“Rolling the R’s” Forum Response: Sunyoung Lee

I never really thought about this before sitting down to write this, but editing is an incredibly intimate way to experience a book. It’s a bit like walking down the middle of empty, snow-covered Broadway in NYC right after a blizzard; you feel profoundly that no one else will know the street the way you do. It’s a fantasy, of course—an editor is just one of the critical eyes that a book undergoes in its passage to the public. But that sense of possibility is very real—you’re working with a manuscript before it’s entirely, irrevocably set, before it has fully taken on the form that it will have for the rest of its published life, even as the story of your passage through it becomes something tucked away into its seams, unimportant and invisible, like the thread that keeps a book bound together.

I didn’t know any of this when I began working on Rolling the R’s, of course. Rolling was the first book I ever edited. I’d done copyediting and proofing before, but for Rolling, I was told to take a stab at sequencing. This was an unexpected but not unwelcome responsibility that I took very seriously. What does progression mean in a novel that thumbs its nose at a one-size-fits-all approach to genre? What did readers need to know in order to feel the full impact—the energy and intelligence and aliveness—of each character and each chapter? I remember in particular agonizing about what to suggest for a possible ending—what would be the best way to bring such an agile, multiply voiced book to a close? Should the book end with “Heart”— part reproach, part self-justification, Edgar’s cri de coeur to friends he suspected of not noticing the intense, attentive loyalty that lay beneath his pirouetting narcissism? Or “Chain Letter Translated from Saint Malas”—also, presumably, from Edgar— with its double-fisted, insistent demand for response in the form of “if-then” threats. But what I finally argued for, and what Zack ultimately decided upon, was to end the book with “F is for Book Report,” an exegesis of Judy Blume’s Forever written entirely in the voice of Katherine Trina-Trina Cruz, the sharp-tongued and even sharper-witted fifth-grader who sees the truths of her world with clarion precision but knows exactly what fictions she wants to embrace and why.

If editing a book is an incredibly intimate act, reading a book is no less so. At the time I was working on Rolling, I was closer in age to the novel’s various protagonists than I am now to the age I was then. I had no idea what it meant to work in publishing, what it meant to edit a book. The suburban mainland childhood I had had resembled the easy, multiply inflected world of Kalihi only intermittently— certainly not through the omnipresence of Asian cultures, something that would have seemed almost a miracle to me in the Midwest, but through flashes of a shared pop culture youth of lip sync battles, Judy Blume books, chain letters, and Love Boat/Fantasy Island episodes. In the carefully non-confrontational world in which I existed, the fearless take-no-shit and talk-back-to-teachers perspective channeled through Edgar and Trina and Vicente and Mai-Lan and Florante was as unfamiliar as it was stunning. The clarity and force with which Zack was able to portray these kids—their self-knowingness and their self-blindness, their clear-eyed recognition of the adult indifference and terror that swirled around them—showed me how it was possible to be braver than I felt myself to be. In editing the book, I might have been able to make my small suggestions and improvements, but looking back, through the process of reading Rolling, it had taken up root in me.

Almost exactly twenty years later, I edited a hybrid genre non-fiction book by Amarnath Ravva called American Canyon. During a particularly fraught period of editorial back and forth, Amar told me that he trusted me with his work because I had sequenced Rolling. When he was an undergraduate at Berkeley, reading Rolling was what had made him feel that he too could become a writer—he had felt for the first time that the world was big enough to include any stories he might have to tell.

There’s no denying the force of that kind of interaction—what becomes possible when you are able to walk through a door you thought was a wall. That cycle of influence—the impact that one imagination can have on another—is almost instantaneous, though it might take years to unravel and understand. That’s the beauty of books. They can transform the way you understand the world around you, working their magic on you even as you think you are standing still.

Kaya Press has had its ups and downs over the years. But if there’s a reason why it still exists today, it probably has something to do with the lessons I learned from Rolling. This past year, American Canyon was named one of the finalists for the Pen USA Non-Fiction award. This year, we’re celebrating the 20th anniversary edition of Rolling. Sometimes it takes a perspective of twenty years to understand what it meant for you to have walked through a particular door a book once presented to you. Embracing the fictions you want to. And knowing why.

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