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’.)
While we are experiencing the effects of a worldwide pandemic, I have personally been reaching for books that feel hopeful and relatable while also speaking to my experience. Because Asians and Asian-Americans have more frequently become the target of hate crimes and discrimination in this climate, I have been leaning on safe areas and books that feature characters that share that part of my identity.
I.W. Gregorio takes the personal skills of each of the characters and allows them to capitalize on all of them to achieve success for A-Plus Chinese Garden. Through doing this, This Is My Brain in Love provides all the hope I was looking for. It also emphasizes the importance of the skills of teens and how necessary it is to not dismiss their opinions and interests because they can lead to real-life advancements.
Gregorio herself is a surgeon by day, author by night. She is also a mother, a founding member of We Need Diverse Books, and a board member of InterACT: Advocates for Intersex Youth. I hope that one day I can wear half the “hats” she does, and do them a quarter as successfully! Today, Greogorio visits us as a seal, wearing a stethoscope around her neck and holding a dumpling!
This is My Brain in Love by I.W. Gregorio
Jocelyn Wu has just three wishes for her junior year: To make it through without dying of boredom, to direct a short film with her BFF Priya Venkatram, and to get at least two months into the year without being compared to or confused with Peggy Chang, the only other Chinese girl in her grade.
Will Domenici has two goals: to find a paying summer internship, and to prove he has what it takes to become an editor on his school paper.
Then Jocelyn’s father tells her their family restaurant may be going under, and all wishes are off. Because her dad has the marketing skills of a dumpling, it’s up to Jocelyn and her unlikely new employee, Will, to bring A-Plus Chinese Garden into the 21st century (or, at least, to Facebook).What starts off as a rocky partnership soon grows into something more. But family prejudices and the uncertain future of A-Plus threaten to keep Will and Jocelyn apart. It will take everything they have and more, to save the family restaurant and their budding romance.
This Is My Brain in Love has everything you need. It includes characters who struggle with mental health, characters who use their personal skills to achieve success for A-Plus Chinese Garden, and characters who are authentic, funny, and coming into their own. One of my favorite parts of the book was how I.W. Gregorio confronted the anti-Black attitudes and colorism that can be pervasive in some Asian communities. Whenever I encourage someone to read it, I compare it to a more grown-up version of Front Desk by Kelly Yang. And I LOVE Front Desk.
Author Interview: I.W. Gregorio
Joce: Hi Ilene! 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?
Ilene: My “shtick” is that I’m a YA author who is also a practicing doctor. People often ask how a doctor became a writer, but I think the opposite question is probably the better one to ask. I’ve wanted to be an author since the second grade, when I “published” my first short story in a mimeographed, comb-bound classroom anthology.
I grew up in a very homogenous town in Upstate New York, where there were only three kids of color in my grade, so I always felt like an outsider, except when I was reading books. When I started writing my first book during my research year in residency (I had previously been doing a lot of essay/feature writing), it was a no-brainer that I would write for young people, because I’ve always wanted to provide the same sort of solace to other people that I got from books when I was a kid.
Joce: As an Asian-American woman working in mental health, with my own mental health challenges, I appreciate and value your work so much. These are identities that intersect and can inform how we move through life and approach challenges. What are some specific challenges that Asian-Americans face due to systemic structures, and how can they influence mental health, from your perspective?
Ilene: First, A large amount of Asian Americans are either immigrants, or the children of immigrants, and I do think that I suppose that there’s a reason why mental health is often not prioritized; when you think about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, things like feeding your children and paying rent are true priorities of living, and “luxuries” like focusing on one’s feelings can be submerged under layers of stress and the need to survive. I do think that immigrants are often hard-wired to hustle and keep busy, and that can mask or temporarily relieve symptoms – there’s a reason why the immigrant workaholic parent is another trope. There’s also the underlying cultural and/or religious stigma (i.e.: the idea that you can pray the sadness away) that is also potentially disproportionate in these communities.
Second, in many Asian cultures, and certainly in my family, there is a strong cultural of filial piety, and of the ideas that elders are to be respected unequivocally. What that meant in the context of my family, specifically, was that conversations in my family were often very one way, where I was told what to do and expected to do things without asking questions.
Third, intergenerational communication can often be fraught in immigrant communities, not only because of language barriers, when younger generations don’t retain native languages, but also because of cultural differences between the older generation, and those who grew up in the US.
Lastly, a lot of Asian Americans really struggle when they don’t fit in perfectly with the model minority myth. Any time you’re being told by society to be one thing, when you really want to be another, it exposes you to anxieties and daily stressors. Specifically for me, because I wanted so very much to be the perfect child who was academically successful, it took many tries before I got the help I needed.
Joce: I have been following We Need Diverse Books since I started creating in the book community 5 years ago and I would love to know more. What is your role with WNDB and what has your experience been like?
Ilene: I was with WNDB from the beginning! I still have the original correspondence we had with Ellen Oh, Mike Jung, Aisha Saeed et al., where we debated over what the hashtag would be and came up with the original Tumblr graphics. After the hashtag took off, and we started getting attention from Book Con and the publishing industry, it became clear that we needed to keep the momentum going and organize into a nonprofit with the goal to both support amplify diverse authors, and advocate through change in the industry (including such initiatives as our program to support publishing interns). I actually bought the original domain for our website, worked out the finer details of how to incorporate into a nonprofit, and did a bunch of things (including helping to produce the original WNDB Matt de la Pena video that was the cornerstone of our wildly successful Indiegogo campaign).
For a while I was the VP for Development and worked to try to develop partnerships with institutions like School Library Journal, and created our Booktalking Kit. Later as I realized I couldn’t really hold down three full time jobs (being a doctor, writing and doing nonprofit work) I transitioned into a smaller role as the bookseller liaison, helping to work with the American Booksellers Association on ways their members can diversity their lists and subtly change the way they try to handsell diverse books.
I blogged about how WNDB changed my life, and how it’s possible I wouldn’t have written a second book without them here.
Joce: I’ve also found that when advocating for representation in books, there can be targeted, racist vitriol in response, especially on the Internet whether it be on my videos or on Twitter. What are some ways advocates and activists can exercise self care?
Ilene: That’s really tough. For me, it’s hard to sometimes remember not to feed the trolls. But sometimes the best – but often hardest – you can do is realize how small and angry those people are and make liberal use of the block & mute functions. When all else fails, I fall back on vent sessions with my friends who *get it* and often we can at least get a laugh out of how ridiculous people are.
Joce: I am personally so glad you are here at the Pond because I am also a mom, I work full time in mental health, and I create in the book world by night. Some days it can feel like running around like a chicken with its head cut off, so I really admire and applaud you! How does wearing the different “hats” of being a mom and a surgeon influence your writing both in terms of formulating your stories, and managing your time/energy?
Ilene: It’s so hard! I often feel like I have three jobs and I’m doing them all poorly. The thing that most consistently stresses me out is my job as a mom, because it’s a job that often feels like it comes without a manual, and you can always do more.
When it comes to managing time, you know the saying – it you want something done, have a busy person do it. And in that respect my being busy has *always* helped me write because when I sit down for the 1-2 hours I can carve out a day after the kids go to bed, I know that I have to use that time wisely. It’s a great way to get rid of my internal editor, to have this sense of urgency. I remember times when I’ve had large swaths of time and just frittered it away because I actually have a natural tendency to procrastinate.
For a long time I’ve struggled with wondering if I should be just a doctor or just a writer, but in the end I think the two balance me out. I would never be happy doing just one or the other: writing because it can be solitary and has its own challenges during the publication process, and doctoring because sometimes it can get quite rote and I long for a creative outlet.
It’s funny when I first decided to go into medicine it was because I realized that I had reached a point in writing as a teenager when I realized I didn’t have the life experience to write fiction. And medicine seemed to be such a fertile, fufilling career to get to speak with people and learn their stories. It’s no coincidence, that None of the Above was informed and inspired by an intersex patient I treated.
Joce: Let’s talk about your most recent release, This Is My Brain In Love! Apart from what readers can find on the dust jacket, tell us something special about the book or your characters.
Ilene: This is My Brain in Love is the book I wish I had as a teenager, and one of the most gratifying things about it coming out is hearing the same from other people – Asian American and otherwise – who grew up struggling with not even being able to process their mental illness because they were never given the language to do so. I really wanted to write a happy book about mental illness, as I do feel that so much of the dialogue surrounding depression and anxiety focus on death by suicide. TIMBIL is my attempt at writing a book that both normalizes mental illness – a majority of the teen characters in the book have some form of neuroatypia – and also talks about the spectrum of diagnosis, treatment, and ultimately finding joy.
I also hope that it’s a fun, enjoyable read – to show that you can find humor even in the darkest of times.
Joce: When the book opens, Jocelyn’s parents’ Chinese restaurant is going out of business, and they have kept it by and large a secret from her. This hit particularly close to home with the recent uptick in xenophobia-fueled discrimination toward Asian-American businesses. How can we support Asian-American businesses in this social climate (financially or otherwise)?
Ilene: I have definitely been making sure to Eat Asian as much as possible! Thanks for reminding me that I need to go a step above and also try to promote them on social media by doing #Foodstagram posts. I do tend to rave about places to a lot of people, and whenever a nurse asks me what I’m eating (I get about one bahn mi a week) I always make sure to direct them to Pho Xua, my favorite place in my town.
Joce: Finally, what are some tools that we can use to foster our resilience and mental health when dealing with this type of discrimination, especially now that it’s so amplified?
Ilene: I have some resources on my website for culturally specific therapists. But there’s no easy answer, except that one thing I’ve loved recently is seeing how the Asian American community is rallying together like never before. In the past, I’ve definitely had conversations before where I looked at some of my other author of color friends before, and been amazed at how their communities have mobilized and created support systems. I’m not sure what it is about Asian American culture that many of us often go it alone and/or not ask for help, but I’m so excited about the coalition building that we’re creating as a result of this racism.
Ultimately, too we can use our anger and frustration to spur on creativity, and expose their bigotry through – remember, putting a jerk in your stories is one of the best revenges!
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 in the “About” section on your author website.
What is your favorite animated movie? Babe
What is your favorite piece to play on the piano? Some Debussy duets with my husband!
What is your favorite fantasy book written by a POC? Jade City by Fonda Lee
What is your favorite bird? The chickadee!
What is a kids’ toy you want to throw out the window? Pokemon cards
What would you eat for your “last supper” meal? Either ramen noodles or a grilled pork bahn mi.
About the Author
I.W. Gregorio is a practicing surgeon by day, masked avenging YA writer by night. After getting her MD, she did her residency at Stanford, where she met the intersex patient who inspired her debut novel, None of the Above, which is a Lambda Literary Award finalist, a Publishers Weekly Flying Start, a ABC Children’s Group Best Book for Young Readers and an ALA Rainbow List selection. Her next novel, This Is My Brain in Love, has received three starred reviews so far and was named a Best YA Book of April by the editors at Amazon.com. She is proud to be a board member of interACT: Advocates for Intersex Youth, and is a founding member of We Need Diverse Books. Her essays have been published in Newsweek, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Scientific American, among others. Find her online at www.iwgregorio.com and on Twitter/Instagram at @iwgregorio.
After that interview, I have firmly concluded that I want to be I.W. Gregorio when I grow up. I hope you all pick up This Is My Brain in Love; it truly is the most hopeful, honest, but yet lighthearted YA contemporary book that is so relevant during these times.
Thank you so much again to I.W. Gregorio for visiting the Pond… we will be sure to enjoy your dumplings!