Writers from China's diaspora As a student at a Catholic high school in his native San Francisco, Laurence Yep's English teacher, Father Becker, took him aside and told him that if he wanted to get an 'A' he'd have to have one of his pieces published by a national magazine. Yep was going to object, but thought the better of it. After all, 'you couldn't argue with a Jesuit priest'. So, he began writing and sending stories to magazines - until so many rejection slips had piled up that Father Becker rescinded his warning. But Yep had been bitten by the writing bug. Eventually, his first story was published by a science-fiction magazine, when he was 18 and in university. 'I received a penny a word - exactly what Dickens was getting in the 1840s,' says Yep, from his home in California. 'I never thought about making my living as a writer.' Since then, Yep has written 60 books and plays and won numerous awards, among them the American Library Association's lifetime achievement award. He published his first book, Sweetwater, a children's novel, in 1973 when he was a 23-year-old graduate student. But it was his second book, Dragonwings, published two years later, that launched his career as a writer and established him as an important new voice in children's literature. Told from the point of view of an eight-year-old boy, Dragonwings is the story of a Chinese-American aviator - the narrator's father - who builds and flies a homemade plane in San Francisco six years after the Wright brothers' historic flight. It's based on the exploits of Chinese flyer Fung Joe Guey. The approach Yep took to Dragonwings, blending historical research with a lively imagination, would come to serve him well. Yep chose to write about Chinese and Chinese-American history because it's what he's familiar with. 'You know the old saw, 'Write what you know best'. My Asian roots are what I know best.' At the same time, he says, he feels a need to tell the story of the Chinese in the US. 'My first science-fiction book, Sweetworld, created whole new alien worlds and in writing my next book, Dragonwings, I saw that in coming to America and attempting to fit into the society, they were experiencing much of what other-worldly aliens would.' Yep says he was always aware of being an outsider as a child. His family lived in an African-American area, where his father ran a grocery store. 'I was different from everyone else in the neighbourhood, but when I commuted to my bilingual school in Chinatown I felt separate, too, because I didn't speak Chinese,' he says. 'Then, in high school, I found myself in a white culture for the first time.' During those years, he read a great deal of science fiction and fantasy. Yep says the reason these books appeal to children is that they can 'leave the everyday world and go to a strange place where they have to learn a new language and new customs. Science fiction and fantasy are about adapting, and that was something I did every day when I got on and off the bus.' Yep says his own sense of being Chinese has much to do with his strong ties to his parents and family. 'I always keep in mind my maternal grandmother's voice,' he says. 'We were very close to her because she lived with us for many years. She's always been this little Chinese identity inside of me, and whenever she finds something contradictory, she's this set of subtitles that's running through whatever I'm going through.' His family hails from Guangdong, which has produced a huge number of emigres to the US, and Yep has taken an interest in southern China's history and folklore. One of his recent projects is a book about his father's journey to the US at the age of 10. In the process of writing about his father, he developed a new appreciation of the qualities that enabled Guangdong natives to leave their homeland. 'They're real survivors,' he says. 'They're like cats. You drop them anywhere and they'll always land on their feet. They're also tough, self-reliant and loyal to their families.' Does he fit that description? 'Well, I'd say that the fact I'm still making a living as a professional writer after 38 years says a lot about my ability to survive.' If only Father Becker could hear his former pupil now.