Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Q&A with Alexandra A. Chan




Alexandra A. Chan is the author of the new memoir In the Garden Behind the Moon: A Memoir of Loss, Myth, and Magic. Her other books include Slavery in the Age of Reason. Also an archaeologist, she lives in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.


Q: What inspired you to write In the Garden Behind the Moon, and how was the book's title chosen?


A: I think I can safely say that I was less inspired than I was compelled. I have been drawn to story since I was little girl and did experiment with writing stories very young, as well as with illustrating them.


This is a lovely little foreshadowing for In the Garden Behind the Moon, which is lavishly illustrated in full color with my own artwork. My inner child is dancing!


I had also been told for decades by people everywhere I went that I should “write a book about my dad,” who was well known as an extraordinary, larger-than-life character who drew people around him like moths to a flame.


But while that idea did always have a siren pull on me, I could never really execute because my dad had always told me, “the only person going to write a book about me is me.” And I had to kind of agree with him.


Ultimately, however, his death ushered in such a profound crisis in my life that it felt like I had no option but to write. The wonderful thing about that process was discovering that I was not, in fact, writing “a book about my dad,” though he is in it well enough. The only story I really had to tell—and I did have to tell it—was my own.


The title is a bit of a magical accident—the kind that can heal your broken heart and make you see the world with fresh eyes, more open to wonder.


The working title had been something different (and I do mean entirely different) for many years. I changed it to In the Garden Behind the Moon just a couple of weeks before getting a book deal.


I had been struggling with a chapter (one of the last chapters) that dealt with Chinese ideas of family, healing, and the moon, and I couldn’t quite get how to link them all together, though I could feel the connection there.


I took a break to turn my attention elsewhere, went looking for a book of poems on my shelf, and a letter from my aunt, stuck between two books, came with it.


In the letter she had shared with me a short story she had written called “The Moon Dragon.” And in that story was the answer to my query, almost as if she had heard my struggles from earlier and decided to lend a helping hand.


Her story gave me a mythological framework for understanding what it was I was writing about, and so In the Garden Behind the Moon became the new title. It is a metaphor for where I had been the previous seven years since my father’s death.


And more, there is a Garden Behind the Moon in each of us. It is hard to find, and even harder to get to, but it is worth the journey.


Q: What do you think the book says about grief?

A: I think grief can be akin to a multi-faceted gem. When I close my eyes and visualize my own, it is in fact that—a large, shining, white gem, albeit sitting at the bottom of a natural pool of inky black water. You cannot see the gem from the surface. You must go deep.


So the book is a bit like a diving bell. I take the reader deep with me to examine the gem from every angle, in the earnest spirit of discovery.


My dad always used to tell me, “stay curious, and you’ll always be all right.” Curiosity and wonder don’t always feel possible when you are in the throes of fresh grief, but in the end, my dad was right. I am all right. And curiosity led the way.


I think the book lets the reader know that, to paraphrase Alice Walker, you’re never really over, even when you think you are.


Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I had an array of primary sources. There was a long-lost interview conducted by Roosevelt’s Federal Writers’ Project with my grandfather, T’ai Peng (Great Phoenix), who escaped his own beheading in China only to land unwittingly in the Jim Crow American South.


There he lived out his life as a laundryman, starching collars, writing poetry, raising children, and dreaming of a better world in Savannah, Georgia.


I had a basket of 300 war letters my dad had written from the Burmese jungle in WWII, which could be alternately erudite, lyrical, petulant, witty, and wise. Then there was a box of never-before-seen photographs from a century of powerful living (my dad lived to be almost 103).


There were surprises all along the way, and the book is at least in part a record of actually writing the book, so I hope readers will also delight in the thrill of discovery and understanding with me.


Perhaps the biggest surprise for an archaeologist and life-long rationalist like me was that things we call “magic” and “enchantment” are real. And they can heal the whole of a broken heart.


Q: What impact did it have on you to write this book, and what do you hope readers take away from it?


A: The impact on me cannot be overstated. I wrote myself to wellness, into an entirely new territory of spirit. Forevermore, there will be my life before the book, and my life after the book.


I hope readers will also experience a re-awakened sense of wonder, awe, and possibility for themselves. That they will also find some of their own answers.


One of the underlying themes and key takeaways is that the stories you tell become the life that you live. So, I hope the book will help shake readers free from some of their own certainties that may have kept them caught in imprisoning narratives.


I hope they will be inspired to start tending their own stories more mindfully because it is the best storytellers among us who have the future in our hands.


Are we telling the “right” stories (about ourselves, the world, each other)? Are we telling them well? The answer, for too many of us, is no, and the world is dying for people too stuck in their own certainties to love, or even live.


It is up to each of us, individually, to do this. It’s the old idea that when you turn to heal yourself, you heal the world. I hope readers will be entertained, but also gently guided to heal themselves.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: My primary focus now is on getting In the Garden Behind the Moon into the hands of every person it’s meant to help.


I also still run my Chinese brush painting business, Rising Phoenix Arts (named after my grandfather, T’ai Peng, the Great Phoenix), and love to create art that helps others soften into ever gentler and more sustainable ways of being alive and human and most authentically themselves.


I miss having a daily writing practice, but find that writing my seasonal newsletter, which I call The Glimmering—for magic-seekers of all stripes, and which is less news, more letter—does fulfill some of that yearning to talk deeply with others and create space for wonder.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: In the Garden Behind the Moon follows the Chinese Zodiac, from Year of the Ram (2015) to Year of the Tiger (2022). The Chinese Zodiac is the mythological “glue” that holds the stories all together and gives the underlying, bigger story its narrative arc and sense of symmetry and completion.


I hope readers will enjoy the unique narrative structure and begin to understand for themselves the healing power that finding our own stories in myth and archetypes can wield.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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