Dec 2, 2020
AAWW, Kundiman, & Kaya Press combine to bring acclaimed novelist Ed Lin together with pioneering YA author of FINDING MY VOICE and co-founder of AAWW Marie Myung-Ok Lee, in conversation to celebrate the release of Ed Lin’s YA debut, DAVID TUNG CAN’T HAVE A GIRLFRIEND UNTIL HE GETS INTO AN IVY LEAGUE COLLEGE (Kaya Press, October 2020).
Moderated by Ruth Minah Buchwald, Ed Lin and Marie Lee’s dialogue will orbit themes, such as: Asian American study culture; the pitfalls of the “model minority” myth and how to challenge it; multiple standards and (mis)representations of Asian Americans in literature and the media; and coming-of-age in the Asian American diaspora while navigating relationships through race, class, young love, not to mention the confusing expectations of immigrant parental pressure.
Support the writers! Buy their books via their publishers' websites:
Neela Banerjee: Hi everyone! My name is Neelanjana Banerjee. I'm so excited to invite you all to our event tonight! This is also the launch event for Ed's YA novel, David Tung Can't Have a Girlfriend Until He Gets Into an Ivy League College published by Kaya Press. I'm the managing editor for Kaya Press and we're so excited to publish this next month.
I'm also excited to be collaborating with two other organizations on this presentation. Kundiman is dedicated to nurturing Asian-American writers and readers of all ages. Their programs include a mentorship lab, food writing workshops, and more.
I've been noticing all of these organizations have pivoted gracefully during the pandemic. We're excited people have been able to tune in from across the country today.
This is also part of the Brooklyn Book Festival's Bookends event.
I wanted to call out the copy of David Tung Can't Have a Girlfriend Until He Gets Into an Ivy League College, which has a shiny cover. I'm really excited, please check out this book if you can on the Kaya Press website. There's links to buy this book and other books in the chat.
We'll hear excerpts from Marie Myung-ok Lee and Ed Lin tonight. Then we'll have a conversation with Ruth Minah Buchwald and the authors. David Tung Can't Have a Girlfriend Until He Gets Into an Ivy League College comes out October 28th and you can preorder it today as well as get some swag. You can also order Marie's book that will be rereleased this year as well.
Let me introduce our speakers tonight. Marie Myung-ok Lee was born in South Korea and was raised in South New Jersey. She lives in Brookline. She is the author of Finding My Voice, Necessary Roughness, and Saying Goodbye. Her books have won a number of awards. She has been a judge for the National Book Awards and she was one of the first American journalists welcomed into North Korea.
Ed Lin is an all around stand up kind of guy. His published books include a mystery series set in Taipei and various others. I'll be back after the readings with a few more announcements, enjoy!
Marie Myung-ok Lee: Hi everyone. Thanks Neela, for that great introduction.
I'm so happy to be here with some of my favorite people and organizations. Thank you to all of you as well as Ruth for moderating and congratulations to Ed on his book.
What's fun for me is my novel, which I'm going to be reading from -- Finding My Voice -- is actually almost as old as the Asian American Writers' Workshop. It's gone out of print, but I'll be reading a bit from my new old book. It's pretty much being republished the same way it was more than 20 years ago. It's considered to be the first contemporary Asian-set YA novel.
I'm going to read a little bit from the beginning from Chapter 1 and a little bit from Chapter 2.
““Moooo!” It is still dark when I reach to shut off the Holstein-shaped alarm clock that my best friend, Jessie, gave me for my sixteenth birthday.
To shut it off, you have to pull down on the cow’s enormous
plastic udder. Mom wanted to
throw it out. I told her it was just humor, Jessie-style.
I step into the steamy shower and let the warmth coax me awake. I shampoo, shave my legs, and let the conditioner sit in my hair for exactly five minutes, just as it says on the bottle.
After toweling off, I put on deodorant, foot powder, perfume, and then begin applying wine-colored eyeliner under my lashes.
Do boys have to go through all this trouble day in and day out?? How about Tomper Sandel, the football player who appears to be naturally cute with his shaggy blond hair and cleft chin—does he worry about how he smells?
I put on extra eye shadow in a semicircle around my top eyelid.
According to Glamour magazine, this will give Oriental eyes a look
of depth. I’ve always known that I don’t have
the neat crease at the top of my lid—like my friends do— that tells you exactly where the eye shadow should stop. So every day I have to paint in that crease, but I don’t think I’m fooling anybody.
“Hurry up, Ellen,” Mom calls from downstairs. I throw on my new Ocean Pacific T-shirt and jeans and run down. Mom is standing in the kitchen, quietly spreading peanut butter on whole wheat bread. She turns to look at me, and her eyebrows dip into a slight frown.
“Is that what you’re wearing to school?”
“Yes, Mom,” I say. We go through this scene every year.
“What about all those good clothes we bought in Minneapolis?”
“Those dresses are great,” I say. “But no one wears a dress on the first day of school.”
“Oh,” Mom says, as if she’s not convinced. She turns to finish packing my lunch. As usual, Father has already left for the hospital so he can get an early start on patients with morning-empty, surgery-ready stomachs.
“Goodbye, Myong-Ok. It’s your last year here,” she says. I look up at her upon hearing my Korean name. To me, it doesn’t sound like my name, but to Mom, I think it means something special.
Sometimes I think she has so much more to say to me, but it gets lost, partly because of the gap separating Korean and English, and partly because of some other kind of gap that has always existed between me and my parents.”
Here's just a little bit from chapter 2.
“It is dinnertime at the Sung household, and although she’s absent, the presence of my sister still dominates.
“She was very disciplined,” Father says as he begins slurping his Korean soup. “Even when she was getting all As she still studied hard because she knew that being at the top of her class in a public school like Arkin wouldn’t guarantee her getting into Harvard.”
I tense my back against my chair. What good will it do for everyone to keep parading all of Michelle’s accomplishments in front of me?
Today in calculus class, Mr. Carlson, the teacher, delightedly shambled over when he saw me. “How’s Michelle doing?” was the first thing that popped out of his mouth. “Boy, she was a whiz at math,” was the second. I sat there wondering if he knew what my name was.
I look down at my lasagna. Its tomatoey, garlicky smell mingles with the smell of seaweed from Father’s soup. Since Mom has always cooked something Korean for Father and something American” for her, Michelle, and me, the smells are always clashing, usually ending up in weird, cloying odors.
“How was school today?” Mom asks.
“Okay. Not much new,” I say, although there’s so much I want to say, that I wish I could say, that I can’t. I mentally close my eyes and envision a different conversation.
“A boy called me a ‘chink’ on the bus today,” I would say.
Mom’s mouth would open. Father’s chopsticks would drop, sinking unnoticed into the murky depths of his soup.
“You poor thing,” Mom would say. “What did you do?”
“I totally ignored him,” I would answer confidently.
“How terrible to have to go through that,” Father would say, and he’d take off his thick spectacles so that for once I could see the tenderness in his eyes.
“With all this stress I think Ellen should worry less about grades and more about having a fun senior year and making friends,” Mom would add.
“I agree,” Father would say, and he’d resume slurping his soup. Slurp, slurp.”
Thank you for listening.
Ed Lin: Thank you so much, Marie, for reading that. You know, I'm an east coast kind of guy. I've always lived in New York/New Jersey/the Tri-state area. The midwest has always been kind of an exotic place to me. When I went there, I felt like I had to eat like a cheese contest at every meal to fit in.
I'm going to read a little bit from David Tung Can't Have a Girlfriend Until He Gets Into an Ivy League College. I don't have the really pretty, shiny copy that Neela has, I only have this ugly, uncorrected proof.
One thing you should know is that there's mention of Harmony Health, which is a hospital internship that David Tung has applied to. Even though he's been told he can't have a girlfriend or date, he is forced to have to ask his mother for help in renting a tux. He's planning on going to this dance. Okay, here we go.
[Reading from book.]
My heart was pounding in fear when my mother picked
me up as usual at the bus stop. I was full-on terrified to
lay out all my plans in full, which I needed to do to even
have a shot at her giving me the tux money.
“How was school?” she asked.
“Fine,” I said. I saw her mouth twitch. She was
suspicious when she didn’t hear grades.
“No tests or quizzes?”
“No, nothing today.”
“What about Harmony Health?”
“Still nothing.” Whenever I didn’t have a clear
marker of success to report to her, she liked to go
fishing for a deficiency.
“When are you going to hear?”
“Soon, I think.”
We rode in silence a little bit. I couldn’t tell if she
was in a good or a bad mood, but figured I could go
“Do you think every Saturday night is going to be
busy at Tung’s Garden?” She actually laughed.
“Hope so! Don’t you hope so, too, David?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
I couldn’t muster the courage to bring up the dance.
Once we got to the restaurant, I went into work mode.
Every time I thought I was going to get a break for a few
minutes, another task presented itself.
Soon the night was almost over. We were cleaning
up. It was now or never. I’d already decided there was
no way I was going to tell my mother about the dance
once we got home. She’d said numerous times that
when she gets home, she just wants to sleep. Plus, here
at the restaurant, there was always the chance I could
rally up some backup support from Auntie Zhang or my
dad. At the very least, my mother would think twice
before really lashing into me, if it came to that.
My newly found level of social acceptance—and
the potential for a real-life girlfriend—was riding on
being able to go to the dance. I could be as cool at
Shark Beach High as I was at the Chinese school in
Chinatown! But in order for that to happen, I needed to
go to Nordstrom. This week. There was no way to put it
off any longer.
“Mom!” I said hoarsely. She was stapling receipts
near the cash register.
“Can you help me rent a tuxedo?”
“Tuxedo? What for?”
“I want to go to a school dance.”
She put down the stapler and curled her hands into
fists. “You want to go to a dance?”
My shoulders involuntarily shrugged out of fear.
“A girl asked me to go, and I said yes.”
“A girl!” said my mother, like a TV detective
announcing she’d found the murder weapon. I heard my
father moving somewhere behind me, possibly taking
shelter. “Who’s this girl?”
“Christina Tau.” My mother flared her nostrils.
“Is she your secret girlfriend, David?”
“No,” I said. “I don’t have a girlfriend much less a
“‘Tau,’ she said venomously, “It sounds like a
Cantonese name.” My mother sometimes expressed
distaste for Cantonese people for no explicable reason.
“How many times have I told you? You’re not allowed to
have a girlfriend until college! And you’d better get into
an Ivy League school!” It was the end of yet another
long day of work, but my mother didn’t seem tired at
all. She was as mad as I’ve ever seen her.
“You’ve said that enough times,” I said. I looked
around for some silent show of support. Auntie Zhang’s
English wasn’t great, but she could probably understand
what was happening. Yet she was diligently wiping down
a tabletop, her head bent. My father suddenly found
that something in the kitchen required him.
After a brief pause, my mother was on me again.
“You’re not even number one, are you?” She pointed
at my nose. “All the way down at number eight! You
spend too much time thinking about girls!”
That was a complete lie. It angered me into a fatal
mistake: talking back to my mother while she was still
“I spend too much time working at this restaurant!”
“You know how long I work here? How long your
father works here? You want to run around with girls
while we’re spending day and night here making money
so we can live?”
Oh no! Don’t let her start talking about money when
she’s this angry.
“Okay, look,” I said, attempting to calm her down.
“It’s just one dance. It’s not a big deal. Christina’s
parents are Chinese, too, and they think it’s OK.”
But there was no calm eye to this storm.
“They’re not your parents! And that’s not my child!”
“Why can’t you understand?”
“No! You don’t understand!”
Actually, I truly didn’t.
“A lot of kids are going.”
“Not you, David!” my mother thundered. “You tell
this girl you don’t want a girlfriend! And you don’t want
to talk to her anymore!”
“I already told her I would go,” I said.
“Tell her you can’t! You’re in school, and school
is for learning, not for girls!” She closed her lips and
wiped her front teeth with her tongue, considering
“Give me your phone, David!”
“Give me your phone! I don’t want you talking and
sexting with this girl!”
“I’m not sexting with her, Mom!”
“Who knows what you’re doing!” I handed over my
phone and half a second later it was zipped up in her
purse. Nothing ever escaped from there. Not even light.
Thank you so much.
Ruth Minah Buchwald: Thank you both so much. Thank you for speaking with me. I love your contributions to the canon so much. AAWW is the first place I ever interned at a few years ago. It feels extra special to represent and work with people who have been continuously kind and generous to me. Thank you to Lily, Rob, and Neela for arranging this.
I'm excited to be part of the commencement event for Ed's book tour. Ed, since this is your YA debut, I wanted you to talk about the transition from writing for adults to young people, if that even was a conscious choice.
Ed Lin: I never really have an audience in mind when I'm writing. I just write to me. In the course of writing about Chinatown mysteries, and then moving on to Taiwan, I was in the research of looking at the history of Chinatown, and I started to question my own family's personal history. That led to Taiwan, of course. My father is from a long line of Taiwanese settlers. There have been waves of people who have emigrated from China to Taiwan over millennia. His family came over when the Ming Dynasty collapsed.
In the course of all that research and making things more personal, I thought about the YA books that were out there. I feel like none of them really spoke to the terror that I had, being in high school and being really, really scared that my grades weren't good enough, my SAT score wasn't high enough, etc. to achieve. A lot of second-generation Asian Americans are proxies for their parents, battling with other relatives and friends. They only got so far, but my kid is going to beat your kid, and he's a piano player going to Harvard, going to play for the Knicks undrafted, etc.
All these books are really for me. I guess when I'm thinking about writing for a younger me, I had fewer reservations and really, really wanted to push things, because I was being squeezed so hard in this box. It wasn't like, how was your day? It was like, show me your grade, and then I'll tell you how your day was. It's about the push for a certain demographic for Asian Americans with everything reduced to a grade. It's kind of anti-learning. You think about how to get the best GPA, instead of taking something in and learning it. You're unable to think about what you enjoy learning about, and your favorite subjects.
It's been said when Asian Americans hit college, they're usually a double major, or major and minor. One is for their parents, and one is for them. I was engineering and literature/writing. I was one class short of the literature/writing degree and didn't finish.
Ruth Minah Buchwald: Talking about being squeezed out of a box, both of your books, David Tung Can't Have a Girlfriend Until He Gets Into an Ivy League College and Finding My Voice, the literature landscape was different. I want to know both your thoughts on the current mainstream of novels that highlight the Asian American youth stories. What are your thoughts?
Marie Myung-ok Lee: I've always had librarians that say, “all the boys love your book, but they don't want a girl on the cover.” This is so welcome. As I mentioned, my book went in and out of print so many times. I grew up in a really small town in Minnesota. My town was so small, it didn't have a Nordstrom. I just grew up in a very small mining town. I never had any Asian American books. I read a lot of Judy Blume, adult books like Thomas Hardy, etc. S.E. Hinton was a favorite. But I didn't have anything to aspire to, which is what made it so difficult.
I dropped out of pre-med, my parents were Korean War refugees. They couldn't conceive of wanting to be a writer. I majored in econ, and was going to work in finance. I was planning to take some writing, really cool religious studies classes, and other things I liked. When I was working at Goldman and trying to make money, I still didn't know how you get published, or how anything works. When I wrote Finding My Voice, I didn't even know it was a YA book. I would get the weirdest replies from people.
My big break, the reason I majored in econ, I had a plan that I was going to live in New York. I had to have a job that paid a lot of money. Then my boyfriend, who's now my husband, worked at a publishing company. We got to go to all these publishing things for free. Judy Blume was at a gala. I showed her my book. To my utter surprise, she said yes! The world's craziest story, I sent her some of it. She really liked it. Her agent didn't like it as much, but they sent it to another agent. Even after that, it got rejected by 22 publishers. The last publisher was Houghton Mifflin. My agent said, if it's not this one, we're done. They'd already held onto it for months. My money had run out and I was freelancing for different investment things.
Then I got this call. They wanted the book! That was kind of the super improbable way my career started. It was so close to having never started, that I can't forget my gratitude for everybody who helped. I had someone who sent it to all these people and academics. I'm ecstatic the book is coming out again. I'm writing YA again, which I haven't done since 1996. I'm excited.
Ruth Minah Buchwald: What about you, Ed? These Asian-American young people stories?
Ed Lin: It certainly seems to be a lot of it. I grew up as a punk rock kid. I'm really into subversive kinds of things. As there are more Asian Pacific-American things, it's kind of becoming mainstream, like when Hüsker Dü signed with Warner Brothers.
I'm showing my age but it was a really big deal. The punk rock ethos is something you hold onto. Not making it a career and money kind of thing. The drummer actually wrote a letter to the scene about how they didn't sell out and they wanted better distribution so the fans could get it.
One of the things Malcom X pointed to was the American's perceptions of its Black population being rooted in it's perception of Africa as well. You needed to unite the diaspora with the motherland in a sort of way.
I have to say, when Parasite won the academy award for best film, it was like, "yes!" for us. Seeing Asians flood the stage to accept the award was awesome. I hope I answered your question.
Ruth Minah Buchwald: Yeah, for sure. I have a question about channelling that time in your life, which I think every immigrant child can relate to, of basically balancing and living two lives. Growing up in a household that abides by the culture they're from and the norm in their schools.
Also, in David Tung's case, another life of running away to New York and his punk rock moment. I'm just kind of wondering about balancing those things.
Marie Myung-ok Lee: I think one of the things that was great about being in the Writers' Workshop, I was a co-founder but I joined really early on too, it was not only us all being ex-pre Med or ex-engineer. Actually, I think Ed was the only ex-engineer. There was a talk about what was worse, coming out or coming out as a writer.
I think within the solidarity, our own appreciation of our crazy parents and the stuff they did so we could get to this point and have these different jobs or being writers -- I was the only person who had a book contract when we started the Writers' Workshop. It was all of us finding our voice. It was us trying to find our way as writers.
I'll back up a little bit. Amy Tan was kind of the omnipresent writer that every White person responded to at that time. She had that dominance -- and I'm not saying she is or her writing is bad -- but we all sort of felt repressed by it. Almost all of us at some point had someone say something like "why don't you write more like Amy Tan?"
We wanted to write whatever we wanted to write. Maybe even stuff without Asians in it. Frankly, it was a lot of work to get the workshop going. We're all finally published, but we probably all lost at least a book with all the work we put into the workshop. We're all still really good friends.
I feel like the metaphor of trying to love your parents and honor them but also do your own thing is kind of the metaphor we had at the workshop. We fought a lot, but we laughed a lot.
To a degree, like Ed was saying the pride of seeing Parasite, it's kind of the same like seeing all the YA. It doesn't have to be one person anymore, we want all of these voices. That's making me so happy.
Ed Lin: Yeah, the early days of the Writers' Workshop were incredible. It was legitimately a workshop. But Curtis got that journal published, getting anything published anywhere was a leg up, considering the outlets available back then.
You think there aren't a lot of BIPOC editors now? Think about back then!
Marie Myung-ok Lee: There was an anthology that came out and none of us were in it! [Laughter.] There is a kind of weird punk aesthetic even though we were all nerdy. There was no Asian-American bookstore, we had what we called the largest Asian-American bookstore in the nation. We were the only one, so we were definitely the largest.
Ed Lin: Do you remember the summer of '92, we went to Atlantic City?
Marie Myung-ok Lee: I wasn't on that trip. The caravan?
Ed Lin: Oh! We went into a casino, how do you not? On the third quarter Curtis put into the slot machine, it just paid off. Like two buckets of quarters came out! It was like wow! It filled up and he had to throw another bucket under there. It just represented the bounty coming in for paying our dues early on. [Laughter.]
Curtis, by the way, is a filmmaker now. He's done incredible documentaries. The first was called Vincent Who, which is about the memory of Vincent Chin and how everything has been forgotten, even after a documentary was made.
The second is called Tested. It's the one determination that you take in order to get into the special schools in the New York City system. Fantastic films.
Marie Myung-ok Lee: They are. You'll laugh, actually, I'm in a new writers' group with him. It's all Asian-Americans. We do it on Zoom, we just can't help ourselves! He does have a wonderful memoir we just read and it's going to be wonderful when it comes out.
Ed Lin: Awesome. He's like David Tung, his family had a restaurant.
Marie Myung-ok Lee: Exactly. The book reminded me a lot of your book. I read a little of your book so I wouldn't get the two mixed up. We just read the manuscript.
Ed Lin: Growing up, we didn't have a restaurant, we had a hotel. That was a 24 hour business. Someone always had to be watching the office. At a pretty early age, I must have been around 12, I would watch the office on the weekends from around 9 to about 2-3 in the morning. I got to see all of the early Saturday Night Lives and the Twilight Zone. I remember the early skits were insane and wonderful.
Marie Myung-ok Lee: Were you just by yourself? No child labor laws?
Ed Lin: If there were child labor laws enforced, so many Asian-American businesses would be shut down! You walk into any Asian-American mom-and-pop shop and there's always a kid there standing there with a 50 yard stare.
Ruth Minah Buchwald: I love hearing all of these stories. When we were doing a tech rehearsal, I loved hearing Marie's stories.
Shifting from living two lives, a big part of both of your books is about Asian-American study culture. I'm wondering now as parents and also writers reflecting on those times, college admission competition, all of the things of immigrant parent expectations, I'm wondering how that's evolved? Going back to that time and writing about the pressures of that.
Marie Myung-ok Lee: I think what was different for me than Ed is we lived in an all White area. We didn't have the competition. That's what I really liked about your book, the side-eyeing competition. Then also sort of in a lot of YA books, the rich handsome person is generally the good person. But you have this universe of Asian-Americans and the cut throatness of that culture.
We lived in a town where 60% of people didn't go to college. Those that did went to state schools. My dad went to the Harvard of Korea. You could bribe your way in or do different extracurriculars. Did you take the test and pass? It was a meritocracy my dad had.
All of my friends would be taking typing and my dad insisted on German. That was the only language we had. My friends got to go see Jaws and I had to write a book report. You see all of that crazy dialogue, when you're younger you think your parents are crazy. I just wanted to go out and go to a party like a normal kid.
As a parent, exactly. I kind of see "wow" and I feel lucky. I teach at Columbia and I see how professional all of these kids are and all the things they did to get in. I probably wouldn't get in today.
My father's passed away now, but I appreciate what he did. This was going to be the way his kids were going to succeed. I know that because when my parents first came here, they were in Jim Crow Alabama. I know that affected them very deeply. They didn't let us do anything Asian, we couldn't speak or eat Korean.
I know that came from a place of love and them wanting us to succeed. I have more of a loving look at it and recalling it to write about it in these novels is about how horrible it is. You're a kid and you're already different and not allowed to be like the other kids. I think that's a lot of what's at the core of Asian-American YA. It's hard. Even if it comes from a place of love, it's difficult.
Ed Lin: I was born in New York City but we moved to New Jersey when I was like 3. I grew up in this friendlyish racism.
A few towns we lived in had maybe 10% Asian, and there were enough people of Chinese descent to actually have a Chinese school. But the places I've lived in the longest didn't really. I went from this environment of sort of friendly-ish racism, to a really small town in Pennsylvania. That was straight-up racism. I remember I took a wrong turn once on this mountain road. I was in front of this house that had a lynched gorilla costume in the front yard. I was like, man, I've got to get out of this town.
From freshman year to senior year, there was a 40-45% dropout rate. Very few people went on to 4-year colleges after that. I remember, my first days at the school in Pennsylvania, there were of course the racist kids, but there was also a local Klan chapter. So-and-so's dad is the editor of the newsletter!
I went from this environment and I was like, OK. When I get to college, I'm totally going to be in this Asian American group and we'll be fighting racism. I got into Columbia. During orientation, I was like this hick coming in talking about fighting racism. All these other kids who came from very prosperous backgrounds, they had fake IDs to get into clubs and everything. I actually took a bit from that experience, and high school, for David Tung.
There are now towns that are majority Asian. There's a town that's 60% Korean.
Ruth Minah Buchwald: I'm from there.
Marie Myung-ok Lee: Nice!
Ed Lin: You can get the food so easily! But also, it's like everybody knows each other's business. The neighbor down the block probably knows what you got on your biology quiz.
Ruth Minah Buchwald: Yeah, it was very much like that.
For my last question, what I love about both of these novels, they're driven by the first person perspective, and written by very powerful, smart, quippy young voices. What is it like for you to reflect, coming from strong voices for your stories, back when you had something you just wrote, the Workshop, etc.?
Marie Myung-ok Lee: That was a good time, writing for no reason. The best thing about the workshop, we did it for no reason. To your question, I'm so happy you asked this. I love telling the story, when I did have the agent and she was striking out everywhere, this very famous editor said, OK. I'm kind of interested in this book. But the first person present tense is very amateurish. You need to write it in third person past tense. I was like, oh my gosh, he's so famous. I tried to rewrite it in third person past tense. I majored in econ, so I didn't really understand about voice. But I did understand, I wanted this book to help the reader understand what it's like to be called chink. There was no way to do that in third person past tense.
I'm not saying there's a magic formula, but at the same time, I'm saying that the book is the book I wanted to write, the way I wanted to write it, despite the very strong feeling that this white editor had for how it should be. Like Ed was saying earlier, you've got to do what you're going to do. Now 20 years later, I'm so happy for this book. If I would have done that even, I don't know if I would still love it as much. But that's how I came to that voice. When I looked at it more critically, that's the voice I wanted. Thank you so much for asking that.
Ruth Minah Buchwald: Of course!
Ed Lin: I'm like you, Marie. I don't have an MFA. I only took some writing classes as an undergrad. I consider the Writer's Workshop to be an MFA-ish experience in a way. I remember early ‘90s, reading these books about how to write, and I was just like, wow. This is really not working! It's like picking a tabs book and trying to play the "Stairway to Heaven" solo. Writing is a unique instrument. You've got to learn to play it well. If it doesn't go to people who are higher up, that's fine. Most people don't read books. You might as well appear to them.
Ruth Minah Buchwald: Thank you so much. Now we have some questions from the audience. The first one, what prompted you to write for and about Asian American youth? Thank you so much for doing so. This is so exciting, I didn't have anything like this growing up. It's amazing to hear these readings.
Marie Myung-ok Lee: Go!
Ed Lin: OK. Viet Nguyen has said that every war is fought twice. I'm still fighting my Asian American childhood, in a fictional kind of sense. Part of me is still stuck there, honestly. It's OK. We have different strata to our experiences.
Marie Myung-ok Lee: Your book is super funny, by the way. I think humor is very underrated as a literary quality.
My answer is very simple. I wanted to have an Asian American book so bad growing up, so I just had to write it.
Ruth Minah Buchwald: Question 2, both of you wrote books about the Asian American experience in the U.S. I'm interested in how you came up with the titles for your novels.
Marie Myung-ok Lee: David Tung is the best title! Who came up with that?
Ed Lin: I came up with it. I was like, it's about this and this and this. It can't be The Long Run or something like that. There aren't a lot of Asian American titles that are like, bleh! Everyone is concerned about how they'll come off, and their appearance. Look at me. I'm a guy who's like, throw the pizza against the wall. That's it.
Marie Myung-ok Lee: The title tells you what you need to know, basically. I agree. There's always that super literary book with a really long title. We should have one like that.
I came up with Finding My Voice, it was originally going to be called after a postcard. But I think I wanted it to be more emotional to the heart of what the book was about.
Ed Lin: Doesn't Parkin Min [sp?] sound Korean?
Marie Myung-ok Lee: No.
My friend Cheryl Strayed is from a town nearby. I'll just change one letter. I think I put Akin and put an R in it.
Ed Lin: This is wild. I've known Hayley since the 90s as well. Shout out to Hayley!
Ruth Minah Buchwald: Our next question is for Ed. We've discussed the ways that Asian Americans tend to be put in certain social boxes. In a similar way, genre fiction operates through fixed conventions. But your books work through and against such conventions. How can we "punk" genre? Thanks so much everyone for your time. I also love this question!
Ed Lin: Because of the pandemic, we can no longer have conventions. I encourage everyone to ditch them. The publishing industry naturally is not going to publish a book they think will lose money. They want to reduce the odds as much as possible. By having comparable books that you can sort of glom onto, it makes a book more publishable as opposed to something being more original.
But I urge everyone to not only write more original, but support work out there that's more original as well. Drive that wedge and widen it a little bit.
What else can I say? Listen to more punk rock! Check out Soul Glo out of Philadelphia. They're one of the best new bands out there. They're on Bandcamp. Today's Friday, and Bandcamp has suspended taking royalties. Everything goes to the band today.
Ruth Minah Buchwald: What advice would you give aspiring Asian American writers trying to break into the industry?
Marie Myung-ok Lee: Write!
Ruth Minah Buchwald: Great, yeah!
This question, I'm curious if Ed and Marie can speak to craft challenges they found when writing their books and characters.
Marie Myung-ok Lee: You should go, Ed. I already talked about my voice problem.
Ed Lin: Let's see. It's true that there is a slant to YA being geared towards girls and young female protagonists and writers as well. I remember reading the Sherman Alexie YA book, Half Indian...
Ruth Minah Buchwald: That title is also great.
Ed Lin: For me, that was really striking, too. When you're a boy growing into your young-manhood, there's always a physicality to it. Not fighting, but banging up against people and stuff. You take your bruises.
So what are you supposed to learn from David Tung? I don't know if you can learn anything apart from you're not alone and a lot of people are going through what you're going through no matter how alone and lost you feel. There's at least someone or more than someone going through exactly what you're going through.
I would also like to point out that I love this alternative hip hop artist called Ohyung. Give a listen and support on Bandcamp.
Ruth Minah Buchwald: Then we have a question, how long did it take each of you to get your first book published?
Marie Myung-ok Lee: Mine was ten years.
Ed Lin: I don't know, what's the starting point? The first day you started writing or the first day you started getting an agent or when they started sending it out?
Ruth Minah Buchwald: I don't know, I guess from writing or finishing the final draft.
Ed Lin: It's often said it's not the writer's first book that's the published one. That's true for me. I have a horrible book on a floppy disc somewhere. I think I reached page 70. I was like if it's this painful to write it, how hard is it going to be to read this thing? I printed out the whole thing and put it in a drawer somewhere.
My cousin is somewhat like me, he grew up working in his family's hotel, he killed himself. It spurred me to look at my own early childhood growing up at the hotel. I wrote this book called Waylaid in about seven months. That book was my first published book.
That was actually published by Kaya Press because I went to a workshop called How To Get Your Book Published. I showed her my book and printed it out, mailed it to her, then I get it back in the mail. I'm going through the pages and it's like bleeding. There's comments, slashes throughout, I groaned. I was feeling all the pain. I shoved it in a drawer.
She called me a few weeks later and was like, "what do you think?" I was like what do I think, you hated it? She told me they loved it and wanted to publish it.
Going back to the person asking about breaking into writing, have a thick skin. Don't take things personally. It might feel like someone's trying to attack you, but they're really trying to help you. Aside from that person who told you to write in the third person. People are going to try to help you.
Marie Myung-ok Lee: That's a good point. I have at least two manuscripts I know will never be published. But I did have to complete them. I knew I couldn't go to the next one. With Finding My Voice I had to do anything for it, including telling an editor no.
But if it's awful to write, it's going to be awful to read. I have an 800 page manuscript about this awful publisher and I thought it was so funny. I read it again and was like this is never going to make it. But that's what it's all about, learning your own taste, knowing when something's good and when something's bad.
Oh, I also wrote one about the Gold Rush that was so bad. A publisher was interested in it but I couldn't bring myself to finish it. It needed editing. I was starting to write more adult fiction and I was dropping out of the YA mindset.
To the person who asked about a craft thing, now that I write adult, the interesting thing is I was not allowed -- in my book about guys -- to use swear words. I was like how can I not use swear words when I'm spending time in a locker room and it's all slurs and swear words?
The point was the library marketing person said if I did this, it wouldn't get into the kids hands. So I came up with a compromise which was making up my own swear words. It feels silly, but I didn't have to worry about censors and things like that.
It's not really a craft thing, but there are certain genre conventions that come up against your artistic ideas. When you're going to get published, you have to decide what you'll be compromising on. I'd rather have the book in people's hands than have the swear words.
It's a weird time. It is a business. They have to sell the books so they can stay in business. There has to be a semblance of sellability. They're not gatekeepers, they want to keep selling our stuff and you need them to do that. There's art and there's commerce.
Ruth Minah Buchwald: The next question comes from Daisy, how do you deal with writing about things that are close to home? Daisy is writing a memoir currently.
Marie Myung-ok Lee: I thought my dad would hate my book, it was kind of autobiographical. Someone said first books are always autobiographical because the writer has things they have to get off their chest. I thought my dad would hate it because it seemed like he was the cold, callous dad.
He wrote me a note and was like when are you going to write another book? I've read this one three times. You might think they'll hate it but they love it. I think you need to write it and then figure out how to deal with your parents or whoever you're writing about.
Ed Lin: My mother said my third book was the first one that didn't shame the family.
Marie Myung-ok Lee: [Laughter.] Ouch! Okay. But they never said like stop writing or don't publish this?
Ed Lin: It was more like, "don't start writing." "When you're a doctor, you can write at night."
Marie Myung-ok Lee: That's what my parents said!
Ed Lin: Yeah, I'll want to do this after a whole day as a doctor.
Marie Myung-ok Lee: My dad gave me a list of doctors who were also writers!
Ed Lin: Because he was a doctor he fell into that trap, what a hack!
Ruth Minah Buchwald: This next question is from Timothy, they're asking if there are sequels being planned for your books.
Ed Lin: No, this is it.
Marie Myung-ok Lee: Are you going to write more YA though?
Ed Lin: Uh . . . maybe. Maybe not. It depends.
Marie Myung-ok Lee: But you're totally closing the door on that?
Ed Lin: Well . . . I would never close the door on anything, except my foot.
Marie Myung-ok Lee: I will say, there is already a sequel -- Saying Goodbye -- to Finding My Voice. So many people were asking, "what happened to Ellen, what happened to Ellen?!" I was like alright, alright. It's still in print.
Ruth Minah Buchwald: I'll make sure to buy everyone's books tonight. Last question for the night, who are you reading right now and what writers do you recommend?
Ed Lin: Let's see. I'm only going to talk about writers who are dead. I'm friends with so many writers, I can't name some and leave some out.
I really enjoyed the books by James T. Farrell. I think I've read like eight of his books already. I find them all fantastic. He was this Irish-American guy who grew up in Chicago. He deals with race and different socioeconomic groups that is so real. Not surprisingly, he was a long-time communist. But he's not running for president or anything. _
I've also really enjoyed this book called Book of Swindles, published by Columbia University Press. It's translations of Ming Dynasty tales of people being ripped off. In Ming Dynasty China, if you were robbed or fooled by somebody, your neighbors wouldn't be coming out to help or comfort you. They'd laugh at how stupid you were.
Marie Myung-ok Lee: That's lovely. I read non-fiction and fiction at the same time. Fiction, I'm reading this really great novel by a Korean-American writer, I think her name is Nancy Jooyoun Kim. That book has some of the best descriptions of food. Koreans are super into eating, I'm immensely enjoying that.
My friend Justin Taylor is writing a memoir about his dad and America. It's so beautifully done and brainy, I highly recommend it. It's called Riding with the Ghost.
Ed Lin: Speaking of ghosts, did you know I lived in a haunted house in the middle of Pennsylvania? My parents bought this farm house as an investment. My parents bought it and made me live there the summer before going to college. It was a huge property, it had half a mountain.
It was built in the early 1800s. It had a dirt basement, the stairs were worn down and hand hewn, there was an outhouse, I had to shove coal in the heater to have hot water.
Who's the guy from Flying Burrito Brothers? He had that song called We'll Sweep Out the Ashes in the Morning. I was totally doing that, otherwise you couldn't burn more coal.
There was a ghost in this house. It was just me and the stuff in my room. The snoring sound would come out from the bedroom across the hallway 2-3 nights a week.
Marie Myung-ok Lee: Did you ever see anything? Was it an old White farmer?
Ed Lin: I never saw them. I got the feeling it was an old farmhand or something. In the morning, I would hear a rooster crow in the distance and the snoring would stop.
It wasn't a mean presence or anything, it was something resting. If I had heard like, "get out!" I would have been out of there so fast. It was just snoring, catching up on sleep.
Ruth Minah Buchwald: I like how it turned Halloween themed for the ending. Thank you so much! This was fun to moderate.
Marie Myung-ok Lee: Thanks, Ruth!
Ed Lin: Thank you, Ruth! Thank you, Neela!
Neela Banerjee: Thank you guys so much. A big round of applause from all our watchers out there. Thank you all for joining in.
We dropped the pre-order link in the chat a few times. David Tung Can't Have a Girlfriend Until He Gets Into an Ivy League College. We'll send you some shiny stickers as well from the Kaya website.
Can you show us your shirt, Ed? A lot of people saw it and liked it.
Ed Lin: It's a great shirt.
Neela Banerjee: Ed will have a lot more events to promote the novel with all sorts of different writers around the country. The next one is coming October 30 with Word Out Bookstore. Follow Kaya Press on social media, and pre-order Marie's book, which is coming out December, the reissue. Is there anything new in the reissue?
Marie Myung-ok Lee: I did write an afterword, because some of the language was a little antiquated. A lot of people wanted me to change it, with social media, cell phones, etc. I was like, you know what? This is a period piece. This is a historical piece of a particular time when people still said Oriental. She doesn't need to have a cell phone.
Ed Lin: You can't get reception at the abandoned mine anyway!
Marie Myung-ok Lee: Yeah!
Neela Banerjee: Definitely check out both these books. Tell everybody to check these out. A big thank you, of course, to the Asian American Writer's Workshop. A big thank you to Kundiman. They just announced a feminist writer's workshop you can sign up for.
Thank you guys so much!
Marie Myung-ok Lee: Thank you for spending time with us! Bye!
Ed Lin: Thank you!
Oh, this is going to be on YouTube later!