Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Q&A with author Selby Fleming McPhee

Selby Fleming McPhee, photo by Bill Geiger
Selby Fleming McPhee is the author of Love Crazy: A Memoir, which tells the story of her parents. She has worked as a staff writer and editor at various educational institutions, including Tufts University and the National Association of Independent Schools. She lives in Maryland.

Q: What made you decide to write a book about your parents?

A: When I was born, in 1943, my parents, Peggy and Jack, had already been married for 20 years and had raised one child -- my brother Tommy. I had heard stories of their romance and impulsive secret elopement in the summer of 1923, followed by the chaos that ensued when their families discovered that they were married. 

The whole story had a romantic, 1920s feel to it, and I only had the sketchiest of details. So when I discovered a box of letters, I confess I chose to ignore the admonition on top of the box -- to destroy the letters "unopened" -- and asked my father if he would allow me to read them. 

The letters not only gave me a day-by-day picture of the elopement drama, they outlined the hopes and dreams of my young parents, kept apart for the first year of their marriage, as they came to know each other in a daily epistolary conversation. The letters gave me scenes from Jazz Age Chicago, their first home together, in 1925, and from the small towns along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, where my father worked  in the late 1920s as a young engineer on dams and bridges that were a part of the last burst of American industry before the Depression brought the world to a halt..

So the letters came first.  What I read in them made me want to write their story.

Q: How difficult was it to view your parents objectively as you wrote about their lives?

A: It was very difficult!  The mother I grew up with was a troubled, unhappy woman, and I went into the project inclined to see my father as heroic and my mother in emphatically unheroic terms. 

What happened, though, is that through reading and reflecting on the letters, I found the sweet, hopeful, flirtatious young woman my father fell in love with, and I also saw challenges that he, lovable as he was, presented to her. 

So the letters, and the book, were a gift to me. I ended up feeling tremendous empathy for both of them, and admiration for their courage in the face of economic hardship and some bad luck. I hope readers will, too. 

There were times, though, when I relived some real anger at my mother, and at some of the people who judged my parents so harshly, and it took me a few drafts of the book to put all that in perspective and tell their story more dispassionately.

Q: What did your family members think of the book?

A: My brother died before the book was finished, but he was enthusiastic about the project, and wanted me to write it. My daughters and my brother's children have found their grandparents' lives interesting and full of drama. I think they have gained some perspective about us -- my brother and me -- and the environment in which we were raised. 

And we are all interested in the family patterns that reveal themselves in an examination of that generation. There have been provocative discussions of the ways we all carry my parents, Peggy and Jack, in our own lives.

Q: Why did you decide on Love Crazy as the book's title?

A: Jack and Peggy were besotted, bamboozled, crazy in love. There was an intensity to their attachment that never really changed, though time and circumstances altered their lives. 

At the same time, each of them had a fragility that made them sometimes unreliable as partners and as parents. My father could not, for the life of him, hold on to money -- it just ate its way out of his pocket. And my mother suffered from some emotional imbalance that I don't think was ever quite diagnosed, but it made her fearful and tyrannical, needy and sometimes cruel all at once. That meant that there was a constant undercurrent of chaos in our family life. 

But in the end, it was all held together by this ferocious love they had for each other and for us. So "Love Crazy" seemed like a pretty good description of the couple whose story I tell.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am thinking of a book about my age cohort at Vassar College --- the Class of 1965 -- and the beginnings of the second women's movement. Betty Friedan published her book The Feminine Mystique when we were sophomores, and though the effects of the book, and the movement, were not immediate, I think it began to turn our world on its axis even then, for a lot of us. I, for example, went into college, thinking of nothing more than a kind of 1950s life as a wife and mother, and I came out wanting more than that -- to define myself through work. 

Anyway, I'm doing some reading right now, and I hope to get the help of friends, who might be willing to tell their stories, now that we're all turning 70 and can look back on our lives.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I feel that I learned so much -- of history, family, myself -- from reading family letters and I would like to encourage people who have mouldering boxes of family letters and papers in their attic to look at them.  There are surely stories to be discovered there.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 30

July 30, 1818: Author Emily Bronte born.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Q&A with author Nathaniel Philbrick

Nathaniel Philbrick
Nathaniel Philbrick is the author most recently of Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution. His other books include Why Read Moby-Dick?, The Last Stand, and Mayflower. He lives on the island of Nantucket, Mass.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on the battle of Bunker Hill in your latest book?

A: Instead of a focal point, I decided to make the Battle of Bunker Hill the turning point of my book, where a narrative previously dominated by Dr. Joseph Warren (a leading patriot who dies in the battle) turns to George Washington, who takes command of the provincial army soon after the battle. Bunker Hill was where a revolution turned into a full scale war of independence that would ultimately drag on for eight long years.

Q: You write that "the city of Boston is the true hero of this story." Why is that the case?

A: Although Warren and Washington are focal points, the community of Boston is what the book is really all about, a city that gets literally turned inside out by the revolution. In the beginning Boston is the center of patriot defiance, but with the arrival of the British army, it becomes a city under military occupation as thousands of its residents flee to the surrounding towns.

After Lexington and Concord, Boston becomes a British-occupied garrison under siege as thousands of patriot militiamen flood into Cambridge and Roxbury. After the evacuation of the British in March 1776, the residents return and Boston gradually begins to put itself back together. It's a fascinating process that most of us don't necessarily associate with the Revolution.

Q: Was there anything that particularly surprised you as you researched the book?

A: I was surprised by the ambivalence most people felt at the beginning of the revolution. Most people didn't care that much about the issues that the patriots were fulminating about; they simply wanted things to remain the way they had always been, since the colonists were the least-taxed and freest people in the British empire.

But as tensions mounted and violence broke out, people had to choose. But even after Lexington and Concord it wasn't black and white, and I ended up having a lot of sympathy for those on both sides, and especially for the people caught in the middle.

Q: Bunker Hill features a large cast of characters. Are there some that you find especially admirable (or especially unpleasant)?

A: Joseph Warren, who emerged as the leader of the on-the-ground revolution in Boston, was eloquent and passionate and if he hadn't been killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill, he might have been one of our Founding Fathers. And then there is Dr. Benjamin Church, a leading patriot who turns out to be a British spy. Those two are kind of the Ying and Yang of the book.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm continuing with the story of the Revolution as the action moves to New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I have a golden retriever named Stella.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb 

Q&A with author Paul Evans Pedersen, Jr.

Paul Evans Pedersen, Jr.
Paul Evans Pedersen, Jr., is the author most recently of The Legendary Pine Barrens: New Tales From Old Haunts, a collection of stories and songs focusing on Southern New Jersey's Pine Barrens. Pedersen, a journalist, musician, and photographer, also has written another collection, Required Restroom Readings. In addition, he designs jewelry made from antique glass. He lives in Elm, N.J.

Q: You write that you've been fascinated by the Pine Barrens since first going there at age 7. What about it continues to interest you?

A: What amazes me the most is that it’s still there. We were close to losing it in the ‘60s; [it almost became] close to the largest jet port in the country, but luckily the governor [Brendan Byrne, after reading a book about the Pine Barrens by writer] John McPhee put steps in place and saved it as a national reserve.

There are 1 million-point-one acres of pristine pines sitting on 17 trillion gallons of fresh water. So close to the ocean, so close to Philadelphia, so close to Trenton and New York. It’s still pristine, and it’s still there. There are animals and fauna, stuff that grows down south and the farthest north it’s found is the Pine Barrens. Stuff that grows up north, and the farthest south it’s found is the Pine Barrens.

Q: Do you think your stories will leave people with a new impression of the area?

I think it will leave people with a new impression. People didn’t know about the Blue Hole. I’ve been in a band for a number of years, and the people didn’t know about it. One of the coolest stories about the Pine Barrens is the Blue Hole.

After you read the book, you’re less inclined to think it’s a wasteland, a bunch of trees. Pine Barrens—it’s anything but barren….actually, there’s so much going on!

Q: Do you draw on various folk traditions for your stories and songs?

A: I don’t think I draw on folk traditions. I just tell it the way I hear it in my head, and the way I tell it to my kids and my grandkids. I wrote the book to preserve the stories. I would ask, Why this? And I made the stories up [to answer the questions].

Q: What have the reactions been to the book?

A: Nothing but favorable reactions. In the beginning I was a little worried. There had been no new legends or myths from the Pine Barrens for a long time. [I thought] people would say you can’t build new myths, but that’s how legends about the Pine Barrens got started. I had no idea there were professional storytellers wandering around the Pine Barrens.

Q: When was that?

A: The 1800s. The Pine Barrens were being cleared, and jobs started leaving. People started telling stories, singing songs, hopefully could make a few coins. I was drawing on that.

Q: What is the origin of the story of the Jersey Devil?

A: The Jersey Devil was reported to be the 13th son of a woman named Mrs. Leeds or Mrs. Shrouds. It goes back to the 1700s. This woman was pregnant with her 13th child, and was tired of being pregnant, so she cursed it: May this child be a devil!...It’s almost 300 years old. That’s the original legend.

One [version of the legend] that’s more believable, mine, happened in that well. I saw a pair of birds coupled on my pool; that’s how my story got its origin.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Another collection and a novel. The collection is about the Pine Barrens, more myths and legends, ghost stories, scarier stuff. I wasn’t real sure when I wrote this [The Legendary Pine Barrens] what age group it was pointed at, and I didn’t have any real scary stuff.

The novel is going to be about the possibility that the Jersey Devil is real. There are scientists now who think this could be a carryover from a different time, like Bigfoot. If you Google “dimorphodon,” you see a creature that looks like how people describe the Jersey Devil.

It’s fiction, of course, but there’s going to be a dimorphodon thing as part of the creature….The legend goes back way before [Mrs.] Leeds. People have seen stuff for years and years—who knows what they’re seeing?

Q: Are you going to write from the creature’s perspective?

A: A little bit; [the reader will be] intimately acquainted with the thing and what it thinks about.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m a songwriter, and I enjoy writing songs as much as I enjoy writing stories. I really enjoy writing stories. A song is a three-minute story. Writing a novel is daunting, to say the least. I’m a three-minute guy.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 23

July 23, 1888: Writer Raymond Chandler born.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Q&A with novelist Jodi Picoult

Jodi Picoult
Jodi Picoult is the bestselling author of 21 novels, including My Sister's Keeper, Plain Truth, Lone Wolf, and most recently The Storyteller. She lives in Hanover, New Hampshire.
Q: You wrote on your website that the research you conducted for your new novel, The Storyteller, "was among some of the most emotionally grueling I’ve ever done." Why did you decide to write a novel with a Holocaust theme, and how did you research the book?
A: There is a book by Simon Wiesenthal called The Sunflower, which recounts a time when he was in a concentration camp and brought to a dying Nazi, who requested “a Jew” that he could confess his sins to…and be absolved by.  
Wiesenthal did not forgive the man and said he could not, as he was not the victim upon whom the evil was perpetrated – those victims were dead.  There have been countless philosophical responses to Wiesenthal’s piece by religious officials of all denominations, analyzing his response and whether it is right or wrong.  
It fascinated me to think about what would happen if the same request was modernized in some way, so that a former Nazi asked the descendant of a Holocaust survivor for forgiveness.  Is she morally obligated to say yes, or was Wiesenthal right – and does she not have the right to do that?  If she craves revenge, does that make her sink to his level?  Those were the questions I wanted to explore.  
When I told my mother I was planning to write a book that had a bit of the Holocaust in it, I asked her to find me some survivors because she’d attended some ADL lectures in Phoenix.  
Little did I know that she would be so good at this task she’d call me a day later with the names and numbers of five Holocaust survivors willing to help me by telling me their stories.  Some of the moments these brave men and women told me will stay with me forever…. 
I also had the opportunity to interview a wonderful man from the Human Rights and Special Prosecutions division of the Dept. of Justice whose job is to hunt down Nazis – even though they are in their 80s and 90s.  His rationale for why this still matters – and his fervent desire to pursue anyone who was a perpetrator of genocide during WWII – was incredibly inspiring.
Q: Your books tend to tackle difficult moral questions. Was that always your goal as a writer, and do you find it difficult to plunge into some of the subjects you write about?
A:  I think I’ve sort of found my groove – I write about questions to which I don’t know the answers, and that’s what's most interesting for me to pursue.  I don’t know if it was always my goal but it’s where I have gravitated.  It is always difficult to dive into those subjects.  If it’s not an uncomfortable, itchy subject, it’s probably not something I’d be writing about.
Q: Over the years that you've been writing, the world of publishing has experienced some changes, including the popularity of e-books, the rise of self-publishing, the battle between Amazon and other outlets, and more. What impact do you think these changes have had on authors, and do you have a sense of what's coming next?
A:  HUGE changes.  We’ve seen the rise of Amazon and Borders and B&N, and the fall of Borders.  We’ve seen Target and WalMart and Costco cutting margins.  The rise of e-books is astronomical – in the past year alone 75 percent of my sales have been electronic, and not physical books.  
The changes are profound.  Established authors are making less money on e-books than on print books; which means that publishers are wary of taking risks…which means that fewer new authors are being published.  
The rise of self publishing is very interesting but it’s not the magic bullet wannabe writers expect – for every E.L. James there are 10,000 authors with a book on Amazon no one is reading.  What you lose when you self publish, versus traditional publishing, is the marketing connections and the placement in bookstores that a mainstream publisher can give you.  
What’s coming next?  I have no idea.  I swear, it changes daily.
Q: What was it like to write a book with your daughter [Between the Lines, written with Samantha van Leer]?
A:  I was on book tour in Los Angeles, when my telephone rang. “Mom,” my daughter Sammy said. “I think I have a pretty good idea for a book.” This was not extraordinary. Of my three children, Sammy has always been the one with an imagination that is unparalleled. 
So…when Sammy told me that, I listened carefully.  What if the characters in a book had lives of their own, after the cover was closed? What if the act of reading was just these characters performing a play, over and over…but those characters still had dreams, hopes, wishes, and aspirations beyond the roles they acted out on a daily basis for the reader? And what if one of those characters desperately wanted get out of his book ? Better yet, what if one of his readers fell in love with him, and decided to help?
I suggested we write the book together.  We started by brainstorming the characters. Sammy immediately named the prince after our dog, Oliver; and his committed teenager reader became Delilah, after one of our miniature donkeys. 
We argued over the tone of the fairytale – I wanted it to be tongue-in-cheek; Sammy preferred it to be classic, and to my surprise, she turned out to be 100 percent right.  
There were a lot of moments like that for me – where I thought I’d know best, but her instincts turned out to be spot on. Some of the coolest details in the book were ones Sammy had envisioned long before we ever pinned a plot into place: the idea of an illustrated spider being plucked from the page and turning into a vaguely arachnid-shaped word, legs made of the serifs from the P and D in “spider”; the world going white around Oliver as he starts to rewrite his ending; and my personal favorite – the way Oliver proves who he is at the end of the book, by giving himself a paper cut.  
We had a great time working together, but it should be noted that it wasn’t all fun and games. Sammy and I took two years to write this book because I insisted that we be sitting together at the computer, taking turns typing, and literally speaking every sentence out loud. I would say one line, then Sammy would jump in with the next. 
Sometimes we were motivated and on a roll. Other times, Sammy would just stare at me in frustration. “You do this every day?” she said, at one point. I think the reality of writing something as big as a novel hit home for her, when we spend weekends, school vacations, and summers slaving away in front of an iMac. 
That said, we had some moments where we laughed so hard we couldn’t catch our breath. The coolest moments were when, as collaborators, we truly began to think alike. It’s not an experience I get to have very often as a novelist, but when you write with someone, and you are both envisioning the same unfolding moment, it’s magical. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A:  My 2014 book is tentatively called The Elephant Graveyard (but that’s probably going to change).  It’s the story of Alice Metcalf, a researcher studying the reaction of elephants to grief – they are one of the few animal species that recognize and mourn for their dead, as humans do. Along with her husband, Thomas, she ran an elephant sanctuary – until one tragic night, an animal caretaker died in an accident and Alice disappeared, leaving behind only one witness: her three year old daughter, Jenna. 

Now, 10 years later, Jenna is determined to find her mother – whom she believes would never leave her behind willingly. With the help of a publicly disgraced psychic, Jenna uncovers new information – and manages to convince the former detective in charge to reopen the case. 

This is a book about the lengths we go to for those who have left us behind; about the staying power of love; and about how three broken souls might have just the right pieces to mend each other. It also has a fabulous twist.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A:  Sometimes it’s fun for people to find out that I wrote 5 issues of Wonder Woman for DC Comics…and I’m only the second woman since her conception in the 1940s to write her!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with author Julia Scheeres

Julia Scheeres
Julia Scheeres is the author of A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown, and the bestselling memoir Jesus Land. Scheeres, who has written for the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and other publications, works at the San Francisco Writers' Grotto, a writers' collective, and lives in Berkeley, California.

Q: You write on your website, "There are many correlations between Jesus Land and A Thousand Lives, especially in matters dealing with race, seclusion and oppressive belief systems." What drew you to writing about those themes?

A: My childhood. I was raised with two adopted black brothers in rural Indiana, in a fundamentalist Christian family. My brother David (who was my same age) and I were always looking for a place where we'd belong. In Indiana I'd get called a nigger lover, he'd get physically attacked. We would have been intrigued by Jim Jones' church. He integrated pews and preached a message of social justice instead of the hellfire sermons we were used to.

Q: You based much of your research for A Thousand Lives on material that the FBI had recently released. What was the most surprising thing that you discovered?

A: All the notes from Jonestown residents pleading with Jones to let them return to the U.S. It was heartbreaking. Mothers pleading for the sake of their children to let them go. Grandmothers promising to sell off all the family heirlooms and send him the money. Of course he had much darker plans for them and refused to let anyone go.

Nevertheless, media reports after the massacre stigmatized all Jonestown residents as "Kool-aid drinkers" and blind sheep. My book argues the opposite - that Jones lured his congregants down there to kill them. They were trapped in the middle of the jungle and had no way to leave. He planned to kill them for years before he found a means to do so.

Q: You write that before learning of the FBI material, you had been planning to write a novel about a charismatic preacher. Do you ever plan to go back to that novel?

A: Not for the moment. Nonfiction sells better than fiction, and right now, I need money. My husband is a teacher and we live in one of the most expensive cities in the country (Berkeley, CA). We can't even afford to buy a house here.  

Q: In the book, you refrain from using the word "cult." Why, and what impact does that word have when people think about Jonestown?

A: I wanted readers to approach the Jonestown story with an open mind. "Cult" is a loaded word. No one joins a cult. They join a church, a movement....that becomes something else. It took a book to explore the different reasons people ended up trapped in Jonestown. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm working on a follow-up book to my memoir Jesus Land, exploring my years in Spain. I moved to Spain to escape the Midwest after graduating college and fell in love with a dashing anti-terrorist agent. We lived an idyllic life in Valencia until he slowly went mad.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My first book, Jesus Land, lead to the demise of the abusive reform school it featured. After my memoir was published, other former students came forward to share their stories. We created a website that generated a lot of media buzz. So that was a very unexpected and triumphant outcome of that book. Writing is power.
 --Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with artist and author Laura Kina

Laura Kina, photo by Pam Loring
Laura Kina, the Vincent de Paul associate professor of Art, Media, and Design at DePaul University, is the co-editor of the new book War Baby/Love Child: Mixed Race Asian American Art and the co-curator of an accompanying art exhibit. She lives in Chicago.

Q: How did you select these particular authors and artists to include in the book?

A: I’m a visual artist, a painter, and much of my work has been about Asian American and mixed race identity and history. As a result, I’m tapped into a network of artists, scholars, and activists working on similar topics. My co-editor Wei Ming Dariotis and I also teach classes on mixed race and Asian American studies so we were also both seeking out work by relevant artists and authors to share with our students.

This is actually how we met. She was using my art in her classes at San Francisco State University and I was using her articles on “hapa” mixed Asian American identity in my classes at DePaul University.

The kernel for our book and the related traveling exhibition happened organically over several years of research and teaching and involvement with community multiracial organizations such as MAVIN in Seattle and iPride and Hapa Issues Forum in San Francisco and then later working together with my colleague Camilla Fojas to found the Critical Mixed RaceStudies biennial conference at DePaul University in Chicago.

In 2008 when we decided to begin working on the War Baby / Love Child project, I was looking to find something beyond the tired “post-racial” debate of identity politics in the art world. I wanted to know how other artists were addressing their mixed race identity in innovative ways that wasn’t didactic or ironic. I was looking for works that would be in dialogue with each other, where aesthetic and formal concerns were on an equal par with conceptual and political concerns.

So the starting point for me was the studio visits, art objects, and conducting the artists’ interviews. I didn’t want the work to illustrate the artists’ biography but rather enhance it. The project was originally just an exhibition proposal but Wei Ming and I both also felt it was important to contextualize each artist’s story and to outline a larger social and political history that typically gets erased in favor of focusing on exceptional individual narratives.

The 19 artists we ended up selecting come from across the U.S. – Chicago, Denver, Honolulu, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Memphis, Miami to name just a few of their geographic locations. That was great for the book but a nightmare for exhibition shipping costs! I ended up having to get a National Endowment for the Arts grant through DePaul University to make the show a reality.

The artists reflect a breadth of diversity in terms of generational, ethnic, racial and class experiences. We have some artists, like Albert Chong and Kip Fulbeck, who are closely associated with mixed race representation and others like Amanda Ross-Ho and Laurel Nakadate who are rising art stars where viewers might not have even read their work through a racialized context and others like Stuart Gaffney that are more associated with marriage equity activism.

Finding the artists was the relatively easy part. A far bigger challenge was finding authors who could write about visual culture and contemporary art AND Asian American studies and mixed race studies. In addition to our own networks in our hometowns of San Francisco and Chicago, we sought out recommendations from other art historians, curators, Asian American studies scholars, and multiracial organizations.

Q: You examine a very diverse set of experiences. Is there any overall theme that you'd like the reader to take from the book?

A: This is ultimately a book about contemporary U.S. art in relation to mixed race and Asian American history and identity. I think that our foreword author Kent Ono said it most succinctly: “War Baby / Love Child makes it possible for us to understand how art documents the experience of society, structures, and the history that produced them, as well as to understand art as object that itself creates history, a new society, and, as anterior immanence, the potential for society to enact a new future.”

Q: What has the reaction been to the book and art exhibit so far?

A: We’ve received a good deal of press so far, which I am really grateful for, but the reactions that have meant the most to me are how the show and book has positively impacted individuals and pushed the dialogue on mixed race identity and Asian American art forward.

In a recent interview, one of the artists in the War Baby / Love Child book/show, Richard Lou, shared:

War Baby/Love Child is - dare I say it - an important landmark show. It's not just about Asian Americans (which is important unto itself). It's also about redefining the Asian American experience within the confines of the United States as a group of people based on ethnicity and how that ethnicity is articulated and rearticulated moment by moment….

We’ve really put the project out there with social media (website, YouTube video, Facebook) so we’ve also heard from mixed race Asians in Asia (“Amerasians”) who might have just seen the book trailer and have expressed concern over what they feel is the “feel-good” classed luxury of U.S. identity politics and questions about how these issues are actually transnational.

I’m interpreting theses concerns as a frustration with the continued U.S. military presence in places like Okinawa, Japan, and the very different realities of overt discrimination mixed race Asians in Asia may be facing. Because of the Asian American focus, most of our book necessarily takes on a diasporic and transnational framework (including militarization and migration histories).

Laura Kina and her artwork, photo by Cheryl Tan
In the U.S. context, when you talk about race and specifically mixed race, a Black/White “biracial” discourse tends to dominate. Moreover, we sought to shift the center of Asian American multiracial discourse from what we’ve noticed as a dominance of Asian/White representation to be inclusive of Asian/Black and Native Hawaiian, Native American, Latina/o and transracial adoptee, and intersectional LGBTQ identities and issues. That was a lot to tackle in one project!

Q: In the introduction, you discuss the "war baby" and "love child" stereotypes. Why did you opt to use that for the book's title?

A: When my co-editor Wei Ming Dariotis was growing up in San Francisco in the 1970s she said that she would frequently get asked if her parents met “during the war.” Her dad, who just passed away, was “White” (Greek, Swedish, Scottish, German, English, and Pennsylvania Dutch) and her mother is from China. She couldn’t understand where the “war baby” label was coming from. As she commented in a recent podcast, “In 1969, we weren’t at war with China.”

I was born just a few years later in 1973 and I was part of a multicultural generation where being mixed was held up as a sign of racial progress, almost the flipside of the tragic “Amerasian” narrative. It’s something I call the “Happy Hapa” phenomenon where young mixed Asians are mixed and proud but oblivious to a larger racial history.

Both Wei Ming and I have experienced assumptions of our “illegitimacy” (the “love child” stereotype) on one extreme or the seemingly more benign “where did your parents meet?” or “are your parents still together?” questions. Your existence ends up being framed as the by-product or “child” (regardless of how old you are) of two separately raced individuals.

We both would also get statements that mixed folks get more generally – “What are you?,” “You look so exotic,” “You have the best of both worlds” and so on. These would collide with the stereotypes we face as Asian Americans of being a model minority, Yellow Peril hangovers of being inscrutable and untrustworthy traitors, or hypersexualized for women and demasculinized for men.

So we realized that in order to really see and represent mixed race Asian American art, despite what our or the artists’ actual biographies or self-perception may be, there were some key stereotypes with some very real histories that were throwing a shadow onto our everyday lives that we needed to interrogate. It’s not just about individual identity. “War Baby / Love Child” is shorthand for all of that.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just got back from a residency at the Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest, IL, where I had a 3Arts Residency Fellowship and finished up a body of oil paintings for a series called “Sugar” about my father's Okinawan sugarcane plantation community on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi that I’ve been working on since 2009. Be on the lookout in the next few years for a traveling show of the work called “Blue Hawaiʻi.”

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: If you are in Seattle between August 9, 2013 – January 19, 2014, please come to see the War Baby / Love Child: Mixed Race Asian American Art exhibition at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience. You can also catch five of my new paintings in the Wing Luke’s Under My Skin: Artists Explore Race in the 21st Century exhibition up now through November 17, 2013. For a complete listing of my upcoming shows and events visit: http://www.laurakina.com/calendar.html

On September 1 we will be launching the inaugural Journal ofCritical Mixed Race Studies. Also be on the lookout this coming fall for the call for papers for the 2014 Critical Mixed Race Studies conference at DePaul University.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

July 11

July 11, 1899: Author E.B. White born.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Q&A with writer Mingmei Yip

Mingmei Yip
Mingmei Yip is the author of five novels, including The Nine Fold Heaven, which was just published; Skeleton Women; and Peach Blossom Pavilion. She also has written two books for children, and five books written in Chinese. She lives in New York City.

Q: How did you come up with the idea and the characters for The Nine Fold Heaven?

A: It started with my Skeleton Women book. “Skeleton woman” in Chinese means femme fatale—very talented and beautiful women who can turn you into a skeleton they’re so powerful….When I was a child, people would call other people skeleton women. Then the phrase disappeared.

I was at an academic meeting, and a scholar was doing research about skeleton women in China. That was three years ago. I was awakened by this term. I listened to the lecture, and I thought, I am going to write a novel!

A lot of them are spies. Most of these women in China in the 1930s and ‘40s spied on politicians to get state secrets. A few were executed; it was very sad.

When I started to write the novel--I have three [skeleton women] in the novel: a magician, a singer, and a gossip columnist—I didn’t want Camilla [the singer] to spy on politicians. I would have to get into the politics; that would be too complicated…I changed it to gangsters; everyone can relate to that. Then I had to do a lot of research on the gangster world in 1930s China. It was kind of scary to me. It had nothing to do with my life or my world.

Q: What type of research did you do?

A: There was not much in English, so I had to do a lot of research. I already knew some gangsters’ names; they were famous. I Googled them in Chinese. Google is very superficial—you can’t depend on that. Then I had to buy books. I know some book sites in China. I was somewhat lucky—I was able to get a few books about Chinese spies in the '30s.

Q: Do you have a favorite among the characters you’ve created?

A: Just like my children, of course I like all of them. The first one I like very much, the young prostitute in Peach Blossom Pavilion. She was tricked into prostitution and finally found happiness. I like to write about very strong women characters. She was a scholar’s little girl, at 13 she became a prostitute—she had no choice. They are thrust onto a path they didn’t choose. She used her own resources to get out of the prostitution house and achieve a certain happiness.

Most of my novels involve this type of situation for the women. I have met women who went through the Cultural Revolution and found a way out and achieved success. My life is not as miserable as the protagonists’ but I had a rough time in my own life—that’s why I like to write about strong women who use all their resources to get what they want in life. That’s very important. I didn’t have [many] resources; my father was a gambler. When I was a teenager he gambled money away and my family didn’t have much left. When it’s a limited situation, there’s motivation for you to get out.…

Q: You’ve also written children’s books. Do you prefer one type of writing to another?

A: A novel is more satisfying because it’s long and I can include my own thoughts, my own world-views. It’s very multi-layered and very satisfying. It’s much harder to write—you do research, you get writer’s block.

Children’s books are a lot more fun, they’re easier, the pages are much [fewer]. For children, I do my own illustrations, so it’s almost as difficult. The writing is easy, but the illustrations are very difficult, just like writing a novel. I do a draft first, and then [have to decide] where to place this animal, [in a way that] catches children’s attention. Sometimes I do three or four drafts, I’m not happy, then I do it again, add color…After I have all this in mind, the rest is easy, I just paint it….

Q: How do you incorporate your knowledge about art, and also about music, into your novels for adults?

A: I read about music, painting, calligraphy, philosophy, poetry. I incorporate it into my novels. All this background… in Tai Chi, in Chinese medicine, in tea ceremony, I really go into it. All this helps a lot in the novel-writing.

In Petals From the Sky--it’s about nuns--one of the nuns performs a tea ceremony. I know about the tea ceremony, so I can make the character perform a tea ceremony. When I write it into the novel, I don’t want to just show this and that. I want to incorporate it into that character. She is very meticulous. A tea ceremony is very meticulous. She had great suffering in her past, her life is chaotic, and she wanted to rechannel her life, and performing the ceremony is a way to regain order.

In the first novel, the prostitute plays the qin. I play the qin. The older prostitute told her to keep a pure land in her heart, to keep a secret space in our hearts that no one can step on. The instrument in Chinese history is revered, a sacred spirit. That’s why prostitutes play that instrument, to keep a pure land in their hearts.

Q: You’ve also published some books in Chinese. What can you tell us about them?

A: I’ve written five books in Chinese. I was a professor in the past, and two are academic books about music. I also have a book on Zen Buddhism with painting and calligraphy. One is a book about music for the general public, and one is a collection of essays.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m writing my sixth novel. It’s about a ghost bride--in ancient China, when there are two girlfriends [with children the same age], and they promise them in marriage when they are very young….The problem is, in ancient China, the death rate of babies was very high. In my novel, the baby boy dies, and the baby girl still has to keep the promise to marry the ghost. It starts with the wedding, and then she runs away. … She runs into a community of celibate women who are embroiderers. The novel is not really about embroidery, but about her fate—how she finds her own happiness. It’s a convoluted plot; she gets married four times.

Q: Do you ever base your characters on real women?

A: No, but in the first book about the courtesan--they are all very well versed in the literary arts—I researched a lot about courtesans. Sometimes I might have a composite character, but it’s never really based on one, it’s not my style. I don’t need to base it on a certain person. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb