Georgia Sparling: This is Why We Write, a podcast of Lesley University. Every episode, we bring you conversations with authors from the Lesley community to talk about books, writing and the writing life. My name is Georgia Sparling, and d today I'm speaking with Andrea Wang, a graduate of our MFA in Creative Writing program and environmental scientist and the author of multiple books for young readers. She's got two books that have come out this year, and we're going to talk about both of them. But yeah, thank you so much for coming on the show.
Andrea Wang: Thank you, Georgia. It's such a pleasure to be here.
Georgia: Well, I'm so excited to talk about these. So first, let's talk about Watercress. That is your recent book that is for young readers, a picture book. And as it says in like the Kirkus starred review, bring tissues. [laughs] And this story, it really is so beautiful, and it does tear your heart out a little bit. But tell us a little bit of what it's about.
Andrea: Well, yes, I think-- actually my publisher should have made a deal with Kleenex because everybody's reaction is to cry. [laughs] The book is about myself. It's semi-autobiographical and it recounts a memory that I have that has haunted me for a long time of picking watercress by the side of the road, in rural Ohio, where I grew up. And my parents were immigrants from China and it was free food to them. It was something that they couldn't buy in the markets. This was in the 1970s. And when they saw it by the side of the road, they were thrilled. And I was very much not thrilled. And I just remember all these feelings of shame and embarrassment. And why was my family so different? Why didn't we belong? So I wanted to write about those just to process it for myself.
Georgia: Yeah. And the book is really beautiful. Jason Chin, I think that's the name of the illustrator, he did these beautiful watercolors and it shows both the experience of our young woman who's cringing as the cars go by, and she's like, slogging through the mud trying to get these plants. And then also the parents and that they've gone through; they survived a famine, and that watercress was a big part of their history. And it's really not until the mother shares this family history that she begins to have a change of attitude. And to me, that really like highlighted the importance of story and how it can transform your perspective on things and your empath.
As a kid or growing up. How did stories shape you and like your experience?
Andrea: Stories were everything to me, because I felt misunderstood, I think everywhere. I didn't quite know how to fit into my mostly white town. And I spoke mostly English, my parents spoke mostly Mandarin. They were fluent in English, but still, when I felt when I talked about things, maybe I didn't feel quite understood in the way that kids feel, misunderstood often by their parents. And I retreated into books I learned to read very early, and I would just spend days hiding in my closet, reading. I brought a little light in there, I had my cat in there, I was perfectly happy.
I did this through school as well. My defining memory of first grade is being so shy and hiding underneath my teacher's desk for days, reading. She would let me just bring tons of books in there and I would just hide. So, stories were really everything to me.
I started writing stories very young, first in school as part of assignments, like all kids do. But I think I started writing as kind of a way to continue that conversation with the characters or the settings in the books that I was reading. I have still homemade copies of hard bound books that I made at home, with like wallpaper covers, and I illustrated them myself. I found my first author's bio in the back of one of these handmade books and it says, “Andrea Chan,” that was my maiden name, where I was born and how old I was. I was nine and a half when I wrote this book, and I want to be a writer when I grow up. So that was my first author bio.
Georgia: That’s great. Did your parents share stories from their history and or like stories that they'd heard growing up?
Andrea: Very rarely. I think it was they were just protecting me from all of the hardships that they had gone through. It's hard to relay that kind of information to a young child. As I grew older, they did tell me more things, my mother more so than my father. And I found out bits and pieces here and there and tried to string them together.
But it wasn't until I was grown that I discovered that my mother had had a younger brother. And he is the character that inspired the uncle character in Watercress. He, in real life, did not make it past infancy. So, that I think shook me. I didn't realize how hard their lives had been.
Georgia: Yeah, definitely. It's a lot to take in.
Andrea: It is, yeah.
Georgia: This may be big question, but what was the process for you of like coming to appreciate your own family and your own culture? Because I mean, as you say, you do feel different. You're in a town where people don't look like you or share your family, your cultural story. So how did how did you begin to embrace that?
Andrea: It probably started when my family moved to Boston when I was 13. We moved to Newton and there were many more Asian Americans in my school. And I went to Wellesley College, there were many, many Asians and Chinese Americans at Wellesley College, and sort of learned to embrace that aspect of my identity. I also did take a lot of Chinese courses, both language and history and started little by little learning to appreciate my parents more, you know, as children mature do, and being grateful.
But I think as a writer, I had always sort of used writing to process what I was feeling; writing in journals when I was little. And after my mother passed away, I started writing personal essays as a way to remember her and to process.
I actually took a personal essay elective at, at Lesley. And that was really helpful. I wrote more sort of formalized personal essays. Watercress started out being a personal essay, because I just couldn't let go of this memory and I didn't know why I meant so much to me. And it didn't really work as a personal essay, couldn't quite figure out the ending. When I finished the MFA in Creative Writing for Young People, I decided to rewrite it as a picture book. And I wrote it in third person, and I gave the character’s names and it was very, very long, as most first picture books are, and it still wasn't working. So I shelved it. I probably worked on and off on Watercress for over eight years.
And it wasn't until I read a picture book called A Different Pond by Bao Phi and illustrated by Thi Bui that I was like, “Wow, that is what I want to do.” I have a book about foraging. A Different Pond is about an immigrant Vietnamese family, who's-- the father takes the young son out fishing in the morning, subsistence fishing, and it was really powerful. Bao Phi is a poet, the language was just amazing. And I took out my manuscript of Watercress and completely rewrote it from scratch and just tried to inhabit my seven or eight year old self, and it was pure catharsis.
Georgia: Yeah, and it sounds like that story wasn't going to let you go one way or another. I'm glad I'm glad I didn't. It's really great.
As I said earlier, the main character, she's embarrassed by her family. And I think that's a universal feeling that adolescents go through [laughs]. What do you hope that your readers will will get from this story? I mean, there there's so many universal things and we'll talk about your middle grade book in a second. But one of the things that the main character and that one is doing is she talks about how she is American, like she's born in America. she was raised in Boston, but people still are like, “Oh, did you come over on the boat? “ They can't understand that her experience, even though it's different from theirs, is still very American.
What do you want to communicate to your readers, both Asian American kids, non-Asian American kids, parents?
Andrea: I think that that's exactly it, that we all have these universal feelings. Everybody feels at some point in their lives like they don't belong, or that they're embarrassed of their parents or where they came from. And I'm hoping to give them a window into someone else's life. Even though this story is very specific to me and to my memories, not everybody has foraged or picked watercress, but everybody has a story where their parents have embarrassed them, or they've felt ashamed. And I am hoping that kids realize that their parents have had these lives too. You know, we don't often think that our parents have had full rich lives before they had us, but they did. And just to try and come to that understanding that everyone has a story.
And on the parents side, when they read Watercress to their children, I hope that they are inspired to share more of their stories, even the hard ones. I think I say in my author's note that it's the hard ones, the difficult stories, those difficult memories that can really sort of bring you to a place of healing. And kids don't often understand why we ask them to do the things we want them to do, and parents forget to explain. So hopefully this helps spark some of those conversations.
Georgia: So let's shift and talk about your second book of 2021, which is quite a feat to release two books in one year. [laughs]
Andrea: Tell me about it [laughs]
Georgia: And this is your first middle grade. Is that correct?
Andrea: It is.
Georgia: And it's got great alliteration. It's called The Many Meanings of Meilan, and it just came out in August. This one features a young Asian American protagonist, but it's a really different story from Watercress. Would you talk a little bit about it and where you got the idea from?
Andrea: In a way, it's like a prequel to Watercress but with an older protagonist, in the sense that Meilan, the protagonist, is Chinese American, and she has grown up in Boston's Chinatown. And for reasons that she thinks are her fault, her family breaks, has a falling apart. Her extended family all lives together in an apartment building and they run a bakery together. But that all falls apart when her grandmother dies and the family sort of squabbles about inheritances and the bakery itself.
And her little family unit, her parents, herself and her grandfather move to rural Ohio. So
you see that rural Ohio sort of figures very largely in my stories. [laughs] And she goes from a community where she is accepted, where they speak all dialects of Chinese and everybody knows how to pronounce her name, to a very mostly white rural town in Ohio, where the principal renames her the first day to Melanie.
I think when I wrote this book, I was still processing grief over my mother, I was looking at a move from Boston to Denver, my grandparents had passed away, there was a lot going on. And so for me, it was easy to sort of translate those feelings of grief and loss to Meilan, who loses her family as well.
Georgia: What kind of mental shift did it take to write a book for this age group as opposed to a picture book? I mean, obviously, you don't have to have the economy of words that you do for picture books, so that must have been a little nice.
Andrea: It's interesting, because I started out being a middle grade writer. I workshopped a novel all the way through the MFA program and that is in a drawer somewhere and hopefully will be resurrected at some point. But I had been writing a middle grade and I was writing picture books as sort of a respite from writing the novel. And it's nice, because a picture book, you think, is short and contained. It's 1000 words are so and you've got to the end, right? And that was sort of interesting for me and the nonfiction picture books, I could indulge my nerdy research side, although there's a lot of research that goes into fiction too.
And so when I started writing The Many Meanings of Meilan, I brought in that sort of picture book sensibility. The first manuscript was only 40,000 words and my editor was like “This is too spare. We need this, this, this and this.” And I was like, “Really?” [laughs] “Wait, it doesn't start here? You're telling me you need more chapters in the beginning? Because usually, editors are like “This is too much backstory. Cut five chapters and start on chapter six.” And I was the other way around. I wrote probably five or six chapters to flesh out the beginning.
And it is really nice to have all the words to describe things. I was able to sort of indulge my more, hopefully, lyrical side in Meilan’s descriptions of how she views the world around her. And there's a lot of imagery in it and Chinese symbolism, so that was really fun. In a picture book, I'm constantly thinking about what I'm leaving for the illustrator to depict. And it's a balancing act. I think Jason Chin did an amazing job portraying all of the emotions of the characters in Watercress. And in Meilan, those were all things that I had to actually write out. And I came up with metaphors like the beetles.
Georgia: And the beetles are almost like her butterflies. [laughs] When she's feeling fluttery or anxious, the beetle is there.
Andrea: Yeah, with a little bit of a harder edge because they bite. [laughs] So yeah, it was an adjustment for sure to write the middle grade. But I still like to do that, write them both at the same time.
Georgia: We’ll be back after a quick break.
Hey, it’s still me. It occurred to me that you, dear listeners, might not know much about our MFA in Creative Writing program. At Lesley you can develop your craft in six genres: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, writing for young people, writing for stage and screen and graphic novels and comics. Our faculty are award-winning, practicing writers who offer one-on-one mentorship throughout the year. It’s a low-residency program, so our students come to campus just twice a year – 9 days in the summer and 9 days in the winter — and the rest of the time they work on their writing at home, communicating with their mentors and peers virtually. So, you get the best of both worlds — face-to-face time with faculty and your fellow writers — without having to uproot your family, life, or job. Of course, if you want to move to Cambridge to be close to us, we won’t say no. If you’re considering an MFA program, check us out. You won’t find a more supportive or encouraging program and this podcast is proof of what our alums and renowned faculty accomplish.
Learn more at Lesley.edu/writers. There also a link in the show notes. Ok, back to our interview.
Yeah. So I haven't finished Meilan yet. I'm about halfway through, so I don't know where it ends up.
Andrea: No spoilers [laughs]
Georgia: [laughs] Don’t spoil it. But I think the idea of The Many Meanings of Meilan, as you said, she starts school in this little Ohio town, and the principal immediately renames her Melanie because he's like “Meilan is kind of weird and foreign” or whatever. And I mean, that's just awful. It's just an awful scene. And I was like “I hate this so much”. And then she also feels like she's getting renamed by her family. Like, her nickname was Lan-Lan and now her parents just start calling her Lan. So she feels like “Oh, what have I left behind on this trip from Boston to Ohio?”
And then she gets this awful nickname from a bully at school. And she's also kind of renaming herself in the different names that you can kind of pull out of her Chinese name, are different meanings. So would you talk a little bit about that, the idea of identity? I think she's 12 or 13 In the book.
Andrea: Yeah, she's 12. I've always been super fascinated by the homophones that are in Mandarin. Because I always used to get so confused between what my parents were saying and then what it actually meant. And for people who don't know, Mandarin is a tonal language. There are four tones, and how you say each syllable and which tone you use completely changes the meaning of that sound word, right.?
Georgia: It makes it such a hard language to learn. [laughs] Speaking from a little bit of experience, I was like “Oh my gosh, I'm never gonna figure this out.”
Andrea: So, the second character in Meilan’s name Lan, in her case, her parents chose the character with the meaning “orchid.” And she is, being homeschooled in Mandarin by her parents since they've left Chinatown. And she looks up her name “Lan” in the dictionary, and she realizes that “Lan,” second tone has 14 other characters, all with completely different meanings. And she's kind of blown away by this. And this is on top of her being renamed Melanie, and she's like, “Who am I? Am I all these different versions? Is each one me or am I different in each situation?”
And so she starts to fracture in a way or disassociate because she's no longer Meilan and she's no longer Lan-Lan, and she thinks of herself as the Lan that means basket at home because she's carrying all this weight and her parents expectations. And she thinks she's the Lan that means “mist” at school because she's trying to be invisible. She feels very on display as the only Chinese American and the only Asian American in her school. That was something I did a lot as a child to just try to make myself invisible and unnoticed.
And outside of home and school, she considers herself the Lan that means blue. She's sad, so that's how she sort of expresses it. And she kind of code switches in a way between the what these different names mean to her and behaves differently in each situation.
Georgia: Yeah, I thought that was really well done and just fascinating, that idea that you can kind of like fracture and that’s a great word to describe what's happening to her. She's kind of trying to figure herself out and where she fits in this new world where she is.
So kind of speaking of the world we're in, I mean, obviously, the past year, plus, there's been a lot of anti-Asian sentiment, a lot of violence in the United States is obviously brought to the forefront, things that were simmering there already, and things that I'm sure people in the Asian American community have experienced a long time, it just hasn't been in the news or hasn't been quite so forthright. Why is it important for your stories to be to be hitting the bookshelves right now?
Andrea: I could never have imagined that my books will be coming out at such a time of increased violence against Asians. At first, I was sort of horrified, you know. I mean, horrified by the violence, of course, but just wondering, like, am I now a target with my books out there?
But I think it's been important to have the books out there this year, because they humanize that Asian American experience. And in the Kid Lit industry, we talk a lot about reading Sims Bishop's article about windows, doors, and windows, mirrors and sliding glass doors, that these are the books that provide mirrors for children to see themselves represented. They provide windows for children, not from that marginalized community to glimpse a life of a different culture. And also sliding glass doors so that they can meet each other. And I hope that that's what my books provide; a way to understand another perspective, another culture, and to find connections and similarities. You know, if you like Chinese food, there's a lot of that in Meilan. [laughs]
For Watercress, people have been emailing me, not just immigrants, not just Asian Americans, but from all walks of life, how their parents made them forage as a kid for so many different things. Like I had no idea that people foraged for acorns and ate them, or that actually, Native Americans also ate watercress. And I mean, it's just been fascinating to see all these connections to different cultures. And I really hope that that's what people come away with, that we have this shared humanity and that Asian Americans are sort of a distinct group. They're not a monolith, but they're distinct from the the Chinese people in China or the Vietnamese people in Vietnam.
I mean, I, as a Chinese American, does not represent the whole of China, right? [laughs] I was born here. I wasn't born in China. I don't identify as pure Chinese. Ethnically, I'm Chinese, but I consider myself Chinese American, because I have the American experience. And I think that is what Meilan is trying to convey as well; she was born here, she speaks English, she considers herself American. And there's no difference that she sees between herself and the other kids. In many ways.
Georgia: When you read her inner dialogue, I think you can see that you can see how she responds to things versus how her parents respond to things. And it is a very a very American mindset that she has. Reading that it should convince anybody [laughs] if they still need convincing, It’s just so interesting, like that clash of cultures she has at home and then the one she has at school. It's a lot to deal with.
Andrea: She’s really living between two worlds.
Georgia: So shifting a little bit, I'd love to hear a little bit more about how you decided to pursue writing. I mean, you said that you've been writing since you were a kid, but you also have a Master's in Environmental Science. And before, you got your master’s at Lesley, so what prompted that career shift? How'd you get here?
Andrea: Well, it's mostly, I always wanted to get here, and I had really traditional Chinese parents who were sort of the stumbling block. And, when I went to Wellesley, I wanted to study English. And my parents said, “We don't think so.” And they're paying for it. Right? So I'm like “Okay.” And they, like many immigrants, were very concerned about my future and having a stable career. And learning English and writing was all well and fine, but it was much more of a hobby type thing that they considered it to be.
My mother was a nurse midwife, and my father was a professor. And they really wanted to see me succeed and not have to work as hard as they did. And so I also really loved the sciences, and went into science, got a degree in Biology, also got a degree in Chinese Studies, because if I couldn't do it in English, I could at least do some humanities courses and learn some history. And when I graduated, I had decided by then not to go to medical school. I think six of my cousins are doctors or in the healthcare profession. [laughs] And I was like--
Georgia: We saturated the field here. [laughs]
Andrea: Right? Like, I think my family's contributed. And I thought, “Well, I really like science, I really like being outdoors, I spent most of my childhood running around Ohio. Alright, I care about the environment, let's go get a Master's degree in Environmental Science.”
And so I went off to Indiana University in Bloomington, and did a two year program there, and got my Master's in Environmental Science, and became an environmental consultant back in Cambridge. And I did that for about 10 years, and I found it, honestly, really soul sucking. [laughs] It was the same report with different data, like, over and over. And I felt like I was, on the one hand, I was doing something important. But on the other hand, it was just such a slog. So when my children were born, I took that opportunity to leave the workforce and raise them. And I feel very privileged for being able to do so.
I was on a trip to visit my in laws who live in Shanghai, brought the kids, stayed for three weeks, ran out of books in three days, English language books. You know like when, or when I get a rejection that says “This doesn't have reread ability.” [Laughs] Especially for picture books. I was like, I learned that the hard way. Yeah, in China because I would read this book and they'd be like, “Yeah, we're done with that. Don't read that one again.”
And I would go to these foreign language bookstores in China and the books were so expensive. Oh, my goodness. Yeah, English language versions of like, flimsy paperbacks of TV character stories ad they're $25. And it was just I didn't want to buy them because I knew again, they didn't have the reread ability. So I started writing stories for them myself in the evenings after they went to bed. And I would tell them stories. And I came up with the premise for what would eventually become the middle grade that I worked on at Lesley while I was in China. And when I came back, I said, “You know, I feel like my gray matter is totally atrophying. I want to go back to school.”
And I started out small and did online courses at Gotham Writers Workshop in writing for children, because I was reading picture books to my kids, and I started loving that format. And from there, I joined a local critique group, I joined SCBWI, which is The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. And my friends in the critique group said, “We're applying to Lesley. Why don't you apply too? And I was like, “Oh, hey, that's a really good idea.” So I did. Because even though my kids were young, I was still able to come home at night. The low residency aspect of it played a huge factor in my going back and getting my MFA. And it really gave me sort of permission to work on my writing. Like now, it's actually a caree versus a hobby.
Georgia: And why did you choose Writing for Young People as your track?
Andrea: I had seen the power of picture books with my own kids. And I think some of the most wonderful moments come when I had them on my lap and I was reading to them. And you could see that moment where the light goes on in their heads, and they're just laughing because what they find it hilarious. I might not understand what’s hilarious [laughs] but it's hilarious to them. And it was just so wonderful to see their reactions.
On the other hand, there were books about emotions that really helped me explain things to them when they were little so that they could express themselves. And I just loved that sense of being able to have an impact on a young person's life. Of course, I remembered too, the impact that books had on my life and how they shaped me. So it felt like kind of coming home again.
Georgia: And you've written quite a few books. I know we're only really talking about two today, but you've written quite a few nonfiction books, you've written a couple of others that are, I think, fiction. What was your path to getting published? And kind of any advice for writers out there?
Andrea: Among other Kid Lit authors, we sort of took an informal poll, and it takes 8 to 10 years to get published. And that's really daunting if you think about it that way. It took me 10 years for my first published fiction book that was my own idea. So what I did was I started out writing write for hire books, and you don't hear about that a lot. And I certainly didn't realize, when I first started out, that a lot of the books in a school library are write for hire, especially the nonfiction. And I have a science background. I am really good at researching.
And I found a friend who told me about an editorial company called Red Line Editorial. They basically have a roster of writers that they call upon and say, “Look, we're doing a series on-- I think my first book was like super smart animals-- and here, you can choose from this list of animals to research.” And the pay is terrible and the deadlines are really short, but it was a great learning experience. I over-researched that first book [laughs] completely. But it was so up my alley with a biology degree as like gorillas, I can do gorillas. And it was just great to learn how to write for an editor. And I had to write sidebars and develop activities and think about the material in different ways. And I found that really challenging and exciting. And I felt like it was a great stepping stone. It gave me street cred in my query letters that I could point to these write for hire books and say I wrote these.
I kept submitting my work and I researched the industry and discovered that a small publisher in Illinois called Albert Whitman was open to un-agented submissions. So I sent it there. I kept going to conferences, I kept submitting elsewhere. I lost track of that one. I had a spreadsheet somewhere. But I just kept going forward. I think that's the takeaway; just keep going forward. Persistence and forward movement. 18 months after I submitted The Nian Monster to Albert Whitman's slush pile, I had an email that said, “Is this still available?” And I was like, “Who is this person?” [laughs] I had to dig out my spreadsheet and I didn't know what that meant. I was like, “Yes, it's available. What does this mean?”[laughs]
Georgia: Do you want it? [laughs]
Andrea: [laughs] And the editor said, “Yes, we would like to make an offer”. And I went, “Holy cow. Okay.” And I asked around. I asked my critique partners, I asked my Lesley mentors, “what do I do now?” And it was pretty evenly split; get an agent or don't get an agent and just negotiate the contract on your own. And I just like the paperwork business side of things. [laughs] And I was not confident that I would know all the nuances of a contract. And I just feel so much better having someone's hand to hold through this whole thing.
Georgia: Yeah, I totally would be the same way.
Andrea: And many publishers now don't accept on un-agented submissions. So I took my friend's advice and parlayed that offer into getting an agent and I signed with Erin Murphy. And she negotiated that contract for me. And it’s been onward and upward from there. That's how we got into it.
Georgia: That’s great. But 8 to 10 years is a bit terrifying [laughs]. I think also, your persistence and that now you've written multiple books, you're getting great reviews, and they're telling wonderful, good stories for kids. And so that's just awesome to see.
Andrea: Thanks. It's been wonderful. I mean, it's just been such a great experience.
Georgia: And what are you working on next?
Andrea: So I do have a picture book coming out, also from Neil Porter Books next year. It's called Luli and The Language of Tea, tea being the drink. I had heard that the word for tea was the same in multiple countries. And so I was researching that, and discovered that that was, in fact, true. It came from a couple of different dialects of Chinese. And as tea was exported around the globe, the word for it, “cha” in Mandarin, changed as it went around the world. I thought, “Wow, this would be really cool. Let's play with a circular structure.”
It became a group of children who don't all speak the same language. They're in a community daycare kind of situation. The protagonist decides she wants to bring everybody together and brings in some tea, and she gets up and says, “cha” in Mandarin. And so you see all the languages of the children as they pop up, because they think they hear “chai,” or they think they hear “téa,” and it brings them all together.
I also just submitted, I mean, literally just, the draft of my second novel, which is also middle grade and it is also a standalone. But it is also about a Chinese American girl sort of struggling with her identity as well. In this case, she's very tuned in to her Chinese heritage. And she goes to a camp, Chinese culture camp, in the summertime with a bunch of her friends and they encounter a bunch of new girls who happen to be transracial Chinese adoptees. And she has a hard time with that because they don't know what she knows. They don't have the same cultural touchstones that she does. So it's about that. I also have two more nonfiction picture books in the works.
Georgia: Well, this sounds really great. And I can't wait to see the other things that are going to be coming out soon. But yeah, thank you so much for talking with me today.
Andrea: Oh, thank you, Georgia. It's been a pleasure to be here and to speak to everybody.
Georgia: Thank you for listening to Why We Write and my conversation with Andrea. You can find out more about her and how to connect with her online on our episode page. That link is in the show notes. And we'll be back in two weeks with another episode.
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