Back kicks and broken promises

MANILA, Philippines - Ricky Gilbert's world has been turned upside down.

As a 17 year-old Filipino, the adopted son of American parents, Ricky tries to adjust to a new life after moving from Singapore to New Jersey. With the help of Max Parada, an American-born Filipino, and Amy Cho, his Korean-American classmate, Ricky begins to find his place and identity in his new home through tae kwon do training.

The training, however, is more than kicks and punches. It becomes Ricky's guide to life as he progresses from one belt to another.

Even so, just as he begins to adjust to his new environment, Ricky's world takes another hit when he discovers a secret that forces him to question who he is and what family means to him. Coming to terms with this and with the large sum of money suddenly in his possession, Ricky has to decide whether he's going to stay with the family he's known all his life or leave and become a family of one.

As he tries to sort out his life, traveling to the Philippines and back to Singapore, Ricky discovers things about his father that make the two of them more alike than he'd ever thought -or even hoped- possible.

Ricky is the main character in "Back Kicks and Broken Promises" and its author Juan Rader Bas talks to Students and Campuses Bulletin about trials, triumphs - and tae kwon do.

STUDENTS AND CAMPUSES BULLETIN (SCB): Can you share with the process of putting together this storyline?

JUAN RADER BAS (JRB): "Back Kicks and Broken Promises" started out as my autobiography. However, as I began writing it, I decided that no one was going to care about my life. It's not as if I'd done anything remarkable. From there, it became a complicated alternating voice/alternating chapter two timeline story about a martial arts student who questions his training, who's adopted and who enters some Fight Club-like underground full-contact tournaments to find himself. With the help of the various groups I joined at New York's Gotham Writer's Workshops, I changed it to a linear story.

I was at a point in my life when I was starting to wonder about where I was and who I was. I was 34 when I started working on it and I'd moved to America when I was 16. Those 18 years in between felt like they'd gone by so fast and I was just trying to sort things out for myself.

Through the input of my workshop friends, Back Kicks has become a story that represents my philosophy on martial arts, my ideas of family, my ongoing battle with identity. Hopefully, whoever reads it will find something meaningful in it. I also want it to educate, provide other multiracial immigrants with a sense of support and present martial arts in a realistic way.

SCB: Were you thinking of teens as your primary audience for the book?

JRB: I meant Back Kicks to be a YA (young adult) novel - and some people would still put it in that genre. But for me, it's adult fiction. Ricky ages from 17 to 23 and there are some very adult themes and scenes. I did try to write it as a YA because YA was the kind of thing I was reading at the time and, to be honest, YA seems to be the big moneymaker. But I also let Back Kicks take care of its own evolution.

When the characters started to guide me, they became more real and that steered the book away from YA. YA, however, as a genre, maintains a very broad audience. Older teenagers could read my book although it will probably appeal to early 20s and up.


SCB: When a writer comes from an immigrant family or minority culture, he or she sometimes becomes "stereotyped" as either for or against his country of origin, how do you deal with that?

JRB: I think all my writing will have to do with some kind of Asian-American issue and some kind of identity and family-related dynamic. However, I don't want to do - or just do - a "fish out of water/stranger in a strange land" story. Actually, while Back Kicks does touch on some of that, it's not really an immigrant story. I don't make that big a deal of Ricky being an immigrant. I do a lot with identity.

I also make it a point for Ricky to teach the reader that Asia is not a third world continent with no knowledge of the west. Yes, there are some parts that may be more cut off than others, but in today's world - and by today, I mean the last 40 years or so - things have been global. Ricky is from Singapore, which was a British colony. He grew up watching English football and watching English and American television so, when he comes to America, it's not that much of a culture shock, if it is at all, to him. I wanted to educate those people who know little about Asia and Asian culture that Asia is not made up of bumpkins and boondocks. I still meet people who don't know or insist that Filipinos are not Asians and many who have never heard of places like Malaysia or Indonesia. So, as far as being stereotyped, I'm trying to show that we, Asians and Asian-Americans and immigrants, might know more than our new neighbors might think we do.

SCB: Can you talk about your character development process?

JRB: There are writing elements the author has to be aware of. Even if there are characters from the same region and of the same age, ethnicity, gender they must have their own idiosyncrasies. They shouldn't all sound the same and look the same. They should feel real. They should be consistent. They might act differently when talking about sex, for example, with their friends as opposed to their parents but they should be consistent in how they talk about sex. Through character arc, that might change but the change has to believable.

Character is also revealed in action. In fact, character IS action. This is going to turn into Fiction 101 but there's a simple saying: "show, don't tell." That's key in good writing and in presenting your characters to the reader.

Things like how and when you introduce characters to the story will depend on the story and its plot and tone. Specifically for "Back Kicks", some of my characters were inspired by actually people I know or combinations of people I know so, when writing a scene, I often asked myself, "What would so-and-so do here?"

The other thing in creating characters is to watch people. Writers are observers and chroniclers of life. That's one way to make your characters feel natural and real.

SCB: How did you begin writing?

JRB: As a child, I wrote some really bad short stories. There were some sports stories, some action ones and even an attempt at a love story that I remember calling "A Lousy Love Story." As I got older, I wrote some journalistic pieces for my school newspaper and yearbook. I also wrote a short story that got published in my school's literary magazine. I guess, being the son of a journalist (my father) and a former English teacher (my mother), I was fated to be involved with words and literature somehow. Reading was always around me that it was inevitable, I suppose.

SCB: What inspired you to write the book?

JRB: My first foray into writing was in film and I pursued it like mad in the mid to late 1990s. When things slowed down, I went back to graduate school and finished my master's degree. After that, I decided to pursue writing again. Then I thought about turning a couple of my screenplays into graphic novels but I'm not that great of an artist and I didn't know anyone in my immediate circles who might be interested in drawing them. So, I turned to writing a short story that turned into novella. Then I started writing my autobiography and that turned into "Back Kicks and Broken Promises".

SCB: Is there a message in your book that you would like readers to take with them?

JRB: If there is a clear message it has to do with being who you are and knowing what family means to you. The message is probably this and it's geared towards my multiracial third culture brothers and sisters: you're not alone, it's okay to be confused (if you are) and you don't have to be any ONE thing or belong to any ONE ethnic group or culture. The message is likely this: whether you're an immigrant or not, multiracial or not, but especially if you are either or both, it's okay to be who you are. And, if that means behaving and sounding different in one situation from another - being a chameleon - that's okay because that's you.

SCB: Do you have any advice for beginning writers?

JRB: Marie Lu, the author of the brilliant dystopian YA novel "Legend" encourages beginning writers not to be afraid to write bad stuff. I couldn't agree more. When you're starting out, you're still learning your craft. Get some manuscripts out of you as you learn it and develop your own writing voice, style, etc.

I'd also tell beginning writers to be patient and to believe in what you're writing and why you're writing it. And, the 'why' doesn't have to be anything deep or profound either. Don't let anyone dissuade you, also. It's always good to get people to read your work. When someone offers to do so, take him or her up on it. Focus most on the comments that are the same and the ones about big ticket issues.Don't be stifled by all of the differing opinions and feedback you're going to get. After all is said and done, you still have to write your story and you still know your story better than anyone else.

Lastly, don't be afraid to break the rules. In language there are conventions to follow. In writing fiction, those conventions can be broken. Write YOUR story.