Turning Readers Into Writers

055 Interview with Asian American poet and writer Dr Stephanie Han

March 25, 2021 Emma Dhesi, Dr Stephanie Han Season 1 Episode 55
Turning Readers Into Writers
055 Interview with Asian American poet and writer Dr Stephanie Han
Show Notes Transcript

What's in this episode:

Dr Stephanie Han was my writing teacher in Hong Kong and today I ask her to take us through her journey to writing, which was being a kid who didn't fit in and wanted to figure out where she belonged in the world.

She was the inaugural PhD student at The University of Hong Kong, researching Asian American Literature.

Stephanie Han has lived in many cities and countries, and I ask her what influence that has had on her writing. The biggest lesson was learning to look at different people and situations with a fresh perspective, and forced her to look at how she fit into her environment.

Stephanie reminds me of what deep reading/close reading is, and why it's an integral part of the writer's learning. That's what helps us refine our own work in the editing phase.

An experienced teacher and mentor, Stephanie Han talks us through some common mistakes she sees new writers make, and how to work past them.

Stephanie tells me about her Warrior Women Writers website, explaining why she chose that title and what a warrior woman writer is for her. It's taken from the title of Asian American writer's book called The Woman Warrior.

For her these writers are women who put their voice out there, take a risk in being seen and won't be silenced. It's an opportunity to for women to author their own lives.

Stephanie now teaches Asian American literature because it's not something that's offered in many colleges. It was a gap she was asked to fill by Asian American students who were looking to learn more about the the history of their stories.

In our conversation she talks about why set up the class, as well as her class on intersectionality.

We move on to discuss how getting published does not mean you are a writer. Writing means you are a writer.

"I'm a professional rejection" says award-winning author Stephanie Han. Stephanie has powerful words to share around publication and validation. This alone is worth listening to!

We finish our conversation with Stephanie telling me about a book she's writing to help women write their divorce story. This can potentially be used in court, or simply as a therapeutic exercise.

She is also writing a new book of poetry and prose.


Links mentioned in the episode:

Associated blog post:

Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/emmadhesi)
Emma Dhesi:

Hello, I'm Emma Dhesi and welcome to another episode of turning readers into writers. If you're brand new here, welcome. And here's what you need to know. This is a community that believes you are never too old to write your first novel, no matter what you've been up to until now, if you're ready to write your book, I'm ready to help you reach the end, I focus on helping you find the time and confidence to begin your writing journey, as well as the craft and skills you need to finish the book. Each week I interview debut authors, editors and industry experts to keep you motivated, inspired, and educated on all things writing, editing, and publishing. If you want to catch up, head on over to emmadhesi.com, where you'll find a wealth of information and tools to help you get started. Before we dive in. This week's episode is brought to you by my Patreon page over patreon.com. for supporting the production costs of the podcast each month, you'll receive additional conversations with each week's guest, you'll receive a personal thank you for me, and of course a shout out on the show. It's an exclusive community of writers who for only $3 a month wants to support the show and ensure it continues. If you'd like access to additional material and a shout out on the show, go to patreon.com/emmadhesi. So come on over to patreon.com/emmadhesi, where I'll be waiting to welcome you into the family. Okay, let's dive in to today's episode. Stephanie Han teaches online at doctorstephaniehan.com, delivering women's creative writing workshops that focus on empowerment through narrative. She authored the fiction collection swimming in Hong Kong. She's the recipient of the Patterson Fiction Prize, a finalist for AW Pace grace Paley prize for short fiction and the Spokane prize. And she's also been shortlisted for an Asian books blog Award, a pen and Vona fellow, she received grants from the LA Department of Cultural Affairs, and is the inaugural English literature PhD graduate of City University of Hong Kong. She lives in Hawaii, the home of her family since 1904. And Stephanie was actually my writing teacher when we both lived in Hong Kong. And so it's a real treat for me to have her on the show and find out about all the amazing things that she's been doing since we were there. Well, Stephanie, thank you so much for joining me today. I'm thrilled to have you on the show.

Stephanie Han:

Thank you for having me. It's great to see you Emma.

Emma Dhesi:

So I wonder for our listeners, if you could tell us a little bit about how have you became a writer, your journey to authorship?

Stephanie Han:

Sure, I was always a kid who liked to read. And I think that's the key I read because I could enter different worlds and spaces when I was little. We moved around every year. And we often lived in places. I'm Korean American, Asian American, where I was kind of isolated socially. And so I remember asking my mom in the 70s mom, I don't have any friends, you know, what can I do. And instead of the modern mom, which would impart social emotional learning skills, my mother said, read a book because if you read a book, you can always have friends. And then she dropped me at the library pretty much like that. And so that started my writing journey because I became a reader and people who read a lot, eventually tried their hand at writing, which is a natural relationship, because you want to be in dialogue with the characters or the writers or your imagination and, and make those things that exist in your mind, often real on page. So that is really what started my writing journey, which was being a kid who didn't really fit in, and who wanted to figure out maybe where she belonged in the world and I wasn't a good. I wasn't like a really precocious reader or anything. When I was really small. It's very slow to read, actually in kindergarten, I would have been held back and flunked now, I didn't even know my alphabet, I think until I was almost six years old. But I quickly became a reader. So by the time I was about nine or 10, I guess several years of social isolation. I became a pretty avid reader and then I continued reading but even through high school I had, I always loved literature classes, and I liked you discussion. But I was never a kid that necessarily excelled at writing the analytical essay I just like to read. And that's what I think. Put me on my journey to reading and right, you know, being a writer, honestly.

Emma Dhesi:

Yeah. Well, it's amazing to think that that was your kind of start because then we come to the, the end of your education, you In fact, were one of the first students to be issued with the first female student to be issued with a PhD from City University. Oh, no, is it the first students will stop?

Stephanie Han:

Yeah, I was the inaugural student for the PhD program in literature at City University of Hong Kong, I'm really grateful for the opportunity. I have to say it didn't. It didn't. It wasn't as if I was ever ambitious to be a PhD. I was in my late 40s. And I thought I was going to get a job teaching at that university. I had an MFA. And I didn't have a published book at the time. So I thought it was going to the job. The chair thought I was going to get the job that sub department chair said no way is she going to get the job. I didn't know about this, I felt upset. The chair was kind of freaked out. And, you know, he knew my writing because I was a journalist. And you said, you know, stuff. These are hard economic times. This is after the financial crisis. And, you know, let's face it, you're unemployed right now. This is our time to be a writer. Would you like to be the inaugural PhD student and I was like, I'll think about it, I'm still mad. Then I thought about it. And I was like, okay, there's a small stipend, whatever, I'm going to get paid to read and write for a year, we'll see. After a year, I wasn't really sure I wanted to do it. But by then I was in too deep, I had already gotten done a year, and they brought a they had brought a scholar in so I could work with the scholar and they financed me. So yeah, that is how I became a PhD. And I'm very glad that I did it. I am very, very glad. But it wasn't as if I was, you know, my whole life dying to become one. And actually, at that point in my life, I had changed a lot, I had already read a lot of the Canon that I should read. And probably if you were to ask me, do you want to be a PhD and you know, art history, or archaeology or literature, I would have picked archaeology, I would have wanted to do something totally different, you know, because I don't know just what was something new. It's in literature in English. It's an Asian American literature and specific, and I focused on aesthetics and looking at Asian American literary aesthetics in particular in the 21st century, and where the literature is heading, and how it's not necessarily a literature, only politics.

Emma Dhesi:

But that's interesting, given. Yeah, we'll talk about in a little bit, but where you are now? Sure. And we'll congratulations on your PhD. You've made history by being the first one, so well done.

Stephanie Han:

Thank you.

Emma Dhesi:

Now, you mentioned before that you have lived in many places. So I know as a child with with your family, you moved around a bit, and then you went to boarding school. And I know also as an adult, you've moved and lived in lots of different places. And in fact, we met in Hong Kong, but now I'm in Scotland, and you're in Hawaii, the good deal there. And quite how have those experiences if they have? Or maybe, and but how are those experiences of living in different places had an influence on your writing?

Stephanie Han:

I think what it's allowed me to do is to see different kinds of perspectives, you know, moving allowed me, in a sense to go out into the world to look at the different ways that people live, to try to reconfigure what I you know, you're you're forced to, you know, anybody who moves from one town to another country to country, you know, has to reexamine? Well, not, some people don't. So I take that back. But if you are sort of sensitive you, you sort of re examine what beliefs you had, and then you have to restructure these to some degree because you're seeing a whole bunch of people live in this way. And so what does that mean? And so and it also, so, so this is, I think, the most significant part of moving around and what it taught me was to look at different people look at different situations, and try to see myself in terms of this idea of difference and movement. How I fit in the world.

Emma Dhesi:

Yeah, yeah, interesting. And when we were both in Hong Kong you you were my writing teacher, I had a fantastic season of writing with you. And and one of the things that you helped me with you introduced me to deep reading, which I confess I don't do enough of. And but I wonder if you could explain for some of our listeners, what deep reading is and how it can benefit benefit us as writers?

Stephanie Han:

Sure. So deep reading and close reading these are, this is foundationally a very important skill, but also, it can be a little bit miserable. It's sort of the sweating part of writing. It's like the sit ups of writing, like the bench pressing, writing. And basically, it's moving very close into the sentence, and trying to break down the sentence and looking at the different words, what does each word mean? You know, if you read a line of a poem, let's say a line in a poem, or a few sentences in, in a, in a paragraph, what is contained in these two sentences that echo and reverberate throughout the book? What were What do you know? How does this word match with this word? This syllable? How does this syllable sound with this syllable, so what you're doing is you're taking a microscope, and you're moving very close. And what that allows you to do is really think about sentence structure. How how words carry different nuance and connotative. meaning, and so it's a practice that I think is very important if you want to write, and it helps with critical thinking. So deep reading, close reading, this is foundational to a lot of ways that we teach critical thinking, particularly in secondary, school and undergraduate years. And as a writer, it's important because then you become very conscious of, you know, the words that you're putting down. Ideally, you don't you don't stop yourself up so much that you won't write anything because you can't overthink it. But when you're editing and looking at it, you can see does this sound beautiful? Does is this mellifluous, this the way these syllables go? Does that sentence kind of echo to the sentence at the end of the chapter? You know, you can think about things like that. And that's important, right? It's a work of art, literature is art.

Emma Dhesi:

So is that a skill that one would use in the first draft? Or is it generally we would go back and use that kind of loose? I think... in the revision?

Stephanie Han:

Yeah, you know what, when you're doing the first draft, you're kind of vomiting on the page. I mean, you just sort of putting it all out there, right? You're trying to let your creative juices go. And then, you know, we can sometimes play with it, let's say even on your first draft, but I would say going over it, you can think about that a little more deeply. Because deep reading and close reading that's really title so to editing, right? How we have to look very carefully at things. So it's just a skill to, to use and to deploy. And sometimes, you know, when you when, when we read off, and we don't do that, but you ever noticed when your eye catches a phrase or word, you reread it. That's, that's why there's something in there. It's weighted, and you enjoy that one sentence and you're like, yeah, that's so great. That's so true. And that's an example of, you know, deep reading clustering.

Emma Dhesi:

Okay, cool. My dad used to do that he was a slow reader anyway, but it would take an even longer, because they he, he's the kind of reader who did love to go back and reread a paragraph or reread a page. I don't know how he had the patience to do it so often, but that was him with great enjoyment. Awesome. Now as a writing teacher, and you certainly were working with me and I was very much a new writer. What are some of the common mistakes that you see new writers make? And do you have any suggestions as to how they can avoid making those those basic those kind of foundational mistakes?

Stephanie Han:

Um, one of the main things is, um, structure that you need to have a beginning and middle and end, I don't want to get into all the details of it, because there's lots of debates surrounding story structure, right experimental writing, or is it valid, blah, blah, blah. But you do need a beginning, middle and end, okay? Because it's, you know, there's a, what we're trying to do when we write is we're trying to bring an idea of unity, right? We want people to feel good, when they read or after they read, we want them to, you know, your words are filling up what they're thinking, but they don't have words for and so, these this idea that brings unity is often idea of a beginning, middle and end. So you need to have that. I would say that's one of the main things. And also, um, you know, we're people and we identify with characters. I mean, I guess, you know, you can have an animal as being a character, but we tend to and I'm speaking of prose not so much poetry which is different, which is fragments and you know, emotions and fleeting feelings often but we need a character and you need to think about this character because this character is what people will project on to so you need an interesting character, and the character does not have to be perfect. The character needs to be interesting, and three dimensional, and we don't have to make the character do everything, right. Because no one is right people go to reading because they have problems and nothing is more boring than reading about a perfect character, right? That's not the human experience, we find solace, and we find companionship and we find relief when we meet a character on the page, who seems to be going through some of the things that we go through or understanding this or that or is sensitive in the way that we're sensitive and so making a character that's realistic, or if you're writing fantasy, you can make one that's phantasmagorical, or whatever, but a character is key. So that's character is the action is the story.

Emma Dhesi:

Do you think the character needs to be likable? No, likeable kind of different things?

Stephanie Han:

No, no, no, there is a difference, though Americans tend to like protagonists that are sort of more likeable. I noticed that in British Literature, there's a little more room, there's not the expectation that the character always has to be likable. The character can also be complicated, and not likable. And that's also interesting to read, right? We all would love to read the villain, or we all love to read somebody who drives us crazy. But Americans, and I think this has to do with the kind of American cultural ethos tend to lean towards characters that are, you know, it's cultural characteristics that are likable, or you know, pioneering defy the odds, all that kind of, I mean, look at Hollywood, Hollywood's American. That's true. You know. So there, it varies from culture to culture, what the expectations are, and it has to do with the cultural norms of what they think people should be. Right?

Emma Dhesi:

Right. Okay. Yes, yes. I'm just going to move on a little bit, and to talk a little bit about more about what you do. And first of all, as an instructor, and then also your own writing, as well. But your, your, on your website, you mentioned that you when you talk about warrior women writers, and I love this race, I love would love to consider myself a warrior woman writer. So what what where did this phrase come from? And what for you is a warrior woman writer?

Stephanie Han:

Okay, so I, when I was young, I read the book, the woman warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, Chinese American writer, and this is one of the first books, it's creative nonfiction book that was written by an Asian American woman. And when I read this, I really liked especially the opening, the opening pages opening first chapter where there's this, you know, woman, like, who seems to be defying, and she's a warrior woman, conventional norms. Previous to that I had read a book, which was also nice, but the, but the little Asian girl was doing everything a parents wanted, and it was really annoying to read. So, so the warrior, offered to kind of creative, imaginative relief, right? And so I had this previously on my website, but I started to think about women who kind of step out the conventional role in that they take a stance, they are unafraid to let their voices be heard in some way. And what does that mean? And how does it you know, what does it look like? And I thought, it's important for women to see these kinds of women, these different kinds of women who've taken the risk to let their voices be heard. And, you know, when I started it before, in my other website, it was you didn't have to be a writer, there was a costume designer or, you know, the, you know, people who who take a stance also in their community, right community activists who may be sort of defy a social norm about how women should be. And so I recently revived that, you know, woman warrior writer because I thought a lot about how it's very brave for women to simply write their story on the page. To write a story down to declare that you have the right to write as a woman is really a bold act of defiance and rebellion, because everything that we are as women, is down to the interpreted texts that have set our way of living through religion, finance, culture, everything, you know, we are governed by laws and social mores that we did not write. We interpreted them through the years, but we have not written them and women haven't been writing for very long at all, you know, I mean, they always point to like Sappho. But the reason you're pointing because it's so rare, she's the only one you can think of, you know, or more Osaki, you know, from Japan tail again, G. But so I wanted to showcase women who can show other women that they can learn to step out into the world and raise their voices, and yes, author their lives. In other words, write their own story of who they are metaphorically. And literally, we always are offering our lives we exist in this narrative of life, where our greatest stories.

Emma Dhesi:

Kind of prompted or led you in the direction or what you teach online now, and the classes that you hold, looking at intersectionality, and in particular, the experience of Asian and Asian American women. So these are some of the concepts then that led you towards focusing on these areas?

Stephanie Han:

Um, well, yeah, so I was asked actually to teach a class on Asian and Asian American women's literature, by some students, because a lot of young Asian Americans, and do not have the opportunity to study Asian American literature in college, either the classes are not offered, or their parents told them, they should be an engineer. And so I told them don't take that kind of class. And so this is part of the the gap that I was attempting to fill, and also to provide a forum because there may be particular cultural notions that have found Asian women within the context of nation and how they what they're writing about. And so this has been a great class, I've really enjoyed it. And intersectionality this manuscript workshop is really for, it's open to all women, and, you know, women who are working on a specific book project, because it's a long haul to get through a book. And women need the kind of support to do this. And so that, you know, that has, you know, everybody's represented in that group. It's really just open. And it's a good learning experience, because intersectionality deals with this idea, it was the concept of intersectionality was put forward by a black legal scholar who stated Crenshaw, who stated that, you know, you can't just be your race, you are also your gender, you're also we have multiple identities, right? and, and our feminism and our ideas of self and writing are not determined by simply one thing, there are a confluence of many things and so this is what the class also attempts to do is to show women the different sides of the many different ways we are women, and to honor and to learn and to respect the different journeys we've traveled and to help each other, bring those words to the page, and to encourage us to go further out into the world with our individual and our own communities idea, and how do we intersect? How do we help each other How as women do we work? You know, so...

Emma Dhesi:

They're fantastic. Yeah. I imagine that they are in great demand I can imagine women that you know, yeah. Now one of the things, again, that I saw on your website was, and I quote, The practice of writing is not always connected with the realities of publishing. And this is something that I think a lot of writers, there's a big gap there. And so you mentioned that some of your published works were later rejected by other publishers. Some of those rejected works, then later won prizes. So it's really a great disparity there or how just objective fiction friction can be.

Stephanie Han:

Well, you know what? It's not to, I'm like a professional being reject, like, I've been rejected hundreds of times. So many times, I could actually probably write a dissertation on it, because I've watched the evolution of rejections from when you stepped to send in an envelope and there was a debate like, should you send in an old envelope or a new envelope and then you'd wait for the little tag? Should you only do one at a time with mail, that would be once every three months, you know, like this I i've been rejected for decades. Every story I wrote in my published collections swimming in Hong Kong was rejected with the exception of maybe one well over 100 times. And the whole collection was also rejected multiple times and in fact, this book, after it was published and won awards, I got three years after the publication date. This is only just two years ago, I got a note from a pretty well respected editor telling me that they like the book, but yeah, blah, blah, rejecting it again. And I emailed I said, Sorry, you're too late. It's already been turned in published, it already won awards, it's out, you know, you, you're free to reject it but maybe you better rethink some of your criteria. That's what I did say...

Emma Dhesi:

That's very, I think, assuring for.... love.

Stephanie Han:

Yeah, because what happens is, yeah, what happens is we associate publication with validation, you were valid, simply because you wrote something you are writing. And this in itself is a different view getting published, okay. And a lot of what publication is down to is being seen, being seen by somebody for who you are inside your creative expression is, and you know, what, you them that deep and hard, because maybe in the end, I mean, I know that sounds crazy, but maybe in the end, all you want to do is be seen by one person and, you know, that's a really long journey than to attempt to travel to publish to this. And that when all you want is, you know, your cousin to say, you know what, you're a good writer, I see you, I see you. And you know, that it's a so that, I think, is what people really need to examine who they want to be seen by and where that comes from. And I think that will sort of solve a lot of the publication anx. Because it's about validity. But you should always separate that, because there's a lot of subjectivities that go along with it, if I believe only 5% of the books are published by you know, yeah, so so that's all I want to say is that you can always, always write because that's what makes you a writer. Publishing does not make you a writer, writing makes you a writer.

Emma Dhesi:

Yes. So well said Well said. So I'm conscious of time. And so I didn't want to finish without asking, What are you writing at the moment? You mentioned, you're swimming in Hong Kong there? Are you continuing with your poetry? Are you writing short stories?

Stephanie Han:

Well, right now, what I've been focusing on is writing a book to help women to write their divorce story. So I'm very interested in I was a writing teacher for many years, in giving women sort of semi prescriptive, you know, manuals or books to help them find their voice. This is really my priority now. And so I'm writing one, to help women write their divorce narrative and this can be used potentially when they submit it if they can to court during the divorce and it's also and or can be used for healing. So I invite these women who are undergoing a divorce to please you know, join the Facebook group, Rewrite your divorce story. and sign up, I give a class on writing your divorce narrative. I'm finishing, writing a little bit of an introduction to a book of poetry and some prose that I wrote while I was in Hong Kong, because what I realized was, I used this kind of writing to try to understand where I was, and I think that a lot of people get afraid of poetry, of writing it of, of looking at it. And poetry, again, you write for yourself can be used for yourself. So it's, so I want to, I have my book done, but I want to give instructions about how you can use it and my book is just like a test case for how you can try to write your own book. And then finally, I'm finishing a project. It's a third project, and they're all linked called Tied to a class called power journal, which is to help women write their own book of philosophy. So it's 30 prompts, it's based on ideas. Let's save the eaching which are philosophical concepts and use to govern your life and you can respond to these prompts and at the end of the 30, you'll have your own little Personal book of philosophy. So when you're not sure where to turn, you open your own little book, and what did you think about this concept of balance, or love? Or parents, and you have your own little Book of Wisdom? And sure, you can ask opinions of people, but you know the answer inside, and you can look at your own book, and we're lying yourself. So these are all I'm, I'm, you know, I'm sort of finishing up all of them. They're almost all done. So they should be ready, boom, boom, boom. And it's they're really instructional guides to help women. Right?

Emma Dhesi:

Gosh, You are busy, you've been very busy. And and will they be? Will you be kind of looking for a publisher to do that? Or will they be really...

Stephanie Han:

I think for the, I think for initially, for the divorce, writing manual, I might release that myself as an independent kind of book because it's a, it's like a self help. It's a practical guide. If I should turn it into something longer more of fiction or nonfiction piece, that would be different. But I think this guide, which might only end up being, let's say, 15 to 20,000 words is useful is a useful little workbook type of book. And I'm all about using my skills now to help women write their stories. That's really what I'm dedicating my life to, at this point.

Emma Dhesi:

Lovely. So where can listeners find out more about the work that you're doing online?

Stephanie Han:

Sure. So right now, you should go to Drstephaniehan.com, Drstephaniehan.com and sign up for a newsletter, I'm gonna kind of rehabbing and re hauling my website. But they'll be classes up soon and also drop a line and let me know what do you want to learn about? I'm happy to you know, that's how the Asian American women's workshop started. Because I had a few Asian American women say, I want to learn literature, written by Asian American women. Can you help us and I was so thrilled because that was an area where I could help them. Right. And it ended up helping other women who joined the class. So if there's something you feel you need help with, with writing, please let me know. Because there's a chances are if you need help, there's another woman who needs help, and we can have a class.

Emma Dhesi:

Wonderful. Well, Dr. Stephanie Han, thank you so so much for your time. It's been lovely seeing you.

Stephanie Han:

Thank you Emma. Thank you so much, and good luck.

Emma Dhesi:

Well, thank you so much for joining me today. I hope you find that helpful and inspirational. Now, don't forget to come on over to facebook and join my group, Turning readers into writers. It is especially for you if you are a beginner writer who is looking to write their first novel. If you join the group, you will also find a free cheat sheet. They're called three secret hacks to write with consistency. So go to emmadhesi.com/turning readers into writers hits join. I can't wait to see you in there. All right. Thank you. Bye bye.