She is the author of All You Can Ever Know (coming in 2018) and has written for numerous publications such as The New York Times, Salon, Slate, and The Atlantic. You can also find her on twitter @nicole_soojung
Nicole (or Nikki) Chung is always at the top of the list when it comes to writers I admire. From subjects of race, to adoption, to imaginary celebrity boyfriends, her work is sometimes critical and deeply moving, other times humorous and uplifting— at many times, both. Over the years it has made me and listen and think and learn. And isn’t that what you hope for from the best of writing, in the end?
This month marks the end of the Toast, and I have read so many great farewells to the site, everyone with their own story to share. I can only add on, as I told Nicole, that it has played such a large part in helping me figure out what kind of feminist I want to be, and let me laugh along the way. I cannot express how thankful I am.
Over the last few months I was given the opportunity to ask Nicole about her background in writing, Kristi Yamaguchi, Asian representation, advice for adoptees, twitter discourse, and her favorite television shows, among other things.
Did you write often as a teenager? Looking back, how has your writing and outlook on the world changed since then?
I did write often in high school and college, mostly (terrible, unfinished) fiction and poetry. For years, despite loathing mornings with all my heart and soul, I’d wake up early and write for a couple of hours until I had to leave for class. I would always spend the last hour or two of the day writing unless I had too much homework (which was usually reading and more writing, since I was a history major).
I started writing nonfiction and memoir in my mid-twenties. I found that the subjects of adoption and family and race were looming so large in my head and my heart as I moved into adulthood. Around that time I finally stopped caring quite so much about what other people thought of me; I just wanted to tell the truth. I didn’t see anything like my experiences reflected in books or essays, for the most part, and I was just so hungry for it; I wanted to try and carve out a space for myself, and for other people like me. I wanted people to understand that adoption is more than the one simple narrative we often hear, and that impulse overcame the qualms I had about putting my story out there.
In your New York Times essay “What I Learned From Kristi Yamaguchi” you wrote: “I became increasingly aware of a wish I’d long harbored: to be seen — not as a bookish outcast or a sidekick-in-the-making, but as someone with power and potential of her own.” This is a line that really stuck with me. Why do you think Hollywood and the mainstream media continue to whitewash and stereotype when self-empowerment from representation can be both positive and profitable?
With all the disclaimers (I am not an expert on the media or Hollywood, etc.), these are industries that have been dominated by white people (often white cis men) for a long time. And what’s the incentive for Hollywood to change when the current formula is already making tons of money? For all our talk about wanting better, more authentic representation, most of us are still going to go watch the movies we want to see. We’re still going to read and enjoy the great stuff we are given, even if it doesn’t always remind us of the world we actually live in. While it’s making them look ridiculous and less relevant—and lots of people are justifiably frustrated and angry about it—I think many industries know they can still get away with missing or harmful representation.
Often people who’ve already attained a degree of power and influence don’t do enough to find and nurture and promote other voices. There’s so much nepotism and cronyism and just casual, insidious, often unconscious bias in many industries—people hire or promote or give chances to people they already know or people their colleagues already know. They go with stories they think are more “relatable,” less risky; they lean toward subjects they personally understand; they picture audiences they think are more like them. And many hard working, talented people just don’t have the luxury to wait and hope for better, higher paying, more visible opportunities and sustainable careers. It can be so daunting when you don’t see people like you in the places you want to be. It can be discouraging when you do find a place, somehow, but you’re the only one in the room.
Who are some Asian writers and artists you think people should be paying more attention to?
Some of my favorite authors and artists are already getting attention, but they deserve more! I could talk about this all day but I will try to be brief: Celeste Ng is a beautiful writer and her encouragement has meant so much to me. Kat Chow at NPR is a great reporter, and I love the essays she’s published, too. I follow a lot of wonderful writers and artists—Karissa Chen, Jaya Saxena, MariNaomi, Wendy Xu, Shing Yin Khor, Sulagna Misra, Sarah Kuhn, Rohin Guha, Jenny Zhang, Jenny Yang, Joel Kim Booster, Kevin Nguyen, Noah Cho, Yumi Sakugawa, Ari Laurel, Christine Hyung-Oak Lee, and many others.
I always try to read Julia Carrie Wong at Guardian US and Sarah Jeong at Motherboard. Julie Otsuka, Alexander Chee, Matthew Salesses, Tracy O’Neill, Ruth Ozeki, and Catherine Chung have all written books I got so excited about I bought them for others. Courtney Milan is brilliant and writes the best romances. Jenny Han is a delight in print and also on Twitter. Mindy Hung is one of my favorite essayists, and she also writes fabulous contemporary romance novels under the pen name Ruby Lang. Yuka Igarashi, my colleague at Catapult, and Jeannie Choi at the NYT Mag are two of the best editors I have ever worked with.
Reappropriate (Jenn Fang’s blog) and Phil Yu’s Angry Asian Man are resources I turn to over and over. Cynthia Kadohata and Linda Sue Park are two of my daughter’s favorite YA authors. I love the work of poets Cathy Park Hong and Cathy Linh Che and R.A. Villanueva. My friend Julia Cho’s theatre company Artists at Play presents works by Asian American playwrights, and that’s how I found and read great plays by Michael Golamco and Lauren Yee and (the writer, not the actor/producer) Julia Cho.
I saw on Twitter that you now own scraps of a Kristi Yamaguchi Olympic costume! How did that happen?
A miracle? I really can’t overstate how much it meant to me to write about Kristi, who was everything to me as a kid—I actually cried when she thanked me for writing it and shared it on Twitter. Her Olympic costume designer (who also created costumes for Debi Thomas and Tara Lipinski and others) emailed me the next day. She shared a couple of fun stories with me, and then added: “I still have scraps from Kristi’s black and gold Olympic long program costume. Let me know if you want a piece of it!” Like, OF COURSE I wanted a piece of it. I so wished I could go back in time and tell nine-year-old Nicole—who taped and watched Kristi’s 1992 Olympic free skate over and over and over—that one day this would happen.
You were recently a guest editor for the Catapult adoption series. What advice would you give to someone who wants to write about their own background with adoption? Is it something you have always been comfortable writing about, or did you struggle being able to put your story out there?
I was not always comfortable talking about my adoption, not that I ever had much of a choice because people would ask me about it from a very young age. For years I mainly kept to nice, non-challenging talking points, echoes of the things I’d heard growing up about love being all that mattered and race being unimportant. I thought that was what people expected, what they wanted to hear. And there were many years when I also wanted those things to be true.
Before I could write about adoption more honestly, take an unflinching look at it, I had to figure out how to talk about race—specifically, the racism I encountered growing up and the limits of the sort of well-intentioned “colorblind” philosophy I was raised with. And even when I started picking that apart, partly through writing, I didn’t publish right away—I suppose because I didn’t feel ready. I only began publishing essays related to adoption in 2013, five full years after I reunited with my birth family.
I never feel super qualified to give others writing advice, but if people do want to write about their experiences with adoption, I would recommend they also read and get to know other adoptees. Reach out for support when they need it. Have understanding and nonjudgmental people in place, people they won’t have to mince words with, people they can call on if difficult and/or emotional issues crop up—because they very well might. (I don’t think everyone needs to wait five years to publish, though!)
One of my favorite pieces of yours is “What Goes Through Your Mind: On Nice Parties and Casual Racism.” The situation presented is familiar to so many, and the way you are able to articulate it is incredibly powerful. A lot of people, however, like to dismiss microaggressions as oversensitivity. What is your reaction to that?
Whew, I didn’t expect that piece to go viral, but it really touched a nerve. I’ve never had so many strangers lining up to call me oversensitive (and much, much worse). Which goes to the point I was trying to make—the reason I didn’t speak up at that dinner party was because I wanted to avoid embarrassing anyone or being labeled as oversensitive. The burden was on me to ensure we kept having fun. The remark I got really wasn’t the worst; it wasn’t violent; it probably wasn’t even intentional. But it still hurt, and I still think it would have been better if I’d been able to think of something to say in the moment—if I’d had some kind of defense that wouldn’t have just made me a bigger target.
It’s always such a violation when things like that happen in spaces we thought were safe. In writing the piece I just wanted people who’ve had similar experiences to feel seen and understood. And I wanted others to realize that this is truly a no-win scenario for people of color.
Last year you got to interview Constance Wu from Fresh Off the Boat for The New York Times. Can you tell us what that was like? What is the most interesting thing you took away from it?
I loved that assignment! Constance Wu is such a smart, thoughtful, interesting person. The parts of our conversation that have stuck with me, particularly as we read all of these discussions about diversity in Hollywood, are her remarks about the importance of supporting Asian American creators/writers if we want more Asian American stories on-screen (“If I want to open Hollywood’s mind to Asian actors, I should do that for Asian writers”). We chatted about Asian American authors and recommended books to one another, and while that part didn’t make it into the final writeup, it was definitely a highlight for me. Constance Wu is obviously an enormous talent, and she has this “You just have to do it” attitude that really came through in our interview. I found that rather inspirational, honestly. Good roles for Asian actors are unjustly hard to come by, it would seem, yet look at all she’s doing—and she’s trying to bring other Asian American artists with her.
I really admire the way you use Twitter (is that a weird compliment?) to promote writing, discuss important issues, and speak about pop culture. Even though it’s easy to get caught up in the negative aspects, I feel like you and the other writers at The Toast navigate the platform in an exceptionally smart, kind of witty way. What is your philosophy on social media? How should one approach it? Is it possible to have civil debate online?
I do think it’s possible to have respectful discussion and debate with a lot of people, yes. Unfortunately I’ve had my share of bad experiences and harassment and gross run-ins with misogynists and racists, so now I use a few (possibly too many!) autoblockers and blocklists.
I’m on Twitter partly to learn—the more time I spend there, the more I’m convinced I don’t need to soapbox a whole lot. I try to listen. Twitter is how I find good things to read and connect with friends and other writers. I’ve had some essays and goofy posts grow out of discussions I had on Twitter—I’ve also had editors ask me to write longer pieces based on tweets.
I probably wouldn’t have ended up at The Toast without Twitter, because that’s how I first got to know the editors. I know some writers who strongly dislike Twitter and resent having to use it, but it’s been valuable to me—and it’s also a way to avoid some of the isolation that can come with writing and working from home all the time. It’s the source of so many connections and friendships with people I respect and treasure, people whose work I really love.
How often do you write? Is there a process you go through when writing? What is your method of combating writer’s block?
Until recently I spent most of my waking hours working on The Toast, and sometimes I’d go several days without working on any writing of my own. But right now we’re about to close and I’m no longer reading and responding to submissions, so I’ve been writing most days.
Having two kids means I no longer require or expect any specific set of conditions to write—it doesn’t need to be peaceful or quiet; I don’t need to be in any particular kind of mood; I am almost never alone or free of distraction for long stretches. I just do it whenever I can grab a moment and feel grateful for the inspiration. So I suppose I don’t have a “process,” though sometimes I wish I did.
When I’m having a hard time with my own writing, reading is one of few things that can help. I go back to favorite books, I read poetry, and/or I get lost following link after link online and hope something nudges my brain back into action. Sometimes it also helps to just talk with and listen to other people—that warms up my brain in a different way. If I’m low on ideas, it’s often because I’ve just been in my own head, without enough outside input, for too long.
When you’re not writing or reading, what do you do for fun? Are you currently into any television shows or fandoms?
Most of my non-work time is spent with my husband and kids, doing family stuff! I try to work out a few times a week. I am getting back into running. I like to sing. I like to meet my friends at the wine bar. I really love to go out to eat, because once you have kids cooking feels much more like a chore. I’d like to get out and dance more.
I watch so much TV, though right now a lot of my shows are on hiatus. Silicon Valley, Veep, Jane the Virgin, The Flash, all the imported Masterpiece mystery shows. I’m kind of obsessed with Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. I watch TV to forget my worries, so my taste runs to the light and ridiculous (with a side of murder. For some reason, murder does not stress me out). I also love to watch and get way too emotionally invested in sports, everything from basketball to gymnastics to the U.S. women’s national soccer team.
Speaking of obsessions, I have to ask! Do you have a favorite song from Hamilton? A favorite line? Have you seen the musical live?
I did see it live, back in December, thanks to Nicole Cliffe! “Wait For It” is my favorite number, even though I am an impatient person who can’t wait for anything. “I am the one thing in life I can control / I am inimitable, I am an original” is my favorite line in that song, but sometimes when I need to give myself a little pep talk I put on “Right Hand Man” and sing HERE COMES THE GENERAL with gusto.
Do you have any big projects planned in the future? What is a goal you have for yourself?
I am writing a book! My goal is for it to be a good book. Another goal is to get better at Korean before traveling to Korea with my sister; I think this should be doable, as there is nothing but room for improvement.
A big thank you to Nicole from everyone here at Margins.
EVERYONE GO PREORDER HER BOOK THE SECOND IT’S AVAILABLE TO PREORDER!!! 🙂