Author Archives: yi-shun-lai

The Way We Love Books

The other day, I posted a photo of me and the mister’s four sets of spectacles, with the caption “House of nerds.” A Dick Francis novel I was in the middle of re-reading sat face-down next to them, as an aside.

The nerdery got laughs; the Dick Francis unearthed a bunch of delightful commentary, and then, a well-meaning friend posted this:

Commenter writes, "May I comment on how you shouldn't put your books down like that?"

Granted, this did not sit well with me. It might be because this has been a solid week of f**kery from all sides, but I’ll temper that by saying this has never sat quite right with me. First of all, my books, my way, okay, but second of all, this rankles particularly because I used to be this kind of person, the kind of person who would gasp if someone dog-eared pages; who said she’d rather die than mark up a book, who who who who…

You know.

And then, sometime in my mid-30s, I realized this was a front, a way for me to be seen as a serious “book person.” Moreover, it was sillypants: What the frock do I care how other people treat their books?

Another friend later weighed in on that post, saying, “It’s a mass-market paperback, not a first-edition Dashiell Hammett,” and Well-Meaning Friend wrote something back about how all books should be treated with care and how they are all the same. Which is, of course, a load of horse shit, and I do mean that in a draft-horse-sized way: mass market paperbacks were made to be accessible to people who don’t want to lay out as much money for books; their dollar value is inherently different, and historically, they may not carry the same weight. (Yeah, okay, literally, too.)

My initial comment to the whole “treat your books with care” argument was gut-check: As a writer, my books are tools of my trade, and I treat them the way I’d treat any tool: I’ll use them as I see fit, even if that includes putting them down face-down, dog-earing them, or marking them up, so they can continue to be valuable to me as tools.

Deeper down, it looks like this:

Books are utilitarian, objects of commerce. Their value is not in pristine covers and unmarked pages. Their value is in the impression you glean from them, in your excitement in passing them on; in the joy–or sense of relaxation–you get from returning to a particular book time and again.

Were I to treat books with the care Well-Meaning Friend wants me to take, I wouldn’t own any books, and therefore I’d be unable to pass them on: I’d just spend all my time at the library, in temperature-controlled rooms. I’d never know the joy of reading outdoors, under a tree, or on a beach. I’d never know what it’s like to take refuge in a book on deployment, where I can crack it open and digest a few pages before finally falling asleep, unwittingly smashing mosquitos between its covers and imprinting them with sweat from my fingers.

So yes. Books are valuable. But they are also companions. They go with me wherever. They are the tools of my trade. But they are also well loved, like my favorite pair of jeans, or my beat-up notebooks. I cannot do without them, just like I cannot do without pencils or pens and paper, and so they are bound to retain some marks of their travails.

Of course there are exceptions. A compilation of art I lugged home from England that had been passed down to me from a friend who’d had it passed down from her stepfather in the 70s, for instance. That lives on a shelf and gets dusted and bemoaned whenever a new fray appears in its book binding. The ARC of Twilight, which I read once and hated. Still, it’s a keepsake, a gift from a friend who used to work in publishing. Even that has its marks, from being carried around in my work bag on my commute while I was reading it.

This, I think, might also be the reason that I can’t really sink into an e-book. Yes, yes, there is no tactile sense of page, of progress, but there is also no sense of making something truly your own, of havingness, with an e-book. There is no “Oops, dropped it into the bathtub,” there is no “I liked this section, so I’m going to mark it up for later,” there is no “I can use this in my next class, so it needs a dog-ear or a Post-It so I remember to photocopy it for my class.” There is no sense of memory. “Hey, what’s that mark from? Is that…oh, right, that’s from that day I was eating sherbet and reading on the porch.” “What’s that…is that…is that beer? Oh, right, from reading at the brewery.” Sometimes, I open books and find foliage from the day a shedding tree dropped a leaf or a flower into the book I was reading, and that never fails to make me smile.

Of course, the final word is this: What do I care how you treat your books? It’s your library. Do as you see fit.

books open to show post-it flags; highlighted sections; ink annotations

(left to right: my own novel; Tiger Reading, by Gish Jen; The Orde-Lees Diaries, Thomas Orde-Lees)

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

On Grief

A little over a month ago, my dog died. We had to make the decision for him, and Jim and my parents had to do it: I had frittered off to England for some research on my novel-in-progress.

When Sprocket was near the end of his life (we didn’t know it with certainty until it became obvious he was in pain), I said to a close friend that I was watching myself very closely: that seminal events by definition chart who you will be, but they also show, to a degree, who you are. I have seen other people’s grief, but I wasn’t sure what I hoped would happen to me.

For many reasons watching a pet die is different from what happens to you when a close friend or relative dies. Pets are a reflection of you (yes, people are too, but just hang onto that thought for a moment), and they only ask that you love them and take care of them. People are so much more complex, and so, although I really hesitate to use the word “pure” in this context, maybe the relationship between a pet and a person is what we hope we can give to all the living beings in our lives, although things like clashing personalities and life events show us differently.

A pet’s world is tiny. It is you, your home, its pack. This small world allows for emotions that we might not otherwise exhibit.

But this post is not about that. This post is about the things that helped, that really helped, when things were really bad.

Getting on with it. Jim and I were far away from each other. But I was with my good friend Nic, who is one of those who just lets people get on with whatever it is they need to do. Grieving is one of those. It was 10AM or so California time when Jim asked if we could “talk,”–Nic and I looked at each other and said, “Uh oh”–and 6PM British time, and Nic and I were having a slow dinner, or drinks, in the little living room of the place we had rented. It was painfully teal, which is crazy, since I love teal. The chandelier had teal accents. I dripped slow tears the entire night and used a lot of toilet paper and paper towels. If I had been with someone who fussed, I may have felt mortified. But Nic just sat in the room with me, doing her thing while I was trying to do mine, and so I was perfectly fine snotting myself and just cleaning up the tears where they fell. Later, of course, I went into my room and cried horrible, wet-faced, drooling tears, and it probably helped that Nic and I were, believe it or not, in the middle of a task when Jim called to tell me what needed to be done, but still. Sometimes you just need a space to be sad.

Say everything you ever wanted to say before. We found out Sprocket had osteosarcoma in July. Between then and Sprocket’s final trip to the vet, there were two times when we thought we’d have to say goodbye. And there were the trips to the river, and trips to see friends, and weekly trips to Sprocket’s oncologist, where he got his radiation treatments. Every single time he went under anesthesia, I told him I loved him and I would see him soon, and that he was a good boy, and I thanked him for his many years of friendship. And each time we thought we’d have to say goodbye, my entire family did the same, especially the penultimate time, which happened the day before my brother and his family left us from their holiday visit. Everyone said goodbye; everyone said they loved him. My sister-in-law, who is a neat, tidy person, got down on her knees on Sprocket’s ratty old bed and hugged and kissed my dying dog on his head, and my niece sat close to him and patted him. My brother wrote to me the night Sprocket died. He wrote, “Everything that needed to be said was said.” My sister-in-law texted photos. And our vet sent a note that said we did the best we could, and that it was obvious how we cared for Sprocket. Those things together have me resolving to never leave things unsaid, even if they might be embarrassing to say. My mom, most taciturn of people when it comes to showing emotion, still says to me, “We gave him a good life, didn’t we?” For me, that means telling him at every opportunity how much he mattered, even if he didn’t speak the language, exactly.

Remember the good times. Oh, gosh. How people do like to say this. And yet, it is the truest of all things, that it really does help with the “terrible feelings of loss,” as our good friend Dan’s mother wrote to us. As I read Carol’s words, I had the same sense of skepticism I always have with what sound like well-worn platitudes, but then later that night, I could only fall asleep by remembering the feel of Sprocket’s perfect little cranium beneath my hand; his funny mustache and the whuffing he would do in our ears when he felt like we weren’t paying enough attention. Wet nose; cold tunnel-air from it; funny little toes gripping my palm when I told him to shake. And later, when we finally posted to facebook that we had said goodbye to Sprocket, we asked all of our friends to post their favorite stories or memories of him. We were not prepared for the hundreds of memories that came through, some with their own photographs. We laughed, and cried, and even though we were still apart from each other, this helped us individually, more than I can properly express.

Take joy in other people’s good fortune. I really worried that I would be one of those people who couldn’t stand to see other people with their dogs after Sprocket died. But I was in England at the time, and so there were dogs everywhere, happily going off on their own down trails and rolling in sand and also meandering around in bookstores. The evening after, Nic and I were messing around in a bookstore when a fat springer spaniel came in. It was smelling things, and I asked if I could pat it, and the thing sat on my foot and *barooooooed* randomly, and its owner said, “Flash! Flash! You must stop making that noise!” and I think I was so surprised, and so pleased, to hear myself laugh, even though I was sad, even though I couldn’t stop myself from telling her that my dog had just died. And when I finally got home and was jogging my usual hamster-wheel route around my neighborhood, I saw people with their dogs and spent all my time being grateful that these people had these creatures in their lives.

I don’t know if this grieving process will be the same as I get older. I’m sure I will learn more about it as time goes on. But these are the things I’ve learned, and maybe they will help you, too.

The very last photo I took of my boy.

The very last photo I took with my boy.

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

My reading roundup: 2017

For the better part of the last two years I’ve been trying to do better at reading diversely. I already knew I wanted to read more books by women, but I’ve been espousing this idea of reading diversely using the U.S. Census as a convenient backbone.

The most recently available figures in terms of ethnic/racial breakdwon are:

  • 5.8% Asian
  • 13.3% Black
  • 17.8% Latinx/Hispanic (The U.S. Census notes that “Hispanics may be of any race” so are also counted in those applicable categories.)
  • 1.3% Native American

I read 60 books in 2017, and here’s where I ended up:

  • Books by Asian writers: 13%
  • Books by Black writers: 10%
  • Books by Latinx/Hispanic writers: 1.6%
  • Books by Native American writers: 0%

Well. That’s not so good. On the one hand, I’m glad I managed to read widely in my own ethnic makeup, but I definitely missed the mark in terms of reading works by Hispanic writers or works by Native American writers. If I’m generous to myself, and I extend my query to the last 100 books I read, just to make it easier in terms of math, my percentage of books read by Black writers falls even further, to 8%, and even though I gain a Latinx/Hispanic writer, well, that still puts me at a miserable 2%, far, far below where I want to be.

This year I will hope to do better. This year I will read at least one book by a Native American writer. I’d been meaning to pick up the Sherman Alexie memoir, and my own publisher, who is Latina, has a book out too, so…all things I can get cracking on. You can add me as a friend to see what I’ve been reading lately.

What’s are your reading resolutions for 2018? Tell me in the comments below.

books

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Cover Letters: A brief primer

Some of you may know that I edit prose for the Tahoma Literary Review. This submission period we had a little over a thousand submissions; by the time I’m done, I will have read somewhere between 350 and 400 pieces of fiction and given feedback on a little over half of those. (We have awesome fiction readers at TLR to help with the remainder of the workload, and poetry makes up a massive chunk of those thousand submissions.)

Over the past few weeks, we’ve had some commentary and questions on what makes a good cover letter for a literary submission, so I thought I’d address that.

coverletter

First, some notes:

My policy with cover letters is so: I try to only read them after I’ve done with the submission. There are a lot of reasons for this, unconscious bias being chief among them, but because our submission engine defaults to showing me the cover letter when I open the submission, I usually will get a glance at them despite my best intentions before I get to the short story or essay itself.

Literary-magazine cover letters are different from the query letters you would write to a consumer magazine in that your piece for a literary magazine is already complete. But in some ways they are the same.

This advice is unique to this editor and to prose, but I’ll wager it covers a lot of things folks like to see in cover letters in general.

The no nos are easy: Don’t “Dear editor” me. Don’t say something like “most people think I’m drunk or on cocaine when they read my work.” And for God’s sake, do not say your writing is “picaresque,” or that it “redefines literature.” (I don’t know. This last one might be  a personal thing. *twitches.*) These are all things that have appeared in this reading period, by the way.

With that said, here are the YES, DO THISes of cover letters:

Please customize your letter. The person reading your submission is a person. With a name.

Please give me something that tells me you have actually read my magazine and/or know something of what we like to publish.*

*This is a gimme. Our editors are all online, as are our readers, and the magazine’s digital footprint is considerable.

You don’t have to tell me about your story or essay, but in nonfiction it can be especially helpful. In fiction I find people have a terrible time summing up their own work.

Please tell me a little bit about yourself. This is not a bio in third person. This is one or two lines about your most recent publications, maybe.

With all of that said, here’s what my standard cover letter for a literary submission looks like:

Dear XXXXX,

Thank you for taking the time to read my submission. I admire X publication’s [insert unique feature here]

OR

We met [XX HERE] and I was happy to hear that you [UNIQUE THING ABOUT THIS EDITOR YOU LIKE OR WHATEVER HERE.]

I’m a prose editor for the Tahoma Literary Review, and my fiction is most recently published [XXX here]. My nonfiction can be found [XX].

Thank you very much. I look forward to hearing back from you.

All best,

Yi Shun Lai

Generally, it follows very basic rules:

  • Be concise.
  • Be polite and human. Remember you’re writing to a person, not a ‘bot. I’m not a fan of the one-line “cover letters” for this reason: it looks like I’m screening for data points rather than reading for a good essay or story.
  • Please don’t aggrandize your own work or style. That’s what I’m here for, should you publish with me, and your work should speak for itself, anyway.
  • Remember that your job is to do honor* to the work you are presenting to me. So you shouldn’t, as a friend described it to me recently, feel icky or gross about it. Look at it as giving your work due credit. Start there and you won’t feel icky–doing honor to something is not the same as, um, pimping it.

Okay? In the end, I think it comes down to this: Where are you writing this letter from? Are you writing it from a position that says you want to put something new into this world of reading? Yes? Then put that foot forward.

Okay. Now. Go forth and write. TLR opens to submission again 1 January 2018. Until then, ask me any questions below.

*I stole this from Alex Maslansky, bookseller at Stories Books and Café in LA. I have used it a bajillion times and I’ll keep on using it. It makes sense.

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

What Do Your Characters Carry Around in Their Pockets? (Or, Bite Me, #EverydayCarry)

There’s an exercise I sometimes use on both myself and with writing coaching clients: What does your character carry around, all the time, in his or her bag, or in their pockets? I am obsessed with this exercise: It allows you to get in deep while seeming frivolous; it’s about the character’s must-haves, their daily dependencies.

I like this idea for myself and my friends, too: My friend Peter and I used to talk frequently about the notebooks we carried, and the pens we liked the most.

We met as adventure racers, so we would chat about the must-have stuff in our kit–knives, compasses, rolls of duct tape, things like that. As our friendship evolved, we discovered that we were both analog people who liked letters and other ways of putting things down on paper, so we that’s how we got around to discussing notebooks. I think Peter uses a carabiner for a keyring, and I used to carry one around in my bag for absolute handiness’ sake.

There were other things I carried around with the carabiner. The aforementioned pocket knife and notebook, for instance. Eventually, the list of things I carry around grew to include a first-aid kit, some stamps, pen, obviously. It was just stuff in my bag. But I noticed something really unpleasant awhile ago:

#EverydayCarry

Yes. Yes, hashtagEverydayCarry! I am sure this is not a new thing to most of you, but for me, it is new and also highly distasteful. Everyday carry is a style thing. It has its own wikipedia page. It has its own web site. People post pictures of their “EDC”–YUCK!–and, oh, horror of horrors, the individual items seem to always match each other, like some kind of…oh oh. I don’t know…hipster fashion show, if you could have a fashion show for the crap you carry around in your pockets or in your gigantic briefcase manbag thing.

Look, just look: here is the Wikipedia definition of everyday carry, and no, you cannot get me to cap it ever again.

Everyday carry (EDC) or every day carry refers to items that are carried on a consistent basis to assist in dealing with normal everyday needs of modern society, including possible emergency situations.

Here is one from Primer magazine, which claims to be a magazine that is a “guy’s guide to growing up.” (Cue retching.)

Though no true point of origin exists for everyday carry (EDC), it might just have its roots in the old school gentlemanly approach to daily accoutrements in the 18th and 19th centuries. Back then, it was not uncommon for men to carry items like pocket watches, handkerchiefs, snuff or pipe tobacco tins, wallets, and pocket knives.

Finally, here is one from Gallantry magazine. (Gallantry? Gallantry? Really?)

Boiled down to its basest* elements, EDC refers to the things that one requires to make it through any given day. So, for a caveman, that would mean something like: a bow and arrows for hunting, a small blade for skinning and field dressing meat, and an animal hide satchel in which to haul everything.

People. The preciousness. The self-importance. Say it with me. Beriberi.**

Now look. I don’t have a problem with the idea of everyday carry. I just hate the fact that it has its own name. I hate that, for the most part, the stuff listed as “everyday carry” is expensive. I hate that, on the pages that show off everyday carry from site users, it all looks new. And very, very military. Oh, excuse me. Tactical.

I have an “everyday carry.” Most of us do. You wanna see it? Here.

FullSizeRender 2

I know. it’s fugly. But it does the job. Here’s what’s in it, clockwise, from top left: First aid kit. Pouch what-stores-it-all. Pen. Knife. Tide bleach pen, because girlfriend gets messy frequently. Notebook. Calendar with odds&ends (museum cards, stamps, postcards, etc). Now, I’m not going to lie and say that some of this stuff wasn’t expensive. The pen, for instance, was $20. But that’s because I write for a living and I like to feel good when I’m doing it. But nothing matches. And I use the crap out of everything in that photo. Which is why it all looks like garbage.

I used to think I was mostly turned off by how new everything looks when people post photos of their everyday carry. Kind of the same thing that turns me off of the whole mason-jar thing now. I mean, how many people have actually used their mason jars for their intended usage? Why do they all look so shiny? Why are they décor, for poop’s sake?

But then I read this, again from Gallantry magazine:

Nowadays, EDC encompasses all those items which the modern man carries on his person day-in and day-out to ensure that he is prepared for whatever might come his way.

And I realized what it is that really cheeses me off about these sites, this definition of “everyday carry.” They are all for men. All of them. Not a single one even considers that barrage of stuff that women have to carry around. They are all tricked out in black and chrome and titanium, and oh, far be it from me to think that I can’t carry off these accessories just as well as the next guy out there, but damn. Damn. Far be it from them to admit that women probably have this EVERYDAY CARRY thing down to a rocket fucking science.

[Pushups]

“Eighteenth and nineteenth century gentlemen”? Gimme a break. Those fops–the “gentlemen”–didn’t carry anything around. You know who carried shit around, every day? Women. I mean, look at this thing:

photo: V and A Museum, London

photo: V and A Museum, London

This is a gol-darned chatelaine. Yeah, you over there, the gentleman in the powdered wig, and you too, with the gigantor multitool you claim is for “everyday use”–this is a thing women used to wear around their waists on a belt, with their household tools on it. Scissors. tiny book and pen. Keys. Letter opener. Sometimes, a thimble or a vial of scent, you know, all the better to darn your smelly socks with.

Everyday carry for women goes back years and years, you see. It goes on today. We just didn’t feel the need to pretty it up, make ourselves a hashtag for it. And we certainly don’t need to style a whole photoset of it.

Besides, you’re not fooling me, you #everydaycarry people. I know what your real everyday carry looks like, even if you are wearing a Bell diving watch on your wrist and occasionally admire your own pocket knife. If you’re anything like the men in my life, you are carrying around a too-big wallet that is going to give you sciatica, your phone, and probably a tube of lip balm.

Unless you’re Peter. Then you’re inadvertently lumped into the category of glorified packrats, but I see you. I know you use your notebook and your pen and actually have a reason for your carabiner. You’re okay, in my (note)book.

*Uh, guys? You don’t mean “basest.” That means most lacking in moral quality. So…um. Yeah.

**”Beriberi” is Sinhalese, according to some sources, for “I cannot, I cannot.” It is also a disease resulting from thiamine deficiency. Some days it is my personal mantra. I invite you to use it with me.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

When Your People are Hurting: Part II

Part II: Far

In 2012, I went to Peru with ShelterBox. In the state we were working in, pocket communities needed shelter after their homes had come down in mudslides. And in 2011, in Arkansas, a community needed help after tornados came through their region. In Malawi in 2015, big floods wiped out farmlands and grass huts.

In each of these disasters, before I deployed, friends asked, “What’s going on there?”

I never get tired of answering this question, for a specific, singular reason: People always care.

Even in these terrible, fractured times, folks are always concerned when we tell them what we’re working on. Perversely, they are even more concerned if it’s a disaster they’ve not heard of happening, or if there’s something else happening closer by that’s been taking over the news cycle.

Here’s the hard, horrible truth about refugee or displaced persons situations, whether manmade or natural: Our attention is demanded by so much else, our world so much smaller now, that the suffering of people both near and far can slip off your radar screen before you even know it existed. So when I get a chance to let people know about things that are going on that they may not have been aware of, I see it another way to help.

It’s easy to forget that people still care. While we can’t deny that humanitarian plights are too often used as political action points, we should also remember that everyone deserves an equal chance at life, especially if they’ve been through things the lucky among us can’t even fathom having to experience.

While eyes are on the damage Hurricane Harvey has caused right now, ShelterBox is operational in eight other locations and monitoring several other crises. My teammates are working in Nepal and we’re positioning a team for Bangladesh; our partners are busy working in Cameroon, Chad, and Niger, and our work with the Syrian refugee crisis is in its 6th year.

The New York Times‘ Neediest Cases fund runs a campaign that costs nearly bupkus. Throughout the year, you’ll see a boldfaced phrase at the bottom of columns or scattered in other places across the paper; it reads, “Remember the Neediest!” Whenever I see this, I think of people far away from areas of terrible disaster and displacement, thinking of those who are the neediest.

Thank you for your support. Every donation helps agencies who respond to crises to be ever ready.

spinning-globe

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

When Your People Are Hurting: Part I

Part I: Near

In the summer of 1999, I was living in New York and pursuing the beginnings of a dream career. That same summer, a magnitude 7.7 earthquake jilted my home country of Taiwan. It was big enough to rattle the neighboring county to the epicenter, where both my mother and my father’s families are from.

My family and I had moved to the United States many years prior, but we still visited every one or two years; my favorite aunt lives there; I have never quite been able to extricate the image of my maternal grandparents’ house, the big house in the country, built around a lush central courtyard, from the thought of “home.” (It makes a major appearance in my novel, published 38 long years after we left.)

At my paternal grandparents’ house in the city, I learned to use chopsticks and never forgot the cool cement floor, nor the rosewood bureau at which I sat and opened every lotion bottle of my grandmother’s, smelling what it was like to be grown-up. In the front of the building, where it met the street, was my father’s surgery. Then there was a small courtyard, and then there was my grandparents’ house. We could hear murmurs of street noise, and I could go through the surgery and around the corner to the breakfast bar. When I very young, I did such things.

But when the earthquake hit, I was far away from both of those places. Later, I’d find out that the great front hall of the country house had collapsed. The house would never have the same facade, although the family salvaged as much as it could, and the local university’s architectural department came by to study the pieces and the construction of the place. The city house, farther from the epicenter, seemed to be okay.

Taiwan house, post earthquake

Taiwan house, post earthquake

All our people were safe. The dogs who live at the country house and guard its many courtyards and connecting pathways must have made horrible racket, that night.

It is genuinely awful to be so far away and not be near when these things happen.

A decade later, a typhoon struck Taiwan, and this time, I was better equipped: I’d just passed the rigorous training required to become a member of the ShelterBox Response Team, and we were deployed to help with emergency shelter. We did what we could, in as rapid fashion as we could, and I was able to come home feeling like maybe I had done something.

Two years later, tornados made their destructive ways through Missouri and Oklahoma, and we got a phone call from the leadership of a Rotary district in Arkansas. Arkansas, they said, had been completely overlooked in the national relief effort. Could we come have a look? We went, me from New York and another teammate flying the even shorter distance from his home in Austin, Texas.

yiinAR

Today is the Tuesday after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas. The same team member who went with me to Arkansas is keeping a close eye on the relief situation as it develops down there, along with another team member based out of Dallas. If all the pieces come together to spell out a story in which our aid is needed, the team will begin the task of deploying aid and helping families.

There’s something unique about responding to a disaster in which people just like you are suffering. When you land on the ground, you speak the same language; the landmarks look familiar to you; you understand the customs and the people. It is a uniquely heartbreaking experience.

And yet–and yet. We should all want for such a time, when we can do good by the people closest to us, by the people who share our cultures and our aspirations. We should all aspire to be ready to loan a hand where we can, especially in those places we frequent, among the people in our neighborhoods.

Photo: Reuters

Photo: Reuters

A friend once wrote that she was delighted to have been able to participate fully in the jury duty process: She was selected to serve on a jury, and got to see the trial all the way through. She came away, she said, enlightened, grateful to have had the opportunity to serve.

Service can be like this. It can be leveraged on us by our state, or we can choose it for ourselves. But sometimes, it lands smack on your doorstep, and then you can’t help but answer its insistent ring. Today, I’m thinking of my teammates, and how close this disaster is to them, and how glad I am that they are there to answer the calls of the people who need them.

For more on ShelterBox’s response to #HurricaneHarvey, please click here: http://www.shelterboxusa.org/harvey

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Me and My Headshot

Three things happened in the past few weeks or so that have me noodling about the way we present ourselves to the world.

  1. A friend, upon seeing me at a panel with my accompanying headshot, said, “Well, that’s pretty glam.” I said back, “Well…it has to be. It goes on my publicity materials and on book jackets.” “I didn’t expect that,” he returned.
  2. A friend asked to adapt my book as a screenplay. I returned the request, as far as I can recall it, thus: “I’m flattered, thank you! What are your thoughts as to royalties and rights agreements?” His reply: “Whoa, tiger.”
  3. Making some calculations one day with another friend, I said, casually, “I’m absolute shit at math. I know, I’m a terrible Asian.” Some minutes later, he said, “I have a question: Aren’t you, by making that comment, just perpetrating a stereotype?” Stymied, I said, “Ummm. Yes. Of course. But it makes people laugh.” “Ahhh,” he said, and didn’t need to say any more.
  4. Years ago (okay, this is a bonus), when Jim and I were training for Ironman, we kept on meeting people who would say, “That’s AWESOME. I’m so impressed,” or some variation thereof, and I’d inevitably counter, “No. It’s stupid.” Someone challenged me once. “But it’s great,” he said. “Such a commitment.” “And idiotic,” I insisted. “But amazing,” he returned. “Really dumb endeavor,” I said. He finally capitulated. “Okay, fine, it’s dumb.”

I find myself revisiting these events. They’ve made me consider the way I present myself, and the advice we often see to be proud, to be not afraid of the greatness we can accomplish, to [insert whatever roaring Pinterest quote you want here about being your best you, or something like that].

Oh, sure, it’s easy to encourage that. The reason we must do it is much more complex.

I am surprised every time someone else is surprised by the fact that I have a professional headshot. Or that I’m asking about royalties and things like contracts for use of my work. Or that I demand to be paid for my work. The immediate internal rejoinder is this:

  • Of course I have a headshot. What’d you think, I was going to just slap some selfie on my book cover?
  • Of course I’m going to ask for a contract. Whaddya think this is, some kind of Mickey Mouse operation?

And yet, when you look at the way I’ve presented myself over the years, it looks like some variation of the Ironman conversation, or this:

[Waits for someone else to bring up my novel. Someone asks about it.] Me: It’s just a debut novel. Tiny press. Tiny but mighty. You won’t have heard of it. It’s a very slim book. Some say it’s funny. It’s taught on some college campuses. Yes, there will of course be a second. But! [weakly] It’s a semi-finalist for a major humor prize! 

It’s no wonder folks are surprised that I’m asking for a contract, or that I have a pro headshot. I have set them up to expect something less than professional.

The last two examples I give you, I think, are more complex. They’re still about the way we present ourselves, but they’re tied up in that elephant in the room, the issue of not wanting to rock the boat because immigrants already look different. If we keep our heads down, the common wisdom goes, we’ll be safer.

(Additional background: In my parents’ culture*, it’s bad luck to praise your children, ever. It’s thought that the spirits will hear you praising them, and take the lovely, over-achieving children away. So we weren’t ever in the habit of hearing praise. And getting it always made us feel pretty embarrassed, like we didn’t know what to do with ourselves.)

That third one is tied up in a sentiment I read a loooong time ago in a young adult novel (was it _The Cat Ate My Gymsuit_?) about getting in the jibe about yourself before someone else gets to it. You see, it hurts less coming from yourself.**

When you look different, you’re an automatic target. Your parents want the best for you, so they tell you to keep your head down and just quietly achieve. But quietly achieving things doesn’t make you any less of a target, when you are any kind of minority in any kind of society with any kind of pre-determined ideas about who you are and how you are supposed to behave. Heck, I’ve never been a great achiever, either in the quiet department or in the regular achievement department, and I’m still trying to keep my head down. It’s baked into my DNA.

And so, you get this: “You’re loud, for an Asian.” “Over-achiever, right? Typical.” “Lemme guess, your parents wanted you to be a doctor.” “You’re a writer? Wow, that’s…unusual, for your culture.” And, of course, “You can’t do math? I thought Asians were supposed to be good at math!” sometimes preceded by, “Your English is really, really good.”***

And, from my family: “Shhhh. Good girls don’t laugh like that.” “Don’t get into an argument with that person. They’ll make life hard for you.” “Just let it go.”

And so we come back to the advice, every piece of blithe cheer we get that’s meant to motivate and inspire:

You are enough

You are worth it

You are beautiful

Love yourself

No one is going to love you if you don’t love yourself. 

 

People, that shit is hard. You don’t just wake up one day and go, “Hey! I’m going to love myself!”**** And yet, we struggle to get there. The internet is awash on how to do so. But no one ever tells you why you should.

loveyourself

Now look, because we are logical creatures and like things to fit together, there must be a reason we are willing to do this. We don’t just up and do these things.

Here’s why it’s important to represent yourself with pride, to give your accomplishments due credit. It’s easy: It’s really very tedious to backpedal from everything you’ve ever said about yourself before. It’s also an uphill battle, and one you might not ever win.

Trust me. I know.

So here’s your friendly tip for the day: You don’t need to love yourself every day. You don’t need to go around Wonder Woman-posing every chance you get, and you don’t need to stick up those lovely inspiring quotes from Tiny Buddha or Muse or Buzzfeed or whatever at eye level all around the house.

But you need to be able to recognize your achievements for what they are. Call them as you see them. Neither aggrandizing them nor minimizing them will do any good at all.

Eventually, you’ll get used to seeing yourself with clarity.***** And that’s a very, very good thing, even if there’s no meme-quote-illustration thing out there for it.

*This is a shift. I’ve always referred to it as my culture in the past, but let’s be real. I’m very Asian-American, and my parents are very Asian.

**This makes me sound like a snowflake, but there’s nothing I can do about this.

***I confess one of the most joyous, freewheeling exchanges I’ve ever had was with a close Jewish friend. We were sat at an Ukranian restaurant having lunch. The check came and I struggled with the tip. Alan barked, “What the hell kind of Asian are you? Here, give it to the Jew!” and snatched it from me. The WASP we were with looked utterly horrified, and we laughed and laughed. It’s different if you’re saying it about yourself, do you see?

****This leads down the rabbit-warren to ever more motivational quotes. “I am a work in progress,” “One day at a time,” “Today is a new day,” yadda, yadda, yadda.

*****c.f. above motivational Work in Progress. Heh.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

An Obituary for My Aunt (Of Obituaries and Passing Regrets, Part II)

Shu Chuang Wang, my mother’s elder sister, passed away April 8, 2017. She is the first adult to have been there for so much of my own life to die. She is the person we relied on when we moved to the United States. We lived in Kansas, near her family, for our first few months here, and those first few months seemed unreasonably happy, an approximation of our life in Taiwan, where our relatives lived just one door over.

 

We were one town over, and I do not have concrete memories of those months. But I know my cousins Ken and Charles, and Ah Yi and Ah Diun, my uncle, were nearby. Later, we’d meet Edward, the youngest, and with Bor, my younger brother, our playing was nearly always a noisy mess, one or two or maybe all of us getting into trouble.

I know we visited Kansas after our move to Pennsylvania, after our move to California. I know Ah Yi brought her family to come visit us, no matter where we were. I know we took crazy American-family road trips together, all nine of us crammed into one station wagon. We kids were small enough to sit in the footwells. I remember being crammed up again Ah Yi’s leg, as she rocked it back and forth to exercise, keeping herself from getting bored on the long, long drives.

I do not remember Ah Yi in trousers, ever. Ah Yi was a perpetual lady. Long after high collars went out of style, and floral prints, she wore them, and made them look like they belonged. She was the great beauty of the family, see, and she decorated her home accordingly. Bouquets of flowers; portraits of her family everywhere.

She loved them like I’ve never seen anyone love before. Her three boys, my cousins, were–I don’t know–people to admire, people who could do whatever. Love does that to someone. Love elevates you to believe you can do, and my cousins can do. Anything. Whatever they want. Nothing is too far out of reach, or beyond you, if you’re loved.

My aunt is big on personal style. Over the years, she’d say to me, “I don’t have a little girl, so I will buy pretty things for you.” And, from Kansas, boxes sometimes arrived, always in time for Christmas, with pretty things in them, or, better yet, accompanied by Edward and Ah Yi, and sometimes Charles and Ken.

Usually, for me, they were sweaters. I have kept nearly every Ah Yi sweater that still fits. My oldest is a good decade old. I got it while I was living in Chicago, and it looks to me like a roll of Life Savers. it is cheery and fun and I love it. I love it even more because my Dad refers to it as my Lobster Sweater. He thinks its striations look like the belly bands on a lobster.

This made my aunt laugh.

The sweaters are always on-point. I picture her, holding one up to the light in a department store, turning it this way and that…”Can I see her in this? Maybe not. Maybe this one. It’s cute. It’s a little trendy. I think she would like this.” I like this imagery, so I keep the sweaters my aunt got me, and I imagine that image, that thought process, every time I wear one, every time I wrap myself in one, every time I pull some lint off one.

Of the women in my mother’s family, my aunt is the most touchable, the least prickly. I don’t know if this comes from a lifetime of living with boys or what, but she never balked at holding your hand, or patting you, or saying hello with a squeeze. I love this about her.

I went to visit her yesterday for Mother’s Day, with Jim. We sat and talked to her and put some flowers in the little vase-thing and clipped a balloon to them, and then we sat on the grass and looked over the view, and when we left, we waved and said, “Bye, Ah Yi.”

She was like that, you see. You could always go talk to her, and leave, and then come back, whenever you liked. This was the feeling she gave you.

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Of Obituaries and the Passing of Regrets, Part 1

I spent a good amount of time last week editing obituaries for my day job. While such a task can feel honorary, part of the work made me sad. Not for the passing of the people, exactly–most of them were old and seemed to have lived full lives–but more for the way in which we commemorate the ones who have gone before.

Within the 21 obituaries I edited, I came across several mentions of service clubs and church activities. There was talk of having contributed to community by service on housing associations. Several had served in the military. One talked about a lifelong passion for planes (the obit itself was airplane-themed, tying the deceased’s birth to Lucky Lindy’s flight one year before across the Atlantic). Every single one of them mentioned work. Only two or three mentioned the deceased’s personality, and that, I think, is what really had me wondering: What’s our real legacy in this life? In the end, should we be aiming more for the types of notes we left in each other’s yearbooks senior year–“You were always nice to me”–than a list of accolades, which we won’t be able to enjoy in the afterlife, and which our descendants and loved ones will only be able to keep under glass and look at in the years after our passing?

hp photosmart 720

(via Kelly Davio.)

Last week, my book turned 1. Originally, this was going to be a post about the things I learned over the course of the year. I think now I’ll save that for another post–soon, I promise–and talk to you instead about a guy I knew in college, a writer named Gerald McDermott. To save you from going to Wikipedia, I’ll briefly tell you these facts: He wrote and illustrated children’s books, and he also made some short films.

He was also my first real brush with the world of publishing. He came to speak at my alma mater. I don’t remember what he talked about, exactly–I think it was about mythology, since he was an expert in that–and he also read his Caldecott-winning book _Arrow to the Sun_ to us.

Arrow-to-the-Sun

The most important fact of all is that he was generous. He was kind, and keen to help someone like me, who was interested in book publishing. We had a few e-mail exchanges after he came to talk, even after graduation, and he always was responsive. He made me feel like I could get to that world if I wanted to. In the end, I didn’t go into children’s publishing or picture books, and I think our last exchange may have been–gosh, not long after I moved to New York, I guess, so three years or so after I met him. A long time ago.

At any rate, I still remember his openness. The fact that he was so willing to help. I didn’t know or understand the Caldecott Medal when we met, but now that I know he won it years ago and was a close friend of Joseph Campbell, I am stunned that he had the time to exchange missives with a dopey college student who didn’t know any better than to not bother someone of his…time constraint.

Anyway, the day my book turned 1, I got a wild hair to write to Mr. McDermott again and tell him that I’d actually made something of myself in publishing. I think I owe some of my policy on helping new writers to him, although I didn’t really think of the connection until last Saturday.

We have the Internet now, so I didn’t have to go rooting through my desk drawers in my parents’ house looking for his business card. (I’m sure it’s still there somewhere.) I was super excited to write to him. I don’t know if I really cared whether or not he replied. I guess I just wanted him to know that he had made a difference.

And then I found out he died in 2012.

I don’t think I know how to rightly express to you what a crusher this was.

Gerald McDermott, January 31, 1941 – December 26, 2012

Gerald McDermott was a Nice Guy. He was interested in everything, and even when approached by bright-eyed, bushy-tailed college students who asked if they could be his intern right there on the spot, was unflappable. He answered all the questions and made every single one seem worth asking. He let people down gently, or maybe they were too obtuse to know otherwise, but this is about Gerald.

Gerald thought in big, bold lines and bright colors. His commitment of legends and myths to paper and film made them accessible to probably tens of thousands of people who would have never otherwise known about them. He was one of those rare storytellers who could make the most basic child’s lament come true: “I wish I could see this story in real life.” Lo, Gerald could make that happen.

Gerald had very friendly eyes. He had great laugh lines and crow’s feet, and a good beard. His e-mail style was exclamatory, happy to hear from you, even if there was never a single exclamation point.

This is what you need to know.*

Here is something else I would like you to know: If you met someone a long time ago and they made a difference, don’t wait. Send them an email, a piece of fan mail, ping them on their facebook page. Do this not because I’m sure every author/actor/whatever would love to hear from you. Do this because, if the goal of life is to make it through with no regrets (as I get older, I think this is a pretty good one), you don’t want to be stymied by something as idiotic as “Gee, I never wrote to them to tell them how great I think they are. What a wasted opportunity.”

Who would you like to write to? Why not do it, today? I don’t mean the famous types, either, guys. I mean, the people you just like, the ones who are famous to YOU. Go on. Pick up the phone. Drop a postcard. You won’t be sorry.

P.S. The guy who owns GeraldMcDermott.com now recognizes the former owner of the site by archiving McDermott’s old site on his server. I think this is such a nice gesture.

McDermott

 

*Some of you may know that the selection of McDermott’s book as a winner, and his interpretation of the tales he retold, were under scrutiny. This post isn’t about that, but you can read up on it here, if you like. It’s a worthwhile discussion to have. 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.