500 words from…is an occasional series in which novelists talk about their latest novels.
Tina Jimin Walton's debut historical novel for young adults, Last Days of the Morning Calm, is now in bookshops.
Tina is a Korean-American writer based in Singapore. She loves researching historical events, and enjoys stories that empower and encourage youth. She writes what she would have liked to read when she was young. While she was working on Last Days of the Morning Calm she took an MFA in creative writing.
Last Days of the Morning Calm is set in Korea at the end of the nineteenth century. Fourteen-year-old Ji-nah, whose parentage is obscure, and Han, a seventeen-year-old servant, are left in the tight grip of Tutor Lim, when the head of their household, Master Yi, travels to Peking. Tutor Lim strips Ji-nah of all her privileges, and crushes Han's hopes for the future. When the two young people discover he is plotting with the Japanese to overthrow Queen Min, whose fate seems tied to Master Yi's, they determine to save her. Their plans go awry when Tutor Lim sells them off as slaves: Ji-nah to the palace and Han to the missionaries.
So, over to Tina...
I set out to write for my Korean-Caucasian children so that they might understand a part of their Korean heritage. When I delved into the research, it was like coming across an old family photo album and I began to understand my childhood family’s idiosyncrasies through Korean history. It was a validating experience because growing up in Southern California, in the 1970s, I was confused about my ethnic identity. I was an immigrant from Korea, an ethnically homogenous place, to America, the “melting pot.” I certainly didn’t feel like I “melted” into anything. I was keenly aware that I looked different – and no child wants to be different. And while I thought I stood out, over time I realized that I was largely invisible. In those days, aside from my nuclear family and some family friends, there was virtually nothing that I could identify with ethnically. I don’t recall any television shows, movies, or books that portrayed Asians positively. Their appearance in media was largely as sidekicks or stereotypes. So, by my early teens, I learned to assimilate quickly into my white American community, distancing myself from anything Korean.
Looking back, this was not the childhood I wanted for my children, or any child for that matter. I wanted them to be rooted in their identity and be confident in who they are. Being able to understand your history is powerfully validating.
I’m really encouraged by today’s trend for more diverse books, at least in the genres of children’s and young adult fiction. There are many “issue” books, but also stories that don’t assume the default white protagonist. Stories help us empathize and make sense of the world around us, and for young people who are seeking their own identities, there are few things so affirming as to see themselves in books. While Last Days of the Morning Calm is a historical fiction anchored in Korea, in 1895, it’s also a universal story about two young people who are trying to find out who they are in midst of their changing world, and I hope that their sense of hope amidst an uncertain future resonates with the reader.
This book took a long time – ten years to be specific– and often I fell into the trap of believing the old adage that writers are born, not made. I cut my teeth on this story and made a lot of newbie mistakes, but craft is something that I began to learn over the various rewrites. For me, shelving the story for a while and working on different projects or going to graduate school to learn the craft were useful experiences. Writing is a solitary activity so it was helpful to find a creative community and be immersed for two years where writers, further along the road or just beginning, offer suggestions and create space to try something new. The MFA experience isn’t for everyone, but for me it amped up the learning curve, and I can positively say that the old adage is a complete fallacy.
Details: Last Days of the Morning Calm was short listed for the 2018 Scholastic Asian Book Award. It is published in paperback by Marshall Cavendish, priced in local currencies.