Discovering Black in Asia literature back in 2021 was a lightbulb moment for me. The subgenre opened up a library of books that I could identify with – stories that touch upon the experiences of Black people moving and living in Asia.
I immediately began searching and connecting with more authors who have written about their incredible experiences through their books. What can draw others to read these stories like myself is the variety of perspectives. Whether they’re from the perspective of a Black Buddist nun or a young child living abroad with his parrot, every story have a remarkable way of inspiring readers and taking them out of their comfort zone.
Here, I speak with four authors – EJ Sankofa, Elizabeth Wilkerson, Faith Adiele and James Prescott-Kerr – who share their writing routines, how they structure their stories and give personalized advice to writers around the world.
Nyasha Oliver: What prompted you to start writing this book?
EJ Asare: My son had to relocate from Ghana to South Korea with his father. He had to leave his beloved African Grey parrot in Ghana. He was heartbroken, homesick and lonely, so I needed a way to process helping him with the pain of losing his best friend.
Elizabeth Wilkerson: It sounds cliché, but I woke up one morning with the outline for a movie in my head. I had my coffee, set up the keyboard, and pounded out a film treatment. It came to me so quickly and it was easy to write. I sent it to my boyfriend —now husbandù who pitched it to a producer. The producer wanted to make it into a TV movie. Little did I know that I was going to turn it into a novel.
Faith Adiele: Someone sent me a notice of an anthology of Black women’s journals. I sent the first and second one, and the editor said “No, send something else.” I told her “Well, the only other journals I have are from, you know, when I was ordained as a Buddhist in Thailand.”
And she was like “Girl, why did you not lead with this?” Later, when the book was coming out, she reached out to say that Ms. Magazine was going to excerpt my selection in their coverage of the book and wanted a photo of me as a nun. After the piece came out, I started getting fan letters from people around the world. I thought – Wow, there really is something to be said for sharing your personal story. It can really help people. In the first meeting I had with an agent she said “Well, of course you’re going to have to rewrite the whole thing as a memoir.” At the end of the week I was like “Oh, you know what? She’s right. I’ve got 400 pages of journal entries with no context.”
James Prescott-Kerr: A few things. Firstly, I was writing a fortnightly blog for the Agency I went to China with so I was already documenting my experience. However, I only spoke about the highlights and glitzy side of my experience. There was a lot I wanted to speak about that never made it to the blog and on my return, there was an onslaught of people asking “how was China?” I didn’t feel like I could summarize the most eventful year of my life in a few concise sentences so I decided to answer that question in full with a book! I knew that I offered a unique perspective of China as not many Black South Londoners have been or offered their perspective. I wanted to give people from my background some context of what to expect if they decided to follow my footsteps.
NO: How did you decide upon the structure, plot and characters within the book?
EA: The book focuses on a family relocating, learning about the new culture and food. It highlights specific aspects of each new culture to educate the young reader and peak their interest in learning more. I decided to focus on an African-American family to highlight the importance of traveling and engaging with new cultures and experiences. I want young Black and Brown children to learn that there are other places to live on this planet. They do not have to stay in the country where they were born. It is critical to me that these children are exposed to new cultures and know that they have options when they grow up.
EW: I rely on outlines but I give myself flexibility to be fluid with the structure and open to the happy synchronicities and surprises that are part of the creative process. Characters come to me pretty fully developed. But if I’m having trouble with a character, I will interview them and let them talk.
FA: I knew my story was heavy. So, I wanted to create a persona that was approachable and light. A serendipitous encounter with an experimental poet encouraged me to create a polyphonic structure that maintained the nature of my experience – entries from the journal I kept during my ordination, photographs, quotations from Buddhist texts I was reading, interviews with other nuns, flashbacks to arguments with sex tourists, charts and diagrams of my practice.
Eventually I worked with a Book Arts designer. I explained that I wanted the page initially to look disorienting, recreating what happens when we travel to a new country and try to figure out which path to take; the reader is then given agency to choose. I wanted lots of white space to evoke the breath in meditation. I wanted the chronology of the memoir to move backward, deeper into history, which is what happens with deep practice. I wanted the journals in the margins to provide different access into the story, a raw, unedited voice and ragged progression that whispers to the reader. The designer researched historical religious texts for a visual precedent and decided on the Talmud, which has a text-with-commentary model.
JPR: When I was blogging I posted fortnightly. I decided to keep that same format but fleshed it out A LOT. I also added a few articles about certain subject matters spaced out in between entries. I felt it was a good way to break up the biographical nature of the book and give added context to my experience.
NO: Can you tell me what’s your writing routine?
EA: I write on the weekends early in the morning when my mind is free and the world is quiet. My energy is higher in the morning than in the evening. I like to write longhand so my creativity can flow easier and I don’t count words. I keep a notebook with me so I can catch new ideas that flow when a specific life moment catches my eyes. Photography is also one of my hobbies so I love catching sweet, candid moments and those captured moments help me to write.
EW: I write at night. I give myself a 1500 daily word requirement. Since I dictate as opposed to type, it’s not too hard to hit that word count. If I’m in editing mode, I do that in the morning.
FA: Ugh, I don’t really have a writing routine, I just try to get things done andI write to the deadline. I write to get things to my writing group or my editor or my agent. I do write one day a week with a friend in coffee shops or at her house, and that’s the whole day, from 10 to 4. To get a handle of really big projects, like starting a book, I go to artist residencies. That works because I’m a binge writer. At a residency, I’ll write from the time I wake up to the time I fall asleep at my desk. I’m a slow writer. I don’t count words.
JPR: I don’t really have a routine. I’m a big fan of the whole “spend at least 5 minutes a day” strategy. When I have a spare moment I’ll start writing. Sometimes I’ll stop for 5 minutes, other days I’ll end up writing for hours. Consistency is key though. Just make sure you do SOMETHING!
NO: Did you experience writer’s block or face any challenges while writing your book? And how did you overcome it?
EA: I do get writer’s block. I joined a writing group that met every Sunday online. The group met for two hours and each writer was encouraged to write in silence for twenty minutes at a time. Then they could choose to share if they want. Then twenty more minutes of writing. This would go on for two hours. Joining the group helped me tremendously. Being in a group of like-minded artists eased my block and allowed my creativity to flow. It helped to hear other writers’ works and hear about their struggles.
EW: I give myself permission to write really crappy drafts. Sometimes when I revisit those drafts, I can find morsels to rework or get a new idea that launches me in an unexpected direction.
FA: I don’t believe in writer’s block. Of course, with this project, I had to battle the unfamiliarity of the subject. At the time I wrote Meeting Faith, Blacks in Asia and Black Buddhists weren’t a thing, so I had to convince readers, editors, and myself that there was something universal, relatable and worthwhile about my particular coming of age story. Initially, I overcame it by titling my book, Why Anyone Other Than My Mother Would Buy This Book, and writing straight into that challenge. Nowadays I remind myself to channel my inner mediocre white man.
JPR: Yeah, it would happen every now and then. When that happened, I would spend time re-reading what I had already written and editing it when necessary. At least then, if it didn’t spark any ideas it would have still been time spent improving my work.
NO: What’s something you wish someone told you before you became an author?
EA: As a self-published author, I wish I would’ve known that you need both writing and marketing skills. Writing books takes one skill but there is also a critical need to know how to market the completed product. If you do not have this skill, you may explore hiring a skilled person to promote your book on social media platforms and dealing with various algorithms. Also, it is very important to hire a skilled editor. Readers are turned off by finding grammatical errors in books. A skilled editor will find those errors prior to final printing. Also, always order a proof copy before final printing approval.
EW: The learning process is never-ending. The importance of marketing can’t be understated. Writing is hard work, physically, emotionally, and mentally, but when the words are right, it will put a smile on your face.
FA: I assumed most people understood that creative nonfiction is an art form like any other but people don’t read it that way. People read it as the truth and get upset if they don’t agree with what you feel, even though it’s your personal experience. When I was on tour for the first time, folks wanted to know: “How do I meditate? Where should I go in Thailand? Should I leave my husband?”
It took an experienced writer friend to take me aside and say “Your job is to be a writer who sounds so authentic that people feel like they know her. Your job is not to try to do counseling or social services. One, you’re not qualified; two, you need to protect your spirit and time so you can write the next book that will make people feel they know you.”
JPR: Nothing really. An introduction to a literary agent would be nice though.
NO: How did publishing your first book change your process of writing afterwards?
EA: Making errors with my first book made me take more time in hiring a new illustrator for the second. Writing is such a personal joy and pain. Sometimes it is hard to allow others to read and proof my work, but it’s a very important part of the writing process. As writers, we have to expose ourselves to others even before final printing so the book can be delivered at its best.
EW: I now create story bibles and draw pictures of locations for continuity. I am better organized, but I have much room for improvement so that I have all the bits and morsels I need at the ready and easy to find, and not scattered across my computer and random notebooks.
FA: Nothing really.
JPR: It didn’t.
NO: What would you say is your greatest skill as a writer?
EA: My passion is my greatest skill. I was always an avid reader as a child. The library was a safe haven for me as an immigrant child adjusting to a new country, and I want to share that childhood passion with readers. There are so many new worlds and as writers we can create these beautiful, new worlds to explore.
EW: Pacing. I hope my work zips along for readers, giving them an occasional rest stop to catch their breath before heading back up to the top of the roller coaster.
FA: As a multicultural person, I see multiple POVs try to listen to what form and structure a story wants. However, readers seem to be most taken by how I manage to interject wit and humor into serious subjects.
JPR: My ability to draw from my deepest emotions and articulate them with tranquility. Making my most complex thoughts and feelings digestible so they can resonate with anyone.
NO: Is there any advice you’d give to new writers who want to write a book about being a Black person in Asia?
EA: Tell the truth even if your voice shakes. Write, write, write. New stories need to be told about our expat experiences. Allow our communities to see there are other ways to live and places where we are seen as human first. Tell the stories so the readers can see there are places on this Earth where we can be safe and free.
My book is about a young Black boy and his family exploring South Korea. The boy, Joshua, (and his best friend, Johnny the bird) meet local children his age, eat new food and learn about new cultures. I want all of our children to explore the world and be brave. I want them to see a different future than what is put in front of them daily.
EW: Others have said it but it certainly is true for me, write the book you want to read. I wanted to read cyber thrillers featuring Black women in Asia. It’s odd to me that lots of people in the publishing industry didn’t realize we exist. Representation matters.
FA: That’s an interesting question. Well, first of all, pay attention to who came before you. It’s important to give flowers to folks who paved the way, to educate yourself and not write something as if you invented traveling, or being Black in Asia. I do a lot in decolonial travel writing, and I see us recreating the same problematic imagery and expectations and language. We can get so caught up in our own narratives of freedom that we are not necessarily questioning these Eurocentric models.
I love that there are Black communities in Asia and I would encourage you to educate yourself about the country that you’re writing about. What is the indigenous literature that came before? Make sure the work is not doing any harm. I want to make sure we’re doing it in the right way, and that these stories are nuanced and moving into new territory and creating interesting new connections.
JPR: Be brave and hold nothing back. Our experiences are unique and not spoken about enough. What may be the smallest of details to you may be an eye-opener for others. Remember why you had the idea to write a book in the first place and let that motivate you to finish it. Once it’s finished, no one can ever take that away from you.