8Books Q&A: Romeo and Juliet vs. Zombies, with Koji Steven Sakai

Romeo_and_Juliet_vs_Zombies_coverOur very own Koji Steven Sakai has just released his very first novel (massive applause!) throwing a fantastical twist on that famous Shakespearean play. In Romeo and Juliet vs. Zombies, “Romeo and Juliet must fight to overcome hoards of zombies that include Tybalt, Mercutio, and even Juliet’s nurse. Sakai’s version of the beloved tale forces Romeo to fight for Juliet’s respect…even if that means picking up a sword that (gulp) could actually hurt someone.” The eBook came out just last week with a print version arriving this week.

AND, because he’s one of us, we get to ask him all kinds of questions. So, your exclusive (ish) author interview with 8Asians’ most awesome screenwriter —

How did you decide what to write about? What was your inspiration?

I admit I have a terrible infatuation with Romeo and Juliet. Not only because it’s truly the only Shakespeare I could actually get through, but because it has spoken to me in different ways at different times in my life. When I was a teenager and believed in silly notions such as “true love” (please don’t judge me), I thought it was romantic. But as I got older, I see it for what it is—silly infatuations of hormonal teenagers. And that’s why I’ve written multiple screenplays about it. Four to be exact.

And then there’s my love for post-apocalyptic zombie stories. There’s something about the end of the world and a horde of reanimated corpses trying to feed on people’s brains that just makes me smile and feel good about myself and my life.

So for me, Romeo & Juliet Vs. Zombies was the first time that I was able to marry my two passions into one project.

Why zombies in particular? Why not other fantastical creatures?

I love all fantastical creatures—especially vampires, aliens, ghosts, and demons. But there’s something about zombies that gets my heart racing. The easy answer is that zombies are a metaphor for the masses of unthinking people, but I don’t think that’s quite it for me. I see zombies as representing something even more primal. To me, I’m fascinated with the question of whether I could survive an apocalypse—zombie or otherwise. Do I have what it takes to live?

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8Books: Free Kid’s E-book for Chinese New Year, ‘The Emperor Who Built the Great Wall’

91K3-EOSvXL._SL1500_If you’re an Asian American parent like me, you probably struggle to find books for your kids that have the right blend of age appropriateness and entertainment while still offering a glimpse into the history and culture of your ancestry. Just in time for Chinese New Year, a new children’s e-book is available on Amazon. While the topic isn’t Chinese New Year, it does tackle the topic of why the Great Wall exists in China. The book is titled “The Emperor Who Built the Great Wall” and is written by Jillian Lin. During the introductory period on February 19 and 20, 2015 you can get the book for free. After the 20th it will be priced at $2.99.

As a kid’s book, I really liked the historical story telling, but some of it may not be appropriate for the really young ones (especially the part about attempted murder of the emperor, and the many who died building the wall), but is a good early reader if your child already has a good grasp of morals and understanding around life and death.

I was especially appreciative of the end of the book which offered additional facts in a “Did you know?” section. The drawings were colorful, and well done.

My own daughter liked the book, but mostly because she’s already fascinated with the terracotta warriors after seeing the exhibit last year at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and the book covers that history as well. The Great Wall isn’t something she has a particular interest in, but now that she’s read the book, I’m going to go back and show her the pictures I have of myself on the Great Wall, from when I visited back in 1995 and in 2002.

The only other thing I would have like to see in the book and didn’t would have been incorporation of some Chinese characters into the story. I’m always looking for kids books that help teach some of the simpler Chinese characters to reinforce my daughter’s Chinese school experience. Overall worth a download if you’re looking for something to share with your child for Chinese New Year.

An 8Books Valentine: Free Download of Asian American Erotic Romance Series

Irvine Lovers ClubHappy Valentine’s Day book nerds! Starting today until February 16, the Irvine Lovers Club is giving away five Asian American erotic stories. Each of the stories acts like a book chapter, following Korean American Claudia Kim on her steamy adventures set in Orange County California. The series aims to change the sad lacking of Asian Americans in the erotic romance genre.

Or, as the publishers have written:

Hating on Valentine’s Day is a tired and rusty sentiment. How about this year we try something new and embrace the treat-yo’-self aspect of the day? If you don’t want to celebrate with $60 flowers and an overpriced seafood dinner, the publishers of Irvine Lovers Club are offering a cost-effective alternative.

Maybe the best part about this series is its origin story. The author Karina Hahn is fictional. A group of Asian American friends gathered in California to collaboratively plot out the stories, using a ghostwriter. One of the contributors explained, “We figured that Jhumpa Lahiri and Chang Rae Lee are doing an amazing job in contemporary literature, but Erotic Romance (think 50 Shades) is a category that Asian Americans are sorely underrepresented in. I’m the first one to admit that this is not serious or fine literature.  It’s just supposed to be fun and trashy…like eating doughnuts.”

Maybe this kind of reading is not up your alley, or maybe it is, or maybe it’s free and you might try it out. So here’s to self love, friend love, romantic love, and to loving books.

8Books Review: “How Much Do You Love Me?” by Paul Mark Tag

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“How Much Do You Love Me?” by Paul Mark Tag is the kind of novel I usually hate.

Here’s the Amazon.com synopsis:

It’s December 1941, and the Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor. Politicians fuel anti-Japanese hysteria and campaign to segregate Japanese Americans. During this period of hate and racial frenzy, Keiko and James, a Japanese American and a Caucasian, fall in love and marry. Before long, James goes off to war and Keiko to an internment camp.

Sixty years later, Keiko has a stroke and lies near death, while James suffers from Alzheimer’s. Coincidentally, a chance incident makes their daughter, Kazuko, born in the camps, suspect a family secret. Fighting the clock before her mother’s death, she races to unravel the mystery. What she uncovers represents nothing short of the epitome of human love and self-sacrifice. But beyond Kazuko’s dramatic discovery, only the reader knows that this is only half the story.

When I read that synopsis and saw that it was a love story about a Japanese American girl and a Caucasian guy – I immediately thought “Snow Falling on Cedars.” I unconsciously rolled my eyes and shook my head. Why do all the fictional stories about the Japanese American internment camps involve a love story between a white guy and Japanese American woman?

I figured that I didn’t even have to read the book. I could just bash it based on premise alone.

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8Books Review: “Chop Suey, USA” by Yong Chen

chopsueyReading Yong Chen’s new book Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America is an education. In some ways, it seems more like an encyclopedia or a peak into the brain of a man who has read and retained an almost overwhelming number of books. Chen’s books is filled to the brim with details about the history of Chinese American food. Beginning with a brief history of the culinary realm in China, the books delves into the rise and development of Chinese restaurants, Chinese cookbooks, and the Chinese American population generally. He places credit for the proliferation of Chinese restaurants in the US not in Chinese foods’ innate tastiness, but rather to both Chinese immigrant entrepreneurship and trends within our nation’s development. Sound complicated?

It is, a little bit. Chen’s book is not for someone looking for a nice airplane read about chop suey and egg foo young. Rather, this is a complex addition to the history of Chinese food in the United States. Chen hopes to answer the question: Why did Chinese food become so popular in America?

But in answering it, the book does not confine itself only to the history of Chinese restaurants, and also looks at this question from a national and global perspective — from the emergence of Chinese restaurants just as a developing middle class was looking for cheap options for eating out, to the first cookbooks to emerge in dynastic China. For anyone who wants to understand in depth where Chinese food fits into the large arc of American history, this one is a winner.

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8Books Review: “Everything I Never Told You” by Celeste Ng

EverythingI’ve been putting off writing this review for weeks, but this book is special and you should seriously think about reading it. Celeste Ng’s debut book, Everything I Never Told You is a stirring novel about a family unraveling.

Ng begins her novel in the present day with a family on the brink of finding out that their teenage daughter, Lydia, is dead. The Lee Family: Lydia, her mother, father, and two siblings. Their lives circled around Lydia, their unconscious center of gravity.

The story of this interracial family plays with chronology, ricocheting between moments in each parent’s childhood, Lydia and her sibling’s childhood, the parents’ relationship, the near present, and the realities of life after they all learned that Lydia had drowned.

How had it begun? Like everything: with mothers and fathers. Because of Lydia’s mother and father, because of her mother’s and father’s mothers and fathers…Because more than anything her mother had wanted to stand out; because more than anything, her father had wanted to blend in. Because those things had been impossible.

Ng’s narrative voice is straightforward and honest. There is very little verbal fluff. Complexity is instead added through unpacking the layers of each characters, the unsaid things that frame how each family member thinks of themselves, and in turn, those around them. From the obvious big decisions to the subtle and subconscious, Ng focuses on how each of these people has, in a way, been built from their lives. Tying together a past that heavily influences the present and the entire trajectory of their lives.

There are moments where these kinds of heavily intertwined plot lines that flow across time feel contrived and the characters fitting into a common mold, but in the main, Ng’s presentation of family relations, of generational gaps, parental pressures, and sibling dynamics rings resonant. I certainly don’t believe that this is a book for Asian Americans in a limiting sense, but I know that as an Asian American, certain pieces of this story felt particularly true and not often found in novels. A subtle integration of iconic stories — in this brief sentence, about the paper son system that Chinese immigrants used after being first excluded in 1882 — woven into broader questions about belonging.

He had never felt he belonged here, even though he’d been born on American soil, even though he had never set foot anywhere else. His father had come to California under a false name…

To her sentences capturing the insipidness of treatment of otherness and reactions to how society reacts to you that are not exclusive to any one individual’s or group’s experience:

“What’s wrong with your eyes?” It wasn’t until he heard the horror in the teacher’s voice–“Shirley Byron!”–that he realized he was supposed to be embarrassed; the next time it happened, he had learned his lesson and turned red right away.

In an interview, Ng notes that her own suburban childhood influenced the story line but that it is certainly not autobiographic. She used the feeling of “negotiating between two cultures” into her characters’ actions. These are forces that clearly shape the family’s emotions and decisions, drawing readers in as they grapple with Lydia’s death and what led up to it, each pursuing their own theories and in turn revealing themselves to be complicated, problematic, and also sympathetic.

And if my recommendation is not enough, Everything I Never Told You is featured in the New York Times’ 100 Notable Books of 2014 and Amazon’s Best Books So Far list for 2014.

Check out more from 8Books–8Asians’ almost book club.

8Books Review: “Who We Be” by Jeff Chang

WhoWeBeRace. Multiculturalism. Diversity. Culture. Big words that it sometimes seems we talk around and around. Jeff Chang’s new book Who We Be: The Colorization of America–released today–takes a big step in helping to provide a vocabulary and a history to America’s long relationship with this complex topic through images and ideas.

By teasing out the development and evolution of conversations on race from the 1960s through to today’s “post-racial” moments, Chang guides us through the back story of the different ways that the United States has talked about race, color, whiteness, and other topics. Though the book is a bit lengthy and looks like a lot to take on, Chang uses art and culture as his (ready and accesible) entry points to think about visuals as both overt and subtle influencers — about artists and culture makers who have provoked conversations and confrontations behind bigger iconic moments in American history, and about people of color asking for visibility and acceptance however they defined it.

In the introduction of Who We Be, Chang lays it out:

We can all agree that race is not a question of biology. Instead it is a question of culture and it begins as a visual problem, one of vision and visuality. Race happens in the gap between appearance and the perception of difference. It is about what we see and what we think we see and what we think about when we see. In that sense, it’s bigger than personal affinities, preferences, tastes, and bonds.

Through liberal and conservative moments, progress and setbacks, Chang unfolds his narrative over a wide range of subjects, from art, advertisement, and history, to the definitions of words, crises of whiteness, crises of color, and questions of representation and presence. He builds on the project begun in Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop which looks at the history of hip-hop, its creators and influencers. So what makes this book, among all the books being released today, worth reading?

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8Books Review: ‘Pioneer Girl: A Novel’ by Bich Minh Nguyen

8Asians is participating in the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s Book Dragon Book Club. Posts on 8Asians will be cross-posted on their website where you can also check out other reviews and author interviews. This month’s book is Pioneer Girl, by Bich Minh Nguyen

Pioneer Girl: A NovelThere’s a point in Pioneer Girl: A Novel when its heroine, Lee Lien, a recent PhD in literature stuck living at home with her mother and grandfather while she works in the family restaurant, realizes something about the literary mystery she’s been trying to solve.

Is her mother’s gold pin, left behind by an elderly American woman journalist in the early 1960s in her grandfather’s café in Vietnam, actually an heirloom that had belonged to Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House on the Prairie books? Was that journalist in fact Rose Wilder Lane, Laura’s daughter? What is this pin worth, and what will Lee do with it next?

The story of the pin that Lee has constructed, from her grandfather’s stories, her own research, and a stolen paper or two, is fantastic and almost too good to be true. But it is not really hers to share. Sure, she has driven from Illinois to Iowa to Missouri, and flown out to San Francisco for what she assumes will be a happy ending to the story of the pin. But the pin doesn’t solve the problems she has with her family, notably her reticent mother and her estranged brother, Sam.

Back in Illinois, Lee’s ma waits for her daughter to come to her senses, to settle down, and take her place behind the register at the family restaurant. She had raised Lee to live a more stable life, which doesn’t involve driving all over the Midwest engaged in research. But ma‘s own life in America, which was largely spent moving from one small town to the next, seeking work in a stream of Chinese buffets before she can find and finance her own business, is the precursor to Lee’s own journey. Ma isn’t enjoying the kind of success she might have envisioned when she and her father, Lee’s kind grandfather, escaped Vietnam for a new life in America. She wonders why neither Lee not her estranged brother Sam can understand the allure of the restaurant she struggled to open, waiting for the day her son and heir will take it over.

The melodrama that I (perhaps unfairly) expected before reading this book came from multiple viewings of The Joy Luck Club, the film adaptation of Amy Tan’s best-selling novel about a quartet of Chinese mothers and their very American daughters. If I wasn’t cheering when a daughter finally stood up to an emotionally stunted husband, or crying when a mother tells her daughter that she takes the worst quality crab because she has the best quality heart, I was rolling my eyes at how easily I could be manipulated emotionally.

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