Today we’re spotlighting our three Asian Writer’s Block Party contributors! Let’s give it up for Akshaya, Kat, and Axie!!
QUESTION 1: What has it been like incorporating your Asian identities into your books? What’s your personal philosophy when it comes to being true to your identity in your writing?
AKSHAYA: I think for me, writing about my Indian heritage is another way to explore and connect with it. Growing up in a diaspora community, a lot of my childhood connections to my culture were through art like dance and music, so it feels almost natural to continue that with storytelling. I don’t know if I have a personal philosophy necessarily, but I think I’ve gotten braver in terms of writing about my specific identity and experiences. When I wrote The Ivory Key, I stuck to the version of India that I felt people would recognize. I’m South Indian and our culture is very different and often unfamiliar to western audiences so I was nervous about writing something that people wouldn’t automatically recognize or associate with India. But recently, when I sat down to write a short story for an upcoming anthology, I decided that I wanted to write about Tamil American characters. It was a little scary at first but it’s also been incredibly fun getting to incorporate some details from my own upbringing!
KAT: My journey was really similar to Akshaya’s. I didn’t set out to learn more things about my heritage through my writing but it happened naturally as I wanted to do justice to my Korean culture. I also wanted to do more than just have the culture as a setting or a frame to the story. I wanted to incorporate my own feelings and emotions about my Korean heritage in the book as well. I always thought that the character I’d relate to the most would be Jihoon as a human outsider to the supernatural world. But it ended up being Miyoung that I related to the most in Wicked Fox. What I didn’t realize I was doing was infusing her with my complicated feelings about being diaspora. Miyoung exists within two worlds, a part of each, but feeling like an outsider of each in a way. For Miyoung it’s being human and gumiho, for me it’s being Korean and American. It wasn’t until I was doing final edits on the book that I realized I’d done this, but it explained a lot why I had such a soft spot in my heart for Miyoung as she struggles with trying to fit in through all the wrong methods before finally learning to embrace herself as she truly is and learning that people can love her for it.
AXIE: Wow, I love both your answers. And who wrote this question because it’s tough! It’s funny because as Asian writers we’re often put on #ownvoices lists and asked questions similar to this, but really the answer is: we write what we know, don’t we? I mean, I might not know what it’s like to date a K-Pop star (or do I, *wink* *wink*), but I *do* know what it’s like to be a fan and also, and maybe more importantly, I know what it’s like to spend summers in Korea, surrounded by family, experiencing the busyness of Seoul, the peace of the countryside, and the delicious food everywhere. It makes sense that my experiences would influence the novel because it’s what I know. And so my philosophy is always to stay true to myself and never add anything that doesn’t feel authentic to me just to please that unseen reader or critic.
QUESTION 2: What’s something fun that was inspired by, or that you pulled from, your own cultural experiences that you put into your books?
AKSHAYA: The food! My mom is a big foodie (and let’s be real, so am I!) so I grew up eating a lot of regional food from all across India, and I really loved incorporating that element of my childhood into The Ivory Key. There aren’t as many provinces in Ashoka as there are states in India but I tried to highlight a few delicacies from each region including some of my favorite dishes.
KAT: I would say “the angst” but that’s more a K-drama thing than a strict “cultural experience.” In terms of Wicked Fox and Vicious Spirits, I included places that I’d spent a lot of time at when I was studying in Seoul for a summer semester. That was a time in my life where I was really exploring Seoul for the first time alone without my parents or grandparents to influence how I felt about the city. And as a bright-eyed 19-year-old it was a beautiful and exciting city to be in. I wanted to lend those feelings to my characters, and the easiest way for me to do that was through the places I’d learned to love during my time there. The other thing was obviously all the food. I always appreciate it when readers bring up the food scenes in my books because they’re very dear to my heart since I love everything about Korean cuisine. I’d highly recommend planning any trips to Korea based on what food you want to eat (actually, I recommend that for all trips). For Once Upon a K-Prom, I went back and forth about how much of my diaspora angst I wanted to include, and eventually decided that for this romcom I didn’t want her Koreanness to be an “issue” for her to have to deal with. I think it’s really important to have books where the BIPOC characters are just comfortable with their cultural identity. So I treated it very much the way I treated my characters in Wicked Fox, in that her Koreanness was just a seamless part of her. But I definitely still incorporated all the food and, of course, so much K-pop trivia and details throughout (with some not-so-subtle shout outs to some of my personal fave groups and singers!)
AXIE: LOL, I love how you both mentioned food. I also put *so* much food into my books, especially XOXO. I think I mention some sort of food in every chapter, HAHA. And same, Kat!
I studied abroad at Yonsei University for a summer and so many of my experiences that summer made it into XOXO, including and not limited to: field trips to the countryside, going to K-pop music shows, shopping in the underground malls, and visiting cultural sites! I also named a character after one of my friend’s in my program. Shoutout to Angela!
QUESTION 3: What books, media, or other forms of storytelling by AAPI creators have influenced you and your works?
KAT: In terms of authors, I was definitely inspired by Ellen Oh, Cindy Pon, Jenny Han, Maurene Goo and Julie C. Dao. Ellen and Cindy were the first who allowed me to see myself in the pages of a fantasy novel. Jenny and Maurene taught me that Asian heroines could be goofy and silly and fall in love and never have to justify being Asian in a Western world. And Julie was publishing right when I was starting to pursue publication. I followed her entire journey and it helped demystify the process for me and give me a boost to my confidence that we could make it in this industry as Asian authors. Outside of authors, I feel like lots of Asian kidlit fantasy writers can point to Studio Ghibli films as a huge influence on them in one way or the other. I actually would say that Axie’s writing is more like a Miyazaki film (See The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea). But I definitely found inspiration in character development from movies like Princess Mononoke and Howl’s Moving Castle. One day I will make a character as strange as No Face…One day…
AXIE: Aw, thanks Kat-eonni! Yes, Hayao Miyazaki and Ghibli were a huge influence on me in terms of storytelling, as well as so many Japanese anime and video games like Sailor Moon, the Gundam franchise, and Final Fantasy. I mean, I wrote a giant robot/mecha series – if that’s not the ultimate homage to the mecha genre of anime, I don’t know what is! I tell this story a lot, but I didn’t realize I *could* be an author until I saw Cindy Pon speak on a panel about her debut novel, Silver Phoenix (2009). It was the first time I ever saw someone who looked like me at a BOOKSTORE talking about her book which featured solely characters who looked like me. It was mind blowing! Until then, the only novel I had written featured a white protagonist. Never again! Thanks Cindy!!!
AKSHAYA: The biggest influence specifically for The Ivory Key was The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi. Up until 2016, I had only written stories with white protagonists. I had the occasional Indian side character because it felt disingenuous to not have that but I literally couldn’t conceive of having a main character be Indian. I was very new to the YA community at that time and it absolutely blew my mind that TSTQ was based on Hindu mythology and had Indian characters and it was actually going to be published. It took me another year to work up the courage to actually write The Ivory Key, but I will forever be grateful to Roshani for helping me believe that this was possible.
QUESTION 4: Give us some book suggestions by other amazing AAPI authors!
AXIE: Okay, well first of all, Akshaya’s debut The Ivory Key is fantastic and comes out Jan 4, 2022. Mark your calendars! & Kat’s Once Upon a K-Prom follows shortly after, and you guys, the snippets she shares are SWOOOON. But since 2022 is so far away, I’m going to hype up a few recent reads of mine! I absolutely loved Olivia Abtahi’s Perfectly Parvin which released last week, which is Iranian Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging – so hilarious and sweet. And right now I’m currently reading Akemi Dawn Bowman’s stunning YA scifi debut The Infinity Courts, which is if Siri took over the afterlife. & lastly Idol Gossip by Alexandra Leigh Young releases in August and it features a Chinese American girl taking the K-pop world by storm! (Shoutout to non-Korean K-pop idols, Lisa & Tzuyu <3)
AKSHAYA: I’m going to recommend a few upcoming 2021 books that I’m excited about! Sisters of the Snake by Sarena and Sasha Nanua, The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri, The Chariot at Dusk by Swati Teerdhala, Jade Fire Gold by June Tan, When Night Breaks by Janella Angeles, and of course XOXO by our very own Axie Oh!
KAT: I want to shout out some books I loved so much I blurbed them (lol): The Last Fallen Star by Graci Kim, Eva Evergreen Series by Julie Abe, Made in Korea by Sarah Suk, and pretty much anything that June Hur writes (her latest was The Forest of Stolen Girls). I also cannot wait for The Year of the Reaper by Makiia Lucier and The Wild Ones by Nafiza Azad!