Sarah Kuhn is the author of the popular Heroine Complex novels—a series starring Asian American superheroines. The first book is a Locus bestseller, an RT Reviewers’ Choice Award nominee, and one of the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog’s Best Books of 2016. Her YA debut, the beloved Japan-set romantic comedy I Love You So Mochi, is a Junior Library Guild selection and a nominee for YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults. She has also penned a variety of short fiction and comics, including the critically acclaimed graphic novel Shadow of the Batgirl for DC Comics and the Star Wars audiobook original Doctor Aphra. Her newest novel, From Little Tokyo, With Love—a modern fairy tale with a half-Japanese heroine—is due out in May 2021. Additionally, she was a finalist for both the CAPE (Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment) New Writers Award and the Astounding Award for Best New Writer. A third generation Japanese American, she lives in Los Angeles with her husband and an overflowing closet of vintage treasures.
Could you tell us more about your forthcoming novel, FROM LITTLE TOKYO, WITH LOVE, and why you wrote it?
FROM LITTLE TOKYO, WITH LOVE is all about Rika Rakuyama, a prickly half Japanese orphan growing up in LA’s vibrant Little Tokyo neighborhood. She doesn’t believe in happily ever afters — until she gets swept into her own modern fairy tale, which involves learning her mother is actually alive and a famous movie star. And of course there is an extremely cute and charming boy who helps her on this epic quest. I wrote this book because as a mixed race Asian American girl, I grew up never able to imagine a fairy tale-style happy ending for myself — it wasn’t something I ever saw, Asian American girls centered as princesses or rom-com heroines in these hopeful stories I loved so much. I also wanted to delve into what it’s like trying to fit in anywhere as a mixed race person — a lot of times, you’re described as a fraction, a puzzle, or a “mistake,” even in communities you supposedly belong to. Sometimes you feel like you can’t be a whole version of anything. I wanted to take Rika on that journey, to show her that she deserves that beautiful happily ever after, and that it’s possible to find people who will see every piece of you and love that whole you unconditionally.
How does your culture influence your writing? How do you weave your culture(s) into your books?
Our identities influence our experiences in just about every way, and that’s how I tend to approach weaving those pieces of myself into my work. I hate that phrase “this character just happens to be X.” That’s not a thing. If you make every character a white, straight, cis person, that’s still a choice — their identities also affect how they experience the world. I think personally, I love weaving in my experiences being part of the greater AAPI diaspora — where our experiences intersect and where they differ. Rika’s love interest, Henry, is also mixed Asian American, but he’s Chinese/Filipino and both of his parents are still alive — so there are places where they connect and places where their experiences are totally different. I’m a third generation mixed race Japanese American who grew up in a really small white town — my husband is a first generation Chinese American who grew up in a predominantly Asian community. So it’s always fascinating to see where our experiences come together and where they diverge. There is so much beautiful diversity within the AAPI community and I love celebrating that.
How did you start your writing journey to get to where you are today?
I’ve always written, but growing up, I don’t think I realized “author” was a career someone could have — especially a woman of color. I was a journalist for a long time, and many of those skills have carried over to my current work, but I really had to learn — and am still learning — how to make myself vulnerable enough to write fiction that rings true. The first bit of fiction I wrote seriously was ONE CON GLORY, a serialized story about a girl who keeps losing her most precious action figure and then falls into an unexpected romance at Comic-Con. I think that story taught me a lot — like that I couldn’t just string a bunch of witty banter together and call it a day, I had to think about FEELINGS and stuff. I basically just wrote it for a few friends, but it developed a following and that eventually led to me writing my first novel, HEROINE COMPLEX, which got me my agent and my first deal. My journey feels very unexpected overall, but I think a lot of authors feel that way! And listen, I’m still learning how to deal with FEELINGS, both in fiction and real life.
What’s your favorite part of the writing process? Your least favorite part? Why?
My favorite part is whenever I get that sense of possibility — that moment where the story feels like a living, breathing thing and I’m just obsessed with it. My least favorite part is when I feel like I can’t make something look as beautiful on paper as it does in my head. I’m not a very patient person, I just want my first drafts to be totally perfect — is that too much to ask?!? (Yes.)
What advice would you have for aspiring writers and creators? And do you have any words of wisdom you’d like to share specifically for API (Asian and Pacific Islander) creators?
Write the story only you can tell, and don’t listen to anyone who tries to crush your passion out of you. I would 100 percent not be doing what I’m doing if I’d listened to anyone who told me that Asian American superheroines — especially multiple Asian American superheroines in one book — were niche, a long shot, a hard sell, or simply not marketable. All of those people were wrong. I also strongly recommend finding a community — there were so many awesome and legendary Asian American authors who enthusiastically welcomed me into the fold and reached out to support me when I debuted. It made me feel like I belonged and like we were all in this together and that community has grown so much over the last few years — it is really wonderful to see, and I’m so proud to be part of it.