Archive for the ‘Hapa Girl’ Category

Video interview about my new novel, Tiger Girl, family, secrets, and hybridity! We also talk about some of my other books, including Hapa Girl, The Girl from Purple Mountain, and Dragon Chica.

And you can read more about it by clicking on the Inlandia Literary Journal blog.

Much thanks to John Bender, Metro Editor of the Riverside, CA, Press-Enterprise newspaper; Orlando Ramirez, editor of La Prensa; and Cati Porter, executive director of the Inlandia Institute.

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Here is an essay I wrote for the diversity series at  ForeverYoungAdult.com.
(You can check out their website and follow them on Twitter @4everYA for more YA news, tips, and interviews!)

Heck YA, Diversity!: Are ‘Ethnic’ Heroines a Tough Sell?

Author May-lee Chai stops by to discuss the trubs she had with publishing her “ethnic” heroine book, Hapa Girl — and how her following books (Dragon Chica and Tiger Girl) found a home with the YA crowd.

Heck YA, Diversity!: Are ‘Ethnic’ Heroines a Tough Sell?

For this week in Heck YA, Diversity!, we’re pleased to be joined by May-lee Chai, author of Hapa GirlDragon Chica, and the upcoming Tiger Girl, who shares her personal experiences in getting books with “ethnic” heroines published.

Are “Ethnic” Heroines a Tough Sell?
by May-lee Chai

A number of years ago, I was working on a memoir about the violence my family encountered when I was growing up. When I was twelve, we moved from the New York City metropolitan area to rural South Dakota where people used to stop their cars and pickups to stare at us as we walked together on the sidewalk. We were the first mixed-race family with a Chinese father and a white mother that people in that community had ever seen. It was a town of five thousand residents, ten bars, and a university. My parents had assumed because there was a university there, people would be more tolerant. But that wasn’t the case.

My parents had bought a small farm, and men took to driving by our house on the weekends to shout racial slurs at us. As this was the 1980s and the time of Japan-bashing in the media, many of those slurs were “Jap!” or “Japs!” Later men took to shouting at our property and over the years five of our dogs were shot dead in our driveway.

Adults as well as some of my classmates told me to my face that the Good Lord had not intended for the races to mix and that’s why he’d put them on separate continents. (This notion, by the way, was one of the reasons a judge in 1965 ruled that interracial marriage should be illegal.) I was seen as a sign of the End Times, of a coming Apocalypse when Satan would reign on Earth. Mixed-race people like me simply should not exist.

Well, that was a tough environment to grow up in, as you might imagine! But I thought it was very good material for a memoir. I’ve got inherent drama, conflict, and a survival story. Hey!

I’d been working on the manuscript for a while when a literary agent with a list of very famous clients said she wanted to represent the book. I was naturally thrilled. However, I soon discovered her idea of the book was very different from mine. She told me she wanted me to focus on my father and mother’s marriage and to eliminate my brother and me from the book. (I just got removed from my own memoir! I thought. How the hell do I write that? Who’s going to narrate?) Then she said she wanted me to focus on “the good people of South Dakota” (rather than the racists who shot and stared) and write about my parents’ “cultural” differences and how they overcame them.

Well, how exotic, I thought. And I told the agent that I couldn’t re-write the book in that way. It just wasn’t my conception of the story.

The agent’s reaction was so alarming and upsetting to me that I didn’t try to contact another agent. Instead I ended up selling the book myself to an academic press (Temple University Press) who published books about Asian American history. Academic presses and small presses don’t need agents to send manuscripts to their editors; they will work directly with authors. The decision worked out well for me. My memoir, Hapa Girl,  received a great full-page review in the international edition of Time magazine and received a number of literary accolades. It continues to be taught in colleges and universities across America. Eventually, I also found a wonderful agent who understands what I’m writing about and knows how to represent my work.

But part of me wonders how many other writers out there get discouraged from writing the stories they wanted to tell by the same kind of sh*tty “advice” that had been given to me. And how many of these writers don’t persist and find another agent or don’t know how to approach a press on their own? What if they just take the rejection to heart and give up? Or worse, try to write the kind of bland story that they’re told to write?

I think part of the problem is that there are people in the publishing industry who underestimate readers. One of the great things about the YA field is that editors assume readers want a grittier kind of story. Adolescence sucks. It really does. Growing up is hard. School can be brutal. Families and community can let us down. And young adult readers know this. They’re not looking for a pretty, bland story that’s been watered down for mass consumption.

For this reason, I thought my novel Dragon Chica would work for a young adult audience. It’s the story of a young Cambodian girl, Nea Chhim, facing down adversity from poverty to gangsters to family fights as she grows up in the Midwest. I tried to tell the story in a way that the character and her family and their problems felt real to me, and so that the reader could get to know them. Dragon Chica (GemmaMedia) ended up doing very well with YA readers. The YA genre attracts so many people, young and mature, because readers have discovered this is where the gritty books get published.

My next novel Tiger Girl, which continues the story of Nea Chhim in America, is also going to be marketed as YA. In some ways, I think it can be easier to have an “ethnic” heroine in a YA novel than in a book marketed only for the adult literary crowd.

The problem is not readers. I know there are a lot of readers—of all ethnicities!—who want to read interesting stories with interesting characters and strong heroines. Perhaps because of what has historically been sold, perhaps because of what Hollywood continues to mass produce, some people in the industry are indeed afraid of “ethnic” heroines. They worry that they won’t appeal to a mass market. They don’t know how to market them. Then they worry when the heroine doesn’t seem exotic enough.

And bringing in a person of color means we’re also bringing up history and race in America. Those are tough subjects. They are not bland.

Sometimes when we talk about race and racism, (I know because I’m a teacher), people think the r-word means “I hate white people!” and they’re afraid to listen. White people don’t want to get beat up, figuratively or literally, any more than anyone else does. But acknowledging a character’s ethnicity allows us to talk about history and community and how power is constructed and how we have to fight against this power divide if we’re going to survive as individuals and as a nation. We shouldn’t be afraid because we really need to have this talk.

Besides, that’s what the best novels allow us to do: Enter scary terrain and emerge all the stronger for it.

Thanks for stopping by, May-lee! Check out her website or find her on Twitter (@mayleechai).

(originally posted on the Forever Young Adult website: Published June 28, 2013 by )

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I was very happy to learn that a class of students at San Francisco State University were reading my book, Hapa Girl, this semester. English Department instructor Sheryl Fairchild invited me to her class this week to meet with her students and discuss the book.

The students had prepared great questions and observations about Hapa Girl, and we discussed the impact of fear mongering in the media on communities and individual lives, ongoing fear of interracial marriage (including the case of the Kentucky church that recently voted to ban interracial couples!), the current atmosphere of hostility against Muslims and Mexican immigrants compared with the anti-Japanese fears of the 1980s, and the need to speak up in the face of injustice.

I was impressed with all the students’ intelligent comments, questions, and conversation. Whenever I meet a great class, I know I’m also witnessing the work of a great teacher who has taken a lot of time and thought to put together her curriculum (in this case students read literature on social justice themes), and then teaches it well. Brava to Sheryl Fairchild!

(You can see Sheryl in this photo–she’s second from the right, leaning forward:)

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Had a great time in Albuquerque and especially at the University of New Mexico this past week!

At San Felipe de Neri, oldest church in Albuquerque (1706)

Albuquerque really put on a show: heat, a dust storm with 63 mph winds, snow (!), and then more of that famous southwestern sunshine! All in the space of three days. Wow. I was impressed, New Mexico. You get four seasons all at the same time!

Thank you, everyone, who attended my reading at UNM on April 30. I was very excited to meet the wonderful writer (and Director of the Creative Writing Program at UNM) Julie Shigekuni.

Julie Shigekuni (left) is the author of UNENDING NORA, which I'm holding

And the UNM bookstore really rocks! They put together the coolest poster for me of my book covers. (Hey, authors! If you get to read at UNM, the bookstore staff will make a poster for you, too.) I love when bookstores not only stock cool books but are also staffed by cool, creative people.

The UNM Bookstore's staff rocks!

I was surprised by the big turnout for my reading. I read my short story, “The Dancing Girl’s Story” from my collection Glamorous Asians. In the story, a Cambodian Apsaras, a goddess, is mistakenly picked up by the INS and interrogated. She gives them an earful as she explains her life to them and why she decided to flee her home temple. They don’t understand her, but how is one supposed to explain a life in one story?

Then I talked about “The Lone Apache” chapter from my memoir, Hapa Girl, which describes how my brother was nearly killed when he was a teenager. He was mistaken for a Native American in a small town in South Dakota, and a group of white boys decided to teach him a lesson for going to watch the white girls play basketball. In the parking lot after the game, my brother suddenly found himself approached by this pack of bigots–armed with baseball bats and a two-by-four, no less. They called him a local slur used for Native Americans and approached. My brother put up his fists, knowing this would most likely be a fight to the death. His friends deserted him…but then one white boy in the group suddenly decided to stand by my brother. That changed the dynamics, and the would-be killers got scared. They thought: What if the crowd turned? What if they got beaten instead? So the thugs ran away.

Me and a UNM history student

I told the students that because of this, I know one person really can make a difference in this world. If not for that one boy siding with my brother, my brother could have died that night. We can all try to be that one voice that makes a difference, each in our own unique way. I try to be that voice with my writing, but every one of us has a way that we can make a difference. We shouldn’t be afraid to try.

I was also invited to participate on the MFA Thesis Committee and Defense of my former student, Chris Boat. His thesis passed with flying colors. I won’t give away anything about the plot now, but someday y’all will get to read his novel, I’m sure.

Me, Junko Boat, Naomi Boat, & my former student, Chris Boat

Finally, I also got to see some beautiful sites in Albuquerque, including the historic “Old Town” neighborhood, which dates from the 1700s and features adobe buildings, the area’s first Catholic church, and a lot of local artists.

Entrance to the historic Old Town

Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine in Old Town

Snow on April 30, 2010!

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New Mexico peeps! If you’re going to be in Albuquerque this Friday April 30, 2010, my reading at the University of New Mexico, Humanities 108 at 7pm is open to the public. And best of all, it’s free!


I will be reading from my work and talking about the writing process and my forthcoming novel, Dragon Chica.

See you in New Mexico!

Hapa Girl: A Memoir

Glamorous Asians

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My essay “Red the Pig” will be appearing in the new anthology CHERISHED: WRITERS CELEBRATE ANIMALS THEY’VE LOVED AND LOST coming out next year (spring or summer 2011) from New World Library.

I’m very excited my essay was chosen for inclusion in CHERISHED. So many writers whose work I greatly admire have essays in this collection, including Anne Lamott, Thomas McGuane, Carolyn See (Lisa See’s mother), Barbara Abercrombie, and poet Ted Kooser.

In case you didn’t know, my senior year of high school we started raising pigs on our farm and I even had my mother take my high school yearbook picture with one of the piglets.

To give you a sense of what happens with me and the pig, here’s my opening paragraph:

“Growing up on a farm, I wasn’t a fool. I knew our animals were destined to become food. But the year I raised my pig, I hadn’t expected to be the instrument of his death. Red wasn’t even supposed to be mine to begin with.”

Yes, it’s a sad story. But my pig was special, and I’m glad I can honor him in this way.

I’ll be sure to update when I hear more info about CHERISHED, such as the exact publication date and who all the other writers are.

(FYI, Seven Oaks was the name of my mother’s photography studio when I was in high school.)

Red the Pig and Me

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A book will only survive in the marketplace these days with a good publicist. Fortunately, I had one of the best there is for HAPA GIRL.

I recently had the opportunity to meet him, Gary Kramer, when we went to the movies at a film festival. (Gary is also an independent film critic and has published extensively on Latin American films as well as indie films. Believe me, he is a film encyclopedia!)

Gary Kramer and Me

Gary Kramer and Me

What does a book publicist do? He can get your book reviewed in major publications (in my case Time Magazine–the international Asia edition; Christian Science Monitor newspaper; Honolulu Weekly; many online sites; etc.), make sure it winds up on blogs, the publishing house’s website, featured books section, and how it is written up in the catalog. He’s also responsible for most of the ad copy that will be introducing your book to the world.

(In the case of Temple University Press, as with many publishing houses, there are separate people who work on booking readings for authors, other aspects of production, including the design–inside and out–and what have you.)

So for all those aspiring authors out there who are curious about how publishing works, today’s post is in honor of the hard work of one of the many people working behind-the-scenes in publishing.

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