China Dolls, the first novel by co-writers Michelle Yu and Blossom Kan, is a sassy story about three Chinese-American women trying to balance their personal lives and high-powered careers in New York City. But in addition to the usual stresses and challenges that women have to face today, these characters also have to deal with the traditions and stereotypes that come with being Asian American. The story is an interesting blend of "The Joy Luck Club" and "Sex and the City". Despite their busy schedules, and the fact that they are already working on their next book, Michelle and Blossom were kind enough to sit down with Asian Loop to discuss their work.
As Asian American women themselves, Michelle Yu and Blossom Kan have to face and challenge many of the same stereotypes that their characters do. Michelle Yu is currently a sports reporter for New York One, a field that contains very few women, let alone Asian women. Blossom Kan is a litigating attorney at Met Life, another field with few Asian women. And even though they have each been in their respective fields for over 6 years, they still have to deal with dismaying stereotypes on a regular basis.
For those who have read China Dolls, Yu and Kan's careers may remind you of two of the main characters, M.J and Alex, who are, respectively, also a sports reporter and attorney. Although China Dolls is not autobiographical, the characters are loosely based on the authors themselves. "It's our first book, and you write what you know", comments Yu, as we discussed the characters. For example, Yu has had the same stereotypical expectations thrust upon her as the character M.J. did when she interviews athletes in the locker room. "I walk into a locker room, and people are automatically going to think that I am not there to do my job, but I'm there for all the other reasons, like to flirt with an NBA player."
As for Kan, like the character of Alex, she has to prove herself to her peers before she is taken seriously. Kan explains, "When I often go and first introduce myself, there is still a tendency to be like 'Oh, look at this little Asian girl. I can just roll over her.'"
With Kan's English major at Yale and Yu's career as a journalist, the two have always enjoyed writing. They were inspired to write China Dolls after noting a shortage of books and characters they could relate to as Asian American women in today's world. "As Asian women, we feel like we have a story to tell." says Yu. "I feel when you walk into a book store, you see an African American section. You see a Latino American section. You have those books. For Asian women, we only have the Joy Luck Club, and that came out 17 years ago. I think it is important for Asian American women to continue and have a line, to have a section that Asian American women can go to."
The process was not easy. Although their idea for the book was well received, they had to get used to working with their editor and publisher, a painstaking process, especially since this is their first book. "For example," recalls Kan, "initially, the publisher thought maybe we should make this book first person, which would be completely changing the book in many ways." Even during the process of choosing a cover for the book, they had to work with their publisher to make sure the artwork accurately depicted the characters, instead of playing on racist stereotypes of how Asian women are supposed to look.
Kan came up with the title of the book, China Dolls, which is a clever play on words. "When people look at Asian women, they perceive them as docile, submissive, delicate, and fragile [like porcelain dolls]. But when you read China Dolls, all the characters are very independent and strong," explain the authors. "And since the goal of the book is to break these stereotypes, why don't we just face the issue head-on. Put out there that this is what people think Asian women are like, but this is what they are really like."
Yu and Kan grew up together as cousins, and they actually found that this helped the writing process. Since they are so close, they were able to openly criticize each other without worrying about offending one another. Kan quipped that instead of worrying about hurting her co-writer’s feelings, she felt perfectly free to be blunt and say, when needed, “I hate that whole chapter.”
"And I’ll be mad, but I’ll get over it, in like, two hours," Yu joked. "I can't imagine working on it with anyone else," she adds. "And obviously, the key to good collaboration, especially when you are writing, is being able to be honest and communicate with each other," adds Kan.
Yu and Kan really enjoy the works of the author Amy Tan. And being fans of the women's fiction genre, they also like Emily Giffin, Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus. They appreciate more classical titles too, such as The Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye, and works by Tennessee Williams. Interestingly enough, Yu and Kan interview other writers for their blog at http://blog.chinadollsnovel.com/. "I think it is important for writers to support each other. We want to build a network for all writers who are discussing different facets of women's lives." Yu explains.
These talented writers already have their second book in the editing phase. This yet to be titled work is a spin-off of China Dolls, starring the little sister of one the main characters. Unlike China Dolls though, this story only focuses on one character, who is trying to start a career as a soap opera actress. This presents a different point of view from China Dolls. Instead of being a successful career woman, the main character is just starting out. And given that show business is an unconventional and risky career choice, especially for Asian American women, she runs into a lot of resistance from her family. And of course, she also runs into a lot of challenges within the industry itself. The authors are also planning a third book, for which they are currently brainstorming ideas.
Yu and Kan strongly believe in advancing the image of Asian Americans in the mainstream media. Through their experiences, they have seen that many people still perceive Asian Americans with outdated stereotypes. Even during a book reading of China Dolls, they had an uncomfortable moment when an audience member announced that he "liked Oriental women" because they "cater to men". They noted that there are very few Asian Americans in high profile industries, such as politics and entertainment. Yu feels, "Whatever industry or profession you are in, Asian Americans should really try to work together to support and encourage each other." And Kan observes, "In this day and age, when it looks very possible that we may have an African American president or a female president, I think that Asian Americans should also strive to have that voice so that one day, we can also say 'There's the first Asian American candidate for president.'" She also pointed out that mainstream media is often overlooked by Asian Americans as a way to challenge and banish stereotypes - after all, in areas without a strong Asian American population, characters in movies and books could be the sole exposure people have to Asian Americans.
The strong minded authors want people to understand that no one should let any stereotype get in his/her way, whether it is due to being Asian, female, or both. Yu advises, "If you encounter such stereotypes, think about how you can surpass them. They are not obstacles. You can break the glass ceiling. We all know that these perceptions exist out there, but you yourself are the only one who is keeping you back from doing what you want." Similarly, Kan advises, "Don't be afraid to do something unconventional. You shouldn't be afraid to be the one to blaze the trail, and to be out there forging ahead into the great unknown."
China Dolls has built quite a cult following. Not only has it gained many Asian American fans, but it has also reached non-Asians who were able to see aspects of their own cultures in the characters. Yu and Kan had a very successful book tour last year, and they are still actively involved in numerous events and seminars in the New York area. The authors also recently received a citation for outstanding achievement. Kan describes the experience, "We had a book reading, and New York City Councilman John Liu showed up. We didn't even know he was going to come, and he presented us with a citation from the New York City council. It was really nice, and we were shocked and honored to get the citation".
Despite their fame, both Michelle Yu and Blossom Kan were still very down to earth, and it was a pleasure to have the opportunity to talk with them. For more information on China Dolls, Michelle Yu, or Blossom Kan, please visit http://www.chinadollsnovel.com.