Bookmarked: Addie Tsai


Bookmarked is a  column in which writers give us their "shadow bibliographies" essentially, the books behind their books. Which books influenced their writing, and how?  Today's writer is Addie Tsai, whose book Dear Twin is forthcoming.


In November of 2012, I learned that a press I deeply admired, run by a writer whose memoir had absolutely gutted me, had decided to publish my memoir (and debut), What Came Between Them. It was the most difficult writing project I had ever embarked on, one that aired my family’s secrets as well as my own. In July of 2013, I learned that, for a number of reasons, this publication would not come to fruition. I had undergone a great deal personally for this book to come to life—my identical twin sister had paid for and registered three domain names associated with my work and identity (two including my name and one including the first title of the memoir) in order to, I assume, silence what I might say about her life as it inevitably intersected with my story (although she’s never acknowledged the intentions behind her actions), and there were other people in my life who would have their feelings twisted around what they imagine I said in those pages, and the bodies that would inevitably read those pages. Naturally, I was devastated by the stillbirth of the child I had toiled and suffered and bled and sweat to bring into the world. But, now that I had the opportunity to decide what to do with these stories that would not be, at least in the form I first imagined for them, I sat down to ponder where it was I wanted these stories to go, and whose hands I imagined would hold them.


In the time between the writing of the memoir and the halting of its moving forward with book publication, I had become infatuated and intrigued by the young adult novel as a way to connect with readers. My memoir was about childhood trauma, twinning, narcissism, and the fragile boundaries of innocence and sexual awakening. It made a certain sense to me that the young adult novel, especially in its current, quick-paced evolution, would be the appropriate body for this memoir to inhabit—it was also a safe form, one without the same naked, vulnerable consequence of the exposed memoir. And, when I really sat down to think about who it was I wanted to read this story, those bodies primarily took the shape of 18-22 year olds—readers mature and sophisticated enough to grasp the complexities and consequences of the events that frame the original memoir, but in that unique phase of life to, perhaps, meditate upon their own porous identities and selfhoods.


As ever, a writer needs to see a gap in the genre in which they seek to enter it, a territory yet to be charted. At the time that the memoir would ultimately be re-shaped and re-envisioned as a young adult novel, I read voraciously the popular young adult novels of the time, focusing specifically on what was called “realistic” young adult fiction. What that meant is that the explicitly young adult novels that influenced Dear Twin did so both for elements I particularly admired but also just as much for novels whose writing I felt was largely white-centered, heteronormative, gendered, or whose writers I felt purposefully elevated the rhetoric of the young voice, based, it seemed to me, out of the need to appear overtly eloquent themselves.


A very particular gripe I had with many of the young adult novels I read at the time that I was writing Dear Twin had to do with the trope of the twin character. Almost never did I find a twin the center of a young adult novel, and very often did I find twins to be an easy way to create siblings as secondary characters, but who seldom embodied three-dimensional personalities. I found this to be case with adult novels and nonfiction texts I read at the time as well, and this only spurred me on further, in order to provide twin (and non-twin) readers with a twin-centered text that could speak to the difficulties of being born doubled. Another gripe that grew as I read deeply into the genre had to do with the depiction of young female protagonists. Even when they were deeply complex and nuanced as characters, there seemed to be always something about these characters that was beyond the joys of the world, as though one was either a privileged princess or a cynical Daria figure. This felt at odds with my own experience as a young adult, even having had a particularly difficult and trying childhood. And so I wanted to portray a young adult female who was certainly struggling with what it meant to be in that particularly complicated stage of life, but also still moved by the world and what glittering moments it still had to offer.


Finally, I wrote Dear Twin as a crossover, hybrid text that reflected the young adult market as well as its possibilities for being a text that would be read by adult readers—perhaps readers that could connect with their own past selves. Having come from the era of Judy Blume, where young adult fiction taught me, quite literally, how to be in the world, especially as a child of an abandoning mother who often taught you the things of adult she-hood, I wanted to see if there wasn’t some way to write a young adult novel of its current formation but with readers in mind who may not have had a normative parent or guardian to teach you the things one sees being taught by the mothers of the archetypal stories. In other words, I wrote into where the genre had been, where it was in the present moment, and where it might travel in the future.



Hilton Als, White Girls by way of Brenda Shaughnessy, Our Andromeda.


On Facebook, Brenda Shaughnessy,[1] a poet whose work I deeply admired and whose work I taught for my graduating lecture in partial fulfillment for the Master of Fine Arts in Poetry at Warren Wilson in 2005, posted an image of her book cover for Our Andromeda. The artwork featured an image of various ghostly, silhouetted human figures layered on one another, some taller, some shorter, that resembled paper dolls. I had always imagined that a cover for a book I might eventually publish would include paper dolls, as I had always connected to them as an identical twin. In her response, she suggested that I read Hilton Als’ White Girls, for how it dealt with twinning.


As a twin, I am always hypersensitive to the twin as metaphor, as commodity, particularly when the text is written by that which I call a singleton, or untwinned. When I read the opening section to White Girls, I was prepared for a familiar reduction of twinhood. However, no alarms rang; my eyes didn’t smart at becoming spectacle for literary inventiveness once again. Als begins the comparison of himself and his lover as twins with the statement Metaphors sustain us. I appreciated his pointedness of employing the twin as a metaphor to understand the doubling he witnessed and embodied in his own life he now recounted for the reader, an acknowledgement that, in this particular case, twins were being used to make sense of his life, not as a trendy trope to gain readership.


For some time we were known as an “Oh, you two!” I felt SL was my corny and ancient “other half.” Nearly from the first I wanted to “grow into one” with him, as Aristophanes sort of has it in Plato’s Symposium. We are not lovers. It’s almost as if I dreamed him—my lovely twin, the same as me, only different. I cling to that story in The Symposium, of the two halves coming together in “an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and one will not be out of the other’s sight,” because that’s all I wanted to know.  (Hilton Als)


What redeemed it, from this very solipsistic lens of twinning I inevitably read these lines, was this one—my lovely twin, the same as me, only different—that I clung to, the idea twins were not the same, not shadow selves, that even a singleton gave props to. Take it a step further and what it made clearer to me was the need for twins writing twins into bodies, rather than only bodies being written into twins.



Like dancers, none of us gets over the figure we see in the practice mirror, ourselves. Choosing your twin gives you that reflection forever—or as long as it lasts.



When I first read White Girls, I wished I’d written it. I said to others it writes twins better than I could, that there’s no point in writing twins now that he’d written twins into language in ways I never could. I wondered to myself: must one be un-twinned in order to perform twinning on the page? At the same time I felt inferior holding Als’ printed text in my hand with the knowledge that at the same moment it was being held and read in others’ hands; at the same time I felt, quite pointedly, this text marking its claim on a territory I felt he possessed better than I could, I wondered what it meant to be him, a singleton twinning the page. When I read the words Choosing your twin, for example, the alarm signaled itself beneath the skin, the burning behind my eyes too familiar to discount. That’s the whole thing about twins, I argued with him silently inside of my one self, undoubtedly doubled. The whole inevitable fact about twins is that there is no choosing. I also thought about the safety he was able to rely on in the publication of this twinned book (although, to be truthful, was merely an opening section on twins), and that at any moment, my twin could publish her own twinned book, which is, in fact, something she plans to do. There is a safety Als (or anyone) has in his own singularity of voice, body, face, likeness. The sameness he finds with his SL is a sameness he has the privilege to choose, because any lovers that find themselves twinned can choose at any moment, to untwin. Just like that. A twin made by birth—not so much.


Little Miss Twins, Roger Hargreaves

Freaky Friday, Mary Rodgers

Sweet Valley High, Francine Pascal

Lottie and Lisa, Erich Kästner

Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll


Resting next to me on my desk is a copy of Little Miss Twins, included in the Little Miss series created by Roger Hargreaves in 1981 and continued by his son Adam after his death in 1988. Little Miss Twins was written in the second round of books for the series in 1984. The tiny sliver of a children’s book keeping me company as I write is not the edition my father must have bought for my twin and me when we were young but the book is one I remember so vividly and with fondness at reading a children’s book that resembled us that I purchased it while writing Dear Twin, as part of a continuous search of twin artifacts.


I was only five when the book was first published, and it’s one of a series I remember more vividly than any other from that time of my early life. I remember the double boiled eggs that Little Miss Twin and her twin, also named Little Miss Twin, ate for breakfast each morning in their identical eggcups. I remember how the two of us fell backwards in a cascade of identical giggles when we read how the residents of Twoland spoke by repeating the last word of every sentence.


cartoon eggs


Perhaps the reading of Little Miss Twins was the moment I was first made aware of the twin as commodity. Exactly how many occurrences of a minority or a marginalized person made mythic does it take to question the kind of token representation being birthed?


Miranda July, The First Bad Man


I should be clear. The writer of this book is one whose work I have adored for many years. I really want to get inside the brain of a writer who decides to use the twin as commodity. I want to be there the moment they decide the twin is the only way to make the background less background but not foreground enough to bare weight. There has been the occasional writer who comes to me and says I LOVE twins, or I’m working on a book and I already know there will be twin characters. But I haven’t been there the moment they cross an aesthetic or narrative bridge that can only be constructed through the inclusion of twins. The twins may last a paragraph, maybe more. But, most of the time, it’s a sparkle in the sky as you whiz past on a day trip. It never lasts long.


A dog barked silently; a young mom in a sun hat put sunblock on the silently wailing faces of two toddlers. They grew still as I slowly rolled by. Twins. I’d never seen them before. Except I had.


            Where are you going? they asked in unison.

            Up the block, I guess.

            But you’ll be back for us.

            I’ll be back, but not today.

            They were crestfallen, both of them.


John Corey Whaley, Where Things Come Back


Little did I know that the young adult novels I read for “fun” would become a precursor to the book I would, initially, rapid-fire write over the course of a week during Spring Break, and that Corey Whaley’s Where Things Come Back would be one of the most formative books from that exciting and spontaneous consequence. Having started with Stephanie Meyer’s The Twilight saga and John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, Whaley’s book, in contrast, taught me that I could write the real world of teenage-life into fiction; but further, he taught me it was possible to not only write a young adult novel framed and contextualized by the dangers and traumas that do, indeed, define a young adult’s life, as they had mine, but that one could publish a young adult novel targeted to a mainstream readership of hybridized ambitions. What frustrated me most about Twilight and Fault, although I certainly recognized the merits behind their immense accolades, was how adult they felt, in behavior and language. Green in particular drove me nuts, even though I, too, fell for some of the most quotable moments. In these books, I searched in vain for the insecurities, the anxiety-ridden, the imperfection that was part and parcel to my memory of being a young person. What a relief to encounter a text that wrote into being the hopeful and the tragic, young bodies struggling, failing, and rising beyond the conflicts that befell them.


We’ve learned from this that death can hurt us. It can surprise us. It can scare us. It can keep us up at night. But we’ve also learned the things that death cannot do. It cannot crush our hopes. It cannot take away the love and support of our family and friends. It cannot make us lose our unending faith in world and in God. It has saddened us, but it will not prevail.


I wanted the world to sit back, listen up, and let me explain to it that when someone is sad and hopeless, the last thing they need to feel is that they are the only ones in the world with that feeling. So, if you feel sorry for someone, don’t pretend to be happy. Don’t pretend to care only about their problems.


When one is sitting in his bedroom and, happening to glance out the window, sees his little brother walking slowly down the driveway, he immediately jumps up, knocks over a stack of magazines piled up beside him, and runs through the doorway and down the hall. He throws open the front door, slams his body, against the screen, and hearing the tap tap tap behind him, jumps over the porch steps and down to the driveway. He stands several yards in front of his brother. He considers running, but doesn't. His arms and legs are shaking. His bottom lip between his teeth, he walks slowly and carefully, making not a sound. He stops, reaches one arm out, and pokes Gabriel Witter on the left shoulder with his index finger. He smiles the slightest of smiles. Book Title #89: Where Things Come Back.


Alexander Chee, Edinburgh


When I first wrote Dear Twin, it was a different time and a different world and I understood differently my place in that world with this book. Poppy, the main character of Dear Twin, a half-Japanese, half-white twin who was trying to reconcile with her twin was in love with a boy, a white boy from a privileged upbringing. And although I envisioned him as a genderfluid, complex boy who captured Poppy’s heart, a new friend and a writer whose work enraptured me, saw him as a white savior. In the new context that this book would inevitably live, where the lives and civil liberties of people of color and queer people were being threatened and jeopardized seemingly every minute of every day of the explicitly divisive world made so by the Trump Administration (something not true when I’d completed the first draft of the novel), this was the last thing I wanted a reader to come away with. Poppy was constructed out of the life I lived as a biracial queer survivor of childhood abuse and as a witness to the abuses that had befallen my identical twin in ways that I did not directly experience.


Last summer, shortly after the critique I received regarding a potential problematic reading of the white male character in an earlier draft of Dear Twin, I spent a week in New York City with a friend. Based on his recommendation, knowing how my childhood of witness had remarkable similarities with those described in Chee’s Edinburgh, I picked up a copy at McNally Jackson’s while my friend was at work, not far from his apartment where I was staying for the week. If there is any book that Dear Twin is in conversation with, it is Edinburgh. Not only is it one of the few texts I have read that explores half-Asianness, but it is one that similarly addresses what it means to be a witness to the abuses that can occur for young bodies. I probably read ten pages of Edinburgh before I made a decision to queer Poppy’s body as my own body, which informed Poppy’s character (but decidedly fictionalized, to be certain), negotiated these troubling experiences as a young, queer, biracial teenager. At times, it was a book I wanted to tear my eyes from, so much did they burn from recognition and reflection. As I viewed Edinburgh as an adult novel partially focused on young characters, rather than a novel targeting young adult readers, Edinburgh also taught me how to sit within two genres, just as I, too, had to sit uncomfortably between my Asian and white skin, my marginalized and privileged containers of identity. Alexander Chee taught me that a book that acted as a mirror could make one feel less alone, in much the way I hope Dear Twin can. Sometimes, I learned, a mirror can be productive, unlike the erasing I had heretofore experienced from the cost of twinning.


In the middle of that week in the city, I recast Poppy, queering her young body in ways that I wouldn’t understand of my own until I was long an adult, and finished the draft in a friend of a friend’s house in Vermont, my last makeshift retreat that summer. I submitted the draft to an indie queer publisher in the first days of returning home, and a month later, I would learn that Dear Twin had finally been accepted to publication. Dear Twin had found its fully realized self by the end of that summer, refined by the texts it worked against, as well as those that had inspired it challenge its notions of becoming and making beyond its humble beginnings. Ultimately, I would be forced to part ways with that publisher, but I would always remember the first one that accepted Poppy and her love Juniper into their home.


For instance, you always tell yourself something isn’t what you think it is because you are trying to scare yourself off what you know is true.



There is light suddenly everywhere, the light of your life speaking to you. What it tells you is almost the same as what happened.

Nevermind that almost isn’t good enough; it’s all you have.



Hate is love on fire, set out to burn like a flare on the side of the road. It says, stop here. Something terrible has happened. Envy is like, the skin you're in burns. And the salve is someone else's skin.



The other children frighten me a little. I can’t speak Korean, my father’s decision, and so I can’t understand them much of the time. How you like funny-funny, round-eyes, they ask me and my brother and sister, whenever they play a joke on me.



Almost all of these boys are blond. Which is to say, I am the one who isn’t.



Are you Chinese? another boy asks.

No, I say. Korean. Half. Saying it always makes me feel split down the middle. Like a cow diagrammed for her sides of beef.



After dinner, I take my sketchpad down to the edge of the water, where I can look at the late-summer sun still afternoon-bright at six-thirty in the evening. I draw two eyes there on the page. I can never decide easily whether to draw the eyes as white eyes or Asian ones. My eyes are white eyes, though slanted slightly, but with the white-boy eyelids. The irises have green centers and brown edges. Split through the middles.



[1] True story: I first spoke with Shaughnessy on the phone due to an interview I read of hers in Jubilat the semester before I graduated. In the interview, she mentioned having a profile on Friendster, which I promptly used to contact her, hoping she would speak to me personally about how she envisioned the image operating in her work (in the lecture I would give during my graduating residency at Warren Wilson, I argued that three prominent half-Asian poets—Quan Barry, Meimei Berssenbrugge, and Brenda Shaughnessy—all employed a hybrid technique of imagery as hailing from both Western and Eastern image traditions.


Addie Tsai teaches courses in literature, creative writing, and humanities at Houston Community College. She collaborated with Dominic Walsh Dance Theater on Victor Frankenstein and Camille Claudel, among others. Addie received her MFA from Warren Wilson College, and she has a PhD in Dance from Texas Woman’s University. Her queer Asian young adult novel, Dear Twin, was a finalist with The Feminist Press’s Louise Meriwether’s First Book Prize. Her memoir manuscript, and in its place—An Ode to Frankenstein, was also a finalist with The Feminist Press’s Louise Meriwether’s First Book Prize, as well as Pleiades Press’s The Robert C. Jones Short Prose Book Contest, 1913 Press’s Open Prose Book Prize, and The Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s Essay Collection Competition. Her writing has been published in Banango Street, The Offing, The Collagist, The Feminist Wire, Unmargin, and elsewhere. Her work is forthcoming in Nat. Brut. and the anthology Of Color: Poets’ Ways of Making ~ An Anthology of Essays on Transformative Poetics. She is the Nonfiction Editor at The Grief Diaries, Senior Associate Editor in Poetry at The Flexible Persona, and Fiction Reader for Anomaly.