Meet the Storyteller: Sophia Lee
Welcome to GatheringBooks, Sophia!
Tell us about the year you joined the Scholastic Asian Book Award. What prompted you to send in your manuscript?
My manuscript was actually the final project for a writing class that I was taking at the University of the Philippines Diliman Creative Writing MA program. The class was an elective called Writing for Young Adults under Professor Heidi Eusebio-Abad. It required us to begin and complete a young adult novel within one semester, and during that time, we were able to get feedback and improve upon our works-in-progress through writing workshops.
I would not have even known about the Scholastic Asian Book Award if Professor Eusebio-Abad had not told me about it. She was the one who gave me the flyer for the competition and encouraged me to submit my manuscript. But more than that, I credit so much of What Things Mean’s success to her. She was one of the first people who told me that I could write. I wouldn’t have had the courage to continue with that story, let alone submit it to an international competition, without her belief in my writing.
By some stroke of luck, I was also a part of the Silliman University National Writer’s Workshop that year. They had these one-on-one mentoring sessions with the panelists there, and so I had the chance to show this manuscript to all these established and successful writers, and to get their personal insights concerning my story. I was able to get feedback from Susan Lara, Marjorie Evasco, Grace Monte de Ramos, Tim Tomlinson, Dean Francis Alfar, David McKirdy, and Alfred Yuson. It was interesting to hear their ideas on how they would have written the story, what they liked and what didn’t work for them. I ended up sending the unchanged, original version of the story, but I felt braver to do so because of their generous feedback.
How did winning the Scholastic Asian Book Award in 2014 change things for you?
Winning the SABA in 2014 was really what set me on the path towards writing. It’s a bit strange for me to say that, because I was already taking up an MA in creative writing when I won. But I had dabbled in so many things before that point – and I was holding down two full-time jobs while I was taking the MA. I was working as a media manager for a public health non-profit while working as a creative writer for a content company. I was also somewhat fresh out of law school, but I had this growing feeling that the legal field wasn’t really for me.
I didn’t get into writing deliberately. It was just one of the things that I knew I could do well – that I had to do well if I was going to have a law career. I had always seen writing as a stepping stone that would lead to that path. I grew up thinking that I would be a lawyer, following in my father’s footsteps, but even after I graduated, I still couldn’t imagine myself in that field. Writing had become my refuge from law school, but even so, I had been hesitant to fully call myself a writer.
Winning the SABA gave me the time I needed to focus on writing. More than the wonderful recognition that comes with the award, it reminded me that writing for its own sake is a worthy pursuit. It gave me the permission I thought I needed to pursue a life of writing – specifically, writing for children and young adults. I’m in the process of finally finishing up my MA from UP Diliman, and after that, I’m beginning an MFA in Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults at The New School in New York. I’m so excited to continue on this journey – I am happy to share more stories about Filipinos to the world (and to Filipino readers as well), because this is what I am really passionate about.
Tell us about your book launch at the AFCC this year – what were some of the highlights during the launch.
I launched my book What Things Mean along with two other Scholastic Asian Book Award titles – Sula’s Voyage by Catherine Torres, and Dragonhearted by Xie Shi Min. We launched our books at the Asian Festival of Children’s Content (AFCC) last May 27, 2016.
It was such a wonderful experience – and I loved every minute of it. Being at the AFCC, you found yourself in the company of people who loved books for children, and it was such a good energy to be surrounded by.
I did a game before I did my presentation for my book. It was my own version of the digital game 4 Pics 1 Word. I used the words used in the chapter headings from my book for the game because I thought that it was a great way to visualize the concept I was going with – how one simple word mean different things to different people. I was so happy to see kids participating in the game, and to see young girls and even young boys excited to join the game, and to learn more about the book.
But more than that, I was astounded at the overwhelming kindness of everyone. Being from the Philippines, I was very nervous to have my book launched so far away from my family and friends. But I was pleasantly surprised to see so many people rooting for us there. Almost the entire Embassy of the Philippines in Singapore came out to support us. I had a classmate I had not seen from high school take a leave from work, just to attend the book launch.
There were people sending relatives, family friends, and even former officemates to support us in their stead. And I had friends who flew all the way from the Philippines, just to be there. There were readers from different parts of Asia who told us that they were excited to read the book. It was just a wonderful way to celebrate this milestone. I know I will never forget it.
The format of What Things Mean is somewhat reminiscent of David Levithan’s The Lover’s Dictionary except that there are full-drawn narratives alongside your definitions of specific words. Tell us about the process that led you to telling your story in this manner.
It’s funny that you mentioned Levithan’s The Lover’s Dictionary. I have read that book, and I found myself really loving the idea of it. A couple of years back, I even told friends that What Things Mean was inspired partly by reading his work – but later on, I realized that I read the book almost a year after I wrote What Things Mean. (I am a huge book nerd, and I keep this list of books I’ve read along with the dates when I read them. I’m a huge list nerd too, but that’s a different story for a different time.)
What I do remember now is that the idea came about in this rather fortuitous manner. It started with this idea of a jar. I was in between writing deadlines for several creative writing classes, and panicking about how to start my pieces for all of them. Naturally, my first instinct was to eat (Haha!). I had been wanting to cook pasta and found this jar of pasta sauce inside our pantry. I kept on attempting to open it, but the lid wouldn’t budge – I actually had to wait for someone else to enter the kitchen so that I could proceed to make my spaghetti dreams a reality. But as I was cooking, some questions kept popping in my head: How could I survive living alone if I couldn’t open a jar on my own? How did other people who lived alone open jars on their own? How could a jar inspire so many profound questions?
All those thoughts led me to imagining this girl, much younger than myself, calmly opening a jar on her own. How would she do it? Why would she do it? Why would she be opening it on her own in the first place? That’s how the first chapter started – with my main character Olive opening a jar without much difficulty. I liked the idea that such a simple word like ‘jar’ could lead to so many different scenarios, and so I looked up the meaning of the word and pasted it right above the scene I wrote. When I read everything together, it all just worked. It complemented my idea of wanting to write about someone searching for meaning.
Your book tells the story of fourteen year old Olive who is dealing with feelings of being different from others, fragments of her identity unbeknownst to her, making it difficult to really pin down who she is – what was it like being wrapped around the skin of a fourteen year old girl as you were writing this story?
It wasn’t very difficult for me to access this young girl, to be honest. I think it has to do with the fact that it was during this time of my life (adolescence) that I started becoming hyperaware of my own sense of self. I grew up with mostly adults in our house – I had a lot of grown-up cousins, uncles, and aunts who came to live with us when I was much younger. And because I always wanted to be around them, I sort of ‘aged up’ a lot faster. I liked what they liked. I tried to act the way they acted. I became this really awkward, gangly girl who seemed very different from my peers. Unfortunately, it also meant that it wasn’t very easy for me to find a place amongst people my age. I had to learn how to ‘act my age’, in a sense – and all those experiences of trying to fit in, of trying to become my own person were preserved really well in my memory.
That being said, I think that it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that I still am like an excitable teenage girl in many ways. That’s one of the things that has surprised me about growing older – I thought that I would be this entirely different person from that awkward teenager I used to be, but in many ways, I am still the same. I like knowing that about myself.
There are a lot of minor characters in this story – seemingly with entire worlds of narratives on their own – such as Uncle Ricky, Olive’s laid-back and free-spirited Father, even Lola Celi. If you were to write a spin-off story from one of the minor characters in your novel, whose story would it be?
I think it would be really fun to do a saga of the women’s stories – from Lola Celi, to Olive’s Mom Alba and her aunts, and maybe even her cousins’. I would be really interested to see the traits these characters carry on, and the ones they develop on their own.
There’s this interesting video that kind of carries this idea forward for me – it’s this video called the DNA Journey. It shows people’s genetic history, and it’s a really fascinating way to show that we are all more connected than we think. If ever I decide to write a spinoff of What Things Mean, I would want to have it embrace this idea also, because it’s so beautiful, and quite relevant for our time too.
As you know, we are celebrating the Universal Republic of Childhood in GatheringBooks til end of June. Do share with us some of your favourite middle-grade or young adult novels that celebrate this wonder of interconnectedness among people?
For YA, my favorite one is So B. It by Sarah Weeks. I also like Flipped by Wendelin van Draanen, and Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell. Another favorite which isn’t exactly YA is The History of Love by Nicole Krauss.
Their main protagonists live in very strange scenarios, but I find that they are able to strike these emotional truths in the readers which make their stories very relatable.
I also really like the Children’s Hour compilations of the University of the Philippines Press, which are beautifully written and very familiar.