Dr. Stephanie Han is the award-winning author of Swimming in Hong Kong, and founder of drstephaniehan.com, an online platform dedicated to teaching women to write their truth to power. Her classes emphasize the connection between women’s voices and narrative.
Swimming in Hong Kong won the Paterson Fiction Prize, Spokane Prize, and was the sole finalist for AWP’s Grace Paley Prize. The collection was shortlisted for the Asian Books Blog Award and stories won prizes from The South China Morning Post, Nimrod International Journal, and Santa Fe Writer’s Project. Han is a former PEN and VONA fellow, received grants from the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, and was the inaugural English Literature PhD of City University of Hong Kong. She’s a producer for Hawai’i Public Radio and a contributing editor to The Hawai’i Review of Books. She lives on O’ahu, home of her family since 1904, with her teenage son.
I was born in St. Louis, MO. My mother, Marie Ann (Han) Yoo, is a third-generation Korean American from Hawai’i, and my father, Tai-June Yoo is from Seoul, Korea. My maternal clan has been on Oahu since 1904; I’m descended from the very first wave of Koreans immigrants to the U.S.
Yes, Han—my pen name, is my mother’s birth name! I love my mom:). I was a big baby. Mom said I was simply huge; I’m 5’1”. It’s amusing to know that at one point in my life I was considered terrifyingly big.
Dad got drafted after getting his U.S. green card and this, combined with his medical training and his research career meant that we moved around. We lived everywhere from Seoul, Korea to Memphis, Tennessee. I have two sisters: Christine was born in Buffalo, NY and Katherine was born in San Francisco, CA.
I spent the bulk of my elementary school years in Iowa, although we made trips to Hawai’i to visit the ‘ohana, and then at the age of 13, I went to boarding school: Phillips Academy Andover. This experience gave me the opportunity to study with some great English literature teachers. I made collages, had a messy room, had mad crushes, did terribly in math, took many art and music classes, and wanted to be an artist. Since I didn’t learn of or know any Asian American artists or writers, I didn’t know it was possible.
I went on to Barnard College–the last class before Columbia admitted women, and was lost and depressed. I believe much of this was down to recovering from boarding school and what can be a very narrow world within elite institutions that are competitive, white, and patriarchal. I left university after two years. By the time I returned to finish my degree at University of California Santa Barbara, I was in my late 20s, living in Los Angeles, studying acting and writing poetry. I won a grant from the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs to author a poetry chapbook, L.A. (Lovers Anonymous).
After graduation, I headed to Korea. A world opened up. Much of the frustration or discontent I experienced in the continental US due to race did not exist in the same way for me in Asia. While there are always points of frustration anywhere you go, they were different, and I needed to experience this difference. Life unfolded: I married, had a child, taught, wrote, published, and found myself moving back and forth between the US and Hong Kong. I studied writing and literature at San Francisco State University (MA), labored as a journalist, provided content for Netnoir–the first African American online company, won a PEN Emerging Voices Fellowship and scholarship to VONA, studied creative writing at University of Arizona, taught K-12 and university, made a home in the rural village of Mui Wo, Lantau outside of Hong Kong, witnessed the Umbrella Revolution, became the first Ph.D. in English literature awarded by City University of Hong Kong, moved back to Hawai’i, and finally published my fiction collection: Swimming in Hong Kong
The stories and the manuscript itself were rejected hundreds of times. The practice of writing is not always connected with the realities of publishing. The exact same stories that went on to win awards and prizes were the ones that were continuously rejected. My short story collection was even rejected three years after it was published! No honest writer will tell you that only great work gets published or conversely, that only poorly crafted work is rewarded.
The several years prior to COVID were tumultuous. I divorced, moved, and began life as a single parent. Divorce compelled a close examination of the influence of narrative on women–including myself! The stories that govern our lives are based on texts written by men: how does this affect our personal story? How do we obtain true empowerment in a society that has not yet acknowledged women as complete human beings? I started surfing and began taking hula; I taught secondary and university; I deeply questioned my purpose. How does one live authentically and kindly? What is the nature of belief and belonging? What is it to write and to live one’s truth to power? Given that we are 200 years from gender equity in the US, how does one function as a woman? What can I do to help other women manifest the lives they want to live?
During COVID I launched my online teaching platform to answer my own questions, to share what I know, and to teach what I wish I had been taught when I was in school. This time of global upheaval was one of reckoning, alignment, flow, and rebirth. The countless deaths remind us that we must live authentically and compassionately. The personal upheaval I experienced over the past several years collided with global events and compelled me to reframe time, mission, and opportunity. I now work backwards from death: I write and teach what I believe to be the most important information that I can share with others.
Like everyone else, my time here is short. We are here to love. We are here as stewards of the planet. That’s it.
Any student will tell you that I will be honest with you and help you to improve your craft. The more stories that women write, the better we are as a society. I view writing as a practice of expression and art. It is a way to work out one’s relationship to life both physically and emotionally. It is also a way to community and ideas.
My life was formed by reading and writing. Growing up, I was unable to see what I wanted to be in books or anywhere in popular media. I came to writing to write myself into being. I did not see myself as existing because there was nothing to reflect who I was, what I believed, or any of the experiences that I had. The very nature of art and creativity is rebellion. I wrote because I had a desperate need to be seen and to believe that I existed. I didn’t like the words that were there for me to follow; I had to write my own.
What took me a long time to understand is that we must first see ourselves before anyone else can see us, and that writing is one way to help us do this. Our lives are stories and our greatest task is to master the practice of authoring this life. (Think in metaphor!) If we understand how narrative works we can apply ideas of storytelling and writing to the greatest work of art we will ever create: our lives.
The art of writing is always linked to the art of life. When we face who we truly are, whether in fact or fiction, poetry or prose, the world opens: the truth is compelling. Learning the craft of writing will help your story and also, enable you to author your life.
We create the story of our lives.