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T A Knox-Collins

I love books, especially Science Fiction. I write for children, am a graduate of Hamline University's MFAC program. I am committed to seeing diversity in kidlit and I can't help myself when it comes to rescuing dogs.

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Writing the Asian character

My friend and author, Justina Ireland, (look her up, she’s as awesome as her Twitter handle – @tehawesomersace, requested information about microagressions against Asians from the Twittersphere. I could give you plenty from personal experience, but her search to understand this issue got me thinking elsewhere. Microaggressions are definitely a topic to talk about, and I will, someday soon. There are many other people that lay it out so much more clearly than I ever could, so I will let them.

But in reading about Justina’s quest for authentic answers, my mind goes to my craft of writing authentic characters. How do I write Asian characters, make them as real as any other character, and yet true to their heritage? I’ve seen it done badly enough times to need to lay it out for myself. If you’d like to come on this journey with me, you’re most welcome. Otherwise, thanks for dropping by.

I am biracial, and one half of that is Asian. But the term “Asian” alone means little to me. Being part Asian places my ancestry geographically somewhere in the largest continent on the planet. How does that define who I am and what values I carry with me? How does that influence my behavior, my parenting style, my worldview?

When I write an Asian character (even as a part Asian writer), do I have the right to simply imply their ‘Asian-ness’ without truly understanding that term in a much deeper way? Without understanding that character personally? Especially in the context that my characters often live away from their ancestors’ countries of origin.

I start with a few simple questions: (there’s rarely a simple answer though)

  • Where does my character live now or in the time frame of my story?
  • Which part of Asia do their ancestors come from?
  • If the character doesn’t live in the country of origin, is she two, three or just one generation away from that original culture?
  • What values from that original culture still form the foundation of her identity and belief system?

I’m half Chinese. I’ve been asked what China is like, but I’ve never been, so I couldn’t tell you. I have friends from China, friends whose grandparents are from China, and they are different from my friends from Taiwan. I have Chinese friends from Thailand, from the Phillipines, from Indonesia, and of course, from Singapore. (And not just Chinese, for these countries have descendants from the indigenous culture as well as those from everywhere else in the region).

I identify most with the culture that formed in the multicultural city of Singapore, while acknowledging the influence of China’s pre-revolution culture from my grandparents. (That’s a mouthful, and a lot of repetition of the word ‘culture’.) An entire book could be written about the infused culture that is unique to this island nation. (I’m sure it already has been.) This is where my mother was born and where I spent 25 years of my life. The “Asian” culture that I have absorbed into my system is Singaporean. Yes, there are similarities with my friends from China or Taiwan, but there are just as many differences. Don’t even get me started on the number of different languages that exist in these regions. I understand three of them, and that’s barely anything.

So, when I write a character who comes from or has roots in Asia, I need to know precisely where she hail from. I need to understand the values that her grandparents brought to her family. And learn which of those her parents chose to keep, and those that were modified.

And then there’s the character herself. What values exist in her thinking without her consciously thinking about them? What aspects of her culture has she chosen to drop or adopt, and why? This applies especially to Asians who now live in a different part of the world from their ancestors. (Which funnily, could be most of us in the US, don’t you think?)

If the character’s ancestry hails from more than one culture, that’s a whole other research journey.

My own children, now American, have to work out what values and traditions they would like to keep and which to adapt, and which to discard. That is their right. I suspect though, that the older they get, the more they may return to some of the traditions we’ve tried to pass down.

Just as these decisions exist for my real kids, they exist for the children that come from my imagination, the ones that populate the fictional worlds.

Being Asian, like being African or European, is a convenient term, but it’s really only geographical and just the start of the journey to understanding my characters. I get excited about the expedition I need to take in order to get to know my characters, to understand who they are, based on their own and their families’ journeys through time and place. I am interested to get to know real people who live these lives, to talk to them about how their ancestry has affected who they are, as they find their place to belong, here in the multicultural, mixed up world we have today.

I don’t think I get it right every time, but after this summer residency at Hamline University’s MFAC program, I will work harder to get it ‘more right’, thanks to the insights and wisdom of my classmates and my teachers. I will seek to get it right for the sake of children who may someday read my work, and see themselves reflected back in the characters.

So thank you, Justina, for making me think about this.

Tu Books Announces Winner of First Annual New Visions Contest for Writers of Color

Congrats to the winners! Watch out for their books. In fact, someday maybe all our books will be out there too. 😉 *fingers n eyes crossed*

the open book

[from the press release]

New Visions Award sealNew York, NY—April 11, 2013—Tu Books, the science fiction, fantasy, and mystery imprint of respected multicultural children’s publisher LEE & LOW BOOKS, is thrilled to announce that author Valynne Maetani has won its first annual New Visions Award for her young adult mystery novel, Remnants of the Rising Sun.

The New Visions writing contest was established to encourage new talent and to offer authors of color a chance to break into a tough and predominantly white market. The award honors a fantasy, science fiction, or mystery novel for young readers by an author of color who has not previously published a novel for that age group.

Remnants of the Rising Sun is about a Japanese American teenage girl, Claire Takata, whose life is turned upside down when she discovers her father was a member of the Japanese mafia, Yakuza. “As kids, my brothers…

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Our Final installment, giving our thoughts on diversity in genre fiction for MG and YA.

the open book

New Visions Award sealIn January we announced the finalists of our first New Visions Award, a new writing award for a debut author of color for a middle grade or young adult science fiction, fantasy, or mystery novel. Over the last few weeks, we’ve highlighted these talented finalists on our blog as they answer questions about what inspires them, the writing process, and more. Perhaps among these five finalists you’ll find your next favorite author!

guest bloggerPreviously, our New Visions finalists shared their experiences as young readers, and whether they saw themselves represented in books.

In this last post, they share their final thoughts on diversity in genre fiction for middle grade and young adult readers:

Ailynn Knox-Collins

I applaud the efforts that publishers like Tu Books are making to bring diversity into children’s lite  rature. I am humbled and grateful to have been given a small part to play here. I…

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Meet Our New Visions Finalists, Part IV

This is what books meant to us when we were growing up.

the open book

guest bloggerNew Visions Award sealIn January we announced the finalists of our first New Visions Award, a new writing award for a debut author of color for a middle grade or young adult science fiction, fantasy, or mystery novel. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be highlighting these talented finalists on our blog as they answer questions about what inspires them, the writing process, and more. Perhaps among these five finalists you’ll find your next favorite author!

Previous posts by our New Visions finalists:

Q: What was your relationship to books and reading as a child or teenager?  In what ways did you see yourself represented in books?

Ailynn…

View original post 1,235 more words

the open book

guest bloggerNew Visions Award sealLast month we announced the finalists of our first New Visions Award, a new writing award for a debut author of color for a middle grade or young adult science fiction, fantasy, or mystery novel. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be highlighting these talented finalists on our blog as they answer questions about what inspires them, the writing process, and more. Perhaps among these five finalists you’ll find your next favorite author!

Q: What has been your experience writing from a different cultural background that may be unfamiliar to most young readers? 

Ibi Zoboi, Haiti.

While most readers are familiar with Edwidge Danticat, there are, of course, other Haitian and non-Haitian writers telling stories about Haitian children. M. Sindy Felin’s Touching Snow was a National Book Award Finalist.  The recent winner of the Printz Award is In Darkness, a story about a Haitian boy during the…

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Here are the three finalists. Get to know us all.

the open book

guest bloggerNew Visions Award sealLast month we announced the finalists of our first New Visions Award, a new writing award for a debut author of color for a middle grade or young adult science fiction, fantasy, or mystery novel. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be highlighting these talented finalists on our blog as they answer questions about what inspires them, the writing process, and more. Perhaps among these five finalists you’ll find your next favorite author!

Q: What brought you to Tu Books and to the New Visions Award competition in particular?

Rahul Kanakia, Baltimore, MD:
My novel has a number of autobiographical elements. I mean, obviously, I didn’t grow up in a plague-wracked authoritarian dystopia, but I did share many of the troubles and experiences of the character in my novel. I went to Catholic school and I was confused regarding my sexual orientation and I had body image issues…

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Tu Books is graciously hosting an introduction to the five finalists of the New Visions Award. Today, their blog features a blurb from me and Valynne Maetani. Tomorrow, we’ll learn about the other three wonderful writers. I’m excited for you to get to know us all.

the open book

guest bloggerNew Visions Award sealLast month we announced the finalists of our first New Visions Award, a new writing award for a debut author of color for a middle grade or young adult science fiction, fantasy, or mystery novel. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be highlighting these talented finalists on our blog as they answer questions about what inspires them, the writing process, and more. Perhaps among these five finalists you’ll find your next favorite author!

Q: What brought you to Tu Books and to the New Visions Award competition in particular?

Ailynn Knox-Collins. Redmond, WA:

I came across Tu Books when I bid on a copy of Tankborn for a charitable cause. Soon after, I had the good fortune to sit next to the writer, Karen Sandler, at an SCBWI conference in LA. I was delighted to find an imprint that is dedicated to putting books out there that…

View original post 1,057 more words

What I learned from Downton Abbey

The last episode of Season 3
Actor Dan Stevens as Matthew Crawley in Downton Season 3

The thing about Downton Abbey is that, in my family at least, it performed a minor miracle.

There are shows that only I watch, those that the husband watches and those cringe-worthy ones that the teenage daughter can’t live without. But one fateful day several years ago, the whole family gathered in front of the television to watch a new show and together became hooked on this series. It became the thing to look forward to on Sunday nights, the topic of discussion for several days after (not just amongst us but with colleagues, friends and Facebook contacts) and gave us a moment to share as a family, which is rare if you have teens. And for that I’m grateful.

We grew to love the whole lot that lived in this beautiful house set in Yorkshire in the early 1900’s. We suffered with Mary as she worked through the potential husbands, hoped with her as she learned to love Matthew and pined with her when she almost lost him to another. We cheered Sybil when she learned how to cook and made herself useful during the war, then ran off with the chauffeur. We applauded almost everything that came out of the mouth of the Dowager (gotta love Maggie Smith), and admired the stoic belief in work well done by the servants downstairs. We cried at every death – Lavinia’s, William’s, held our breath when Cora almost did and of course sobbed out hearts out this season. In that silly way a fictional family can become a part of a real one, these characters nudged their way into our hearts and brought us a moment of togetherness.

But this season, I realized something else. (All right, not just from Downton, but most recently so). As with any story, the unexpected has to happen to make it captivating, (even though I’d rather it didn’t come in such never-ending waves.) Who didn’t yell “No!” at the TV when Lady Sybil succumbed to eclampsia?  And most of all, who didn’t think “how could they do this?” at the end of Season 3? (Sorry if this is a spoiler). I admit to staying up quite late afterwards feeling so sorry for the family, then wondering if it was done so that the actor could move on with his career or did the writer want us to conclude that the family was cursed – that every time a baby is born, an adult family member must be killed off? I am not ashamed to admit there were hair pulling moments.

Whatever the reason,  I think Julian Fellowes, the creator of this series, has done what all writers long to do – get a reaction out of your audience and I applaud him. (He’s also the writer of two other films I love – Gosford Park and The Young Victoria.)  In Downton, he’s made us care so much about his characters that when something wonderful happens to them, we cheer; when there’s an injustice, we yell at the TV; and when they die, we cry and wonder why.

Sigh. That’s my dream. I want to create characters that people care so much about they’ll get mad at me for making them take the wrong path or choosing the wrong boy/girl, consider sending me an email when I hurt a favorite character or worse. I want readers to love my “people” as much as I do, to have imaginary conversations with them as I do. (okay, maybe not that). That’s what I did as a child, a teen and (okay, I’ll admit it,) as an adult, with the characters I loved. They saved me in moments of loneliness, confusion or just simply boredom.

So, for me, the journey continues. I must hone my craft – read, take classes and most of all keep writing. I will learn to bring these characters to life, make them flawed but fulfilling that latent potential  inside them, mostly for me but  hopefully for readers out there somewhere, who at this moment, aren’t even aware that these characters exist. Maybe this is my hero’s journey, for now.

the open book

It’s Black History Month, and that means it’s time for our annual giveaway from Lee & Low Books! We’re giving away three sets of three books featuring African Americans, and the contest will run through February 28, 2013.

To enter, follow in the footsteps of Dave the Potter, the subject of our new biography Etched in Clay: The Life of Dave, Enslaved Potter and Poet. Dave was an enslaved potter in South Carolina who inscribed his works with sayings and short poems in spite of harsh anti-literacy laws for slaves:

horses mules and hogs —
all our cows is in the bogs —
there they shall ever stay
till the buzzards take them away ==
March 29, 1836

I wonder where is all my relation
friendship to all — and, every nation
August 16, 1857

Write your own couplet in the comments below (it could be about anything…

View original post 150 more words

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I love books, especially Science Fiction. I write for children, am a graduate of Hamline University's MFAC program. I am committed to seeing diversity in kidlit and I can't help myself when it comes to rescuing dogs.

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