Whose Streets?, Charlottesville, and Activist Storytelling

Last Saturday morning, I headed to the movie theater, eyes glued to my phone as I tried (unsuccessfully) to navigate and check twitter at the same time. I found my seat in the dark, still trying to piece together what was happening and what had already happened in Charlottesville.

Then I shut off my phone to watch Whose Streets? — which is, well… the short version would be to say that it’s a look at community activism in Ferguson after the killing of Michael Brown. But that’s a sanitized and simplified version of the truth.

A few weeks earlier, my sister told me to go watch Whose Streets. I forgot about it until the 9th, when I read an interview with activist Ashley Yates about what happened in Ferguson three years ago. It reminded me of why I’d stopped trusting my local newspaper, the paper I’d grown up reading: During the protests that continued for years in St. Louis (and still continue), the newspaper said one thing, and my sister said another. The crinkled newsprint said that the protestors turned violent, and my sister said that the police tear gassed MoKaBe’s, a local coffee shop.

St. Louis ArchSo I went to watch Whose Streets?, meeting up with a friend and sidling into a mostly empty theater where only a few older white folks were. It was chilling to watch the documentary and make the obvious connection to the weekend events — how the police met the community in Ferguson with violence, while Nazis in Charlottesville marched freely. How activist Brittany Ferrell was charged with a felony for kicking a car plowing through a protest line (read: a woman trying to drive over protestors, wtf) — and how that morning, a white supremacist had driven into a crowd of anti-racist counter protestors.

I was reminded that (racist) history repeats itself, and that the only way to break that cycle is to learn from it. That’s why Whose Streets? is so important. According to its website, it’s a documentary “told by the activists and leaders who live and breathe this movement” and “an unflinching look at the Ferguson uprising.” It’s about what really happened in Ferguson, not some distorted, sensationalist version shown in the news half a country away.

What I want most in this push for diversity in YA lit is for marginalized writers to get to tell their own stories, whatever that may be – immigration, slice-of-life romance, social justice, magic boarding school, you name it. Storytelling is how we connect with others, help people feel less alone, and learn from (and fight) the past. It’s crucial that the people who should be heard, get heard.

Whose Streets? does that and far more. It’s activist storytelling (well, truthtelling) – and we can never have too much of that. You should absolutely go watch the documentary if it’s still showing in theaters in your area. For more on this:
Theater showtimes
Whose Streets? trailer
Ferguson Doc ‘Whose Streets’ Shows The Power Of Black People Telling Black Stories
Non-profits to support in Charlottesville
RIC Teaching, self-care, and resources round-up in re: Charlottesville

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Group Discussion: Want

Want by Cindy PonWant by Cindy Pon
Jason Zhou survives in a divided society where the elite use their wealth to buy longer lives. The rich wear special suits, protecting them from the pollution and viruses that plague the city, while those without suffer illness and early deaths. Frustrated by his city’s corruption and still grieving the loss of his mother who died as a result of it, Zhou is determined to change things, no matter the cost.

With the help of his friends, Zhou infiltrates the lives of the wealthy in hopes of destroying the international Jin Corporation from within. Jin Corp not only manufactures the special suits the rich rely on, but they may also be manufacturing the pollution that makes them necessary.

Yet the deeper Zhou delves into this new world of excess and wealth, the more muddled his plans become. And against his better judgment, Zhou finds himself falling for Daiyu, the daughter of Jin Corp’s CEO. Can Zhou save his city without compromising who he is, or destroying his own heart? [Image and summary via Goodreads]


Welcome to the Rich in Color group discussion of Want! Mild spoilers ahead:

Jessica: Let’s all take a moment to appreciate that amazing, super gorgeous cover. *gazes dreamily*

Audrey: It’s a gorgeous cover. *admires it with you* I’m especially fond of the light reflections on the helmet.

K. Imani: I like the cover as well. I think it captures the futuristic feel of the story and Jason perfectly.

Jessica: So the moment Want was on my radar, I knew I had to get it because, you know, I’m Taiwanese American so the fact that it’s a YA sci-fi thriller set in Taipei, Taiwan made it very relevant to my interests. So much of the book felt real to me and my experiences – the places named, the food, just the general vibe of Taipei. The way the story was so rooted in a real life place made the futuristic stuff, like the suits that filtered out pollution, feel very real, too. What was your take on the setting?

Crystal:  The setting is one unfamiliar to me, but that was appealing. I’m always looking for books set in other countries so I can travel vicariously. It’s a whole lot cheaper. In some ways, the pollution was the most significant thing about the setting though.

Audrey: I loved the setting. Near-future Taipei was great–I’ve never been to current-day Taipei, though I have seen pictures of it (including the famous night markets). Cindy Pon did a great job of painting a picture of the city for someone who doesn’t know much about it, particularly in describing the huge gap between the world of the rich and the world of the poor. One of the things I really like about science-fiction, especially the near-future variety, is seeing how tech and culture are extrapolated (voice- and thought-activated everything, flying cars, etc.). Pon did a great job of this, and I enjoyed learning more about the world of Want.

K. Imani: In a number of my writing workshops/classes, setting has always been stressed to almost be a character itself, and in WANT I felt like it totally was. The way Pon described the city, I could clearly see, and actually see the city dying because of the smog. I felt for not just all the people living there but all the plants and animals that were slowly dying as well. The way the buildings were described just broke my heart. The fact that the city was a character also truly emphasized how if we don’t take care of our planet, our entire society is affected, not just the humans.

Jessica: Yeah, if I were analyzing this in English class, I’d totally say something nerdy about how there’s another omnipresent character in Want – and that’s the pollution of Taipei itself. Even when Zhou is in the world of the you society, the absence of the pollution is felt as well. Considering that global warming is a very real threat right now, this made Want feel almost too current. Did you feel that the future portrayed in Want was a possible take on our own near future, or more of a distant what-if dystopian scenario? Maybe a little of both?

Crystal: I totally agree about the pollution being another character. It’s there lurking everywhere. The fact that people can’t get away from it without spending significant amounts of money is always there too. I hope this is a distant what-if, but some of the tension of reading the book is knowing that this type of situation could be a possibility for our future.

Audrey: I have the dubious pleasure of living along the Wasatch Front, and due to the geography of the area, we get thick blankets of smog in winter and summer that turn the sky yellow-brown and can make the mountains disappear on especially bad days. (I grimaced in sympathy whenever Zhou or Daiyu mentioned never being able to see the mountains from the city–it happens several times a year here.) Most of the time when the weather report is given on the radio, they include an air quality report and whether any action is recommended/required. It’s not Want level yet, but the quality of the air is a not-insignificant concern where I live. Currently waiting for masks to become a thing on bad days.

K. Imani: Oh, I definitely feel that if we aren’t careful with our air and work to end pollution, the world of Want is a possibility. As Audrey said her weather report includes air quality reports and the same is a given in many cities across the world. I feel like Want is a cautionary tale in that aspect; giving us warning as to the future that we are leaving for our children. Daiyu’s grandfather (I think it was) remembered blue sky which means that the world of Want is not too far removed from our current society. I feel Pon did a wonderful job of extrapolating what the future could be if we don’t take steps now to reverse pollution.

Jessica: Global warming was the elephant in the room in Want, but there’s definitely other issues presented that are either evergreen or relevant to what’s going on today – like the wealth gap, portrayed through the have’s and have not’s (you and mei) of Taipei. I was really struck by the added complexity added to the issue through the (SPOILER ALERT) introduction of the mass produced suits that were really meant to spur consumer spending by those who couldn’t afford it, and the way it was both a conspiracy to harm people and a transparent PR stunt. What did you all think of that? Were there any social issues portrayed in Want that jumped out at you?

Crystal: Want takes a good look at the environment, but the economic issues were also significant. The wage gap in the U.S. is on the increase and I think this too struck a little close to home. I saw it especially in the access to healthcare for Zhou’s mother and others. There are basic human rights that are violated many times over.

K. Imani: I agree with you about the access to healthcare too; that really hit home for me. I feel like that lack of basic healthcare for the meis was a great example, like the debate happening in our country right now. In addition to the corporate greed on display, this novel truly shows how if we let it get out of control, our world will have dire consequences.

Audrey: One of the things I enjoyed most about the exploration of the gap between the you and the mei was that Zhou could be appalled by the excess and frivolity of the you while also craving the comforts he had in a privileged position. He got used to breathing good air and having money to throw around–but he also got frustrated by all the ways the you just didn’t understand that there was a problem. The interview with Angela at the end–where she flat out says she cares about the pollution now because it finally affects her–was very telling. Environmental justice, affordable healthcare, government corruption, profits over people–all of those issues were important in Want, and I was happy to see them tackled head on.

K. Imani: So agree about Angela’s interview as it reflected real words I’ve heard certain followers of a certain unpopular president say as they realize that now they are affected by his policies. It just shows how comfortable people are in their privilege and don’t think about others. I’m glad that Pon pointed this belief out and hope that it makes people become more empathetic.

Jessica: Agreed. On a lighter note… Zhou! His introduction screamed ‘bad boy’ to me in the best possible way. I kept wondering how Zhou was going to turn it around and make things right with Daiyu, so I just loved the plot twist at the end regarding her.

Crystal: The whole romance portion of the book made my heart happy.

Audrey: I actually took a screenshot of the dedication–everyone loves a bad boy who plays with knives–and sent it to some of my friends, who definitely agreed. I loved that Zhou was apologetic about kidnapping Daiyu and did everything he could to not freak her out too much while he waited for a ransom. His conflict about getting close to her after the memory wipe was great–as was that plot twist. I was so happy since I spent the whole book basically waiting for Daiyu’s heart to be broken.

K. Imani: I loved the plot twist as well because it said a lot about Daiyu. I mean, I already thought she was kick ass, and when the plot twist occurred I was so happy. They were definitely equals in that relationship and I loved that they both challenged each other.

Jessica: Okay, so… books! There were a lot of bookish references in Want, ranging from A Wrinkle in Time to The Count of Monte Cristo. I particularly loved the mention of The Count of Monte Cristo, since it was so on-the-nose. Were there any book references that you liked in particular?

Crystal: I too loved the inclusion of so many book references throughout the story. Zhou really stole my heart in many ways and that was one of them for sure. And what a mix – Roald Dahl, Beverly Clearly, and Poe among others. His reading was certainly eclectic. I also liked that Dream of the Red Chamber was mentioned. I had never heard of it, but when I looked it up, I found out it’s basically the most famous Chinese novel ever. It’s twice as long as War and Peace with about 40 main characters. One of them is named Daiyu. So being a librarian and curious, I dug around and found this cool quote from the first chapter of The Red Chamber that’s been translated this way:

Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true;
Real becomes not-real where the unreal’s real.

Kind of interesting when reading Want.

Audrey: I’m a sucker for a badass bookworm, and Zhou fit the bill. Jessica, I loved The Count of Monte Cristo reference, too, and had half been expecting that to be part of Zhou’s covering being blown. Crystal, I also loved how widely read Zhou was–I could recognize most of the references, even if I hadn’t read the books in question. It made me wonder what books from today would be worthy of being considered classics a hundred or so years from now.

K. Imani: I had the same thought, Audrey, of what books would be considered classics in the future. I actually loved that Zhou was a book nerd and even quoted some books. It made me love him even more. I especially like how he actually had read diversely and that we were introduced to some new authors. I actually learned about Cao Xueqin, the author of Dream of the Red Chamber, a few nights after I finished the book and now I totally want to read it as well.

Jessica: Yes! Do it! I read part of Dream of the Red Chamber in college for Chinese lit class, and it was super fun… but also very confusing. Confusing but fun.

Crystal: Aside from introducing me to a lengthy, but cool book I might attempt to read in the future, Want also introduced me to Jay Chou. Some of the characters were listening to one of his ballads so I had to chase down his music to play while I finished that chapter. Pure loveliness.

Jessica: A movie I’m really excited about right now is Crazy Rich Asians, which is absolutely not whitewashed and, well, the book was amazing. So it’s gonna be great. Reading Want and its vivid description of a glitzy and gritty future Taipei made me want a movie version of this soooo bad. I’m pretty psyched for the future when it comes to Asian representation in media. The next book I’m looking forward to, now that I have read and loved Want, is American Panda by Gloria Chao. Also, The Epic Crush of Genie Lo (!!) which is out now and I need to read ASAP. Do you all have any upcoming YA books that speak to you in particular?

Crystal: I’m interested in Calling My Name by Liara Tamani. I spent my high school and college years in the Bible Belt of Texas and attended a conservative church. Taja is a young teen from Houston in similar circumstances so I’m looking forward to that story. I’m also super excited to read Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds, Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor and They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera. There are more, but the list is getting out of hand.

Audrey: I just bought Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson, which came out earlier this year. I’m super excited for Dread Nation by Justina Ireland, Love Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie Dao, and Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore.

K.Imani: This is a tough question because I just want to read all the books, but I am looking forward to the sequel to Daniel Jose Older’s Shadowshaper, Shadowhouse Falls, as well as Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor. I also bought a number of British YA books when I was in London so I’m really looking forward to reading those books.

Jessica: Exciting! *busily organizes to-read list*


If you haven’t read Want already, definitely go out and grab a copy – it’s amazing. And if you have, what were your thoughts? Let us know in the comments!

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#OwnVoices and Twitter

Over the last few months, there’s been a growing conversation around representation, #ownvoices, writing, and reviewing on Twitter. If that sounds vague, that’s because I’m writing this at 4:00am and because the conversation itself is one that, in my mind, covers a wide range of topics that all relate back to each other.

There’s been discussion over how reviewers should go about critiquing books by authors with marginalized identities, and how authors of color are often held to higher standards than other authors, and the importance of representation, but also the importance of supporting marginalized authors because of who they are, and not because they’re carving up their personal experience for public consumption. I can’t articulate any of this very well at all, and I’m still thinking about it a lot myself – and as with any complex and important issue, there’s no easy answer, and no way to magically get everyone on the same page.

So, if you’d like to join me in mulling, check out the twitter threads linked below that touch upon these topics:

On the pressure for marginalized creators to create Perfect Works
On the expectation for writers to write their ethnicity
On the misuse of #OwnVoices
More on #OwnVoices

What are your thoughts?

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Review: Noteworthy

Noteworthy by Riley RedgateTitle: Noteworthy
Author: Riley Redgate
Genres: Romance
Pages: 400 pages
Publisher: Harry N. Abrams
Review Copy: Library
Availability: Available now!

Summary: A cappella just got a makeover. Jordan Sun is embarking on her junior year at the Kensington-Blaine Boarding School for the Performing Arts, hopeful that this will be her time: the year she finally gets cast in the school musical. But when her low Alto 2 voice gets her shut out for the third straight year—threatening her future at Kensington-Blaine and jeopardizing her college applications—she’s forced to consider nontraditional options.

In Jordan’s case, really nontraditional. A spot has opened up in the Sharpshooters, Kensington’s elite a cappella octet. Worshipped…revered…all male. Desperate to prove herself, Jordan auditions in her most convincing drag, and it turns out that Jordan Sun, Tenor 1, is exactly what the Sharps are looking for.

Jordan finds herself enmeshed in a precarious juggling act: making friends, alienating friends, crushing on a guy, crushing on a girl, and navigating decades-old rivalries. With her secret growing heavier every day, Jordan pushes beyond gender norms to confront what it means to be a girl (and a guy) in a male-dominated society, and—most importantly—what it means to be herself. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: I am the opposite of musical, but I loved reading this book, which truly is a love letter to a cappella. And, I liked the queer and Asian representation within the book. But just to be clear, this is not a book about a non-binary or trans character. The language of the original book blurb on the cover seems to hint at this, but it isn’t the case – something that the author addresses in this post.

I’ve grown up with a love-hate relationship with crossdressing manga series like Ouran High School Host Club and Hana Kimi. They were just so fun to read! But also pretty problematic, especially when it came to much older books. I was curious as to how Noteworthy would handle the subject. Gender and identity is discussed, and the heroine Jordan doesn’t shy away from grappling with the ethics behind what she does to keep her place in an all-male a cappella group. But again, if you’re looking for a non-binary or trans main character, this book is not it.

I just bet this book is amazing for people who have anything to do with a cappella. Despite being not at all musical, I was hooked by all of it, and immediately looked up youtube playlists to listen to afterwards. In Noteworthy, Jordan is plunged into an intense world of competitive a cappella and the social life that goes with it – all while, on the sidelines, her attention jumps to her parents on the West Coast struggling to get by.

While my ship didn’t sail in Noteworthy (cry), what I truly fell in love with was the group dynamics, the strong thread of friendship that runs through the book. I would happily read an entire book made up entirely of the Sharpshooters’ group chat. One driving force for Jordan is her need to belong, and that’s a powerful theme throughout the book. Consider my heartstrings tugged.

As with Seven Ways We Lie, I read Noteworthy in a few days and loved every moment of it. Days later, I feel like there’s still a lot about Noteworthy that I’d like to mull over. Whatever happens, I’m looking forward to the next book that Redgate writes! If you have any love at all for a cappella, definitely check this book out!

Recommendation: Get it soon!

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Group Discussion Announcement: Want

Hey all! Our book for group discussion at Rich in Color next month will be Want by Cindy Pon. I am beyond excited for this sci-fi thriller set in Taipei, and hope you’ll join us for the discussion in August!

Want by Cindy Pon
Jason Zhou survives in a divided society where the elite use their wealth to buy longer lives. The rich wear special suits, protecting them from the pollution and viruses that plague the city, while those without suffer illness and early deaths. Frustrated by his city’s corruption and still grieving the loss of his mother who died as a result of it, Zhou is determined to change things, no matter the cost.

With the help of his friends, Zhou infiltrates the lives of the wealthy in hopes of destroying the international Jin Corporation from within. Jin Corp not only manufactures the special suits the rich rely on, but they may also be manufacturing the pollution that makes them necessary.

Yet the deeper Zhou delves into this new world of excess and wealth, the more muddled his plans become. And against his better judgment, Zhou finds himself falling for Daiyu, the daughter of Jin Corp’s CEO. Can Zhou save his city without compromising who he is, or destroying his own heart? [Image and summary via Goodreads]


We’ll post our discussion on August 9th. Be sure to grab a copy of Want and read along. See you then!

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Author Interview: Cindy Pon

Want by Cindy Pon The moment I heard about it, I put Want on my to-read list because, um hello, sci-fi thriller set in Taipei? Yes, please. I’m over the moon this book is out in the world now, and we at Rich in Color will be talking more about Want in August! More on that next week. Today, we welcome Cindy Pon (@cindypon) to Rich in Color to talk about Want, writing, and representation. Check it out!

First off, I have to say that I was beyond excited for Want, a YA set in Taipei, Taiwan! I’ve been there! Ahhh! Ahem, anyway… How did it feel, writing a book set somewhere that’s clearly personal for you? Not to mention in an all-too-plausible near future setting that feels very relevant to current events right now?
 

All my novels are special to me, but WANT especially because it was an ode to my birth city. I really wanted to bring the city alive for readers, I wanted Taipei to be a character in itself. From some reader reactions, I feel like I achieved that for them, and it makes me so happy! As for relevancy, WANT is the novel that took longest from fruition in 2011 to actual publication. Six years is a LONG time, and I began to worry my near-future thriller would be retro-thriller soon enough. ha! Often the reader reactions were that the world felt very believable and real, and that is because I pulled a lot directly from headlines.

One thing I found fascinating was the seamless switching between languages in Want. Different books usually handle this in different ways to varying degrees of success. How did you decide you were going to handle the issue of portraying different languages? 

 

Hmm. It had to make sense but also feel organic and not confusing? I had great beta readers and critique partners, and I relied on them to make comments on points of confusion. I admit I’m a very intuitive writer, so it’s just a matter of does this fit, does it flow, does it make sense? Especially as I’m revising.

I definitely ship Zhou and Daiyu. But another relationship that felt incredibly central to Want was family – the found family of Lingyi, Iris, Victor, Arun, and Zhou. What made you choose this particular cast of characters?

 

Originally, WANT began as a short story in Diverse Energies (Tu Books) and only featured Zhou and Daiyu. I found both of them utterly fascinating, and it was their dynamic and my curiosity over what their stories were that convinced me to flesh the short story into novel length. As for the squad, I wish I could tell you I did tons of brainstorming and character notecards and trawled through countless images online for inspiration, but as with so much of my writing, they just happened. I did know that I needed distinct characters with distinct traits and abilities to offer to the group. That was the first and easiest thing to decide. Then, they basically told me who they were with each revision.

You referenced the movie Lucy in a Diversity in YA post. For me, Want felt like the anti-Lucy, and that’s something we need way more of. What do you hope to see in the future in terms of Asian representation in media?

 
I want movies and shows and media in the west to feature Asians front and center as protagonists and heroes, in all genres, from comedy to drama to speculative fiction. We’ve been shunted aside for far too long as far as representation, and so often, the bits we are given are offensive or stereotypical or completely dispensible. All the whitewashing is becoming tired and ridiculous. Our erasure still in media is very real.

The moment I finished reading Want, I wanted (haha) more. I hear there’s a sequel happening. Can you tell us anything about it?
 
Yes! My fantastic editor offered on RUSE, the WANT sequel, while I was actually in Shanghai for a research trip. So I am hoping to set RUSE in Shanghai. My second books are always dealing with the consequences of what happened in the first novel, and that is what I want to focus on in this one, too. Won’t say much more than that. ha!
 
Want is definitely going on the top of my list of fave Asian YA reads. What are some of yours?
 

Aww, that is such a compliment coming from you. Thank you so much, Jessica! I really love Malinda Lo’s Huntress and her forthcoming thriller A Line in the Dark. I also loved The Reader by Traci Chee, Rebel Seoul by Axie Oh, ENTER TITLE HERE by Rahul Kanakia, and Julie Dao’s Forest of a Thousand Lanterns! So much more to choose from since my Silver Phoenix debut back in 2009!

I imagine people have asked you what your favorite Taiwanese food is. But what I want to know is… What’s your favorite pearl milk tea flavor?

 
hahaha! Coconut milk tea OR barley tea (no milk)!

Finally, what new YA books are on your to-read list this year?

I’m super excited to read The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F. C. Yee, Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore, The Library of Fates by Aditi Khorana, Warcross by Marie Lu, Uncanny by David Mcinnis Gill, The Glass Spare by Lauren Destefano, and The Speaker by Traci Chee!

Thanks for stopping by! For those of you reading along, be sure to grab Want for your must-read shelf!


You can find Cindy on Twitter and on her website!

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