By Rebecca Ballenger, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ
Judy I. Lin’s Duology of Tea is steeped in the terrain of the Taiwanese mountains, known for oolong teas. Lin, who was born in Taiwan and now lives in Canada, wanted to explore tea ceremonies around the world for a story brewing in her imagination. In that process, she came right back to the type of tea ceremony that she grew up with. Imagining the tea ceremony has magical properties for the sake of a young adult novel posed challenges.
“It’s not like blasting a fireball from your hands or any type of elemental magic where you can just directly influence the world around you, because it’s a quieter sort of magic. You have to be the one drinking it, or you have to make the other person drink it, or you have to have the ingredients available to you,” says Lin. You also must have all the specialized tools. That thought process inspired the magical competition that brings the protagonist, Ning, to the palace in A Magic Steeped In Poison, book one of the Duology of Tea. The result is an immersive young adult fantasy that transports readers to another time and place and reinforces the importance of relationships and trust in our lives.
Inspiration for and Writing the Duology of Tea
Among Lin’s favorite teas is the high mountain oolong. Lin traveled to Taiwan to visit tea farms as she researched for the duology, an experience that helped her create Ning’s family tea farm and brought her closer to her father. Additional family influence shows up as Lin’s sister gave feedback on the writing, which drew the siblings closer together. Even after publication of the duology, Lin’s sister continues to provide support as a scout in California bookstores.
Recognizing the importance of people to one another, Lin explores the different relationships present in Ning’s life and how tea magic is utilized to forge connections with people. In A Magic Steeped In Poison, Ning feels isolated and has a sense that she wants to escape. In escaping she learns to trust other people, even those she’s in competition with, embrace her parents’ legacies and to connect with the magic shared with her sister.
Tea brings the duology characters together in the way that research, editing and promotions brought Lin together with her father and her sister. As Ning says, “I understand now. The magic is not the ceremony of pouring the tea or sharing of the cup. It is the connection, the brief joining of souls. The tea leaves are a channel, the ingredients, the signpost.”
Because Ning is experiencing court for the first time, Lin provided herself with the opportunity to create an immersive experience for the reader who can learn about and appreciate courtly settings, norms and connections alongside her. Rather than describing the scene, Lin can describe the experience of the scene from the sights and smells to the perceived tensions between characters, including hierarchical relationships. This makes the experience more vivid for both Ning and the reader. Further, the opulence of a palace as a setting means offers much detail for description.
Despite the quieter magical elements of tea and luxurious descriptions of palace interiors, the duology is packed with action and court intrigue, influenced by Lin’s love for martial arts movies and Chinese period dramas, which Lin points out can be viewed on streaming platforms. She then blends young adult fantasy elements such as various kinds of betrayal and mysterious strangers. In the second book, A Venom Dark and Sweet, Lin expands the world of Dàxi as Ning and her companions travel through different regions while being chased by harmful forces. Lin says she told the story she wanted to tell in the two books, and Ning’s journey is complete.
Lin on Writing, Identity and Home
As a child, reading helped Lin connect to her new home in Canada and inspired her to write her own stories. Her parents didn’t fully support her writing aspirations in high school because they didn’t see it as a profession that offers financial security. Not many Asian or Taiwanese writers of fantasy books were publishing in English. So, Lin began a career in health care. Eventually, she rediscovered her love for writing and started with fan fiction around Dragon Age video games. That led to writing her own stories featuring her own worlds.
Writing about her own culture was a challenge. Lin worried about getting details wrong because she had left Taiwan at the age of 8. She found confidence knowing that many Chinese films were not completely historically accurate either. “I needed to gain confidence that I could bring a unique perspective,” she says. “I don’t think anyone else would be able to write the story my way.” She continues to emphasize that writers should not feel obligated to write a story based on their culture either, but rather people should write the stories that interest them.
Leaving home to go to college helped Lin understand her parents’ experience when they moved from Taiwan to Canada. “It was a challenge for them to move from the place where they grew up, in Taiwan, and where they’re familiar with the language, and then moving to an entirely different country.”
Like Ning, Lin had to leave home to understand home better. Then the pandemic hit, and Lin could not go home. She wrote most of the duology during the pandemic in 2020. Much of the research had to happen online or through books, which made her feel less homesick as she was not able to travel home.
Lin never experienced an author visit when she was young and in school, so it never occurred to her that writing could be a career. She hopes that her school visits inspire students to pursue their passions.
Because the Duology of Tea is her debut, Lin has only done virtual visits so far. These school visits range from formal presentations to informal Q and A sessions. “I would also love to conduct a creative writing workshop with students who are interested in writing,” she adds. Typical discussion topics include research, inspiration and writing process – including questions around her physical writing space.
When Lin was unexpectedly asked at a virtual school visit what her writing set up is like, she was not prepared to give that tour. If asked again, however, she would do so. She loves the idea of inspiring young writers and encourages students to explore their creative sides. “I hope that my visit may inspire a student to write their own stories someday! That would make me very happy.”
Lin finds it rewarding to talk about books that she enjoys and connecting with other readers who also like those books. “One thing that I love about school visits is talking about books that I’ve enjoyed and then finding out that readers have enjoyed them too so we can all gush over our love of the same books.”
Each interaction with a reader is special for Lin, but one memorable experience occurred at a signing when when a reader gave her an art piece they had drawn of Ning. She was touched that her story inspired someone to explore their own creative outlet. “Anytime a reader shares that my work has inspired them creatively to produce something, whether it’s a poem or a drawing, or just to tell me something about my story resonated with them, it makes me feel like all of the hard work leading up to that point was worth it.”
What’s Next for Lin
Lin has another YA fantasy coming out in 2024. Although this book is also inspired by Chinese mythology, it’s separate universe from the book of tea dwellers. “It’s more about the mortals and celestials, so it’s kind of like the Chinese equivalent of fairies in our mythology,” says Lin.
This story will follow a mortal musician whose contract is purchased by a scholar. When the protagonist travels to his manor, she realizes that he’s not human, and that his home is in the celestial realm. Lin promises more intrigue and romance. The book is inspired by Lin’s love for Gothic fiction, and so she is enjoying writing that.
Authors’ Corner is a periodic profile featured on our blog where authors discuss their writing process and the importance of school visits. Worlds of Words frequently hosts these authors for events in the collection. To find out when we are hosting an author, check out our events page. Journey through Worlds of Words during our open reading hours: Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.