“How liberated were you by the title ‘Dragon Chica‘?” a student asked me recently.
Let me just say that is one of the best questions I’ve ever been asked about any of my books. Ever.
I was visiting Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, California for Women’s History Month and had been talking about my novel. This question really thrilled me.
“Liberated” is exactly how I felt when choosing this title. I just never thought of it as “liberating” until this wonderful community college student, Colin Madondo, thought to phrase his question this way!
So for everyone who’s written to me and asked about the title, here’s my answer:
I chose the title Dragon Chica to address a number of issues I felt strongly about. 1) I wanted to drive a stake through the heart of the old stereotyped notion of the “Dragon Lady,” a term used in America to deride Asian women historically. In the 1930s and 40s, it often was used to characterize an Asian femme fatale who used her feminine wiles to seduce some hapless white man and then tried to harm or even kill him. (The wonderful Anna May Wong was obliged to play many such roles in her Hollywood film career, for example.) I thought the term had died out long ago, but then it showed up again in an obit for Madame Chiang Kai-shek (Soong May-ling) in the Washington Post! As I was working on the manuscript that would become Dragon Chica at that time, I decided to let my protagonist Nea take on the “dragon lady” term and trope. (If you’ve read the book, you know it’s explicitly referenced in Chapter 14.)
2) The title also refers specifically to part of the plot that develops Nea’s experiences in America. When she first starts school in a very small town in Texas, she is put in an ESL class for Spanish speakers. There was no ESL class with Khmer-English instruction as her family was the only Cambodian family in the town! So her introduction to America is in a mix of Spanish and English, and her first language becomes a kind of Spanglish. I liked this metaphor for the mix of cultures in the U.S. I also felt it dovetailed nicely with the plot as it reflects the ironies many Cambodian refugee children faced when entering the American school system. Schools had no experience teaching Cambodians, they didn’t have Cambodian language teachers, they didn’t have the resources available when refugees from the Khmer Rouge came to America beginning in the 1980s, and so many kids had to learn to adjust to this new American culture with very little guidance.
3) Lou Dobbs and his constant rant about Mexicans in America were driving me nuts. Many students I’ve met don’t remember him anymore (blessedly), but he was a constant fixture on CNN during the past decade (when I was working on the novel) and he made it his niche to rail about “illegal Mexicans” and about Spanish being spoken in the U.S., as though English and English-speakers were literally under siege. I thought, “This is ridiculous. There have been Mexicans in America well before many states became part of the U.S. Spanish doesn’t threaten English.” So for my title, I liked the idea of mixing English and Spanish with an overt Asian theme. That mix seems very American to me!
4) I thought Dragon Chica sounds cool. I noticed when I was teaching at various colleges that many young women of all ethnicities now refer to themselves and their friends as “chicas.” In some places the term has almost become as ubiquitous as “guys” has become for young men and boys. I liked that.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to campus and discussion with sixty some students, all of whom have read Dragon Chica in Prof. Scott Lankford’s English literature and writing classes. Dr. Lankford is himself an author, and I am a huge fan of his nonfiction book Tahoe Beneath the Surface. Even if you’ve never been to California’s Lake Tahoe, this book weaves together fascinating stories from American history using Lake Tahoe as the touchstone for topics as diverse as how California almost became a slave state, the first victims of the Donner Party, the (mis)treatment of Chinese laborers, the discovery of prehistoric fossilized trees at the bottom of Lake Tahoe, Mark Twain, Marilyn Monroe, mobsters and even the Kennedy assassination.
I can tell Dr. Lankford, in addition to being a wonderful writer, is also a great teacher by the thoughtful responses of his students.
Another question that took me by surprise was “Will there be a sequel?”
I asked the students if they’d liked to read one. And the overwhelming answer was “Yes!”
In fact, I’ve had a hard time leaving Nea and her family. I still think of them as though they were real people and not characters in a novel. And I often think about what would happen to them after the events in Dragon Chica. In fact, I was working on a number of short stories about the future lives of the characters, not because anyone asked me to, but just because I myself wanted to explore possible trajectories for the characters.
I happened to mention to my publisher that Foothill students had asked me if I would write a sequel and that I was very happy to hear they liked the novel that much. My publisher, to my surprise, immediately emailed me that the Board for GemmaMedia also had wondered if there was going to be a sequel and had been asking for it!
So guess what? I’m going to write that sequel!
I’d like to especially thank Aigerim Zholmurzayeva, Emily Romanko, Vivian Reed, Elizabeth Jug, and Ksenia S., who went out of their way after the event was over to urge me to write a sequel to Dragon Chica.
Events like this one both humble and inspire me. Writing can be a lonely process and an act of faith. There’s no way to know in advance that what I write will ever mean anything to anyone but me. Thus, it is always a joyful experience for me (and I dare say most writers) to discover OTHER PEOPLE actually like the stories and characters we’ve created!
Finally, the students at Foothill College truly inspired me with their intelligence, humanity, brilliant questions and insight. I was blown away by them. (And thank you, Shervin Nakhjavani, for your comments about a Dragon Chica movie. That would be cool indeed!)
I don’t have time at this moment to write about all the issues they brought up with their questions and comments (about Nea’s use of “cutting” to deal with her inner pain, the theme of dreams, the character of “the Witch,” the particular difficulties Nea’s brother Sam must negotiate as a male and an immigrant male, the long-term effects of the escalation and spread of war from Vietnam and America to include Laos and Cambodia and the impact upon all of Southeast Asia, etc.), so maybe I will have to write a sequel to this blog post, too.