 2013 I attended a CNF Writing Conference in Oxford, MS. I attended a workshop led by Dinty Moore. HB alumna/author Allison Green had recommended it. Lee Gutkind was the  keynote speaker. Vanity Fair acknowledges Gutkind as “the Godfather behind CNF.” Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild had been published to wide acclaim in 2012, and Gutkind discussed the opening first page of her book, how it hooked the reader. I had completed my first draft at this point and decided to draft a similar first page.

I am fortunate to live in Seattle where there are so many literary events and opportunities to grow as a writer. Another writing community I want to mention is the Jack Straw Writers Program, which focuses on getting work out in the world through a series of readings, assisting writers in using their voices and a microphone, preparing for public readings. Thanks to another HB alumna Felicia Gonzalez, who invited me to apply for the 2014 program, I was able to participate in an amazing experiential learning opportunity and be part of another enriching writing community.

From writing bits of vignettes to completing a full-length book, I know I could not have progressed as a writer without my various writing communities, including It’s About Time, the monthly reading series at the Ballard Library founded by Esther Altshul Helfgott and currently directed by Peggy Sturdivant. We learn just by hearing the words of other writers. We learn as we present our own words. I often revise when I have to read my writing out loud.

My current writing group is Cake Quartet, a mixed genre group that includes Esther Altshul Helfgott, Ann B. Hursey, and Trish Honig. I have dabbled in poetry in the past, but consider myself to be a prose writer. My writing group has provided essential support in my creative life. And poets Esther and Ann have introduced me to more poetry like the Haibun, which combines prose and haiku and opens me up to new creative possibilities. 

This is what I love about creative communities, you never know where they will lead. It can lead to honing craft, to breakthroughs in writing, to publication or reading opportunities, to new forms of writing….  To a writer with the expertise to create a chapbook (Ann) or to bake a cake from scratch (Trish)!

I give thanks for my writing life and my writing communities!

Crazy Successful!

If you haven’t yet seen the hit movie Crazy Rich Asians, what are you waiting for??

A surprise box office smash when it first came out in August, it’s still playing in theaters. The Huffington Post reports that it is currently the highest-grossing romantic comedy in ten years: almost $166 million as of this weekend, Sept. 29-30.

There’s much to like about it: good acting (many were unfamiliar to me, but I’m definitely a long-time fan of veteran Michelle Yeoh), clean humor (not raunchy or juvenile), an exotic location (Singapore), beautiful people, good music (performed by Asian musicians in Chinese), great production value (loved the social media scene in the beginning). Yes, yes, it’s an all Asian cast, and much has been made about this in the media. But the story will appeal to most film lovers in our global community. This is movie entertainment at its best.

For those like me with an Asian background, we so appreciate seeing the Chinese (people and culture) honestly represented and contemporary characters who look like us. Watching this movie was an emotional experience. I teared up several times, both in laughter and happiness, mostly happiness that “I am seen,” not invisible like so often happens to many marginalized people.

cr-asians.jpgMost Asians are far from being crazy rich for sure. And this is a good reminder to non-Asians that Asians come from diverse backgrounds. Still, there are some cultural touches in the film that ring true for many Asians, like Rachel’s mother providing food in Tupperware for their international flight (food is family) and the deference to elders, especially the cool relationship between daughter-in-law and mother-in law. Also, how Asian Americans are considered different from Asian Asians. The food scenes are also emblematic of Asian cultures, so the film offers lots of “eye candy” for foodies.

Based on Kevin Kwan‘s novel, which is back on best-seller lists and on my to-read list, the movie is in the genre of rom-com with Rachel Chu, an Asian American economics professor, going to meet her boyfriend’s family in Singapore. Little does she know that Nick’s family is crazy rich and live like royalty. It’s a setup for conflict on several levels.

Lots of discussions and reviews are available online. One of my favorites is in The Atlantic featuring the reactions and comments of four female staff members. This movie has sparked much discussion because it marks a cultural moment, not just in Hollywood and pop culture, but also in our larger American culture. We’ve seen best-sellers by and about people of color for many years now, why did Hollywood take so long to produce another movie with a cast of mostly Asian actors? Where have they been? Hopefully they now get that movies with non-white leading actors and casts (the only white actors were the hotel employees in the opening scene and some in crowd scenes at the bachelor’s party) can be successful. Crazy successful!

Even when cultural details are not fully explained, audiences can enjoy and understand the film because this is a very human story. Those with Asian backgrounds will have more visceral appreciation for many scenes, but this doesn’t take anything away from non-Asians.

For me, the best line of this movie (and perhaps any movie) is when Astrid tells her cheating husband, “My job is not to make you feel like a man.”

Wow! For any woman to say this, but especially for an Asian woman, this is seismic!

So, this is another reason this movie was so powerful for me. Although the main characters are undeniably Rachel and Nick, female relationships are very central to the story. Friendships as well as competitive meanness. Power struggles between Nick’s mother (Eleanor Young) and grandmother and between Rachel and Mrs. Young. And the mother-daughter relationship between Rachel and her mom. As in life, women’s stories are important.

I kept waiting for Nick’s dad to show up. Never happens. Instead of patriarchal power, we have one that is matriarchal. The best scene is the mahjongg game between Rachel and Mrs. Young when Rachel tells Nick’s mother why she is leaving and that she understands the importance of family. She is not defeated and demonstrates she is just as powerful and strong as the older woman. For an Asian story and stories in general, I am cheering for strong female characters.

The female gaze is also apparent in the film. Most movies focus on the male gaze, but here we have men’s bodies (those abs!) on display for the delight of the women in the movie and in the audience.

I love this film! Thank you, author Kevin Kwan and director Jon M. Chu and kudos to all the wonderful actors and crew. I’m looking forward to the sequels and more films featuring talented and beautiful people of color.

Women’s Stories Now

When author Stieg Larsson introduced readers in 2005 to Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I was mesmerized by this gritty, fearless, whip-smart character. I believed then as now that women experienced vicarious pleasure when Lisbeth took revenge on those who tortured and raped her, when she outsmarted everyone who tried to limit and control her. Whether they had been sexually harassed or assaulted themselves, women identified with her; Lisbeth became a cult hero and the Millennium Series became a global phenomenon.

The women speaking out against sexual predators may not be Lisbeth, but they are surely courageous in revealing their stories, their vulnerabilities, and trauma. Many of these men are powerful and wealthy. They have been successful in their fields, while these women have carried their shame and pain for many years, maybe decades. Their lives have been unequivocally altered. They have suffered in innumerable ways: emotionally, financially, etc. And yet, they are stepping into the public spotlight to tell their stories.

Because the few have become the many, more women are coming forward. And I suspect more will come because in this cultural moment, they are being heard. Believed. Instead of being dismissed, ignored, demonized. Both men and women are recognizing how some workplaces have been toxic for women and the pervasiveness of these attitudes that devalue women. The conversations include both men’s and women’s voices because these horrendous behaviors affect all of us.

Thanks to New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohy who broke the story about Harvey Weinstein on October 5, 2017. Remember their names! These women’s investigative reporting began a cultural revolution. So many voices could no longer be silent and broke through the dam created by power and privilege.

#MeToo is just one example.

Now Marti Noxon has created Dietland, a new TV series on AMC that taps into women’s stories, our complex lives, and the things/events that impact us. It’s based on Sarai Walker‘s novel and had been in development for two years, before sexual harassment and assault became part of our national dialogue. In an article for The Atlantic about Noxon, Sophie Gilbert describes the book:

…[A] guerrilla group of women kidnaps and murders men who’ve been accused of crimes against women, ranging from institutionalized misogyny to violent sexual assault. But that’s just the subplot. The rest of the novel deals with toxic beauty standards, the weight-loss industry, a magazine called Daisy Chain, rape culture, feminist infighting, and the coming of age of a lonely, 300-pound writer named Plum.

So, I was gobsmacked to see frequent commercials during the breaks for an online discount designer fashion site. Hello?? Yes, this show probably gets a huge female audience, but is anyone at the ad agency following the show’s themes?

Noxon is a writer, producer, and director of TV and film. She has worked on shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Grey’s Anatomy, and Mad Men. In Dietland, women are channeling their rage to fight back at men and institutions that diminish and harm women. That’s not easy. The guerrilla group is called the Jennifers, and they have announced a list of men they are targeting called “The Penis 100.” 

Not sure who is on this list in this work of fiction, but unfortunately, we women can come up with plenty of names for such a list. Forget the border wall, we need a Wall of Shame for these names. 

If you have enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale TV series, but have felt despair about how the government has oppressed and controlled the women and children of Gilead, Dietland may feel like an antidote. But don’t be fooled. Patriarchy and misogyny are still rampant in this series. The feel-good message offers women intelligent enough to fight back and send messages that they are not buying into the marketplace standards and values of what women should be and look like. These issues are systemic and not simple to fix, but meanwhile the show offers women revenge fantasies. 

Yes, we all should feel despair that safety and equality for women is far from a reality, but we shouldn’t feel hopeless. Nor powerless. The stories are coming. We need to pay attention, listen, support, and honor the storytellers whoever they are, wherever they are. The more that women tell their stories, the more power we garner to dismantle the status quo of toxic masculinity that prey on women and children. All the cultural warriors, both fictional and living, are inspiring us to fight back, speak up, and cry out for justice.

Stand By Me

Just want to affirm the love expressed in this blog posting by Ann Hedreen in “therestlessnest.” With so much negativity, violence, and hate in our world, the royal wedding was a good reminder on the power of love. I also feel confident that Meghan is already a change agent in the royal family and look forward to seeing how her personality and perspectives will shake things up. The wedding ceremony certainly was not all white–a reflection of the real world that contributed animation and beauty to the widely-viewed, very formal wedding ceremony.

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_101664541_053e2d0f-a05b-4c6e-bb13-349acf2c705dOn May 19, 2019, I did something I have never done before: I watched an entire royal wedding. Not live: better than live! In an act of pure selfless devotion, my husband remembered that I had said something about “recording the wedding” and actually set the TV to record it before we went to bed. He himself could not be less interested. But he knew I was.

After grieving my way through the morning papers—school shooting in Texas, misery in Gaza and Venezuela, tension brewing again in Korea—I was more than ready for the diversion of a royal pageant. Coffee in one hand and remote in the other, I fast-forwarded through the three hours of buildup and blather until, at last, I got to the main course: Meghan Markle getting out of the Rolls Royce at St. George’s Chapel. Time to get this fancy shindig started.

When Charles and Diana…

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Celebration

In 2017 I didn’t feel like having a birthday. I just wanted to ignore it. I was feeling downhearted about getting my memoir published after submitting my manuscript to book contests and sending query letters to various indie presses and university presses for a few years.

Being a semi-finalist and finalist for a few contests was encouraging. I also received a lovely rejection letter from an editor who explained their process for selecting books, indicating the enthusiasm of those who advocated for my book. However, these were still rejections.

This year, I decided to attend a few writing conferences that featured literary agents while continuing my previous strategy. I was willing to keep going and try some new tactics. I also decided that no matter what, Celebration would be my theme for 2018. And birthday celebrations were in order for March! That’s what I did with a lot of help from my friends.

On the last Friday in March, I was on my laptop at home when I received a message from Willow Books Literary Awards. I felt faint and quickly forwarded it to my writing group: Trish, Ann, and Esther. “Omigod! Tell me if I’m dreaming or hallucinating!”

I needed confirmation because, even though I consider myself a careful reader, I have read and misinterpreted messages in the past. They emailed me back quickly: “BIG congratulations on winning the Grand Prize in prose!”

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I had won their book contest in prose, including works of fiction and nonfiction!! The prize included publication by Aquarius Press!! Then I started crying. It had been such a long road since I started submitting my manuscript in 2014. There were times when I felt hopeless and wanted to give up. Most writers have experienced similar dark moments. My writing group can attest to my moments of despair. They would boost my spirits and urge me to continue. Other writers would remind me that rejection was normal for writers; this was part of the job and I just had to keep going.

In fact, I had pinned Jesmyn Ward‘s PBS interview on the wall above my desk earlier in the year. I highlighted her words: “Persist. Read, write, and improve.” This is what her teachers and mentors had told her, so she was passing on their wisdom. This award-winning author also advised:

“Accept rejection until you find acceptance, but don’t become disheartened, stop writing, and remove yourself from the conversation.”

No, I hadn’t stopped. My voice is important and I want to be part of the conversation. And now my book The Lava Never Sleeps: A Honolulu Memoir will be on bookshelves in Spring 2019. Yes, all my years of work have not been for nothing. My words will be out  there in the world–it’s beyond exciting!

I was still pinching myself even after the official announcement was posted on the Willow Books Literary Awards web site. I still feel a bit like I’m “The Twilight Zone,” but in a positive way. As we enter the fifth month of 2018, I am full of gratitude and anticipate more celebrations still to come!