A Personal Catalogue of Fictional Asians Who Were Important To Me: Han Seoul-Oh

A series of posts I started in 2019 returns. Read the first post here.

Today the new trailer for the ninth Fast and the Furious movie dropped. Apparently it’s called F9: The Fast Saga. No, I will not explain or defend their title schemes other than to say they are awesome and I will hear no criticism of my beloved children. Anyhow, this movie marks the return of director Justin Lin to the franchise and notably for a large and vocal segment of the fan base, long time collaborator Sun Kang in the role of Han. He was dead. Now he’s not. No, I don’t care how he got resurrected or whatever. I guess Jason Statham is bad at his job or whatever.

Han is a hugely important character for me and one of my all time favorites in any franchise series. More than any MCU, DCEU, even Star Wars character, Han is my dude now and forever. So, on this momentous day, I want to explain why.

  • Han is cool. He doesn’t even have to try, unlike everyone else. He just is.

  • Han is good at stuff. He drives good. He shoots good.

  • Han is a good teacher and fake dad.

  • Han is chill. He doesn’t freak out under pressure. He does his job and does it well.

  • Han is hot. He is. Gal Godot agrees. She’s wrong about most things in life, but about this she is undeniably correct.

  • Han is a giant nerd. His alias is Han Seoul-Oh.

  • Han is a huge dork. His alias is Han Seoul-Oh.

  • Han likes snacks.

That’s it. Han rules. He is both aspirational and relatable. Justice for Han.

Do It On Purpose

On having a brand and being a person

Dolly Parton once said: “Find out who you are and then do it on purpose.” I think this might be the best advice I’ve ever read anywhere about anything. I quote it a lot.

Success is a tricky thing. We crave it. Pursue it. And, like a dog chasing a car, have no idea what to do when we get it. It can be a monstrous thing, a dangerous thing with its own momentum, its own dangers, and, often once you’ve gotten it you’re thrust into the public eye, trying to figure out what to do without the cover of anonymity.

Writers are celebrities. Maybe not Beyoncé levels of famous, but for fame to be felt, you don’t have to have a reach beyond one’s own community. The way your friends, your Twitter mutuals, that Facebook friend you haven’t talked to since high school, how those people see you is felt as much as being recognized at the grocery checkout line. Your personal life, your words, your decisions are up for scrutiny more than they ever have been. The space you have to say something complicated, to be messy, to be unclear or unclean in your opinions shrinks to a pinhead. What was once a safe space to work out ideas forces a retreat to a group chat, a backchannel, a Slack conversation. As your world expands it also contracts.

There’s no way to be fully ready for the discomfort of being in the public eye. For the demands made of you by people who like your work. For the expectation of availability, the intrusive examination of your words, your action, your dress. People love the thing you’ve made and they want to love the person who made it.

But the reality is that they don’t know you. They have a glimpse of you, through a certain lens. Through a photo, a tweet, a manuscript, and interview. They are building a you in their minds that only bears a tenuous connection to the person you are behind closed doors, in the vault of your own mind and your own heart. And their vision of you can not tolerate the messiness of the fullness of yourself.

Having a brand is about editing. It’s pruning back the parts of yourself you don’t want to show so that the world sees the parts of you you do want to show. Maintaining a brand, a public persona, is made easier by being true to yourself. But a purposeful intentional version of your truth. Find out who you are. Do it on purpose.

People want to know you, so let them. Let them get to know an aspect. Your love of a hobby. The food you’re excited to eat. The media you consume. Show them your garden and your cat and the corner you’ve set up to write in. Show them your wall of books and your new suit and tell the story of the cute thing your kid did. Talk to them about how hard it is to write books. About how great it is to see fanart. To meet them at book events.

Don’t show them your address, the faces of the people in your life who don’t want to be known or can’t consent to be known. Grab a sharpie and cover up the label before you unbox those new books. Turn off your location metadata. Get a PO Box.

You can show people your heart, your history, your trauma, your family if you want to. Just make sure you want to. Make sure you’re ready for someone to say you’re doing it wrong. To say you’re a bad person. To say they love you, when they’ve never met you.

And do this early. Want to be a writer? Great. Think about your brand. Think about what you want to share and what you don’t. Before your debut blows up, before your third book hits the list, before you ever get a movie deal, do the work of finding out who you are. Do the work of learning how to do it on purpose. Because you don’t know when that moment will come, when eyes land on you and you feel naked and exposed.

A lifetime of livejournal, tweeting through it, doing it for the vine, instagramming the minutiae of your life will not prepare you for the moment when you cross some invisible rubicon from being online to being known. From being part of the crowd to having a Wikipedia page. From being a person to being a persona, an object for consumption.

Everything I’m saying might seem like a nightmare to you. And it can be. I’ve seen it from the inside. The joy of it and the hate that can come with it. I’ve seen the death threats, the slurs, the violence. I’ve been subject to it in small ways. The way the space that was your home can turn in an instant to a trap. The way a community becomes a demand.

And so I hear all the time from people who want to refuse, to opt out. And it is possible, but not if you want to be commercially published. Not if what you crave is sales, recognition, awards, and an income. That’s the cost. That’s the price of entry. Even if you stay off the internet. Even if you do no events. Your own refusal will become your brand. Your own lack of engagement will be the story.1

So if you’re gonna do it, you might as well do it on purpose.


Edit: That story doesn't preclude success. There are massively successful authors who have never done public appearances. Who refuse interviews, who don't have the means, or the interest, or even the ability. Being online, being at bookstores, being at conferences is not essential. Everything is situational. Not being able to access the traditional publishing publicity engine doesn't mean that you won't have a brand. A brand is inevitable, but how you engage is the important element.

You need to control your story, not let it be controlled for you.

Time Is Real

It’s the last day of a year of unrelenting nightmares. I don’t need to re-catalogue them here. We’ve all had our own versions of surviving this year and our own versions of supporting our friends and loved ones, of finding new ways to have community, to fight for what we believe in, to sustain ourselves in the many ways our bodies and minds and hearts demand. You’ve made it and, fuck it, that’s enough. That’s always enough, but that truth feels more intensely true this year.

The passing of time has been weird this year. I heard a theory that because we’re largely in the same rooms, our brains are having a hard time forming new memories which makes feeling the passage of time difficult. It’s like the inversion of a Proust novel where you’ve always been eating this madeleine. It’s madeleines all the way down, baby and the moment has no beginning and no end.

And yet, time keeps passing. Thursday, it turns out, is indeed a concept and a reality. The year has only felt interminable (and also terrifyingly short). We are at the end and it’s hard for me not to reflect on the last twelve months.

It’s been a year where I’ve been constantly behind, on emails, on edits, on reading, on submissions. I’ve had to turn down writers I know to be brilliant and wonderful people simply because I didn’t have the bandwidth. It’s been a year where I’ve lost clients. It’s been a year of crises. And yet I saw books I worked on launch to great acclaim and a warm reception from readers. I brought on a couple brilliant writers. I sold a trilogy in under two hours for the most money I’ve ever sold anything. I edited half a dozen manuscripts. Brainstormed new pitches. Got clients working on their favorite IPs. Solved problems. Talked writers through missed deadlines, existential panic, and thorny editorial knots. Launched a YouTube channel. Wrote a couple essays. Built a table.

It feels like I did nothing this year. It feels like I was always behind, always scrambling, always letting people down. But when I look back I can see there were accomplishments too. There were things I’m proud of even as I navigated some of the most painful and difficult moments of my professional life. And, in the end, I’m still here and I’m still surviving and that’s enough.

There’s no guarantee that 2021 will be better than 2020 was. There’s no guarantee that tomorrow will hold a safer world for us. But it won’t be what yesterday was and it won’t be what today is. Time is real, but it is a sequence of present moments. A string of pearls, each one discrete. Time is an illusion, a story we build out of linking these moments into a narrative. The past is a story we tell ourselves and the future is a story we want to believe in.

When you look around and see other people’s deals, book launches, bestsellers, award nominations, all of it, it’s hard not to feel that you’re not doing enough. It’s hard not to feel that stab of jealousy or fear that you’re failing or hunger for more. Time is passing and with that doors close. That book that got published isn’t your book and never will be your book. That bestseller list does not have your name on it. That trophy went to someone else’s bookshelf.

But time passes and with it comes new doors, new opportunities, new things to work for. Looking back is useful because we learn from our failures and shortcomings. But the work is ahead of us. The work of building better worlds, of telling new stories, and of surviving, maybe thriving if we’re lucky.

So, as the year turns, I am closing the door on what was and taking note of what could be. But in the end, the story is a story I tell myself. I could tell the story that this year was the worst year of my life. I could tell the story that I climbed to new heights in my career. I could tell the story of how my life outside of work (who knew that existed?!) grew and changed in ways wonderous and strange. I could tell the story of a world in collapse. I could tell the story of mutual aid and resistance. All of these stories are real and true. Time is real. Stories are real.

But what is also real, what is the realest real, is that I am here, now, alive. And in this moment, I tell myself I will be here tomorrow, alive. I tell myself there is work to be done that builds on the work that I have done. And I tell myself next year will be better than this one.

Time will tell.

Drinking from a Poisoned Well

This post was originally published on Sarah Gailey’s newsletter Here’s the Thing for a series they ran on personal canons. You can read the whole series now, for free. Subscribe to access community features like What We Share, which is a series that fosters connections through shared experiences.

Content Warning: the stories discussed in this post feature sexual violence, abuse against children, violence to women, and involve discussions of homophobia and transphobia.

As a teenager and into my early twenties, I had a deep love for the works of Orson Scott Card. The kind of snobbish, irritating obsession that led me to brush off mentions of Ender’s Game with a “yeah, but I bet you haven’t read Speaker for the Dead.” Heck, I even defended Xenocide (It had Asian people in it. It was a different time. We were desperate.).

Beyond that, I was obsessed with his earlier, stranger work. Songmaster, a book about abuse and exploitation that a young boy suffers for his beautiful voice. Wyrms, in which a young woman carries around the talking head of her dead father on her quest to find -- and then fuck -- a dragon. His short fiction full of horror stories like Kingsmeat, in which a tyrant cannibal king has the tables turned on him by visiting aliens, or Eumenides in the Fourth Floor Lavatory, in which a rapist is haunted by horrifying mutated infants out to devour him alive for his transgressions.

I loved his work, read nearly all the fiction he published, and even managed to get my hands on hard-to-find collections of his short fiction. He’s known for being a science fiction writer, but I think of him as one of the strongest horror writers of the eighties and early nineties. I found his stories to be fascinatingly strange. Appealingly repulsive. Filled with a compassion for the worst humanity had to offer. 

Unfortunately, my reading did not extend to his non-fiction. As far back as 1990, he publicly made his homophobic, hateful views known to the public. Since then, he has continued to deride, demean, and deny basic human rights to gay, lesbian, and queer folx. It is profoundly upsetting to learn that work you love is tainted with a perspective and worldview that is anathema to everything you believe in, everything you are. You can choose to walk away from the work, but it is already in you, in your bones and your marrow and your heart.

Card had a profound impact on my life as a young reader. He also made a lasting contribution to my development outside of reading his novels and stories. One with a complex legacy, but one that I am ultimately grateful for. An education I never would have expected. A syllabus, a book club with unintended consequences. I would wish I had never encountered his work, except I would lose this strange, twisted knot of love that I carry in my heart.

Starting in 1991, he published two anthologies of short fiction purporting to collect the best of the 1980s — Future on Fire and Future on Ice. These two anthologies introduced me to many of my favorite writers of science fiction: William Gibson, George R.R. Martin, Octavia Butler, Ursula K. LeGuin, Nancy Kress, Pat Cadigan, and Connie Willis. These names were the ones that taught me how to love speculative fiction.

These collections led me to work with Walter Jon Williams and Greg Bear as an editor. They led me to meeting Pat Cadigan, running up to her at a World Con to blurt out that her work was deeply important to me and that Synners was my favorite cyberpunk novel before vanishing into the night. I’ve treasured being in the room with Connie Willis over many conventions, too awestruck, even now, to introduce myself.

The stories in these collections are still some of my favorites. But also, well, they represent a lot of the worst impulses of fiction from the 80s. They play fast and loose with trauma. Many of them are about rape and abuse. They are raw, no punches pulled, and with no regard for the safety of the audience. They taught me how fiction can be harrowing, a cleansing burn. And how fiction can be a wound that cuts deep and sets and festers. Now, I almost never touch fiction that addresses sexual violence as a reader or as a pro and I think these stories are why.

But they’re goodstories. Pat Murphy’s “Rachel in Love” is a tale of loss, sexual awakening, and a fight for independence. It’s beautiful and profoundly upsetting at once. William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s “Dogfight” is one of my favorite pieces of cyberpunk of all time. Pat Cadigan’s “Pretty Boy Crossover” is a cyberpunk parable, skeptical of the singularity, embracing a sort of subtextual queerness. Ursula K. LeGuin’s “Buffalo Gals Won’t You Come Out Tonight” taught me to love coyotes. Connie Willis’s “All My Darling Daughters” is a story of abuse and harm and violation. It is a difficult story that still haunts me decades after I first read it. George R.R. Martin’s “Portraits of My Children” is the story that made me fall in love with Martin’s work and is as deeply fucked up as anything I’ve ever read from him. Octavia E. Butler’s “Speech Sounds” is  a story about how important it is to reach across the silent gulfs that keep us apart. It’s a story that feels more relevant to this year than the years that came before. I have felt that is true every year I have lived through since I first read this story. Nancy Kress’s “Out of All Them Bright Stars” has wound its way around my brainstem as a bright spot of hope, because stories should connect us. 

Each of these stories was formative to me. I can see how they shaped my tastes. I now have a constant appetite for the dark and gothic. An interest in how trauma shapes people’s lives. A need for a hopeful moment of humanity. Even the pacing and structure of these stories are worn into the grooves of my brain. The rich language, the spiky prose, the raw voice-driven narration.

And yet, there’s the overwhelming whiteness of this list. Butler is the sole exception and wasn’t even included until the second volume. Other stories display a complete embrace of colonialist thinking. Many of these stories use the cheap trick of exoticized locales to add richness and flavor to a story that would be anemic on its own terms. Card celebrates writers for being interlopers in South American cultures and telling the stories of colonized peoples, of exploitation of the global south without any question as to who should have a voice in that story. And misogyny, questionable views on gender and sexuality, and subtle racism runs through the collections.

Orson Scott Card is a poster child for angry old men in SFF. He’s made it impossible to recommend a beloved novel that so many of us cut our teeth on. For me, that love ran even deeper. And now, I have to question my instincts. Question my taste. Question the things I love.

But Future on Fire and Future on Ice taught me so much. They led me to my favorite writers. Octavia Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin, Connie Willis. Brilliant women I feel an uncomplicated affection and admiration for. Willis’s stories have destroyed and rebuilt me time and time again. Le Guin is one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century and I will fight anyone tooth and nail who says otherwise. Butler has inspired entire political movements and activist communities around her work. Parable of the Sower defined an era of SF/F and her body of work as a whole never fails to astonish, to harrow the reader down to the bone, and leave us with a sense of wonder at her clear-eyed vision of humanity, in all its complicated glory.

While debates about classics and the canon of literature rage on, members of this community of science fiction readers are faced with a legacy much fresher. Thirty or forty years is ancient history to us. We are grappling with an inheritance from writers still breathing, still writing, and still talking. The canon is tainted with the ideals, visions, and ethics of a world we are struggling to right. We live in a culture of white supremacy. We live in a culture of patriarchy. We live in a culture of empire. 

The well is poisoned. But that water is all we have. We use it to nurture our crops. To grow ourselves. But the thing about tainted water is that it can be cleaned. It can be filtered through soil, through kelp forests, through oyster beds. It can be sifted and restored. Growing things will, over the course of generations, reintroduce nitrogen, bacteria, mycelium into dead lands and bring forth new growth. The industrial runoff of centuries of empire and capitalism can be reworked into something that will restore all of us.

The canon matters, but not in the way people think. It matters because that’s what nourishment was made available to us. We were force fed, drinking from the tap we had access to. We have little choice, but not none. We can go farther afield to pick waters that are less tainted. We can choose what we put in our bodies. But more than that, we can choose what we grow. What we invest in. The canon is what we have, but it’s not what we can be.

I believe that telling better stories is how we build a better world. That starts with recognizing the poison in the water. That starts with calling it out. But that also means we can let it help us grow. It can shape us and teach us what we want to see in our futures and what we want to prune back. 

So, I say read what you want to read. Take from it what is worth taking. The rest is compost. Let it rot and make the land fertile again. Sow in its remains. And we will reap a better harvest.

Make Shitty Tables

I make a lot of tables. It turns out that a lot of what a person needs is a flat surface to put stuff on. So… tables. Tables for building other things. Tables for eating on. Tables for cooking on. Tables just for coffee. Tables just for computers. Flat surface. Four legs. Won’t fall over and break stuff that’s more important than the table.

For the past few years I haven’t had a space to actually build stuff. I had a bunch of portable tools, an open floor plan apartment, and no housemates to complain about sawdust everywhere. So, I just built a bunch of shitty tables.

The first one was an accident. I was throwing a party the next day and had dinner plans to go out the night before. I realized I didn’t have a coffee table and that would be useful for guests. So I built a table in two hours. Out of literal trash I was going to throw out. Thus a project was born.

Shitty tables was about one thing: make useful things no matter what. Use available materials. Don’t overthink the design. Make things that will last, but don’t worry about a generational time scale. Doing it is more important than doing it well.

It’s December 1st. That means another NaNoWriMo has come and gone. Another year, another 50,000 words logged for those who finished. And, for those of you that started but didn’t finish, you are farther along than you were. 30,000, 10,000, 5,000 whatever it was, you made progress and that deserves to be celebrated.

NaNo is a particular beast. In some ways, I dread it. My inbox gets flooded in December and January with dozens of queries from writers who finished the program and immediately sent off the draft to agents. It’s frustrating to see all the work that went into finishing as unfulfilled potential. To see folks put in so much work only to jump the gun.

But mostly, I love NaNo. I think it’s incredible to watch folks decide to do a difficult, daunting thing. To sacrifice their free time. To commit to a goal. Established writers, newbies, hopefuls who have been doing this year after year, striving for their goal to be published. It’s frankly beautiful.

There are downsides, sure. Burnout is real. Everyone’s writing process is different. And the person who writes three hundred words a day should not be shamed for the pace of their progress. The quick writer who churns out 10,000 words in a week should not be celebrated. Both paths have their merits and both have their flaws.

In the end, though, folx come together, as a community, to cheer each other on and to do the hard thing.

A common response to my Shitty Tables posts was people encouraging me to not self-deprecate or to tell me “that’s not shitty, that’s a great table.” And they’re right. They were great tables. I was proud of them. I made them and I made them according to principles I believe in.

But they were still Shitty. Because that was my goal. I wanted to make a “bad” table. I wanted to use the vernacular, to work fast, to use cheap materials. Because I learned things by doing so. Because I got a table I needed at the end of it. Because it got me out of a rut and taught me to love building things again.

A NaNo project is a novel. 50,000 words is long enough. It has the bones of a plot, the musculature of character, and the breath of a writer’s craft. It is a novel and one that anyone should be proud of.

I personally think a novel is never done. Changes can always be made. A sentence tweaked here. An ungrammatical turn fixed here. A proofing error caught. A character arc nudged. A plot resolved. There’s always more work one can do. No novel is perfect. No novel is complete. It is a map of a territory yet undiscovered.

One of the most common questions I get asked when doing a Q&A is “when should I start querying.” The answer I give is, “when you’re ready.” Because there’s no way to know, especially from inside the process, when enough is enough. At the end of November you might have a novel. You might even be ready. You might be as close to done as you can get. But, most likely, “ready” is months or even years away. Most likely, there are more words to write, revisions to wrestle with, critiques to be considered.

I recently rented a dedicated workshop for my woodworking. I can’t really afford it. I certainly can’t justify it. It’s an unwise, unweildy, expensive, time-consuming, and disruptive thing to do.

It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

My first project was to build a new dining table (the one we’d been using now lives in the workshop) and I decided it was the last of the Shitty Tables. It’s laminated plywood. The joints are rough. There are dings in the surface. Scrapes and dents in the veneer. The edges are uneven. I love it. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever built.

Building Shitty Tables was important to me. It helped me figure out my craft, my goals, and got me to a place where I can start building the things that live in my head. I can start learning new skills, discovering new designs, and practicing imperfect techniques. Shitty Tables was about a process, about a road to where I am now.

The next steps are scary. They’re going to take work and commitment. I will have to ask myself what’s more than a flat surface I can rest my coffecup on. What’s more than functional? What’s more than enough?

You can’t revise a table, you can just build a new one. You can, however, revise a novel. A novel is a ship of Theseus. Each part can change without ever losing the heart of the project. Finishing that first 50,000 words is a step on the journey. A huge step. And one that begins to describe the path any writer will have to take. It will show you the work that remains to be done. But don’t let the fact that there’s more work to be done to diminish the work you have done.

So you built a Shitty Table. I think that fucking rules. I hope you’re proud of that. Take those lessons and keep building. Keep writing. Keep revising. Keep publishing.

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