Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
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Monday
Feb292016

Oscars make you uncomfortable? Good

I have a love/hate relationship with Hollywood.

Because when my debut novel landed on the NYT bestseller list and stuck around for two years, I also landed my first film agent. She enjoyed my book. And she told me that she could easily sell the film option. But she also told me that a film would never get made—because my main characters were…Chinese, Japanese, and black.

I’ll pause to let that sink in for a moment.

***

Still with me? 

Okay, so was this agent racist? No, she was kind of awesome, actually. But she had the odious task of telling me, that by Hollywood standards, my baby was ugly.

I didn’t agree. So I signed with another agent. And in my search I found myself bouncing about Hollywood, spending time in very nice offices, with very nice producers, who all kept saying—and this is an exact quote: 

“How do we mitigate the financial risk without a white, male lead?”

Uncomfortable? Need to pause again?

***

I love the famously cantankerous writer, Harlan Ellison, and envisioned him leaping across the table and punching someone in the gullet. I imagined him lighting garbage fires in elevators and burning studios to the ground, then salting the smoldering ruins. I daydreamed as I grit my teeth and kept moving. 

And HOTEL was finally optioned, albeit briefly, to the founding CEO of Village Roadshow, a gentleman who was specializing in Asian markets at the time and who had helped finance Avatar and Marley & Me. I say briefly, because he passed away a year later (RIP Greg Coote).

So yes, there are opportunities in Hollywood. But they are buried in what Chris Rock so aptly described as “Sorority Racism.” And passive racism is still racism. Sins of omission, while not sins of commission, are still sins.

And to deny the racist, exclusionary, whitewashing reality of Hollywood is not just uninformed nonsense—it’s actually enabling this institutionalized behavior.

I guess what I’m saying is—if last night’s Oscars made you feel a tad uncomfortable—great! That means your empathy muscles are asking for a workout. 

You can do the easy thing and shut down those feelings, deny what they’re telling you, or you can put yourself in the shoes of Hattie McDaniel who was the first black woman to win an Oscar, but had to play a maid 74 times, or in the shoes of Dean Tanaka and Chloe Wang who had to change their names to Dean Cain and Chloe Bennett to find success—entirely up to you. 

I’ll pause again to let you think about it.

Saturday
Dec122015

The Mystery Girl. Thoughts on race, fear, and religious freedom

The photo is by the great Dorothea Lange. Her Internment images were impounded by the US government. Most of these images ended up in the US archives, but weren't published until 2006. Lange died in 1965.In the front of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet there's a photo of a Japanese American girl. She was born in the US, but sent to an internment camp along with her family because they looked like the enemy. 

Now certain politicians are dismissing this injustice. They're vague-tweeting the idea that for the safety of all, perhaps we should be comfortable trampling on the rights of a few.

Do they REALLY believe this? I doubt it. It's political shorthand. It's reductive reasoning, designed to turn complex racial and sociological algebra into 1+1 = vote for me. 

And while I'd like to think we're all smarter than that, we're also stuck with a 24-hour news Kraken that feeds on fear. That hectoring makes us wary of Muslim Americans. Or Sikhs. Or merely brown people with beards. And makes the idea of registering people because of their religious affiliation seem "reasonable" and "prudent."

That's disheartening, because not only do I have Muslim friends, but also my books have been translated into Arabic. 

It's confounding too, because if I were invited to Saudi Arabia for book events, I'd hesitate. Not out of fear, but because I wouldn't be able to keep my big mouth shut with regards to Wahhabism and women's rights. (I have four daughters and when they graduated from high school I suggested Pomp & Circumstance be ditched in favor of Ride of the Valkyries, so yeah, I'm biased too).

But...back to the Mystery Girl.

She's not a mystery to me, because I've had the pleasure of meeting her. I've enjoyed dinner with her family. Her name is Mae Yanagi and she's as American as can be. 

Like my ancestors and yours, her family came to the US to become part of something better. Not to infiltrate.

Think of this little girl the next time a politician suggests we begin registering people -- because freedom shouldn't be a mystery.

Tuesday
Nov032015

Black holes, dark matter, Amazon, and other mysteries of the universe

Ardent Amazon critic, Sherman Alexie, has books on display. Ironic photo by the Seattle Times.It's weird. It's mysterious. And it’s official. Amazon has opened an actual, honest-to-betsy, retail location in Seattle—a physical bookstore—the very thing that was anathema to all things Amazon for the last decade.

And no one knows quite what to make of it. 

When looking at photos of the new bookstore my first thought was of the Final Fantasy movies. The producers used the latest, greatest, state-of-the-artiest technology to create what was then deemed to be the most “life-like” animation ever. But the characters on screen, while beautiful and gorgeously rendered, lacked a certain spark. Their souls were missing. One reviewer called them “cadaverous.”

That’s how Amazon’s bookstore feels to me. It appears to be a data driven replicant of a bookstore experience. A facsimile—like Frankenstein’s monster. On the one hand, the sheer audacity and genius is amazing to behold. But on the other hand, you’re left wondering when this creation will break loose and start eating villagers.

And yes, I am colored by my personal experiences with Amazon.

That is to say, I sell a ton of books via the giant online retailer. (So...yay!)

But I also once created a tiny promotion aimed at supporting Indie Bookstores and was told that by doing so I had jeopardized my chances of being one of Amazon’s Best Books of the Month. (So...boo!)

And a year later I was curious about all things Amazon, so I flew to Seattle to meet with their head of publishing, who was quite wonderful and told me how much she loved working there. And then she quit a month later.  (So...huh?)

I guess that's a fancy way of saying that I have more questions than answers. Like you, I'm left wondering...why a bookstore?

  • Is it to test drive/sell more Kindles?
  • Is it like sending in the infantry to mop up the retail battlefield that’s been crushed by Amazon's online cavalry charge? 
  • Is it just a PR stunt to further augment stock price?
  • Of has Amazon renewed its vows and actually fallen in love with printed books?

Who knows? I certainly don’t. And maybe Amazon doesn't even know. But either way, I’ll be making popcorn and watching curiously from the sidelines.

What’s your theory, wiseguy?

Friday
Oct092015

State of the Book Address

Found some graffiti that God would approve of atop the dome of Sacre Coeur.Hey, kids. Been a longish time since I've posted. Which means that I've either been writing, or traveling. Or in this particular passport-stamping instance, a bit of both.

I sent an early draft of the new book to my illustrious editrix long before the recent blood moon and she had tremendously wonderful feedback, which also requires tremendously strenuous rewriting. (Think Mt. Rushmore, but adding a different face and shorting the chin of Abe Lincoln and giving George Washington braces). The new book will undoubtedly be better for it, but these things take time. 

Speaking of time, I took a little time off to visit Paris. And while I hung out with authors Janet Skeslien Charles, James Grady, and the incredibly talented Aliette de Bodard (we went to Literary Boot Camp together back in 2006) I was really there for a mental palate cleansing before I dive back into my Seattle based book which has a new working title: WITH MY MEMORIES, I LIT THE FIRE. 

Oddly enough that title comes from a translation of a song in the 50s by French singer Edith Piaf. And sure enough, all over Paris we're hearing this broken-hearted ballad. So in the immortal words of Buckaroo Banzai, "No matter where you go, there you are."

Okay, back to my Batman pajamas and that whole writing thing. 

Au revoir.