Transcript: Ellen Oh and Cat Sebastian

This is a transcript of Recommended Season 2 Episode 6.

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JENN:

This is Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. This week we’re joined by Ellen Oh, discussing The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, and Cat Sebastian on Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho.

JENN:

Ellen Oh is the founder of We Need Diverse Books, a former adjunct college instructor and lawyer, and has an insatiable curiosity for ancient Asian history. She is the author of the Prophecy trilogy for young adults, as well as the middle grade series Spirit Hunters. Along with Elsie Chapman, she’s the editor of A Thousand Beginnings and Endings, in which fifteen bestselling and acclaimed authors reimagine the folklore and mythology of East and South Asia in short stories.

ELLEN OH:

My name is Ellen Oh, and The Joy Luck Club is my recommended.
The reason why The Joy Luck Club is my recommended, is because it was literally the first time I ever saw myself, my family, my experience reflected back in the pages of a book. Literally, I can remember being in first grade, and my teacher reading The Five Chinese Brothers to the class, the one with the really racist depictions of Chinese people, and I remember vividly in art class, the boy next to me painting the arm mustard yellow, because I was the wrong color for a Chinaman. This is kind of like the example of the types of books that I was exposed to. I did not see good representation until I was a grownup, until I was in college.

In fact, I think it was maybe after college that Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club came out, and I remember just being blown away by a book that finally had my family in it. People who looked like me, who had an immigrant experience like mine. And it didn’t matter that they were Chinese-American and I was Korean-American. What mattered was that, for the first time, there was a book that said that my experience was actually not that strange. That it wasn’t something that I should be ashamed of, because I had spent most of my formative life ashamed of being Asian. Because all I ever saw were books about white kids, and movies about white kids. And I internalized this belief that being white was better. And when you’re young, you don’t know what you don’t know, if you’ve never seen it before. And literally, I did not see positive representation ’til I was grown. And sometimes it makes me really sad, because I think, “Would I have been a different person, had I had more representation when I was younger?” I don’t know. I can’t answer that question.

Would I have gone through my deep moments of self-hate that I suffered from? I don’t know that answer. But I do know that, when I found The Joy Luck Club, it was as if something … It was a transformative experience like no other. It made me realize that the hole in my heart that had been filled with self-hatred, was made because of the lack of representation. I find that book, to me, as problematic as it is in some ways, was also possibly the thing that saved me from my own self-hatred.

I don’t even remember how it came into my hands. I feel like it must have been one of those things where everybody was talking about it, and I was, “What? A book by an Asian writer?” I remember that it was being talked about. But it wasn’t just like nobody knew about it, it was something that a lot of people were aware of, and were passing around. It got to me, and it blew me away. It changed how I saw books after that. It made me want more.

It wasn’t until my first daughter was born, and I read Harry Potter, and then in the year 2000, Genghis Khan was on the cover of Time Magazine, as the man of the millennium, and I read, for the first time, about more Asian history than I’d ever read before, in the biography of a Mongolian man. I remember thinking, “Why isn’t anybody writing about this? This is fascinating. There should be children’s books about Asian history and Asian legends, and Asian myths.” And there was really not a lot that I was seeing. Thank goodness for Linda Sue Park and An Na, but there wasn’t much otherwise.

That’s when I decided that I was going to try to write.

The Joy Luck Club is why I write Asian characters. The Joy Luck Club is the reason why, when I decided to write books that were going to represent my background and my culture, I knew that that was going to have an impact. And why I wanted to write it for children’s books, was because I did not have The Joy Luck Club as a child, because I did not have books like The Joy Luck Club when I was young, that it was so important for me to write those books for young people now. Especially for kids like my children.
I’ve re-read that book several times. And then I watched the movie several times. I remember thinking that there were things about it, now as a grownup, that I don’t like, of course.

One of the biggest revelations for me was that I was turning into the mother, like I’m turning into my own mother. Re-reading it when I was younger, and kind of just being very drawn to the younger characters, and now re-reading it as mother myself with children, and now seeing it from the mother’s viewpoint, that was a totally different … That was a revelation for me. That in different times of your life, what has happened to your life, will inform how you interpret a book, from when you were young to when you are older.

I think I’ve read pretty much all of her books, but I think that I always go back to The Joy Luck Club, because I think the problem is that it is that first experience, right? And nothing can top that first experience, because it was the book that showed me that I didn’t have to be ashamed of being Asian. Especially as an Asian woman. It was such an important book for me, that in some ways, all her other books has never actually risen up to that level. And I wonder if it’s different if you’re not Asian. I wonder if that isn’t a transformative experience for you, or if you’re like my kids now, who have had a little bit more representation. Not a lot. But who have read her, and then did they have a different experience? I don’t know. That’s actually a good question that I kind of want to know the answer to that.

But for me, I can’t take away the fact that it was such an important book for me, that it was like no other. Nothing can actually ever replace that feeling. That feeling is just too emotionally tied with the book.

That actually makes me very interested to know, when somebody reads her books now, do they have books that they find to be better, or to me more emotionally impactful? I’m kind of curious now.

My oldest has definitely read her, and my middle child, I think, has got to read her pretty soon. My oldest really liked the book, but it didn’t … I don’t think it had that same impact to her that I had. But then again, I know this is going to sound weird, but she read my book before she read The Joy Luck Club, so I feel like she didn’t have that void that I had.

She read Linda Sue Park and she read An Na. And she read me, and she read Cindy Pon’s book. She read Grace Lin. She didn’t have the void that I had. Yeah, but she hasn’t read … And I’m going to make her read another Amy Tan book now. I’ll check this out.

She’ll be like, “Mom, I’m in college. I can’t read any other books.”

I think it’s a very odd thing to say, but kind of don’t really want to read that kind of book again, because I think that Joy Luck Club is one of those books that is supposed to wring you dry of tears. It’s so emotionally manipulative, in some ways. Which is actually very kind of normal for Asian stories.

For example, when Elsie Chapman and I were putting together this anthology of Asian fairy tales and legends retold, and we started getting the stories back, 80% of the stories were tearjerkers. You’re sobbing your way through 80% of them, and at that point, I remember talking to Elsie and telling her, “Oh, you know that you’re editing an Asian anthology when every story makes you cry.”

It’s not always a tragic tearjerker, but still, the ability to wring you with emotions, especially like tragedies. I feel like it’s a very Asian thing. I do love that, but I can only take so much tragedy. I kind of veer more towards … I love fantasy and sci-fi and horror. If I want to read, I tend to read toward those genres, which is mainly because I just don’t want to cry.

JENN:

Thanks again to Ellen Oh for joining us and recommending The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. Her new anthology A Thousand Beginnings and Endings, published by Greenwillow Books, will be available on June 26, and you can preorder it now. You can follow her online at ellenoh.com.

AD READ:

This episode is also sponsored by Book Riot’s own Annotated podcast.

Annotated is an audio documentary podcast series about books, language, and reading.

Episodes range from 15-25 minutes long, and cover a whole range of bookish topics. Past episodes have covered how J.P Morgan’s personal librarian became the most glamorous librarian in the world, even as she guarded a dangerous secret; the wild story of how 1984 came to be written and how the CIA got involved, and an exploration of why we care so much about the Oxford comma that begins, unexpectedly, with a love story. A Very Nerdy Love Story.

If you like podcasts like This American Life, Planet Money, or 99% Invisible, we think you are going to love Annotated.

As part of Season 2, we are giving away 10 of the best books about books of 2017. Go to bookriot.com/annotated2 to enter for a chance to win.

JENN:

Cat Sebastian writes steamy, upbeat historical romances. They usually take place in the Regency, generally have at least one LGBTQ+ main character, and always have happy endings. Unmasked by the Marquess is the first novel in her newest series, The Regency Imposters, and features a marquess who prizes respectability above all else, and the mysterious stranger with a disreputable secret who shows up on his doorstep one day.

CAT SEBASTIAN:

My name is Cat Sebastian, and Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown is my recommended.

At the beginning of Sorcerer to the Crown, we’re told that magic is running out in England, which is a totally familiar fantasy setup. I think that we’ve probably all read dozens of books where the main problem is the magic is running out, but Zen Cho has a totally different spin on it.

Zacharias Wythe is the sorcerer to the crown, and he is a black man in Regency England. He encounters exactly the kind of prejudice that you’d expect a black man to encounter at that time. He needs to figure out why is Fairyland stealing the magic, what’s going on.

He teams up with Prunella Gentleman, who is an orphan of mixed race. We think that her mother probably was referred to as a native, and her father was probably a white Englishman. Her actual parentage is revealed later on in the book. They have adventures and they deal with magical bureaucracy and do all of the things that you would hope to see in a Regency fantasy of manners type of book.

I heard about this book because it was recommended by everybody. I think it came out in 2014 and by 2015, I think every trusted source of recommendations that I have had already recommended it.

We read it for a book club that we do on Twitter. It probably is the book that is the biggest crowd pleaser that we’ve done for that book club. Everybody loved it. I reread it again this year, so this is three years later. I think I like it even more on the reread.

I listened to the entire audiobook this time in two days, which is obscene. I finished it and I was just bereft. The audiobook by the way, the audiobook is fantastic. It’s one of the better produced audiobooks out there and it’s read by Jenny Sterlin, who reads a lot of Sherry Thomas’ audiobooks. She’s very, very good.

Prunella Gentleman is my favorite character not only in this book, but possibly in any book. She is incredible. Anyone who’s familiar with Georgette Heyer will recognize the type of heroine that Prunella is, where she is not very emotional, she’s very efficient, she persuades people, she’s ruthless.

She’s aware that there are expectations of her because she’s a woman, but she doesn’t really care. She does exactly what she wants to do and lets everybody else clean up the mess. She is super funny. She’s really smart and confident. My heart belongs to Prunella Gentleman.

Zen Cho, when she talks about her influences for this book, she mentions Susanna Clarke, of course, for Jonathan Strange, but also she mentions Georgette Heyer. The language that she uses in Sorcerer to the Crown is deliberately evocative of Georgette Heyer. There are phrases that Heyer basically invented, like she says, “They’re making a cake of themselves,” to mean they’re making a fool of themselves.

Heyer basically invented that, so when you hear that, it’s a tip off to the reader that this is Heyer’s world and that Zen Cho is populating it with people of color, also with commentary about colonialism and the unfair distribution of resources, other things that would absolutely annoy Georgette Heyer to no end, which is delightful.

I think that since this book gets mentioned so often in the same breath as Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange, which I loved, and which Zen Cho has mentioned is an influence, but I feel like that comparison doesn’t do any favors to either Jonathan Strange or Sorcerer to the Crown because it feels to me like the entire point of Sorcerer to the Crown is to make a comment on colonialism. That’s clearly what the entire point of the book is.

Jonathan Strange is doing something else. If you read Susanna Clarke’s book and then you read this book, you may only see the Regency setting and the magic, but you don’t see what the point of Sorcerer to the Crown is, but that’s just my feeling.

I think that in Sorcerer to the Crown, all of the people with power are women, okay? Zacharias, who is the sorcerer to the crown, has a lot of power, but really the book is about Prunella and Mak Genggang , who is my second choice for favorite character of all-time. She’s from the Indian subcontinent. I don’t know what country it was meant to be. It’s a country that’s recently been colonized by some power in the west.

She seems to transform somebody into a vampire, but I’m not sure if she did it or if it just happened. I don’t know. It’s pretty ruthless. Nobody else is necessary in this book except for her and Prunella, and then their major enemy is also a woman. Their allies are a black man and a human white man.

This may just be a product of my fevered imagination, but when I read this book, I see a gay romance in there. I could be wrong, but I will go to my grave believing that Zen Cho did not mean for a straight white man or two straight white men to have heroic roles in this book.

That makes no sense with the point of her narrative. They’ve got to be gay or they have to be in a same sex relationship, even if it is a queer platonic or whatever relationship. It only makes sense if they’re not straight cis-het white men. That’s my thesis.

I’m extremely desperate for the sequel. I am close to losing all of my chill about it. Somebody told me that they had heard that the sequel had been turned into the publisher, and I screamed. I really hope so, and I really, really, really hope that the sequel mentions the couple who I’m positive is queer. They don’t even need to be in the story, as long as they are mentioned as taking a holiday someplace. Maybe they went to some warm island someplace. Yes, that is what I require, Zen Cho, okay?

I don’t even care what it is. I totally trust Zen Cho to do whatever she feels is best, and I know that it’s going to be an awesome book. I just need to know that Damerel is happily in love with Paul.

The first time I read it, I was able to turn my writer brain off. I read it for the story. That was good because I think I was a baby writer at that point. I don’t even think I had an agent or a completed manuscript, but I could be wrong about that. That was good because I think I would’ve just thrown my laptop into the sea and just stopped.

Reading it this time, I definitely had my writer brain on to pay attention, which often happens when you reread a book. You notice structure and you notice issues that you might not have noticed the first time when you’re really on the edge of your seat.

I did notice how the pacing is very similar to Georgette Heyer. I did notice how really Zen Cho just effortlessly inhabits a world that is Georgette Heyer’s world. She just steps right into, populates it with exactly who she wants to populate it with, and pulls it off like it is no big deal when it is really a miracle. That is not something that I noticed the first time around. I had noticed the echoes of Georgette Heyer, but I hadn’t realized how it’s a subversion of Heyer.

It’s what I would normally pick up. I read a fair amount of this type of fantasy, and I don’t know, kind of alternative universe historical fantasy, like Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and that sort of book. There’s probably a name for that kind of fantasy. I just don’t know what it is.

I do not have a pitch to recommend it. I mainly just scream about it and hope that people listen. I was talking about this book on Twitter the other day and what I said was that it’s like Georgette Heyer, only filled with magic and marginalized people. If that’s a pitch, then that’s my pitch.

JENN

Thanks again to Cat Sebastian for joining us and recommending Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho. Her novel Unmasked by the Marquess, published by Avon, is available wherever books are sold. You can follow her on Twitter at CatSWrites.

JENN:

Next week on Recommended, an author discusses a book that moved her deeply:

UNNAMED GUEST:

I think that my takeaway from this book is the idea that you can choose your family in a way that you’re not tied down to the politics of blood and names and lineage and you can, your bond is more than just these bone and blood things. I think that it’s important to see, it’s important to give stories about young girls who have different kinds of strengths that are not physical all the time and sometimes the strongest thing that you can have is like your power to choose your own fate.

JENN:

Thanks again to our sponsors for making today’s episode possible. If you like what you heard, please take a moment to review and rate us on Apple Podcasts. We love to hear your feedback and it helps other folks to find the show. You can find shownotes at Bookriot.com/recommended, and you can email us at recommended@bookriot.com.