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Lo makes National Book Award history with 'Last Night at the Telegraph Club'

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Malinda Lo was stunned when she won a National Book Award for her novel "Last Night At The Telegraph Club."

MALINDA LO: I was at home, obviously, because it was on Zoom. And my wife was in the corner, so she wasn't going to be on camera. And she was, like, silently screaming.

(LAUGHTER)

LO: She had her hand over her mouth. And I was like, oh, my God. I have to do this now.

MARTIN: It's the first time that a young adult book with an LGBT female lead character won the prestigious award. Lo talked with our co-host, A Martinez, about the book, parts of which are in Chinese - a detail which won over a special audience of one.

LO: I'm very proud to report that this is the first book of mine that my mother has read.

A MARTINEZ, BYLINE: Oh, wow.

LO: This is my sixth novel. And my mother is - speaks English as a second language. So I know it was a challenge for her. And she really loved it. And I'm so grateful for that. I did reach out to historians who work in the period. And they put me in touch with a couple of Chinese American queer women who lived in San Francisco in the 1950s and '60s.

MARTINEZ: OK, so set the scene for us, if you would - 1950s San Francisco - height of the Red Scare. Your protagonist is Lily Hu. Tell us about her.

LO: She's a 17-year-old Chinese American girl. She goes to high school at Galileo High School in San Francisco, which exists today. She's super into rocket science. And this is also the Atomic Age, you know? This is before Sputnik was launched, but America was certainly in a Cold War space race with the USSR. These kinds of stories about rocket ships are all over the place. So that's Lily and her science love.

But she's also starting to realize that she might be a lesbian. She finds this ad in the San Francisco Chronicle for a club - the Telegraph Club - where a male impersonator is performing. Male impersonators were what we might call drag kings today. And they were very popular in San Francisco. People would go to these clubs to see both female and male impersonators. I saw ads in the Chronicle from this time that very openly reported this - that was advertising this. So that's where I got the idea for the club.

MARTINEZ: Now, Lily you describe as stepping outside of the bounds of being a good Chinese daughter. Malinda, I don't know if you would describe yourself as a good Chinese daughter. I'm the son of immigrants. I consider myself a good son of immigrant parents. What does it mean to be a good Chinese daughter?

LO: I think it means being respectful of your parents. I came to this country when I was about 3 1/2 years old. And I grew up very much aware of the sacrifices they made in China and in the U.S. to provide for me. And Lily knows this as well. Her mother was born in America, so her mother was a Chinese American - American citizen. But her father was an immigrant who gained his citizenship by enlisting in the U.S. military during World War II. She's very aware of the status of Chinese Americans in the United States in 1954. The Korean War just ended. It's Red China time, you know? People are not big fans (laughter) of China in 1954. So she knows that she has a duty to kind of represent her community in certain ways, and that really comes up against her interior desires to be who she really is.

MARTINEZ: But the self-discovery that she's going through independently, I think if her parents knew about it, would maybe not cast her as a good Chinese daughter.

LO: Absolutely. They love her, certainly. But being gay (laughter) in 1954 and in the Chinese American community at that time was not acceptable. It was not acceptable in America at large.

MARTINEZ: How much of Lily's discovery in "Last Night At The Telegraph Club" - how much of that is a reflection of maybe the self-discovery that you went through?

LO: I would say that my experiences were quite different than Lily's. First, I was born in 1974. So I grew up in the '80s and '90s. And being gay was not nearly as bad then. I mean, it was still not acceptable the way it is today, but it was a very different experience. I grew up in Colorado, not in San Francisco at all. I went to a women's college, which is where I started to discover my own identity. It was a very open and accepting environment in that place. But I did have my own issues around internalized homophobia to deal with because, you know, I grew up in this society where - right after the AIDS crisis, the height of it, you know, being gay was very scary to a lot of people still. So I did have some of those feelings, but the details were quite different, I have to say (laughter).

MARTINEZ: So how valuable would you say bookstores and books are for kids who have no other way, maybe, to find answers about uncomfortable things, such as sexuality?

LO: I know how much I connected with the books I read, even though they weren't about Asian American lesbians. You know, I loved, absolutely loved "Anne Of Green Gables," "Little Women." I absolutely identified with Anne Shirley and Jo March, you know? And they really became heroines of mine growing up. And their desires to be writers in those novels was something I so - I totally connected with. So I think that books are a really important way for kids to see outside their own little local world. I think it's very important.

MARTINEZ: 'Cause Lily has a bookstore in your book that helps her there.

LO: Yeah. She goes to a drugstore. So the 1950s and '60s - there were a lot of pulp novels published. And there were a lot of lesbian pulp novels published. And they were sold in corner drugstores. And she does find a book that is a lesbian pulp novel. And it kind of opens her world a bit. Even though it's not the best book to be reading (laughter), she certainly finds some possibilities in it.

MARTINEZ: Now, when you won the National Book Award, you urged people to pay attention to their school boards and vote in local elections. How concerned are you about rising cases of book censorship in schools? - because, I mean, this goes to everything we've been talking about - about how books and bookstores and libraries that have a very wide selection of books can help people, and specifically kids, figure out who they are in this world.

LO: Yeah, I am concerned about it. I think there's been a huge spike this year. And while I am concerned about the overt banning of books in schools - you know, several of my books are on some of these lists, too. Like, that definitely concerns me. But what concerns me even more is the fact that this atmosphere has a chilling effect on school librarians and teachers and may prevent them from buying any of these books in the first place. This kind of self-censorship is something that is very hard to fight, because if we don't know that books are simply not being put on shelves - if they're silently never being ordered, that's something that is very difficult to organize against. And so that's really what concerns me.

MARTINEZ: That's Malinda Lo, winner of the National Book Award for her young adult novel "Last Night At The Telegraph Club."

Malinda, thanks a lot.

LO: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOKIMONSTA'S "LOVE THAT NEVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.