As a woman of color, whenever I enter a new environment, I often first listen, observe, and then evaluate whether it is safe to reveal my full, authentic self. Should I shrink back and be careful about how much I share about my cultural identity?
Initially, the Redbud Writers Guild piqued my interest when I heard Tasha Jun interview women writers of color on Instagram Live. Listening to these conversations gave me an inkling that the Redbud community would welcome women writers of color and might be a space where I wouldn’t have to hide my cultural identity. Therefore, I felt excited when Dorina Gilmore-Young invited me to apply for the mentoring program that would be comprised of mentees from diverse backgrounds.
I am grateful that the warm welcome I saw online was consistent with what I experienced in my personal interactions with other Redbud writers at the retreat in Chicago. I appreciated the authenticity of the Redbud community and felt like I was part of a sisterhood where I could be my true self.
During the first afternoon of the retreat, as I rested in my room to review my notes and to decide which piece of writing I should share at the poetry and prose slam, I received an unexpected email from a friend. She was asking for help on behalf of another friend whose baby had just died. The family had two young children who were dealing with the sudden shock of sibling loss. This reminder of who my potential reader is gave me confirmation that I should share my children’s book manuscript based on my daughter’s experience of losing her baby brother.
Telling this story would be harder than presenting the other poem I had prepared, and I still wasn’t sure if it would be completely safe to share this publicly. Would others understand the cultural nuances, and would I stumble on my imperfect pronunciation of Mandarin?
Seeing Redbuds shed tears with me and give me hugs as I shared my pain, relieved me of my fears, but also encouraged me. I am grateful for Redbuds who took the initiative to talk to me after I had shared my writing and bravely related how they had experienced sibling, pregnancy, or infant loss too. Also, I felt encouraged when an Asian-American author said that she specifically connected to the aspects of Chinese culture that I had included in my story.
These writers came from diverse backgrounds, regions, and life stages, yet somehow my words resonated with them. These conversations reaffirmed that this guild was a welcoming space to share my story, but also that articulating my story could bring healing and help others process their pain. Our bond deepened because of our shared stories. My hope is that through my story they felt seen.
In Marcy Pusey’s workshop on writing children’s books, I was surprised at how many tissue boxes were passed around during the seminar. The workshop became like a therapy session that stirred up feelings in me that had laid dormant. I am primarily a picturebook writer, so why couldn’t I think of an answer to Marcy’s simple opening question of what was your favorite book from childhood and why?
Suddenly, I felt overwhelmed as I cataloged in my mind all the familiar characters that I had read as a child (Peter Rabbit, Frog and Toad, Winnie the Pooh, The Cat in the Hat, Ramona Quimby, and Nancy Drew). Most of them were animals, and none of the female protagonists looked like me or were from my cultural background. A wave of grief swept over me as I thought of how I never felt truly seen or represented in my childhood books.
Someone handed me more tissues as I grieved the loss of identity and omission in children’s literature. Marcy replied compassionately, stating that representation matters, and children need our stories to help them overcome their own obstacles. This inspired me to persevere in my passion to write books featuring Asian-American characters.
Furthermore, the diverse leadership represented among the Redbud board members, workshop presenters, keynote speakers, and an expert panel of agents and editors, also created a sense of belonging. In my conversations with these publishing professionals, I felt their openness and a genuine desire to support new authors of color. Prasanta Verma’s workshop, “Diversity, Demographics, and Audience,” gave insight into how we can increase the number of books published by authors of color. Seeing intentional representation on the main stage meant that there was room at the table for someone like me.
Although each individual Redbud member is important, we truly experienced something greater — synergy — when we gathered. This synergy strengthened my spirit more than I could have done alone. Dorina Lazo Gilmore-Young alluded to this when she spoke about the synergy between Mary and Elizabeth in her evening message from Luke 1:39-45.
“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:41, NIV). God had done something miraculous in their individual lives while they were apart. But when these women met in person, they experienced a deeper connection to God and to each other.
Furthermore, Dorcas Cheng-Tozun described unity and diversity so relevantly when she gave her “Collective Writers” rendition of 1 Corinthians 12:14-18 about each part of the body of Christ working together for God’s purposes. Dorcas emphasized that each writer has unique gifts, which alleviates the pressure of trying to be like somebody else.
Likewise, the multigenerational aspect of the guild is one of its strengths. The young are not competing against the old or vice versa. Some mentees courageously performed their poems for the first time and instilled new courage in us to not be afraid of trying something new. We received a glimpse of their heart and affirmed the gift of their art. The older women recounted God’s faithfulness in the history of Redbud’s inception and their commitment to mentor the next generation. This beautiful mosaic of voices made us laugh one minute and cry the next and wove universal themes that touched our hearts.
During the retreat, I truly witnessed Redbud members using their various gifts to build others up. This spirit of cooperation and camaraderie created an atmosphere of vulnerability, authenticity, and honesty that enriched our relationships and broadened our perspectives.
This is the heart of the Redbud Writers Guild. We learn from each other’s strengths and diverse backgrounds. We share about God’s faithfulness in our lives amid confusing circumstances and sometimes painful parts of our stories. We encourage one another to take courageous steps to complete the work we are called to do in the unique way God has created each of us to be.
In the photo from the retreat of the Women of Color mentoring group, the author is sitting center front.