ImaginAsian organizer Kate Agathon of Purdue University asked me to post my “inspiration” for my book, GLAMOROUS ASIANS, which is featured in the ImaginAsian exhibit, opening April 9th. So here goes.
GLAMOROUS ASIANS is a collection of short stories and essays that describe anything but glamorous lives. Rather, most of the people in the stories are living quiet lives, the kind that are often overlooked. The characters often feel alone or simply lonely.
Sometimes questions I can’t answer inspired me. For example, the protagonist in “Nai-Nai’s Last Words” is trying to understand what it means to love someone after that person has died, which results in a series of encounters with the living and the dead that raise many questions. Can you ever have loved someone enough? Can words express love? What if actions seem to go unnoticed? What if a loved one returned from the dead and tried to tell you something and you had no idea what that person was saying?
The opening story, “The Dancing Girl’s Story,” is about an Apsaras, one of the supposedly mythical Cambodian dancing girls carved into the stones of Angkor Wat. After being accidentally picked up by a Coast Guard boat, she is interrogated about her life by uncomprehending I.N.S. agents. After I read that Haitian asylum seekers caught on the open sea were given only 20 minutes to plead their case before their fate was decided by the INS, I decided to write a story that could be read aloud in less than 20 minutes, and I wanted to create a character so powerful that she didn’t need to worry about the INS. Instead, she would give them a story that was at once real and myth, impossible for them to comprehend. Isn’t this the life story of all refugees seeking asylum in a strange land?
My story “Easter” is about a mixed-race girl growing up on a chicken farm in Nebraska. Her Filipina show-girl mother has died in a car accident, and now she and her brother are growing up with their white father, trying to feel as though they belong in their small town, while everyone’s stares tell them they don’t. My inspiration was to explore what it means to be a family.
I was inspired by the art of origami to write “Your Grandmother, the War Criminal,” in which an origami lesson turns into a history lesson about the Japanese American internment. The narrator shows how a wrong fold or a sloppy crease can turn a paper crane into merely crumpled paper. Similarly, in history, what’s considered right or wrong can be as arbitrary as your surname or your grandparents’ birthplace. Yet learn to fold with care and a flat sheet of paper becomes a beautiful flower. The flat sheets of history can be rendered three-dimensional by the stories of the people who lived through these events. It’s all in the folding and unfolding.
The title, GLAMOROUS ASIANS, is taken from an essay about my own search for glamorous Asian images when I was a child and my frustration at not finding any. Yet as I grew older and continued my search, following with interest the Miss Chinatown pageant in San Francisco one year and later the 2000 Miss America pageant where an Asian American, Stanford-educated medical student almost becomes Miss America, I realized that glamour is highly subjective. Can’t all Asians be glamorous in our own eyes?
There are more stories and another essay in the collection, but I think these examples give you a good sense of my various points of inspiration in writing GLAMOROUS ASIANS.
The ImaginAsian exhibit runs April 2-May 9, 2010 at the Tippecanoe Arts Federation located at 638 North Street in Lafayette, IN. Opening reception is April 9, 2010 from 6 to 8 p.m.
For more information, check out the Purdue University ImaginAsian website:
The amazing and tireless Kate Agathon organized this event in honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.
Other contributors include writer Maxine Hong Kingston, poet Bao Phi, memoirist Lac Su, director Michael Kang, author and newspaper columnist Jeff Yang, DC comics artist Bernard Chang, spoken word poet Edward Hong, actor Parry Shen, veteran Lt. Dan Choi, and many, many others!
Check out the site online if you can’t make it to Indiana! You can also join the ImaginAsian Facebook Fan Page ImaginAsian FB Fan Page 🙂
Note: The crane base illustration is ©Toyoaki Kawai, 1970, 1998, from ORIGAMI (Tokyo: Hoikusha Press).