HAI on the Literary Work-in-Progress Podcast

Ages ago, I submitted the first ten pages of my “Japanese Cinderella” story, Hai, for a critique by the Literary Work-in-Progress podcast. I recently found out my piece was selected for Episode 10: Tropes with Karen McManus of One of Us Is Lying. You can listen to the episode on iTunes here.

I am now agented (yay!), and Hai is about to go on submission, but it was still a lot of fun to listen to both the positive feedback and the critique! I was relieved to hear that 99 percent of the questions Caitlin, Kristen, and Cameron raised go on to be addressed in Chapter Two, which they noted might be the case. But I promise I also got the chance while editing my manuscript to fix other issues they raised, like my ultra-long sentences… /(><)\

I also appreciated getting their take on the balance of description, voice, and stakes in this opening chapter, along with their recommendations on how to make sure readers know early enough what the stakes are so readers know what’s worth their energy. For example, even though I know that my protagonist Hai’s glasses are extremely important to the story, readers only come to discover that little by little, so the careful description of them in Chapter One might seem unnecessary on a first read.

One member of the podcast (Caitlin, I think?), raised some cultural questions about the story, so I thought I’d elaborate a bit on that, for fun and interest’s sake. The stepfamily in my novel is pretending at being quite upper-class and yet their fascination with France is outmoded among Japanese elites, who by 1900 had moved on from emulating Napoleonic styles and were beginning to prefer Prussian fashion and civic codes. Of course, everyday Japanese people were oblivious to a lot of what the elites were up to, because the changes would have no relevance (yet) in their lives for decades. A great nonfiction book about the way Japanese fashion changed before, during, and after the Meiji era is Toby Slade’s Japanese Fashion: A Cultural History (Berg, 2009).

At the beginning of the Literary WIP podcast, Caitlin, Karen, and Cameron address tropes — when to use them, how to make sure they work effectively. As you can imagine, when I set out to write a Cinderella story set in a non-European, non-Western culture, I had to tackle all kind of problems around the usual Cinderella tropes!

For example, it’s one thing to insert a rotten and goofy stepfamily into a novel, but I had to be careful not to avoid common Western stereotypes of Japanese people while I was at it. I opted early on to make them over-the-top obsessed with Western fashions, but I also wanted to distinguish them from the earnest, well-intentioned work of other characters who grapple with industrialization and foreign intrusions into Japanese ways of life. So I also opted for the stepfamily to be too dedicated to their Western tastes, not unlike the Shinkawa family in Yukio Mishima’s Runaway Horses. And that was just one of several problems I encountered when I attempted to cast Japanese characters into their Cinderella roles in unique but historically plausible ways.

I’ll stop there, to avoid spoilers, but I want to thank everybody again at Literary WIP for reading the opening chapter of my novel and hosting such a lively discussion!

Representation with Jill Corcoran Literary Agency

I am delighted to share that I am now represented by Julie Tibbott and Jill Corcoran of Jill Corcoran Literary Agency!

In August 2016 I began drafting what I nicknamed my “Japanese Cinderella” novel (working title, Hai) in a writing workshop led by Danny Stewart at The Cabin, a center for readers & writers based in Boise. I continued working on it through another workshop with Heidi Kraay, also at The Cabin. Since then, I’ve had the help of many fantastic critique partners and beta readers, plus the support of friends in my local writing community as well as online, to write the strongest manuscript I could.

Overall, since I know other writers are often curious about this, it took around 70 rejections, 6 full requests, 3 partial requests, and 2 major revisions (i.e. with changes to more than 25% of the manuscript) to reach this point. Then, much to my happiness, Julie and Jill said yes!

What’s the novel about? I’ll be able to share more about it in coming months, but it is a Young Adult Historical Fantasy about a seventeen-year-old engineer nicknamed “Hai,” whose long days toiling on Tokyo’s first railway are disrupted in a big way when he crosses paths with Kano, an imperial prince whose obsession with inventing a submersible has his parents worried he’ll enter the sea one day and never return.

I look forward to sharing more book news in the future! In the meantime, I am about halfway through drafting another manuscript. That’s the fun thing about writing: there are always more stories to write.

Intercultural Sensitivity for Writers

One of my greatest frustrations with attempts to support diversity in writing and publishing is the assumption that if diverse people are hired or diverse writers’ books are accepted, automatically publishing itself will become more diverse. Writing across difference is not simply an instinct, a talent, or an innate skill. It has to be learned and practiced. Writers need support with this.

Intercultural Sensitivity in Writing (ISW) Goals

  1. Diversity in writing will be seen as a skill that can be LEARNED and IMPROVED by ALL WRITERS.
  2. Writers who identify as #ownvoices will not bear the full burden of responsibility for “diversifying” the rest of publishing.
  3. We will develop and embrace an ethic of diversity in our writing akin to the medical Hippocratic Oath that we can share no matter our own background and identities.

I hope that writers will develop a helping culture in which we can share actual skills that can be implemented in our writing, no matter who we are or how we identify.

Why I Hope You’ll Let Me Help

I want to break down the experience of difference specifically for writers and show how it can help us understand our characters, plots, and overall stories better than we do without this awareness.

What can I contribute? I have six years of editorial experience and I also spent 10+ years with on-the-ground mentorship and training with Milton Bennett’s fantastic Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS). I’ve honed my knowledge of this intercultural sensitivity model in multiple contexts: international schools, foster care & adoption programs, study abroad, work abroad, daily life, interpersonal relationships, and more. I also have training and hands-on experience with models for ethics, including biomedical ethics. I have practiced non-violent communication and peace-building skills such as those advocated by Thich Nhat Hahn and Marshall Rosenberg.

I have seen from firsthand observation and experience that you can’t just pounce on a person who is “different” and expect them to solve a community’s problems. It’s unnerving at best to discover you have been brought into a space to be the token figure of diversity, like an exotic doll. When you try to change something or raise a real issue, there will always be a “good reason” to leave things as they are, often in the name of “efficiency” and “tradition” and “common sense.”

I want to introduce two approaches to diversity, both valuable but for different reasons. Then I’ll continue this ISW series with a post each the six experiences of difference, following Bennett’s model. I will apply these experiences specifically to writers and writing.

  1. Denial of difference
  2. Defense against difference
  3. Minimization of difference
  4. Acceptance of difference
  5. Adaptation to difference
  6. Integration of difference

Each one of these experiences of difference comes with moral dilemmas that individual people have to address on their own terms. I’ll share examples of those dilemmas and offer tips/techniques for resolving them.

Real-World Experience of Diversity

Diverse writers have “street smarts” in dealing with diversity issues: they have developed coping & survival mechanisms to handle conflict. They know from day-in, day-out experience what it’s like to be different from the majority culture around them. That’s massively important. This on-the-ground experience gives diverse writers the power to:

  • Help people discover themselves in and relate with characters, perhaps even for the first time
  • Offer fresh insight into an experience that has been otherwise stereotyped or become a “tired trope” or possibly is invisible
  • Encourage empathy in the majority of readers who wouldn’t normally identify with someone different from them
  • Validate their experiences and the experiences of others as real

At the same time, these on-the-ground experiences can also lead to some negative or harmful impacts/dilemmas in the writing process:

  • All the onus of sensitivity in the writing and publishing process can end up being placed on the writer rather than on the team of editorial, production, and marketing. They are treated like the “expert” when in reality they represent only one possible experience of difference.
  • The writer may not be emotionally ready to share some of their struggles and even traumas on the page.
  • The person who has the on-the-ground experience may not be in a position to tell their own story. For example, they may need to protect themselves from threats. They may have too much to lose to risk exposure.
  • The story may be foreign to too many readers’ immediate experience, making it difficult to form the empathetic bridge between reader and character. This issue is complicated, so I promise I will unpack it in later blog posts.

Professional Training in Intercultural Sensitivity

By comparison, someone with professional training in intercultural sensitivity can help people understand each other and communicate with each other across their differences no matter how they personally identify. Professional training in intercultural sensitivity gives the power to:

  • Notice your own biases and the biases of others.
  • Resolve conflicts and misunderstandings in a non-threatening, non-judgmental way.
  • Help other people move from unhealthy attitudes toward difference toward healthy ones.
  • Find the words to address problems that result from difference even if you personally are not affected by it.
  • Write diverse characters with more awareness of how your own current experience of difference can shape the way you conceive of them and what kinds of conflicts you introduce in their lives on the page.
  • Notice more quickly and intervene more effectively when editorial or production or marketing recommendations will have an impact on how diversity in your writing is experienced by readers.

I believe that the on-the-ground experience of diverse and #ownvoices writers needs to be actively supplemented and supported by professional intercultural training and skills for ALL writers of ALL identifications. More anon, and thanks for any suggestions, ideas, and questions you may have about this new project!