October 18, 2017

The Writing Life

Two alumnae authors share their experiences at Andover and beyond
by Allyson Irish

It’s been 35 years since Stephanie Han ’82 and Paula Young Lee ’82 were in the same poetry writing class together in Bulfinch. Since that time, these alumnae have gone their separate, albeit similar, paths. Though neither was able to attend Reunion in June, Andover magazine recently spoke to them about their time on the Hill, their thoughts on attending Andover as minority students, and the process of writing.

Looking back at your Andover years, do you have any classes or teachers that you specifically remember? How did they influence you?

Steph: I enjoyed the classes I took with the English department, but Mr. Hammond’s math class had the most lasting impact on me. Junior year, I nearly failed. Over fall break, I ended up going home and doing the entire math book with my dad and subsequently ended up doing well winter and spring. My dad told me if I wrote down the quadratic formula 27 times, I would remember it the rest of my life. I still know it by heart. Paula: I suck at math. (Can I say that?!) I studied my butt off in calculus and physics and still barely passed. I do not remember a single formula or equation. 

[footnote]

“Is that a turkey in the background?” you wonder. Why yes, it is—the famous Harvard Turkey, according to Paula Lee ’82. “The turkey has become social media famous because he hangs out by Harvard," says Lee. "I thought it was funny because he popped up right when I was taking this photo.” Check out The Harvard Turkey Facebook page for more info!

Paula Lee '82
Did you participate in any literary activities at Andover (The Phillipian, The Mirror, etc…)? 

Paula: None, because I spent my free time trying to pass math and science classes. Steph: I felt intimidated. The people who wrote seemed very cool. I was not cool.

You were in the same poetry class with Mr. Lopes your senior year. Do you have any highlights or memories?

Steph: I wrote a poem, “Barbie Wish,” about rejecting white beauty standards. When Mr. Lopes read it out loud in class, I thought I was going to die of embarrassment. I remember thinking that I hoped that everyone thought Paula wrote it.

Paula: What? That’s hilarious. It would never have occurred to me to write a poem like that. I used my Barbie doll as a weapon in fights with my brother. 

I’m interested in the absurd.

Paula Young Lee ’82

Do you have a favorite book or author that you read during your Andover years?

Paula: The Circus of Dr. Lao. Dr. Germain put it on the syllabus, and it remains my favorite book of all time. Turns out that many writers revere this underground classic. It is unclassifiable, hilarious, insightful, and weird. I will die happy if I can ever come close to that level of originality. I was also very impressed by the satire of Jonathan Swift.

Steph: I read Richard Wright during class. This was important, it was a turning point to read a writer of color. I read a lot outside of class. I loved Mr. Regan presenting The Odyssey, although I wept in my dorm room the day we were assigned to read 12 lines because I couldn’t understand any of it. I always loved to read, but I never got a 6 in English (or any subject). I got 4s and 5s in English, and in lower year, 3s and 2s.

Stephanie Han ’82
You are both Korean American women writers from the same class. This makes for a unique cohort at Andover in the early 80s. Have you thought about this at all?

Steph: I think that there were quite a few creative Asian American students when we were there. It’s simply that people did not, and still do not, perceive of Asian Americans as being interested in the arts and humanities. I could not conceive of my own existence, frankly, as there weren’t any role models. But this was 35 years ago.

Paula: I’m oblivious to social dynamics, at least as far as snubs are concerned, because I’m always focused on making stuff and trying to finish one thing or another and can’t be bothered with popularity contests. So being a minority at Andover wasn’t stressful in and of itself. I wanted to be a painter, and ended up going to art school. Turned out I’m color-blind and allergic to paints, so...

What are some of the logistical issues that you face as a writer in terms of finding time to write? Is there a particular routine or set-up that you have in terms of a place, room, or writing process?

Steph: I live in Hawaii, so people think I frolic on the beach, dashing back to pen my thoughts in a flowing white caftan. The reality is I live across from Waikiki’s most famous dive bar and have to contend with the usual interruptions: job, spouse, kid, guinea pig. So, I’m not really doing the Robert Louis Stevenson thing, holding court on the beach with Hawaiian royalty.

Paula: I’m Balzac in a bathrobe, hibernating with endless cups of black coffee until I finally resurface for ice cream. The tempo of the writing life is very thick-thin. After this current project is done, I will have to buy a new couch, since my spot is worn thin in the shape of my butt.

What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about writers?

Paula: Well, I think there are two: 1) that we’re all getting humongous book deals with Happy Meal tie-ins; and 2) that we pretend to be writing on our laptops when we’re actually posting cat memes on social media. The reality is much more prosaic. It’s basically writing as fast as you can while someone is yelling at you to write faster.

If you were teaching at Andover, what would be some of the books that you would assign?

Steph: I taught prep at the Harvard-Westlake School and Island Pacific Academy. I like to mix “greatest hits” (Bard, the Brontes, Wilde, etc.…) with various genres and contemporary work. I would assign The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh on the list, Gish Jen’s Mona in the Promised Land, and Reginald Dwayne Bett’s memoir, A Question of Freedom. I’ve taught Timothy Mo, Leslie Marmon Silko, Shonda Buchanan, Renee Simms—all kinds of writers. It’s about how the book is framed and teaching critical thinking.

Paula: I would probably teach something about changing ideas of the almost-human: animals, cyborgs, aliens. So, novels such as We Love You, Charlie FreemanAnimal FarmThe Metamorphosis; Ovid; selected works by Camus; Houellebecq; Ishiguro... The selection here is vast, lively, and urgent.

I felt intimidated. The people who wrote seemed very cool. I was not cool.

Stephanie Han ’82

What are you reading now?

Stephanie: I am reading In the Eye of the Sun, by Ahdaf Soueif. I have meant to read it for 15 years. I am perusing a book of contemporary Chinese poetry in translation: Zero Distance. I’m re-reading A Wrinkle in Time with my child. I have no systematic approach to reading. I’ll see a book for sale for $1 in the library and read that. Feel free to send me ideas about what to read.

Paula: That is a Barbara Walter’s question. There are books you’re supposed to say you are reading, and then there are the books that you’re actually reading. It’s the 50 Shades of Grey problem. I know many women who have read it, but almost none who will admit it. So what does it mean to identify the books you are reading? I mostly hate being bored, though there are times when predictability has its pleasures. I’m staring at a copy of Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. I picked it up after watching the Korean film, The Handmaiden, which is based on the book. The film is not to be confused with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which I re-read along with the rest of the country. Also on my coffee table: a giant pile of academic WWII studies for a historical novel I’m researching.

What’s your next writing project?

Steph: We (Paula and I) just finished cowriting a book about a fictitious (ahem) prep school set in the 1980s. A nostalgia trip, but also a fun and funny read.

Paula: This explains why my spot on the sofa is flattened from so much sitting and writing in that bathrobe.

How do you choose your subject matter?

Steph: I write about something because I am trying to work out in my mind a reason for X or Y. I write to both ask and answer questions. If I could think of something else to do other than to write, I would do it. Writing is a way of life. It is not a choice, and neither is one’s subject matter.

Paula: I’m interested in the absurd.

Stephanie Han ’82’s collection Swimming in Hong Kong won the Paterson Fiction prize, and was the sole finalist for the AWP Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction and the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction. Her fiction and poetry have won recognition and fellowships from Nimrod International Literary Journal of Prose and Poetry, Santa Fe Writer’s Project, the South China Morning Post, Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, VONA, and PEN West. Han is City University of Hong Kong’s first PhD graduate in English literature.

Paula Lee ’82 is a historian and writer. Her historical research on the architecture of animal captivity has been supported by fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, and numerous other awards. Her memoir, Deer Hunting in Paris, won a 2014 Lowell Thomas Travel Book Award of the Society of American Travel Writers.

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