The short story unit in Michael Alan's sophomore honors English class is guided by a packet of numerous short stories. One short short in particular—"The Paper Menagerie" by Ken Liu—is one of the most memorable for students. With its magic and fantasy, nostalgia and heartbreak and cultural loss and assimilation, the short story is the most chosen out of all the other short stories in the packet to be the subject of the unit's final essay.
On April 5, Alan brought science fiction and fantasy writer Liu to speak in the Walpole High School auditorium for his period 1 sophomore English class, Conor Cashman's AP Language and Composition class and other students and teachers.
“I have been giving my classes his short stories for the past five years or so. The students have really responded to his themes about family and culture,” Alan said. “I knew he lived in Massachusetts, so I worked with Ms. Jordan on bringing him to WHS. Mr. Liu’s success and popularity has grown a lot in the past few years, so he has stopped doing talks; however, since he lives so close to Walpole (Stoughton), he made an exception for us.”
Liu began his presentation by claiming that he almost quit writing three times in his life. The first time was due to rejection, as he was turned down from more than 60 semi-professional magazines. Because he was focused on only one story that he had faith in, he did not write anything else in the process.
“When you have doubts, you double down. I had invested myself into this one story, and I decided that the story somehow was the essence of me. If that story was getting rejected, it meant I was getting rejected,” Liu said.
The second time he almost quit was in the aftermath of success. He started earning awards and recognition, up until an agent that is well-respected in the writing field approached him and asked to become his agent. Finding an agent is difficult in the business, so Liu willingly agreed. After three years, he sent his agent his novel; however, much to his devastation, his agent replied with no explanation other than the statement that he could no longer represent Liu.
Liu recovered from his writing career's second near-death-experience by reaching his internal goals to produce as many short stories as possible. He also began writing his next novel and looking for a new agent.
“Meeting new agents is a lot like dating, because you get to find out what they are like and in the process find out a lot about yourself,” Liu said. “I ended up meeting a bunch of agents, talking to them, learning about their style. It’s really cool to see how everybody does it differently, and there is really no one specific way to be successful as an agent.”
The second half of his presentation was a question and answer session. He discussed his book "The Legends of Luke Skywalker" and his passion for "Star Wars." When he went to school in China in third grade, he had a choice between reading a book about Confucius or "Star Wars" in his free reading period. Despite his teacher warning him to make good choices, he chose to chose the epic "Star Wars" and grew to love the series. In fact, years later at Harvard, he spent all night reading "Star Wars" instead of studying for an economics exam. All of the choices that he made had good consequences; Lucas Film Publishing one day asked him to write a book for them. In a twist to "The Canterbury Tales," "The Legends of Luke Skywalker" follow pilgrims in a universe telling legends of "Star Wars" events.
“There was almost like a mystical, magical field that connected everything from the moment when I was a little boy preparing me for the ultimate destiny,” Liu said.
Liu was also asked about "The Paper Menagerie." He once read a narrative from a mail order bride, and he wanted to create his own story about the struggles and misconceptions of such women. He weaved in tastes of his grandmother to his own mail order bride character, as she used to make origami for the young Liu.
The presentation inspired not only Alan's students who love "The Paper Menagerie" but for the diverse audience with passions for creativity.