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Becoming

We had the pleasure of sitting down with Soon Wiley, author of When We Fell Apart, to learn more about his debut novel, his journey there, and the complexities around his biracial identity. 

What was your path to becoming the writer you are today?

Probably like a lot of writers, I was a reader first. I was lucky enough to have parents that read to me every night when I was a little kid, and when they weren’t telling me a story, I was buried in a book. I didn’t seriously consider pursuing fiction writing until I won a short story prize sponsored by my college. Up until that point, I hadn’t taken any creative writing classes, and while I’d worked on some short stories during my spare time, I never really considered what I was doing as writing. Winning that prize was a turning point for me. I enrolled in creative writing classes during my senior year of college, and then I pursued an MFA two years later. I started working on what would become my debut novel when I finished graduate school, and I’ve been writing almost every day since, or at least the days where I can find the time. 

What was the inspiration behind When We Fell Apart?

Initially, I was interested in exploring relationships and how we often think we know people, when in fact we often know very little about them, even in intimate relationships. As I kept writing, that initial seed of interest turned into a larger project that explored questions about identity, family, and cultural expectations. 

Which character did you resonate most with in your novel? Why so?

I share a lot of the same characteristics and biographical details with Min, so I think when I initially started writing the novel, I felt most aligned with him. Like Min, I lived in Seoul, and like Min, I’m bi-racial. A number of Min’s experiences were partially drawn from my own experience, so in that sense, I’d say that I felt the most connected to him throughout the writing process. That being said, I also found myself connecting with Detective Park quite a bit. He’s someone who has very strong ideals and ethics, but he’s forced to conform or break his moral rules for the sake of his job. This isn’t to say that I’ve had to do those types of things, but I think part of becoming an adult and getting a job in some professional arena means doing things you don’t always want to do. 

I was curious to know why Min’s narrative is third person while Yu-jin’s is in first. Can you explain?

This is actually something that changed quite a bit during the drafting of the novel. Initially, Min’s chapters were written in first-person, but at some point, it became very limiting to use first-person, especially when I was trying to build suspense. During the third draft of the novel, I decided to change it to close third-person, which gave me a lot of freedom. In my head, Yu-jin’s chapters were always in first-person. I’ve always thought of her chapters as being a confession of sorts, and so it made sense to have her speaking from the “I” perspective. I also wanted to give Yu-jin a voice in the novel. Because she’s dead when the novel opens, I wanted to find some way to still emphasize her presence in the novel. 

You go into incredible detail about the inner workings of Seoul. With its people and specific locations, it feels like a character within itself. What was your research process like? 

I lived in Seoul for about a year after graduating from college, but once I actually started writing the novel, it had been about four or five years since I’d actually been back. It sounds kind of obvious, but I spent a lot of time remembering and imagining Seoul. In early drafts, I was really stubborn about not looking at photos of Seoul or researching anything on the internet. I did my best to immerse myself in the city through my imagination. I’m a huge fan of writers who really emphasize sensory details in their fiction, so I wanted to lean heavily on that during the writing process. Later on, when I was revising the novel, I did a bit of research on the internet, just to make sure I’d gotten things correctly. When I finally found out that the book was going to be published, I was planning on going to Seoul, just to fact check a few things, but I ended up not being able to go because of Covid, which only led to more Googling. 

What was your experience living in Seoul?

I’d say that my time in Seoul was quite revelatory. On one hand, it was incredible to be surrounded by other Asians. It was the first time in my life where I’d lived in a country where the dominant race wasn’t white. At times, when I was walking around the city by myself, I felt at ease, and I was aware that I felt a lot more comfortable in Seoul than I ever had in America. However, whenever I spoke to anyone or interacted with people outside of my friend group, I immediately became aware that I didn’t actually fit in in Seoul at all, and that people very much viewed me as a foreigner. This wasn’t entirely shocking, but it was very strange to feel like you belonged somewhere, only to have people tell you that you were nothing like the people that lived there.

Without giving too much away, relationships (both family and romantic) can be touchy subjects in Asian cultures. There’s a lot of unspoken boundaries, expectations, and traditions. What was it like writing them? 

That’s a great question. Because I wasn’t raised in a “traditional” Korean household, I think I had a lot of psychological distance from some of the familial expectations that a lot of Asian kids experience when growing up, so that made it a bit easier to write about, in the sense that I could truly be an observer.  I suspect that because I was never really “inside” a Korean community when I was growing up, I felt more comfortable critiquing it or describing it. Another thing I always reminded myself of when I was working on the novel is that Asian parents, kids, pretty much all Asians, are just like everyone else. Yes, there’s certainly that cultural expectation, but at the end of the day, we all have the same fears, desires, and dreams. 

Home and belonging play major themes within every character’s journey. How has this played a meaning in your own life and can you describe how you translated that onto the page?

I think I’ve always felt a bit like an outsider. Not necessarily in some terrible way, where I was excluded or treated unfairly, but I’ve always been aware that in certain places and situations, I don’t quite fit in. Whether it was because of my name or my race, I always got questions when I was a kid. People were curious about where I was from. And again, I don’t think it was malicious, but you become aware, very quickly, that you perhaps don’t belong wherever you are at the moment. This feeling is something that I think everyone experiences to varying degrees. But certainly, when I was writing the book, I was interested in exploring characters who didn’t feel like they belonged, for whatever reason. The theme of home is probably a bit trickier to answer, but I think as a minority or person of color growing up in America, you are acutely aware that some people don’t think America is your home, even if it is. Min’s decision to travel to Korea in the first place is a reaction to this kind of sentiment. 

What did you learn about yourself and/or the process of writing your debut novel?

I don’t consider myself a spiritual person by any means, but you have to have faith to write a novel. Faith in yourself and faith in the work, which doesn’t usually illicit any faith, especially when you’re dealing with a rough draft. I also learned that I write best when I’m writing for myself. 

How did this novel help you understand or further complicate your own bi-racial background?

Writing the novel helped me come to terms with what being biracial means. This isn’t to say that I was somehow conflicted about being bi-racial before my novel, but I think there’s an inherent messiness when you grow up as bi-racial. When you’re younger there are all sorts of questions about who you are and where you come from, but as you get older, you start thinking about how labels and categories aren’t really useful at all, especially to people who defy categorization. Writing the novel helped me accept and understand that it’s really important to have an internal identity, one that is separate from how other people view you. Being bi-racial means that you will often be seen by different people in different ways, so it can be confusing when you can move between different worlds. A strong inner idea of who you are – divorced from your external identity – is really important.  

For readers who are looking for their new book, why should people choose When We Fell Apart?

When I started writing When We Fell Apart, I wanted to give my readers a good story. Above all else, this is the responsibility of the writer. Afterall, we are storytellers, and there is a lot of competition out there, from movies, television shows, video games, and all the other forms of entertainment, so it’s incumbent on us to keep our readers’ interest. So, people should pick up my book if they want to read a good old-fashioned story that keeps them entertained, immerses them in a foreign culture, and maybe prompts them to ask some probing questions about identity, familial expectations, and whether we can really know someone. 

A native of Nyack, New York, Soon Wiley received his BA in English & Philosophy from Connecticut College. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Wichita State University. His writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and earned him fellowships in Wyoming and France. He resides in Connecticut with his wife and their two cats. When We Fell Apart is his debut novel. Support his work today at Penguin Random House.

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My Journey with Journals

“Dear Journal, Today was a wild day. Tomorrow, I hope, will be a great day a school.”

Those were the first few sentences I wrote in the first journal of many to come, 20 years ago. There was no context given to who I was just yet, the state of the world, or anything of the sort. If there was anything to gain from that first entry was that I was really not into the fact that my elementary school had such a firmly set social hierarchy.

I call that journal my first, even though I had been given journals before. But that instance was different. Whether it was because of the fact that it was a few days after turning a double-digit age for the first time, or that we the world were still reeling from the horrors of 9/11 that took place only a few months before, a change was in the air, and the drive to document my thoughts and memories had been awakened.

Little did I think then about where I would be 20 years later. Heck, I didn’t even consider the possibility of journaling becoming so embedded in my life over the next 20 years. And yet, here we are; a little beaten up and shaken, yet still thriving and writing.

So much of my life has been captured over the years: from elementary school to college, fleeting friendships as well as long-lasting ones, coming to terms with my Filipino and mixed-race identities, as well as the strives I’ve made in my writing career throughout my adulthood so far.

At the same time, a lot has happened in the world while writing in my journals. It began in the post-9/11 era. Since then, the War in Iraq happened, so did a major economic recession, Barack Obama was nominated to office, the Black Lives Matter movement got started, same-sex marriage became legalized in the United States, Donald Trump was nominated to office, and of course, the COVID-19 pandemic changed life as we know it. As of this writing, Russia invaded Ukraine a few days ago.

When I was younger, current events often felt separate from whatever was going on in my life. However, the older I’ve gotten and the more life experiences I’ve gained, the more emotionally and mentally I’ve become tapped into the world outside of the Bay Area suburb I grew up in. Looking through just a handful of my completed journals, the evolution is noticeable:

“Today was odd and weird. Okay, let’s just say weird. Believe me, I’m serious.” -age 10

“I feel like 80% of myself. The other 20% is asleep. Asleep as in it’s not up to it.” -age 13

“You can say my life can be full of drama sometimes and the truth is, is it really worth it to go through all this?” -age 15

“Writing isn’t just about dwelling into the creative forces of the mind or using words to cover a current happening for all to read. It’s also about expressing yourself… even if it is to yourself.” -age 19

“I guess what I’m trying to say is just once, just for one week if not forever, I just want there to be peace. No shootings, no attacks, no bombings, no injuries or premature deaths. Is that really so hard to ask? Can a flag not be at half-staff for a minute?” -age 24

“Seeing someone perform in the flesh for a film is different than watching someone perform in theatre. It feels like a different kind of spell is being cast.” -age 26

“I know it probably sounds really childish, but when you’re living through tumultuous times like this, you can’t help but long for innocent days when the world felt smaller and unbreakable.” -age 28

In retrospect, I feel very proud of myself for writing in journals for as long as I have. It’s come to be a reliable space where I not only get to reflect back on day-to-day life, but also a form of therapy for me. I’m well aware that this isn’t something for everyone, so I wouldn’t recommend it for every single person I encounter. What I can say is for me, I wouldn’t have it any other way, and I honestly don’t see myself stopping at all anytime soon.

The world – and life itself – is hard, but at least I have journals.

Lauren Lola is a lifelong “Star Wars” and Miyazaki geek. Also, mad love for “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” “So Weird,” and anything from Taika Waititi. Author/blogger/playwright/screenwriter. Other writing can be found at Mixed Asian Media, CAAMedia, YOMYOMF, and more.

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A Piece of My Puzzle, A Love for My Heart

My life, as everyone’s life, is like a puzzle, full of wonder, challenges, beauty, and a work in progress. 

Growing up in a transracial family from the age of 3 months in a predominately white town, I became accustomed to not looking like my parents and people being naïve enough to think my sister, who was also adopted from China though two years prior, and I were biologically related, even though we don’t look alike at all. As the youngest, I always felt like I needed to try harder, do better to be as good, smart, beautiful, athletic as my older sister. Our different body builds (she’s tall and thin, and I am short and stocky) and her natural talent at school and sports, in addition to already feeling like an imposter, living in a predominantly white community, being one of just a handful of people of color led me to a perpetual feeling of being an outsider and “not enough” growing up. 

At a young age, I did not want too much to do with my culture. Sure the food and the traditions around the Lunar New Year were great, but I did not want to learn what would have been my native tongue if I were not adopted, and I did not want to partake in Chinese traditional dance. My sister, on the other hand, loved Chinese School and Chinese dance. As a result, I always felt like the rebellious child, the child who did not partake in what her parents expected of her and wanted from her. 

What now remains from my own and societal preconceived notions, is that as an adult and a Chinese adoptee, not only do I feel the societal pressures of being an Asian American woman, but I also feel that at times I must work harder to prove myself to myself, my family, both my adoptive and unknown biological families, and the world. 

However, I can fully express and work through these notions, in part because of a big piece of my life story puzzle: Chinese Heritage Camp, one of now 9 camps from Heritage Camps for Adoptive Families. 

I do not remember the first time I went to camp as I was only three. However, what I do remember is that from a young age once I could remember what camp was and what it meant to myself and my family is this: every year when it was time to register for camp, it was pre-internet days at first, my sister and I would make sure my mom was able to fax in our registration first thing so there was no chance of being put on the waitlist. 

I also remember driving up to camp in the mountains each year after school on a Friday, as Chinese Heritage Camp is over Labor Day weekend, and that feeling of excitement, happiness, and eagerness creeping into my belly as we passed landmarks along the way: the mountain pass, that Starbucks in a mountain town, the A frame sign on the side of the road, and finally the sign that read “Snow Mountain Ranch”, with each one telling me we were getting closer to our friends, community, and annual home over Labor Day weekend. 

I remember stepping out of the car into the smell of fresh mountain air feeling embraced by love standing in the cool, crisp air and feeling excited as a little kid feels on Christmas morning. 

I remember stepping into the Kiva (the main meeting place for camp) each year for the first time smiling ear to ear and looking around for the directors, the other campers, and most importantly the counselors (who were teens and young adult racial mirrors) some of whom would be assigned to my group for the weekend. 

As time went by, I remember seeing the faces of dear friends and a community, stepping into the Kiva felt like stepping into a warm hug, both literally and figuratively, as many warm hugs usually presented themselves over the years. 

I remember sitting on a big wall that separated the gym space and roller rink space with my friends just chatting, giggling, and feeling at peace in a place where we all felt like we belonged, because our families all were built the same way.  

It was here, at Chinese Heritage camp that I was met with racial mirrors and role models, many of whom have become family to me. 

It was here that I found out more about my heritage, the complexities of adoption, the importance of post-adoption services/ resources, and how important it is to recognize, celebrate, and look introspectively at these intersecting areas and aspects of my life. 

 Camp was full of other kids and families that looked like me and my own family from all over. There were so many Asians, mostly Chinese and Tawainese faces there. Throughout the weekend, I loved walking with my peers and counselors to workshops full of arts and crafts, food to cook, talks of adoption, and presenters who looked like me and knew about my own culture full of happiness to share their own experiences with us campers so that we could know and learn more about our own heritage. One of my favorite workshops, even to this day as my role at camp has come full circle with me being the counselor/ role model, is titled HeART Talks. In this workshop we always did some form of art that was about self expression, emotions, and/ or adoption. We always read a story together about adoption, and we always discussed what adoption meant to us and any feelings we had about adoption. HeART Talks has always been one of my favorites, because I always felt seen and like I belonged here, and as someone who tends to be more on the emotional side, I loved being able to express myself and share my emotions and story with others. I truly, and strongly, believe to this day that this workshop really helped lay the foundation for me understanding my own adoption story more and being able to cope and adjust into this strange, sometimes lonely world that we live in, especially during transition periods in my life, like going to college. 

As I grew older, camp not only continued to feel like home for me, continuing to grow with excitement as we approached camp, but it became a place I realized I could also have an impact and be there for other adoptees. From evolving from camper to counselor to presenter to coordinator, I have truly become a part of camp, and camp has become a part of me in so many ways. I’ve seen how my own experience and bringing what I loved doing as a camper and child growing up in camp can be brought back and enjoyed by the next generation. I learned how important it is to have racial mirrors and people you can relate to with similar upbringings. 

Growing up with this special place and community each year has allowed me to be innovative at different stages of my life. For example, when beginning college, camp allowed me to realize how passionate I felt about connecting with other adoptees and bringing awareness about adoption to others, and with my knowledge and experience at camp, I was able to create a student organization on campus so that adoptees in my new community, and others who wanted to be allies for adoptees or had connection to adoption, could have a safe place to go. 

Furthermore, in my young adult years as a new professional, I was able to tap into my passion again for adoptees and those who have been separated from biological family by working on a project on children in the Foster Care System (Out-of-Home care) and how as healthcare providers we can do better for this community. If it weren’t for camp and the acceptance and vulnerability it has allowed me to express and experience regarding my own adoption journey, I am not sure I would have been so open or innovative in my later years. If it weren’t for camp, I don’t think I would be as passionate about finding and connecting to other adoptees or sharing my own story, because who knows how my processing about my own story would have changed. Lastly, through my own knowledge and experiences with camp, I have been able to serve as a role model for younger adoptees and be there for them, not only as an adoptee, but also as a person of color who grew up in a predominantly white community, went to a predominantly white college, and now works in a predominately white profession. Camp has allowed me to be there as a resource for other adoptees and also adoptive parents who are looking for more answers and connections for their own children. 

For over 20 years now, Chinese Heritage Camp has been a part of me. It has watched me grow up into a confident, inspired, empowered young woman; it has watched me transition from camper to counselor to presenter to coordinator. Camp has given me opportunities to lead, reflect, and share with others. Camp has given me a place, both in the tangible and intangible sense, where my adoption story is just one of many, where I cannot only learn from others but teach others, a place where I can build upon life bonds and make new connections, a place where I will always feel comfortable crying to “Happy Adoption Day” and feel nostalgic for all the memories I had there growing up. Chinese Heritage Camp knows so much about me, more than I likely even realize. 

Chinese Heritage Camp has given me life, love, happiness, and a place to soul search and discover myself and where I can help the next generation do the same. Chinese Heritage Camp is, and always will be, a piece of my puzzle and heart, and without it in my life all these years, I would not feel complete.

Emily Quinn (she/her/hers)  is a transracial, Chinese adoptee who was adopted at 3 months of age from Zhejiang Province and identifies as pansexual/queer. Emily grew up in Colorado, and she currently works as a pediatric physical therapist. Emily is passionate about connecting with other adoptees of all ages, and her own journey as a transracial adoptee has made her passionate about diversity, equity, and inclusion issues, including fighting for social justice for all people. She continues to volunteer with Heritage Camps for Adoptive Families, especially the Chinese Heritage Camp, and she enjoys rock climbing, being outdoors, spending time with family,  and working on acts of self-care and self-kindness in her free time. 

Heritage Camps for Adoptive Families serves as a post-​adoption resource and advocate for children, adults, and families with diverse heritages. They focus on supporting international and domestic adoptive families, including adopted children, parents, non-adopted siblings, and extended family. Learn more about their work at https://www.heritagecamps.org/