Ellen Oh is a Korean American author, co-founder of the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books, and editor of the anthology Flying Lessons. Her newest project, You Are Here: Connecting Flights (Allida/HarperCollins, March 7), is a poignant set of stories that take place on the same summer night in the same terminal at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. Although every protagonist is East or Southeast Asian and 12 years old, that is where the similarities end: From an autistic Korean middle schooler to a Filipino basketball player to a biracial Chinese Jew, the characters represent members of the Asian American diaspora who are too rarely seen. The volume’s 12 talented Asian American contributors—including Erin Entrada Kelly, Grace Lin, Linda Sue Park, Randy Ribay, and Christina Soontornvat—have co-created a text that reads more like a novel than a set of short stories; in a starred review, Kirkus calls it “compelling and nuanced.” Over video chat, we asked Ellen about the inspiration, process, and politics that led to this fabulously inventive read. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What inspired this project?
It started with an email from an Asian American blogger who was justifiably upset that Flying Lessons left out an Asian American diaspora story. I’m Asian, and I missed this! I’ve been talking about putting together a set of Asian diaspora stories ever since.
You’re such a prolific writer. Why did you decide to tackle the topics in this book with a group of authors rather than through a novel of your own?
Given the rise of anti-Asian sentiment—it was November 2020, and we were in the thick of it—I wanted to reach out to a small group of authors for this collection. Honestly, though, anti-Asian hate and violence have always been there. It was just heightened during the pandemic. All my life I’ve heard, “Go back to China, go back to where you belong.” If I had a dollar for each time that I heard that, I’d be a millionaire!
Because of those past experiences I was very aware that this couldn't just be me and my story. It would be much more powerful with a larger cast of contributors. The first email I sent was to Linda Sue Park. I asked if she would be interested, and she was like, “YES, PLEASE!” Like shouting in all caps.
I don’t call it an anthology. I wanted this project to be interrelated stories where characters weave in and out of each other’s worlds. The storytelling was so fluid because everyone wasn’t only invested in their stories, but invested in everyone else’s stories, too. Everyone wrote their story with an eye for weaving in other characters.
That must’ve taken some serious collaboration. What was your process?
For the first couple of sessions, we talked over email. But as we added more and more authors, that started to become cumbersome. I think it was Randy [Ribay] who said, “You know, this could have been done over Zoom.” Then the hard part was trying to get 12 people to schedule a Zoom!
On those calls, we wanted to get deep into the details. But there was always at least one or two people missing, so I would take copious notes. In fact, I recorded our calls so I could go back and take a lot of notes. This ended up being helpful because I was able to capture a lot of the things you miss when you’re participating. I had a spreadsheet with information—what are the characters’ names? Who’s with them? What are they wearing?—so that we could track how people were using other people’s characters.
Also, there were moments where I would jump on calls with authors who had a story connection. I helped them work out the details and to see what I saw, because I was involved in all the stories. I have to tell you those calls were so much fun. It was like work and hanging out. It was the pandemic, so most hanging out was on Zoom anyway.
The book is so cinematic. If this ever went to the screen, who would you want in the cast?
We sold the book [to the publisher] on a few summaries [of potential stories], but the summaries were like a movie where there is an inciting event that ripples into everyone’s story. Then the final story captures all the other stories, like a grand finale. Kind of like the movie Crash: You’ve got all these storylines that don't seem connected, and then, all of sudden, you see how they connect. That’s what I was going for.
For my story, I would envision Lee Byung-hun, who’s in this K-drama called Our Blues. He’s also in Squid Games. He and Shin Min-a, who’s one of my favorite actors, have such great chemistry! They’re perfect for the roles of Sujin’s parents.
How has your work co-founding We Need Diverse Books shaped this and other projects?
Coming from the We Need Diverse Books movement, I’ve found that the kid-lit community is a wonderful place filled with people who care about our children. I’m not just talking authors and illustrators, I’m talking editors, marketers, booksellers, librarians, teachers, academics—from every level. It is a very nurturing, very caring community. And We Need Diverse Books is a part of that. We’ve helped so many creators, starting with our first grant winner, Angie Thomas, and going on to our most recent mentee, Amina Luqman-Dawson, who won the Newbery [for her book, Freewater]. I’m proud of that.
Right now, though, all our hard work is in danger because of the growing book-banning campaign targeting LGBTQ+ and BIPOC books. This movement is based on continuing to try to keep the narratives of marginalized communities out of the main narrative, on keeping us powerless by suppressing our stories. Because when you don’t have a voice, you don’t have power. It’s all about prejudice and bigotry.
There are two things going on. One, there are people out there going, “Oh, that’s terrible, but that's not what’s happening around me.” But it’s happening everywhere! Local politics have become a big deal, and we have to open our eyes. Two, there is this myth that banning books is good for publicity. But marginalized authors with banned books are not getting marketing or placement, which hurts book sales. And publishing is a business, so if books by marginalized authors don’t sell, they stop getting contracts. We need to rally people now before the harm becomes irrevocable.
Who do you hope finds this book, and why?
This book is for any kid who has ever felt like they didn’t belong. This is a book that says, We got you. We understand. We see you, and you’re not alone. I hope this book is on the shelves of every middle school library, especially the ones that are banning books. Because those are the places [where] kids are going to feel as if the world doesn’t want them. Every book I write, but particularly this one, is meant to tell them, instead, We will get through this. We’re going to find an answer, and we’ll do it together.
Mathangi Subramanian’s latest novel, A People’s History of Heaven, was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and was longlisted for the PEN/Faulkner Award.