Love in the time of Asianness

Hey, everyone! So, I had written a post for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (which was the month of May) that, for a variety of reasons, I never posted. But now that I’m thinking clearly, I figured I’d still go ahead and put it up, even though it’s a little bit late. Because, in the end, I get to be Asian all the time and not just in May. So it’s still relevant!

SummerRain-200x300But before I jump into that, I want to shamelessly plug a romance anthology that came out on Monday that myself and a few other Wonksters, plus some friends of Wonk, are in. It’s called Summer Rain, it has nine exclusive romance stories in it, and all author proceeds from the sale of the volume go to benefit the Rape Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN)!

Here are the buy links, for ease of purchasing.

Amazon * B&N * kobo * iTunes * Amazon UK

And now, on to talking about Asian stuff!

So, for those of you who don’t know me, I’m a romance author who happens to be half Asian. My other half is Caucasian. I was born and raised just outside of Austin, Texas, I moved up to the Northeast for college when I was seventeen, and I’ve been freezing my butt off ever since because I haven’t bothered to move back just yet (It’s only been eighteen years but…any day now.)

Because of my mixed background, I’ve had some interesting Asian-related (I’m making that an official Thing) experiences. But talking about those in a blog post…well, I wasn’t really sure what one or two things to pick to focus on. Obviously, I can’t represent the full spectrum of Asian experience. And I can’t even represent the full spectrum of my Asian experience in a single blog post. So, I decided to stick to the things I like best…the first of which is hot guys.

Yep. Hot guys. Can I just say how bummed I get over how the hotness of Asian men isn’t usually well-represented on TV and in books? Usually, they take on this kind of asexual nerdy friend role in films, or they’re human weapons (read: masters of martial arts) who belong to bordering-on-mystical crime syndicates in the East. And that makes me sad, because they’re so much more than that.

I mean…they’re hot.

Take Exhibit A: Andy Lau, super mega Chinese hotness:

Or Exhibit B: Yoon Seung-jun, super mega Korean hotness:

Or Exhibit C: Takeshi Kaneshiro, super mega Japanese hotness:

I’m just sayin’.

Also, you’re welcome.

My late grandfather, rockin' his mid-50s.

My late grandfather, rockin’ his mid-50s.

Anyway, all of this to say that, all kidding aside, I’d really like to see more Asian heroes in media. Television, novels…especially romance novels. Because they’re sexy and wonderful and just as tough-but-caring, gentle-but-rough, and awesomely powerful as men of other races and ethnicities. They’re men I know because I grew up around them, and they are men who feel just as deeply as any other man. Romance heroes are, after all, human at their core—and what does it say about us as a people if we have a problem recognizing our common humanity? I’m probably preaching to the choir, here, but I just had to get that out.

Of course, let’s not forget about Asian women (*raises hand*). They deserve love, too! But I think that, for Asian ladies, it’s the opposite problem—that in media they’re too frequently reduced to only sexual beings. And that’s a little intense, because I can promise you that, just from personal experience, that kind of message really does get snapped up and internalized by the viewing/reading/information-consuming public, in ways that are so ingrained and accepted that it’s hard to recognize them as having a yuck factor. Like, I can’t even tell you how many times someone told a boyfriend of mine that he had Yellow Fever just because I happen to have nut-shaped eyes. (People. For real. Almonds? C’mon.)

I think Asian women are awesome. Just like I think all women are awesome. Women do all kinds of cool stuff that makes a positive difference in the world and such a small fraction of that cool stuff has anything to do with sex. Which leads me into my next topic: comic books. Recently, my little kids got into superheroes and comic books, but I couldn’t find any comics for young children that featured kickass, non-Caucasian women supers. So I was all, By the power of Grayskull! I’m gonna make my own! (Okay, fine, it wasn’t really that dramatic. I basically added a line item to my to-do list that said, “Comic book. Female superhero. Not white.”)

So…I created a half Asian female superhero concept, wrote a creation story for her, Alexis Anne hooked me up with an incredibly talented artist, Chris Nawara, and the rest…well, it’s not history yet, but I’d be pretty happy if maybe someday it would be.


Speaking of Asian Pacific Americans, even though it’s not “our month” anymore, here’s one last heritage-type thought to round it all out: that is, in all seriousness, I hope folks who might never have actively thought about it will explicitly realize and reinforce that Asian Pacific Americans are Americans, too. I’ve been on the receiving end of choice comments like, “Are you one of them ‘Nam babies?” and “Go back to China!” and “Ching chong chang!” (What does that even mean?) Hopefully, it’s obvious why that’s kind of crappy. But I will also say that the wide majority of comments on my race and ethnic background that I’ve gotten have been genuinely curious or even complimentary. And that’s one of the very, very cool things about America, and living in a place with such a wide diversity.

In the end, I’m grateful that I live here. I’m grateful that I had the experience of growing up with a Chinese father and a white American mother. And I’m grateful for hot Asian guys, kickass Asian women, and having the luck and privilege to have been born in a country where I am allowed to write romance novels, drive a car to the bookstore to buy romance novels, access any website I want to watch all the romantic comedies I want (featuring hot Asian men), and—above all else—to be the steward of my own life.

Rock on, America.

Posted in Writing Wonkomance | Tagged , , , , | 22 Comments

Spirituality and the Work of Writing

I first met Amber Belldene in person in the Starbucks in the Marriott at RWA 2013. We’d exchanged a few tweets, and I’d always found her funny and sympathetic. In person, I liked her right away — she has a great smile and she’s easy to talk to. It would have been the perfect moment for a getting-to-know-you-cup-of coffee, but she was running to a session, so we didn’t have (7)

Nevertheless, in the course of those seven short minutes, I learned that she was an Episcopal priest, that she wrote paranormal and contemporary romance, and that she was doing a session on God and Sex at RT 2014, and I somehow managed to confess all sorts of things to her about the weird mishmash of influences that have made me who I am spiritually.

Based on that alone, I knew I had to corner her at first opportunity for the missed cup of coffee — but it actually turned out to be a glass of wine. I was visiting San Francisco with my family, and she and I hung out at a wine bar and had one of those wide-ranging conversations you have with someone you probably knew in another life.

We had such a good time, we decided to spin some of our conversation off into a Wonkopost, in the hopes that we could get some of you to join in as well. We had to narrow things down a bit, so we chose “spirituality and the work of writing” as our territory for this post. To start, we posed four questions to ourselves:

Why do we write?
How does spirituality enter into writing?
What are our writing “demons” and how do we conquer them?
What is the connection between spirituality and individual voice?

Why do we write?

Amber: Like a lot of writers, the need to put words on the page is pretty compulsive for me. It’s a creative outlet, a place to put energy that can get rather destructive if doesn’t have somewhere else to go. So partly, the vocation to write seems to come from the way I’m wired.

But the other side of that coin is what I believe about how humans are wired. I’m from a liberal Christian denomination and I interpret the Bible as primarily a religious document. I believe the stories are not and never were intended to report history, but instead to use narrative to convey a transcendent truth because narrative is the best way to convey Truth with a capital T.

I spend a lot of time in my priestly work trying to teach that concept, or to simulate it in my preaching, and it gives me a sense of the sacred about the work of the writer, both mine and others. I don’t aspire to write something of profound religious significance, but every ordinary human story told in a solid genre fiction book can also be a vehicle for the transcendent. In fact, I especially believe romantic and erotic stories are well suited to convey transcendence. Even if only one paragraph gets there, or only a few readers find that in a story, it feels like a worthy endeavor to me.  And I never feel my effort is wasted, because I simply have to do it to stay sane.

Serena: Writing is a compulsion for me, too. As a kid I used to strongly identify with the Frost quote from Two Tramps in Mud Time (re-popularized for certain avid readers by Madeleine L’Engle in The Arm of the Starfish):

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight (check)
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.

The first time I read that, when I was twelve or so, I knew it had something to do with me and the way I felt about writing. I knew I was supposed to write and that somehow, I was supposed to do it as my job.

Later I heard Christian friends using the term “called,” and recognized that that particular word succinctly expressed how I felt—that something, somewhere out there or deeply inside me—exhorted me to write.

How does spirituality enter into writing?

Serena: Some people talk about their muse or the little man in the basement who gives them ideas, but I’ve always felt like I was channeling some power that was bigger (and better) than me.

In order for that channeling to work, I have to give up control and let the other power talk (usually by just putting my fingers on the keyboard—although lately Dragon Dictate works pretty well, too :-)). But letting go is key. That’s the only way to achieve that flow state where, if I look back at what I’ve written afterwards, I don’t actually remember writing it, as if someone else did it when I wasn’t looking.

The first draft is usually my best opportunity to commune with whatever that higher power is. By the time I get to the revision state, I’m pretty earthbound and most of what I do has to do with fixing things in a very concrete way. But there are still flashes of that “channeling,” even at that stage, when I rewrite long passages, or write new scenes, or generally open myself to inspiration.

One area where I only very rarely have a sense of being inspired from the outside (or the deep inside) is the generation of structural ideas in the work—like premises or plot lines or even whole characters or scenes. For me, inventing these *pieces* is very human work. But then when I put words to the pieces—actually type the scene, bring a character to life, turn a premise into a synopsis or a blurb—the higher power seems to be at work again.

Amber: I love hearing about this process, and I’m sure it will be interesting to know the next time I read something you wrote. In Hold On Tight, I definitely think you were channeling a higher power.  Especially in those sex scenes!

Much like in the rest of my life, I find God in my writing when I talk about it with others—when my critique partners notice something I didn’t, or that I really, really hoped they would.  When they ask me just the right questions, or point out something enormous that I completely missed. When an observation I have about their story is helpful. Serena is especially good at circling around with me to tell me when feedback I gave her was helpful, which is a lovely trait in a CP (and makes me enormously glad that we met in that Starbucks line last summer!)  I find this kind of collaborative partnership incredibly generative. It feels holy, it makes my work feel holy.

Also, as someone steeped in Biblical themes and imagery, I love it when my subconscious is clearly working in the story, has made things happen and drawn connections I wasn’t aware of until after I wrote them, or when an unexpected things comes together because of groundwork I laid in the story unconsciously or experimentally.  Here is a totally embarrassing example. My paranormal series is about vampires who make wine, and a particular wine they can drink instead of blood.  You probably get the idea—wine, blood, Jesus.  All my priest friends nodded as if this was the most obvious story a paranormal-romance-writer-slash-priest could think of, but honestly, I got there in a completely round about way, through vampire mythology and Homer.

Maybe this is the collective unconscious or the monomyth at work, maybe it’s the Holy Spirit (which is what I think of when my writer friends talk about their muses), but it’s really, really fun, and surprising, and awesome, in the literal sense of the word, to feel like you’ve somehow tapped into a vein of THE GREAT STORY (sorry, again with the blood imagery) when you’re writing. It’s addictive!

What are our writing “demons” and how do we conquer them?

Serena: The going definitely gets rough in writing.  When Amber and I had our wine bar get-together, we talked about the fact that for us—and, we suspect, most writers, the writing itself is not the hard part, not the work. Instead, the hard part of being a writer is not succumbing to all the emotional pitfalls of the job.

On any given day, there are a lot of things trying to tug you away from what matters—the writing—and toward a number of negative emotions, like the kind of despair you feel when something gets rejected, or the panic you feel when a revision letter blindsides you in some way. These emotions are strong and plentiful—they surprise you and try to get a foothold, and the work is setting them aside and coming back over and over again to the writing.

My worst enemy is the feeling that someone else is doing something I’m not. Sometimes that’s a success—new contract, new series, bestseller—but often, it’s just something fun like a conference, workshop, or retreat, or brilliant promo idea that I wish I’d thought of. And on my worst days, I admit, sometimes it’s just the fact that two people I really like and admire are having a really interesting conversation about something I never bothered to think about.

Actually, this is really just another way of saying that my worst enemy is ME, feeling like I’m not doing enough, somehow. It doesn’t bother me all the time, or even most of the time, but when it happens, it’s hard to pull my focus back to what I *am* doing.

Pulling my focus back to what I am doing is hugely a matter of remembering that I’m writing because I’ve been given this strange pairing of talent and love. The fact that I’m lucky enough to have both calls upon me (often in a very demanding way) to give everything I can to writing. And the most demanding part is making myself write when everything conspires against it. Which means that every time I turn away from the demons—however they manifest themselves, in whatever distracting form—and back towards the words, I’m doing spiritual work.

Amber: Serena, I like the way you’ve identified that insecurity about “doing enough.”  I have a bad case of that too—a fear that I’m not moving fast enough, that if I don’t keep making progress, my career will stagnate and also that compulsive need to write more than my life actually allows for.  And yes, so many outside things can trigger that feeling, but it’s roots are definitely in me.

One of my demons is my rivalrous lizard brain. That’s my deep instinct to become afraid and jealous at someone else’s success.  My more evolved self is passionately convinced that success is not scarce, that one person’s win also elevates the whole, and that it in no way reflects on my own skill or potential. In college I became a fan of the social philosopher Rene Girard, and his theories on rivalry and violence—how wanting what someone else has is a foundational human trait, which he ties to the roots of societal violence. I do think we can train ourselves out of these reactions, and for me that means focusing on abundance when things feel scarce, seeking reassurance from a trusted friend when I doubt myself.  All that helps me a lot.

My second demon is the need to feel smart, which has deep roots in the ol’ “family of origin stuff” as we say in seminary.  Ironic that I would chose to write in a genre that is itself rather embattled around its intellectual legitimacy, right?

This demon tempts me to get into the meta critical conversations on Twitter, certain smart review sites, and even here on the fabulous Wonkomance.  To do it right, to say what I feel is important to say, with as much nuance and passion as I feel, and then to follow the other comments, takes so much time that I simply don’t have as a full-time priest, parent of toddler twins, spouse, and person with the compulsive need to write.  When I do weigh in, I fret about whether my point will be understood, wish I could retract or edit, watch replies when I need to be doing other things, and find myself irrationally anxious to the point I basically have had to force myself not to engage at all, like so many of us have chose to ignore the genre-bashing click bait lately. In other words, it’s like a spiritual discipline to stop trying to work out my daddy issues by proving I’m smart to you all :-)

What is the connection between spirituality and voice?

Amber: When I was first ordained, I compared myself to other priests who were great at the pastoral stuff (what do you say to the new widow, etc) or the great administrators, fundraisers, preachers.  I was constantly thinking about trying to be as good as them at all those things, and somewhere along the way, as I grew comfortable with my own gifts, which were distinct, and sometimes overlapped with my mentors’ and sometimes didn’t, I started to realize my job wasn’t to be as good as them, but to be as good at possible at being myself, using my own gifts.

Now, as I writer, I found myself returning to this lesson often, especially when I read a really great book, or learn of someone else’s success. What I uniquely bring to a story is my world view—how I see life and the human condition. And on top of that, how I use language to draw people into that worldview (voice). On a bad day, I try to tell myself I just need to keep working on doing those things the very best I can. That’s having integrity as an author, and trusting that the right readers will find me eventually. It doesn’t mean I can’t be strategic about what I write.

Serena: Gah, Amber, I love what you said about not comparing and being comfortable with one’s own gifts. I might have to write it on an index card and stick it up somewhere.

During those moments when I’m most effectively letting go and “channeling,” I also find that my “voice” comes through in spades. If I’m forcing it, if I’m over-writing because I want to achieve something or accomplish something, because I want to please someone else or be something else, my voice doesn’t shine. When I force, the process feels klugy and the result is less than ideal.

That doesn’t mean I can’t respond to editorial suggestion—not at all. It just means have to find a way to separate education from inspiration. I can educate myself as much as I want—take advice from beta readers and critique partners, read writing craft books, listen to wise editors, etc. But when I create, I have to get out of my learning brain and into my channeling brain, and I have to criticize myself as little as possible so I can put all my attention into listening.

Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 29 Comments

Not Your Good Girl

All my life people have been telling me no…

Don’t wear that skirt.

Don’t be a tease.

Don’t tell anyone.

Everything was a negative. I only heard the term sex positive for the first time a few years ago. Did it even exist when we were teenagers? Well I hadn’t heard of it, and I wasn’t mature enough to conceptualize it on my own.

Back then, sex was something we did if we liked a guy and thought he was cute. But hopefully no one found out because then we were awful. And it wasn’t something we necessarily had to enjoy.

The “sex talk” that my dad had with me was mildly sex positive. He specifically brought up these nonfiction books, something about his pleasure and her pleasure. (Otherwise known as THE AWKWARDEST TEN MINUTES OF MY LIFE.)

But it was the first time I’d ever heard it spelled out that a woman can or should expect her own pleasure from the experience. Of course he also implied that condoms were not that great and other weirdness, so I can’t call the entire thing a win.

* * *

I grew up. Worked some stuff out. And now I write about sex.

A lot of sex.

If you asked me whether my books are message books or issue books, I’d say no. But my books do have an ethos, one I can’t escape from, one I wouldn’t want to. My core ideals will show up in my books, repeatedly. Like being sex positive.

Being sex positive is about embracing sexuality, about health and experimentation and pleasure. It’s basically the opposite of how I grew up thinking about sex, but it’s how I think of it now. So, what does that mean in the context of my writing?

What does sex positivity look like in a romance novel?

It looks like a strong woman, who’s not afraid to ask for what she wants. It looks like a woman who can take charge of the situation, and her orgasms, and a man. It looks like a powerful woman.

Those are things I’ve heard before, and they’re true.

It looks like a woman who can be submissive to a man, if that’s what she wants to do. I’ve heard that before, and it’s true too. It looks like passionate sex and mindblowing orgasms. Yes and yes! Those things are true… but they’re not the whole truth.

Because it also looks like a woman not having an orgasm, but choosing to have the orgasmless sex anyway. Because it feels good. Or because she just wants to. Because it’s her choice, and that’s fucking sex positive.

What does sex positivity look like in a romance novel?

It’s bumping heads and getting your hair stuck under someone’s elbow and laughing because this is silly. It’s having sex that’s fun… OR having sex that’s serious or distracting or just plain sad. It’s doing things that are scary and embarrassing, things that are a bad idea but seemed okay at the time.

It’s fucking up and figuring things out.

Including those experiences in books is one of the most sex positive things I can do, because it tells the people living them that they are not alone. We look for ourselves in books, and each and every one of us deserves to find ourselves.

I can’t write every experience, none of us can. But the sum total of our words, when given free rein and all our love, can write a whole lot of them. Sex positive books are diverse—in race, in orientation, in background. In experience. Sex positive books can represent ME and YOU and that guy over there and anyone else, even if that makes some people uncomfortable.

* * *

All my life people have been telling me no…

Don’t read that book.

Don’t use that word.

And for God’s sake, don’t write a heroine who does all the dirty shit you weren’t supposed to do all along!

There are people who tell me NO NO NO, as if I am a dog and there is a rolled up newspaper in their hand. And look, people don’t have to read my books and they don’t have to like my books. But the only person who gets to send me to bed without supper for being a bad girl is me.

The only person who gets to decide what I won’t write or read or think is me.

There are people who tell me how to be an author. How to be a professional woman. Be sexy, but not too sexy. Write about sex, but don’t talk about having it. Do exactly as I say if you want my respect. But I can be an author without their approval. I can be a professional and a woman.

There are people who expect me to obey them and get offended when I don’t. I’m just trying to help… All my life people have been trying to help. Don’t talk too loud. Don’t say what you think. Don’t be different. But I don’t need that kind of help. I’m not sure anyone does.

Because I can’t write a book in someone else’s voice.

I can’t live someone else’s life.

I can’t pretend to be sorry for that.

Even when it makes some people uncomfortable.

Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 3 Comments