Have you ever wondered how long it takes authors to write their books? In the case of Felicia Wu Song, the journey was not day, or months, but decades. In this first of three special narrative-style episodes, we're featuring unique stories of authors and leaders as they follow the paths through which God has led them, their long obedience resulting in outcomes they did not predict or imagine. And you'll hear how even amidst Felicia's struggles and questions over many years, God demonstrated over and again that he had a special plan for her and her words. Enjoy this winsome conversation with Felicia Wu Song, the author of Restless Devices (published by InterVarsity Press).
About the Guest:
Felicia Wu Song (PhD, University of Virginia) is a cultural sociologist of media and digital technologies, currently serving as professor of sociology at Westmont College in Santa Barbara. Her publications include Virtual Communities: Bowling Alone, Online Together and articles in such scholarly journals as Gender & Society and Information, Communication & Society.
SPECIAL OFFER | Save 40% on Felicia's book Restless Devices and get free US shipping when you use promo code EVN40 at checkout.
About the Host:
Helen Lee is the director of product innovation at IVP; she is also the author of The Missional Mom and co-author of The Race-Wise Family. Helen also serves as the producer of The Every Voice Now Podcast and as the executive producer of The Disrupters. Follow Helen on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
Follow The Every Voice Now Podcast on Instagram and Twitter, or find out more about our show and IVP's Every Voice Now initiative at EveryVoiceNow.com.
Welcome to The Every Voice Now Podcast, where we bring voices of color into the spotlight. In every episode, you'll hear stories of our authors of color, how God led them to write their books, and the challenges they had to overcome along the way.
Helen Lee 00:24
Welcome to this special bonus episode of The Every Voice Now Podcast. I'm Helen Lee. We are trying out a new format in these three episodes; first with IVP Academic author Felicia Wu Song, secondly, with IVP Books author Dan Stringer, and lastly with IVP Publisher and President Terumi Echols. If you're a regular listener or new to the show, either way, we hope you enjoyed these three narratives. And please let us know what you think. Now on to today's bonus episode.
Books are deceptive items at first glance. They look straightforward enough, almost as boring as a cardboard box. But they're far from simple, with pages and pages of creative material within. And there's just usually no way for the casual observer to know all the history and the blood, the sweat, the tears that went into the crafting of each of the words on those pages. Occasionally, you might hear of an author like J. K. Rowling, of Harry Potter fame, whose inspiration hits them in a flash, and they feverishly write down all their words, and soon after, poof! A bestseller is born. But those stories are typically outliers. And in the case of Felicia Wu Song, Westmont College professor of sociology, and the author of the IVP book, Restless Devices, she would have never imagined back when she was a child, that her name would eventually be featured on the front cover of her very own book.
Felicia Wu Song 02:01
I don't think I ever would have imagined becoming an author as a child. I was actually—I actually didn't like to read very much, I'm sad to say. I'm always kind of embarrassed, but I say that to all those parents out there that are discouraged about their children not reading. I just wasn't a reader.
Helen Lee 02:23
But you never know what will start someone down a pathway of becoming a writer. There are these seemingly serendipitous moments that just seem random and unrelated to a writer's journey. And for Felicia, it was an unexpected encounter with a magazine.
Felicia Wu Song 02:39
After college, I remember I was reading (I don't know why—this starts to show how nerdy I was getting). I was reading The Atlantic, you know, just for fun after college. And I remember reading an article by Cornel West. And this was about the time when his first book, Race Matters, had come out. And I just remember reading in essay form something that was intellectually rigorous, but something that I could understand, as someone who wasn't a scholar in his area, and thinking to myself, "I want to do that. Like that is so cool. I want to do that. And help people understand something that's complex." Because I think in a lot of ways, what I did under—what I did think about when I was younger was that I wanted to be a teacher. Because both of my parents had been teachers in Taiwan. And so teaching was always just a part of our family life. And in a lot of ways, getting into writing through the reading the Cornel West piece was kind of like, "Oh, you know, here's a way to take complex ideas and recraft it so that normal people could actually understand it."
Helen Lee 03:51
Felicia had had experience with writing in college, of course, but those moments left her with questions about what it meant to find her own voice.
Felicia Wu Song 04:00
When I was in college, I took a course that was very well known in the curriculum called Daily Themes, where you had to write something every day. And then there was a graduate student that would sit down and look at every piece of writing. And, and I mean, it was amazing, right? And so during that experience, this graduate student explained to me what passive voice was, and had marked up every single sheet of paper I had and said, "Passive voice, passive voice, passive voice." And I remember, I mean, it was this lightning bolt kind of experience, where he said to me, "You write in passive voice all the time. I want you to start writing in active." And he said, "Why don't you want to just say what you want to say?" And I was like, oh, man. This person didn't know any, like, he's never talked to me about anything else. You know, he didn't know anything about me. But that was the question. That was like, boom! I was like, "Whoa..."
Helen Lee 05:02
Writers, editors, agents, readers—we all talk about what it means to find our own voice. I've been in the world of publishing for what feels like a long time, starting from my childhood as a lover of books myself, and now as an adult who both works in publishing and who also still aspires to write more myself in the future. But even after all these decades, I can tell you from my own experience, that finding one's own voice is not easy. There are so many ideas that swirl around in your own head, and that compete with your own sense of self. And that makes it hard to own your own voice. And I think this process is made even harder when you grow up as a person of color in this country.
Felicia Wu Song 05:48
So my parents immigrated from Taiwan, in the late 60s, early 70s. And I'm actually the first one born in the United States in my family. I have an older brother who immigrated with them. And so we grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey, my brother and I, in a predominantly Polish and Italian working class neighborhood. And so we were one of the two families who were Asian American there. So my life was pretty bifurcated. Monday through Friday was life in my town in public school being the only person of color in my school. And then Friday nights and Sunday were Chinese. I went to our Chinese church, which was an immigrant based church, and hung out with the Chinese people from all around the region. And so I kind of had these two worlds that I just kind of toggled between. They never met. They're just two separate friends, two separate groups, and we just kind of bopped back and forth. And in my Chinese church world, there was Chinese school, and there was, you know, aunties and uncles, weddings, the whole nine yards. Because it was the community center for all the other immigrant families in lots of ways. So that was a lot of my growing up years. And I would say that, you know, a key formational part of my ethnic identity was that experience of being in the church, right? It was, it was being with other kids who were also the only, you know, Asian kid or interacting with kids who lived in other towns that had more Asian children, you know, and kind of wondering like, "Oh, what's that like? You're so lucky."
Helen Lee 07:38
So imagine how much harder it is for a woman of color, living with this bicultural identity. Like being a superhero in disguise, swapping identities as it fits the moment and trying to find one's own voice. It makes me think of the scene from the movie Crazy Rich Asians in which Constance Wu's character, Rachel Chu, is about to meet her boyfriend's family in Singapore. And she makes some assumptions that all Chinese people everywhere around the world are the same. And her mother thinks otherwise.
Kerry Chu 08:10
They're different from us.
Rachel Chu 08:11
How are they different? They're Chinese. I'm Chinese. I'm so Chinese, I'm an economics professor with lactose intolerance.
Kerry Chu 08:19
Yeah, but you grew up here. [speaks to Rachel in Chinese] You're different.
Helen Lee 08:31
What Rachel's mom says to her in the latter half of that scene is, "Your face is Chinese, you speak Chinese, but in your mind, and in your heart, you are different." And that's what it means to grow up as an Asian American in the United States. We look like perpetual foreigners to those in the dominant majority. But we don't fit in our Motherland cultures anymore, either. So there's a balancing act that those of us who have bicultural backgrounds has to contend with as we navigate our lives and our careers. And this is the journey that's often churning beneath the surface for writers of color, whether we fully realize it or not.
Felicia Wu Song 09:13
In a lot of ways, I think I've thought about my ethnicity and race in terms of being an immigrant. Like in terms of being second gen is really what has been, for much of my life, how I've thought about being Chinese, or Chinese American. And it really wasn't until, I mean, then this is late. You know, I went through college, I took classes in Asian American literature and history. I even took a Taiwanese history class, which was super interesting because I met other people who actually wanted to make a distinction about being Taiwanese instead of Chinese and that was completely new to me because I wasn't swinging in those circles. I didn't understand the political identity that went with that. But it really wasn't until fairly recently, until there was the white supremacy protests in Charlottesville, Virginia. And so I went to graduate school at University of Virginia. So Virginia, the grounds of UVA, were my home for eight years. And so to see the protests there was really like seeing it in my own backyard, you know, like my place, my neighborhood. And it wasn't until that experience that it really shook me, of like, "Oh, my racial and ethnic identity isn't just an immigrant story. It—I'm wrapped up in being someone who is not white." And that's important. And I don't know what that fully means for myself. And so really, since then, I've kind of been on my own kind of late stage journey, I feel like, in starting to understand what it means to not be white, and then what it means to be Asian American in particular, which has all of its complexities.
Helen Lee 11:10
While she was growing in her own ethnic understanding, Felicia was also developing expertise in her area of study as a young academic, focusing on the intersection of technology and culture. But she felt it wasn't enough to have something to say. She also believed that she needed some sort of platform and credentials to do so. And I think this is so common for Asian American women in particular, in a society that's often deferred or preferred to listen to those in the majority culture, and to men. This is an example of an additional step that those of us on the margins have to take in order to be heard. And Felicia understood this innately.
Felicia Wu Song 11:55
So the book has been brewing in me for a very long time. I mean, in a lot of ways, I became a professor to write the book. Like I knew, like, as I said earlier, shortly after college, they I wanted to say something about technology into the world. But I also knew that in order to be heard, you needed credentials. And so I needed a platform and institutional backing. And so that's why I went to graduate school. And that's why I became a professor. It's not to say that I don't like teaching. It's not to say I don't like this other aspects, but really, the driving force was to write this book.
Helen Lee 12:33
So this was not an overnight success story. Instead, Felicia's work that culminated in her book was the result of slow and patient germination over time, over years and years. And book writing is often like that. It begins as a small seed of an idea that's planted maybe by another person, maybe by our own experiences or observations of the world around us. There's no one right path. But there is one common denominator that binds everyone who endeavors to write and then actually finishes their books. And that's perseverance. And in Felicia's case, she first had to make it through the gauntlet of her academic journey, which in and of itself was no easy task.
Felicia Wu Song 13:18
There's plenty of points in the journey of graduate school and getting your first job and plenty of points to reevaluate or have others evaluate for you. Whether that is actually something that is going to come into being and so for me academia, you know, the journey into it was a—was always, you know, I joke with my students and anyone I talk to about grad school is, I was probably the most reluctant graduate student in like the history of humankind. Because each step of the way was always like, "Okay, Lord, is this going to work out? Like, do you really want me to keep moving on?" Just because graduate school doctoral work's really unpleasant. I mean, it's really lovely in so many ways. It does just, I mean, it messes with your mind in big ways. That's that's just like what the grind of being a doctoral student is. And so for me, it was, it was a constant like, "Okay, Lord, I will keep going each—you know, I pass my exams. You know, I got my dissertation proposal approved." Like each step was like, "Okay, I'll just keep walking through the doors."
Helen Lee 14:35
With her doctoral work complete, she could now turn her attention to the topic that had been in her mind all along to pursue in book form. As she writes in her book, Restless Devices, "Several years ago, I began feeling irritable and discomforted every time I opened my laptop or looked at my iPhone. Why? After years of thinking that my digital technologies were serving my purposes, I was increasingly haunted with a feeling that maybe I had it turned around. I've been troubled with a growing sense that it is a system that wants me staring at it screened 24/7, ever caressing its glass surfaces. These troubling thoughts have sent me into a season of digital discontent. "
Felicia Wu Song 15:18
There are some chapters in the book that have just been sitting in me, you know, for like over a decade. But then some of it has come out of, you know, having opportunities to give talks to churches and university communities and teaching classes, and getting the response, right? I love the conversations during Q & A, and after the talk, you know, of what people are really thinking. And hearing people's stories about their own struggles and questions about technology that all kind of balled up into, "This needs to become a book," right? Like because it's the same conversation in all these different places, right? And people are clearly tired and confused and frustrated by how our modern digital lives are impinging on us.
Helen Lee 16:10
Then, in the midst of the discontent came a serendipitous reconnection, one that doesn't always or even often happen for those who aspire to publish books. But given the fact that Felicia had labored so long and hard about this book, even to the point of pursuing a doctorate to enable her to tackle this topic, at a level of extraordinarily high commitment, it seems fitting that she might be granted a chance to experience joy along the journey. And that moment came when she discovered who her editor would be.
Felicia Wu Song 16:41
So it was really great, when, you know, the opportunity to publish with InterVarsity was starting to come into fruition. And then it was even more great when I found out that I could be working with Jon Boyd, because Jon was my InterVarsity staff worker when I was doing my master's degree for one year at Northwestern University. And so he was on staff then, and we would get together and have coffee. And I had kind of been keeping a really loose, you know, kind of like tab on him, like, "Oh, he's at InterVarsity," you know, like, "Oh, he's moved into the publishing side." And I had heard from some other authors that they had worked with him, and I was like, "Oh, I know that Jon Boyd!" So it was just, it was really such a gift, and so wonderful to reconnect on this side of things.
Jon Boyd 17:44
Hearing that story, I'm just glad Felicia remembered those days fondly. I was volunteering with the InterVarsity grad group while I was writing my own dissertation, and I was a very inattentive campus minister. But I guess it's all good! Because it really was a blast to work with Felicia all these years later. The topic of mobile devices couldn't be more relevant. And her approach as a sociologist is so unique. In fact, we had a number of conversations to make sure she really didn't back off the sociological nature of her insights. It's not just the technology of the smartphone. But its social intrusiveness, and her analysis of the big social systems like corporations and advertisers that make her message so incisive. I also loved learning more about how Felicia had been workshopping her ideas over the years with classes of students, especially how they helped her fine tune what she calls The Freedom Project, an experiential and an, in fact, experimental approach to taking concrete steps to loosen the hold your phone has over you. Authors and editors don't have to be old friends from back in the day, but in this case, it sure didn't hurt. And it made it a lot of fun for us as we worked together to prepare the book for readers. I hope the joy shows through.
Helen Lee 19:04
Before we get back to today’s episode, I wanted to ask you a question: have you thought about what it means to do Asian American theology? Not Asian theology, not theology that originates from Europe, and not even American theology, but Asian American theology? Daniel D. Lee has done just this in his new book, Doing Asian American Theology, which is out in November 2022. Personally, I can’t wait to dive into topics he covers such as the Asian American quadrilateral, racialization, and navigating the binary, just to name a few. How many theology books have you read that cover those topics? Stay tuned to find out more about how you can get a special discount on Daniel’s book at ivpress.com. And now, back to today’s episode. A few years prior to the publication of Restless Devices, a certain Netflix documentary caught the public's attention, reaching 38 million households a month after its release. That documentary was The Social Dilemma.
The Social Dilemma Excerpt 20:12
If technology creates mass chaos, loneliness, more polarization, more election hacking, more inability to focus on the real issues, we're toast.
Helen Lee 20:23
Despite how many people watched The Social Dilemma, it lacks what Felicia was able to bring to the conversation as a person of faith. She writes in her book, quote, "The good news is that stashed away and Christianity's heritage are theological resources and spiritual practices that can equip us to carve out viable and life giving ways of being in our contemporary digital context." Author and New York Times columnist Tish Harrison Warren, who endorsed Felicia's book, wrote the following: "Digital media has shaped our spiritual lives and churches in profound ways. Yet we have few guides to navigate this new terrain. I have longed for a book like Restless Devices to be written." So how exactly does a busy mom and full time college professor, find the space and time needed to write a book? As is the case for all the authors we've had on our podcast, it comes down to a combination of sheer will and discipline, and support from those who understand what it's like to back an author with a deadline.
Felicia Wu Song 21:30
For me, it just meant I had to wake up earlier than everyone else. So it was the five to six o'clock in the morning place. And I have a neighbor who's a poet, and his light was always on at five o'clock. So I'm like, "Man, if he's up, I can be up." And so yeah, it was always that that little hour. And I'm also super fortunate to be married to someone who a big part of our relationship, because we do this, you know, we're in both in academia, we understand completely, you know, all the demands. He's just always been generous about carving out time and spaces to say, "All right, if you're going to need this weekend, you need this week, whatever it is, you know, I'll take the kids camping, right, and you just get three days right to just like bang it out, crush it." And so though, those times all those sort of pinch points in the life of a manuscript were super important to make significant progress.
Helen Lee 22:31
Felicia was finishing up her work on the book right as the world felt it was crumbling down around her during the summer of 2020, when George Floyd was murdered, and the racial tensions in the US were at its peak. And despite the demands of a deadline, and the mental, physical, and spiritual effort that undergirds writing a book like Restless Devices. In the end, the work of writing actually created a space of solace and safety for her.
Felicia Wu Song 22:59
I was writing it in the middle of a really hard season. It was—just the the racial and political climate in this country was starting to really fray. You know? And I was occupying a position in faculty leadership that brought a lot of responsibilities and burdens, too, that were just really challenging for me. And so the writing actually became this refuge. Right? It was the one space in my life that I had control over and that was, that was just sort of, like, I could be wholly, all of myself, just can be expressed. And so it was—it became just an oasis, you know, a really safe oasis space in my daily life to be able to go to. Just like, even for 45 minutes, I'm just going to work on this one paragraph. You know, and that's awesome. And obviously, to make progress in a manuscript always makes you feel better, too. So if you can't make progress in any other part of your life, but you can get that couple sentences figured out, it's like, "All right, today's gonna be a good day."
Helen Lee 24:16
If you're someone who feels that little voice inside of you saying over and over, "I think I want to write a book." But you're not sure if you could ever do it, Felicia has words of wisdom to offer you.
Felicia Wu Song 24:28
So maybe you have a book in you, but you haven't even like, tried to write it. So maybe you should start by writing a short essay, or a blog post that actually puts you out there. And not just puts you out there, but puts you in the hands of an editor who can give you good feedback, right? Who can just be like, hey, even if the feedback is like, "You made a really interesting point there." I mean, that's just so affirming, right, to know, like, oh, I actually have something to say. Right? To have someone say that who's not just your friend. Right? But someone else who just looks at your writing and is like, "Hey, you're really good with words" or "You have a such an interesting voice, you know, like, it's super clear, we need to hear this." Just to get that feedback from an editor in a smaller pool, right? Whatever that is, like, whatever is most kind of closest to you to access is totally worth it. And then in terms of like, again, thinking small, is, I tend to think like, Oh, I'm gonna need like, a whole weekend or a whole month to be able to write something. And it's like, no, no, no, it is like, what I did learn is like, wow, you could really write something in 45 minutes. Like, not the whole, but like 45 minutes really is enough to move forward right? Each day, each time. And that sort of discipline/regularity is is something you can really count on, if you can carve it out.
Helen Lee 26:00
I hope you've enjoyed the story of Felicia Wu Song, and her road to getting published. Don't forget that if you visit ivpress.com and use the code EVN40 you can get 40% off Felicia's book, Restless Devices, as well as the other resources mentioned on this episode. So check out our site and discover more fabulous books and resources from IVP.
Thanks, everyone for listening to The Every Voice Now Podcast, brought to you by IVP. Our producers and hosts are Paloma Lee and Helen Lee. If you're enjoying our show, we would welcome your reviews and recommendations. You can also support our efforts financially at everyvoicenow.com And we'd love to hear from you directly anytime. You can find us on Instagram and Twitter @Every Voice Now. Or visit the site for show notes transcripts and more and join us next time for another inspiring episode.