After the releases of Crazy Rich Asians, Searching, and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment (CAPE) declared that we’re in the middle of a “barrier-breaking phenomenon dubbed #AsianAugust.” But it’s not just August. We’re experiencing a cultural shift where gatekeepers in publishing and Hollywood are realizing that there’s value in telling inclusive stories about Asian and Asian American communities. Take, for instance, author Celeste Ng selling her second novel Little Fires Everywhere to Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington. Or Vanessa Hua’s A River of Stars, Rachel Heng’s Suicide Club, Lucy Tan’s What We Were Promised, and Crystal Hana Kim’s If You Leave Me all being released this summer. Or Netflix buying the rights to a yet-to-be-titled romantic-comedy that will star Ali Wong as a San Francisco-based chef and Randall Park as a struggling musician.
While representational shifts are usually on a pendulum swinging between abundance and sparsity, it seems that the people who are buying books, greenlighting movies, and bringing television shows to primetime or streaming services are currently on the side of the more stories the merrier. So, we reached out to three critically acclaimed writers who are in the thick of this wave: Helen Hoang, author of The Kiss Quotient; Lillian Li, author of Number One Chinese Restaurant; and R.O. Kwon, author of The Incendiaries. All three released their debut novels this spring and summer, and Hoang’s book is being adapted as a movie. Hoang, Li, and Kwon offered insights about creating relatable characters, the obstacles Asian and Asian American authors still encounter as they try to publish their first books, and why Hollywood and the publishing industry are finally beginning to wake up.
What drew you to writing, especially fiction writing, as a form of expression?
Helen Hoang: I’ve learned not to be vocal about my opinions because I’m not very good at articulating them—definitely not in person or on Twitter, anyway—but with a novel, I’m better able to communicate because I can show the reader what I mean by putting them in someone else’s shoes. Novels have a remarkable power to create empathy.
Lillian Li: Similar to Helen, I came to writing because other forms of expression made me feel inarticulate. Thank god for AOL Instant Messenger [AIM]! I would’ve been a much lonelier person growing up without that. Because my dad bought this “Learn How to Type” CD and forced me to spend half an hour on it every day when I was in elementary school, I found I could write on AIM much faster than most of my classmates. Suddenly, I had time to edit my thoughts, which always came out a little twisted and confused when I tried to speak them out loud. I was funny for the first time! I made sense! Honestly, it’s not so much writing as editing that was, and still is, my main form of expression.
Fiction writing is also, in part, about making sense either of myself or the people and communities around me. That’s a powerful form of expression. The moments that stand out to me in fiction are the moments when I lean back from the page and think, “Oh, so that’s why…” That’s what I’m trying to find and express when I write, though not always successfully. Going off of what Helen said, I feel like empathy is as much about making sense of another person as it is about feeling what they’re feeling. It’s as much about leaning back as leaning in.
R.O. Kwon: When I’m writing fiction, when it’s going really well, I feel more alive than I ever do otherwise. It’s so hard, and so rewarding. Writing fiction draws from the depths in ways that, for me, nothing else can.
Each of you published incredible books this spring and summer. I’ve read them all, and I was really blown away by the intricacy of how you write about your main characters: Stella Lane; Will, Phoebe, and John Leal; and the Han siblings. All of these characters felt so realistic, as though I may encounter these people in my own life. What is your approach to writing realistic and relatable characters?
HH: For me, the thing that makes characters relatable is giving them pieces of real people, real flaws—oftentimes my own, good thing I have a lot to go around—and real desires.
LL: I’m very similar. For a little while, I joked that I had very little imagination, in that I need a foundation of reality before building something fictional. For example, I don’t know if I would have written Number One Chinese Restaurant if I hadn’t, however briefly, worked in a Chinese restaurant. I don’t know if I would have written Jimmy Han, the younger Han brother and black sheep of his family, if I hadn’t had a boss at that restaurant yell at me in front of everyone and wondered, “Why does he look so happy right now?” But really, it’s not so much a foundation of reality as it is a jumping-off point. Real people tend to spark the most questions from me because I have a vested interest in figuring them out, and it’s those questions, and the attempt to answer them, that makes my characters realistic. As for relatable, I tend to think of what I want from fiction as similar to what I want from stand-up comedy. So many of my favorite comics operate by finding the strange in the normal. They make us say, “Oh my god, that is so weird that I do this!” So that’s my approach. I’m like a cowardly stand-up comic!
RK: Thank you for saying that, Evette! It means a lot to me. I’m not a top-down writer at all, so I work from line to line, paragraph to paragraph, letting the characters slowly show me, over years, who they are—who, in a lot of ways, they can’t help being. It’s not the most efficient way to work, but I don’t know how else to do it.
What obstacles, if any, did you encounter as you began the process for publishing your books? How did you push past those obstacles?
HH: When my book was on submission, the number one reason for rejection—that was vocalized—was that the hero is a sex worker. They said they couldn’t put a book about a sex workerin print. We got around this by finding an editor with a more progressive mindset.
LL: I would also say that the biggest obstacle for me happened when my book was on submission. I got a lot of editors passing because they couldn’t relate to my characters, who are first- and second-generation Chinese Americans. It may go without saying, but most of the editors we submitted to were white. I know how hard editors have to work, so I understand that feeling a personal connection to the work is integral to making that work as good as it can be. To be an editor really is to work out of love for the writing, because the hours they put in are hardly compensated financially. It’s a shitty situation.
But it’s also a shitty situation for the writer who doesn’t look like the vast majority of the editors in publishing, and doesn’t share the same set of experiences. Especially when that writer is trying to write for an audience that does look and live like them. Of course there are a small number of Asian American editors in publishing, but being Asian American doesn’t mean, and shouldn’t mean, connecting with a book simply because it’s about an Asian American experience. Considering the sheer fact of the demographic makeup of the editing world, a writer of color, or of any marginalized identity, writing about their community is instantly at a disadvantage.
RK: I worked with my agent on book revisions for two years before she sent The Incendiaries to publishers. She had large, novel-reshaping questions that I found I entirely agreed should be addressed; if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have made those changes, but initially it was daunting, even terrifying, to realize how much more work I’d have to do. I’m so glad I did it, though.
While it can be a lifeline and a means of breaking into writing for those with less access and opportunities, writers from marginalized communities are so often pigeonholed into only writing about specific topics, most of which are directly related to their identity. Were you intentional about the kinds of stories you chose to tell with your first book?
HH: For me, I told the story that was important to me at the time. There wasn’t much planning other than that.
LL: Who I am, as a person and a writer, has been shaped by what I’ve read, and a lot of what I’ve read hasn’t specifically been about my community. And the books I did read about my community have shaped me as much by what I disagreed with in them as by what resonated with me. One of the things I often disagreed with in those books was when the emphasis on racial identity obliterated all other identities, because it felt to me that it was the combination of all those identities that gives a person so much of their nuance and contradictions in the first place. So it was incredibly important for me to write not just my first book, but all my books in a way that’s in conversation with the stories that gave me my understanding of my identity beyond but inclusive of my racial identity. For example, I was very much drawn to the Chinese restaurant setting because the default in that setting is Chinese. Whereas in other settings, a character whose race goes unnamed is defaulted in the reader’s mind to white. I didn’t have to name a character’s race as soon as they were introduced, an annoying technicality that automatically puts that character’s racial identity center stage. I’m working to tell stories of cultural specificity that are outside the pigeonhole. Is that a thing?
RK: A number of people have commented that, though race-related questions are present in The Incendiaries, they’re not necessarily the central concern. And that’s part of how I experience the world—there are some days when I’m thinking a lot about race, and some days when I’m not. That said, someone once asked how I planned to “capitalize” on some of my characters’ being Korean, and goodness, what a question. Another person said something similar about my characters’ sexuality, as well as my own sexuality. Again, what a thing to say. In both cases, I had no idea how to respond.
I am also a writer and an editor, and so often, I rely on a village of other creatives who can help me through hurdles to see a bigger picture when I feel blocked or unmotivated. In that sense, is community important for you as a writer? If so, how did you cultivate a community that supports, motivates, and pushes you?
HH: I was lucky enough to get selected for the Pitch Wars contest in 2016, and the Pitch Wars community—composed of mentors, other mentees, and affiliated people—has been very important to me as I’ve gone forward in publishing.
LL: Community is incredibly important to me. I wrote my entire book [while completing] my Master of Fine Arts, and I can’t imagine doing it without my cohort and my teachers. I don’t even really mean their support and help, though of course that was monumental. Just being around other people who have decided to prioritize writing, despite everything the world and their families have told them, is immensely energizing. The solidarity makes being a writer feel possible. Another community that’s been instrumental is the community of booksellers and book lovers that I’ve met through working at Literati, the independent bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan. They convince me every day that books are awesome [and] that there aren’t enough of them. Their unabashed love of reading makes being a writer feel necessary.
For these stories now to even exist to be made into movies, there had to be generations of personal and political resistance. Everything that is changing about our world is interlinked.
RK: I have the great good luck of being part of a long-running writing group that I really value, with writers whose work I admire. Just in the past couple of years, books have been published by past and present writing-group members including Rachel Khong, Esmé Weijun Wang, Colin Winnette, Lydia Kiesling, Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, Katrina Dodson, Tony Tulathimutte, Karan Mahajan, and Jenny Zhang. This group of writers, and their writing, motivates and pushes me, for sure. In addition, I value the community of writers and readers I’ve found online. I delight in discovering new work, and getting to talk about it, particularly writing I love from more marginalized voices.
It’s undeniable that publishing and Hollywood are beginning to see the value in telling myriad stories about Asian and Asian American experiences. Celeste Ng’s books are both being adapted for screen. Crazy Rich Asians is incredibly successful. And Helen, the news recently broke that The Kiss Quotient has been optioned for screen as well. Does this feel like a moment to you? If so, why are Hollywood and publishing deciding to make space for all of these different stories at this moment?
HH: Hollywood and publishing are beginning to see minorities as a viable market, which necessitates stories about minorities where they are more than just supporting characters.
LL: Hollywood and publishing are making space because people have been fighting for decades to make this happen. And by people, I don’t just mean writers and filmmakers and their audiences, but activists who forced the dominant powers to recognize that all people were human beings; booksellers who had customers protest their store when they dared to include a non-Western fiction section; and parents who told their children to be proud of their heritage no matter what anyone tried to tell them. For these stories now to even exist to be made into movies, there had to be generations of personal and political resistance. Everything that is changing about our world is interlinked.
RK: Finally, and thank goodness! I’ve kept a stack by my desk of summer 2018 debut books by Asian American women, and I love being able to glance over and see them. I grew up with so little of it. This past year or two, writers including Celeste Ng, Alexander Chee, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nayomi Munaweera, Porochista Khakpour, Min Jin Lee, Kevin Kwan, and Jenny Han have worked and fought to open doors—as have, even more recently, Helen and Lillian—and it seems clear that more paths are becoming available to other Asian Americans. Again, finally, and thank goodness.