Crystal Chan shares experiences at alma mater

By Anh Ta

Last Friday, April 24, Lawrentians welcomed back one of their own: Crystal Chan ‘02 visited and held a meet-and-greet in the Milwaukee-Downer Room in the Seeley G. Mudd Library. With her 2014 debut middle-grade novel “Bird,” Chan is one of the Fox Cities Book Festival’s featured authors. Coming back to Lawrence, Chan shared the story of her passion and inspiration to write.

After realizing the dream job that she had found might not be something she wanted to do for the rest of her life, Chan rediscovered her love of writing at 24. Talking about her “very healthy quarter-life crisis,” Chan reflected on the first time she realized how much she wanted to write.

“I asked myself: ‘If there is one risk I can take with my life right now, what can that be?’” said Chan. “There was a little voice in my head that said, ‘I want to write.’ I had been writing my whole life, journaling or even writing in secret as I [knew] it was against my father’s wishes […] But I knew when this little voice [came] out, I knew that if I did not follow this voice, I would always be looking for something […] So I gave myself permission to write.”

Ever since, Chan has been working hard to balance her two professions: event planner by day, and writer by night and during the weekend. Beside her full-time 40-hour-per-week day job, she puts in about 20 hours of writing per week. When asked about what motivates her to keep going, Chan put it simply, “It’s the story. If I’m not in love with the story, I’m not going to write it.”

“At the beginning, up until the halfway point […] I don’t know what is going to happen next; I don’t know how it’s going to end, or what kinds of problems the characters are going to have,” said Chan. “And then, at a certain point, I will have to plot out the ending and have some structure to it. So what keeps me going is that I don’t know what’s going to happen next and I’ll have to write it.”

Chan finds writing to be her self-exploration tool: her background, identity and community. Chan gets to explore her own stories through trying to write answers to necessary, but unanswered, questions. “The moment I gave myself permission to write, all of these words started to come out,” Chan reminisced. “All of these pent-up stories of who I want to be or what I am started to come out […] I finally allowed myself to be me.”

However, Chan’s personal identity allows her to go beyond that. As a racially mixed, half-Chinese-half-Caucasian-born author, one of her main concerns is to make the voices and stories of minorities known, heard and accurately represented. By giving talks about her own story and her personal reflections, as well as through her works, Chan hopes to increase awareness of these stories and of the necessities of getting them into the mainstream discussions. During the Fox Cities Book Festival from April 20 to 26, Chan gave a public lecture at the Appleton Public Library, reflecting on her mixed race roots titled “Beyond Being ‘Unique’: a Mixed-Race Author in a Monoracial World.”

As a writer, Chan feels alarmed by the presence of racism that still persists in the publishing industry. Besides giving talks and starting discussions on this issue, she also feels a personal responsibility to correctly represent these lesser-known narratives. She also encourages writers of minority races to get their stories out there. Sharing about the research process prior to writing her new novel “Bird,” Chan believes that a great amount of knowledge, understanding, compassion and humility needs to go into writing these stories.

“Because Jewel, the protagonist, is Jamaican, Mexican and white, and that is not my mix, I had to do research on this culture to make sure I was not exoticizing Jamaican culture or Mexican culture,” said Chan. “It is my duty […] There has to be a lot of research and humility […] I believe you need people from the cultures that you are talking about to read your work and give you honest criticism.”

“I think part of it is putting books out there that reflect other people’s experience,” said Chan. “Because the more readers see themselves, the more the white readers see the stories of people who are not of their culture, this feeling of compassion and understanding will develop […] White readers love “Bird.” They say ‘I never knew that mixed-race people have these issues, or that these problems exist.’ And for people of the minority who are mixed-race, they say ‘Thank you for writing a book reflecting my experience’ […] I am happy to put something out there that starts the conversation.”