Hannah Bae on writing about identity, creative expression and the power of mentorship
A chat with the beloved former chapter president, journalist, writer and illustrator
By Sofia Koyama, Digital Engagement Coordinator
If you don’t know Hannah Bae, then you absolutely should — and hopefully this month’s AAJA Defined piece will be the perfect introduction to this writer, journalist, artist and longtime AAJA-er. She began her storied career in journalism, but has since shifted towards creative and narrative nonfiction, and has received fellowships from The Kenyon Review and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Hannah is the former AAJA-New York chapter president — for which she received AAJA’s Chapter President of the Year award in 2019 — and former co-director of AAJA Mentor Match, our mentorship pairing program (which, ICYMI, just launched its 2022 cohort with over 100 mentor-mentee pairings!). But perhaps Hannah is best known throughout journalism, writing and AAJA communities for the unwavering support and encouragement she offers to emerging writers and journalists.
This interview was first conducted in the late spring of 2021 and has since been updated and edited for clarity.
SOFIA KOYAMA: After working with more traditional publications such as CNN and Newsday, you decided to focus on writing about topics such as Asian American identity and Korean American culture. Did this decision to shift your career happen in a pivotal moment or was it something you sensed was coming?
HANNAH BAE: I was a double major in journalism and creative writing in my undergraduate years (a long time ago!), and after college, I felt burnt out on creative writing. I wanted to tell other people’s stories, not my own, and I had a lot to learn about the world, especially outside of the U.S. My reporting as a journalist helped me to grow and mature until I could arrive at a place where I felt like I could offer a reader of creative nonfiction a takeaway and a clearly defined point of view from my writing.
Leaving CNN and full-time newsroom work also coincided with 2016. That was a year that made me reassess what I knew about journalism and its status quo practice. In the years prior, AAJA played a big role in how I was learning to embrace my identity as an Asian American and how it could enrich my reporting and writing, not serve as a liability. I started to realize that being Asian American could be the story.
SOFIA: As a longtime member of AAJA and the former AAJA-New York chapter president (2018–2019), did the timeline of your involvement in AAJA coincide at all with your decision to shift to writing Asian American stories? What are the biggest ways in which AAJA has supported you as an AAPI journalist and writer?
HANNAH: Yes! I first got involved in AAJA through the Asia chapter, when I was living in Seoul and learning about Korean culture firsthand, on my own terms. AAJA-Asia showed me that I was part of something bigger — first a pan-Asian journalism community, then a wider, transnational Asian American journalist community. AAJA also introduced me to names like Vincent Chin, who has had a memorial scholarship in his name for many years within AAJA, and taught me about the importance of fair coverage and representation of Asian Americans in the media. His violent murder in 1982 has everything to do with the anti-Asian attacks that we’re seeing today in the U.S.
I started to realize that being Asian American could be the story.
SOFIA: You’re someone who wears many hats — primarily those of journalist and writer, but you’re also an illustrator! How do you combine — or perhaps intentionally separate — these parts of your career? Do you ever struggle to write when you’re itching to draw, or vice versa?
HANNAH: The last art class I took was in middle school, at which point my teachers (aside from my art teacher) and parents had said I should get serious about academics. But since I quit my last full-time newsroom job in 2016, drawing for fun has turned into a collaborative side project, “Eat Drink Draw.” It’s always a delightful privilege when I have the opportunity to work professionally in visual art, because for many years, art was something I thought I had to give up in favor of being more “career-minded.”
I have to say that since the pandemic began, I have felt like drawing and expressing myself visually are a kind of salvation. Like many, I have struggled with depression and grief during the pandemic. Throughout much of 2020, I felt blocked in my writing because I felt like I had nothing to say as an essayist — no wisdom to offer a reader, aside from, “Sometimes, you just need to sit with your grief.” For months, I didn’t feel up to taking on hard news stories about the everyday traumas that people, especially those of us who are BIPOC, were facing.
But a fellow AAJA-er (shoutout to the brilliant and talented Malaka Gharib!) suggested me for an illustrated assignment that allowed me to write and draw with glee in the winter of 2020. It’s a comic about how I experienced my period as a teenager that will come out this November in the anthology “Our Red Book: Intimate Histories of Periods, Growing & Changing,” compiled by Rachel Kauder Nalebuff. It showed me that I could produce something, meet a deadline and delight an editor and myself. That assignment really helped me to find my way back to my usual self, both emotionally and professionally.
It’s always a delightful privilege when I have the opportunity to work professionally in visual art, because for many years, art was something I thought I had to give up in favor of being more “career-minded.”
SOFIA: Generally, in both AAJA circles and beyond, you’re known for giving back — whether you’re uplifting the accomplishment of a friend, plugging an opportunity, or helping spark a new connection, there’s so much to be said about your generosity (I can go on forever!). You were even the former co-director of Mentor Match. What’s been your greatest takeaway as a mentor and do you have any tips on cultivating successful relationships with either a mentor or mentee?
HANNAH: Aw, thank you so much for your kind words, Sofia. I learned so much from my time with Mentor Match, especially working alongside the incumbent co-directors Ruth Liao and Kenichi Serino, who are now also working with Adrienne Shih, Sheryl Lee and Grace Moon. I have to shout out their hard work on the 2022 program!
In terms of my greatest takeaways as a mentor, I have a few: First, anyone can be a mentor at any stage in their career! AAJA members can be as young as high school students, so even very early career or college student members have rich expertise and encouragement to share. Second, I really hope mentors can be open to not only giving of themselves, but also learning from their mentees. I find that working with my own mentees has allowed me tap into the early excitement that brought me into journalism and writing, and it has allowed me to extend kindness and understanding, especially as a fellow AAPI professional, which wasn’t always available to me until I connected with AAJA. I hope more AAJA-ers from all backgrounds apply to be mentors in future years.
Hannah Bae is a freelance journalist and nonfiction writer who writes stories about Korean American culture and identity and is currently at work on a memoir about family estrangement and mental illness. She was a 2019 fellow at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, the 2020 nonfiction winner of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award and a 2021 Peter Taylor Fellow for The Kenyon Review Writers Workshops. Her bylines include CNN, Monocle, Eater, the AP and more. She’s on Twitter at @hanbae and on Instagram at @hannahbae. You can find her full bio at www.hannahbae.com.
Sofia Koyama is the Digital Engagement Coordinator with AAJA. She is based in Brooklyn. Find her on Twitter.