Writing About An Uncommon Place I Love

Community, Light From Uncommon Stars / Saturday, April 3rd, 2021

This is the Soaring Teapot (photo from Mapquest). It’s in Temple City, on the corner of Rosemead Blvd and Las Tunas.  I talk a little bit about something very much like this in Light From Uncommon Stars. But not exactly. In fact, there are a lot of things that I don’t say exactly.

That’s a calculated choice. Some places of course are landmarks–Sam Woo BBQ, for example (seriously go have their duck!) But other places may have different names, different locations… They might be combinations of some places, or they may just be coming from my imagination.

Writing from the margins, as a person of color, about a neighborhood that has largely developed on its own, that has suffered, and still suffers discrimination, racism, even violence, brings a certain responsibility. You want to represent the place as best you can. And every writing program will tell you “write what you know.”

And I’m really proud of my neighborhood. I love the San Gabriel Valley. But I also want to gently push back against those who demand authenticity from a place just because it happens to be different, exotic, new. In so many ways I respect the desire for the new. That’s the complicated thing. Don’t we read stories to go places? Isn’t that, in some way, the point? This book is called a novel—it literally means “new.”

But there’s also, especially with Asian things, this desire to have the “authentic” experience. This can be difficult, even harmful sometimes. Remember, I’m talking about my neighborhood. I’m talking about a place I love. There’s this line from an old Eagles song that says “Call someplace paradise, kiss it goodbye.” When people come to a place, often they change it –even without intending to. And so, I want to mix things up a little bit…blend in some illusion…give you a few wrong directions, even. Because it’s my neighborhood. And I want you to enjoy it. I want you to appreciate it. But I’m sorry–I don’t want to ever kiss my favorite bakery or noodle place goodbye.

So, with Light From Uncommon Stars, I’ve shuffled some names, crisscrossed some locations. As I did with Hawai’i and He Mele A Hilo, some things, I talk about very factually. Others, I alter, I embellish, I rearrange. And some things, I just make up (I’m very proud of many of those things!)

However… The sentiments, the flavors, the overall feel of our San Gabriel Valley… I want to bring all of that to you. And many places in the book do exist—but the goal overall is not to give you a travel guide of this San Gabriel Valley, but a tale about a San Gabriel Valley that could be, that might be, if only we imagine it. And more than that, I want to give you a true novel, set in a place I love, about people I love. Which, I really hope this is …  (hopehopehope)

I hope you enjoy this book. Yes, sometimes the names are changed, but the feelings of respect and wonder and excitement–those are genuine. Both for the neighborhood I write about, and for any and all who read.