On the 20th Birthday of The Umbrella Country - Book Launch
In 2019, my first book The Umbrella Country turns 20. It's been a roller coaster ride since its publication as I have always lead two separate lives, one as a published writer and another, as a full-time not-for-profit educator.
The pictures you see here are also 20 years old. They are from my book launch at Barnes and Noble Chelsea in 1999. I have not paid much attention to them since I published my first book. They have been kept in a box full of paraphernalia from 20 years ago. It's been quite a trip since I sold my second (not first) completed manuscript. It's what I had wished for then (to sell a book before turning 30) but not necessarily expecting it would happen so quickly. My novel was my little secret. I was mostly publishing poetry. By 1999, I already had a few literary journal publications under my belt, including The Kenyon Review. My poetry manuscript had already been a finalist for national competitions including The National Poetry Series 1998. In 1998, I had two manuscripts finished (just like I do now, in fact). I didn't expect to publish a novel first.
When I was on a bus coming back from a reading a the Geraldine Dodge Foundation Poetry Festival in New Jersey, a renowned poet told me cynically, "Good luck. It took me 15 years to publish mine. It took me less than a year from when I finished the manuscript at one of our group workshop at The Asian American Writers Workshop. Luck might not have anything to do with it.
Just like many many things about my first novel from writing to publishing, I had to work thrice as hard to make anything at all happen. The fact that I had a full-time job didn't make it easier.
Launching at B&N
Just like many many things about my first novel from writing to publishing, I had to work thrice as hard to make anything at all happen. The fact that I had a full-time job didn't make it easier. I wasn't going to have a book launch at Barnes and Noble. I had to convince the publicist at my publishing house that I could bring out a crowd because I worked two blocks away. She was not convinced. When Random House/BRC found out that I was selected for Barnes and Noble's Discover Great New Writers for Spring 1999, the staff eased up a little bit. I used it as my negotiating tool to get a launch at B&N Chelsea (20th? and 6th Avenue). I did have an agent at the time, but I did most of the talking and promotion. After all, by 1999, I had been reading all over New York City for 8 long years. AAWW was already 8 years old. I was no novice for sure. I half won. The publicist insisted that I be paired up with another author.
I worked at the Consortium for Worker Education (CWE), a union-based workforce organization, two blocks away from the bookstore. I still consider it one of my best jobs as I met so many angels who lit my path during the 9 years that I worked there. It was where I worked during the writing of my entire novel. Many of them had read my work before publication. Since I was also publishing as a poet, some co-workers had attended my readings as well. It would be the only time in my life when my artistic life completely merged with my work life. There were no secrets. Everybody knew what I did when I left my 9-5 schedule. My co-workers came out in full force at my reading. One even brought her entire class. When I look at these pictures, I say to myself, Ah, I didn't know he came to my book launch.
The People in the Pictures
I don't have very many pictures of my readings and public events, which I have plenty of since 1991. I certainly don't have pictures of the audience so I don't remember at all who attended them. I would not remember who were at my book launch if I didn't have these pictures. I had to study these pictures to get back the emotions from that evening. It was certainly like putting on a show where I was the performer, the promoter, and also the organizer. What I could never control was who showed up.
At work, I heard that my book was at the display window at Barnes and Noble Chelsea. This was before the cellphone camera, so news was spread mostly by word of mouth. I still remember a white man screaming at me as I entered the bookstore that evening. I don't recall why. Half of the attendees, including my entire family, were already there. For me, what would make the event rare was the presence of relatives who didn't live in the U.S. A few of them happened to be visiting that month, including my father's identical twin brother. They all sat in the front row. If anything bad happened to me during the reading, there were two doctors a few feet away.
There were also friends from Kambal sa Lusog, a lesbian and gay organization I founded but folded long before 1999. Many of us kept in touch and became lifelong friends. I no longer see many of them but have been keeping in touch through Facebook. Because my family was there, it was great to see in these pictures a huge showing from the lesbian and gay community, although mostly Filipinos. My novel was after all gay.
My co-workers who filled 50% of the room most likely walked from two blocks up. I worked with people who also lead double lives as artists. Union-related education programs attracted many intellectuals, including writers. Many of them taught part-time in our education programs. It made it easier to work there. We ran into each other at literary events. I always found literary events to be rather elitist and academic driven. It was always comforting to see union activists mingling among us.
During the launch, the security guard told me I had a bigger audience than Patty Labelle who was there a week prior. When I told the publicist this, she immediately snapped back with, "I don't think so."
I took a break from the literary public life for ten years, and wrote quietly on my private time on top of full-time work, went to graduate school, got married. I didn't send works to literary journals like I did before. I let my website go. I wanted time to slow down a bit so I could understand my purpose.
1999 and Forward
1999 saw a handful of Asian Americans publishing in mainstream press. Publishing in a big house was a dream for any writer. The Umbrella Country was bought to lead a new imprint at Ballantine/Random House. It didn't happen so the book ended up with its new reader's circle imprint. Even that no longer exists, so googling my book would find it in Penguin Random House site.
Those who see our published books on shelves will never know the amount of work we put into promoting our books once they're out there. Writing is perhaps only 20% the pain (or really, the joy). It's 80% sweat to make sure the book doesn't get remaindered (meaning rights are given back to the author because it didn't sell). I would learn what mid-list authors meant. Unless the mainstream publisher invested six figures in an author, you are guaranteed to do all the leg work and make up the advanced they paid you. What publicity?
There was no money for publicity. Being in the mainstream press only had glamour on the spine of the book, name recognition. The publisher organized a badly thought out reading in Bergen County in New Jersey and had someone drive me there. Apparently there were many Filipinos there. I didn't know why it mattered if there were Filipinos or not. There were four people in the audience, one was the Filipino Mayor. Keeping The Umbrella Country in circulation was over a decade of traveling the country, reading at universities, going to the Philippines where the novel received rave reviews and is still being taught. I did most of the planning on all these events, jumping at any opportunity to appear at universities and colleges. If sales doesn't immediately happen, getting it taught gives it longevity. I never got royalties from my first novel, but I managed to keep it in circulation. 20 years later, the book can still be ordered online.
Indeed, it was exhausting. Six years later, I would win a national competition for my first poetry collection, the one I expected to publish first, but had to put aside because of my first novel. I was already too tired to even promote that one. But with its limited print-run for poetry collections, I had not much to worry about. We used to say poetry publishers print 1000 poetry books for 1000 poets. I didn't know that many poets. I bought half the print-run and sold the books myself. It does help to have a regular full-time income.
I took a break from the literary public life for ten years, and wrote quietly on my private time on top of the usual full-time work, went to graduate school, got married. I didn't send works to literary journals like I did before. I let my website go. I wanted time to slow down a bit so I could understand my purpose, or at the very least, breathe and live. The creative process was what I loved most about writing. It is where I get most of the joy, why I do it for no money. I still work outside of the literary and academic communities which is a blessing for the lack of pressure to publish anything or stay relevant in the literary scene. When I started to publish again, the landscape had completely changed. Different energy, younger faces, a lot of hive minds, group thinks, social media celebrities. It's an exciting new space to navigate.
Last year, I finished two manuscripts just like in 1998. I also won a New York Foundation for the Arts grant for one of them. This year, I brought back this website. I am certainly not as naive as I was 20 years ago. 20 years is wise teacher. I have become quite savvy in my dealings with whomever, and have also learned to understand what is really important about the writing life, as sentimental as that sounds. The most important things are in these pictures--friendships captured in a moment I could barely remember. The memories of a published life going by too fast for me to revel in. These people made this literary voyage happen, and they still do. My next book of fiction, With Love, Sandra Queen of Fish Sauce and Other Stories has a lot of their names in it. Many many years ago I decided to write a collection of stories to make my friends laugh. It's my tribute to my dear friends, without whom my literary journey would have no meaning.