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Tomorrow is my author birthday.
It’s the day I signed a contract with a publisher and knew that something I wrote was on its way to being published. I had rights and royalty was coming my way—you know, like a professional writer!
This wasn’t the first time I’ve been published or that I’ve signed a contract, but after a ten-year hiatus from scribbling fiction (okay, it wasn’t so much a hiatus as I thought I’d actually quit writing forever—I had a dramatic, misguided moment I’ll tell you about in a bit), I’ve surprised myself by returning with both a new name and attitude. You may be familiar with my name (which I’ve gotten validating compliments on, thank you very much) but here’s my attitude:
It’s not a race. I’m finding my own rhythm with writing. I know the financially successful authors out there write prolifically, and I admire them for it, but there’s truth to the saying that “comparison is the thief of joy.” If I’m to make this career sustainable—if I’m to continue to enjoy writing at this second go of it—I need to grow my skills at a reasonable rate and discover how prolific I want to be (necessity, money, ego, or…?). It’s not about the alcohol or caffeine or sugar or late nights anymore for me.
It’s really not a race. I have a healthy competition with myself—how do I write better in my next book than I did in my last? How do I write better today compared to yesterday? What do my favorite authors do to improve their writing that I could try? See, this is not a race with others where I’m trying to validate that “I’m the fairest of them all”—that would be trying to outstrip my insecurities, and we all know that’s a bottomless sarlacc pit. (There’s a reason, besides traditional divination methods, that the Evil Queen asks a mirror that famed question. Narcissism much?)
Seriously, it’s really not a race. So here’s the dramatic, misguided moment I promised:
A little over ten years ago, a family member got their novel published by “the publisher that published Harry Potter” as my mom would tell it.
Up to that point, I had years under my belt and some fiction and non-fiction work published and paid for, but nothing so grand as a novel by the publisher that published Harry Potter.
I went to the bookstore and found the novel, and I sat with it in my hands for a good thirty minutes after reading the author bio, blurb, and critical praise. During those thirty minutes, I thought about all the time I had spent trying to write, trying to be a professional writer. I had a college education and decent middle class resources. This family member, on the other hand, immigrated here as a child, poor, with English as a foreign language and yet—before me—has been published (by the publisher who published Harry Potter).
I felt absolutely defeated and I thought, If I were meant to be a writer, it would have happened by now. I wrote every day, I studied writing, I moved for a writing job, I submitted my writing, I went to conventions to meet editors…I got close, but never close enough to cinch the deal and have a writing career that paid my bills and filled the coffers of my retirement fund, and this novel in my hands proved it wasn’t meant to be for me.
So I quit and believed I didn’t have what it took to succeed, because obviously I was not a chosen one—you know, that special unique snowflake born with the traits, qualities, talents, and gifts that predestines them for success? Despite what my teachers told me, I had to figure them for liars and me an idiot for listening to them.
However, they weren’t wrong about me—only inaccurate in how they thought to encourage me. When all you have is a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail, and I got whacked hard with the well-intentioned belief that you either got it or you don’t, and if you don’t you should give up and get out of the way of those who do so they can do what they’re meant to do and you can, well, look for something else that you have the innate talent to do. Even if you really, really want to do something, like be a writer.
Now, what if I had been encouraged on my perseverance, willingness to learn and be challenged, and ability to strategize and adapt?
I doubt I would have seen someone else’s success as my failure; I would’ve used their success to learn about my own weaknesses and blind spots—and then worked to strengthen them. Had I considered my writing more of a skill requiring maintenance and improvement rather than a fixed trait tied to an identity that demanded validation and entitlement (literally, the title of “writer”), maybe I wouldn’t have exiled myself for ten years and I’d be a better writer today.
It’s not a race, but you have to keep moving. I don’t have time for regrets. My big bad author self is going to be a year old tomorrow. I need to keep pushing forward, keep learning and challenging myself to grow as a storyteller. I’ve been published twice, and I can’t even see the finish line of how many more stories I’d like to share with you.
Like I said before: it’s not a race. Let’s just run together for a long as we all can, okay?
Title: Red Envelope
Author: Atom Yang
Publisher: MLR Press
Publication Date: 12/04/2015
Cover Artist: Kris Jacen
Genre: Contemporary, Drama, Fiction, Gay, Gay Fiction, Gay Romance, New Adult, Other Holiday, Romance, Winter Holiday
The Lunar New Year is the biggest holiday in the Chinese calendar, a time for family reunions, and for saying goodbye to the past and hello to the future. Clint, however, doesn’t want to bid farewell to what happened after last year’s celebration, when he and his Cousin Maggie’s handsome Westerner friend, Weaver, shared an unexpected but long-desired passionate encounter. East is East and West is West, and Weaver seems to want to keep it that way, but maybe Clint can bridge that great divide this coming New Year, and show Weaver what it means to be loved and accepted.
Growing up, I lived two lives.
In one life, I watched the same programs and played the same video games as the other kids in my neighborhood. We skated, made friends, got into fights, and did most of our homework. My name was Clint, and I was named after Clint Eastwood because my maternal grandfather loved the TV show, Rawhide, cowboys, and the Wild West (despite how the Chinese were treated during that time and place) and wanted me to have a real American name. I’m grateful they didn’t pick Rowdy.
In my other life, I went to Chinese school on Sundays where my teachers called me by my Chinese name, and I got extra homework on how to be more Chinese. I had to learn to read and write in a language I rarely saw in my daily life, although I spoke and heard it every day from my parents. It was a bummer, but I suppose it made me realize how much being Chinese was about doing Chinese things, and how much being American for me was about doing twice as many things, and being who you are was about doing one thing: staying true to yourself.
Once I understood that, I didn’t live two lives anymore. I lived one.
I called up my mom to make sure I had the family recipe right for mapo tofu. It’s a spicy dish that’s usually made with ground pork, but I told her I was leaving the meat out to offer an option to my favorite aunt and host of the celebration, Shirley, who had become a vegetarian since the death of my uncle last year.
“Your mapo tofu is not vegetarian,” my mother said in Mandarin, “it has garlic in it.”
“Garlic is not slow meat that got stuck in dirt, Ma,” I replied testily in Mandarin. My generation spoke to each other in English, but to our parents and elders, we spoke Chinese.
“I’m not criticizing you, don’t be so sensitive!” my mother shot back. “I’m only telling you so you’ll know. Onions and garlic, they’re not considered vegetarian.”
Yes, I’m going to ask it, because some Chinese ways were foreign to me. “Why are they not considered vegetarian?” I said in a calmer tone. Mea culpa for snapping at my mom.
“Oh, it increases your yang,” she answered.
“Are you saying it makes you, uh, makes you want to, um…” What was the word for horny and sex in Mandarin? I never learned that vocabulary in Chinese school.
“Make love,” she said conspiratorially with a giggle. The words were translated literally from English.
“Ma, that’s silly. I’ve never noticed that when I’ve eaten garlic.”
My mother heaved a dramatic, disyllabic sigh. “Hai-ya, you think you know everything. What about Italians?”
“They’re not all wanting to…make love,” I said, feeling squeamish about using the new words with my mother. “Anyway, I hope Aunt Shirley will eat my tofu.”
My mom laughed again, a sound like wind chimes that’s tickled me as far back as I can remember. “Don’t say that! Eating someone’s tofu means you are, ah…” She searched for the English word, knowing my limitations, and quickly completed her thought in Chinese: “Touching someone’s body where you should not.”
“Really? Ha! Thanks for letting me know!”
“Oh, I almost forgot to tell you. Weaver will be at the celebration.”
At the sound of his name, the laughter in my throat stilled and I found myself annoyed with my mother again. “Weaver is Maggie’s friend.”
“You like talking to him. Every year, since you both were little.”
“Since we were twelve. And I talk to everyone at the party, especially if they’re around my age.”
“Has it been that long? I remember you would talk about him all the way home and for weeks after. He has grown to be such a handsome man, don’t you think?”
“I wouldn’t know,” I mumbled. It’s not that I never noticed Weaver—his brown hair bleached by the sun, lightly toasted skin, and eventual six-foot height made him an easy game of Where’s Waldo in a crowd of my family members. I couldn’t help but notice him, and the way he had grown into his broad shoulders, big hands, and large feet that seemed so awkward when we were boys. It didn’t escape me, the way his square jaw, softer when we were both in middle school, became chiseled over time, and sometimes covered in stubble the color of burnt caramel flecked with ginger and bright gold.
She went on as if I had said nothing. “I love to look into his eyes! They’re so blue, like marbles! It’s so strange!”
My mouth went dryer than the Gobi. I tried to swallow, but failing that, I cleared my throat. “Yes, his eyes are very blue.” They reminded me of sea glass: navy in the evening, like the traditional changshan he wore to last year’s celebration; and the brilliant blue of a summer sky, which I saw on the winter morning before he left.
That morning was the first day of the Lunar New Year, and traditional belief held that the people you see on this first day would be the ones in your life for the rest of the year.
This didn’t turn out to be true.
“I thought you would be happy to know he’s coming back from China to visit. Maggie says he’s met somebody over there.”
My shoulders, which had been trying to say hello to my ears, dropped and I hunched over a little, a boxer weathering a punch. “I’m sure Maggie will be happy to see him,” I said, trying to sound cheerful. “Okay, I have to…do stuff. Get ready for tonight!”
“Are you upset about something?” My mother was either telepathic or she had secret cameras in my apartment, and I hoped for the latter; I glanced around suspiciously. “Mama knows when you’re unhappy,” she added in a soothing tone when I took too long to answer. When she spoke in the third person, I knew she meant business—there was both a formality and an intimacy when she talked like that; it wasn’t cute like “mommy knows best” or generic like “a mother doesn’t have to guess.” She meant, “I am your mother, you are my son, and I know you because you are a part of me, I raised you, and I want you to be happy.”
Yes, it’s kind of codependent compared to American individualism, but it’s kind of normal in a highly interdependent culture. There was something about her concern for my happiness that formed a lump in my throat, and made me wish I could hug her, tell her my hurts and cry them away on her bosom like I did when I was a child.
My throat tightened as if I had failed Darth Vader for the last time. Shit, my mother was part of my sadness. I couldn’t tell her what happened between Weaver and me after last year’s celebration because she would be upset—and for all the wrong reasons. I didn’t want to risk losing my relationship with her, and I didn’t think she would try to understand.
“Mama understands you,” she said.
Great, she’s telepathic. Hidden cameras would’ve been nicer. Creepy, sure, but at least my heart would be private.
I took in a controlled breath, hoping that she couldn’t hear on the other end as I ironed flat my emotions.
“I’m okay, don’t worry; a little nervous about making the dish correctly. I’ll see you later tonight.” She was quiet on the other end, and I knew my refusal to share what was bothering me hurt her feelings. And I had lied. “I love you,” I said in English.
We never expressed this to each other in Chinese, because it wasn’t something said in Chinese culture; the emotions were too strong, the words too coarse, and besides, it was assumed that parents and children loved each other. Still, my mother and I, we chose to be indelicately Western with this feeling, which meant we had to say it in our other tongue.
“I love you,” she said in singsong English. She hadn’t given up, and I knew she’d press me again later, or ask one of my relatives to get me to divulge what was bugging me before too long. “Okay, bye-bye!”
“Okay, bye-bye,” I echoed, and hung up, and stood there.
And stood some more.
Weaver was coming back
About Atom Yang
Atom was born to Chinese immigrant parents who thought it’d be a hoot to raise him as an immigrant, too–so he grew up estranged in a familiar land, which gives him an interesting perspective. He’s named after a Japanese manga (comic book) character, in case you were wondering.
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