Affinity Magazine’s unique commitment to sharing youth voices wouldn’t be the same without our talented young writers. Joanna Hou, our November Writer of the Month, is one such writer whose perspective makes Affinity what it is today. While Joanna, a 16-year-old from San Diego, is too young to vote, she knows there’s no age limit to making a difference.
“If you go on Affinity’s politics page, you’ll find Joanna’s name at least a few times,” editor Chloe Zhao explains. And it’s true—Joanna is certainly one of our top politics writers. She’s recapped presidential debates, profiled candidates, and analyzed international conflicts. She’s been a driving force behind Affinity’s coverage of the leadup to the 2020 elections.
Joanna’s maturity and writing skills are well beyond her years—but that’s not what impresses us the most about Joanna. Instead, we are in awe of her passion for politics and her dedication towards inspiring change. With her commitment to empowering other young people to get involved with politics, Joanna truly embodies everything Affinity stands for.
We had the opportunity to interview this young writer about her work and beliefs. Here’s what we’ve learned about Joanna Hou, her background, and her philosophy on life.
Alice Ao: What is your background, and how has it influenced your writing?
Joanna Hou: I am a first-generation Chinese American, and both of my parents are scientists. I’m probably the most not-science-oriented person you’ll ever meet (I’m absolutely awful). Growing up, this was always a bit of a disappointment to me since everyone around me has always been interested in science.
However, my grandfather is an author in China, and he has taught me the importance of writing and telling the truth through writing. His pieces before and after the Cultural Revolution have consistently shown me why we need to tell the truth. He’s been the guiding influence in my writing.
AA: What sparked your passion for writing?
JH: I’ve been telling stories and writing for as long as I can remember. That started with being an extremely avid reader. I realized very quickly that I could come up with my own stories too. By the time first grade came around, I was writing two-page stories each week, and I loved it. I was deathly afraid of public speaking, but I still had ideas I wanted to share. Writing gave me that outlet when I didn’t have another option.
AA: What sparked your passion for politics?
JH: When I was younger, I had always moved from one place to another with what I wanted to be later on in life. Nothing really interested me. That changed with the 2012 election. Suddenly, a huge part of me gravitated towards politics and understanding how things worked. I wanted to know everything— what primaries were, how elections ran, why debates mattered. It was at this time that I also started to discover law. Suddenly the stories I started to pay attention to were ones in the news, ones happening where I lived in the community around me.
AA: What advice do you have for new and/or young writers?
JH: You need to read. Reading is the key to building up style and sophistication in your writing and questions. Although I don’t read as often as I used to, at the crucial point in life (elementary- mid-middle school), I devoured book after book. Reading will expose you to good writing and will expose you to a variety of new concepts. Some of the best books for building up vocabulary and good writing are The Elements of Style (Strunk & White), On Writing (King), and Fiske WordPower (Fiske). Some of my top books ever would have to be the Harry Potter series (Rowling), anything Frederick Backman, and anything Kurt Vonnegut.
AA: What’s your writing process like?
JH: I’m a pretty spontaneous writer, so this means that I’ll just decide to write one day and spend five hours at a time pouring over different papers trying to gain a comprehensive understanding of a subject, and then pen it down and check for grammar. I’m not the most planned out person but it keeps writing fresh for me.
However, when I cover debates with the debate team, we spend about three hours watching and commentating on the debate while it’s going on, and then we spend another three hours piecing an article together, and another hour formatting the article. Those are the only nights I plan for, and they are pretty time consuming, but I’d say it’s definitely one of my favorite things to do at Affinity!
AA: What’s your favorite part of writing for Affinity?
JH: When I entered high school, I was super sad because I realized very quickly that I had to make a choice between being in band and writing for our school paper. I love music and writing equally (okay, maybe writing a little bit more), but I chose band because most of my friends were doing it. It was impossible to be a part of both the newspaper and band, so I had to give up journalism.
Luckily, Affinity has opened up a path that has allowed me to pursue music and writing at the same time. I love that all my work is able to reach a global audience, not just the small community in my school. Also, since joining Affinity in late March. I’ve noticed that I have been much more caught up with the news, and not just domestic news—international news too. It’s made me much more knowledgeable on current issues and it’s opened my eyes up to professional reporting.
AA: What’s your favorite article you’ve ever written for Affinity?
JH: Yikes, this one is difficult. I think it would have to be my article titled, “For Poway, Synagogue Shooting Turns News Into Reality.” Coming from San Diego, I was really fortunate to be able to interview people from the site on the spot, and it was an article that I felt obligated to write. It is definitely the most meaningful article to me, and it really hits close to home.
AA: What have you learned from writing for Affinity?
JH: Oh, so much. I’ve learned how tough journalism is, and how to manage my time a lot more. I have to give a lot of credit to our politics editor, Atharva Tewari, for constantly challenging me to push my writing further through my pieces and his tough edits. He has really pushed me to make each of my articles as comprehensive and coherent as possible, and constantly exposes the politics team to more and more news.
AA: Outside of Affinity, what else do you write?
JH: I love writing just about everything, but poetry is definitely a favorite of mine. This year I signed up for two English-based courses at the same time, so I’ve been writing a lot of papers for the two of them outside of the articles for Affinity.
AA: What other things are you involved in at your school?
JH: At school, I’m involved in a variety of humanities-related activities. I’m part of the logistics team in our school’s band, where I play euphonium and baritone. The groups I play for in band include marching band, wind ensemble (principal euphonium), and pep band. Furthermore, I hold executive positions in our Music with Motion club (an after school music tutoring club) and Masterminds (a psychology-focused club that tutors AP Psychology kids and prepare for the Brain Bee). I’m also a part of the California Scholarship Federation and National Honor Society.
Outside of school, I play flute for competitions and level testing. I’m also a part of teen court, a social justice program dedicated to giving youth who have been involved in a misdemeanor crime a second chance. I typically hold a speaking role during trials, and afterward, a group of peer jurors will deliberate on an appropriate sentencing for the youth in question. It’s an incredibly inspiring program, and if there’s one near you, I encourage you to try it out!
AA: What are some causes/issues that you are especially passionate about?
JH: I am super passionate about wrongful convictions. This summer, I was lucky enough to land an internship at the California Innocence Project, where I was able to immerse myself in the law process and see just how difficult it is to exonerate innocent people from prison. This opened my eyes up to corruption within the criminal justice system. The injustices committed by the system have led to thousands of convictions and even some executions. This is extremely frustrating and my experience at this organization has made me extremely passionate about this.
I am also extremely passionate about the environment and climate change. I went vegetarian earlier this year to help reduce my carbon emissions, and I try my best to spread awareness on the current state of the environment through social media and even through Affinity. I also typically try to cut down on my plastic intake, whether that be through using reusable utensils or through metal straws.
AA: What are your future plans?
JH: Next year, I’ll be applying to college. I’m still debating between going into law or journalism, though I hope that at some point in my life, I’ll have the opportunity to do both professionally. Majors I’m looking into include economy, political science, philosophy, and journalism. Ultimately, I want to use my life to give back to the community, as much as I can.
AA: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
JH: There are two quotes which I think offer some pretty great advice:
“We must believe that we are gifted at something and that this thing, at whatever cost, must be attained.” — Marie Curie
“It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.” — Stephen King
To learn more about Joanna and read her work, visit her Affinity profile page! Want to write for Affinity like Joanna? Applications are opening up soon!
All photos were provided by Joanna Hou.