Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Q&A with writer Kim Wong Keltner

Kim Wong Keltner
Kim Wong Keltner is the author of the new book Tiger Babies Strike Back, her first work of nonfiction. She also has written three novels, The Dim Sum of All Things, Buddha Baby, and I Want Candy

Q: What was the impetus for you to write Tiger Babies Strike Back?

A:  I hadn’t read [Amy] Chua’s book [Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother] right away, but everyone kept asking me if I was a “Tiger Mom.” Funny, people used to just ask me if I was a waitress in a Chinese restaurant. And now it was “Tiger Mom.” It was shocking to me that these two broad stereotypes were so dominant in people’s minds.

I wanted to show and describe to readers how complex life really is for not just Asian-Americans, but for women and mothers. The challenges of being an adult daughter as well as being a new mom are cross-cultural. I wanted to depict the everyday ironies as well as the larger themes of identity and personhood when one foot is in the new world and the other is stuck in the old – or rather, the old world is trying desperately to hold on but you want to be your own woman.

Q: You write, “Tiger parenting makes lonely fools of us all.” How were you able to overcome that “tiger parenting,” and not use the same methods in raising your own daughter?

A: I have always been an emotional person. I cry during “Finding Nemo.” So it wasn’t hard for me to cast off my family’s strict ways. My husband and I are both the youngest in our families, and both sets of our parents are each the eldest in their immediate families. So it was good that we two marshmallows married each other.

That said, we are both tired of everyone else playing, “My time is more important than yours.” We have both had to work on standing up for ourselves because we both grew up desperately trying to please everyone else. Recently, when my mother was micromanaging my husband’s driving, he actually said, “Mom, I’m fifty. I know how to pull the car out of the driveway.” Saying these small things is better than holding it all in.

We are really fed up with being bossed around, but I don’t want to be one of those families where people don’t speak to each other for years or stop coming to Christmas.

Q: You write of your mother’s helpfulness when your daughter was born, “My mom and I are not exactly chummy best friends. But she was my rock when I needed one.” Did your relationship with your mother change after that point, and if so, how?

A: For a while my relationship with my mom was very good because we were both so focused on practical, day-to-day tasks. My mom is great with concrete things such as: bathe the baby, buy more diapers, etc.

However, she cannot talk about feelings. The abstract, emotional stuff is foreign to her. Everyone loves a cute and cuddly little baby and at that stage, the myriad of practical details are a great distraction. But my daughter is almost ten now, with awkward teeth and sometimes uncombed hair.

Also, the approach of puberty is something I’m very aware of. My mom, with me, met my developing sexuality with fear and her own insecurities. So I am very aware of making sure my mom doesn’t make jabbing comments to my kid about being fat, or pimply, or whatnot.

Not that my daughter is any of those things, but we all have experienced those offhand, evil comments that are then brushed off as “jokes.” That infuriates me.

And I am ready to jump all over that if I hear them coming from my mother to my daughter. I think my mom is unconscious of the hurtfulness of these comments, but nonetheless, I cannot pretend I do not hear them, and I will not let them slide.

I love my mother. But it is my job to protect my daughter. And it’s also my job to explain to my daughter why people (even her own grandmother) say weird things. I’m willing to have any awkward conversation that needs to happen.

The chapter, “Don’t Wash Pinky,” is an example of the complex dynamic between grandmother, mother and granddaughter.

Q: You also have written three novels. Do you prefer one type of writing to the other?

A: I prefer writing non-fiction now. Even with I Want Candy, I had started it in 3rd person, but that sounded a bit false, so I switched to first person. It was more immediate, and gave the feeling of being inside the character’s head, as if the events were happening to the reader as they were happening to Candace. I want that immediacy.

And with non-fiction, of course, there is nowhere to hide. I think readers crave what is real, even if it is unpleasant. I personally want to hear other people’s stories, and how they really felt. So non-fiction just feels so much closer to the truth.

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: Am I working on another book? I am always working on all sorts of things in my head, and also in my notebook, but who knows what will become of these ideas and bits of stories? Sentences and short paragraphs are always floating around, germinating.

I heard this great phrase yesterday. I live in a small town and someone was talking about a woman from school who was at our supermarket and there was an “altercation at the meat counter.” I thought, what a great title for a short story, or even a poem! Altercation at the Meat Counter.

A person doesn’t have to know where these ideas are going. Just keep working and writing, and something will happen. So the roundabout answer is, I don’t know if I’m working on another book or just amusing myself. It is all still worth it.

And it’s also the only way I know how to work. I am still just a regular person doing laundry and making dinner. I shop at the grocery store, it’s just that I also have one ear attuned all the time for the potential “altercation at the meat counter.”

Q: Anything else we should know?

A:  What else? If anyone wants to work on their own writing, please keep in mind what I just wrote about my process. You don’t need to have a book deal or even a set goal in mind.

If you want to write, do it for yourself first, and don’t worry about the outcome. You could write one sentence a day. I used to scribble words on my bus transfers on the way to work. It delighted only me. And little by little, those small words and phrases eventually became my first book, The Dim Sum of All Things

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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