Interview with Sarah Kuhn – author of From Little Tokyo, With Love

Today’s post features Co-Host Shenwei’s interview with author Sarah Kuhn. Her newest YA novel, From Little Tokyo, With Love recently released on May 11th!

About From Little Tokyo, With Love

Celebrated author Sarah Kuhn reinvents the modern fairy tale in this intensely personal yet hilarious novel of a girl whose search for a storybook ending takes her to unexpected places in both her beloved LA neighborhood and her own guarded heart.

If Rika’s life seems like the beginning of a familiar fairy tale—being an orphan with two bossy cousins and working away in her aunts’ business—she would be the first to reject that foolish notion. After all, she loves her family (even if her cousins were named after Disney characters), and with her biracial background, amazing judo skills and red-hot temper, she doesn’t quite fit the princess mold.

All that changes the instant she locks eyes with Grace Kimura, America’s reigning rom-com sweetheart, during the Nikkei Week Festival. From there, Rika embarks on a madcap adventure of hope and happiness—searching for clues that Grace is her long-lost mother, exploring Little Tokyo’s hidden treasures with cute actor Hank Chen, and maybe . . . finally finding a sense of belonging.

But fairy tales are fiction and the real world isn’t so kind. Rika knows she’s setting herself up for disappointment, because happy endings don’t happen to girls like her. Should she walk away before she gets in even deeper, or let herself be swept away?

About the Author:

Sarah Kuhn is the author of the popular Heroine Complex novels–a series starring Asian American superheroines. The first book is a Locus bestseller, an RT Reviewers’ Choice Award nominee, and one of the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog’s Best Books of 2016. Her YA debut, the Japan-set romantic comedy I Love You So Mochi, is a Junior Library Guild selection and a nominee for YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults. She has also penned a variety of short fiction and comics, including the critically acclaimed graphic novel Shadow of the Batgirl for DC Comics and the Star Wars audiobook original Doctor Aphra. Additionally, she was a finalist for both the CAPE (Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment) New Writers Award and the Astounding Award for Best New Writer. Her newest novel, From Little Tokyo, With Love—a modern fairy tale with a half-Japanese heroine—is a Junior Library Guild selection and was recently chosen as Penguin Random House’s One World, One Book title of the year. A third generation Japanese American, she lives in Los Angeles with her husband and an overflowing closet of vintage treasures.
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Q: I love how the chapters start out with little fairy tale snippets. What is the magic of fairy tales to you?

A: I love the epic, larger than life quality of a fairy tale—these stories that have been around for centuries and have gone through so many different versions, retellings, and twists. I mean, when you hear the words “once upon a time…”, don’t you just sit up a little straighter? You know you’re in for something good! I think one of the themes of a lot of my work is putting modern Asian American characters in truly epic settings, and I certainly wanted to do that here—to give that modern Asian American girl her own very grouchy version of Cinderella.

Q: Rika thinks of her anger as a fatal flaw of hers, but anger isn’t inherently negative, especially when it’s in response to injustice. What do you hope young readers will take away from this story as far as anger is concerned?

A: Pretty much exactly that, you said it perfectly! In a way, I think I was telling myself that, too. I’ve always had a temper like Rika’s, where it feels like an actual monster that’s about to consume you. I thought the only way to not let it consume me was to shove it down, try to get rid of it, and yes, mark it as something inherently bad. But I slowly realized how much anger can empower you, and what a necessary emotion it is—how sometimes it is simply a correct response to injustice or being treated badly, how it can protect you, and how we need to make space for that. Both Rika and I had to learn how to embrace our anger and allow it to power us forward.

Q: I thought it was fun that Rika aspired to be like the nure-onna from Japanese folklore. What creatures or beings would Henry and Rika’s family be?

A: Ha! You know, the problem with this is many of these creatures end up doing really terrible things to humans! Like I was thinking that maybe Rory, Rika’s blazingly smart 12-year-old cousin, would be an itachi—a little trickster that looks like a cute weasel. But itachi also bring bad omens and start fires that level entire cities. So.

Q: The fictionalized version of Little Tokyo is central to the story and treated with a lot of love. What are some of your favorite spots in the real Little Tokyo to visit?

A: Too many to name! Many of the spots Rika visits are favorites. I adore Bunkado, which is the most amazing and eclectic gift shop and has been around for 75 years—that was where I imagined Rika finding her nure-onna t-shirt, because that is exactly the kind of cool thing you would find in that shop. And like many of the businesses in Little Tokyo, it has that lovely family vibe. I love walking through the Japanese Village Plaza, which has those beautiful lanterns strung through the air and feels like a little hub of constant activity. And of course there is so much amazing food—many of the restaurants in the area started doing these cool to-go meal specials during the pandemic. Like JiSt Café brought back their classic Tokyo Garden Special—a combination featuring chashu and shumai, such glorious comfort food. And Azay did a delicious fried chicken bucket for the holidays—I still have dreams about it, to be honest.

Q: I know you started out writing adult urban fantasy-romance before publishing any YA, and I can definitely see how the influences from the adult romance genre shines through in your YA work. Were there any challenges you faced while adapting to this new target audience?

A: To be honest, I don’t really think of my audiences as different. Many of the same readers cross over—the Heroine Complex series has a lot of teenage fans, for example, and I think my writer voice carries across all my work. I suppose one thing I do think about is if the characters sound authentic to where they are in life—like with I Love You So Mochi, I had to put myself in the headspace of what it would have been like to visit Japan for the first time as a 17-year-old rather than as an adult. When I talked to Actual Teenagers who had just visited Japan, a lot of what they picked up on seemed to involve situations that were potentially embarrassing—like, what if I try to crawl through Buddha’s Nostril, a little hole in this big wooden pillar inside of a beautiful temple…and I get stuck and then someone takes a video and it goes viral and suddenly I have destroyed an important landmark and totally embarrassed my mom. That kind of thing helped me get in the right headspace. Although, to be honest, I’d probably worry about getting stuck in Buddha’s Nostril as an adult, too.

Q: Rika is terrified of being vulnerable with others because of her history. As authors and writers, we tend to bring our vulnerability with us when we write, especially when our stories center the communities and identities we claim. How do you overcome that fear of not being “enough”?

A: Um, wow! Anyone who knows the answer to this, please DM me. But seriously, you are absolutely right that this is part of it—I always feel intensely vulnerable putting stories like this on the page. With Little Tokyo, I felt this really deeply, because I was writing about some of the complexities of existing as a biracial Asian American girl that I haven’t talked much about before. I really appreciate my amazing editor, Jenny Bak, for creating a space where I felt safe to do that. In the end, I don’t know if there’s any way to “overcome” this fear—I think we have to process it by showing up for and supporting each other. I try to show up as authentically as I can, to be really honest about those fears—and when I am honest, I feel like other people feel safe being honest with me, too. It was a revelation to me that nearly everyone in our huge Asian diaspora community feels like they aren’t “enough” at some point, for many different reasons. When we can share these things and support each other, that helps so much. It can be so cathartic and freeing, and deepens those community bonds so beautifully.

Q: The importance of having Asian American stories on screen is a recurring theme in the book. If you were to be in an Asian American film or show, what kind of role would you play?

A: Anyone who knows the answer to this…also DM me. Ha! You know, I think in the past, I would have very naturally said something about being funny comic relief, the sidekick. But now I’m much more comfortable claiming the main character mantle. I think I’d probably be someone like Rika—a cranky, reluctant heroine who has to get out of her own way so she can claim her happily ever after. Aspirationally, I’d love to be the fabulous Auntie who gives everyone way too honest advice and has the most beautiful, luxurious wardrobe ever. Actually, that’s basically what I want to be in real life.

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