I took Gail Tsukiyama’s class in 2003. It was my first year at VONA. I had heard about VONA from my good friend Deidre who was applying and called me for a place to stay (she lived in L.A., I lived in Berkeley). Turns out Deidre didn’t end up going that year. I applied just before the deadline and got in.
Looking back I was like a kid who had wandered into a forest, nervous, not knowing what to expect, only to find her lost tribe waiting for her in the clearing. In many ways, VONA is the tribe I had waited to find my entire life. It’s hard to explain how amazing it felt to be surrounded by writers of color from across the country—of all backgrounds and ages—for an entire week. Let’s just say, I grew up in Jersey in the seventies, back when my family was one of the only Asian families for miles. I could probably count on one hand the number of kids of color I can remember. None of us were friends.
That year, the mother of that tribe, or at least of our sub-tribe—the Novel class—was Gail. She was so gentle with us, always encouraging. She made us all feel like we could do anything: that we could write, call ourselves writers, reach our goals, be heard. With her nurturing ways, she was just what I needed at the time.
That year I workshopped a fictionalized version of my memoir, “Beijing Blues,” about my year as a journalist in Beijing and my life-long love-hate relationship with myself, my identity, my journey as a Chinese American woman. I was working on turning it into a novel. That year, like every year since, I met incredible people who helped me in so many ways. To Gail, and any other VON-ites reading this: thank you, thank you, thank you.
Here are just a few notes from my workshop in Gail’s class:
On her first book: Women of the Silk
- “It was one year after Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, first time they (publishers) looked at minority writers, first time (they saw us as) economically feasible.”
- On why Asian American writers write so often about the past: “The past has been so long neglected…we had to go back, to our mothers, our grandmothers…”
- “It was as simple as wanting to write a story.”
- “You have to fall in love with the subject.”
- “I’ve written (my stories) for myself.”
- Gail doesn’t use outlines; she starts with an idea or first line or image—one thing leads to another.
On writing as a practice:
- Discipline yourself; do it every day.
- “To write is to learn” – research facts, history, discovering psyches.
- “You have to take risks to get to the core.”
- “Less is more, don’t take six pages to say” what you can say in one.
- “Let the characters maneuver you.”
Other writing tips
- Story is a series of events that happen but it is not the plot.
- The plot is dramatic and thematic, has emotional significance.
- Use significant details: gestures, what someone is wearing, how they look, how they talk.
- Make the plot start moving faster. “We want to know things. When we don’t find out that’s when we say we don’t need to read the rest, or ‘I can put it down.’”
- The most important pages of a novel are the first page and the last page.
- The first page needs to be very tight, where we need to know what’s happening: the circumstances that led to where the characters are right now.
- You make a choice between first person or third person. “I use first person when I want more intimacy.”
- First person should feel less formal. What is the narrator’s speech pattern? Establish a voice for each person speaking in first person.
- Ask yourself, how does [the narration] come across best? (Halfway through Women of the Silk, Gail turned the narration from first person to third.)
- Learn to read for technique
- Learn to read for style vs. story
- Remember: 90 percent of book buying is by women
- Get inside your characters’ heads so we understand them.
Suggested current authors to read (from Gail’s handout)
About Gail Tsukiyama: A novelist from San Francisco, Gail was one of nine fiction authors to appear during the first Library of Congress National Book Festival. Her works include The Samurai’s Garden, Women of the Silk, Night of Many Dreams, The Language of Threads, The Street of a Thousand Blossoms, and Dreaming Water.
Tsukiyama was born in San Francisco to a Japanese father from Hawaii and a Chinese mother from Hong Kong. She attended San Francisco State University where she received both her Bachelor of Arts Degree and a Master of Arts Degree in English with an emphasis in creative writing. She lives in El Cerrito, California, and works as a part-time creative writing lecturer for San Francisco State University and a freelance book reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. She is a past recipient of the Academy of American Poets Award.