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Author Interview: Joyce Lee Wong

This was originally posted at Into the Wardrobe on May 1, 2009.

"Sixteen-year-old Emily Wu is a good daughter, good student, good artist, and good friend. She works hard at school and in the Chinese restaurant she helps her parents run. But her life, which once seemed as sweet as the bao zi dumplings she and her mother make together, now feels stifling. Just as her paintings transform a canvas, Emily wants to create a new self.

Then Nick, a sexy transfer student, asks her out. His kisses and the other girls' envious glances give Emily a thrilling, disconcerting new vision of herself, so different from the one she sees in the eyes of her parents and friends. Which Emily is the real Emily?"

Happy Asian Pacific American Heritage Month! This month, Into the Wardrobe's reviews and interviews will be celebrating Asian and Asian American children's and young adult books and their authors and illustrators. So I hope you'll stop by often to join the conversation on Asian and Asian American literature for the young and young at heart. :D

I'm kicking things off with the perfect bridge from American National Poetry Month to Asian Pacific American Heritage Month: an interview with Joyce Lee Wong, author of Seeing Emily (Amulet, 2005), a beautiful young adult novel in verse.

Joyce, can you please tell us a bit about your Asian American heritage?

I’m a second-generation Chinese American. After finishing college in Taiwan, my parents came to the States for graduate school, intending to return to Taiwan after finishing their studies. Instead, they met and married here, and my father accepted a job offer in Virginia, where I was born and raised.

It’s interesting— when my second-generation Asian American friends try to define certain aspects of ourselves as originating in Asian or American culture, it seems as impossible to isolate one strand from the other as it is to completely separate the raw egg white from the yolk.

This is something of an oversimplification, but I’ve heard it said that first generation immigrants strive to assimilate into the majority culture, whereas the second generation has the luxury of seeking to reclaim their cultural roots. I have found this true, in some instances, for example, when I consider the contrast between my mother’s wedding dress and mine.

My mother wore a traditional white wedding dress, lace-trimmed and decidedly Western. I wore her dress at my wedding, but not the one she wore to hers. Instead, I wore a qi-pao that my mother wore when she was my age.

This photo was at my wedding, where I’m wearing the qi-pao my mother wore when she was my age:

I’ve tried to capture this dichotomy in Seeing Emily, as in the following lines from the poem, “Sailing For America,” where Emily sees a photograph of her mother as a college student:

The young woman
in the photograph
wore a rose-colored qi-pao,
a long Chinese dress
with a slit at the ankles.
at this picture
I was struck by her features and expression
and I saw how much
she looked like me…

I could almost feel the salt breeze
teasing her dark, wavy hair,
styled like Au-de-li Hepburn’s in Roman Holiday.
Perhaps that day
the ship’s captain,
a friend of my grandfather,
passed her a red-cheeked apple he’d saved…

How did that apple taste
as my mother bit through the smooth,
shiny skin and crunched into sweet,
white meat? Perhaps
she licked a stray drop of juice
from her knuckle,
tasting ocean
and in that moment
of sweetness and brine
my mother looked out
over the endlessly waving sea
scattered with diamonds of light
and imagined the shores
of America.

What is your love story with young adult literature?

YA literature speaks so poignantly and directly to me because it is such a wide-open genre-- innovative, fresh and diverse as the very teens for which it is written. Just as I love the immediacy, beauty and power of the literature, I particularly enjoy writing for this age group. Teens are on the cusp of discovering themselves, beginning to form the ideas that will define their evolving adult selves.

With their media savvy and as they grow up in an information-saturated world, teens today seem, in many ways, much more sophisticated than my friends and I were at their age.

This was taken when I was Emily’s age:

Yet teens are often still wonderfully child-like in their enthusiasm and in the intensity with which they experience life and its corresponding emotions. They can also be a difficult audience to reach, so the experience of speaking to teens through one’s writing is a tremendous pleasure and privilege.

What is your love story with poetry?

Poetry is beauty and power: the music of language and the grace of a line, the strength of true emotions mingled with the power to awaken one’s reader to a new experience or idea. Heady stuff, indeed!

For me, writing a poem is like painting a picture. It is holding up a lens through which the reader can peer and see your world as you envision it.

My parents are both musical, and they often sang my sisters and me songs (poems set to music) in English and Chinese. From the time we were small, they also read to us, both prose and also such classic children’s poetry as Mother Goose, Dr. Seuss, Margaret Wise Brown. These rhythms, American and Chinese folk songs, poetry and prose, formed a musical backdrop to my childhood and influence me still, as I write.

What inspired you to write Seeing Emily?

Seeing Emily, my first book, is a Young Adult novel-in-verse. While it is not autobiographical, I drew upon my experiences, growing up in Virginia and traveling to Taiwan, to write it.

I trace Emily’s beginnings to my college days, when I found myself writing a series of poems about my experiences living in Virginia, Taiwan, and Spain. While I’ve continued to write fiction and other forms of poetry, these narrative poems kept reappearing in my writing, and in Emily, they ultimately coalesced in a sequence of poems chronicling a high school sophomore’s quest to discover who she is.

Emily Wu, the book’s protagonist, wants desperately to break away from her family, in order to find a new vision of herself. She has difficulty seeing which of the reflections of herself she perceives in the eyes of others (her friends, her family, her new boyfriend), is the real Emily. I think this is something we all have to go through— discovering who we are as we grow into our adult selves— and I wanted to write about a girl who navigates the stormy waters of the teen years as she makes her own way.

Why did you decide to write Seeing Emily in verse?

Seeing Emily began as a collection of poems, which I submitted to my amazing editor, Susan Van Metre. These poems chronicled one character’s childhood, pre-teen and teen years, and Susan noticed that they were growing from what appeared to be the kernel of a novel. Her suggestion that I write additional poems and ultimately craft a novel seemed right for this piece, and I proceeded in that direction.

So the novel-in-verse began as a set of poems which assembled themselves in novel format, somewhat later in the process. I think this is the way it is with creative writing— the writing decides what form best suits it, and you, the writer, must listen to your writing (and in my case, also to the suggestions of a gifted editor!) and shape it into the form that allows its unique story to shine through.

What was the path to publication for Seeing Emily? Was it difficult to find an agent and a publisher?

I entered a group of poems (that later became a part of Emily) in the SCBWI’s fabulous Ventura / Santa Barbara Writers Day contest and won the privilege of having my editor read my submission. She said she could envision the poems as a collection for middle grade and YA readers, and asked if I had additional poems to submit. I did, which I sent her, and in the process of writing and editing these poems, we realized that this set of poems actually wanted to be a novel. To my delight, she made an offer on the book.

Why do you think there is the misconception that young adult literature is not as deep or as complex as literature for adults?

Teens (like children and tweens) are disenfranchised (until age 18), and they have little purchasing power. Thus, whenever a product or service is offered for children or teens, it is often valued significantly lower than a comparable product or service for adults. I think these factors contribute to this misconception about YA literature.

Until very recently, there was less money to be made from publishing children’s and YA literature, as compared with the adult publishing industry, and this is often still the case. In a society that often correlates quality with price, it is, unfortunately, unsurprising that adults who are unfamiliar with the breadth and depth of contemporary YA literature would make this assumption.

What is your response to this misconception?

This is my challenge to Into the Wardrobe visitors: the next time you hear someone compare the quality of YA literature unfavorably with literature written for adults, ask him whether he’s read any YA books recently. If the answer is no, as it often is, recommend several of your favorite YA titles!

Why do you think there is a recent trend of writing young adult novels in verse?

With the success of such pioneers of this genre as Karen Hesse and Virginia Euwer Wolff, publishers saw that novels-in-verse were a promising form, one that has found a wide, enthusiastic readership among teens as well as teachers and librarians.

Novels-in-verse entice reluctant readers, who are less intimidated by shorter lines and more white space on the page. They also appeal to sophisticated readers, who enjoy the challenge of diving deep within a particular image or metaphor and using their imaginations to make a poem sing for them personally.

For me, the form combines the immediacy of the image and its corresponding emotion with a narrative thread that draws the reader in.

What are the challenges and rewards of being an Asian American young adult writer?

When I was growing up, there was a scarcity of Asian American protagonists and characters in the books I was reading. We’ve seen great strides in this area, from many wonderful authors writing about Asian American characters, and I’m honored to join their ranks. It is a deep pleasure to hear from tweens, teens, and adults who tell me they can relate to Emily. Readers from diverse backgrounds-- Asian, Caucasian, Latino and African American… have told me that Emily’s story resonates with feelings and experiences they’ve had growing up. This is one of the most rewarding aspects of writing— hearing readers say that they’ve connected with your book on some level.

As for the challenges, I believe your question perfectly captures the conundrum Asian American YA writers face. As proud as we are to take on the important work of writing Asian American YA fiction and poetry, neither do we wish to be defined by these parameters. As necessary as it is to increase the range of voices speaking out through YA literature, the danger lies in being too narrowly construed. What is the solution? We need more writers speaking from different perspectives— more diversity, whether cultural, gender-based, or economic… Into the Wardrobe readers (and writers), we want to hear your voices!

What are your favorite Asian American young adult books?

I’m going to list a few, among those that I’ve read recently: Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese, An Na’s A Step From Heaven, Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior, Kyoko Mori’s Shizuko’s Daughter, Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen, Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers, Paula Yoo’s Good Enough, Janet Wong’s Behind the Wheel.

Do you celebrate American National Poetry Month?

I celebrate the Academy of American Poets’ tremendous efforts to focus popular attention on the art of poetry, National Poetry Month in particular. For me, reading and writing poetry is part of my daily life. This morning, while working on my next novel in verse, I re-envisioned a metaphor, streamlined an image, polished a poem-in-progress. I find that reading and writing poetry awakens a different part of my mind than reading and writing prose, and I hope that National Poetry Month has encouraged us all to read and write more poetry!

How did you celebrate it this year?

This year, one of my most enjoyable moments in celebration of National Poetry Month has been sitting down for this interview with you, Tarie, in which you’ve created this lovely bridge between National Poetry Month and APA Heritage Month, allowing me to talk a little about the foot I have in each world (one iambic and one jiau, or foot in Mandarin). See how much fun I’m having? :)

Do you celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month?

Now that I live in Los Angeles, I sometimes feel that every month is APA Heritage Month, in that, depending on what neighborhood one visits, one can be instantly immersed in not Asian-American culture, or more narrowly, Chinese-American culture, but in cultural hallmarks that are specifically Taiwanese-American in flavor. For example, the quintessentially Taiwanese boba tea is so popular in the San Gabriel Valley that you’ll see Latino or Caucasian kids drinking it (and yes, slurping up those chewy tapioca balls through the big, bright straws) just as readily as their Asian friends.

How will you celebrate it this year?

How else? By eating my favorite Asian desserts-- shaved ice with taro, green bean and pineapple chunks; champagne mango over rice soaked in coconut milk; mochi; halo halo with ube and caramelized plantain, yum!

What young adult books are you reading now?

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi, Almost Alice by Patricia Reynolds Naylor and Rewind by William Sleator. As a YA writer, I read YA literature for pleasure, as well as from a craft-analysis perspective. Each of these books stands out, for the unique, strong voice of its protagonist and for each author’s considerable skill as a structuralist. One of the best things you can do as a writer (other than writing, of course!) is to READ. I highly recommend any of the books I’ve listed here.

What are you working on now?

I’m writing another novel-in-verse. When I begin a new book, I start with the voice, the emotions, the conflict. A book begins to take shape for me through images, feelings and moments of intense emotion. It is not until later that the inner scaffolding emerges. Of course, the process of writing is highly individual and many writers work from very detailed outlines— experiment, and see what works best for you!

Wow. Thank you, Joyce, for your thought-provoking and enlightening answers to my questions! Happy Asian Pacific American Heritage Month! :D


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