Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Q&A with writer Suellen Zima

Suellen Zima
Suellen Zima is a writer and blogger in Southern California. She is the author of Memoirs of a Middle-aged Hummingbird, and the forthcoming Out of Step: A Diary to My Dead Son.

Q: Why did you decide to write a diary to your late son, and how would you describe the relationship between you?

A: My son died in 2003.  As Mother's Day approached in 2011, I had a strong feeling that he was just too dead.  I needed to try to do something to make him come more alive to me.  I had half-heartedly, unsuccessfully tried a few times to write something about him, but that had gone nowhere. 

So, I thought, "Why not write a diary to him and see what happens?"  I had no plot, didn't know if anything would come of it, or where it might lead, if anywhere.  There were a lot of pieces to our mother-son relationship that were unsaid and unfinished.  We both had felt abandoned by the other after [my] divorce.  Although I always knew something about him from his dad, there had been long gaps where he had refused any contact with me. 

When being HIV-positive turned into AIDS, he knew his time was limited.  It was then he started calling me again, and visited me once.  He died two years later, a month before his 35th birthday. Interracial adoption in the 1970s, divorce when he was 12, guilt and abandonment, homosexuality, HIV-AIDS, dying and grieving were all parts of our complicated mother-son relationship.

Q: How did writing the diary affect you?

A: I wrote in the diary frequently until Mother's Day of 2012. Sometimes I talked to him as I would if he were alive, telling him about up-to-date news I thought would interest him. I discussed interesting aspects of books I was reading. I told him about my life after the divorce that he hadn't wanted to hear about. I attempted to understand him better, both as the child he had been, and as the adult I barely knew. And I wanted him to know me as the person I was now. 

Slowly, subtly, I felt a shift in my emotions. I purposely became more optimistic. My anger and guilt became muted as I endeavored to talk to my son. I enjoyed our communication and felt more connected to him than I had in years. He popped into my mind often, reminding me of things I wanted to tell him in the diary.

Q: Your previous book, Memoirs of a Middle-aged Hummingbird, followed your travels around the world, particularly to China. What about China kept drawing you back?

A: I first went to China in 1988 out of sheer curiosity. I knew nothing about China.  I didn't know any Chinese people. And no one was talking much about China at that time. My first fascination with China was, I suppose, the third-world time machine effect. I knew I wanted to get to know the people, and I chose teaching as my tool to learn the culture from the inside. 

At that time, the students were an intriguing mixture of both innocence and depth, with incredible motivation for learning English. They not only respected their teachers, but treated them as people they wanted to know better. They took me places and invited me to visit their families. Because I nurtured the relationships and visited often over the years, my students became my friends. 

We are still in contact. Now I am a senior, and they are middle-aged.  Six of them asked me to be the foreign grandmother to their children, and this has been a continuing joy in my life.

Q: Do you see links between your two books, and if so, how are the themes you explore in both books connected?

A: Out of Step:  A Diary To My Dead Son is really a prequel and a sequel to Memoirs of a Middle-aged Hummingbird. Because my son chose not to travel with me after the divorce, our communication in a time before the ease of computers, e-mail, and long distance phone calls was limited. Since he felt I had abandoned him by choosing my life abroad, he didn't want much contact. 

So, the years covered in Memoirs of a Middle-aged Hummingbird did not include him. His rejection, plus my guilt for choosing to divorce, made it too painful for me to write about him. However, in the diary, I filled in the gaps of those years without much contact, continued the relationship after he re-connected to me two years before he died, and covered the years since his death in 2003. 

The two books offer very different perspectives on the roads I have traveled in my life. 

Q: Are you planning to write another book?

A: While the seed of writing a book about the times and cultures I explored through my travels was in my mind for a while, the idea to try writing a diary arose unexpectedly from the nagging thought that my son was too dead. 

When I had tried writing about him, I realized I didn't really know enough about him after the age of 12 to write about him. Besides, I craved a form of writing that would re-start some form of communication. The diary emerged spontaneously and I continued to write in it frequently over the next year.

After I ended the diary as a book, I missed the communication with my son.  So, I have continued to write him e-mails. I don't know at this point whether those e-mails will one day become a book. I surprised myself by publishing one book.  There is also a Chinese translation of my first book on an online website in China. And now Out of Step:  A Diary To My Dead Son will be available to all.  Because I am sure I won't stop writing, I know that I will continue my blog ( It's quite possible another book will emerge eventually.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb


  1. I know Suellen and she is a wonderful writer and a heroic mom. I acknowledged her in my own satirical survival book Dancin, Schmancin with the Scars: Finding the Humor No Matter What! along with wounded veterans, Gabrielle Giffords and others who continue the dance of life with scars that are not always visible. Ms. Zima is one of those people who contribute to our universe in spite of their grief. And being the first white women to venture to foreign lands to teach English makes her a hero of tremendous scope. Her book "Out of Step: The Diary To My Dead Son" will be treasured by those who suffered any kind of loss, which covers just about everyone who is lucky enough to live long life. Jan Marshall

  2. Thank you so much for commenting; I appreciate your insights on these difficult subjects and on Suellen Zima's work.
    Best regards,