Acclaimed Lesbian Author Malinda Lo’s Timely Breakthrough
March 1, 2022 Queer Forty
At a time when Asian Americans are facing an exponential rise in hate crimes and street violence and Asian-American women have been murdered in hate crimes in New York City and Atlanta, Malinda Lo’s work stands as a testament to addressing such animus in fiction and opening discourse on what it is to be an Asian immigrant in America.
Malinda Lo’s young adult novel, Last Night at the Telegraph Club, is a New York Times Bestseller. Lo’s book is also winner of the National Book Award, the Stonewall Book Award, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature and is a Michael L. Printz Honor Book. In addition, the novel was a finalist for three other prestigious awards and on the best books of 2021 lists of 16 different publications and organizations. The New York, Boston and Chicago Public Libraries all named Last Night at the Telegraph Club their best young adult/teen book of 2021.
When Queer Forty interviewed Lo by phone from her home in Boston, she was still coming off the excitement of winning the National Book Award. “At this point it has finally sunk in,” she said. “I am so honored to receive this award.” Lo said, “I was so anxious for like two weeks before the event. I couldn’t eat, I was really nauseous. I was really disappointed when the event was virtual because I really wanted to thank everyone who was involved in this book in person—my editor, my agent, my publisher.”
She continued, “So I heard it—my name—and I was here in my home in the room where I always write, where I am talking to you from now. I wrote the speech beforehand. And I was so glad I did because I got to say all the things I wanted to say and if I had been there in person it probably would have been really different and distracting.”
Lo said, “It wasn’t until later that it began to sink in. My social media wouldn’t stop.” For years Lo has been working at raising consciousness for diversity in books—particularly young adult books, working with We Need Diverse Books. She said, “I felt like that work [on diverse books] was seen by the judging committee [for the National Book Award].” She adds, “I want to express how incredibly stunned I was to win. It felt a little like winning the lottery.”
"Last Night at the Telegraph Club is set in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1954, during the height of the anti-Communist wave that swept the U.S. and Congress. Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy led Senate hearings from 1953 throughout 1954 on what he stated was Communist influence and infiltration. It is against this fraught backdrop that especially demonized homosexuals and immigrants that Lo’s novel is set."
As Lo’s publisher, Dutton Books for Young Readers, writes, “America in 1954 is not a safe place for two girls to fall in love, especially not in Chinatown. Red-Scare paranoia threatens everyone, including Chinese Americans like Lily. With deportation looming over her father—despite his hard-won citizenship—Lily and Kath risk everything to let their love see the light of day.”
Lo said, “This book was a lot of work for me. It was a very big challenge, because I didn’t know the 1950s and I had to do a lot of research.” And while she wanted to layer a significant amount of history of the period into the novel, Lo said it was imperative that she be “making a book that was accessible and readable. I didn’t want it to come off as a history lesson.”
It doesn’t. Last Night at the Telegraph Club is a classic page-turner to be read in one or two sittings. It is easy to imagine young readers staying up all night reading it, unable to put it down. The book’s protagonist, 17-year-old Lily Hu, is a “good Chinese girl.” She does what she’s told and never steps outside the lines defined by her family and the society around her.
But when Lily discovers an advertisement for Tommy Andrews, a male impersonator at the Telegraph Club, her life starts to veer off that narrow and proscribed course. With a classmate, Kathleen Miller, who shares Lily’s interest in aviation, they decide to sneak into the club. And that is when their feelings—Lily’s and Kath’s—become sudden and vivid. They are entranced by San Francisco’s 1950s lesbian scene and all it offers them. But Lily is still Chinese and it is still 1954. The risks are exponential, especially to her immigrant family. And the intensity of emotions and conflict Lily feels threatens everything she knows and loves.
Lo’s novel is a compelling Shakespearean drama of a secret romance. But it is also an exposition of Lily’s lived experiences with racism, anti-Communism and Lily’s life within a Chinese immigrant family struggling to assimilate while also maintaining their own cultural values and traditions. Lo herself was born in China, moving to the U.S. when she was only three. She graduated from Wellesley College and has two masters degrees, one from Harvard and another from Stanford. But it is her work as a writer and as a proponent of and activist for diverse writing that has defined her career. Now, Lo says, “The National Book Award has given me a sense that I want to write other things and be even more open to challenges. And now that I have won this award, I probably can do that.”
Lo also says that “being 47 has changed her perspective and made her think about her goals as a writer and also educating others about the ongoing need for diversity and representation in books and other popular culture, especially that geared toward young people. Lo herself was a member of the faculty of the Lambda Literary Foundation’s 2013 Writer Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices and she was deeply involved in the We Need Diverse Books movement. Lo said it’s imperative that we highlight the “people of color who have been forgotten over the years.”
As an Asian-American lesbian, Lo has real concerns not just about representation in social milieu, but about the escalating violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI). There was a 339% increase in anti-Asian hate crime in 2021.
Lo said the recent spate of attacks on Asians have been very disturbing and unsettling. “A woman [Michelle Alyssa Go] was pushed in front of a train in New York City,” she says of the January 15 murder. Another Asian woman, Christina Yuna Lee, was followed home and stabbed to death in her apartment on February 15. Lo said, “There’s a pervasive sense of hate—it’s just there.” She added—and this is reflected in much of the reportage of these two killings as well as other assaults on Asians—that media says “‘There’s no proof’ that these crimes are racially motivated attacks. Well, racism is the proof. You either believe in racism or you don’t. You either believe what people of color tell you about racism or you don’t.”
She adds, “There’s a lot of gaslighting of people of color about racism.”
Lo says that this is again why diversity in literature is so critical. “Read books about people who inhabit these identities to get a sense of what it’s like for them,” she explains. Lo said, “There’s more visibility of Asians in books, but not in TV or movies. Hollywood hasn’t given much thought to who’s in the background.” Lo points to the confounding and inexplicable fact that “shows set in San Francisco have no Asians in the background” and that this is reflective of not having diversity in the upper management where such glaring lapses would be noticed by other Asians. “Hollywood is so much slower to change, unfortunately.”
But Lo is very pleased by the election of progressive Democrat Michelle Wu as Boston’s first woman mayor and first person of color mayor. She said it is a truly exciting moment for Asian Americans and for the city itself. She says Wu has always been an ally to the queer community, turning up at queer Asian events and that “made such a big impression on me. She’s such an impressive person.”
Lo lives in Massachusetts with her wife, Amy Lovell, an attorney, with whom she’s been partnered for over 15 years. She said, “First we had a domestic partnership in 2007. Then we missed the year marriage was possible in California by a year. Then we had a commitment ceremony here. Then we got married!”
As for her advice to writers, Lo says, “I like to tell people who are writing: Don’t give up. A lot of people think they could write a book and they probably could if they don’t give up. You don’t have to be 21. You can write your experience at any age.”
Lo’s seventh young adult novel, A Scatter of Light, is due out in late October. You can read more about her work on her website and subscribe to her newsletter at malindalo.com.
For more information on anti-Asian hate crimes: https://www.aapihatecrimes.org/facts.