Identity, Culture, and a Shared Love of Writing: 5 Spectacular AAPI Writers Reflect on Their Journeys

From the unique and key perspective of five AAPI writers, we learn about the art of storytelling, the beauty of diversity, and insights into the authors themselves!

5x5 Author's Corner Diverse Voices
Bookstr's 5x5 logo with the headshots of Kristin T. Lee, Justinian Huang, Gina Chung, Curtis Chin, and Topaz Winters in pentagonal frames.

Storytelling is a fundamental pillar of humanity, fostering connections between and within readers and writers, cultivating creativity and respect for authenticity. When authors take to the page and pen their experiences, readers across the world are seen, heard, educated, and empowered. Uplifting those around you through writing is an essential piece to creating a diverse, inclusive future. Here to discuss the nuances of the literary world are five authors of the Asian American and Pacific Islander diaspora who share their invaluable wisdom, how their identities intersect and inform their work and mission, celebrating those who came before them and inspiring those who look up to them, and much more.

The Authors

Gina Chung

Headshot of Gina Chung.

Gina Chung is a Korean American writer from New Jersey currently living in New York City. She is the author of the short story collection Green Frog (out March 12, 2024 from Vintage in the U.S. and June 6, 2024 from Picador in the U.K.), which was a Good Morning America Book Buzz Pick, and the novel Sea Change, which was longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, a 2023 B&N Discover Pick, an APALA Adult Fiction Honor Book, and a New York Times Most Anticipated Book. A recipient of the Pushcart Prize, she is a 2021-2022 Center for Fiction/Susan Kamil Emerging Writer Fellow and holds an MFA in fiction from The New School.

Justinian Huang

Head shot of Justinian Huang.

Born to immigrants in Monterey Park, California, Justinian Huang studied English at Pomona College and screenwriting at the University of Oxford. He is now based in Los Angeles with Swagger, a Shanghainese rescue dog he adopted during his five years living in China. The Emperor and the Endless Palace is his debut novel.

Topaz Winters

Headshot of Topaz Winters.

Topaz Winters is the Singaporean-American author of So, Stranger (Button Poetry 2022), Portrait of My Body as a Crime I’m Still Committing (Button Poetry 2019), and poems for the sound of the sky before thunder (Math Paper Press 2017). She serves as editor-in-chief of Half Mystic Press, an independent, international, and interdisciplinary publishing project, and as co-editor of Kopi Break, a journal of new Singapore poetry. Her work has been published by Waxwing, The Drift, and, profiled in Vogue, The Straits Times, and The Business Times, and performed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Centre for Fiction, and the Singapore Writers Festival. She lives between New York and Singapore.

Curtis Chin

Headshot of Curtis Chin.

A co-founder of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in New York City, Curtis Chin served as the non-profit’s first Executive Director. He went on to write for network and cable television before transitioning to social justice documentaries. Chin has screened his films at over 600 venues in sixteen countries. He has written for CNN, Bon Appetit, the Detroit Free Press, and the Emancipator/Boston Globe. A graduate of the University of Michigan, Chin has received awards from ABC/Disney Television, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and more. His memoir, Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant, was published by Little, Brown in Fall 2023. His essay in Bon Appetit was just selected for Best Food Writing in America 2023, and he just produced an episode of America’s Test Kitchen’s podcast, Proof.

Kristin T. Lee

Headshot of Kristin T. Lee.

Kristin T. Lee writes about faith, identity, culture, and solidarity in her Substack newsletter, The Embers, and highlights the best books you haven’t heard of (and some that you have) in her reviews on Instagram @ktlee.writes. She lives in Cambridge, MA, and is writing her first book, entitled We Mend With Gold: An Asian American Spiritual Manifesto.

The Questions

Who has been your source of inspiration? How did your own background or experiences influence your writing and research approach?

Gina Chung: I come from a family of storytellers, and many of the stories in my collection, Green Frog, were inspired by Korean folktales that I heard growing up or by stories I heard about my parents’ childhood in Korea. I’m also greatly inspired by the natural world, which pops up in many of these stories and my debut novel, Sea Change. I think research is important, especially when it comes to writing about any area that you don’t have direct personal knowledge of, so when it came to writing some of these stories, I would go look up a folktale that I remembered from my childhood or gather facts about animals or natural phenomena that I knew I wanted to incorporate somehow.

Justinian Huang: I am inspired by nearly every person who affects my life in some significant way. I approach life with Nora Ephron’s motto that everything (and everyone) is copy. So when I’m told that I have well-developed characters, it’s because I often base them on fully realized—real!—people in my life. My novel, The Emperor and the Endless Palace, features rather lofty, iconic characters: a real-life Chinese Emperor and his male lover whose epic romance brought down the first Han Dynasty. But as characters in my book, they are actually inspired by the two men I fell in love with during my years living abroad in China from 2015 to 2020.

Topaz Winters: Lately, I’ve been thinking of the Solmaz Sharif line, “The duty of the writer … is to remind us that we will die and that we’re not dead yet.” My own mortality inspires me: remembering what I’ve survived and knowing deep as marrow that one day I will be dead. I grew up sick, and there were moments in my childhood when I was certain I wouldn’t make it to tomorrow or next week, let alone my 20s or 70s. But despite or because of everything, I am still here, breathing and moving and dreaming. My whole body of work is an attempt to act accordingly.

Curtis Chin: Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant is my first memoir, so I leaned in heavily on my family for support and research. I would call my mom at least once a week to confirm details. I also tried to ask my siblings, but they were less helpful!

Kristin T. Lee: As a book lover, my inspiration has been the books that have kept me company on my journey of exploring whether there’s a place for someone like me in the family of God, starting with James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise, Dominique Gilliard’s Subversive Witness, Angela N. Parker’s If God Still Breathes, Why Can’t I?, Dante Stewart’s Shoutin’ in the Fire, and Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited. These Black theologians carved space for a faith that did not excuse or accommodate Western Christianity’s historical and current-day racism. They inspired me to consider how Asian Americans can fully inhabit our racial, ethnic, and cultural identities and fully embrace our spiritual selves, too.

Is there a recurrent theme in your work? If so, why are you drawn to it?

Gina Chung: The question of what we owe to others and what we owe to ourselves is one that comes up with some frequency in my work, probably because I am still trying to figure out how to balance those two priorities. How can we be more human with both others and ourselves? How can we be true to our needs while also being mindful of the collective? How can we stay in the community and in connection with one another even—or especially—when it is hard?

Justinian Huang: I love an unreliable narrator. The three narrators of The Emperor and the Endless Palace are all unreliable in different ways. For instance, one of them is a hot dummy, so his naïveté and his ignorance falsely shape the world around him for us, but the reader can only experience his world through his misconceptions, and therefore we are just as dumb. An unreliable narrator is like an overly shaken bottle of champagne—at some point, their unreliability will burst, and they will be forced to face an unexpected reckoning. It’s so much fun to formulate characters who see the world in some flawed way and then pull the rug out from beneath their feet…as well as your readers!

Topaz Winters: I’m always thinking about the many-headed creature of desire, where it lives in the body, and the processes by which it exits the body and takes shape in the world. Also, illness—how it consumes us and becomes us in ways terrifying and triumphant. My third book So, Stranger, released in 2022, is an examination of intergenerational joy and trauma, what we inherit and what we owe, how our parents (and grandparents, and ancestors) break us in their attempts to hold us, and vice versa. In my current work-in-progress, I’m writing about worship and witness, how being loved and being seen function as antonyms just as often as synonyms. I’m not sure if I can name a common denominator across those themes or if there has to be an answer to “why.” Maybe that’s the wonder of creation—writing toward that answer and missing it every time.

Curtis Chin: As a middle child, I always struggled to find my place in my family. I guess if there’s one theme, it would be “fitting in.”

Kristin T. Lee: I find myself being drawn to the triangulation of suffering, justice, and grace, and so I often write about this intersection. As an empath, I’ve always been deeply affected by the pain of this world, and as an Enneagram 1, I want to help reverse the troubling structural inequities that are responsible for much of this pain. It’s so easy to get caught up in the impossibility of it all, so I treasure the moments when I’m reminded that beauty and grace do exist in this world, whether in acts of human kindness or in nature.

What does your creative process look like, rituals/special places, or can you create anywhere?

Gina Chung: I prefer to write at home, where I’m most comfortable and can make faces at my computer and pace around without fear of disturbing people around me, but I can generally write anywhere. I don’t have any particular rituals or objects that I need around me, but I do like to write at night after I’ve completed my other responsibilities for the day. It makes the writing feel like a private, fun, almost secret thing that’s just for me, which I suppose it is most of the time. Music also helps me. I’ll sometimes craft a dedicated playlist for a longer piece of writing, and listening to it before or during the writing process really helps me tap into a given mood or mindset I might be trying to go for.

Justinian Huang: I do have a writing desk in my home office, but I am rarely at it… I do most of my writing sprawled on my bed in my bedroom, with a record playing on my old record player. (According to my chiropractor, this is terrible for my neck, so please don’t try at your own home.) I actually will go weeks without writing, but instead thinking obsessively about what I will write once I actually get into it. Some folks might call this writer’s block, but I call it “marinating.” Then, I will sit down and write nonstop for days on end. I think this is why some passages in my book have been described by my readers as “fever dreams” because that is literally what they were.

Topaz Winters: I write most often in the evenings; the quiet is a profound source of inspiration and strength for me. But lately, as my time has swelled into consistently busier periods, I’ve found it more difficult to make space at night, and so I’ve moved into writing on trains and buses, the walk home from work, turning over lines while folding my laundry or washing my dishes or coming out of a shower—in other words, filling the cracks of the life I’ve built with poems. When I can’t grasp those moments of quiet to linger with the words always in the back of my head, soaking in the outward bustle can provide just as powerful of a push to create.

Curtis Chin: I’m pretty flexible as a writer. I think that’s because I grew up working in my family’s Chinese restaurant. I never had a set-aside time to do my homework. Whenever a customer came through the front door, I had to jump up and study, not knowing how long until the next customer or phone call. Because of this, I have learned how to focus really quickly at any given moment.

Kristin T. Lee: I can write anywhere as long as I know I’ll have at least an hour of peace. I mostly write at home or at our lovely local Vietnamese cafe, Cicada. I also write at our public library when my kids are at swim practice or at Whole Foods when my kids are at soccer. Gotta be flexible!

What advice do you have for aspiring AAPI writers?

Gina Chung: Figure out what kind of writer you are and also what kind of stories you want to write rather than what you think you “should” write. I think there can often be a kind of anxiety for any writer from an underrepresented community when it comes to writing about our stories, but ultimately, you need to believe in and have fun with your own writing before you can hope to have someone else connect with it.

Justinian Huang: Never underestimate nor overlook the power of allies. Yes, I owe so much of my writing career to other Asian and/or queer writers who encouraged me along the way, but I have also been aided at crucial times by folks who are not Asian and/or queer like me. For instance, my agents aren’t Asian, and the majority of the amazing people at my imprint aren’t either… though a notable exception who deserves a shout-out is one of my editors, Evan Yeong. My point is community among people who match aspects of your identity is, of course, powerful and wonderful, but publishing is a tough business, and you are going to need all the help you can get. That essential help can come from people of many colors, forms, and diverse identities, not necessarily your own.

Topaz Winters: Chase your obsessions and watch for patterns. The project you believe is too strange and specific to touch any reader outside of yourself is precisely the one that might crack open a world beyond your own understanding. And consider, also, how your obsessions intertwine, expand, and contract, shift by degrees or by miles; pay attention to what you’re paying attention to. In other words, notice the patterns that drive your creative enquiry, the wells you continue circling across years and projects, and lives. That careful attention, I’ve found, forms the foundation of an artistic practise. By cultivating it, there will never be a stasis, a question of what now?—the next work will cascade out of the questions raised by the last, and on and on and on.

Curtis Chin: Have fun.

Kristin T. Lee: Just do it! The world needs your voice. Only you can write the stories that are inside of you.

Ending with a fun question: what is a “human” moment that makes you light up when you see it?

Gina Chung: I love watching anyone experience something fun or pleasure for the first time. Overhearing a kid telling their parent about some flowers they’ve just noticed, getting to treat a friend to a new restaurant or food they haven’t tried before, or even seeing a video of a dog noticing the moon for the first time—all of it moves me.

Justinian Huang: I love an awkward moment. Nothing malicious, of course. So much is fake these days: AI, social media, human bodies. But with an awkward moment, we are forced to drop our facades and can only wince and cringe. Causing an awkward silence gives me way too much pleasure; I just giggle and bathe in it! No, I have no idea why I’m this way.

Topaz Winters: I love seeing older couples, particularly older queer couples, holding hands in public. Like them, I hope I never forget the precious wonder of loving, being loved, and having the freedom to show it.

Curtis Chin: Two strangers meeting in a bar.

Kristin T. Lee: I love watching kids be kids, completely uninhibited and joyful and uniquely themselves.

5×5 Epilogue – Bonus Questions

How do you handle themes or subjects that are personal or difficult?

Gina Chung: If I feel triggered or upset by something that comes up while I’m writing, I like to ground myself in my body by taking a few breaths, reminding myself that I am safe, even if I don’t feel it at that moment. My mentor and former teacher, Mira Jacob, once shared the following piece of advice in a class I took with her: “Don’t get scared. Get curious.” So when I feel afraid or triggered, I try to follow that, to ask myself what is happening that is making me feel that way, and to focus on those questions and that experience of curiosity rather than fear.

Topaz Winters: When the work grows teeth, I remember that to be personally affected by my own creation is not just a privilege but a prerequisite to creating something meaningful and lasting. That framework holds me accountable to sitting in and with momentary emotional discomfort. Then, when the sting wanes (as it always does), I push that wound harder and catch what erupts from it on the page. I find, more often than not, that what comes out is not blood but gold.

Curtis Chin: When I first started writing my memoir, I thought it would be mostly funny stories about my mean grandma and my grandpa who ran the Chinese mafia, but as I got deeper into the writing, I decided to tackle more serious subjects. At the time, there was a rise in anti-Asian violence in the US, and I felt I needed to speak to that moment, so I started talking about my racial identity and what it was like growing up Asian in the black and white city of Detroit. I also started writing more about the Vincent Chin case since he was a family friend, and his murder really shaped my understanding of race in America.

Kristin T. Lee: The best advice I’ve gotten on this is to write what you’re most scared of writing. You can always edit and cut later, but getting to the honest and raw parts of ourselves is where the real work happens.

As an experienced writer, what guidance would you offer to aspiring writers of color when navigating the process of sharing their first drafts with literary agents? Are there specific insights or lessons learned from your own journey that you believe would be particularly beneficial for them?

Gina Chung: Ideally, the draft you use to query your manuscript among literary agents should be a draft that you feel confident about, and that has fully addressed any questions or issues that you’ve identified over the process of reading and re-reading your work. Revision can be painful, but, much like exercise, it is absolutely necessary, and the more you do it, the gladder you’ll be that you did it, and the easier it will become. Find trusted readers if you can, people who get your writing but also aren’t too afraid or polite to ask you the tough questions about what they don’t understand or what they feel is missing.

Once you are ready to share your draft with a prospective literary agent, make sure you have a tight, descriptive query letter (if you don’t know what a query letter is, there are lots of online resources out there about what it is and how to write a good one), and follow any submission guidelines stipulated on the agent’s or agency’s website.

Then, while you wait to hear back, go work on something else if you can. Pick up another hobby, ideally something physical, or that involves your hands. Get out of your head, so that you can have the grounding time you need to get back into it, to keep writing.

Curtis Chin: I like to say, “In this business, you’re going to hear the word “no,” a lot. Don’t let your voice be one of those.” I try to tell people to always say “yes” to themselves, and when they do hear the “no,” to try and figure out how to turn that into a “yes.” I reached out to 90 agents before I finally got my yes, but I got it!

Kristin T. Lee: Get friends or mentors to read through your draft or book proposal before you submit it to an agent. Don’t hesitate to ask for help in establishing connections. Many BIPOC writers do not have well-developed networks in the literary world, and we have to help one another rise. Becoming part of BIPOC writer communities can make these connections more organic and natural as they arise out of real friendships and mutual regard. This has been one of my greatest joys as I’ve established a writerly presence–immediately sharing any kernels of wisdom with or helping open doors for those who are just starting out.

Are there any historical events or movements that you think deserve more attention?

Justinian Huang: I’d like there to be more light shed upon queer Asian folks and our legacy throughout the ages. I write about the most famous gay Chinese emperor in my book, but there are so many other queer histories (note: look up “half-bitten peach”) that reverberate throughout Eastern cultures. These deserve attention because there are likely hundreds of millions of queer Asians in the world, and we deserve to be the protagonists of our own epic stories.

Curtis Chin: As a gay Asian man, I’d love to read more works on how other gay Asian men navigated the early years of the AIDS crisis. I’d also like to learn more about the experiences of Asian Americans outside of the West and East Coast.

Kristin T. Lee: So many! I’m a history geek who never got to study enough history in school. But one historical phenomenon I’m particularly obsessed with right now, having just finished reading Amitav Ghosh’s Smoke and Ashes, is the history of opium cultivation in India and the forcible sale of opium in China under the British Empire. Since my family is from Hong Kong, I knew about the Opium Wars that led to the ceding of Hong Kong from China to Britain for 150+ years, but I had no idea about how deeply reliant Britain was on opium profits to fund its organs of empire. Ghosh labels Britain “the world’s most powerful narco-state” at the time, and I cackled at how apt that descriptor is–a descriptor that Western media usually reserves for “uncivilized” countries.

If your book was turned into a recipe, what ingredients would it include, and what would be the final dish?

Justinian Huang: My book The Emperor and the Endless Palace is very spicy, and it is about Chinese people, so I am thinking it would be a spicy Asian dish full of mouth-numbing peppers and aphrodisiacs like oysters and ginseng! But my book is also full of twists and cliffhangers, so there would be something unexpected hidden in this dish that surprises the eater upon discovery but makes the culinary experience more delightful. I’m no chef, but maybe there is an unusual choice of carb underneath the Asian spiciness, like a fabulously al dente pappardelle pasta noodle!

Curtis Chin: I love eating, so I can’t just choose one. I would rather think of my book as a giant Chinese buffet where there’s something for everyone.

Kristin T. Lee: Oh my goodness, I’m a terrible cook, so I don’t know if this metaphor will hold. I can bake, though, and I have a sweet tooth, so I’d have to say I’d make an ice cream sandwich with Earl Grey shortbread cookies and matcha ice cream studded with chocolate flakes. Even though my book deals with hard things, I hope readers are left with sweetness and encouragement. Also, I’m all about tea flavors and reclaiming tea as originally an Asian delicacy. That’s another historical phenomenon I’m obsessed with–the history of tea.

Guilty pleasure reads:

Justinian Huang: I just got back from a monthlong backpacking trip across Southeast Asia, and on the many planes of this trek, I was listening in rapt attention to Freida McFadden’s The Housemaid novels. I actually guessed most of the twists, but I still had so much fun with McFadden’s deliciously devious villains! She writes such fascinating women… My next novel has many complex women in it, so I’m taking notes.

Topaz Winters: I try not to have “guilty pleasures”—pleasure is so rare in this wide and raging world, so why would I ever feel guilty for it? That said, some people are surprised that I have a penchant for a good mystery thriller and any and every shade of horror. Gillian Flynn is a favourite of mine—Sharp Objects changed everything for me when I first read it at 16, and I’ll never forget reaching the plot twist halfway through Gone Girl and staying up all night to finish the book despite a math exam at 8:30 the next morning. Right now, I’m working my way through Stephen King’s formidable backlog. My favourite of his so far is Carrie, closely followed by The Institute; at this moment, I’m tearing through The Outsider, which surprises me with every new page.

Curtis Chin: At this point, I am reading a lot of grief memoirs.

Kristin T. Lee: Anything that I’m reading that’s not specifically for my book project is tinged with a tiny bit of guilt right now, haha! But I don’t think of my pleasure reads as guilty, just as treats. My go-to authors for treat books are Yangsze Choo, Xochitl Gonzalez, Weike Wang, Charlotte McConaghy, and Madeline Miller.

Thank you to Gina, Justinian, Topaz, Curtis, and Kristin for offering their invaluable viewpoints to the literary and writing community. They are paving the way for aspiring writers, enlightening the world with the stories they have told and will tell.

Find Gina Chung here.

Find Justinian Huang here.

Find Topaz Winters here.

Find Curtis Chin here.

Find Kristin T. Lee here.

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