esmé weijun wang & alice sola kim & wei tchou!


2016 june 16 at aaww:  what an incredible event.  i am not even going to try to preface this with a weak introduction; let's get right to it!

(ok, brief introductions, though, in case you aren't familiar with these names:  esmé weijun wang's debut novel is the border of paradise.  [my review here.]  alice sola kim is working on a novel and won a whiting award this year.  wei tchou is a contributor to the new yorker.  i love hearing asian-american writers talk as much as i love reading what asian-american writers write.)

re:  if their family reads their work.

  • wei tchou:  i got on the phone with my dad, and he said, "look, your mom doesn't read your work."  [...]  [they don't read her work, but they're supportive.]  i'm at the point where my parents don't read my work, and i find it really freeing.
  • alice sola kim:  for a long time, nobody read what i wrote.  then, there came a time when my brothers, whom i'm not close to, both said to me, "why so much swearing, alice?" in a really sweet way.  [...] and my mom said to me, "i read your story, alice, and i did not understand it, but, in some time, i will read it again.  and again.  until i understand it."  which is kind of sweetly dark.
  • esmé weijun wang:  i think my family didn't know i was a writer until this book came out.
  • EWW:  neither of my parents has finished reading the book [the border of paradise].  they're trying to read it, but neither of their english is very good, and they're very supportive.
  • ASK:  will they be scandalized?  you know, if they get past a certain point?
  • EWW:  i think my parents think i know what sex is at this point.
  • ASK:  it gets freak nasty at some point.
  • EWW:  actually the thing that's freak nasty in the book is something my parents actually told me is a chinese tradition.
    • [they're referring to the tongyangxi, wiki page here.]

re:  representing asian-ness or asian stories.

  • EWW:  one of the first author events i did was interesting because it was one of those events where i'm sitting there and i have all these galleys in front of me, and there was this older white man who came to my table.  and he was the only one who did this of all the people that day -- he picked up my book and looked at the back and kept frowning more and more as he read it [the galley copy had more about the tongyangxi], and, then, he looked at me and said, "i don't understand how some cultures let things like this happen."  he was very scandalized by it, but then he turned it around as how some cultures don't really understand women and talked about foot binding, and i just wanted him to go away.  afterward, i started thinking about whether this was going to be part of promoting this book, but, fortunately, that story of that dude was just that one experience.
  • ASK:  i did have this idea about how books about asians or by asians were marketed.  like, i had a joke about how the cover [would always have] a sad ponytail and there's this blossom falling down.
  • ASK:  this is a segue into something that happened with my mom and me.  there was this ad for depression, and she clipped it out and asked, "alice, is this me?  does this look like me?"  [...]  so that was my reaction, against this perceived sad, elegant, noble way of positioning oneself.  i focus more on the grossness.  and the crassness.  i feel very bonded to this idea of yellow trash and having memories of my parents having fights in motel courtyards, and i feel like that's part of the immigrant story, too, that we're not all sad and elegant and noble.
  • WT:  i do the same thing where i'm attracted to writing about trashy things.  [...]  but the way the market works is that i get called up to write about [this new chinese restaurant or this new chinese thing].
  • WT:  do i have to say every time that i'm from tennessee and that's not weird?

re:  any advice for people who are writing family and family dynamics.

  • EWW:  families are so different, and the ways in which families relate to each other are so different.
  • WT:  one thing i've been thinking about is that i've often felt drawn to writing about my family.  it's just important to be writing it because that's so much a human solution to figuring problems out.  i think, for a long time, i was writing for the sake of just writing it.  i think just the act of writing is important for figuring out those solutions.
  • ASK:  isn't there some writer who said to write like your family's dead or you're dead, like everybody's dead?

audience q&a (or, really, just the As)

  • EWW:  i remember my mom was a really big fan of connie chung when i was a kid.  [...]  apparently, though, at one point, some asian society of something wanted to award her with something, and she denied it, saying that she didn't want to be recognized as an asian-american news anchor, just as a news anchor.  and, after that, my mom hated her.  and that came to mind because i feel like we're at an interesting place where those of us who are asian-american writers [are in the forefront and not in the forefront] ...?
  • WT:  i think we're always writing for white people.  i always try to retain one thing in an essay or in an article where this thing is for me and for people like me and not to pander to white people.  i haven't often worked with non-white editors, and white editors often just don't get it.
  • ASK:  it's an interesting negotiation.  i guess the more and more you write, the more you see now that people want you because you're asian or want you to be more asian or you're not asian enough, whatever that means.  as i keep writing, i keep going back to writing asian or asian-american characters.  it's nice to be in a literary world that encourages that more than before.
  • EWW:  i remember, when i was a younger writer, i actually wrote under a white pseudonym, and i never wanted someone to see a photo of me or know that i was asian because i was afraid they wouldn't be interested.  it did take a while to feel that these are things that people might be interested in.
  • ASK:  and now we know that michael derrick hudson just wants to be us.
  • WT:  not to be a white person advocate, but there are good white people and good white editors.  and white people with diverse experiences.
  • EWW:  i think the most challenging thing to me when it comes to writing about mental illness -- i think, just, for me, it's mostly to do with just conveying as much detail as possible, as with most things writing related.  to not take those shortcuts of, "oh, i saw this thing, and i thought it was there, but it wasn't -- oh, i guess it was a hallucination!"  delusions in particular can be difficult, but the more granular you can get, the more detailed you can get, the more you can convey this unusual experience that most people will never have ...