So much of writing for me is sitting my ass down and writing, even when I don't want to. I have really good discipline. I can write for fifteen hours straight sometimes, and then revise and edit for days and weeks afterwards. The hardest part of writing I can do and have done since my first workshop back in 2002. The other crucial part of writing for me involves psychological and emotional maintenance (aka self-care), which is just as important. Normally, self-care for me means not only exercising, meditating, getting enough sleep, eating well, and going on dates with LB every week, but also ignoring my own negative thinking and putting myself out there again and again (even when it feels POINTLESS) and not getting discouraged (even when NOTHING is happening), which has been particularly difficult this summer.Read More
Like the Bechdel Test, these ten rules are not intended to be the final word on any work by, from, or about Asian American literature, but rather, should be treated as the first critical lens that readers (can) use to call out and contest orientalism in publishing while also serving as a mandatory metric by which all readers (can) hold APIA writing accountable, as well as the presses that publish those works by and about us. The following test allows all of us to expect more of ourselves, of our readers, and of the publishing industry at large, but it is only a first step in a life of engaged reading.Read More
The Sympathizer forces readers of Asian American Pacific Islander (APIA) literary fiction to reconsider our own craft dogma and ask questions about the value of literary didacticism all over again: when is didactic literature useful, even necessary, and what purposes can it serve in our society as art, historiography, and also racial, cultural, and moral education?Read More
I've been working tirelessly with my agent on my revisions for The Ninjas of My Greater Self for a solid three months now and we are finally done with the substantive edits, which feels fucking incredible. I'm just waiting for a few blurbs from some literary superstars and then my agent will officially begin sending out cover letters to editors. I'm exhilarated about this. I'm also mildly terrified. I mean, these next three to four months will shape my literary debut in the New York publishing world and also have a major impact on my literary career. I know that sounds hyperbolic, but it's actually true. I've been waiting my whole life for this moment. My fingers are crossed.
Remarkably, it's been ten fucking years since I've been back at AWP. The last time was in Atlanta in 2006, back when I was a confident, driven, ambitious, but also paradoxically naive, trusting, and hyperidealistic MFA student whose only aspiration at the time was to publish short stories and essays in the best literary journals possible. The idea of publishing novels was fundamentally foreign to me for the simple reason that I hadn't written a novel yet, nor a collection of short stories. There was no lofty expectation because there was no product.
Ten years later, I'm both amazed, horrified, and also humbled by how differently I look at the publishing industry in general and at my literary ambitions in particular. Unlike ten years ago, I have a bunch of stories and essays published in a number of legit literary journals, but it's no longer enough for me anymore. Also, unlike ten years ago, I have several manuscripts that are ready for publication. I have more than a few realistic publishing possibilities with several awesome indie presses (though they remain merely possibilities until those manuscripts become material objects of art for public consumption). I have--I always seem to have--several agents and a senior agent at a major New York publishing house reading my novels. I have two rad lecturer positions at UCI and CSUN teaching literature, writing, rhetoric, research, and creative writing. I have probably too many advanced degrees now, but whatevs. I have a network and a community of friends (many of them APIA writers, but certainly not all of them). I have some fans who follow me on Twitter because of the things I've written. Most importantly, I feel--possibly irrationally, possibly delusionally--that I finally have momemtum in my writing career. So, I apologize for this self-indulgent recollection, but the point I'm making here is that I see this conference in such a different way than I did before because I bring a different emotional and professional technology than before. I feel like I can almost touch my future, as absurd as that sounds.
Among other things I did at this year's AWP, I got to:
1. Attend readings from Claudia Rankine, Eula Biss, Jonathan Lethem, Geoff Dyer, Leslie Jamison, Maggie Nelson, my friend and mentor Percival Everett, Shonda Buchanan, Judy Grahn, Joyce Carol Oates, and Peter Ho Davies, which were all pretty amazing.
2. Attend a fascinating (and inditing!) panel by Adam Atkinson, Lillian Yvonne-Betram, and Sarah Vap (an SC student) that presented the results of its survey and data collection about race and racial representation within PhD programs in Creative Writing.
3. Talk to editors of several of my favorite indie presses and do a tiny bit of politicking (almost all of it unplanned and unintentional)
4. Make new writing friends and also do some networking (which never hurts in this business)
5. Most importantly, meet up with and reconnect with former professors and old friends from my MFA and PhD years, many of whom I haven't seen in years and whom I've missed, sometimes terribly, including Steve Tomasula, Marc Irwin, Joshua Bernstein, Chris Santiago, Lily Hoang, Gwendolyn Oxenham, Casey and Denise Hill, Heather Dundas, David St. John, and Percival Everett (who hugged me and then said, "What's going on, brother?")
6. Buy a shitload of books and literary journals from indie presses
7. Remember again why I'm a writer, a writer before I'm anything else in the professional and artistic domains
I wish I could give more specific deetz about this astonishing development, but I just can't. It's just not possible. This is the one thing I can tell you in my infinite vocabulary of vagueness: one of the most respected editors at one of the most respected publishing houses is now reading The Ninjas of My Greater Self. I can't even tell you how it worked out this way because that too, my dear reader and anonymous friend, is top secret, but suffice it to say, this is a rare and amazing opportunity. I really don't know what's going to come of this, and I realize the odds still aren't in my favor even with this opportunity because publishing is a motherfucking business not an art gallery, but for the past ten years of my life, it's felt like literary agents (not talent or vision or even the product) have been my greatest obstacles to publication, and for a few weeks or months or however long it takes this incredibly gracious and brilliant editor to read my novel, that obstacle has been removed. This is the first time I can say that.
At this point, it's just a request for a full manuscript. Nothing more, nothing less. Still, it's hard not being a tiny bit giddy when Frances Coady, one of the two stellar agents at Nicole Aragi's top-shelf agency, asks for an exclusive of your debut novel (which I couldn't give her exclusively since I already have three other agents reading full manuscripts). I know that Frances Coady is a widely respected, admired, even feared former publisher at Picador and Vintage. I know she is a hands-on editor who works with authors line by line if necessary to strengthen not dilute a book's force. I know she values and understands the importance of the graphic elements of a novel (e.g., the cover design, the format, possibly even the font). I know that in the publishing world she is an absolute giant, both equal to but also complementary with, Nicole Aragi. I know all of these things and honestly, it makes my head spin. But I don't know the most important thing, namely, whether she'll like my novel. That's the only thing that matters. The only thing I care about right now. I'll do my best not to freak out, but that's pretty much impossible . . .
Well, if there's one thing I'm completely sure of right now, it's my ability to write a decent query letter. I now have three (plus) agents reading full manuscripts of my debut novel, The Amnesia of Junebugs, which is pretty damn exciting. I'm not surprised that AMNESIA is getting lots of interest from agents considering it's a transnational, multicultural, multiracial, urban, character-based, literary novel. Right now, multicultural novels (and multicultural narratives in general) are in with America's changing demographic. Linked short stories are in again too and AMNESIA straddles the space between a novel and a collection of linked stories (that come together at the end). I'm cautiously optimistic (as I always am) because I think this novel is finally ready for prime time, but only time will tell. Stay tuned!
My big wish for this upcoming month is that literary agents who state they want literary fiction in their agent profiles actually want literary fiction and not commercial fiction with a few literary flourishes. I say this because having looked at some of the good rejections I've received the past couple of years, I've noticed most of these rejections were by literary agents who said they wanted literary fiction on their website but still rejected my manuscripts for being, well, literary and stuff. It's complete speculation on my part, but here are some possible reasons for that:
1. The agent prides her/himself on representing literary fiction but most of her/his client list is actually (or has become) commercial fiction, so including the category of "literary fiction" in their list of desired genres is more about how they see themselves as an agent and less about the kinds of manuscripts they actually sell to editors these days
2. The literary agent has a divergent definition of literary fiction (that more and more resembles uptown fiction or top-tier commercial fiction), which is why s/he gets snarly when you declare foolishly that "literary fiction doesn't sell"
3. The agent doesn't want to feel like a complete and absolute sellout because who does?
4. S/he is keeping her/his options open, but literary fiction has become more aspirational than vocational.
5. The term literary, as all other genres, just doesn't have stable genre conventions and doesn't mean shit anymore, so it's almost impossible to define and just as impossible to exclude other overlapping genre conventions
6. All literature, in one amorphous sense, is literary (right?)
7. If an agent could know ahead of time that a manuscript would sell for one million dollars, they'd probably accept it regardless of its genre, so literary fiction isn't out of the question technically
8. The agent used to look for and sell literary fiction actively, but as the market has contracted and as Amazon has taken over the world, s/he has become much more conservative in the kinds of authors s/he represents, and commercial fiction has always had a better payout. So, finding the next Pulitzer prize winner has become much less important than paying the mortgage
9. The agent, once a brave and fearless bellwether in the publishing industry (whose "experimental" authors once violated rules of form, structure, and content gleefully) has dug his/her heels in and now rejects more and more literary fiction and accepts more cookbooks and dystopian YA knock-offs because there's already a pre-manufactured audience. Yes, s/he has literary authors, but s/he's had them for thirty years and they're remnants of the golden age of literary fiction
10. Why the hell not?
I may rage against the machine when a particular rejection stings, but I'm the kind of dude that gets back up (literally) the next day and tries another way to make it work. Writing, after all, is the one thing I'm great at. Resilience is another. And Ima figure out how to get my novels in the hands of my future readers because that's who I am.
In the next month, I'll be sending AMNESIA to several indie presses that I think might be receptive (among others, FC2 and Curbside Splendor) as well to a few laser-targeted literary agents who represent multicultural literary fiction. One of them will be Zadie Smith's agent, because of the obvious similarities between The Amnesia of Junebugs and White Teeth.
With a clean break from Kaya, I have the power to (re)consider all my options, not just the obvious ones. I have the possibility of finding an even larger audience and a much more supportive editorial department. I have the right to try again and find the right press for my manuscripts as a hapa writer of fiction.
I may be bruised, but I'm still standing. I'm still going to make this work.