WILDINGS in the Wild!

Happy November! It’s Wildings’ publication day! This book was two years and seven months in the making (which is amazingly short, compared to Sparkers), and now it’s finally out in the world!

Wildings Final Cover

I now give you…

5 Reasons to Read Wildings

  1. Caleb Levi: Did you like Marah’s younger brother in Sparkers? If so, you’re in luck because he’s back in a much more prominent role!
  2. Marah and Azariah: What happened to them? Did Marah become a concert violinist? Or a linguist? Or something else…? You’ll find out.
  3. Musical magic: Yes, there is spell casting with instruments and singing.
  4. Poking around in dusty archives: You know, if you enjoy that sort of thing. I may have been inspired by the Central Registry in José Saramago’s All the Names
  5. Rhubarb

If you’re in the Twin Cities or the Los Angeles area, I’d love to see you at one of my release parties for Wildings!

Happy reading!

Wildings Galore!

Wildingslatest trade review is from VOYA! You can read it here. The book will be out in the world in less than two weeks! And yesterday, a whole bunch of books arrived in the mail. I could build a book castle!



Also, here’s an article about a new independent children’s bookstore opening in the Twin Cities! It of course mentions the lovely Red Balloon Bookshop and Wild Rumpus, two of my favorite places. I’ll be at Red Balloon in just over two weeks for Wildings‘ Minnesota launch.

One Month Till WILDINGS!

Yesterday marked two years since Sparkers was published, and today the publication of Wildings is one month away! This week I received a finished copy of the book in the mail. It’s gorgeous! The cover is purple underneath the dust jacket.  ❤




Now seems like a good time to remind you that you can:

Additionally, I have two launch parties planned! If you live in the area, or even if you don’t, you’re invited!

I’m still plodding through Dream of Red Mansions (I had to switch editions after Volumes 1 and 2, so now I’ve got Volumes 5 and 6 of the same Gladys Yang and Yang Xianyi translation, except now all the Chinese names are in Pinyin (hooray!) and it’s a bilingual edition with Simplified Chinese on facing pages). However, as a nice respite from endless Qing Dynasty drama, I read I Think I Am In Friend-Love With You by LA author and comic book artist Yumi Sakugawa. This adorable and poignant book about friendship stars a sock cylops. I asked my friend Isabelle to buy me a copy at the Little Tokyo Book Festival, since I couldn’t go, and she got it dedicated to me!



Mixed Remixed 2016

As I mentioned last week, I went to my second Mixed Remixed Festival two weekends ago. Last year, I went for the first time and had a wonderful time. This year, I applied to be a presenter and was placed on a panel entitled “Excavating Family Mythology & Publishing Your First Children’s or YA Book.” (I was a little perplexed when I found out because as far as I’m aware I excavated zero family mythology for either of my books, but it turned out not to matter.)

mxdrmxd - web ad - 2016 - EXCAVATING - jpeg

Oh, my goodness! I’m on a panel flyer!

While last year’s festival was only one day, this year’s was two. My panel was on Friday, the first day. I took the bus to the Japanese American National Museum early in the afternoon in order to make it to the panel before mine, “Hapa Writers: Our Stories in Fiction.” On my way in, I met Heidi Durrow, the author who founded the festival, for the first time in person.

To me, the most interesting part of the hapa writers panel was when panelist Maria T. Allocco talked about her relationship to the very term hapa. I’ve alluded to the complexities of using this word before. Maria explained that she no longer liked to call herself hapa because it means “part” or “fragment,” and she is of course whole. She also said she found the word Eurocentric, I think because it’s sometimes understood as meaning someone of mixed Asian and European ancestry. But I don’t think this is the definition used in, say, Kip Fulbeck’s Part Asian, 100% Hapa. I also have qualms about using the term hapa, but for entirely different reasons. My understanding is that hapa is a Hawaiian word that means “half” and that can be used in combination with many other modifiers to refer to people of all kinds of different multiracial identities. That is, hapa itself has nothing to do with Asian ancestry. It’s in the mainland U.S. that it came to mean an Asian mixed race person. I’m uncomfortable with the way a Hawaii-specific term has been appropriated, but I’m conflicted because, like several of the panelists, I like having this word to describe exactly what I am.

Next up was my panel! My fellow panelists were Katrina Goldsaito, author of the forthcoming picture book The Sound of Silence; Maria Leonard Olsen, author of, among other books, Mommy, Why’s Your Skin So Brown?; and Veda Stamps, author of the middle grade contemporary novel Flexible Wings. Our moderator was Jamie Moore, the festival’s literary coordinator. The conversation ranged from our writing processes to why we write for children to what we read growing up to We Need Diverse Books to how to balance writing with a day job. I was the only writer on the panel who hadn’t actually written a book with a mixed race protagonist.

Speaking on my first author panel ever wasn’t as nerve-wracking as I’d anticipated. I didn’t get tongue-tied, and I think I managed not to say anything absurd. I had fun, and it was a great way to meet people. I was touched that Claire Ramsaran, the organizer of the mixed and queer writing workshop who interviewed me for the Mixed Remixed blog after last year’s festival, came to my panel even though children’s literature is not her specialty. Also, when the panel was over, N, one of the people scheduled to speak on Saturday’s millennials panel, came up to talk to me, and we had an interesting conversation about Asian-inspired fantasy.

On Saturday, I went back for a full Day 2 of the festival. The first panel I went to was “Is the Mixed Thing Just for Girls?” There were two men on the panel, so…no? One of the audience questions really brought home to me the fact that mixed race people are not a monolith (obviously) because it was about hair. I really can’t speak to this experience, but my impression is that hair is a big deal to white and black multiracial people (or I guess black and anything). There are always tons of reference to hair at the festival, and one of the main sponsors is Mixed Chicks, a company that makes hair products specifically for mixed people (where, as far as I can tell, mixed means part-black). Last year, festival attendees all got sample products in our goodie bags. I think those products are still stashed in my room somewhere. I don’t have curly hair, and my hair is far from being a major facet of my multiracial identity.

I took a break for lunch and got some onigiri in the Japanese Village Plaza. After lunch was the mixed and queer writing workshop I mentioned, which I also went to last year. It was a little smaller this time around, but some of the same people came, so it was fun to reconnect with them. I had a conversation with one of them about using or not using hapa to describe ourselves. She actually avoids it, precisely because of the appropriation issue. Then we started comparing notes about grad school experiences…

From the workshop, I went to the featured writers panel, mostly to hear Jamie Ford read. The other authors were poet F. Douglas Brown, memoirist and spoken word artist Willy Wilkinson (whom I saw perform last year in the live show), and novelists Sunil Yapa and Natashia Deón. Jamie Ford read a scene from his next novel, about a hapa boy who comes from China to the U.S. only to be sold at the Seattle World’s Fair (I think).

Next I went to “Mixed Millennials: Changing What Mixed-Race Means,” the panel N was on, since, well, I’m a millennial! N and one of the other panelists, Andrea, co-run a website called Mixed Race Politics, which publishes articles and essays related to the mixed race experience.

After a bit of a break, there was a reception in the building across from the museum. There I got to talk to the very kind Jamie Ford, who asked me what was next for me writing-wise. Then we piled into the Tateuchi Democracy Forum for the Storyteller’s Prize Presentation & Live Show. I sat with Andrea and Claire and a couple of other people from the writing workshop. Opening once again this year was singer and multi-instrumentalist Kayla Briët (I’m still envious of her guzheng). Then we got to see a sneak peek from the forthcoming film Loving, about Richard and Mildred Loving, of Loving vs. Virginia fame.

The other performers were:

  • Lichelli, who delivered a monologue about hair
  • Andrew J. Figueroa “Fig,” who went to Hampshire College and who performed amazing, amazing…Hip-Hop, I guess? (I’m going by his bio; I’m terrible with music genres). His piece on being harassed by a policeman in high school blew me away.
  • Maya Azucena, who’s singing and stage presence were also very impressive and stirring

The Storyteller’s Prize went to Taye Diggs and Shane W. Evans for their picture book Mixed Me! I belatedly realized that Taye Diggs was a way bigger deal than I knew (this seems to happen to me a lot, since I’m so out of it when it comes to pop culture and/or the entertainment industry).

Like last year, the live show was exciting, invigorating, and cathartic. Afterwards, there was another reception with cake. I chatted with Andrea and met a few more people before heading home. I’m already looking forward to next year’s festival!

LA Times Festival of Books 2016

My friend Isabelle and I spent all of last Saturday at the LA Times Festival of Books at USC. This was my second time attending the festival; last year, I went specifically to meet my editor. This year, I went without an agenda. It was a rare rainy day, and Isabelle and I went from booth to booth (Kinokuniya, Vroman’s, Mysterious Galaxy, Once Upon A Time, Pages, Skylight Books, etc.) looking at and talking about books. Some highlights included:

  • At the Book Soup booth, they were running a mock presidential election with authors as the candidates. If you voted, you were entered into a raffle to win gift certificates to the store. I voted for Toni Morrison; Isabelle voted for Haruki Murakami.
  • At the Penguin Young Readers booth, I noticed K. G. Campbell was signing copies of his new picture book, Dylan the Villain, and I introduced myself because we have the same editor.
  • We spotted Jon Klassen signing copies of Pax, a middle grade book by Sara Pennypacker that he did the cover art and illustrations for. I just read it, and it has the most beautiful fox on the cover. We hovered for a bit but didn’t talk to him.
  • I bought a copy of Chef Katie Chin’s Everyday Chinese Cookbook for my brother and had it signed at the cooking stage. Katie Chin is a family friend (I went to school with her niece) and the daughter of Leann Chin, which will mean something to you if you’re from Minnesota.
  • We saw a laser-cut violin! I would’ve asked to play it, but it wasn’t quite all glued together yet.
  • We stopped by a few of the panels on the YA Stage. At YA Fiction: The Light Fantastic, an audience member asked a question about appropriation. How do you write about the Other without appropriating? The panelists were also asked to name a book they wished they had written, and Elissa Sussman said Seraphina by Rachel Hartman!

AWP in Los Angeles

Last Saturday, I took the bus downtown to go to AWP at the LA Convention Center. AWP is the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, and it hosts an enormous annual conference. (Last year it was in Minneapolis! I didn’t go.)

I arrived early because a particular 9:00am panel had caught my eye: The Politics of Translation: Aimé Césaire’s The Tragedy of King Christophe. La Tragédie du roi Christophe is a play I read as historical background for a college class on contemporary Haitian novels by women. I remembered almost nothing about it, but it started to come back to me at the panel. I also took literary translation in college, so I was curious to hear about the translation of the play. The panel turned out to be less of a discussion than three distinct presentations, with Aimé Césaire as the only unifying thread. One of the panelists, Paul Breslin, recently translated La tragédie du roi Christophe in collaboration with Rachel Ney, and he talked about how they chose to translate the word nègre (Negro) in different contexts. They also rendered French alexandrins with English heroic couplets (a term I did not know) and French creole with English creole. Anyway, the whole panel made me nostalgic for my days as a student of Francophone literature and made me want to reread Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal.

Next I wandered around the bookfair, where small presses, literary journals, and writing programs were tabling. I stopped at the booth for WriteGirl, a Los Angeles creative writing and mentoring organization that connects women writers with teen girls. I actually went back before my last panel of the day to learn more, at which point I was given a copy of an anthology they produced. Here’s hoping I can find some time to volunteer with them before I leave Los Angeles…

At noon, I headed to the We Need Diverse Books panel, entitled Shifting the Narrative Lens. Mike Jung was moderating, and I must say he was an immensely entertaining moderator. I’ve never heard so many hyperbolic descriptions of applause before. The applause was for the panelists: Audrey Coulthurst, Alicia Williams, Brandy Colbert, and Daniel José Older. I didn’t take a lot of notes, but it was a good panel. The panelists may have been preaching to the choir, but they still had thought-provoking things to say. One thing I did write down was Daniel José Older’s call for more white writers to write white characters who confront their own whiteness. White writers worry a lot about writing the Other, but it can be even harder to write the Self.

The next panel was pretty much the whole reason I decided to go to AWP, after thinking for weeks that I wouldn’t. It was Social Justice in Speculative and Fantastical Fiction for Young Readers. I didn’t really realize it till after publication, but that’s basically what Sparkers is. So is Wildings. Anne Ursu, the moderator, joked that the panel was literally the hottest at AWP since the room was packed and it was extremely warm. The panelists were Sherri L. Smith, Daniel José Older, William Alexander, and Tananarive Due, all of whom had great insights. There was a fair amount of discussion of subverting tropes like the Magical Negro or Female Villain = Bad Mother. Older also talked about different cultures’ relationships with the dead, which gave me all sorts of ideas.

At the end of the panel, I went up to introduce myself to Anne Ursu because she blurbed Sparkers. To my astonishment, she recognized me! Even in my new spectacles. So that was delightful.

From the social justice panel, I went to Non-White Authors Also Worry About Getting It Wrong: Diversity in Children’s Literature. (There was definitely a coterie of folks trooping from one diversity-related MG/YA panel to the next.) The panelists here were Rahul Kanakia, Heidi Heilig, and Day Al-Mohamed. Heidi Heilig introduced herself as “half-Chinese, half-white, hapa haole.” She grew up in Hawaii. I’d heard of her debut novel, The Girl from Everywhere, but I didn’t realize the protagonist was also white and Chinese. Another one for the TBR!

The panel was mostly about non-white authors writing the Self, grappling with having to appeal to a white audience and with feeling a responsibility not to perpetuate stereotypes about one’s own people. I was actually more interested in hearing about non-white authors also writing the Other: Is it different for us than for white authors? Perhaps not, since anyone writing the Other has to do their research? Does being marginalized along one axis make one better equipped to write characters marginalized along different axes? There was some discussion of being “given a pass” (e.g. Kanakia wrote an Indian-American girl–will his portrayal of a teenage girl receive less scrutiny because he’s an Indian-American writing an Indian-American protagonist?), but to be clear, most of the panel was not about these questions.

This was the panel where I took the most notes, and I appreciated that the panelists weren’t afraid to voice uncomfortable questions. For instance: the idea that diversity is a trend is anathema to advocates for diversity in kidlit, but even so, some gatekeepers may well conceive of diversity as a trend, and (according to Kanakia) there’s a perception that straight white authors are “cashing in” on diversity. The question is, what if marginalized authors are too? Even if unwillingly? The idea is disquieting. Personally, I wonder if it doesn’t really matter; as long as a story that wasn’t getting told before is now being told, who cares if the gatekeepers picked this story because they thought it was “trendy”? To give another example, when the A Birthday Cake for George Washington incident came up, Kanakia asked his fellow panelists point blank if they would tell their agents to stop shopping subsidiary rights for a work that had been criticized to the extent that they (the author) had come to believe it was genuinely harmful.

There was also discussion of sensitivity readers. A sensitivity reader is someone who reads a manuscript and offers feedback on the portrayal of a character with an identity that the reader shares but the author does not. For instance, I asked two Deaf readers to comment on Caleb’s portrayal in Wildings. The panelists talked about paying sensitivity readers, the possibility of their telling you not to move ahead, and the importance of getting input early so you don’t pour years into a book only to have someone recommend you shelve it.

I think asking sensitivity readers to give you feedback on your manuscript can be delicate. There’s an inherent power imbalance in the relationship between an author and a sensitivity reader, particularly if the author already has a contract for the manuscript in question. Although I did not offer to pay my Deaf readers, I think offering to pay sensitivity readers is actually the right thing to do (in other words, I was wrong). In particular, you shouldn’t put the reader in the position of having to ask to be paid because they probably won’t ask. You the author should offer from the start. Also, you should recognize that your sensitivity reader may not feel comfortable critiquing your portrayal as much as they’d like to. This is probably exacerbated if your sensitivity reader is also your friend. Either way, the reader can’t force you to change your manuscript or halt the publication process. They risk offering you their feedback only to be ignored or even attacked, so in some ways they don’t have much of an incentive to be honest in their critique. That’s why we as authors can’t use the fact that we consulted sensitivity readers as a defense against later criticism of our portrayals.

The last panel I went to was Writing Sex in YA: Choices and Consequences, with Elana Arnold, Corey Ann Haydu, Brandy Colbert, Carrie Mesrobian, and Terra Elan McVoy. The panelists, all of whom write contemporary fiction, talked about realistically portraying teenage sexuality, books they’d recommend, and things they’d like to see more of in YA (e.g. asexuality, boys saying no). They were very funny and entertaining.

All in all, it was a great day, and I’m so glad I got to go. Next up: the LA Times Festival of Books this weekend!

The Wildings Cover

Last week when I shared the title and description for Wildings, the companion to Sparkers, I had no idea I would be able to reveal the cover so soon. But it’s ready, so here it is!

Wildings Cover

The art is by Manuel Sumberac, and it reveals something that was not mentioned at all in the book description, namely, that music plays a big role in Wildings! Did you think I could write a book that wasn’t about music? What’s more, I finally wrote a cellist!

This cover is quite different from the Sparkers cover, and I love both of them. I hope this one makes you more excited for Wildings!

Wildings: The Companion to Sparkers!

The time has come…to stop being coy about Book 2! So, here goes: My second book is entitled Wildings  and is due out November 1st. It’s a companion (not a sequel) to Sparkers, and it begins five years after the events of the first book. The main character is Rivka Kadmiel, a wealthy magician girl from the city of Atsan. At the beginning of the book, she moves to Ashara, the city where Sparkers is set. Here’s my publisher’s description:

Rivka is one of the magical elite and the daughter of an important ambassador. But she harbors a deep secret: She once had a twin brother, Arik. When Arik failed to develop his own magical abilities, the government declared him a wilding, removed him from his home, placed him with non-magical adoptive parents, and forbade him any contact with his birth family. Now it is as if he never existed at all.

But Rivka refuses to forget her twin brother. Even though she knows she could lose everything—her father, her friends, even her freedom—she sets out to find Arik. She has nothing to go on except her still-new magical powers and her love for her brother. Can that possibly be enough to bring them together again, when all of society believes they belong apart? 

Several characters from Sparkers appear in Wildings. In particular, Marah’s brother Caleb plays a bigger role than he did in the first book.

Wildings is now on Goodreads. I don’t have a cover yet, but I’m looking forward to sharing it with you when I do!

On Being a Novelist in Grad School

This post was inspired by Kat Zhang’s post “Writing as a Student” over at Pub(lishing) Crawl. Perhaps someone out there is wondering what it’s like to be a children’s book author and a Ph.D. student at the same time. I’m not sure I have a lot to offer in the way of advice, but I can share my experiences. (In hopes of being helpful, I’m going to go into a fair amount of detail. You are hereby warned that the minutiae may get boring!)

1. Student Writers on the Rise?

Though I don’t have any data, my impression is that the number of authors who are currently in school is on the rise. It’s not that unusual these days to see a deal announcement in which the author is eighteen, nineteen, or in her very early twenties. I was 20 when I signed with an agent, 22 when I got a book deal, and 23 when Sparkers was published, and in this decade, that doesn’t make me that remarkable. There are so many authors who began their careers at a similarly young age: Kat Zhang, Stephanie Diaz, Tahereh Mafi, Karen Bao, Hannah Moskowitz… Those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head. And if there are so many authors of this age out there, chances are a lot of them are balancing their writing careers with college or graduate/professional school.1

2. Writing as a Student: Middle School Through College

Except for the year when I worked at a non-profit, there has never been a time when I was a writer and not also a student. I finished my first book when I was in 8th grade.2 I finished my second book, which would become Sparkers, in 10th grade. I finished my third book at the end of 12th grade.3 At this point, I figured I could write a book every two years, but my next book actually took three years because college.

It was in college that I started seriously pursuing publication. The spring of my sophomore year, I entered the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest. My semester was punctuated by the anticipation and excitement of finding out the results of each round. I didn’t win, but that summer, while I was working as a research assistant at the University of Minnesota, I gave myself a crash course in traditional publishing, starting with the entire archive of Miss Snark. Then I began querying agents.

By late summer, I had a revise & resubmit. I decided to revise my manuscript based on the agent’s comments. It took me until early January of the following year to resubmit. In mid-March, while I was studying abroad in Grenoble, I got another revise & resubmit from the same agent. I decided to revise again. It took me until the end of August to resubmit. In September, now a senior in college, I signed with the agent. Then we embarked on more revisions. I got notes at the end of October and turned in my next draft at the beginning of the following February. More revisions followed through the rest of my senior year, the summer after I graduated, and my volunteer year before I went on submission to publishers. But you get the picture.

What I want to highlight in the above timeline is when I was turning in revised drafts. Early January, i.e. during winter break. Late August, i.e. at the end of summer vacation. Early February, i.e. after a month or so of winter break. In college, breaks were essential for my writing. They were the times when I was most productive, whether I was writing a book for fun or doing a serious revision for someone in the industry. I wrote while classes were in session too, but schoolwork took priority. I worked every summer, but I had more time to write working a 9-to-5 than I did as a full-time college student. It wasn’t so much that I figured out how to fit writing into my life as a college student as that I took full advantage of my long breaks to work as hard as I could on my books.

So if I managed to keep writing seriously in college in large part because of the long vacations, how do I now manage an actual career as an author while in the kind of school that arguably has no breaks?

3. Getting to the Point: Writing Novels in Grad School

In college, I did an icebreaker in which we were asked, roughly, “If you could be any professor, who would you be and why?” I knew my answer: I wanted to be Donna Jo Napoli. Donna Jo Napoli is a linguistics professor and a children’s book author. I can’t remember if I actually told everyone I wanted to be her, because at the time I was extremely cagey about my writing, but now that I’m in a linguistics Ph.D. program with the goal of continuing in academia, I really am on the road to becoming Donna Jo Napoli.

When I started grad school, Sparkers had already sold. I moved into graduate housing on September 1st, although the school year didn’t start until the end of September. Instead of exploring my new city, I holed up in my apartment and worked hard to finish a revision for my editor before classes began. After that, we were on to line editing and copy editing, which didn’t interfere too much with my heavy first-year course load. However, I was contracted to write a second book.

I began writing that next book during–wait for it–spring break of my first year of grad school. For various reasons, I took a very light course load in the spring quarter that followed this break, so I continued drafting through the term and on into the summer. The summer did afford me more time to write, but I was also undertaking a substantial research project. When classes began again in the fall, I wasn’t ready to send my editor the first draft of Book 2, and it was clear I was going to miss my original deadline. My publisher has always been very flexible and generous about giving me more time when I need it, but I wanted to turn in my draft just as much as they wanted me to. The later I was, the longer it would be before I published my next book.

The fall of my second year of grad school, I was taking two classes, beginning my master’s thesis, and TAing for the first time. At this point, I wasn’t drafting Book 2 anymore; I was whittling it down from a monstrously long manuscript to a book I could present to my editor. Revising can be easier than drafting because you already have something to work with, but it was still time-consuming. I began squeezing in editing time in ways I never had before. I edited over breakfast. I edited during lecture for the class I was TAing. Towards the end, I even started editing on my laptop on my bus commute. I finally sent my editor the first draft of Book 2 at the beginning of December.

To be clear, I enjoyed working on Book 2 alongside my schoolwork and my TAing duties. There’s a heady feeling that comes with being consumed by a revision. But that fall quarter showed me there was only so much I could do at once. Between doing the work for my classes, teaching sections and otherwise taking care of my undergrad students, and revising Book 2, there was little time left for research. I made very little progress on my master’s thesis that fall. Luckily, I had gotten a head start over the summer, so I was able to neglect my project for one quarter, take it up again in earnest in the winter, and finish my thesis by the end of spring.

To this too, there is another side. My editor sent me notes at the end of January, but I didn’t turn in my next draft until six months later, at the end of July. If I prioritized writing over my master’s thesis in the fall, during the winter and spring I prioritized my master’s thesis over writing because I had to finish the thesis by the end of my second year. There was no way I could work on both with any degree of depth while also taking classes, TAing, and presenting at conferences.

At last, summer came, and my master’s thesis was done! Unlike the summer after my first year of grad school, this past summer I had no particular research project to complete, no fellowship that required me to produce a paper. Instead, I had a research/career-related to-do list, much of which I totally neglected in favor of revising Book 2 not once but twice. The first revision I turned in at the end of July, as mentioned above, and the second I turned in two and a half weeks ago, just before the fall quarter began.

What did I neglect while I was revising Book 2 again and again? I had intended to spend some of the summer expanding my master’s thesis, carrying out new analyses, figuring out what theoretical contribution my research could make, deciding which journals it was best suited to, and turning my thesis into a publishable paper. I did none of these things. If I had not revised my manuscript twice this summer, I would probably have made more progress toward my first journal publication. Now that I’m a third-year, it’s time for me to be making myself into a candidate who will be competitive on the job market in a few years. I don’t regret spending more time on writing this summer because it was very satisfying, but I recognize that it was at the expense of my nascent career as a linguist.

The thing about grad school that feels different from college is that expectations are such that I could be devoting all my time to it: days, evenings, weekends, summers, vacations. There are no breaks anymore, not really. I may not have classes or teaching in the summer, but that just gives me more time to get ahead in my research and write papers. I’m not just a student with a school year schedule anymore; I’m also a professional trying to build an academic career. There is always another paper to read, another skill to learn, another line of research to pursue, another conference to submit to, another fellowship or grant to apply for. In college, I felt that, outside the strictly circumscribed hours when I was working, summers were mine to devote to writing. In grad school, I don’t feel that way.

This sort of dilemma isn’t limited to authors in grad school, of course. Many academics have families or hobbies that they make time for. There are plenty of jobs outside academia where one could always be doing more. As a novelist in grad school, though, I am pursuing two careers simultaneously, and it’s easy to wonder whether by doing so I’m not pursuing either one as well as I could be.

There’s also the question of making a living. Writing children’s books is usually not a way to earn one’s livelihood. That’s why I’m in grad school. But earning a Ph.D. in a field like linguistics is also not a guaranteed ticket to a stable, well-paying job. Depending on their field, many young authors in grad school may be pursuing two relatively uncertain career paths and wondering if either will pan out in the way they hope.

At the same time, we sometimes have the best of both worlds. I’m happy where I am. I’m writing books, and I’m participating in a field that fascinates me with colleagues I love. Ideally, when I don’t feel like linguisticking, I can turn to my writing, and when I can’t bear to face my manuscript, I can read a phonology paper or analyze some data. In practice, I sometimes don’t feel like doing either and end up browsing book reviews or recipes on the Internet.

I might be a more productive linguist or author if I was only one of these things, but maybe not by much. Tasks tend to take up the time we have for them, no matter how long that is. In other words, if I had more time to do linguistics or to write books, I might not do more. I might just take longer to do the same amount. Being a grad student puts pressure on my writing time. Being an author puts pressure on my research and schoolwork time. Between these twin pressures, stuff gets done.

I’m lucky to have an editor who understands when I put a revision on hold to write a thesis and professors and fellow grad students who are incredibly supportive of my writing career (some of them are probably reading this right now, if they’ve made it this far). If this wasn’t the case, I’m sure this whole two careers thing would be harder. For now, I’m just feeling my way forward one term and one draft at a time. And hopefully one day I’ll have become the next Donna Jo Napoli.

1. Then there are the Jake Marcionettes and Maya Van Wagenens of the world. I have no idea what it’s like to be a published author in middle school or high school.

2. It was your typical Tolkienesque fantasy, even though to this day I haven’t managed to finish The Lord of the Rings.

3. It was about a wizard school! Except it was heavily inspired by my experience going to middle school in Paris, so the school was located in Brittany and there was French swearing.

LA Times Bookfest, CLS, and C2E2

The past couple of weekends have been eventful and a lot of fun (which means this post is going to be long and all over the place). On April 18th, I went to the LA Times Festival of Books at the University of Southern California. My main purpose in going was to meet my editor, whom I had never met in person and who was going to be on a panel wearing her author hat. It was fun to wander among the booths too, though I will admit to spending part of my time at the festival drafting a handout on English speakers’ perception of Zulu clicks.

The panel I attended featured authors David Levithan, Leila Sales (my editor), and Tommy Wallach. It was moderated by Aaron Hartzler, and it was a lot of fun. Afterwards, I got in the signing line and met Leila. She signed my copy of This Song Will Save Your Life, and we chatted a bit more after the signing crowd had dispersed.

Last weekend, I went to Chicago for the Chicago Linguistic Society’s conference (CLS), which was also a lot of fun. I flew in on Wednesday evening and attended a few talks on Thursday; in particular I’d wanted to hear the one on homesign and the one on sign language phonological typology. I don’t really expect to ever work on sign languages, but I’m always drawn to talks in that area. I also got to see linguists I knew at Swarthmore or whom I had met on the grad school open house circuit again, and it was great to catch up with them.

I presented my paper first thing on Friday morning. It was nice to get it over with and have the rest of the day to absorb other people’s research without worrying about my own talk. I particularly appreciated Bernard Perley’s invited talk on reframing the rhetoric and metaphors around language death and endangerment (in essence, he would like to see linguists talk about language life instead of language death). I thought what he had to say was hugely important and rightly challenged us linguists to think hard about the ethics of linguistic fieldwork. He also gently (but directly) called out the previous invited speaker on an aspect of her talk, which had been just hours before his. I have no doubt that was an uncomfortable moment, and for more of us than just the invited speaker, but I think Dr. Perley was right to point out what he did because we can’t change what we don’t realize we’re doing wrong.

My colleagues from UCLA were both presenting in the Beyond Field Methodologies session. I was particularly eager for my field methods professor’s talk because it was about me! Okay, not really. It was about our class’s experience taking a monolingual approach to doing field methods on Maragoli and about monolingual fieldwork in general. That evening, our little UCLA contingent of three went out for Chicago deep-dish pizza.

On Saturday, I skipped out on the conference to go to the Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo (C2E2). I’d been planning this ever since I’d learned that author Rachel Hartman would be appearing at C2E2 and that C2E2 was the same weekend as CLS. The timing worked out beautifully. It was my first time at a comic con, and I felt kind of out of my element among the crowds of cosplayers, but the costumes were pretty amazing.

The panel I’d come for was one of the few book-related panels and was about worldbuilding. In addition to Rachel Hartman, there were six other panelists, including the guy who writes the Star Wars Shakespeare (Shakespeare Star Wars?) books. I particularly liked the discussion of creating maps and of the authors’ favorite worlds. And best of all, I had the good fortune of getting to have dinner with Rachel, which was delightful.

Afterwards, I made my way back to the CLS banquet. Dinner was over, but the evening’s entertainment was just getting underway. And by entertainment I mean hours of karaoke, a CLS tradition. Now, I am not a karaoke person; I’ve always declined invitations to UCLA linguistics karaoke. I guess after my solos in the Georgian chorus concert I can no longer say that I do not sing in front of people without at least ten other people singing along with me, but the fact remains that my familiarity with popular music is so poor that most of the time I really can’t participate. I honestly don’t know the vast majority of songs that one could use for karaoke. Indeed, as other people went up to sing songs that are evidently well-known, I usually found myself recognizing the chorus or some chord progression but not knowing the melody, much less the words, to the verses.

It was fun to watch, though, and there were some pretty talented singers as well as dancers. A highlight was a non-karaoke number, in which two grad students sang a Greek song accompanied by clarinet and bouzouki. Bouzouki! I want a bouzouki. People also sang in Russian, Turkish, Japanese, and Indonesian. And Mandarin, which is how I ended up doing karaoke after all. I’d gotten up from our table briefly, and I came back just as a USC grad student I knew was singing a line from a song in Chinese. I said, “Hey, I know that song!”

Long story short, I found myself at the front of the hall with the USC grad student and a third grad student, and we sang the Taiwanese song 對面的女孩看過來, which, as far as I can tell, is about the inscrutability of girls. It brought me back to Chinese department New Year’s parties in the Swarthmore Friends Meetinghouse, which is the last place I sang this song, with the other students in my Chinese class. All I remembered of this song was the first line and the chorus, and although the karaoke video we’d found on Youtube had the words, they were obviously in Chinese characters, many of which I’ve forgotten. So I watched them fly by and jumped in on random pronouns or easy stuff like 很可愛. And the chorus, thank goodness.

So, you didn’t think I’d ever do karaoke? Yeah, me neither. I guess I do better with languages other than English. Maybe next time I’ll attempt a rendition of “Je fais de toi mon essentiel”…