Our Friend is Here! is a guest feature at The Quiet Pond, where authors, creatives, and fellow readers, are invited to ‘visit’ the Pond! In Our Friend is Here! guest posts, our visitors (as their very own unique character!) have a friendly conversation about anything related to books or being a reader — and become friends with Xiaolong and friends.
Asian Heritage Month Edition is a month-long event at The Quiet Pond, where Asian authors and bookish content creators are invited to celebrate being Asian, Asian books, and the experiences of being an Asian reader. (Note: Here is an explanation of why we are calling this guest series ‘Asian Heritage Month’.)
With the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics, I have been leaning on my love for figure skating and gymnastics to fill the void. I realized that both of these sports celebrate (as Henry says later on) girl power and kid power, in that they favor skill sets and centers of gravity more privy to both. They also both emphasize an artistic quality, which is the perfect backdrop on which to craft an Asian speculative fiction story based on figure skating and martial arts.
Listen, when I heard that we were celebrating Asian Heritage Month here at the Pond, not to be a teacher’s pet or anything, I knew I had to invite Henry Lien to visit. Getting to interview him was honestly one of my favorite experiences of 2020 because of his enthusiasm and intelligence (and to be honest, I wanted to talk about figure skating and Idina Menzel too, with someone who Gets It). You are probably curious, so here is a link to when Idina Menzel SANG PEASPROUT CHEN’S THEME SONG. I KNOW, RIGHT???
I wish so much that I knew a character like Peasprout when I was her age because her creation recognizes things that are frowned down upon because of the societal belief that things that are feminine, such as figure skating, are “lesser than”. I wish that I had someone show me that actually, Asian girls like me can be kickass not in spite of, but because of my preferences and skill sets. I know that I will be giving this series to my daughter when she is old enough; however, I may have to buy her another copy for by then, mine will be worn out from so many re-reads!
Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword by Henry Chen
Welcome to Pearl Famous Academy of Skate and Sword, where the blades are sharp and the competition is fierce.
Peasprout Chen dreams of becoming a legend of wu liu, the deadly and beautiful art of martial arts figure skating.
As the first students from the rural country of Shin to attend Pearl Famous Academy of Skate and Sword, Peasprout and her little brother Cricket have some pretty big skates to fill. They soon find themselves in a heated competition for top ranking.
Tensions rise when the dazzling pearl buildings of the Academy are vandalized and outsider Peasprout is blamed for the attacks by her rivals … and even some friends.
Now, she must uncover the true vandal to ensure peace between Shin and Pearl – all while becoming a champion.
Peasprout Chen is a wily, enthusiastic, zealous young teenage girl. Henry Lien captures the beauty of figure skating and martial arts in the creation of wu liu, a hybrid of the two. His varied history of being an attorney, an art dealer, a musician, and an author plays into his world-building, in that the world of Pearl is colorful and effervescent, lending to brilliant storytelling.
Author Interview: Henry Lien
Joce: Hi Henry! Thank you for joining us at the Pond, and welcome! We are so excited to have you here to celebrate Asian Heritage Month. Can you please tell us about yourself?
Henry: Hallo, Joce! I’m Henry Lien. I’m just another vegan, gay, Taiwanese children’s book author who writes about stuff like kung fu figure skating, bilingual dolphins, etc.
I was born in Taiwan. My parents were both from a humble background. I came to the U.S. when I was little, grew up in Southern California, went to boarding school in New Hampshire on scholarship, went to Brown University, then went to UCLA Law. I worked for ten years as an attorney, then worked for another ten years as an art dealer.
Finally, at the age of 42, I snapped and came out openly as an aspiring children’s book author. So I went to Clarion West Writers Workshop in Seattle. My science fiction and fantasy stories for adults have been published in magazines like Asimov’s.
My current novel series is a middle grade fantasy called Peasprout Chen, which is about a young girl who leaves her homeland to study at a boarding school that teaches a sport combining kung fu with figure skating. The New York Times described it as, “Hermione Granger meets Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon meets the Ice Capades meets Mean Girls.”
I’m a four-time finalist for the Nebula Award, which is the top award in science fiction/fantasy writing. I live in Hollywood, CA, just two subway stops from Universal Studios so I bought a season pass so that I could use the Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade Village as my writing cafe. I speak fluent English, pretty good Taiwanese, okay French, and wretched Mandarin. I like video games (Zelda and Final Fantasy), animation (Miyazaki and The Dragon Prince), and EDM (Avicii). My hobbies include pets, vegan cooking, writing campy science fiction/fantasy anthems, and losing Nebula Awards.
Joce: Have any parts of your personal experience and identity informed the formation of Peasprout’s character and/or the world of Pearl? If they have, how so?
Henry: I’m a bald, bearded, middle-aged gay man. I’m not a fourteen year old skating diva. Nonetheless, the Peasprout Chen books are 110% my life story. Peasprout’s story is an immigrant’s story and I remember vividly the experience of coming to a new country.
The books are also very much a boarding school story. For me, boarding school wasn’t like going to another country, it was like going to another planet. The culture shock was far greater than coming to the U.S. from Taiwan. I was such a freak at boarding school. I was a scholarship student and I was a transfer into the 11th grade. I arrived with orange hair and an earring and flamboyant clothes and found that the entire campus was at least twenty years behind in terms of popular culture. And I wanted desperately for everyone to recognize how special I was, to acknowledge that I had a unique contribution to make to this school, to say that I belonged here. I knew I was special. I’d known that my whole life. I just wanted all of these rich, white kids at this storied boarding school to appreciate the full Henry Lien Experience. Thus, I was a rare combination of insecurity and outrageous overconfidence. I was, in short, an utter weirdo. And, not surprisingly, rather lonely.
In my final year at boarding school, I fell in with a group of international students and I experienced that rare thing called “group chemistry”. Then boarding school for me became like Hogwarts. It was the most giddily happy year of my life. I doubt I’ll ever have a happier year. But having experienced it even once is more than many people ever get. Anyway, all of this got poured into the Peasprout Chen books. Every mortifying misstep, every self-inflicted social wound went into those books. So they’re really just thickly veiled autobiography.
In addition, my sister was like Cricket. She was quiet, observant, said little, but saw everything. And because she wasn’t always busy screaming for attention like I was, she observed things and learned things that took me much longer to learn. I steamrolled over her during our childhood with the force of my personality, just like Peasprout steamrolls over Cricket. But I also eventually came to appreciate that she had ideas that were just as good as mine, and that I could benefit from listening to them. So the books are also my way of saying to my sister, “Thank you. I’m sorry. I see you. I love you.”
Joce: So your Pondsona is an oracular monkey, but what would Peasprout’s be? If her Pondsona met yours, how do you think they’d interact?
Henry: Peasprout’s would be a magnificent 3,000 mile long dragon covered in gold scales whose benevolence and wisdom would cause trees to flower and children to ace their college entrance examinations wherever she passed. She would not notice my Pondsona, alas, because I am just a miserable and worthless 30 pound monkey and she is a radiant dragon the size of the Great Wall.
Joce: Reading your bio, I feel like I was taken through nine lives. An attorney, an art dealer, a teacher, an author, a musician… you can truly do it all! I felt the same way when I was reading Peasprout; you take on so many grand ideas but they are all masterfully created and fully realized. How do you do it?
Henry: I know I’m supposed to be humble here and reply by saying that my accomplishments are actually worthless and less than trash, etc. But let me answer with something more honest and useful. I think that observation and enthusiasm are the keys.
An author’s job is not just to create things out of whole cloth but to observe things that others don’t. I seem to have made whiplash turns and reversals in my life path, but in fact I observed that lawyering, art dealing, authoring, teaching, and music-making were all united by one thing: they were all about telling stories. Lawyering was about telling my client’s story in as compelling and persuasive a way as possible. Art dealing was about trying to reduce to compelling words the vision of the artist I represented so that clients could enter the work and feel comfortable plunking down tens of thousands of dollars for it and they needed words to get to that comfort level. Authoring drew from those years of telling stories in a real world, high-stakes context. And music is all about organizing ideas so that they elicit certain emotional responses from an audience and create an emotional story, if not a narrative one. Thus, they were all really about storytelling. So my observation of the commonalities among these things made the transitions between disciplines really painless.
I pumped my powers of observation hard to find material to build the world of Peasprout Chen. I gave myself an edict when I started writing it. I wanted to write a fantasy that had no magic in it. I wanted to write a fantasy that removed, and didn’t rely upon, the feature that defines most fantasies. And I wanted to show that history, culture, and athletics could be as interesting, fun, and kick-butt as any magic. And I used my powers of observation to replace magic.
One example is how they deliver headlines/billboards/advertisements in the world of Peasprout Chen. When I was writing the first book, I adopted two little rescue parrots. My Mom’s neighbors had them cooped up in a filthy cage on a sun-baked patio. At least the neighbors understood that these birds deserved a better life than they could give them. I wasn’t looking to adopt birds. But I’m a softie and when I saw them in that state, I couldn’t say no. So I gave them a home. I let them fly around cage-free all day in my house, which has 18 foot ceilings. It was like they’d been adopted into bird Disneyland. These birds bonded with me so hard because they knew that I saved their butts. Thus, they followed me around, flying overhead, wherever I walked in the house. So I got the idea that a skater could trace out a pattern by skating and that a trained flock of birds bonded to a skater would follow the skater and mirror the same pattern in the sky. And the skater could trace patterns like Chinese grass-style calligraphy and the birds’ flight pattern would basically write those words in the sky. So that’s how they deliver their headlines/billboards/advertisements in the world of Peasprout Chen. Much more memorable, personal, and heartfelt than using magic sky writing and way cooler, I think. And that comes from observing the world around me.
The other thing that has been a constant in my life and in the Peasprout Chen books is the power of enthusiasm. I think it’s clear when you read the books how much joy I got out of writing them. That joy insulated me from the self-doubt that most writers face at some point. I simply didn’t care what anyone else thought about the books because they gave me so much enjoyment and fulfillment. I’d waited my whole life for someone else to write books like these and no one else did. I was so grateful to finally get to read them that other people’s reactions to them, negative or positive, barely registered as a little mosquito blip on my radar.
Same thing with the theme songs that I wrote and perform for the books. I’m not a trained singer, musician, or songwriter. During my live author performances, I perform the theme songs from the Peasprout Chen books playing an instrument called the sanshin in Japanese or sanxian in Mandarin. It’s sort of like an Asian banjo. I’d never even heard of this instrument before I wrote the books, much less played it or any guitar, banjo, ukele, or other stringed instrument. And I’m lousy at it. But I play it in a totally unconventional punk way that makes my technical ineptitude irrelevant. The energy and enthusiasm with which I attack the songs matter more. I also use that as a way to demonstrate to kids that it’s important to try things that you are afraid of and that enthusiasm makes the world go round.
Joce: Wu Liu is a sport that melds martial arts with figure skating, which are both sports with artistic components that Asian body types excel at, which is not the typical Eurocentric lauded “athletic” body type. Along with this choice, could you please tell me more about how you deliberately and joyfully celebrate the strengths of characters from marginalized groups in the series?
Henry: Well, there are of course different body types in all populations. But you are right in that the invented sport of Wu Liu rewards some things that are often seen as disadvantages. When I came up with the idea of kung fu figure skating, I wanted to do research because the concept sounded wacky and I don’t do wacky. So I actually took six months of traditional wu shu and ice skating classes. I went in thinking, “I’m a pretty fit guy, how hard can this be?” Famous last words. I was appalling, soul-crushingly bad at both of them. In skating class, little kids and young women were zipping around me by the second lesson while I was literally on my butt in every class.
In kung fu class, I was paired with a 90 pound young woman who could flawlessly execute the moves we were assigned, while I was crashing into the wall, tearing my hamstring, and eviscerating my ego. It was profoundly frustrating but I came to realize that I had randomly plucked two sports out of the air that I thought would be fun to mash together without realizing that they both rewarded balance and flexibility far more than brute strength. That led to a revelation that I was writing a story about girl power and kid power; that the world is filled with things that reward different body types; and that sometimes being small is an enormous advantage. This led me to embrace the theme in the books that heroes come in all shapes and sizes. In fact, this theme ended up being the soul of the books.
Joce: One of my favorite things about Asian fiction (not just books but also other media like C-dramas) is that its creators can blur the lines between realistic and speculative qualities. I felt at times when reading Peasprout that there was a nod or homage to its predecessors. What are some ways you have adopted Asian creative traditions into your writing?
Henry: You are so right! Genre borders are porous in Asian culture. No one blinks at the inclusion of fantastical elements in quote unquote historical stories. Even something as grounded in realistic quotidian detail like “The Story of the Stone” (aka “The Dream of the Red Chamber”) is bookended with a fantastical element of spirits trapped in stone. I totally embraced that with the Peasprout Chen series. However, culture is not an entombed thing. Instead of injecting magical elements into a mundane world, I wanted a mundane world whose every detail was inherently wondrous without ever verging into the outright magical or supernatural. That was my attempt to come up with my own, new form of Asian fantasy that mixed the worldly with the otherworldly. That’s how culture happens.
Joce: Behold! My one gratuitous figure skating question. I’m salivating. I wanted to ask, what are a couple of your favorite programs? A couple of mine are Tessa and Scott’s Moulin Rouge free dance at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics and Kaori Sakamoto’s No Roots short program from the 2019-2020 season, but that’s neither here nor there…
Henry: OMG, well anything by Yuzuru Hanyu, especially in the 2018 Olympics because of the drama of his recent injury. I adored Evgenia Medeveda’s programs and think she was utterly robbed of the gold. But the one routine that moved me the most was Oksana Baiul’s “Swan Lake” routine, and not the one she did in competition but actually the one she did in exhibition afterwards because the original music was “Carnival of the Animals”, and the exhibition skate used “Swan Lake”. It’s one of the most fragile, wounded, and raw skating routines I’ve ever seen, and her signature move of grabbing her skate behind her and spinning like a blossom was the inspiration for Doi’s “The Dragon and the Phoenix” routine in Peasprout Chen.
Joce: In a video interview of yours I watched, you said that imagination has the power to transcend essentially any other entity, and it is so clear from your world-building that your imagination knows no bounds, in the best way.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, morale, hope, and creative motivation can be at an all time low. What are some ways we can use imagination to build resilience?
Henry: Oh, man, I’m crap at pithy inspirational maxims. I wind up sounding like ancient fortune cookie wisdom. I don’t feel equipped to answer this question. I’ve had more than my share of tragedy in my life but I just realized at some point that I’m not made for despair. There is just too much beauty, goodness, and fun in the world. The pandemic is a gut punch. It’s a Darwinian reset. It’s an Extinction-Level Event, for lifestyles if not for life. It’s forced transformation, but transformation can be a good thing. Ugh, that sounds like a fortune cookie. I can’t answer this question. Look, last week I discovered that there is an animal called a Southern Right Whale. It looks like a cross between a killer whale and an Art Deco racing car. Look it up, it is so impossibly beautiful. And this creature has existed my whole life, and millions of years before that, but I didn’t know about that until last week. The world is filled with new beauty and brightness and discovery if we decide it’s going to be.
Joce: Along with Peasprout, of course, Front Desk by Kelly Yang is one of my favorite middle grade novels. Could you please recommend more middle-grade books written by and about Asians and Asian-Americans?
Henry: I love Front Desk, and Kelly is one of my besties! Wow, so many great books/authors but I’m going to name just one: Shaun Tan. Technically not middle grade, since they’re illustrated, but certainly exemplifies the best values of middle grade literature. He is an Australian-Chinese writer and illustrator. I would especially recommend “The Arrival”, “Tales from Outer Suburbia”, “Tales from the Inner City”, and “The Rules of Summer”. “The Arrival” is a gorgeous, wordless book of sepia-toned images that looks like an early 20th century tale of immigration until the protagonist arrives in the new country and you realize that it’s a fantastical, made-up culture that none of us have seen before. Because all the details of this place, the signs, the customs, the foods, etc., are fantastical, every reader gets the experience of being a foreigner. But it’s a warm tale of immigration that emphasizes kindness over the expected themes of discrimination and struggle.
My father came to the U.S. before the rest of our family immigrated. He worked for less than minimum wage washing dishes until he got his work visa. Life was not easy but also not without unexpected kindness from strangers. My father does not read children’s books or illustrated books. He was puzzled when I gave him “The Arrival”. I asked him to just read it. When he was done, he said, “This was exactly how it was for me.” I am tearing up right now thinking about it. I’ll just end by saying a) there are few books in the world that make me feel true joy, wonder, and peace and most of them are by Shaun Tan; and b) every time I finish reading a new Shaun Tan book, I become a slightly, but permanently, better person.
FINAL LIGHTNING ROUND! These are meant to be super short answers, so please don’t put a lot of energy into them! They are mostly for fun 🙂 I tried to base them off the info you have on your author website.
Favorite vegan dish? Probably dan-dan mian (peanut butter noodle, a favorite Taiwanese dish). It makes a very special guest star appearance in Peasprout Chen.
Favorite musical instrument (to play or to listen to)? I love, love, love playing my sanshin! I’m horrible at it but it’s got this twangy country feel that makes me feel super grounded in my own heritage.
Favorite place to visit in Taiwan? I think for sentimental reasons, Danshui and Yilan because those were the (once) villages where my family came from.
Favorite wine? Red sorghum wine is very nice nice! Peasprout Chen in-joke, for those of you who haven’t read the books. I’ve always been surrounded by wine snobs who did the choosing for me, leaving a big wine-shaped hole in my own knowledge. I have observed that I like Australian reds, including one called Layer Cake, and anything with an animal on the label.
Favorite martial arts movie? Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (duh), followed desperately closely by Hero, Kill Bill Vol. 1, and Shadow.
Favorite Idina Menzel song? Uhm, the one we’re working on right now…
About the Author
Henry Lien is an author from Taiwan, now living in Hollywood, CA. He is a graduate of Brown University, UCLA School of Law, and Clarion West Writers Workshop. He is the author of the award-winning and critically-acclaimed Peasprout Chen middle grade fantasy series. Henry also teaches writing in the UCLA Extension Writers Program. He previously worked as an attorney and fine art dealer. He is a four-time Nebula Award finalist and won the UCLA Extension Department of the Arts Instructor of the Year award. Hobbies include writing theme songs for his novels and losing Nebula awards.
To be honest, I’m not quite sure what to say for a closer besides expressing extreme gratitude and awe for Henry Lien and Chingu’s presence at the Pond. I think his words and enthusiasm speak for themselves and I KNOW you will be running to either Youtube to watch Idina Menzel sing Peasprout’s theme song, or to your local indie bookstore to grab a copy. Thanks again, Henry!