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MadCap Retreat Scholarship Recipient: Writing Cross-Culturally and Forming a Community

One morning I was scrolling through Twitter, as one does, when I came across a scholarship application for Madcap Retreats’ Writing Cross-Culturally Workshop. I didn’t expect to receive the scholarship, and I definitely didn’t expect the workshop to change my life. But both those things happened, and so here I am to talk about a couple things I’ve taken away from the experience, even three months after the fact:

1.) Writing Cross-Culturally

Before this workshop, the biggest of my (many) writerly anxieties was the idea of having to write only “my” culture. My #ownvoices Asian-American YA had just received an offer of representation, but after the public dragging of several problematic books on Twitter and thread after thread asserting “X kind of people shouldn’t write about Y,” I became paralyzed by the idea that I could only write about, I don’t know, the Asian Experience. Yet I’ve never felt like the culture I was born into actually belonged to me—my ethnically Chinese parents come from Malaysia, but I grew up on Sesame Street and Lunchables, not Chinese soap operas and nasi lemak. I didn’t learn how to properly use chopsticks until I was twenty-one. I exchange a stilted sentence or two with my grandmother in Kuala Lumpur like once every four years. So if writing outside one’s own culture was considered appropriation, what was I even “allowed” to write about?

This workshop freed me, to some extent, from this fear. We talked about including diverse characters to fulfill a “diversity quota” vs. respectfully addressing all facets of those characters’ lives. We came up with examples of cultural coding in speculative fiction (the classic being the Lord of the Rings’ association of whiteness with good and darkness and exoticism with evil). We were encouraged to identify our own privilege, whether racial, economic, religious, or cultural, and our motives for wanting to write about something outside our own marginalizations.

But most importantly—for me, at least—we talked about research. Reading and visiting places and talking to people and walking where our characters have walked so we can not only avoid harmful tropes, but portray characters and cultures sensitively and with nuance.

This, above all, gave me a sense of hope. Because if I had a reason to tell a certain story outside “my” culture (whatever that was), it became possible to do the work. Possible to learn and grow and make mistakes and apologize and learn some more. And that space of possibility was incredibly freeing.

2.) Community

The people I talked to at Madcap were (and are!) some of the most generous, welcoming, and kind people I’ve ever had the chance to meet. Maybe it was the fact that we were all writers, maybe it was that we were all stuck in a (very, very nice) cabin together for half a week (check out the pics), but there were moments—from fangirling over the Shades of Magic series to late night deep talks about the realities of the publishing world and writing characters outside our own marginalizations—when I truly and deeply felt like I’d finally met my Writer Tribe. Months later, I’m still in touch with some of the people I met there.

And the faculty were downright amazing. Every night after dinner, we got to pick the brains of Laurie Halse Anderson, Zoraida Cordova, Dhonielle Clayton, Tessa Gratton, Marie Lu, Miriam Weinberg, S. Jae-Jones, and Sarah Nicole Lemon about the publishing industry, what they’ve learned on their writing journeys, and life in general. They were all super cool, but also real people who talked to us like we were allowed to be in the same space with them, and that meant the world to me. At one point Laurie came and sat at our breakfast table (super casual) and asked what each of us was working on, and one night I got over my mad fangirling long enough to ask Miriam Weinberg a super stan question about plotting Vengeful with V. E. Schwab in a week.

So, highlights of my life.

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Phoebe L.

Swoon Reads' MadCap Retreat scholarship recipient!

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