Transnational Author, Activist Shares Novel-Writing Process
Ariel So | Feb. 24, 2017, 3:46 p.m.
Novelist Nina Revoyr read selections from her best-known works, including her 2003 award-winning novel Southland, her most recent novel Lost Canyon, and her 2001 novel Wingshooters, at the Ena Thompson Room of Pomona College's Crookshank Hall on Feb. 20.
Born to a Japanese mother and a white American father, Revoyr graduated from Cornell University and went on to become a visiting professor at various colleges, including Cornell University, Occidental College, and Pitzer College.
Revoyr is currently a co-editor of the college textbook Literature for Life: A Thematic Introduction to Reading and Writing, as well as an avid philanthropist and vice president and chief operating officer of the non-profit organization at Children’s Institute, which works with children affected by trauma and poverty in Central/South Los Angeles.
Having grown up in Tokyo, Wisconsin, and Los Angeles, Revoyr has always been interested in exploring various issues of race, class, and culture in her novels.
When asked to share how she got to “where” she is today as a writer, Revoyr immediately joked and said, “Where am I?”
Writing as a career "never gets easier,” she said. “I had a childhood that lent itself very well to creative pursuits, meaning it was lonely and had a lot of difficulty.”
Growing up, Revoyr said she did not fit into either schools in Japan or Wisconsin. Moving to California finally allowed her to find a more “comfortable” environment in which she could find her "people” and “place.”
“I did a lot of reading in that time, even from a really young age,” Revoyr said. “I did a lot of imagining, started writing myself into stories … and it became a way of keeping myself company.”
Revoyr said she still applies this to her writing now.
“In some ways, the writing of novels is still [about putting myself into stories],” she said. “You know, I’m grown-up now, theoretically—I definitely have a much happier life now—but novels, especially, give me a chance to inhabit a world that’s slightly different from the one that I live in ... allow me to kind of work things out fictionally.”
Southland, her second novel and a New York Times bestseller, revolves around the history of Los Angeles, from the internment camps of World War II to the garment factories of the 1990s. Detailing the life of a young Japanese-American woman, Jackie Ishida, Southland tells a gripping story about love, family, murder, and racial injustice.
Revoyr, as a lover of adventure novels, is also fascinated by themes of man versus man as well as man’s struggle against both nature and the environment.
Her 2015 thriller novel Lost Canyon depicts a group of friends on their backpacking trip at the Sierra Nevada mountains. With four multiracial characters, the novel plays around with the way in which these characters are forced to face moral dilemmas and threatening risks in order to survive, while blending in themes of how both race and class distort their very own perceptions and experiences.
Revoyr’s fourth novel, Wingshooters, deals with the racism that fictional character, Michelle LeBeau, experiences as a child and how she gets bullied for being half-white and half-Japanese in a predominately white town of Deerhorn, Wisconsin.
During the Q&A session, when asked where she finds inspiration for her plot lines, Revoyr said that her process is partly based on luck. She added that her writing often comes out of questioning.
“Generally what happens to me with books is that I have a question, I have a problem, something that I want to figure out, and it takes the writing of the book to kind of figure out what the answer to that question is.”
Revoyr explained that things that “nag" at her are usually what stimulate her the most.
“I kind of set up a ‘what if’ story,” Revoyr said. “[The inspiration comes from] what bugs you, the stuff that obsesses you, that you can’t let go of, you know—that’s the stuff to go for.”
Audience member Elika Nassirinia PO ‘17 also asked Revoyr about her motivation to write about diverse characters.
“I’m not writing diverse characters because I’m trying to make a point, or I’m trying to be politically correct because I think there’s not enough diversity in fiction,” Revoyr said. “Although I think all those things [are true], I’m writing to reflect the world as I know it, and that’s important to me—particularly to write stories about places, about neighborhoods that often aren’t depicted with love.”
Revoyr urged students to keep writing, as she noted that her first novel “blossomed” from a short story that she, in fact, wrote in her junior year of college.
“The point is, even what you’re [writing] now, the things that obsess you now ... can be fire for what you do later,” she said. “Remain interested in the world.”
After the reading, Nassirinia said she admired how each of Revoyr's novels are distinctly different from each other, praising Revoyr's capacity to do such different things.
“I thought [the talk] was very interesting,” she said. “I also really appreciate the diversity in her novels because I think that’s something that’s still missing in literature or the canonical literature that is supposed to be worth reading.”