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YA Novelist Gwen Li On 'The Switch Sisters' and the Need For Diversity in YA Lit

Twenty four-year-old Gwen Li’s YA novel The Switch Sisters tells the story of a family; Fa, Mara, Morgan, Marie, and Mina Switch. They are outsiders in their small town because of their ethnicity, and because of their rumored magical abilities. After the oldest Switch sister is falsely accused of murdering her husband, the others have to use their wits, courage, and magic in order to find out what really happened. Li self-published her novel, and was kind enough to speak with PolicyMic about her writing, her inspirations, and the need for more minority characters in literature. 

Evangeline Furton (EF): The process of writing and self-publishing your novel The Switch Sisters must have been a considerable task. I am interested in what your motivations were for deciding to be a writer, as well as why you picked this specific story to tell, and in the way you did.

Gwen Li (GL): I could go on about the “why writing” question for hours. I think that if you ask most writers why they do it, however, it ultimately boils down to not being able to imagine life without writing. I had been a real math and science kid growing up, and in college I studied social theory and pre-med. I didn’t know any writers, and I had no idea how one went about becoming one. But one day I must have just realized that all the names on the books I worshipped were real flesh and blood humans like myself — and if they did it, why couldn’t I?

EF: So, why did you choose to write a YA novel? Do you think that there are things you did in The Switch Sisters that couldn’t have been done in an adult’s or children’s book?

The Switch Sisters is very much concerned with issues of identity, and young adult or teen readers are just at the age when they start to confront these issues seriously. Adolescence is also a time when our imaginations liberally take material from books and movies and other forms of media. So I think YA literature is extremely important, because it is a resource for young readers trying to understand who they are and imagine what they can be.

Also, feeling alienated or like an outsider is a big part of the “teenage condition,” and so, I thought a book that explores alienation and outsider-ness on a very explicit level would resonate implicitly with many teen readers.

All that said, I hope that The Switch Sisters is a story that can appeal to all ages. I recently got a note from a middle-aged reader saying that her 91-year-old mother couldn’t put the book down and finished it in two days — that really made my day

EF: Your novel has many strong minority characters. Do you think there is a lack of minorities represented in Young Adult literature? If so, do you think this influenced your writing in any way?

GL: Yes! This has influenced and inspired my writing in every way. Asian Americans are underrepresented in literature in general, especially given that we are so well represented in other highly-regarded fields (medicine, finance, etc). In my Asian American Lit blog, I recently wrote about Asian Americans being cultural “under-achievers” in contrast to our stereotype as over-achieving model minorities. I think this is a problem that the Asian American community needs to confront. Like I say in the blog, “Come on, tiger moms, get your over-achieving kids writing!”

As a young Chinese girl growing up in the U.S., almost every literary heroine I admired was white. None were Asian American ... it was difficult for me to imagine myself as someone I would admire, without also imagining myself as white. On a very basic level, I wrote The Switch Sisters in hopes of giving Asian American girls literary heroines who looked like them. I wanted girls who daydreamed of being witches to have an easy time daydreaming in yellow, and to be able to read books without experiencing identity crisis.

EF: In the same vein, almost all of the important characters in your novel are female: the Switch sisters, Fa, Mrs. Hunter, and all of these characters have “powers” both magical and not. Although I can see your book being an exciting read for either gender, what message do you want to send to your female readers?

GL: There’s definitely a lot of girl power in the book. For one, magic is passed on through blood, but is only expressed in women. There are a lot of female protagonists in literature, but so many of them are Jane Austen paper dolls mostly concerned with finding rich and handsome husbands. Just this week, Frank Bruni wrote an op-ed for the NYTimes lamenting the state of sexism today, citing as one of his examples the comparative lack of blockbuster superhero movies featuring women. One of my friends described a scene in The Switch Sisters as packed with “Chinese-American Captain Planet action”…so maybe my message to Asian, female, and Asian female readers with this book is: you can be a badass superhero too!

EF: I have to ask about self-publishing… what made you self-publish your book, rather than seek a traditional press?

GL: I never really thought about going through a traditional press with this book. I was impatient. I had finished a version of the book first as a blovel last November and then put it aside to work on my other writing. I was also working a full time job then. I kept on thinking in the back of my head that since I’d written a novel I should do something with it, instead of just letting it lurk on some obscure blog. I didn’t really want to go through the hassle of finding an agent or a publisher, especially when I was already on to the next thing and very busy. I was also very lucky to have some supportive and talented friends who helped me throw a book launch and publicize the thing, and also the wildly gifted Shanshan Wang, who designed the cover for the book. It’s been a great experience overall — at its highest run, The Switch Sisters was #2 on Amazon’s Teen Fantasy bestseller list.

A lot of well-known authors like Stephen King have self-published books as well, because a significantly higher royalty means it’s much more profitable per book sold for the author, and also because the author has so much more control over the process.

EF: Do you generally write from experience, or do you like to dream up characters and situations completely different from your own? To put it another way, do you think that you have aspects of the Switch sisters in yourself?

GL: Yes and no. Of course, all writers must write from experience on some level. But my life is boring — I’m not a witch, and no one is trying to take down my family. Nowadays, I spend most of my day staring at a word processor; not the stuff of exciting literature. That said, I did draw from my own immigrant experience when creating the emotional lives of these sisters. There is a little bit of me in each of them: Mara’s desire to fit in, Marie’s discipline, Morgan’s “just do it” attitude, and Mina’s shyness are all shades of my personality. I think that literature operates under the assumption that deep down, all humans are similar creatures — but the way our common humanity expresses itself in response to the disparate lives we are given makes us interesting and unique. So … short answer: I write from the experience of being human, but often the mundane details of my life don’t make the cut for fiction.

EF: Are there any writers who you think of as major influences?

GL: There are so many writers who influence and inspire me. The summer I read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera was the summer I started to write secretly. My favorite Asian American writers are Gish Jen, Ha Jin and Chang-rae Lee (I recently read A Gesture Life and it was absolutely stunning). I loved Roald Dahl, Phillip Pullman, J.K. Rowling (of course), C.S. Lewis, and Meg Cabot/Jenny Carroll as a young reader. Some contemporary writers on my summer reading list that I’m particularly excited to read are: Rachel Kushner, Colum McCann, Tea Obreht, Peter Carey, Lydia Davis, Claire Messud, Hilary Mantel.

EF: What do you think is next for you? Do you think you will keep writing?

GL: I’m starting a Masters in Fine Arts program in the fall for fiction writing, so yes! I will keep writing. I’m also working on other projects — short stories and a literary fiction novel — which will be the main stuff of the MFA.

I’m also writing sequels to The Switch Sisters. I’m hoping to have the first sequel done by the end of the year or early 2014 at the latest, so get ready! I don’t have a title yet, but I know it will focus on a fight between the twins, Marie and Morgan, and will be told in first person in alternating chapters from each twin’s perspective.

EF: What advice would you give to other young people who are trying to write creatively?

GL: From Isabel Allende: “Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”Also, read voraciously.

To purchase The Switch Sisters click here.
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