How reading diverse novels changed me

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It started a little over a year ago when I picked up Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi for the first time. I wasn’t looking for diverse reads then. I was just looking for a good read. I don’t even know how this book got into my hands, but I decided to go to the library and pick it up. Perhaps it was my subconscious telling me that I needed diverse books in my life. Perhaps it was the universe saying that this will change the fundamental ways I think about things.

The idea of having a family one day and then being completely separated by fate and by design shocked me. I found myself wanting to learn more about my own family and my own ancestry and see if there was ever a time when my family lineage broke apart. Was it left to some distant grandmother to recreate a family from scratch?

That’s what I got out of Homegoing and reading about the experience of another culture through the eyes of someone who’s looked into this for themselves and had the bravery to write a fictional novel about it; I honestly felt more woke than I ever did in my life. Homegoing basically changed everything that I knew about African American, about family, and about the triumph of the human spirit.

From that point on, I wanted to read more. Bring me more African American authors writing about their experience. Bring me more Asian authors writing about what life was like moving to an unknown world. Bring me more LGBTQ authors writing about coming out. I wanted to read more and understand more about the diversity around us and I felt like I found it in books.

Reading diverse novels filled a void I didn’t know I had. I wanted to read more cultures and more subcultures and more about the people that inhabit this world. It’s so easy to fall prey to the books that are easier to read and fun, but for me I wanted to push myself with knowledge. I didn’t want to be ignorant anymore and I found some understanding in fiction.

What I didn’t expect is that reading diverse novels would actually change the way I see, think, and live my life every single day. Suddenly, I found myself listening to conversations and interjecting with something that I’d read in a novel.

I would overhear conversations being African American and living below the poverty line and inserting the points brought up in The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. I would listen to folks chatting about choosing to be gay and think about books like Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Saenz Alire and how it’s not a choice.

Every conversation I heard led back to a book I read. My conversations would start with “I did read this book about…” trying to add my two cents in about a topic. I never saw myself as an expert in , but I felt that the fiction I was reading were relevant and poignant and g

I found myself looking for books only written by women and by people of color. I would search authors online to see what they were about and what they were trying to portray in their novels. I wanted the authentic experience of what it was like to fit in their shoes.

I only read stories that challenged the status quo. I wanted to read from the people who work hard to fight for their own civil liberties; stories from people who know how I feel about growing up in America and feeling different.

It had gotten to a point where I was so burnt out on diverse reads that I wanted to head back to the other side. However, it was too late for me and the side where you could read some random mystery didn’t feel as satisfying as knowing the experience of other people.

What got you was the interconnection between you and the story. When you’re reading any novel, you find ways to map what you experienced with the experiences of the book. Even if you can’t relate to being African American, or Asian, or struggling to find your gender identity, there is always something that draws you into the book. Be it love or family or human strife, the language speaks to you and gain a little more awareness.

It’s the human experience that you find there. And you find that you connect with that experience a little bit more even in the smallest iota of connection. And you wonder to yourself why other people can’t see what you see. You ask yourself why we all can’t get along because we’re all one in the same; we’re human.

I’m grateful for the books I’ve read and the people I meet. I’m happy that I read these books and seek out more books like it. It’s almost like traveling to another country; your perspective of the world changes because you’re experiencing a life outside of the one you own. There’s no turning back from this point. All I can do is move forward.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

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I was in one of those moods where it felt like ages since I read something magical. There’s a lot going on in real life that feels so different and messy. It’s like one of those montage scenes in movies about the Vietnam War where you just see one depressing headline after another followed by shots of soldiers in the fields fighting for something they don’t understand. The world seems to be just holding it together and the only cure for that kind of reality is escapism.

I started reading Neverwhere as my Halloween read. I can’t read a lot of thriller or horror without having a massive anxiety attack, so I went for fantasy instead. We start off with a guy named Richard Mathew who is your typical bored working guys. He has a girlfriend and a steady job and one of those old school Ashton Kutcher faces where you can’t help but to crush on him.

One day as he’s walking with his girlfriend to dinner, he notices a girl laying on the ground bleeding out. He finds himself wanting to help her even though he has no clue who she is. He ditches dinner with his girlfriend and takes this near-death stranger back home. Little does he know what exciting events will follow.

Richard finds out the girl’s name is Door and she is the only surviving royal family member of this underground city called London Below. She is being hunted down by two goons who have other plans for her. Ever since Richard meets this girl, his entire life has changed. His girlfriend doesn’t know who he is and his job doesn’t remember him being there. Everything seems like a big joke until he realizes that he’s

I’m a huge fan of Neil Gaiman. He’s probably one of those authors that I’ll end up reading their entire body of work. Neverwhere is his first novel from what feels like millions of years ago, but I think it’s one of those timeless pieces of work that will never get old.

This is not your kid’s fantasy novel. There’s fighting and violence. There’s anger and mystery.  There’s, thankfully, no love which is great because if Gaiman forced a love scene between Door and Richard, I would have shot him that 1-star review.

I love that we get to learn about the London Below along with Richard Mayhew who is just coming to grips with it himself. I love the incorporation of this urban setting. It’s magical realism at its finest without being like Murakami weird with a strange egg form growing in the corner of your room (1Q84 reference).

I absolutely loved how he incorporated the homeless population. In this story, those who are homeless aren’t always just strung-out junkies or people suffering from mental illness. As Gaiman describes it, they’re folks that have fallen through the cracks of society. They use trades and bartering for money. They’ve built an entire world around the real world. I honestly wish I can be a part of it at least to feel like a little magic still exists.

However, it wasn’t the perfect Gaiman. I think that my favorite of his novels will always be American Gods, but this does rank pretty high to the top. I will admit that I was pretty exhausted while I was reading, so many times I tried to read I fell asleep. It made it difficult to keep track of the story and read the descriptions. I may give this another read in the future when I can fairly judge this work.

The writing was a bit too descriptive and I felt like there were definitely some redundant lines here and there. However, I can also see this being a movie in the future. I love the character descriptions and in the illustrated version you get to really envision something Neil Gaiman was considering. It was like Harry Potter, but if he didn’t find out he was a wizard until he was in his thirties. What do you do when you’ve run out of imagination and a mysterious girl lands in your lap?

You can get a copy of Neverwhere Illustrated Edition on Amazon.com

November 2017 TBR

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I’m pretty proud of my list this month. First off, it’s a manageable list of books that I personally want to read. I know that this month (like every month) will have its random reads and books that need reviewing, but they’re unseen and unpredictably arrive. Whenever I choose my TBR for the month, I think fully and heartily for myself.

This month, I’m trying to catch up with my Book of the Month Club books. I actually skipped this month because most of the books (4/5) I already own and have either already read or will read in the future. It’s a sigh of relief to know more books aren’t coming my way for a little while. I love getting and buying books, but my book stacks are starting to reflect my mounting anxiety levels. I need to catch up.

Also, it’s November. There’s only two more months before the end of the year and I want to clear my shelves for 2018!

So here’s my book choices for November 2017. What will you be reading this month?

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

32920226Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When the white father of Leonie’s children is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise.

Sing, Unburied, Sing grapples with the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power, and limitations, of the bonds of family. Rich with Ward’s distinctive, musical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic new work and an essential contribution to American literature.

Rich People Problems by Kevin Kwan

29864343When Nicholas Young hears that his grandmother, Su Yi, is on her deathbed, he rushes to be by her bedside–but he’s not alone. It seems the entire Shang-Young clan has convened from all corners of the globe, ostensibly to care for their matriarch but truly to stake claim on the massive fortune that Su Yi controls. 

With each family member secretly fantasizing about getting the keys to Tyersall Park–a trophy estate on 64 prime acres in the heart of Singapore–the place becomes a hotbed of intrigue and Nicholas finds himself blocked from entering the premises. 

As relatives claw over heirlooms, Astrid Leong is at the center of her own storm, desperately in love with her old sweetheart Charlie Wu, but tormented by his ex-wife–a woman hell bent on destroying Astrid’s reputation and relationship. Meanwhile Kitty Pong, married to billionaire Jack Bing, finds a formidable opponent in his fashionista daughter, Colette.

WARCROSS by Marie Lu

29385546For the millions who log in every day, Warcross isn’t just a game—it’s a way of life. The obsession started ten years ago and its fan base now spans the globe, some eager to escape from reality and others hoping to make a profit. Struggling to make ends meet, teenage hacker Emika Chen works as a bounty hunter, tracking down players who bet on the game illegally. But the bounty hunting world is a competitive one, and survival has not been easy. Needing to make some quick cash, Emika takes a risk and hacks into the opening game of the international Warcross Championships—only to accidentally glitch herself into the action and become an overnight sensation.

Convinced she’s going to be arrested, Emika is shocked when instead she gets a call from the game’s creator, the elusive young billionaire Hideo Tanaka, with an irresistible offer. He needs a spy on the inside of this year’s tournament in order to uncover a security problem . . . and he wants Emika for the job. With no time to lose, Emika’s whisked off to Tokyo and thrust into a world of fame and fortune that she’s only dreamed of. But soon her investigation uncovers a sinister plot, with major consequences for the entire Warcross empire.

Sourdough by Robin Sloan

33916024Lois Clary, a software engineer at a San Francisco robotics company, codes all day and collapses at night. When her favourite sandwich shop closes up, the owners leave her with the starter for their mouthwatering sourdough bread.
Lois becomes the unlikely hero tasked to care for it, bake with it and keep this needy colony of microorganisms alive.  Soon she is baking loaves daily and taking them to the farmer’s market, where an exclusive close-knit club runs the show. 
When Lois discovers another, more secret market, aiming to fuse food and technology, a whole other world opens up. But who are these people, exactly?

Emma in the Night by Wendy Walker

33574211One night three years ago, the Tanner sisters disappeared: fifteen-year-old Cass and seventeen-year-old Emma. Three years later, Cass returns, without her sister Emma. Her story is one of kidnapping and betrayal, of a mysterious island where the two were held. But to forensic psychiatrist Dr. Abby Winter, something doesn’t add up. Looking deep within this dysfunctional family Dr. Winter uncovers a life where boundaries were violated and a narcissistic parent held sway. And where one sister’s return might just be the beginning of the crime.

My thoughts on Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold

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I’d made an early resolution recently to be a better non-fiction writer and committing myself to my voice and my writing. I want to do a better job sharing my experiences with the world through rhetoric. I want to be armed with adjectives and poetry to help me share what I see. I know it’s a little early for resolutions, but I still gathered all my favorite non-fiction works for inspiration; Susan Sontag, Hunter S. Thompson, the journals of Sylvia Plath. And of course, Joan Didion.

I woke up early Saturday morning hoping to get some chores done before diving into my current read. But for some reason, I was compelled to watch TV. Perhaps it had something to do with the new season of Stranger Things, but I tend to follow my gut. I remembered that a document recently came out about Joan Didion. Being the nerd that I am, I wanted to watch this.

I watched The Center Will Not Hold on Netflix before noon and I was surprised to find that Joan Didion is way more than just a non-fiction writer. I thought of her as your average writer; nothing remarkable or interesting. Someone who’s work speaks for themselves. Little did I know her life and her experiences were so crucial to showing the world what’s going on. How she came up in journalism and used her observing eye to share with the world the reality of life. Her work is poetry and even if her intention wasn’t to share her thoughts, she somehow manages to make you see and think the way she did.

When you see her for the first time, you see this tiny little old woman. Her bones hanging off her flesh and deep purple veins bulging through her like rivers on a map. She barely speaks without stopping to consider her word choices, so the movie is driven mostly by the readings of her work out loud.

I thought it would be interesting to hear how she spoke. You always assume that she would speak as eloquently as she wrote, but the words on the page and the words from her lips never matched. I guess you can say that she is a true writer, someone who finds her words in ink. I think my favorite part of hearing her read her own stories is also understanding where she was coming from and what she thought about. How she found a 5-year-old tripping on acid in the middle of someone’s living room to be journalistic “gold.”

But I’m not here to talk about the movie. I’m here to talk about this story and this life that has been stuck in my brain for the past 24 hours and I can’t seem to stop thinking about it. I’m here to talk about my serious goals to improving my non-fiction writing because I love writing it. I’m here to talk about how Joan Didion will probably be my favorite non-fiction writer until the day I die.

I used to be able to write observationally. I would listen to music and point out the variations and mixology of drums to guitar to vocals. I would watch a stream of water from a car wash and how the soapy bubbles refracted hints of a hidden rainbow. I used to sit in my room and write terrible poetry about the imagery in my mind. “Consciousness is…” being a poem I wrote in five minutes.

I didn’t hear about Joan Didion until a few years ago when I read A Year of Magical Thinking. After watching that film, it was obvious I knew nothing about her life. All I knew was that she wrote this book about losing her husband and how incredibly beautiful it was. I honestly wish I learned more about her in college while I was studying journalism.

Journalism nowadays feels like the rapid reporting of trivial issues. A quick tweet from our president or five things you should know about your face cream are the kinds of stories that rise to the top of reading lists. It’s a series of short articles less than 500 words and meant to be read, digested, and forgotten. Even political pieces about the subject of the hour are overwrought with over-emotional commentary and opinions on how much he sucks.

If I’d known about Joan Didion in college, then maybe I would still be trying to be a better journalist. Maybe I wouldn’t believe that all journalism was a sham to please advertisers. Perhaps my experience interning at Conde Nast wouldn’t have left me with a bad taste in my mouth. I gave up that dream because it didn’t seem worth working hard when everyone was networking harder.

But after watching Joan Didion and how she made reporting a style and how her observations haunt her until she writes them down, it’s really made me rethink how I approach my work here. I don’t want to be writing short pieces that you can throw away. I want to write substantially, poignantly, and richly. Of course I don’t want to bore you as well, but as Joan Didion says, I just want to answer the questions I ask myself.

October 2017 Wrap Up

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I’ve decided that I’m going to make my wrap ups way more robust. Yes, I’ll be highlighting my reads, but something else I want to do is also highlight great articles I’ve read around the Internet and maybe a few updates from my life. There are so many other great things that happen over a month and I just want to share that with you!

First, let’s talk about the weather because no small talk doesn’t have some amount of weather conversation. It was really hot in October and when you’re trying to get in the cold weather mood, the last thing you want to do is wear shorts. However, we all persevered and November is already starting off with some nice chill feels.

We start off the month with an article written by Jeremy Lin and his recent hair choices. If you’ve got a moment to read an article written by a basketball player, I would suggest doing so. While Jeremy Lin isn’t the most profound writer, he does speak more about cultural appropriation, being Asian, and always keeping in mind the culture you’re choosing from.

One thing I know for sure was that October reads were on fire with a new one from John Green, a prequel to Practical Magic, and some thrillers. Because what kind of October is it without some spooky reads?

The Ardent Biblio asked me to write up my favorite from the month, so I’m going to skip my review of them here and just point you to what I did read. Check it out!

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Last month, Celeste Ng released her book Little Fires Everywhere and the Internet broke with how many people loved this book. I even loved this book! But I was able to find a dissenting voice amongst all the likes and Owl’s Little Library review of Little Fires Everywhere will switch your perspective just a little bit.

Which brings me to the post I wrote about how not all POC writers need to write about the struggles of being themselves. I spoke with a friend that didn’t want to feel the obligation of writing about being Chinese American and I thought it was a great point. POC writers shouldn’t feel pigeonholed to writing about being themselves. Many of the conversations I had with bookish friends felt it was important to share these stories. Where do you stand on the issue?

However, that post did bring up some issues with my writing. I made an early resolution to write better than I am doing. So, I did what I do best, I did some research.

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I dug up this amazing article from Joan Didion on why she writes. Written in 1976, she discusses her process for writing; how she took the observations she made in reality and answered the rhetorical questions brought up in her mind. It reminded me how I used to write. When I was little, I would be able to write and create beautifully. Now I’m trying to find if it’s as easy to get back on this bicycle. Here’s a great quote:

By which I mean not a “good” writer or a,“bad” writer but simply a writer, a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper.

I also just watched the Joan Didion documentary on Netflix. While my post on my thoughts there won’t be up until tomorrow, I did want to mention that it was a deeply moving story and it’s way more substantial than just her losses. I honestly am so enamored by her right now I can’t think straight!

Not to shamelessly plug my own work, but I wrote a piece for Bookriot on 5 ways to cope during a book buying ban. Please don’t get caught up on the “addict” language. I see how I messed up there and I won’t do it again. Here is where I mention again that I’m working to improve my writing.

We end the month with Kevin Spacey’s allegations and coming out. Everyone on the Internet is up-in-arms about this one especially since it touches on the LGBTQ community. Me? Well, I think it’s bad form to save yourself by coming out of the closet. Uncool, Kevin Spacey. Uncool.

 

 

 

 

You don’t have to write diverse books

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The other night, I had an interesting conversation with a friend. She’s an aspiring writer and doing research on books where the story is written by an Asian author but doesn’t have Asian characters.

We were meeting for drinks because it’s been a while and she mentioned wanting some recommendations. “I want to write a book where the main characters aren’t Asian.”

I wasn’t surprised by her response but I did wonder why. There’s so many books coming out right now discussing the struggle of being a person of color in America and in the world. But she was pretty clear. She didn’t want to write a book for the sake of her race, she wanted to write a book for the sake of telling a good story.

It’s not uncommon that people of color write stories that don’t speak directly to diversity. People write the characters and the stories that inspire them. It doesn’t have to be about race. And perhaps a lot of POC writers feel pigeonholed to write about their experiences; that books need to be all about diversity and how much of a struggle life is.

But not everything in life is a struggle. Sometimes it’s a beautiful moment in time and those stories are just as worthy a read as any other.

And the truth is that sometimes when we highlight diverse stories we end up burying the simple fact that we are all people and we all have lives to live. So why choose to write about diverse themes?

I think it’s because everyone can write about anything. There’s something more intense in a diverse story because it’s bringing up topics that people tend to ignore. We don’t talk about race and how people in this or any country are treated. We know we’re not racist but that’s the extent of our knowledge. It’s not about educating the masses, but sharing the stories that don’t get told.

Our conversation went on and she described how isolating and lonely her childhood was being Asian and growing up in a predominately White town. I knew exactly how she felt and how torn you are between who you are and who you’re around.

I understood exactly where she’s coming from and how rehashing those memories for the sake of a story didn’t feel like the best use of her time. She could be writing anything because anything is possible. I sometimes feel like the themes of my stories need to be about being Asian, but I’m more than my race and I’ve got more to write about than being Asian.

We all live similar enough lives to connect with anyone and a story written by a person of color that isn’t about being that race is recognizably still good writing. Perhaps writing a story where the emphasis is not on being diverse will help readers see that we’re not so different.

We are all writers here. We all have stories to tell and some stories are much more relatable than others. So write your stories and come up with ways to rewrite all the genres. Make the stories your own and don’t feel pressured into writing a diverse story.

Write what you want. People recognize a good story no matter what the subject.

Here’s some authors who were able to reach beyond diversity:

  • A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
  • Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon
  • Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
  • To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han
  • The Mothers by Brit Bennett

The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman

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When I was a little girl, I believed I had the gift of magic. I would stare deeply at branches on trees willing them to sway with the power of the wind. Sometimes I would get lucky and other times I wouldn’t be. The days where I couldn’t move the branches was because I wasn’t concentrating hard enough.

I believed that the energy you put out in the world will come back to you. I believe in Spirits and beauty and the power of magic existing in everything and everyone.

Everyone has a little magic in them and in The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman, you follow along with Frances, Jet, and Vincent as they discover the magic within themselves.

This is the prequel to the well-loved Practical Magic. I haven’t had a chance to read the book yet, but I have seen the movie. One of the major themes throughout the movie was about falling in love and the curse that lives within the Owens family. If you don’t know what that is, it’s that any Owens woman who was to fall in love their lover would be subject to a terrible death.

I loved how steeped this story is in reality. It was more of a celebration of the pagan religion than it is about fighting against good and evil. There’s no big shows of magical powers and you don’t see things like forces of evil come and take over the Earth. The magic is subtle and beautiful and the world Alice Hoffman creates here is something similar to the world I live in.

The way Alice Hoffman included parts of US history including the Vietnam War played so well against the story of these siblings learning more about the magic within themselves. There’s skepticism and frustration and lots of love. It’s not an Owens’ party if no one is falling in love.

Magic is meant to be this coinciding with nature. From what I believed, I believe that magic is always keeping an eye out on everyone. It knows your deepest desires and it listens to spells like God listens to prayers. If you believe truly and wholeheartedly, then you’ll see the magic in your life.

Because I’d already seen Practical Magic and I knew about the curse on the Owens family, I felt like I spent some of my time playing a game called “which guy is going to die.” I waited for the sound of the deathwatch beetle to crawl across the pages letting me know that someone loves another person way too much.

But it seems like the love portrayed in the book is much deeper than any regular love. It can be persuaded and manipulated and carefully avoided. Love as much as you can and never stop loving, is even what they believe. They know the consequences to this kind of love and perhaps the curse isn’t that their loves will die but they’re cursed to lose love time and time again.

 

I almost felt the tears welling for Jet and her lover, for Frances and her lover, and for Vincent and his lover. Each loved so well and so carelessly that they couldn’t avoid the consequences of their actions. It made me want to hold my husband a little closer and hope that he stays alive a little longer. I couldn’t live a life without him, but this doesn’t seem to be the issue with the Owens.

Gosh, this book was beautiful. It was well-written and well-conceived and while I thought parts of the story dragged a little, I still wouldn’t have stopped reading. I wanted to find out more about these siblings and their loves and how they became the witches they are today. Magic lives in everything and everyone and with a little bit of love, you can see what magic does.

I received The Rules of Magic from Simon & Schuster in exchange for an honest review. My review and thoughts are my own and not influenced by the publisher or author.