Monday Books Reading & Writing

Tuesday Books No. 5: Portable Curiosities stories by Julie Koh

It’s time for Tuesday Books! I will be posting books written by Asian women, primarily those written in English, although I may also feature translated works. If you want to be featured, lmk and contact me through the ABOUT page or email. I am choosing books new or old that I believe to be relevant. Scroll back and you can see, but I will be also updating the website so you can see earlier selections.

Portable Curiosities by Julie Koh is a highly imaginative short fiction collection that takes out of literary realism and places us in the world of speculative fiction. Koh is an Australian of Chinese descent and her witty and exuberant stories remind us that humor is key to social critique. Living overseas drove home the truth for me about how geography is easily misunderstood.

(Yeah, I’m the Korean American who wrote the book Swimming in Hong Kong. My ethnicity did not match the title—could have titled it KOREA IS MY HOMELAND, NOT IOWA or HOW MY SOUL LONGS FOR SEOUL or CONFUCIANISM THE BADASS VERSION…perhaps more traction? But I digress…)

There are ways of being and living outside of the binary of our nation of citizenship and the nation of our cultural origin. To read outside of these two spaces will push us tonew ideas and ways of conceptualizing each other. Koh obliged me compare Asian Australian/Asian American experience and understand the similarities and yet, I think due to Australian English plus culture, there’s a distinctly different tone. ‘The Three-Dimensional Yellow Man’ and The Fantastic Breasts’ are highlights. I laughed.

Live dangerously and have a romp through a book that is written by someone who has nothing to do with your national or cultural origin and see what you take in. I recommend this book.

For more information on learning to write, go to my classes page.

#writingcommunity #writinglife #writers #writersofinstagram #womenwriters #womenwritersofinstagram #womenwritersofcolor #narrative #woc #bipoc #creative #womenempowerment #womensupportingwomen #bipocwriters #poetry #poetrycommunity #fiction #nonfiction#memoir #creativewriting #AsianAmerican #AsianAmericanwomen#drstephaniehan

Listen and Watch

Korean American Perspectives: We Write the Stories of Our Community (Podcast)

Looking forward to the upcoming lecture and workshop series with the Council of Korean Americans for the CKA-Public Service Internship program. I spoke with Dr. Abraham Kim on the CKA podcast about storytelling, family, and writing.

My lecture and workshop series will run from June 22-July 1. I am really excited to meet and work with young Korean Americans who are engaged in areas of public service and civic involvement. Community building is important to me.

We Create the Story of Our Lives.

Reading & Writing

Books & Booze with Nana-Ama Danquah: Swimming in Hong Kong

I am so excited to have Swimming in Hong Kong chosen as a book club selection for the Nana-Ama Danquah Books & Booze hour! I’ll be zooming in the second half of the meeting! Please join and you don’t have to have read the book!

Zoom invitation link:
Password: danquah

Reading & Writing

Read & Write with Dr. Han: Educators, My First Grade Teacher Mrs. Cromarty, Seoul, Korea

Look for new posts MWF. This week, it will be posts on teachers. Audience: teachers, students, parents, educators, anyone who reads and writes…


I’m probably inviting students to roll their eyes, but I will state that even if I had a teacher who was less than inspiring, I reflect now and acknowledge there was some takeaway from that experience.

More later on Mrs. Martinez who carried a yardstick around and took the kids to the coatroom for a beating. Lesson learned there was that sometimes tension runs high in a classroom and you had just better shut up or you’ll get beaten. This was not an ideal lesson, but I suppose it has had some use in my life…


This post on Mrs. Cromarty was inspired by Steven Dunn’s social media feed asking people to comment if they had a black teacher.

I had two black teachers in my K-12 years: first grade and tenth grade. Both memorable. Mrs. Cromarty made a deep impact on my life. I am not sure if she is even alive now, or if I am spelling her name correctly, as Cromarty, may have been my childhood pronunciation of another name. Through second grade I proudly recited the Pledge of Allegiance “FOR RICHARD STANDS” instead of “For Which It Stands” figuring that Richard Nixon was the president, so Richard Stands was some other equally important fellow. Mrs. Cromarty’s name was quite long and written in black marker on a piece of heavy construction paper taped to the front of her big wooden desk. The few end letters were squished up. I’m not even sure if I am spelling the name right.


I thought about the knowledge I acquired that first grade year, or the first part of that first grade year while she was my teacher in Seoul before my family relocated back to the US. As an adult who has been an expatriate, all I can say was that she was a brave warrior woman because any non-Korean woman, and especially a black woman in 1970 Korea would have been treated, at best, as if she had descended from Mars. As an adult I would have loved to have gotten to know Mrs. Cromarty. Even now, I am impressed with her very existence.


I believe that the single lesson Mrs. Cromarty taught me about VOTING was probably one of the most important lessons that any teacher I ever had taught me. I mean, EVER. And I was in a lot of schools. I have two master’s degrees, countless workshops and programs under my belt, and a PhD. So when I state that she taught me one of the most important lessons I have ever learned–and when I was only 7 years old–well, that is saying quite a bit. I had to keep relearning it, but I feel now, decades on, I’m in the swing of what Mrs. Cromarty would be proud of.


I tried to catalog the lessons I learned in first grade. I am sure I learned certain academic skills—but the academic skills escape me and are simply too far away for me to parse. Such a recounting would never be accurate because as an educator and a parent, I know that certain skills are acquired during first grade. I have no idea if I made the mark during that time.

In no particular order, the year’s lessons (some had nothing to do with Mrs. Cromarty) boiled down to the following:

1. Make sure you have an extra set of clothes, especially underwear.

Mrs. Cromarty told everyone to bring an outfit with an extra pair of underwear to school. I did this. My mom had me bring one.

2. When someone borrows your underwear you should not ask for it back.

Sonya did not have an extra outfit. She wet her clothes. Mrs. Cromarty informed me that Sonya would be using my outfit. A few weeks later, she told me that her dad was washing the clothes and she would give the underwear back. I told Mom. Mom told me to tell Sonya not to return the underwear. So she didn’t. I got the outfit back, not the underwear.

3. Mothers may or may not have anything to do with extra underwear.

Sonya’s mother had died. There was some discussion that this was why Sonya did not have an extra pair of underwear in class. Apparently mothers were associated with ensuring the child had underwear. If your mother dies, you have no extra underwear! Who knew that this was the case! A lesson, I now see, in default gender attribution to childcare issues.

4. Sometimes treats can make you feel better.

Mrs. Cromarty had a stash of candy. This was completely exciting and there would be certain times when we might have the opportunity to earn a piece of candy. Sugar free parents, I know, this is not such a great practice, but as a kid, it’s awesome.

Confession: I was that drag of a parent who was horrified by my precious homemade squeezed orange juice non-TV watching before age 2 son getting sweets at school. Note that it’s amazing how we can lighten up about that stuff. He probably has a pile of plastic in his stomach from ramen noodles. Although I wish the food court at the mall did not have every fast food franchise in the US, I still let him eat that stuff. Plus, he loves gaming, but whatever. I digress…

5. Koreans can have wavy hair.

Like William, my true love of first grade. William, where are you?

6. Chasing can be more fun than catching.

The boys chase girls, girls chase boys game meant that usually someone was caught, but the kissing part that followed the chasing, was a somewhat uncomfortable encounter—often the chaser did not want to do the kissing after catching someone! Peer pressure ruled. You HAD to kiss the person. I know there are certain discussions now that are had to prevent this kind of thing. Before, admittedly, sometimes you really didn’t run so fast to catch the person. Yuck, who wanted to end up kissing or being kissed? Gross! For example, I did not want to kiss Victor. My best friend did. I only wanted to kiss William! Unfortunately, I never caught William. Victor was apparently OK with getting caught and kissed. William didn’t want to kiss anyone ever.

7. Don’t let anyone touch you if you don’t want him/her/they to touch you.

Russell. I am not sure what happened to Russell, and looking back I wonder, of course, about Russell’s home life. Russell frequently inappropriately touched girls when they did not want to be touched. His hands would touch your knee during story hour. He would do it even if you were not signaling you wanted to be touched.

To me, he looked really strange, mostly because he had this buzz cut, and rather large bulgy sort of green eyes. He probably ended up being quite handsome, who knows, but he seemed peculiar to me. Now if Russell was an adult and engaging in this type of behavior he would be a ‘creep’, or something more, but he was a child. He got so bad with certain girls, myself included, that Mrs. Cromarty had to tell him once during story hour: “RUSSELL. Stop bothering Stephanie, Russell! Keep your hands to yourself! No touching!”. I can see now I was unable to stop it because it was a combination of not knowing how to stop it, and being uncertain if I should say something. It was likely that I had tried to move away or say something, but he persisted. After that time Mrs. Cromarty called him out, he never did it again to me.

8. A certain kind of voting transparency can be a good thing.

There was a drawing contest: What it was for, now escapes me. But the students raised that they wanted to vote with their heads up and see. Mrs. Cromarty agreed that we could do this instead of having our hands down. The winner was going to get a chocolate candy bar. Maybe a Snickers bar from the base. I never got candy bars at home.

My idea of a wild snack was going to my dad’s lab and him popping open a can of sardines. I lived for canned fish. I loved sardines as much as those sickly sweet orange and yellow peanut shaped marshmallows.

Everyone was pleased to be able to understand something about who people might vote for and why. A good many lessons were learned. The dodgy gerrymandering and all sorts of nonsense people currently engage in is really not in anyone’s educational interest.

9. Good friends usually vote for each other over what is truly best for the group as a whole.

We were able to vote several times. The picture was supposed to represent the class on some level. It was to be the best work of such and such, and in this way, we were to all be invested in this picture. But what happened? People voted for their friends. I was shocked, I tell you. Just shocked. And probably, because I was decent at drawing at that age, I was upset to find out that it came down to friendship over skill. And this came down to even some of the worst drawings. For example, there were two boys, great friends. Neither one of them had nice drawings, as they were more of the stick figure variety. And they voted for each other and only for each other. Maybe their third wheel friend also voted for them, but really, the two drawings each got only a few votes. They didn’t care. It was about loyalty, not the drawing.

Then came the turn for my drawing and my best friend’s drawing. Ours were the two best drawings in the class. Was this friend’s name Diane? Let’s say it was Diane. She and I were neck and neck in most things, including our mutual loves for both Victor and William. I loved William and she loved Victor. Diane was half Korean with lighter brown hair and ran fast. I was full Korean with black hair and ran medium and if chased, very fast. We were both good students.

My picture was displayed. Everyone voted. I had around 16 votes. I even remember, vaguely, the number. Diane voted for me. I’m pretty sure William did. Victor was in another class. I did not vote for myself, of course. In my mind, that was inappropriate. In my mind, one did not vote for oneself. I had many votes and was fully confident of my win.

Diane’s drawing: 17 votes. She won! I voted for her too. She won by one vote because she voted for herself. I was really surprised she voted for herself and remember looking over and thinking, wow how embarrassing, how shameful that she is voting FOR HERSELF. One did not put oneself forward like that. I was confused. Diane went to the front and got the Snicker’s bar.

10. Always vote for yourself.

Mrs. Cromarty later pulled me aside: “Stephanie, you always have to vote for yourself. If you don’t vote for yourself, why would anyone vote for you? You have to vote for yourself. Always!”

It took me many years to understand the depth of the concept that she was trying to convey. Over the course of my life I have learned to vote for myself, but in many past instances, did not vote for myself in a metaphorical way. To vote for yourself is to fully believe in what you are as an individual, and the act asserts your claim to occupy a particular position. To vote for yourself is an exercise in confidence; it requires an understanding of your worth as a person. You must believe that you can do whatever task that is set before you. Too often, we fail to vote for ourselves, especially girls. Do I vote for myself now? YES. But truthfully, it took a long time to do so with a deep knowing of all that voting for oneself symbolizes and implies.


Last fall, an assignment was handed out to my 11th graders. One of the choices had to do with asserting yourself as president of the United States. Out of nearly 55 students, only one girl put herself forward and wrote a paper on her possible agenda or priority. You can imagine how many boys freely imagined themselves as President. I tried, as best as I could to channel Mrs. Cromarty in my comments to the girls, but it is unlikely I did it as well as she did.


Mahalo and warmest thanks to Mrs. Cromarty. My first black teacher. My first African American teacher. My first grade teacher. The woman warrior who was in Korea in 1970 defying everyone’s idea of place, race, and geography, the woman who first taught me, a young Korean American girl, that voting for oneself was neither rude, nor wrong, and that if I didn’t vote for myself, no one else would.

Reading & Writing

Read & Write with Dr. Han: Passing in the Middle Kingdom, Creative Process, and ‘Out of the Depths’


Here we are sheltering in place. So many people are now turning to literature, poetry, and art to get through these times. By now, many have started to write, to record their thoughts and feelings about a time that is deeply traumatic, confusing, and unknown. When we have no familiarity with what we are faced with we often turn to art for solace, redemption, and hope. To that end, I thought I would post and comment about my recent completion of a poetry manuscript. I am primarily a fiction writer, but I maintain that I turn to poetry when I have no words.

Poetry gives me a way out.


I have linked to the poem ‘Out of the Depths’ from my unpublished poetry manuscript ‘Passing in the Middle Kingdom.’ People usually don’t break down how a poem came about, but I think it can be useful to people who want to know how and why individuals write, especially my students. Watch for a few downloadable broadsides. The ms (manuscript) is out in the world, but its future is undecided. It is complete; I believe it to be a strong piece of work as a whole; I am now free.


This particular draft of ‘Out of the Depths’ is slightly different than the final draft, but I’ve decided to share it because the layout includes the original artwork, a choir program. I had written the poem prior to the journal’s call, but submitted it and have had a few poems published by Silver Birch Press ‘Gold Medal Hair’ and ‘Nebraska Trading Post, 1972’—their submission calls are playful, and are fun to try. The poems they published have a different tone than many I usually write as they are rooted in the recollection of my childhood and in this way, carry for me feelings that are infrequently experienced in my daily adult life.


‘Out of the Depths’ was written because I was sent the concert program by email. I believe, though never confirmed, that it was emailed by this very old friend in a sentimental and fond way, a gesture to not only the recipient, me, but also, I surmise, to the one who sent the program, a valentine to the young person he was at that time. A kind of do you remember? I responded with this poem, yes, I remember. Other than a rare social media post I have not seen this friend in decades, but it is amazing how someone can exist in another’s mind as unchanged, in memory, as a being who despite accomplishments, years, family, and journeys, is forever 17 or 18 years old, young, open, curious, ready to see and love and adventure with a backpack. And when I remember this, what happens is that I too recall in vivid memory, what it was to be 17, and conjure a feeling, a body, a place.

The experiences of our adolescence are often stark rainbows of raving madness, and always excruciatingly raw. These times become the dust and ocean truths that we keep in our bodies. These things, they make us who we are, who we become, what we remember. The PDF of this program sent to me across time zones and bytes, space and decades, continents and oceans had obliged me to remember, had forced me to unknowingly, both hopefully and hesitantly, catalogue and gaze upon my then present. This was difficult. The truth and illumination poetry gives us is often traumatic. Through words we swim, leap, fly parallel and perpendicular, across time and hope, follow seashell grooves from end to beginning, and discover in a grain of sand what we are meant to feel and believe. We read and write to save our lives, to find out who we are.


I began this manuscript in 2008, and while it went through another round of final edits in February 2020, earlier versions of the collection and individual poems are likely to be floating around in the dark backwater known as Submission-Land. This manuscript was shared and critiqued at readings and informal poetry gatherings in Hong Kong from 2010-2014. The poems were reworked dozens of times. Along the way, the ms was a semi-finalist for the Wilder Prize, and experienced plenty of rejection. Some rejections were rather cryptic (Oh, how I tried to interpret that scrawl in neat pen! Or read between the email lines!), but most rejections followed the standard No, thank you.

Musings on the ms: There was a sharp surgical removal of a huge section. My perspective shifted, and it became a different ms than I had originally intended, although its intention back then, was unknown to me, which I think was why it took me this long to complete it. It was sent out before it was done. But at the time, I had no idea the ms was incomplete. Perspective shifts.

Now I see it was originally begun to make sense of the feelings and events that arose as a result of my life in a small rural village outside of Hong Kong. Poetry gives words to our inexplicable emotional selves and the sensations that this inner life suggests and reflects. My years during the writing of this first draft of the manuscript were complicated. I experienced the birth and collapse of my ideas of family, life, and the self. It was the upending of home and the questioning of how we construct place and belonging. I reassessed nation and community, pondered tribalism and patriarchy. I was obliged to confront how we live with memory, future, and imagination, forced to reassess how culture determines and refracts our being, and probe how we seek and lose.

It was a period of time both joyful and brutal. I realize now that I kept thinking that if I would write it in X way, then X would transpire in my real, not written life. I wrote to knit my life, and in doing so, I saved my life. This is the myth the writer must always face: we write our story, but once we write, the story often runs away and goes on without us. The words exist. We must save ourselves.


Initially, from 2008-2010, the poetry ms was a way for me to retreat from an identity. I was very discouraged. My fiction book had been rejected so many times I was starting to wonder if something was deeply wrong with this entire idea of dedicating my life to writing, to words, to stories. When I first landed in this tiny village, I didn’t tell anyone I was a writer for several months.  It is quite easy to do this if you are a parent, in particular, a mother. The role of motherhood is labor intensive and if you have a young child, especially a baby, no one really asks what you do other than take care of your child.

Students made me reclaim my identity. When they wrote, I too began to write—this poetry ms.  The poems were the first that I had written since 1994. I had received a grant for the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs to write a chapbook L.A. (Lovers Anonymous) a work I classify now as juvenilia. It was then that I began to claim my identity as a writer. To add, writing, often when it comes to women, does not link to chronological time in the same way, so I was by no means a juvenile (under 21) when I wrote it. Coming back to poetry, then, was a recognition of what brought me to writing to begin with. It’s a good feeling, really.


Life is and is not the first draft. It is the final draft in every action, but we must understand we have many final drafts and so it is, in that sense, a numbers game. Don’t save up to live. Write the poem. Rewrite it. Redraft it. Write many poems. Toss some out. Keep some. Forget some. Find some. There are many poems for they are snapshots, moments and thoughts. The final draft of any poem, of any artwork is really your own life, and you are faced with this life long after any single poem is complete. We will continue on until the very end, and then the poem, the song, the art magically takes over and our body disappears. It’s a partner dance.  When you live your life in a way that prioritizes the creation of new ideas and forms of words, when you embrace what will be and question what is, you set yourself up for a life of complexity, of art, of seeking. When we write we create worlds, we speak to futures, we make ourselves into being.


Arthur Miller stated a version of this: Writers function as seers. Or in a less daunting proposition: the role of seer is one we writers should aspire to. But I extend that to those who do not consider themselves writers in the formal sense, but those who dare to author their vulnerable selves into being. Seers are blind, threatened with death, peculiar in appearance or craft, beset by gifts and threats and all manner of problems that arise as others shun, embrace, pretend indifference or are indifferent to what they say. Seers die as everyone else, come into the world as everyone else, and should you wear the badge of seer, it is true, you really do know it.

Oscar Wilde states: “The past is of no importance. … For the past is what man should not have been. The present is what man ought not to be. The future is what artists are.” The task then, is to see and to cultivate the skill and courage to speak what needs to be said, and what we desire to say. The artist is the future; the artist embodies a new way of being. Artmaking is a compulsion, not a choice. You know you are meant to create, if for no other reason that you cannot seem to stop this will to not simply feel, but to express this feeling.  Then incomprehensibly to many, if not your own self, you summon a belief, a strange faith that this task must and will fall into place. It always does, but perhaps not in the way that you had initially conceptualized.


I have written into my future and written into my past. In the case of this manuscript, I was trying to write into a certain kind of future, to rationalize a previous present. The journey of this manuscript is so very obvious to me now. In willful obstinance, I did not understand that writing can change everything, but maybe not what we want to change. We are not always the author of the story we want to change. We can only author our own story, sing our own lyrics. Love and writing and home and dreams are forever linked. It is the mad dance of swirling through time. Linked. Found. Lost

Like many people, I write poetry when feelings don’t have a linear path that I am interested in tracing or that I am capable of tracing: I write poetry when I have no words. I write prose when I need and want to create a space or world to be in, to explain something to myself, to others, to something or someone—time is not linear necessarily when I write stories as it is often simultaneously past or present, but there does seem to be a driving need to make sense of what is at stake, if that makes sense. I arc it and give it a structure, drape the ideas or dig a hole and drive the steel into the ground in order that the building stands.

This is artmaking reflection; you will have to discover your own process.

We create the story of our lives.