At lunch with Ed Lin (Waylaid)
at Hill Country Chicken on Broadway, NYC
My goal as a writer is to be able to write and sell books that are entertaining, educational and mean something to my readers. I'd love to break out with some level of mainstream success (I use the word 'success' loosely because depending on an individual's perspective the word can connote different things) and, ideally, be in a position to give up my day job and write full-time. I also wouldn't mind breaking into the contemporary Asian American writing scene and, God and luck willing, be spoken of in the same breath and with the same respect as, say, Don Lee, Lisa See, Susan Choi, Jhumpa Lahiri and Ed Lin, just to name a few. Lofty aspirations, I know, but aspirations I am working to fulfill albeit with a lot of (self-imposed) stress and anguish.
I contributed to a crowd fund last fall to help finance the publication of an issue of Hyphen Magazine, the premier magazine of Asian American culture, goings on, art, music and literature. As a result of my financial support, I was pleasantly surprised that I'd won lunch with the esteemed Ed Lin, the first author to win three Asian American Literary Awards (AALAs) and the author of Waylaid, This Is A Bust and Snakes Can't Run. We met at Hill Country Chicken (1123 Broadway, at the corner of 25th Street and near the Flatiron Building) on a wet and cold February Saturday, a few days after one of the multitude of snowstorms we had last winter. Having won three AALAs and looking at some of Ed's pics online, he looked like a very serious fellow. I am, too, but not in the way I judged Ed to be based on his accolades and the focus of his expression. So, while I was excited for our lunch, I was a touch nervous but, as soon as I shook his hand, all my apprehensions left me. Ed, you see, is a funny, easygoing guy. Naturally, we talked about writing. We also talked about 1980s video games, movies, Ninja Turtles and food. We talked about our day jobs - he's a journalist, I'm a teacher - and New Jersey where we both grew up.
We're both serious about our writing but meeting Ed and hanging with him for an hour or so, I was reminded that writers - not all of us, anyway - are stuffy high brow literati. And we don't have to be. We're real people who write about real things and fantastical things. Ed, of course, isn't the only successful writer I've met and many of the writers I've met seem like regularly people too. I'm also too old and experienced in life to get star struck but, as I pursue my writing career with serious conviction, sometimes I forget to take a moment and enjoy what life has put in front of me. Thanks to Ed Lin, just from his demeanour, I've started to enjoy those everyday moments with a fresher perspective. So, not only do I need to thank him again for some of the best fried chicken I've ever had, I need to thank him for being who he is, for 'keeping it real.'
Recently, I was interviewed by Raelee Chapman of the Asian Books Blog in Singapore. The interview went live yesterday and it focused on my experience self-publishing my first novel, Back Kicks And Broken Promises, and on my writing process, background and goals. Click here for the interview. Enjoy.
First of all, I have to apologize. It's been ages since my last post but there's a good reason for that. I've been busy.
As Chinese New Year approached with The Year of the Ram charging towards us, I looked up what the Monkey's (my sign) prospects are in the Ram Year. "Early productivity with minor financial challenges." Oh yay! And, oh yay. Not. 'Productivity' can mean so many things but I like to think that having a plan and accomplishing things towards fulfilling that plan is a form of productivity and, in the end, it will yield results. The consequent concern, then, becomes when those results actually happen. Those results - securing a literary agent, getting my YA fantasy novel picked up by a publisher, becoming a working writer - haven't happened yet but I've been making some effort and, hopefully, some headway into achieving those things.
With the Ram whispering in my year, I've been feverishly sending queries and pitches to agents on an almost daily basis. However, with a full-time teaching job, a son to raise, a family to spend time with, workouts to improve my health and fitness, a second job as a coach (it's spring season so Outdoor Track and Field is in full swing and I'm one of the Throws coaches), my time for writing is at a minimum. Here lies the conundrum. I've been working hard on trying to secure an agent and/or publisher. That, unfortunately, leaves me little time to do any actual writing.
I'm not asking for anyone's sympathy or a pity party and, perhaps, it's the OCD that runs in my family that's making focus largely solely on the business end of my writing career but I can't seem to find the balance between the business and the creative sides of being a writer. So, my fellow writers, how do you do it? I'm asking because I'm open to suggestions and when I'm not creating I feel like something's missing. Honestly, I get pissed when I don't get to add any words to my current manuscript. So, please, if you can offer any real world tips, send me a comment or an email. They'll be received with great appreciation.
As for the "financial challenges" the Monkey could have this year, who knows? Challenges don't have to be negative, after all, and if it's worth mentioning I'll write about it in a future post.
Happy Anniversary - Thirty Years Since Coming To America
I suppose there’s something about thirty, over twenty, that makes it stand out more. Perhaps it’s the simple fact that it’s ten more. Maybe things were different at twenty. Things were less busy, more hopeful, and there was a greater willingness to delude oneself.
I’m talking about years, of course, and I’m doing so because the other day it dawned on me that this year, 2015, marks my thirtieth anniversary of living in the United States and also my thirtieth year as a Taekwondo student. For me, these two things will forever go hand-in-hand. They are and will always be connected; two halves of the same whole, separate yet intrinsically one.
I started martial arts, formal training, back home in Hong Kong when I was sixteen. I studied Shotokan Karate. A month or so later, I was flying to the United States where I was going to live. I knew that was the plan but it was like a dream; surreal that I was actually going to live in the place I’d only visited once before and seen numerous times in film and television. It’s not like I wasn’t excited but I also didn’t – and honestly still don’t – know why we were making the move to begin with. Martial Arts was very much in my mind and heart at the time – and it still is - so it was natural that I wanted to continue my training. I couldn’t find a Shotokan dojo (Japanese martial art school) so I enrolled in a Koeikan Karate school. At the same time, I enrolled in a Taekwondo dojang (Korean martial arts school) and, shortly thereafter, I left the Koeikan dojo and made Taekwondo my main art. (To varying depths, since then, I’ve gotten my feet wet with Escrima, Judo, Hapkido and Gung Fu.)
My involvement in Taekwondo was partially motivated by the fact that my school In Hong Kong had (might still have) a Taekwondo club and I was supposed to go back to Hong Kong, after securing US citizenship, to finish my secondary education and I would join the school club to continue my training. I never did. So, in some ways, unbeknownst to be at the time, I think martial arts – in particular Taekwondo – has served as a connection to home.
All of this reminiscing –pining for the carefree days of youth even – comes at a time when I say goodbye to the first half of my forties and hello to the part that’s closer to fifty. Tomorrow, on Janury 31st, I turn forty-six. Last weekend, on the radio, it was one of those ‘Best of the 80s’ weekends and the 1980s was my generation. I caught song after song that were hits when I left Hong Kong and when I was slowly learning how to live in America. Last Sunday, I came across a YouTube clip of Jim Diamond’s “Should’ve Known Better” which was one of my favourite songs as a kid. Shoot, it may be one of my favourite songs ever. Naturally, the bandwidth of my nostalgia radar has been on high since.
As I look to forty-six, there are definite thoughts that come to mind. I think of how there are likely less years ahead of me than I’ve already left behind. I think of how the time I have to make a success of myself is diminishing and how the energy I have to do so is also waning. The desire is not however but, in some ways, I wish it were too. Then I could just give in to where I am and who I am and not worry about trying to better myself for my sake, my son’s sake and my family’s sake. But that’s me. I can’t. I have to forge on because of the ‘what if’ factor. I’ll never know if I don’t try, right? More importantly, I’m a martial artist. We train for technique and self-defense and competition and discipline but, ultimately, we train to battle the most difficult enemy of all – ourselves. In Taekwondo, in particular, we have ‘Mental Training.’ It’s a kind of Ten Commandments; a code of conduct for our inner and outer lives. Since the first day I took class I’ve tried to live by that code. Number Ten is ‘Always finish what you start.’ So, whatever it is – my dream to be my son’s Taekwondo instructor, my drive to become a working writer, my need to leave some kind of legacy for my son, my attempts to regain my fitness – I will finish what I start. Whether I get there or not is another matter altogether because it is in the journey that we gather wisdom and as the Zen saying goes, it’s “process, not product” that matters.
My actual Taekwondo anniversary doesn’t happen until October. My anniversary of coming to the United States isn’t until July. But, my birthday is tomorrow and when 7:30am Manila time hits, I will be forty-six and when that happens I will male a vow to leave the best legacy for my son that I can – that I finish what I start and I never give up.
MY TOP TEN BOOKS
Being a lover of books – as a reader and, of course, as a writer – and with 'Top Ten’ lists popping up almost everywhere you look this time of the year, I feel compelled, as I did last year, to share the top ten books I read in 2014. Since this list is of the books I read in 2014, be aware that not all the books were published in 2014. In some cases, the book may be thirty years old. Additionally, some books that are beloved by many may not rate as highly on my list as others may like and that may be due to many factors. Sadly, I may have already been ‘brainwashed’ by more recent books of a similar vein or I read the book around the same time the movie version came out and, having seen some previews for the film, I may have been unintentionally influenced. So, without further ado, here is my list of top ten books I read in 2014 with the one I enjoyed the most at number one.
1. Waylaid by Ed Lin (Kaya Production, 2002; first published in 2001)
2. The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2012)
3. Under The Blood-Red Sun by Graham Salisbury (Wendy Lamb Books, 2008; first published in 1994)
4. Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith (Penguin Young Readers, 2014)
5. The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances by Matthew Inman (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2014)
6. Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige (Harper Collins, 2014)
7. The Living by Matt de la Peña (Delacorte Press, 2013)
8. The Fault In Our Stars by John Green (Penguin Young Readers, 2012)
9. Amulet, volume 1: The Stonekeeper by Kazu Kibuishi (GRAPHIX, 2008)
10. Monkey King, volume 7: The Expulsion of Sun Wu Kong by Wei Dong Chen and Chao Peng (Illustrations) (JR Comics, 2012)
The Giver by Lois Lowry (Laurel-Leaf Books, 1994; first published in 1993) and Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (Tor Books, 2010; first published in 1985).
With 2014 having come to an end and as I do every year, I look back on the past twelve months and relive the standout moments, both good and bad, that happened to and for me. I look back on them to relive the memories of the fond ones and to learn from the less than happier ones. In some cases, the moment or event may have connotations for both, a kind of bittersweet episode of 2014.
I look back on these moments, too, to take stock of my life and see where I am in relationship to where I want to be. Younger people and, perhaps, single people and individuals who aren’t parents or guardians may not be in a stage of their lives where taking stock is as important but, for me, once I hit forty, I really started to feel the need to assess this – to know where I am, who I am and how far or near I am to being where and who I want to be. This annual self-assessment took on greater importance when I became a father at thirty-nine.
So, as you read on, relive the moments with me, which aren’t listed in any particular order, and relive your own 2014 highlights.
1. Arsenal wins the FA Cup. I’ve been an Arsenal Football Club fan since 1980 and have suffered the frustrations of not seeing my team win any silverware for nine year and of seeing my team underperform and/or perform brilliantly only to crumble during the second half of the season. This year, however, Arsenal showed grit and came down from a very early two-goal deficit to beat Hull City 3-2 and lift the trophy, albeit a newly minted cup, of the oldest club tournament in the world.
2. Sticking with sports, 2014 was a World Cup year, hosted by Brasil but bested by Germany. And, yes, I am a Germany fan. I grew up in Hong Kong watching Hong Kong, English and German football. There weren’t many chances to watch anything else and, while I am a self-proclaimed Anglophile, I don’t have any direct blood ties to England. I’m also racially mixed – Chinese, Filipino, German and Spanish – but for some reason I never clicked with the Spanish National Team and the Filipino National Team has been making international strides only recently. China almost competed in the World Cup in 1982, the first World Cup I truly followed, but it was then West Germany that caught my eye. With my German blood it seemed natural and I’m also a fan of Hamburger SV who, at the time, had a big hulking centre forward named Horst Hrubesch with whom I felt some kind of simpatico as I was also a big hulking centre forward. There were other players I liked too, of course: Pierre Littbarksi, Hansi Müller, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Manny Kaltz, to name a few. So, Germany became the national team I would follow and has been my number one national team ever since. So, to watch Die Mannschaft essentially breeze through the tournament, including an 8-1 demolition of Brasil, in a word, I was overjoyed. Deutschland, Deutschland über alles!
3. Another sports moment for 2014 was with my volleyball team. I coach high school girls’ volleyball and, after over two decades of coaching various sports, the girls helped me to win my first championship. We won the Colonial Division of the Super Essex Conference of Essex County, New Jersey and it came with years of hard work, sacrifice and, I’ll admit, a little bit of luck. At one point in the season, the championship might’ve been shared four ways but with my team (Columbia High School, Maplewood, NJ) winning seven straight matches in the division and other teams beating each other along the way, the title was ours and ours alone. Additionally, at the end of the season, five of my girls were named to the Colonial Division All-Conference Teams (two on first team, two on second and one on the honourable mention squad) and one of them was named and chosen to play in the New Jersey Senior All-Star showcase.
4. My son has grown, as expected, physically, mentally and emotionally. One area that really struck me this year was his confidence in the swimming pool, especially after he passed his 25-metre test. Swimming is a sport and, I believe, a life skill. It’s also a great form of exercise and recreation and, the minute after his passed his test and got his wristband indicating so, he was in the pool doing things he’d never done before – forward flips underwater, backward flips underwater, swimming along the bottom of the pool between my legs. He’s not ready to venture out into the ocean solo but just to see him grow in his confidence and swimming technique was one of the best moments of 2014.
5. We Need Diverse Books. This campaign came to fruition in 2014 and I discovered it when I attended Book Con in May in New York City. Basically, this organisation promotes books for everyone, but from my understanding mainly for young people, that have themes and protagonists and other characters that better represent them. And by ‘them’ I mean ‘us’ – the ethnic minority readers: the Asian, Black, Hispanic, and LGBTQ populations. Looking back there have already been many books written about and/by authors who fall in these minority groups but that was before such heavy-handed classification appeared in bookstores and book listings. WNDB doesn’t say there’s anything wrong with the books that are written by authors and with protags who don’t fall into these minority groups. What it’s trying to do is gain equal exposure to those that do without being called ‘ethnic books.’ Check WNDB out. Here’s the link to its website. http://tinyurl.com/mqm7flh
6. With a friend away on vacation to visit family and friends in The Philippines, my wife, son and I were able to use her place and enjoy a three-day, two-night vacation in New York City during this past holiday season. This may seem very innocuous to include in a Top Ten List, and taking it for what at face value it probably is, but for me it had special impact. You see, I used to spend a lot of time in NYC attending writing classes, visiting museums, reading The Book Review while sipping on a morning coffee at a café in The Village, writing in bookstores as my wife took ballet classes; all art-related activities. I’d been doing these things fairly regularly over the last twenty years of so. That is, until life took hold other important things needed my time and attention. And, sometimes, as humans are wont to do, in taking care of things, I forgot about the things I used to do and the things that used to drive me So, while this vacation was brief, it was different enough from the daily grind to be exciting but familiar enough to a part of who I am that I’d forgotten that it reignited the mojo inside – as a writer and as someone who wants to live life to its fullest - that’s been dormant these past few years.
7. I ran my first road race in years last October. Much like our mini-vacation, it rekindled some parts of me that I’d missed. I used to be an avid runner and, for this race, I’d committed and trained properly. On race day, although it was cold and wet, I didn’t shy away from the challenge. Instead, as I used to do, I faced it and simply ran. While I’m much slower than I was in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when I was running 6:50 miles and 21-minutes 5ks, I still ran well. I ran negative splits, felt physically and mentally prepared and, based on his comments post-race, was an inspiration to my son. Incidentally, my son ran his first road race – a kids’s 0.1 or so mile sprint – a week before my race so running was on his mind and, perhaps, it will become of one ‘our’ things as he gets older and stronger.
8. As a writer, I finished my second novel in 2014 and I pitched it so some agents. I’m still waiting to hear from a couple but the responses I got at the Writer’s Digest Conference Pitch Slam were highly positive. I’m hopeful that I’ll make major headway in my writing career in 2015 but, either way, to have finished a second novel feels really great – more than a relief - and validates, at least in my mind, that I am a novelist; that I’m not simply a one-trick pony and that I do have stories to tell.
9. My son earned his blue belt last month at his most recent Taekwondo test. This is special for me because blue belt is the first intermediate belt. My son is no longer a beginner and is on his way to becoming an advanced student. Blue belt is special to me for a couple of other reasons as well. When I got my blue belt, I’d contemplated giving up on Taekwondo (and likely all martial arts) but my sister talked me into sticking it out until black belt and deciding then whether to quit or not. Well, I stuck it out and, as the saying goes, the rest if history. I’ve been a Taekwondoist for twenty-nine years and I hold a master rank. My son, proudly wearing his blue belt, feels the monumental level of his rank as well. He doesn’t get it intellectually but I can see that he gets it intuitively by his actions. He’s also joined the sparring-specific classes, which he loves. Lastly, my wife, who trains with me on-and-off depending if our schedules allow us to workout and we can find a place to train, is also a blue belt. For me, while it’s not quite fulfilling my Taekwondo goal and dream (having my own dojang (training hall) with my son training under me and getting his black belt from me and with my wife taking classes and getting her black belt also), my son getting his blue belt means, at some point in our lives, that we’ve all been Taekwondo blue belts and there is something in Taekwondo that we all have in common (other, obviously, than the martial art itself).
10. My best moment of 2014, which I’d kept close to my heart until now, was at my son’s kindergarten Reading Celebration. At the event, which took place in his classroom on a Tuesday morning in June, saw each student read something he or she had written. Earlier in the school year, I’d gone to my son’s school and spoke at an assembly about literacy and creating characters. It was my first speaking engagement as a writer. Well, at The Reading Celebration, after hearing his classmates read reports they done in class about butterflies and sharks, I expected to hear my son read about he’d done in class on similar subjects. What he did, though, couldn’t have been a bigger surprise and nothing could’ve warmed my heart any more than his story. He’d written and read a story about how I came to his school and spoke, about how I write books and how he loves me. I’m getting teary-eyed typing this but not because my son loves me or wrote about me. Rather, for the same reasons I got teary-eyed on the day, his story made me realise he knows who I am and what’s important to me. He’s been to the school where I teach Health and Physical Education. He’s watched me coach volleyball. He’s seen me play squash, run and practice Taekwondo. But he rarely sees me write. It’s something I usually do when he’s sleeping. Writing also isn’t like running or doing Taekwondo that someone can see happening and get excited by the action. Honestly, watching someone write is boring. So for him, at age six, to get what I do and to know what I am/want to be touched my heart more than anything has ever touched my heart in my forty-five years of being on this planet. My son gets me and loves me and, at the end of it all, there’s nothing better than that.
So, that was my year. I hope you had some great moments too – great by your standards and no one else’s – and I hope we all have even greater ones in 2015. Happy New Year!
Since coming to America almost thirty years ago, I’ve been hyper aware of my mixed-ethnicity and I’ve been trying to reconcile it - what I am and where I fit in. For those of you who don’t know, I’m Asian, of Chinese and Filipino origins, and Caucasian (German and Spanish). Of my Asian side, I’m mostly Filipino but I grew up in Hong Kong so, in many ways, I relate more with the Chinese part of my ethnic makeup.
Over the past month or so, things have happened that, in my mind at least, have reinforced my differentness and/or pushed me to identifying with my Asian side. Even before these incidents, I’ve always seen myself as Asian and referred to myself as one but, when I look back on my youth, I feel that I was never quite Asian enough in Hong Kong and being an immigrant in America I’ve never felt white enough here. The impact of this duality hits home when I go to the Asian grocery store and I catch other customers giving me interesting looks of surprise, as if to say “What’s he doing here?” With my Filipino brethren, it’s funnier still when I speak Tagalog. I’m usually greeted with expressions that display equal amounts of shock, joy and disbelief. My Tagalog isn’t great by any means but, if I keep it simple, it’s passable. One time, I was mistaken for a US serviceman who learnt to speak Tagalog. And the other Filipino insisted I was even after telling her I wasn’t. Not that all non-Filipinos who learn to speak Tagalog mispronounce their words but, going by movies and shows like Back To Bataan and Bring ‘Em Back Alive, my Tagalog pronunciation and accent are actually quite good and better than that of John Wayne and Brue Boxleitner.
As a writer, I’m trying to work my way into the literary community. As an Asian American writer, I’m trying to break into that literary world as well. So, last year, when Hyphen magazine interviewed me for a piece on Asian American authors who’d self-published their books and when I was invited to submit my novel, Back Kicks And Broken Promises, to the Asian American Writers Workshop for its annual Asian American Literary Awards (although the invitation was withdrawn, as per the rules, when AAWW found out my book was self-pubbed), I was naturally excited. I was thrilled because my work and the fruits of my work were being recognised but I was further excited because I was starting to make my way into a community I hope to fully belong.
Well, recently, three subtle but impacting events helped me get closer to sorting out my feelings about my identity crisis. Before I go on, please take note that I’m talking about my identity crisis with regard to my mixed race makeup and upbringing. I embrace the fact that I’m mixed because it allows me to see things in the unique way only a mixed person can. However, not all mixed race people have an identity crisis but if my experiences can help those who do discover ways to sort theirs out then job done.
Anyway, here’s what happened. I was at breakfast with my son at McDonald’s. It was our usual Sunday thing before his swim lesson and we see the same people there week after week. There’s a very nice woman, around 60, who goes there after mass. She eats her breakfast and reads the church bulletin and, on occasion, she’s come up to us and said hello and commented on how sweet and well mannered my son is. The Sunday before Thanksgiving, she came up to us and said hello and told me that my son is sweet. She also, hesitantly, wished us a Happy Thanksgiving without actually saying “Happy Thanksgiving” and was apologetic in suggesting that we might celebrate it. She even used the words “If you celebrate.” This event enhanced my feelings of being different. It even reinforced my being an immigrant and, with my obviously Asian son with me – he must’ve gotten the majority of the Asian genes from my wife and I and not so much the German or Spanish (my wife is part Spanish also) - it reinforced that part of me also. My son, ironically, is not an immigrant having been born and being raised in New Jersey. The woman was so kind and genuine in her words that I couldn’t help from feeling like that immigrant who’s come to a new land filled with hope and promise.
The second event was when I bought a beverage at the café at my local Barnes and Noble. When I gave my name, Juan, for the person to write on the cup, she verified its spelling and said, “Wan?” I smiled and I even liked the mistake but I did correct her although, to be honest, I almost didn’t.
The third was in Chinatown last weekend. With a friend, who is also a ‘third culture kid’ like me (Filipina who grew up in Indonesia and lives in New York City), my family had lunch at a noodle shop on Mott Street. I spoke with the wait staff in Cantonese and it felt like being back home in Hong Kong – the sights, the sounds, the smells and the tastes. Funnily, even though I know fewer Cantonese words than Tagalog ones, which is embarrassing considering I grew up in Hong Kong, my Cantonese intonation is better than my Tagalog and I’m more confident with my Cantonese over my Tagalog. After lunch, we crossed the street to a store so I could buy my son a gung fu uniform. There, the elderly saleswoman and I spoke to one another in Pidgin English and Cantonese. When she asked me, in Cantonese, if I were Chinese, I answered her in Cantonese that my grandmother, my father’s mother, was part Chinese (Manchurian).
While these incidents are minor, they reinforced in me that people see me as Asian and that I can and do fit in that world; as an Asian in Asia when I go back home and to The Philippines and as an Asian living in America. They also reminded me that the keys to finding a place to belong as part of an ethnic group or as a writer or anything else for that matter are often done so incrementally and not always with a grand moment. So, if you’re like me, struggling to find his place in this world and make sense of it all, keep an eye and ear out for the little things. They won’t be obvious but they’ll often be the most meaningful.
I'm not not PC but I also think that sometimes - perhaps, many times - we're too sensitive to things. I'm Asian American (Filipino and Chinese; American, of German decent, from my mother and with a touch of Spanish from my father). I've enjoyed a joke or two with racial overtones and I don't mind ethnic humour when it's smart and, quite simply, funny. Russell Peters, for example, is one of my favourite comedians and I'm jazzed to be seeing him live next month at Madison Square Garden. In his humour, he pokes fun at his own Indian heritage. He's also had a go at Filipinos and Hong Kong Chinese. Having lived in Hong Kong for sixteen years, I regard Hong Kong as my home and my hometown. But, Mr. Peters' humor is based on observations and character traits he has witnessed and, to be quite honest, what I have seen myself. And, he doesn't take cheap shots.
When an ethnic stab is done, however, cheaply and for pure exploitative intentions, I do take offense. When I first moved to America, I was received with statements likes "Oh my God, your English is so good." Or, "You grew up in Hong Kong, so you must speak Japanese." In some ways, these kinds of statements can almost be forgiven. They're largely based on ignorance. But, when I saw this newspaper - tabloid, really - piece a couple of weeks back, my Offended Asian Radar - my OAR, if you will - took notice and I wanted to hit the tabloid's editor upside the head with it. The Canadian speedster, of Chinese heritage, is a criminal and should be punished for his twenty-four minute race through Manhattan. However, to use the headline they did, the editors and writers of that tabloid should be ashamed of themselves. Scandal and offense sell as much as sex do but this was such a blatant stab at the stereotypical trait that Asians are unable to say the letter R, instead replacing it with a L. It is true that some Asians have this, for lack of a better word, affliction but that's simply due to accents and second languages. I've encountered many a native English speaker get defensive and downright offensive when their mistakes when attempting to speak a language foreign to them are pointed out. I suspect that the editors and writers of this piece may be among them. This headline, however, is such an offensive cheap shot.
I'm writing this post purely on my immediate gut reaction when I saw this headline. Like I said, it was two weeks ago. I gave it time to simmer and/or die down. Unfortunately - perhaps, fortunately - it has simmered and not died down. I can't even recall which New York tabloid it came from. I rarely read them but I was at the barber shop and picked it up as my son was getting his haircut. As I write this, a scary thought just popped into my head. I didn't check to see who the writer of the article is and who the tabloid's editors are. What's scary and, hopefully not the case, is the chance that either party is Asian or Asian American.
The bottom line, for me anyway, is that the writer's attempt at a pun was poorly executed. The tabloid has basically printed, in bold letters no less, a racial slur. The perpetrator's careless and reckless speeding had nothing to do with his ethnicity. So why bring it up? This wasn't a hate crime based on prejudice. It was a stupid man's attempt to do something he thought was cool. He could just as easily been white, black, brown or something in between.
Like I said, I don't even know which New York tabloid it was that published that headline. I also said I rarely read them as it is. Well, I am less likely to do so again.
Confidence and Passion: A Writer's Essential Allies...Or, How To Feel Good And, Hopefully, Succeed At A Pitch Slam
It seems that the idea of change is on my mind. In one of the latest posts in my food blog, Panlasa, I talk about the changes in the way I make some dishes now compared to how I was taught to make them years ago. Here, I'm going to talk a little about the agent pitch session at this year's Writer's Digest Conference and how it has changed and how my tactical approach to pitching my work to agents may have also changed since the first time I participated in it in 2010.
I've participated in the pitch slam three times now. The first was, like I said, in 2010. That was the last year when it was part of Book Expo America (BEA) and Writer's Digest hosted BEA. The subsequent pitch sessions I attended were in 2011 and just this past August. In 2010 and 2011, I'd pitched my first (and, so far, only published) novel, Back Kicks And Broken a Promises. Unfortunately, it wasn't published through an agent, with a bestseller-making bid war and with the engine of a big traditional publishing house behind it.
When I pitched in 2010, I'd really done it just to get the experience. But I'm not going to lie. I did hold on to the dullest glimmer of hope that something might happen and I wasn't going to turn it away if it had. I'd have busted my butt to finish and polish my novel. The conference hosts's recommendation was for an author not to pitch unless his book was finished or, with utmost certainty, the author knew exactly where his book was going. The pitch session was also part of the conference, not requiring a separate fee. I decided to pitch two agents. One is Asian. I chose her, yes, because of that. I'm Asian and Back Kicks has an Asian American protag, is strong in Asian themes and is set as much in Asia (Singapore and The Philippines) as it is in America (New Jersey). This agent did ask for a submission but she obviously passed and, naturally, I was bummed out. But, I was okay with it. I hadn't felt a strong vibe with her and, really, my novel was only about two thirds done. The other agent I pitched that year, who I pitched because she's from New Jersey, also passed but she was very pleasant, encouraged me to keep writing and said she'd welcome future queries from me.
In 2011, Back Kicks was finished and I was fully ready to put it out to the world. The agents I pitched were very receptive and gave my book - its pitch, anyway - some very encouraging and flattering words. Three of them - I pitched five in the time I had - said the story reminded them of Junot Diaz's Pulitzer Prize winning The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao. All five agents requested pages and/or the book's synopsis. Alas, they all passed. So, feeling that my book was ready to go out and wanting to put some closure on it, I self-published it through Abbott Press, the then brand new indie publishing arm of Writer's Digest Magazine, in 2012. A year later, I made further revisions and updated my book with Abbott. Now, I can say I'm truly done with it. I'll still promote it and such but, in my mind and heart, it's a done deal and I can't and don't want to change it further. The agents I pitched in 2011 were YA generic, literary or adult fiction focused.
This time, I didnt just go in with the idea of a book or a newly finished manuscript. I went in with my heart and my mind. Huh? Back Kicks, like many first books, is semi-autobiographical. This can work both positively and negatively. For me, while there is a story with sub-plots, arcs and strong characters, I think it worked against me. I never like talking about myself. In typical writerly mystification, I have self-confidence and self-esteem issues and I don't think my life is very interesting yet I can write about parts of it, albeit fictionalising it, and share it with the world. So, because of my lack in self-confidence and, perhaps an artist's self-loathing, I likely didn't present myself all that passionately about my own book.
In 2014, it was a lot different. For one thing, I thoroughly researched my targets and went with the agents who, based on their bios provided by the conference organisers, were close to being a 'perfect fit.' What I've written is a YA fantasy auctioneer called Sky Warrior. It's a fun, educating and entertaining novel that I would want to read, even if I hadn't written it, and wish were a movie. There's nothing high falutin' about Sky Warrior. There's multiculturalism, action, martial arts, magic. What's not to like? Perhaps the difference in 2014 is that I'm coming to terms with what I want to write and not what I think I should be writing. At least for me, talking about and reading Back Kicks was like touring my own head. With Sky Warrior, it's a case of being taken somewhere far away and very different from where real life lives.
I pitched five agents last August. One was a movie producer and she asked me for a business card. Her partners have since passed but we're keeping our lines of communication open in case her partners change their minds and if I have anything else she might like. Two agents passed at The Pitch Slam but their bios didn't state they weren't into 'high fantasy,' which is what one of them called my novel. They both complimented me on my pitch, however. The other two were super excited. One, after I finished my pitch, said, "You had me at gung fu." Naturally, I was jazzed. I've since followed up with her and I'm still waiting to hear back. The other one was even more enthusiastic and we discovered that our sons both enjoy Nickelodeon's Avatar: The Last Airbender. I've followed up with her and she replied and she asked me to give her more time and said she'll get back to me soon. That's better than getting the broom.
So, if I can be so bold as to offer any kind of advice about pitching to agents, it's this: be passionate and know who you're talking to and/or know who you want to talk to. Nothing may come from what happened at The Pitch Slam last summer. Of course, I'm hopeful something will especially in light of how enthusiastic the agents I pitched responded to my novel. But, if nothing does, I know I can go with Sky Warrior to other agents feeling confident and passionate about it. And, nothing is more contagious and fostering in trust than confidence and passion.