Emerging Author of the Month: Yaya Yao

Photo of yaya-yaoTell us about yourself.

I love to laugh very loud. Crying comes easily too. I love to tell stories, through words, movement, music, theatre, and best of all (and most natural to us as humans I think) through a mix of all that and more. I also love helping other people figure out how to tell their stories.

Tell us about the piece you’ve decided to share.

I lived in Hong Kong for two and a half years, and while I was there, I would visit my paternal grandparents once a week. One visit, I brought a pomelo. My grandfather was extremely grumpy and stern as a rule, so it was like the clouds parting when he smiled to see the fruit. He started talking about his grandmother, whom he had never mentioned before. The last line of his story opens into so many others, none of which he ever came to tell me, despite the many varieties of fruit I brought over in the weeks to follow.

When and why did you realize you had a passion for writing?

I always loved a good story. I remember reading Harriet the Spy as a kid and identifying with her—awkward, kind of androgynous, and totally committed to getting her thoughts down on paper as honestly as possible. I remember the relief of writing—of being able to say exactly what I meant on the page, without fear. Here was my true feeling.

Talking was a huge source of stress, especially since I was growing up in five different languages. From a certain age on, my writing facilitated and was often a necessary precursor to my speaking. My hand helped my tongue form the words.

What pieces of writing/authors have had the greatest impact on you?

It’s an interesting question, and one that I’ve been thinking about as I re-read some of the books I loved as a child. In a way, these reads have probably had the greatest impact, since they came in early, and just walked into my heart, which was too naïve or wise to charge a cover.

Lately, I’m inspired by the poetry of Souvankam Thammasongsa and Priscilla UppalMakoto Ooka’s What the Kite Thinks is another recent favourite read. The book is a linked poem created by Ooka along with three Hawai’i writers. The form of the linked poem is one that he adapted to nurture creative relationships between poets, to encourage a sense of collaboration in the face of the cloistered nature that the work often takes on.

Other favourite poets are Audre Lorde, Shirley Geok-Lin Lim, Jim Wong-Chu, Dionne BrandLangston Hughes and Pat Parker.

Some of my favourite novelists are Octavia Butler, Maryse Condé, Edwidge Danticat, and Toni Morrison.

What kind of writer do you aspire to be?

The kind whose work gets you laughing and crying, ideally at the same time.

How and when do you find time to write?

Writing is something I really have to make time for. There’s always something else to get caught up in—something less lonely or seemingly self-indulgent. Deadlines are essential to me, especially when it involves a performance—as my friend Marjorie says, fear of public humiliation is a great motivator. My friend Lu introduced me to the 30-day challenge, writing for a certain number of minutes a day, which will be rewarded with a lobster dinner. It’s been helping me stay limber. A sense of community and mutual support is really important to my practice.