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Writing the Raw Emotions of the Most Vulnerable Time in My Life

When a devastating diagnosis turned her world upside down, New York Times bestselling author Kelly Yang went into “fix it” mode. Here, she details how writing her new YA novel helped her navigate what she couldn’t control.

I used to joke with my literary agent that I am someone who if you throw pain at me, I will turn it into art.

Well, apparently the universe was listening and thought it would be a good idea to test me. And on October 5, 2020, my mother called me with the strangest news—she was turning yellow.

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She was in Hong Kong at the time, and I was in the U.S. She first noticed it in her skin, and when she went to see the doctor, he told her the most devastating news: It was pancreatic cancer. I was shocked. One minute, she was perfectly healthy, eating Chinese cabbage and doing tai chi at the park. The next minute, she’s in the emergency room, fighting for her life.

My mom is my best friend. She’s the first person I call when something good happens to me. She’s the only person who knows how I’m feeling with just a look. She’s my rock. And the idea of not having her anymore . . . not having my rock . . . terrifies me beyond words.

I threw myself into doing everything I could to help her. I jumped on the first flight back to Hong Kong. I went through 14 days of mandatory hotel quarantine with my son. I helped her get through the Whipple surgery, one of the most grueling surgeries in the world. And then when it came time for chemotherapy, I called doctors from all over the world. When I found an amazing doctor in Los Angeles who said he might be able to help her, I convinced my mom to move to California. I told her I’d move with her and we’d battle this thing together. So I sold my house in the Bay Area and we headed to LA. The next six months were a grueling roller coaster ride of good news, bad news, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, CT scans, blood tests, genetic sequencing, and many many trips to the doctor.

The whole time, I kept thinking, If I just worked hard enough, I could somehow control it.

But cancer’s not like a character in one of my books. I can’t control it.

Writing the Raw Emotions of the Most Vulnerable Time in My Life

A few months into my mom’s cancer journey, when she was in the middle of a particularly grueling course of chemo, and I was in the pits of feeling completely helpless, I realized that I needed to write again. Writing for me has always been therapeutic, a way to process the chaos of the world. I was supposed to be revising a young adult novel that I had drafted, about a 17-year-old Chinese American girl, Serene, whose single mom runs a fashion label, and the new boy in town, Lian, who couldn’t be less fashionable.

But there was something missing in the story. Something that would take it from just a fun love story to something more gripping, devastating, and ultimately impactful. I knew instinctively what that was. In order to elevate the story and allow me to process the complex emotions I was feeling, I gave Serene’s mom a diagnosis of cancer, just like my mother. Suddenly, Serene was thrown into the eye of a life-changing storm, trying to help her mom survive while taking over and trying to save her mom’s company from the jaded investors who do not think a 17-year-old can run a fashion label. I also gave Lian the very hard and recognizable feeling of having immigrant guilt, knowing how much your parents have sacrificed for you, yet wanting to live your own life. Wanting to forge your own path.

Both Serene and Lian feel totally alone in their own struggles, like nobody in the world could possibly understand what they’re going through . . . until they come together, and they discover they have more in common than they think.

Writing the Raw Emotions of the Most Vulnerable Time in My Life

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In writing Private Label, I channeled the raw emotions of this most vulnerable time in my life. Writing this love story, about bravery, about not giving up even when you’re facing life’s most turbulent storm, about a complicated but unbreakable mother-daughter bond, helped me get through my own life-changing storm.

It helped me find purpose again, focus on the things I can control (my writing) and let go of the things I cannot. And in doing so, it’s helped heal both my mom and me. I am a big believer in the power of stories to heal. And this love story has allowed us to find the laughter and the joy again, and celebrate each day as it comes—which is the best way to live life, cancer or no cancer.

As I write this, it’s been almost two years since my mother’s diagnosis. She’s doing well. I do not know what her prognosis is, and neither does she or anyone else. But we’re living life to the fullest, just like Serene and Lian in the story. Sometimes when you’re in the eye of the storm, the best thing to do is hold each other and hang on tight.

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