Stephanie Han, a Korean American author and professor, found inspiration for her writing from moving around frequently throughout her whole life. Her book of short stories, Swimming in Hong Kong, came about from her experiences living in Hong Kong, in the high rises.
Lalaine Ignao: What is your background in writing?
Stephanie Han: I always liked to read. This is how you become a writer. Also, moving a lot, I felt isolated. I told my mom, “I don’t have any friends,” and she would tell me to just read a book and find friends in there. Being a reader, I entered worlds, found solace, refuge and imagination, especially living in places like Iowa where I was a different kid. The only thing that I could do that was not monitored or stopped was read. I could read whatever I wanted. Nothing was censored. That’s how I came to enter different worlds and spaces. I think because I was never really instructed to speak and read, there was a great freedom in my writing. I didn’t feel like I was practicing.
LI: What inspired you to write the books?
SH: Writing short stories. That‘s how it came about. I have lived overseas, and I was an outsider to those places. Because we moved a lot, I was an outsider to a lot of American life. As an Asian American, you always live that mainstream American narrative. You are viewed as an other. I was writing short stories, and I see now that it reflected a lot of this idea of movement, different people and places I was encountering.
Most of the book was done by 2005-2006, but took years to publish because now we are better at accepting the characters in the book as normal and part of mainstream life. At the time when I finished the book, people thought it was unusual to have an African American woman be friends with an old Chinese man in a swimming pool. But now today we accept it because of globalization. If you are the type of person who is interacting and are in different locations, you know this is how people function. They reach out over their racial gender and national boundaries. But for a lot of mainstream people, they cannot conceive this until now. I think that is why it took so long to publish.
LI: What do you hope readers will take away from your short story collection?
SH: I think that they can take away the idea that different people are experiencing and living in polycultural fashion, and that it’s possible. We can reach out across these lines, and it does not mean it is always successful, but this is a global society. In order for us as nation and planet to survive we have to think about the way we interact with the rest of the globe. We cannot be separatist about this effort, we must work together. We must also recognize that everybody brings a different part of the puzzle.
All I’m hoping is that people enjoy the stories and hope they take the idea that we all have our moments of humanity and we developed moments of intolerance, tolerance, but we are all in this game together. Most stories are about women, and I feel that it is very important for women’s voices to be heard, to be recognized. Women remain underrepresented in terms of main protagonist, in terms of authorship, in terms of all positions in leadership and power. It is time for women to step forward and it is time for our stories to be heard and not be shamed. Our stories are universal.
LI: After Swimming in Hong Kong, what are you hoping for next? Are you hoping to write another book next?
SH: I have a couple of projects. One is a book of poetry that is done, called Passing in the Middle Kingdom which is about living in small Chinese village outside of Hong Kong and touching upon family, marriage and motherhood. I also wrote a critical theory book on the aesthetic ways of Asian American literature. It is called the Art of Asian America, and I recast the term Asian American.
My big project that I have a deadline on is I’m co-writing a book with a friend of mine that is on boarding school. Specifically boarding school from a bit of a different take — it’s a comic novel. Me and my friend both went to boarding school. I hope that the book can come out in a year. The central idea important to me is and for people to recognize is polyculturalism. The biggest problem we are all facing together is environmental devastation, and we must face it. It will require us to go past our national boundaries.
LI: What is the key to our nation functioning as a Polycultural society?
SH: Part of it is the recognition of our diverse experiences, past and present; the teaching of these historical events, and also the idea of empathy. We have to be able to empathize with people’s different position, and we want to be united in the idea of moving society together. Because we are a young nation, we are still figuring this out. This is a time where we are taking one step back for sure, but we’re gathering forces and we will move forward.
We have to seize control of the people who are in control. We need to be prepared and educated and be willing to empathize and reach out. It’s about writing the narrative of who we are as a nation. Take the narrative away, and away from those who control this narrative to help them see that this is not the only narrative.
LI: How can people practice social justice in regards to those struggling to deal with our current situation as a country?
SH: You need to be aware and educate yourself of the issues, knowing the facts and being empathetic. You need to try to figure out how to reach out and educate, and to some degree, conserve strength also. You need to think of constructive approaches of how you will move and have empowered stance.
Exchange and learn from everybody. You can’t do everything, but mobilize in what you can do. A lot of this is also participation. You must vote! This is one tool that we all have and can employ. It is the most significant action.
LI: Finally, what kind of advice do you give people who aspire to become a writer or author?
SH: I say read. A lot of people want to be writers but don’t like to read. You cannot be a writer if you don’t like to read. If you really want to be a writer and write stories, you need to read. Read widely and read things that are difficult to read, classic texts, plays, poems, novels, just read. Read from different types of writers, you can’t read from one type of writing.