An Interview with Emily X.R. Pan, The Astonishing Color of After

Editor’s Note: I’m so thrilled to share this interview with Emily X.R. Pan, author of The Astonishing Color of After.

In the past decade – really, in my own little lifetime –  I have seen contemporary Asian American literature evolve from brittle myths of otherness to richer montages spanning history, identity, self, and heritage. Pan’s The Astonishing Color of After is a pulsing tide of grief and wonder, chronicling half-Taiwanese protagonist Leigh’s struggle to understand her mother’s suicide.

So often I am terrified that Asian American works rely too much on our inherent exoticism, that we’d rather mythologize our ancestors than acknowledge their humanity. But Leigh’s introspection is an earnest and sympathetic one. She is the third culture question, embodied: how do we navigate a space that is neither entirely foreign nor familiar?

My hope for Taiwanese American readers, young ones especially, is that they might feel less alone, that they find stories that reaffirm a sense of community and family, however these takes form. I hope (and believe) they’ll find all this and more in The Astonishing Color of After.

Q: Thanks, Emily, for taking the time for this Q&A. I loved the book! I read that The Astonishing Color of After began as historical fiction, inspired by your grandmother’s life in colonial Taiwan. Although it has evolved towards contemporary YA, the book is still set, at least partially, in Taiwan. What was the personal significance of involving Taiwan?

A: Yes, the original seed for this story was my grandmother and the many incredible things that happened in her life. Since she was Taiwanese, and a lot of the circumstances of her story were unique to Taiwan, it made most sense to set the book there. Over the years and all the drafts, the book changed quite a bit, and the portions based on my grandmother shrank as the story grew into something different. But the original weight of those pieces still colors the whole novel.

Q: “Still colors the whole novel.” Beautiful, and yes, I see that so clearly. In your book, I highlighted this thought:

“Once you figure out what matters, you’ll figure out how to be brave.”

What, in your life, has pushed you to be brave?

A: It’s funny—I never thought about it until I was trying to answer this question, but my writing has pushed me very hard throughout my life. It was my writing that sent me impulsively flying off to spend a summer in Paris, where I took a fiction workshop and attended readings and wrote every night from midnight until five in the morning. After business school, my writing led me to quit my first salaried job, where I was completely miserable, and enroll in an MFA program, where I worked my butt off to become the disciplined writer I’d always wanted to be. Later, it led me to quit my beloved publishing job in order to give myself much-needed time and energy to focus on my stories. All of those transitions have been crucial. My writing has taken me on multiple research trips to places where I’m not sure I would have had the courage to go otherwise. I think my pursuit of stories—and the research I need to tell those stories—makes my life so much more interesting, and makes me, in general, so much braver.

Q: What books, aside from your own, do you recommend for Asian Americans finding their place in this world?

A: Oh gosh. Here are just a few off the top of my head: PICTURE US IN THE LIGHT, by Kelly Loy Gilbert. AMERICAN PANDA, by Gloria Chao. WANT, by Cindy Pon. WHEN DIMPLE MET RISHI, by Sandhya Menon. FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS, by Julie C. Dao. WRITTEN IN THE STARS, by Aisha Saeed. EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU by Celeste Ng. EXIT WEST by Mohsin Hamid. A THOUSAND BEGINNINGS AND ENDINGS, an anthology edited by Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman.

Q: Tell me more about your research process in Taiwan. What did you find challenging? How did you engage with its space, people, and history?

A: I spent a lot of time with my family, asking them questions about growing up in Taiwan, watching their interactions and instincts, trying to absorb all the nuances of their philosophies and their personalities, and even their day-to-day decisions. Sometimes it was hard to research something because a subject would be considered taboo, or because there would be some kind of superstition that made it hard for me to broach the topic. For example, I really wanted to interview locals about hungry ghosts, but I was warned by my family not to go asking strangers about it. I happened to be visiting during Ghost Month, and people during that time would be especially sensitive, and might think I was bringing bad luck upon them. So I asked what I could of my family, and then spent a lot of time doing supplemental research on the internet. My aunts and uncles took me just about everywhere I needed to go. They led me from temple to temple—sometimes driving a long way to get us to a particularly important one—and explained the religious rituals, the architecture, the history, the differences between Buddhist temples and Taoist temples… Since the spirituality was so important to my book, I spent a lot of time thinking in temples.

Q: How does language inform how we discuss mental health issues? How do, if at all, multilingual and/or multigenerational families navigate differing cultural attitudes about mental health?

A: Language is so key to any discussion like this. One thing that I always stick on is how the only term I know in Mandarin for suicide is 自殺, which literally translates to “self kill.” I know that in the United States, the mental health industry is trying to move everyone away from saying “committed suicide” and “killed herself” because the harshness of those terms—and equating suicide with something criminal or sinful—perpetuates the stigma and makes it that much harder for us to talk about it. The better language to use is “died by suicide”—but what kind of alternative could be offered in Mandarin? The stigma is bad enough in the west, but among Asians it’s so much worse. I think it’s because of the concept of losing face, and how much higher the stakes feel. It’s interesting to note how over here we talk about how you just have to “get over” something…but I don’t know of a translation for “get over it” in Mandarin that holds the same connotations. When you lose face in Asia or in an Asian immigrant community, the ramifications are typically so much more extreme. So the fear of the shame makes people hide the exact things that we need to shine a light upon to improve our mental health.  What we need is to talk more about mental illness, and to do so loudly. We need to break down that stigma—in every community.

Q: “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” Is there anything you held dearly that never made it to the final draft of this book?

A: This book changed so many times before I even got my agent, and then it went through additional huge changes before it was published. The version of the book I originally sold had a structure in which the story cut back and forth between two worlds—one a fantastical realm where spirits hover following their death, and one the contemporary real world—and the events occuring in the two worlds were braided together. It was an ambitious structure, but it didn’t work the way I needed it to for this story. But maybe one day I’ll write another book in which I can bring that back.

Q: I loved your sweet Instagram post about confronting early rejections as a young writer. How did you move past these initial setbacks? What advice do you have for other young writers?

A: Every single rejection I ever received was a major punch to the gut, and each new one landed exponentially heavier than the one before. In the time immediately following each rejection, I wasn’t able to even try to move onward—it was more like doing what I could to stay afloat, until the ache faded enough for me to think creatively again. People talk about focusing on writing the next thing as a way to get through querying agents, or being on submission with a book…but it’s much easier said than done, and I was never able to be creative when so much anxiety was occupying my entire mind and body. For me, it wasn’t about moving past a rejection, but about absorbing it, and using it to push myself to be stronger and thicker-skinned and a better writer. What I could never have known at the time is that now, all these years later, I’m so grateful for every single one of those rejections. I am proud of the way my writing has grown, and I definitely needed those rejections in order to achieve that growth. I’m not sure who was the first to suggest it, but I love the idea of aiming to receive a certain number of rejections each year, as a way of challenging yourself to produce work and put it out there. My advice is to know that the rejections are stepping stones to your goal. And to read everything, even genres and age categories you might not be immediately drawn to, because there is something to be learned from literally any piece of writing. And lastly, to reread, and to do so multiple times, because it’s only upon rereading that you can see well enough to reverse engineer a story and notice the parts and the seams, and learn to apply the same things to your own work.

Q: Within this new wave of conversations centering Asian Americans in the media and in literature, what are you most excited about? What are your concerns?

A: I’m so incredibly thrilled to have more Asian American representation. I cried my eyes out watching Crazy Rich Asians—it was wild to see a film with jokes in it that only people in my cultural community would get, and that weren’t explained for the benefit for non-Asians. The day after that I watched To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before on Netflix, and cried again for my teenage self who never thought I would see anyone who looked like me as the lead in a romantic story. I have yet to see Searching but have already heard so many phenomenal things; I’m dying to get to it. I worry about whether it’s going to be another two decades before we take the next step forward. Are we ever going to have enough movies that non-Asian people can begin to understand the differences between our cultures? I say the words “we are not a monolith” so often they’ve begun to lose their meaning—and yet how long is it going to take for us to have enough movies with enough variety of representation that people truly understand this?

Q: Who is your ideal reader, and what do you hope they will get from The Astonishing Color of After?

A: I think of myself as writing my stories for everyone, but I do especially hope that Asian Americans will read this book and feel seen. Same goes for people of any background who are struggling with being pulled between different identities and expectations. I hope that people who have lost loved ones will find this book healing, and that those whose lives are somehow touched by mental illness will find that this story allows them to talk about it more. And for those readers who fall into none of the above categories, I hope that this book serves as a window, and that they feel a deeper empathy for having read it.

Q: I read that you extensively interviewed your family as part of your research process. What do they think of the book?

A: Unfortunately, the people I interviewed most extensively don’t read English very well, and so none of them have yet to finish the book. But they are all so supportive and kind and proud.

I definitely feel that. How generous of them, to trust that we will share their stories with grace. They’re so right to be very proud, what an extraordinary book you’ve created! 

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