RECORDED 10/26/15: I loved talking with this talented up-and-coming author, Joy Huang Stoffers, who takes her place alongside writers like Sarah Jamila Stevenson and Matt de La Pena with her debut Whasian. She’s written an insightful story of a young mixed-race woman’s journey coming into her own as she finally finds her place as a young college-aged woman. Listen to the episode here or download it from itunes.-Heidi Durrow
Joy Stoffers was raised in East Brunswick, NJ, by a Taiwanese mother and a Caucasian father. At the age of six she wrote, illustrated, and promptly recycled her first short story. Since then she dreamed of becoming a novelist. She holds a BA in English from Rutgers University and an MA in Creative Writing from Newcastle University. Harken Media publishes her debut novel, Whasian, November 2015.
Transcript of Interview: Joy Stoffers
copyright 2015 Heidi W. Durrow
Voiceover: TalkShoe. Recorded live.
Heidi: Hey everybody. Today is October 26th 2015 and this is The Mixed Experience. A weekly podcast by a mixed chick, sharing thoughts about a mixed up world. I’m your host and resident mixed chick Heidi Durrow. Today, we have yes another great guest to talk about the Mixed Experience. I’m really excited about this because she’s a debut novelist. There is something really special about that because what I’m hoping, the work I do, the work other writers are doing, is to make sure there are more of us.
It’s not just our one story but it’s also the next person from the next and the next and the next. This is pretty exciting for me as well. Before we talk to Joy, I wanted to just make a couple of announcements. One, is I apologize that we went off the air there for a couple of weeks. It wasn’t my intention, I had some difficulty scheduling guests. I was able to do some recordings of shows but I haven’t been able to edit them, to post them.
I have a really great interview with three filmmakers who are Hapa, half Japanese and half American, who’ve done this really wonderful documentary that is now available for sale. I’m going to try to post that as soon as possible because you need to watch this documentary they’ve done. Their mothers were Japanese war brides who came to the United States. The story of the way in which they got to America and the ways in which they assimilated … is so fascinating.
Then, to see the ways in which the mother-daughter dynamic plays out across culture and language and time. It’s really touching and moving and so I can’t wait to share that with you, I hope within the next week. Otherwise, we now have a full schedule all the way till the holidays. Next week I believe, I have on Rhonda Roorda, who writes about transracial adoption. She has a new book that is actually not released until next week but is available now called In Their Voices.
It’s interviews with black transracial adoptees and it’s really good. I can’t wait to talk to her next week. You can always go to the website, www.thenextexperience.com to get the schedule and also at talkshoe.com under the next experience. Finally, one last thing, I sound a little breathless because I am because this is so exciting. Today, I hope you are on the festival mailing list. We send out a newsletter every couple of weeks or so because there really is not much information to give out and we want to keep in touch with you.
Today’s newsletter went out this afternoon and it’s really important because, submissions are open for the 2016 festival. That means we are looking for panelists, workshop leaders, performers, artists, dancers, writers of every stripe, scholars, community leaders. We are looking for people to speak on panels, lead workshops, perform in a live show and basically share your story, your mixed experience.
We are hoping we are going to have the biggest festival ever. It’s two days, June 10th and 11th. The first date you have to remember is that submissions are due on January 18th 2016 and there is no application fee. It is a lengthy application I’m not going to lie. We did that on purpose because we want people who are very serious about what they are doing and want to communicate a message, in the story that’s important for this, the conversation that we are having here and in other spaces.
Go to the website www.mixedremixed.org. While you are there, think about donating some money, there is no application fee. What if you kicked in $10 to the festival, that would be great too. Just think about it that would be awesome. Okay, so yeah, I have a great guest today and it’s … She’s also a listener which is even better I think. I always feel there is something really sad when I suddenly discover a brand new project like I did today. I’m thinking, how did they not find me before and how did I not find them.
Joy found the podcast and I had now found Joy, which was very exciting. She’s a debut novelist. She was raised in East Brunswick New Jersey by a Taiwanese mother and a Caucasian father. At the age of six, she wrote, illustrated and promptly recycled her first short story. Man, that could have gone into your archives Joy. Well, since then, she’s dreamed of becoming a novelist and she holds a BA in English from Rutgers University and then creative writing from New Castle University.
Harken Media, publishes her debut novel, Whasian on November 2nd 2015, although it is available for pre-order now. I’m so pleased to welcome to the show Joy Huang Stoffers, hi?
Joy: Hi Heidi thanks for having me.
Heidi: Well, you are a long time listener and I think your answer is going to be rehearsed but that’s okay too.
Joy: This first question [crosstalk 05:42].
Heidi: I know, what are you?
Joy: I’d say I’ve got two answers but first and foremost I’d say that I’m a palimpset.
Joy: Yeah. Constantly rewriting what I am.
Heidi: That’s a great answer.
Joy: Then my second answer is, I’m a living history.
Heidi: I love it. Okay, so I know that this was not always your answer to this question. Tell me when you first were confronted by the question what are you? How you’ve evolved from that first moment of shock perhaps, to having this very complex, complicated and nuanced answer.
Joy: Yeah. I think, my dad had a pseudo race talk with me when I was in kindergarten.
Heidi: I’m impressed.
Joy: Yeah. I knew that I was going to get this question. I don’t remember how old I was when I got it but I must have been really young. Of course, the first time you get it you are really surprised and you don’t really know what to make of it. Then you finally, after hearing the escalation of questions and how they guide you down the path that they want you to follow. Then you realize, okay, do you want percentages, do you want fractions that sort of thing that’s what you are supposed to say anyway.
I started out by following that path and saying, oh yes you know my mom is from Taiwan, my dad is Caucasian. Irish-German, Taiwanese plus Chinese if you want to, how do you want to break it down. Actually, and I think my answer has changed well of course because of the ongoing identity revision process. Also, I took a DNA test, I realized that things aren’t as clear cut as that anyway.
Heidi: Yes. It’s interesting that people want the percentages and the numbers and the fractions. Then once they are presented with something like, someone who may look visibly brown and they say I’m 52% Caucasian, it shatters their whole notion of what answer they were looking for.
Heidi: Okay. Did your dad decide for you or he just said, “You know what, you may get this question.” How did it make you feel that all of a sudden you had this extra identity?
Joy: I think they had some experience beforehand because they had a test done with my brother who is four and a half years older than me. Likely that’s why he had the discussion with me when I was in kindergarten because, I seem anyway remember I had to deal with many big issues and more. Because when he was born, he was one of very, very few Hapas. There weren’t many in our community at all. By the time I was in high school, there were four others that I was going to school with but my brother was the one …
Heidi: You could have gotten t-shirts almost.
Joy: I know yeah, a tiny little posse. My brother was one of two so I feel [crosstalk 09:18].
Heidi: Now, would you say that you, I mean obviously you had that leader ahead of you. Because in my own experience, I have an older brother who is three and a half years older. I think because we were relocated geographically so often because of military assignments that my father had. That we never had that notion of someone forging ahead for us and setting the groundwork on identity. Did you resist whatever he came up with in terms of identifying as Hapa or did you think, all right my brother did it this way this is what I’m going to do?
Joy: I think for my brother, he didn’t really have to deal with it as much as I did. I think that when we were younger anyway even now, I lean a little bit more to the west than he does in like looks. I know, I feel like women tend to get more scrutiny than men regarding this factor. We would go back to Taiwan every three year, five year and that’s … So it was interesting going to Taiwan and getting that mixed feedback.
Then coming back to the states and getting a different mixed feedback, and so but always being forever conscious of difference and as being in between always.
Heidi: It sounds like you struggled with it but I think you are much younger than I am. You’ve grown up in a different age when we were supposed to be post racial weren’t we?
Joy: Exactly yeah I know.
Heidi: Is it something that you were allowed to talk about?
Joy: I think, so in the household, my parents always raised me with the term ainoko because Taiwan was colonized by Japan. My Taiwanese grandmother my ma she actually her first language was Japanese. Because of the colonization, my mom knew a bit of Japanese as well and so that’s why they had this term ainoko because of World War II. A lot of American GIs were in Japan, and so that’s when they were marrying some Japanese women.
The children, they were called [love 11:44] children, of the [inaudible 11:46] and marriages. In Japanese that’s ainoko. Although back then it was derogatory so more like half breed. Now it’s … Even though I think that the actual meaning is still the same, it’s looked upon with, in more favorable terms I think.
Heidi: I’m wondering, when you were able to decide this is something that I get to talk about. I’m not quite sure how it all goes down and I know everyone sees me differently. It seems you had a very strong sense of yourself very early. In fact, well maybe not in fact but I hadn’t heard the term Whasian before. Is that something that you coined?
Joy: No it’s nothing I coined it’s actually on urban dictionary. Before I knew it was on urban dictionary, I had a Hapa friend and she is half Filipino. She told me about it and this was in high school like eighth or ninth grade and I’d never heard of it before. I said, “What do you mean, I had always been using ainoko. Some Japanese I’m sure might say it’s improper for me to use that because I’m not Japanese. We didn’t have that at the time.
Yeah, but Whasian is slang for Hapa as well. If you want to be technically you could say Amerasian. In Europe they had Eurasian far earlier than we had Amerasian because of England and Hong Kong. Actually, they are much more progressive in terminology than we are here.
Heidi: In Europe you mean?
Heidi: Interesting. Because I would say it’s actually more difficult at least for the African or African-American mixtures in Europe. There isn’t really great terminology around that stuff. In Denmark I think they would say still that I was mullat which is mulatto which is you know. I would like to reclaim that word in sarcastic instances but it’s quite still very loaded.
Joy: Yeah. That’s the thing for everything is always it has so much history behind it so reclaiming is always a fraught process.
Heidi: Exactly. It’s hard to say it intelligently and make sure that people understand, that you understand all of the baggage that it holds.
Joy: [Inaudible 14:34].
Heidi: This is the question of naming but this is exactly where the book begins. Right off the bat, just like the first question of the podcast, what are you. Can you tell us a little bit about your protagonist and where she is in life when the book begins?
Joy: Right. The protagonists has actually very little time coming with me and I set it out that way. Because I do not want to deal with the whole …
Heidi: Everyone is going to ask that always and …
Joy: Yeah it’s true.
Heidi: Well and also because your protagonist has a difficult time of it and people want to take care of you so be ready for that question on the book tour.
Joy: Yeah. Ava Ling Magee and she actually can pass very easily for white. The beginning of the book starts out with an Asian girl because otherwise moving into university freshman. A sophomore who is helping her move in asks her, “Where is she from.” Then went off a kind of skirts around that question she says, “No, no where you really are from,” so the escalation of the interrogation basically. You can tell that that has received this question before and it’s agitating her. She is just feeling stressed for many reasons that aren’t disclosed at that point.
She just snaps and says, “You know what, I’m white.” I don’t know what you are talking about because I think I’m white. The girl says with this visual and verbal dichotomy because of the Ling Magee. Ling should point to some kind of East Asian ancestry but Ava says it’s not true. Then of course the parents come in and then you have the visual cue on that part. Ava is caught in a lie and she has to deal with that. You can tell her identity is … She’s going through an identity crisis basically.
Heidi: What I like so much about the book, one of the things is that it starts in college. I hear so often people talk about, it wasn’t really a problem until I got to college, where suddenly I felt I had to choose sides. You write about that so well with this character. What’s at stake for her in choosing sides or not choosing sides and then how does she deal with it?
Joy: What’s compounding her problem is that, she’s dealing with familial issues as well. She’s trying to redefine herself outside of the family dynamic. Also figure out what she wants to be, for sure, the whole usual college track. What do I want to do with my life that sort of thing? Also, how do other people, her contemporaries see her and how does she want to be seen or maybe she doesn’t want to be seen? She’s grappling with complexity and she’s trying to strive for fulfillment in a complex way.
Heidi: What she does ultimately is, she explores these self-destructive behaviors, not entirely self-destructive I think that is strong of a word. She starts to toy with not necessarily being her best self or … I’m trying to find the right words. Can you help me out here? It’s like she’s trying to become the idea of what a college student is maybe.
Joy: Right. I’m thinking that if she is the stereotypical college student, then all these other problems wouldn’t exist, especially with everyone else.
Heidi: Yeah. I mean it makes total sense. In my own experience, I remember being in high school and thinking, once I get to college, I am going to be a black college student. I’m not going to have to deal with all this difficulty, because really the reason people are not getting me in the school is that, it’s not really a school geared toward academics. There weren’t a lot of black nerds at my school. If I go to college, there will be a lot of black nerds and then I …
Joy: Fit right in, yes.
Heidi: Yeah. Of course I didn’t fit in because there were all sorts of other ways that people divided themselves. I think, I consciously or unconsciously at some point decided, the only thing I could choose to be that would make me a thing, was to just get the best grade and go to the best schools. I don’t know if you … Did you ever go through that process?
Joy: I think actually that happened to me this year where I was like I must get all straight A’s all the time. I must get a 4.0 and I was devastated when I got one B plus . . . I now have like a 3.971. I’m over it now, I’m over it I realized that doesn’t make a difference. For a while I was like no, I am not perfect . . .
Heidi: I don’t know if I’m saying it in the same way it means something to you but, what is being ‘perfect’ offer you, that was alleviating any stress you had over how you were supposed to identify or how people identified you?
Joy: Well, I felt if I just validated myself through academics, then there would be none of these … I would have none of these feelings about … I wouldn’t have as many questions. It would just be, here is my academic record. I just you know, I had a t-shirt with my transcript and I’d just wear it all the time, which was me.
Heidi: Yes exactly, that’s the thing. We are not wearing t-shirts or holding signs or have things painted on our forehead.
Heidi: This is how you should recognize me and even if we did I don’t think it would work at all.
Joy: Yeah, it wouldn’t matter.
Heidi: Okay, so the character Ava goes through some really difficult things. Why did you choose to create the mother character to be … Well she was pretty difficult.
Joy: Yeah I know.
Heidi: It is understandable, she is a complicated character but right out of the bat it’s oh my god, I feel like the character is being suffocated to death by the pressure.
Joy: Oh absolutely yeah, because I wanted it to explore the entrance in psychology. The internal pressure for sure and what self-repression can definitely do to expedite the combustion, the internal combustion process basically. Because I’m interested in talking more about mental health, I think in the Asian-American community for sure and just the Asian at large. That’s avoided, there are no problems. There is nothing … Everything is perfect, everything is about perfection to some degree.
You have to meet the standards. There is no allowance for humanity basically at that point. No wonder that people have breakdowns and people need to talk about issues and people need therapy and things like these, that are just part of normal communication and normal life. There is no space for that in most …
Heidi: I wanted to try to sign this article I remember reading a few years ago. It was a study that was done on mixed race kids who were half Asian and half white. They had an incredibly high suicide rate actually. Compared to other mixed race, other mixes of races, it was the kids who were half Asian who had the most difficulty in that. What you are writing about and what you are talking about is extremely important.
Joy: Yeah. I think it’s … Just addressing it and being able to see like oh I’m not going crazy. This is a normal and natural process and it should be dealt with, it should be discussed. Because that’s the only way we are going to be able to move forward.
Heidi: Definitely. What do you hope that readers will get out of the book?
Joy: I hope that readers will be able to see that life is complex and being mixed can mean many different things for the entire mixed community. There is no one story for sure and there is nothing that you can take at face value. Well, at the beginning of the book some few might say . . . You realize that it’s not touching easy and so you can’t just check off the labels and then be done with it. Because something … Everything comes from something else.
We have to say okay, well this is what we are encountering right now but how can I fully understand this. I think the ability to ask questions and to be open to learning is integral to making meaningful connections with each other, beyond the mixed community just being human. It requires people to interact on an equal level.
Heidi: I’m so glad you said that because obviously you are on this podcast. The book, it really relates to so much more than just being mixed. There is a universalness about the Mixed Experience, in that we actually embody being betwixt in between. People feel they are in liminal spaces in all sorts of ways and they can relate.
Heidi: I knew they can relate to the protagonist of feeling like wow, I seem to be one thing I’m not quite sure what I am yet but I want to explore it. Yet, I can’t with all these eyes telling me, that what I feel isn’t actually me. I think it really is a wonderful book for anyone who has had those moments of not belonging.
Joy: Yeah. Because I think we’ve all felt like interlopers at one point or another, even Donald Trump.
Heidi: Well, we are not going to go that far I’m sorry.
Joy: No, we won’t go there. You are never ever going to feel 100% complete, whole. I think that’s why it’s relatable feeling in between, feeling like you are not making the exact mark that you are supposed to be hitting.
Heidi: Yes, yeah. Now, on the writing side before you go, I have to ask you, what does it feel like your debut novel is coming out next week. What was the process because you are young still you didn’t wait until you were 40. Tell me, I want some excitement, I want to hear the excitement this is an amazing thing.
Joy: If I were to be completely honest this is my second attempt at a book. Because when I was in high school, when I was 15, I started writing some awful fan fiction of … If I can remember I was reading some supernatural mystery thing. I was like, because I’m reading this, then I have to try it.
Heidi: That’s so awesome.
Joy: That was terrible I got 100 pages, I was like, I made 100 pages. Then, I chucked it. I still have a folder on my laptop and it says, “Remember the first time you ever tried to,” just so I remember. I thought that for a while just because I failed like the first time that meant that I would never write something, I would never complete anything, I would never finish. After three years, I had a decent draft of Whasian and then the whole editorial process with Harken Media that was draft five. The final draft the fifth time I wrote it …
Heidi: I know I’m feeling bad for you I think I rewrote The Girl Who Fell from the Sky at least 18 or 20 times completely.
Joy: When you were telling me it actually took you 12 years, I was like oh my gosh.
Heidi: Yeah it took forever.
Joy: That is perseverance with a capital P.
Heidi: It is. Yet, it was a different time and hopefully that book led to other books having more space in the world. Hopefully your book will allow other stories to have a space in the world because it’s so important. Hey, I’m wondering, what was your parent’s response to the book, have they read it?
Joy: I actually because I wanted to make it … I wanted . . . When I was failing, when I was struggling, when I was sending out 101 queer letters to agents and getting rejected, I wanted it to be all on my shoulder. Then finally, when we got to the latter parts of the editorial process the Harken Media, then I said, “Okay dad, you can read it just check over my opinion.”
Heidi: I think that was really smart that’s excellent.
Joy: Yeah. They are very supportive and so they are excited for me. Meanwhile, I’m just trying not to be too excited because I’m always afraid of being disappointed which is kind of Asian I think. Yeah, just be the little rain cloud and nothing more.
Heidi: Well, people are going to read this book because they are going to enjoy it and I’m going to tell them. Are you going to be doing a tour, is there anywhere people can find you on the road?
Joy: I’m still figuring out the move to Seattle I’m actually in your home state right now, I’m in the Portland area right now.
Heidi: This is great.
Joy: Yeah it’s great. I went down to LA to do a couple of Asian-American podcasts and though it had to be in person. It’s like okay just go there and so I made the trip back up here. Then now I have to do the whole make sure you have a job with benefits so you can write on the side thing. Find a place so you are not crashing at your brother because I’m sure he’ll hate me very soon. Yeah that whole process.
As far as I know, I’m far too early on to be considering a book tour. It would be nice if the book was in Powell’s, I think it will be so that would be …
Heidi: That would be very nice, that would be fantastic. If people want to find you, where should they find you? I know you are on Twitter @joyhuangstoff S-T-O-F-F and then your website?
Joy: It’s www.joyhuangstoffers.com. I have a Facebook page, I’ve got a Tumblr. If you go to the website basically it will redirect you to all these other social media shenanigans.
Heidi: Yes. I’m so proud of you. I know I’m not allowed to … there wasn’t even a part of it. I so enjoyed getting a chance to lead it in advance.
Joy: [Crosstalk 31:42], full disclosure, you wrote the blurb which was phenomenal I’d say.
Heidi: I did blurb. I just blurbed it because I loved it and I’m excited to see more stories like these come out in the world. Let me know if you are going to be on the road somewhere so we can tell all the listeners out there they can come meet you.
Joy: Yeah absolutely.
Heidi: They can get it online at Amazon …
Joy: Yeah, I’m not sure what they are doing with books distribution. I think they are doing more printing on demand because they are Indie so they are not going to do a whole, we are going to print 500 and maybe shred the rest. I think this is … efficient on their part for sure be much nicer to treat to I’m sure. Yeah, but I’ll definitely be at the festival so people can meet me there.
Heidi: I’m very excited, I’m excited by this. I’m excited to meet you in person. Joy thanks so much for joining us, congratulations on Whasian.
Joy: Thank you.
Heidi: Hey folks, go buy … You got to support artists, go buy the book, please. It’s good you are going to enjoy it too. Thank you Joy so much I will talk to you actually very soon.
Joy: Yes, yes. Thank you so much Heidi.
Heidi: Thank you. Bye-bye.
Heidi: Okay, she’s great. We have been corresponding on and off for a few months now. When I was finally able to read the novel, I was so excited for her. It’s a book actually that just hasn’t been written before guys, it just hasn’t. There are people out there writing YA that are really good like Sarah Jamila Stevenson The Latte Rebellion and Matt de La Pena. I don’t really think there has been a book about that experience of being in college and searching. Even though there are so many people who talk about what happens in those moments for them.
She’s just done a very nice job and a very beautiful job actually of writing about it. There is a piece of it that I didn’t share with you. She actually … Joy is a writer with multitudes. She’s not just mixed but she also is a writer with multitudes. She has very different styles in the book which I like. I didn’t want to talk more about it during the interview because it spoils the story I think. I’m just going to allude to it that way and let you go off on your own and buy the book, Whasian, Joy Huang Stoffers yeah.
All right guys, we are back next week, live, Monday at 5:00. I hope you’ll join me. I have this really great guest I told you about who has done this book of interviews of black transracial adoptees. I am really moved by the stories and I think you will be too. I hope I’ll talk to you then. In the meantime, send me your emails at heidiwdurrow.com or Twitter @heididurrow I’d love to hear from you.
If you have a chance and you are on iTunes I’d love for you to do a review so more people can find us. Thanks again for joining me, that’s it for this week, bye-bye.
Copyright 2015 Heidi W. Durrow
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