Category Archives: .Poetry

Dust of Eden by Mariko Nagai

Dust of EdenPlease correct me if I’m wrong here: The Japanese American imprisonment has been the focus of many, many titles for audiences of all ages, via fiction, non-fiction, poetry, short stories, plays, graphic titles, picture books, and more, but I believe Mariko Nagai‘s Dust of Eden is the first novel in verse on the subject. Again, please enlighten me otherwise …

Mina Masako Tagawa, 13, lives in Seattle with her journalist father, her homemaker mother, her rose breeder grandfather, and her track star older brother Nick. Her cat is named Basho, her best friend is Jamie. Until December 7, 1941, Mina is an ordinary American girl, and then suddenly she is reduced to a “Jap“: “We are not Americans, the eyes tell us. / We do not belong, the mouths curl up. / We are the enemy aliens, the Japs.”

Mina and her family are among the 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent taken from their homes and imprisoned during World War II. First Mina’s father is arrested without cause. After President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs Executive Order 9066, the family is given a week to gather their belongings. They are initially “evacuated” to the horse stalls of Camp Harmony in Puyallup, 30 miles south of Seattle, until they are shuttled away by cattle train to the remote dust fields of Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho. “We held our breath for three / years. We did not have anything to call / our own …”

Those three years bring separation, isolation, devastation. Jamie is Mina’s one constant on the outside. One teacher renames the students with “American names. / So we can be more American, / she says.  So we will be less / the enemy alien”; a more thoughtful teacher returns the children’s identities. Father is released, only to watch Nick demonstrate his loyalty to the government that imprisoned him by offering his very life.

Nagai captures a family in flux, caught in someone else’s blame, struggling to stay together, fighting to understand. Perhaps because Nagai herself is Japanese-born and currently Tokyo-domiciled, her final “Epilogue” – a letter sent by Nick from the other side of the world – is especially compelling. While nothing is particularly new here, Nagai’s crystalline phrases, stanzas, lines that barely cover 120 pages prove gorgeously resonating.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Poetry, Japanese American

World Class: Poems Inspired by the ESL Classroom by J.C. Elkin

World ClassComprised of just 27 pages which hold 14 poems, this collection feels more like a pamphlet than an actual book. That said, the spare verses by J.C. Elkin, a Pushcart Prize-nominated ESL teacher at a Maryland community college, are not without complexity and depth, inspired by her actual students’ lives: “Their names, nationalities, and some occupations have been changed, but their circumstances in these narratives are real. The quotations are as exact as memory permits,” Elkin explains in her introduction.

“My students arrive in dust storms of change,” Elkin’s first poem opens in “Foreign Soil.” She empathizes with their struggles in “World Class,” herself once an ex-pat abroad who “know[s] how it feels to be the alien.”  The “‘Tribal’, ‘slanty-eyed’, / Slavic, ‘rag-head’ strangers” in her class are her “heroes and friends / who put their lives on hold for twelve long hours a week, / asking probing questions, aiming for the A.”

She writes of Hala, who was once a superintendent of girls’ schools in Pakistan, where nine million girls are denied an education. She bids “Vaya con Dios” to Fernan who returns south of the border to bury his mother. She regrets not letting JoySong keep the textbook that wasn’t hers, especially when she returns the next day with bruised signs of spousal abuse. She commiserates with Verdad whose son’s English is not expanding with quite the right vocabulary. She’s left speechless by Young who can’t connect words into comprehensible sentences, but knows exactly how to show his appreciation towards her.

“I’m proud to say I help,” Elkin writes. “Ashamed I don’t do more.” Yet, what she accomplishes here is perhaps that most important ‘more’: giving voice to the newest generation of Americans-in-the-making. Her ‘help’ is never blind, as she knows when to be firm with chronic latecomers, because “[t]he wait list is full of contenders.” She is uncompromisingly honest, ready to expose her own insensitivities; she admits to her own ‘them/us’-mindset as she, too, once thought “‘[t]hey should speak our language or just go back home.’” She confesses without guilt that when she sees one of her students bearing the suffocating weight of her hijab while Ramadan-fasting in steamy August heat, she realizes”… watching her melt in submission, I hate her religion today.”

As brief as Elkin’s Class may be, her universal lessons are many … and each a learning experience ready to share.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Poetry, Nonethnic-specific

How Do I Begin? A Hmong American Anthology edited by the Hmong American Writers’ Circle

How Do I Begin“For any serious artist, it is a terrible feeling of surrender when you realize there is no place in the world for your voice, when all that you express seems marginalized or in vain … But this isn’t a story about defeat. This is about survival.” So begins Burlee Vang‘s compelling introduction to this dynamic anthology of Hmong American prose, poetry, and art.

Founder of the Hmong American Writers’ Circle (HAWC) which, since 2004,”has served as a forum to discover and foster creative writing within the Hmong community,” Vang explains that artists of Hmong descent are “born into a people whose written language has long been substituted by an oral tradition.” In spite of a substantial cultural history, “there are no novels, plays, or collections of poems, essays, or short stories. There is no account of Hmong life preserved in writing by a Hmong hand and passed down through the centuries.” As newer Asian Pacific Americans whose initial immigration wave happened in the late 1970s into the 1990s, Hmong Americans used English to begin the shift from oral to written literary traditions. “It is exciting to be Hmong these days,” Vang celebrates, “and to finally write. But as pioneers, these are challenging times.”

Vang and 16 other HAWC members explore their Hmong American heritage, each defining his or her own identity as artist, Hmong American, both, neither, other – embracing and eschewing labels and expectations. One writer, Anthony Cody, stands out as the lone non-Hmong (at least not ethnically); a self-defined Mexican American, Cody “attempts to echo the tragedies, routines, and reality of the life I share” among the Hmong American community in their co-hometown of Fresno, California.

Of the 13 prose and poetry writers, Vang – as the leading ‘pioneer’ – has the indisputable standout piece: his short story, “Mrs. Saichue,” about a childless woman who helps her husband find a younger, fertile second wife, elicits comparisons to Ha Jin’s Waiting, in its sharp, spare evocations of small details amidst a difficult situation that create poignant depth and understanding.

Other notable prose pieces include Ka Vang‘s “Pao Dreams of Bodyslams, André the Giant, and Hulk Hogan” about a filial son with untraditional ambitions, and Ying Thao’s “The Art of Fishing,” about the distant relationship between two brothers, one of whom is gay.

Among the poets, Soul Choj Vang‘s works open the collection, giving it its title from “Here I Am,” about a new generation of American poets: “Now, here I am, adopted citizen, / not rooted in this land … How do I begin my song / Where do I enter the chorus / when my part is not yet written …” While many here ponder leaving and belonging, explore history and identity, May Lee-Yang plays with language, as she writes for “Hmong Americans who are bilingual”; her poem, “Endings,” warns of the importance of endings in Hmong words, how a single last letter can turn “Fish … into salt / Horse into human / Sour into penis.”

In addition to text, two fine artists (including Seexeng Lee whose “Hmong Woman Sewing a Paj Ntaub” graces the cover) and a photographer take center page in full color.

As is often the verdict in diverse collections, How Do I Begin is important more as significant literary history than for the quality of its uneven contents. Not surprisingly, the accomplished contributions are mingled with as many amateur pieces. But as the title implies, this is still a beginning, as Hmong American voices continue to develop, intensify, and multiply into this new century.

“There are no infrangible boundaries here. We have persevered through war, persecution, and exile. Through ethnical, cultural, and language barriers,” Vang bears witness. “We have survived the elements, the invisible. We have overcome ourselves. Our writing attests to this. Legitimizes us. After all these centuries, we are still standing.” Dreaming, producing, thriving, too.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2011

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, .Poetry, .Short Stories, Hmong American

Serafina’s Promise by Ann E. Burg

Serafina's PromiseSerafina, who lives in the outskirts of Haiti’s Port-au-Prince, has never had the chance to go to school. With rarely enough to eat, her family has nothing left over to pay the school fees, much less buy the required uniform. While her father works at a city grocery store, her pregnant mother and widowed grandmother Gogo grow herbs they sell on a city street corner. Exhausted from carrying water, chopping wood, and more, Serafina dreams of getting an education and becoming a doctor: at 11, she is well aware, “Education is the road to freedom.

When the family’s hut is swept away by a sudden flood, her family manages to survive while many others do not. Serafina’s parents rebuild on higher ground, where they welcome baby Gregory. Having previously lost infant brother Pierre to malnutrition, the family is constantly concerned for Gregory’s fragile health.

Determined to start school in the new year, Serafina devises a plan to fill an empty jar with extra coins that will pay for her tuition. She has to double her walks to collect extra water for the plants Gogo will help her grow – and later sell – but she knows that all the hard work will take her to a promising new future.

Like her award-winning all the broken pieces, Ann E. Burg presents Serafina’s story as a lyrical novel in verse. Burg remarkably renders the difficulties, tragedies, and joys Serafina experiences into spare, essential phrases, creating a resonating example of less is more. To read both all the broken pieces and Serafina’s Promise is to appreciate their elliptical beauty, even as you’re both disturbed and inspired by the young protagonists’ tenacity and resilience. Don’t miss either.

Tidbit: In case you needed any more prodding to pick up Serafina, here are two more reasons: Haitian People’s Support Project and Pure Water for the World, where Burg is donating a portion of her royalties. Read well, do good.

Readers: Middle Grade

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, .Fiction, .Poetry, Caribbean, Nonethnic-specific

The Slave Poet of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Sean Qualls

Poet Slave of CubaAwarded the 2008 Pura Belpré Medal, “presented to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth,” Margarita Engle‘s biography-in-verse introduces Cuban poet Juan Francisco Manzano to younger readers.

Born into slavery in 1797 to a titled family, Juan is quickly adopted – in the way pets are claimed – by the wife of a wealthy plantation owner he refers to as La Marquesa: “The boy is much cleaner than poodles and parrots / or the Persian cats … / I treat him like my own / I tell him he’s the child of my old age.” He must call her Mamá, even though he has a loving mother and father of his own; La Marquesa pampers him, while he performs her every request.

By the time La Marquesa passes away when Juan is 11, she has allowed his parents to buy their freedom and promised Juan’s upon her death, but instead, he is sent to his so-called godparents where his new owner, La Marquesa de Prado Ameno, treats him as a prized possession she both abhors and cherishes. His near-death experiences of violent abuse are countless, and often he is saved just in time by his cruel owner’s son, who both admires and cares for Juan like a sibling. In spite of all that horror, Juan manages to find inspiring solace in the power of words.

Engle enriches Juan’s own story with the rotating voices of his parents, his owners, his defender Don Nicolás, and even “The Overseer” who comes to feel shame for the abhorrent beatings he is forced to inflict on Juan. The result proves to be a celebration of a remarkable life of tenacity and imagination that miraculously rises out of tortuous conditions. If you choose the audible option, you’ll be rewarded with a full-cast performance, although it’s slightly marred by a strangely affected narration of La Marquesa de Prado Amano; oddly, narrator Yesenia Cabrero has no such issues when she voices Juan’s mother’s passages. If stuck-in-the-ears is how you read, make sure to still check out the page as Sean Qualls‘ gentle drawings are certainly worth a special visit to your library or local bookstore.

That Juan Francisco Manzano’s literary legacy survives more than two centuries after his birth, is inspiring testimony to both his difficult life and his creative accomplishments. And, that Engle – herself a Cuban American poet, as well as novelist and journalist – received over a dozen awards and honors for Slave seems surely to be poetic justice indeed.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2006

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Audio, .Biography, .Nonfiction, .Poetry, Caribbean, Latino/a

The Language Inside by Holly Thompson

Language InsideThis might be a spoiler of sorts: The advance galley is printed with a March 12, 2013 pub date, but when I went searching for an image of the book’s cover to load here, online bookstores list a May date. Hmmm … if the latter is correct, then let this post serve as urgent advice: pre-order this book now.

I don’t know what makes my usually poetry-resistant brain so appreciative of novels-in-verse, but they definitely provide moments of blissful delight. And I’m growing rather partial to Holly Thompson‘s ethnic-blending, boundary-crossing, expectation-defying titles for young adults (check out her Orchards here).

Meet Emma Karas: while her name and face might suggest otherwise, Emma is Japanese. Culturally, anyway: she’s lived most of her life there, speaks the language like a native, and has a preference for miso and ramen over hamburgers and pasta. When she’s unexpectedly uprooted to Lowell, Massachusetts, all she wants to do is go home – to Japan.

Emma’s mother has cancer. Her treatment means Emma, her brother, and their mother will live in Lowell with her father’s mother. Emma’s father visits as often as he can from his job in New York City. Emma is torn between being the supportive daughter to her suffering mother, and feeling disloyal to her Japanese friends and their families who remain in shock and mourning less than a year since the devastating 2011 Tōhoku tsunami and earthquake.

To fill some of her longing-to-be-home hours, Emma volunteers at the Newell Center for Long Term Care, where she’s assigned to work with Zena, a stroke victim who can only communicate through her eyes. Zena is a poet, and her silent words which Emma helps put to paper have a healing effect on them both. The Newell Center is also where Emma meets Samnang, a fellow high school student with a troubled past, who works with two elderly survivors of the Cambodian killing fields.

Emma and Samnang are both cultural anomalies as defined by others’ assumptions: ” … when the language outside / isn’t the language inside,” Emma writes in a poem. Emma can’t be Japanese and yet she’s not quite American. Samnang is American and yet his Cambodian features make him forever other. Could such teenagers be anything but destined for each other?

As lyrical and effecting as Language is, it’s not read without questions, specifically about narrative choices. Why did Emma’s mother need to have her treatment in the States? Surely a country as advanced as Japan would have equivalent treatment options; additionally, given how long the family has been based in Japan, close family friends seem to be abundant in Japan, and virtually nonexistent Stateside. Why would Emma’s mother choose to stay with her mother-in-law instead of her own parents in Vermont? Why would Emma’s father work in New York when his wife is so seriously ill? As kind and thoughtful as she is, why is YiaYia so resistant about the foods that might comfort her extended family most?

The questions go on, but eventually such logistical details pale as Emma and Zena’s tender relationship develops, and as Emma and Samnang tentatively fall in love. ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff,’ actually comes to mind. Yes, questions linger, but ultimately, those moments of blissful delight extend … and win out.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Poetry, Cambodian American, Japanese, Nonethnic-specific, Southeast Asian American

Odette’s Secrets by Maryann Macdonald

Odette's SecretsI’m compelled to start backwards with a number: 84. As children’s writer (more than 25 times over) Maryann Macdonald explains in her ending “Author’s Note,” 84% of French children survived the horrors of World War II; in fact, “more children survived in France than in any other European country.” Macdonald, rightfully asks, “How did this happen?” When she happened on a copy of Doors to Madame Mariethe autobiography of Odette Meyers, one of the French children who managed to survive, at the American Library of Paris, she knew she had a story to tell …

“My name is Odette,” Macdonald’s compelling novel-in-verse for younger readers begins. “I live in Paris, / … My hair is curly. / Mama ties ribbons in it. / Papa reads to me and buys me toys. / I have everything I could wish for, / except a cat.” Odette is just 8 when “[a] funny-looking many with a mustache / shouts a speech. / His name is Hitler” – and war begins.

Life changes quickly, as Jewish homes are raided and destroyed, Odette’s father joins the French Army, and all Jewish people over the age of 6 must prominently display the yellow star on their clothing. “‘What makes us Jews?’ / I ask Mama one night,” for Odette’s family doesn’t go to synagogue, and “Mama and Papa don’t believe in religion.” The best answer she can understand is that “All our relatives are Jews, / so we are Jews.”

While living in constant fear, Odette and her mother’s greatest ally is Madame Marie, the apartment building’s caretaker with her husband, Monsieur Henri. The couple will save mother and daughter from the middle-of-the-night round-ups, protect Odette when her mother must flee, then securely deliver Odette to the messenger who will take her to shelter in the French countryside.

Safety for Odette comes at the cost of her very identity. No one can know that she’s Jewish, and so she must learn to be just like the other village children – by reciting the same prayers, invoking the same saints, going to Mass every Sunday. For a young child who grew up without religion, her new exposure to Catholicism brings her both comfort and conflict. “I know the reason I feel safe in the country. / It’s because here, / I am not a Jew. / In Paris, I am a Jew.”

Hidden in plain sight, Odette survives war, although she can never wholly escape its horrors. She is bullied and attacked by the same children who were her friends, and she falls silent from the relentless fear and trauma. She will not know who – or what – she is, living a lie, in order to live.

Like The Hidden Girls Lola Rein, Odette’s survival depended heavily on the assistance and protection of non-Jews; unlike Lola who was forced into hiding – much of the time buried in a dark hole – only Odette’s identity was shrouded while she lived openly, attempting to be just like any other village child. Only when the war finally ends can Odette reclaim her true self: “Secrets stand in my way. / They stop me from knowing who I am. / I am a Jew. / I’m sure of it. / And I will always be one.”

Truly, the courage of children knows no bounds.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Poetry, European, Nonethnic-specific

Etched in Clay: The Life of Dave, Enslaved Potter and Poet by Andrea Cheng, woodcuts by the author

Etched in Clay Absolute details surrounding the life of Dave the Potter are limited and uncertain. What remains of his life story almost two centuries later, is scattered with uncertain words, including ‘sometime,’ ‘about,’ ‘believed to be,’ ‘might,’ ‘possibly,’ and other such noncommittal qualifiers. The few surviving documents prove an enslaved teenager was bought by the Drake family, co-owners of Pottersville Stoneware Manufactory in Edgefield, South Carolina, in whose service he became a talented potter whose creations have survived, in small numbers, and become museum-worthy art pieces.

As if paralleling the sparse details of Dave’s life, Andrea Cheng replicates that sparseness in her slim novel-in-verse; she echoes the poetic etchings Dave added to his pottery by enhancing her verse with etched woodblock prints of her own. The result is a gorgeous, contemplative, artistic memorial to a creative life that survived unspeakable hardship while creating lasting, even subversive, beauty.

Dave’s considerable skill – recognized and lauded … and exploited – cannot save him from the horrors of slavery. His first wife was sold, and later his second wife and her two sons taken from him, as well. He himself is bought and sold within the Drake and related Landrum families. And yet, although literacy is illegal among slaves, Dave is taught to read and write, which enables to etch his name (his objections, his miseries, his screams) into the wet clay and the guarded words he can never say out loud: “horses mules and hogs – / all our cows is in the bogs – / where they will ever stay – / till the buzzards take them away =.”

As much as I’ve appreciated, learned from, and enjoyed Cheng‘s titles over the years (I think I’ve read all but four of her almost two dozen books), this, her latest, is clearly, undoubtedly, most definitely my favorite thus far. Here’s the irony: the subject of Etched in Clay just might be the furthest from her personal experience. Cheng has written numerous books inspired by her Hungarian heritage (Marika, The Lace Dowry, The Bear Makers), although she’s better known for her titles highlighting the Chinese American experience (she’s been part of a hapa Chinese American family since college) including The Key Collection, Shanghai Messenger, Only One Year, and The Year of the Book; Clay is definitely her first, and thus far her only, book with the history of American slavery at its core. So much for ‘write what you know.’ Every so often, talent just trumps all.

Tidbit: In the ending “Author’s Note,” Cheng credits Leonard Todd and his book for adults, Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of Slave Potter Dave, for sparking her initial interest in Dave’s story, and later for “helping me so much with this project.” For interested readers, Todd’s website is a treasure trove of further information. The Smithsonian, by the way, owns two of Dave’s pieces (!); click here to see one of his poem jars collected by the National Museum of American History.

Readers: Middle Grade

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, .Biography, .Nonfiction, .Poetry, African American, Chinese American

America the Beautiful: Together We Stand by Katharine Lee Bates, illustrated by Bryan Collier, Raúl Colón, Diane Goode, Mary GrandPré, John Hendrix, Yuyi Morales, Jon J. Muth, LeUyen Pham, Sonia Lynn Sadler, and Chris Soentpiet

America the BeautifulReady to ring in the new year? Sing with me now – I’m pretty sure you know the words to this one: “O beautiful for spacious skies …” Yes, the patriotic classic gets a brand new kiddie book … with phenomenal illustrations created by a long list of award-winning artists who each command a line of the 1893 poem by pioneering poet/professor Katharine Lee Bates.

Every illustrated-stanza-double-paged-spread also includes a pithy presidential quote, from George Washington to Barack Obama. No worries – the choices are most definitely non-partisan: Jimmy Carter, Thomas Jefferson, Ronald Reagan, Abraham Lincoln, JFK, FDR and his (fifth) cousin Teddy Roosevelt, and George H.W. Bush, all get a say. And, just in case you’re feeling like you’re missing a favorite president, the whole book cover cleverly opens up on the other side to showcase all 44 POTUSes!

The awe-inspiring result might represent a rather different U.S. of A. than perhaps our forefathers envisioned centuries ago, but America the Beautiful is nothing less than stupendous. Take that cover, for instance: the always-delight-inducing LeUyen Pham‘s vision for ” … with brotherhood …” couldn’t be more inclusive, not to mention accurate for what 21st-century America looks like. And, call me crazy (many have), but I like to think that’s young Sasha Obama reaching for the stars! Go, girl, go!

To quote our favorite peanut farmer, Jimmy Carter: “We become not a melting pot but a beautiful mosaic. Different people, different beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams.” The perfect words to start a thus-far perfect, brand new year. Here’s to a happy, merry, healthy 2013 to all indeed!

Tidbit: Can I just say that certain folks in the publishing world had major faith in Obama’s re-election??!! The book (which pubs today) arrived in my mailbox quite a bit before November 6, 2012. The bottom right picture on the POTUS  grid of the inside-side-of-the-cover – specifically the spot for the current president – just happens to be none other than Barack Obama … leaving no room whatsoever for anyone but. I’m just saying …

Readers: Children

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Nonfiction, .Poetry, Nonethnic-specific

Publisher Interview: Sunyoung Lee and Kaya Press

Early this year, at almost 18 years old, Kaya Press flew the nest. Leaving behind the comfort and familiarity of New York’s publishing world, the non-profit indie specializing in “books from the Asian diaspora,” moved offices across the country to Los Angeles. Now comfortably ensconced in the Department of American Studies & Ethnicity on the University of Southern California campus, Kaya has a new address, new community, new books, new staff, and is definitely basking in new energy.

With all the latest changes, the one Kaya constant is Sunyoung Lee… although she does have the fairly new title of “Publisher and Editor.” Founded in 1994 by Soo Kyung Kim, a postmodern Korean writer, Kaya was originally intended to house a journal of Korean literature-in-translation, which eventually morphed into Muae, a spirited anthology highlighting the newest in Asian Pacific American writing that Library Journal named one of “The Best Magazines of 1995.” Muae fell victim to the Korean economic collapse of 1997, but under the bolstering management of Juliana Koo and Lee, who took over that year as managing editor and editor, respectively, Kaya managed to survive – and thrive – living up to its namesake: “Kaya was the name of a tribal confederation of six Korean city-states that existed from the middle of the first until the sixth century CE,” their website officially explains. “Although the Kaya kingdom was an iron-age culture, it is remembered as a utopia of learning, music, and the arts due to its trade and communication with China, Japan, and India.”

Kaya Press channels that international history, feeding its artistic vision by regularly pushing the boundaries of the Asian Pacific Islander (API) diaspora through the titles the tenacious press has published thus far. A small sampling might include an enhanced reprint of the groundbreaking 1937 classic East Goes West by the first Korean American novelist Younghill Kang; American Book Award-winning The Unbearable Heart by Japanese German American poet Kimiko Hahn; Chinese Australian Brian Castro’s already-major-award-winning-in-Australia novel, Shanghai Dancing; the lauded Commonwealth Prize-winning Where We Once Belonged by Sia Figiel, which was the first novel by a Samoan woman to be published in the United States; and Migritude by Kenyan-born, South Asian-descended, citizen-of-the-world performance artist Shailja Patel.

The word “kaya” echoes the diversity of its authors: in addition to its ancient Korean representation, in Japanese, Kaya is also “summer night” or a type of yew tree that withstands harsh environmental conditions; in Malay, kaya means “rich”; in Indonesian, “prosperous”; in Tagalog, “to be able”; in Sanskrit, “body”; in Turkish “rock”; in Zulu, “home.”

For Lee, home is where the press is. In order to sustain it, she’s worked endless day jobs and freelance gigs – from Billboard magazine to Publishers Weekly – in addition to teaching the requisite composition classes, to pay the bills so she could nurture Kaya well into its teenage years. Now that she’s settled into rooms of her own at USC, Lee’s ushering out the next set of Kaya titles: Lament in the Night, which includes two 1920s Japanese American novellas by Shōson Nagahara, translated by Andrew Leong; The Hanging on Union Square, an experimental novel originally published in 1935 by H. T. Tsiang; Water Chasing Water by Seattle-based poet Koon Woon; and Korean American adoptee Nicky Sa-eun Schildkraut’s debut poetry in Magnetic Refrain.

It’s been a full decade since we officially talked about Kaya. So, what’s your latest, greatest news?
The biggest news, as you know, is that we moved to LA this year. We’re publishing a bunch of new books, and a lot of wonderful new people are working with us. This is the largest group of people we’ve had involved with Kaya. USC gives us funding to pay for two part-time grad students – they’re 25% part-time – and we also get a lot of volunteers. Their involvement – both undergraduate and graduate students – means while they learn hands-on about the publishing process, I’ve been able to do more strategic work, to put more energy into Kaya, and that’s been really gratifying. [... click here for more]

Publisher interview: “Feature: Sunyoung Lee and Kaya Press,” Bookslut.com, December 2012

Readers: Adult

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Filed under ...Author Interview/Profile, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Poetry, .Translation, Chinese American, Japanese American, Korean American, Pan-Asian, Pan-Asian Pacific American