Thursday, April 23, 2015

[Blog Buddies] Reading Rutabaga Review: "Linh and the Red Envelope" by Diane Tran

An avid reader based in southern Minnesota, my friend Lisa refers to herself as the "Reading Rutabaga." She recently reviewed my book, Linh and the Red Envelope, which I'll have the opportunity to read at the Minnesota History Center on April 25 for Asian Pacific Heritage Family Day. Visit her blog for the official book review and see below for the author interview!

"Linh and the Red Envelope" by Diane Tran

I am thrilled to share this post with you about Linh and the Red Envelope. The author, Diane Tran, is someone whom I’ve been able to call friend for over a decade. She’s a world traveler, leader, project manager, German Marshall Fund of the United Sates American Fellow, and overall inspiring friend, role model and individual. I’m so proud of her newest title: author!


Linh and the Red Envelope (September 2013) by Diane Tran. Alex Patrick Shimkus, illustrator.

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Diane, thank you for taking the time to answer some questions! You have an impressive resumé. What is it like to add “author” to your list?
Thanks for the invitation to join you on the Reading Rutabaga, Lisa! I've really enjoyed your insights here on different pieces of writing and literature, and consider it an honor to be featured on your blog.

As an experiential learner, one of my favorite things to do is to try things for the first time. While I have blogged for several years, it has been a long-held dream of mine to write a children's book, so it was an incredibly gratifying endeavor. I'm especially excited because it's the kind of story—a young female Asian protagonist relating to challenges that are at once universal and distinct to her culture—that I never knew existed when I was young. I often wonder whether and how things might have been different or easier for me if I'd had access to these kinds of narratives when I was younger. And so I'm hopeful that this book being out in the world now can make a positive difference for young children today.

You wrote your story for the Reading Together Project for a specific purpose: “to address the lack of children’s books that speak to the experience of being an Asian Pacific Islander (API) child or youth in the United States.” Especially for APIs, what kind of impact do you think reading of API title characters will have on them? Do you think it might have a creative or proud cultural impact?
I'm hopeful that through getting to know Linh, her mom, and her grandmother, API children will be able to see their own realities and experiences reflected back to them as normal and significant. For API and other marginalized communities, the result of not seeing others like you—your race, class, ability, immigration status, faith, etc.—in literature, the media, or popular culture has the effect of making you feel invisible. Unnoticed, unimportant. (Paradoxically, it can also create the feeling of being overly exposed and in the spotlight in an undesired way: When as the only different person in the room, you're looked at as the "other" or presumed to be speaking for your entire ethnicity, gender, etc.) And if there are characters that look like you, they often times serve to portray stereotypes that are limiting and/or harmful. This effectively reduces diverse populations to a single characteristic or function, devoid of any further humanity. This under-representation and mis-representation mirrors the way in which the dominant culture relates to or experiences minority groups. And so, by creating our own narratives and sharing our lived experiences, we can begin to see our realities as valid and meaningful and in the process, and humanize ourselves and each other.

Can you tell us about the Reading Together Project?
Funded by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund and created as a partnership between the Minnesota Humanities Center and the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans (CAPM), the Reading Together Project focuses on amplifying missing narratives from the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, supports the development of English literacy skills while recognizing cultural heritage, and creates opportunities for children and families to learn about API cultural heritage together. Seeking to address the lack of children’s books that speak to the experience of being an Asian Pacific Islander (API) child or youth in the United States, the project has published six children's books in recent years. In 2012, the project produced two chapter books written for a third grade reading level, and in 2013, four picture books written for a 1st - 3rd grade reading level were published. My book was published in the most recent round, which selected four writers and four illustrators through a competitive process and allowed us to pair up and work collaboratively to develop the books. A copy-editor helped provide clarity to and tighten up my original writing submission, my book's illustrator, Alex Shimkus, brought the story to life with vivid imagery and visual detail, and the project's layout editor and publisher fashioned it into a 32-page paperback book. The whole process took nine months from submission and selection to the book launch event in October, and was exciting, challenging, and a lot of fun!
Can you tell us more about the tradition of giving red envelopes?
In Chinese and some other Asian cultures, red envelopes are given during holidays, such as the Lunar New Year, or to celebrate special occasions, including weddings, graduations, and the birth of a baby. Red envelopes usually contain money, though you may occasionally find candy or a proverb enclosed. Traditionally, red envelopes are given by married couples to the unmarried, who are typically younger and/or children. The red color signifies good luck and so my mom always tells me, the money you find inside is lucky!
Red envelopes
Where did you draw the inspiration for your story?
In many ways, this story is autobiographical. As a young girl growing up as the first generation born in the United States to refugee parents, I struggled to know how to be a "good daughter." In terms of my family and Asian culture, I understood this to mean that I should respect my elders, help to clean the house, and care for my siblings. As I navigated my school and community surroundings, though, I found that there were other measures of success, including academic ambition, student leadership, and civic engagement. While it was clear to me that these were all important values and roles, in some ways it felt like they were in conflict with one another. Pursuing too much of one or the other might diminish my chances for public or professional success or alternatively, move me further away from the heritage and traditions that felt core to my identity.

I attempted (with varying results) to balance the two, and over the years, I began to see opportunities to apply my love for organizing and community building to advocating for my family members and building a stronger sense of cohesion within my family of origin as well as extended family. I supported my dad on his journey to earning his citizenship and I leveraged my perspective as a member of several marginalized communities to deepen policy discussions that impacted those communities. What I came to see over time was that there was not one "right" or "good"' way to care for those in my life, but that my search to discover where my duties, strengths, and passions aligned was part of my path to being fully myself - as a loving daughter and sister as well as an engaged community leader. 

Your main character, Linh, struggles to know that goodness doesn’t come from doing things perfectly, but having a willing spirit and wanting to do the right thing. How important is it to you to get that message across to all children? That it isn’t about being perfect at new things, but of wanting to do each thing and be willing to work at it?
My book's dedication reads: "For every kid trying to do the right thing. Know that you already are the right thing." While I think it is critical for children to know and believe this, part of me wonders if it's really the kids that we need to tell this to, or instead the adults. Children are full of boundless energy and observations and curiosity. As adults, we have the responsibility of rearing our children, nieces and nephews, and students so that they respect themselves and each other, and can contribute positively to this world. But in so doing, we may inadvertently relay to children that we are the ones who know best for them and that they need to behave or be a certain way in order to be acceptable. This poses a challenge to children just as they are beginning to learn the important life skills of trusting themselves and accepting themselves for who they are. So, I think I'd offer messages to both children and their parents: Children, you don't have to earn your role as someone's child, you already are. Parents, guide your children lovingly, knowing that viewing your child as the gift that they are allows them to fully trust and believe it.

Where can readers purchase your book?
The book is available for purchase on Lulu.com. A free PDF copy of the book is available online, along with an Educator Guide, in the Minnesota Humanities Center Absent Narratives Resource Collection.

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