Archive for the ‘Anthologies’ Category

I was very fortunate to read with three of the contributors to the new anthology, Cherished: 21 Writers on Animals They Have Loved and Lost (New World Library, 2011) at the famed independent book store, Book Passage, in Corte Madera, California this past Wednesday, May 4.

It was great to meet essayist Melissa Cistaro, whose essay “Calico” is one of my all-time favorites. It reads like a fantastic short story, full of suspense and unusual characters, about a young girl whose cat is a more reliable emotional companion than her own mother.

Melissa Cistaro

Best-selling novelist Jacqueline Winspear (creator of the Maisie Dobbs psychologist/private investigator series) talked about her essay “My Sal,” about her beloved black Lab.

Jacqueline Winspear

Editor Barbara Abercrombie not only conceived of the book, put together the essays, but also wrote the very moving essay “Winesburg” about her scrappy, globe-trotting kitten.

Barbara Abercrombie

And I wrote the essay “Red the Pig” about my pet pig that I raised when I was growing up on a farm in South Dakota. Here’s a copy of my high-school yearbook photo: Yep, it’s me and my pig!

Me and my pig

I was pleased so many pet lovers came to the reading at Book Passage! Many people shared their stories of pets they loved and lost. But rather than being depressing, we all agreed that the evening felt like a time to honor our special pets and to recognize it’s okay to say we miss them.

And one woman even brought her adorable little dog, a Jack Russell terrier-chihuahua-boxer mix.

I like what Melissa said tonight about contributing an essay to this collection. She says it gave her permission to acknowledge her grief for her pet. (I’m paraphrasing.) I understood immediately what she meant. Until Barbara asked me if I’d like to contribute to Cherished, I’d never written about my pig before. It seemed ridiculous and frivolous of me to mourn his loss. As I write in my essay, “Growing up on a farm, I wasn’t a fool. I knew our animals were destined to become food.” And yet, I did mourn the loss of my pig. I don’t think it’s foolish to admit that we love the animals that have graced our lives.

Signed copies of Cherished can be purchased from Book Passage. (Phone: 1-800-999-7909)

Full list of writers: Carolyn See, Michael Chitwood, Robin Romm, Jane Smiley, Joe Morgenstern, Judith Lewis Mernit, Melissa Cistaro, May-lee Chai, Anne Lamott, Samantha Dunn, Billy Mernit, Barbara Abercrombie, Monica Holloway, Linzi Glass, Jacqueline Winspear, Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, Victoria Zackheim, Jenny Rough, Sonia Levitin, Thomas McGuane, and Mark Doty, (plus a poem by Ted Kooser).

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Lucky me! I got to meet my Facebook friend, writer Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, in person this week. Frances was visiting San Francisco for a writers conference en route to the renowned Banana 2 APA bloggers conference in Los Angeles.

With Frances in San Francisco's Chinatown

Frances Kai-hwa WangFrances writes the column “Adventures in Multicultural Living” for AnnArbor.com and is a contributor to many books on multiculturalism and education. She’s also an active blogger, teaches at two universities (including the University of Michigan), and is the mother of four children. Whew! Talk about doing it all!

It was great meeting Frances in person at last, after having read her always witty and informative columns. We had a lovely dim sum lunch at Four Seas and talked about everything under the sun, including Tiger Moms, images and stereotypes of Chinese in the media, education, writing, and shopping. (Yes, but of course, we managed to work that into our stop in Chinatown as well.)

At Four Seas Restaurant

I was sad when Frances had to hurry back to her conference but I’m glad that we could get better acquainted. I can’t reveal too many details about her upcoming book project, but I can say it sounds fantastic, timely and oh-so-relevent in this age of globalization and economic anxiety!

If you want to read more by Frances, check out her website www.multiculturaltoolbox.com and her blog http://www.franceskaihwawang.blogspot.com/.

And if you’re going to be attending the Banana 2 APA bloggers conference in Los Angeles on Feb. 26, 2011, Frances will be speaking on the panel “Blogging and Social Justice.”

Lion Dancers on the move on Grant Street

Finally, I’d like to add that Frances sure brings a lot of good luck wherever she goes. The week before she arrived in the Bay Area, we had non-stop pouring-down rain, the cold, horizontal, blows-directly-into-your-face kind of rain, which is just miserable and what we’re known for in the winter. Then in comes Frances, and the sun returns. Then while we were in Chinatown, we witnessed not one but two lion dances!  Now is this a coincidence or is this a lucky person to know? (I’m betting on luck.)

Lion Dance troupe drumming for donations in Chinatown

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I was so excited to learn today that artist Jerry Ma accepted my idea for an Asian American Super Hero called “Dragon Chica.”

Here was the description I came up with for her:

Dragon Chica is the name of a Cambodian American super hero whose family came to America after surviving the Khmer Rouge regime. She fights injustice, discrimination, and stereotypes.

Her super power: she kicks ass!

She can dance superfly, tradtional Khmer style and hip hop, which gives her amazing agility. She first grew up in a small town in the Midwest where her family was sponsored as refugees. She later moved, and has lived on both Coasts of the U.S., but as a superhero she can travel to where she’s needed.

Because of her experience having to fit in where no one else looked like her, she can shape shift, too.

And whatever you do, don’t ever call her Dragon Lady.

But if you’re alone and being stereotyped, or being attacked for your ethnicity, gender or sexuality, just call on Dragon Chica! She will lend a hand and use her superpowers against your enemies.

After all, she’s Buddhist and believes in helping others in need.

You can see Jerry’s full post Dragon Chica, Super Hero on his blog.

Jerry is an accomplished artist known for his many comics, illustrations, and fabulous tee-shirt designs. You can see more of his work on his blog: Jerry Ma\’s blog on epicprops.com .

I am incredibly honored and awed that my Super Hero idea made the cut. You can check out Jerry’s blog to see some of the other cool Super Heroes, including ideas from actors Parry Shen (BETTER LUCK TOMORROW) and Keiko Agena (GILMORE GIRLS) and other fans of Jerry’s work.

Jerry’s Sketchbook of Asian American Super Heroes is part of the global “Sketchbook Project,” in which artists around the world fill up the same sized 5″ x 8″ Moleskin sketchbooks with their own drawings. Then the finished books will be put on tour in cities around the U.S.–including Atlanta, GA; Austin, TX; Brooklyn, NY; Chicago, IL; Portland, ME; San Francisco, CA–before being put into the permanent collection at the Brooklyn (NY) Art Library, where members of the public can check them out the same as any other book. For more information on this amazing, global art experience, click here: The Sketchbook Project

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I received this very lovely letter from a high school student this spring. (I’ve waited until after her school assignment was due to post her letter and my response.) I thought some of her questions about reading  and writing might be of interest to other students who write me from time to time. So here is her letter and my answers.

Dear May-lee Chai,

I am B… W… and I am currently a senior at Y… High School. I am writing to you as a project for my Elements of Reading Literature class in which we are assigned to write to a person of our choice, asking them how reading has influenced their life. I chose to write to you after reading “Saving Sourdi” in my AP Short Stories class. It remains as my favorite piece of work we have read in AP Literature and I am continually astounded with your thought-provoking plot and emotionally relevant characters. I would greatly appreciate it if you would take the time to respond to a few questions for my project.

  • How have books and reading played a role in your life and influenced your own writing?
  • Who do you remember as being a major influence in your learning and enjoying to read?
  • What is your favorite book of all time and why?
  • Do you think reading will be a necessary skill in the future, or will a visual world of television, movies, video games, and computers make reading a less important activity?

I would be grateful if you could respond by Tuesday, May 18 so that I am able to share your responses with my fellow classmates. Thank you again for taking the time to respond to these questions. I look forward to immersing myself in more of your incredible literary works in the near future!


B… W…

[I don’t post students’ full names when they write to me unless they write me back with specific permission to do so. So, if you want credit for this lovely letter, B.W., let me know!]

My response:

Dear B..,

Thanks for your letter! I’ll try to answer your questions the best I can. Here goes!

1)  Books have been essential in my life since I was in elementary school. My parents used to criticize me for reading in bed instead of sleeping. In fact, I once melted the plastic lampshade of my bedside lamp by putting a cloth over it so that my parents wouldn’t see the light while I was reading late at night. Alas, they smelled the smoke, and that ended that particular attempt at subterfuge.

Seriously, I don’t know how I’d live without books. Reading gave me a sense of the larger world, a sense of possibility, that I would not have had otherwise. Books stir my imagination and nurture me.

I’m sure every book—good or bad—has influenced my writing in ways that I’m not always aware of. I do not consciously attempt to imitate other writers when I write my own works, but I’m sure the influence is there in my subconscious.

My mother & I (& our cool matching outfits!)

2) My mother was my first influence. She always encouraged my reading (except at night when I was supposed to be sleeping), took me to the library when I was too small to get my own books, recommended books to me that she had enjoyed, and shared with me stories about her own reading habits. She had not been encouraged to read as a child, but she told me how much she loved to read and how the books she’d read on the sly as a child helped her to overcome difficulties in her own life.

My teachers were the ones who actually taught me to read. I remember that my middle school English teacher, Mrs. Margaret Cash, was the first teacher who encouraged me to write as well as read and the first teacher who ever told me that I could become a writer someday.

3) I love too many books to choose just one favorite. I have different favorites every day for every mood. To choose one example, however, I love the book The Lover by Marguerite Duras, which I first read in the original French (L’amant). But also I love the Barbara Bray translation in English, and I like to re-read passages and compare the differences in the English and French versions. I love how Duras creates her characters, first through memory of photographs, then in scenes that use strong visual imagery. Her language in French is lyrical and sensual and seems to form a soundtrack for the story. She often uses very long sentences and passages punctuated by a short, sharp sentence. The English version is not as musical, but it has a precision and unique vocabulary and phrasing that makes the language fresh and the story come to life for me.

As a child in elementary school I had two favorite books, which I read over and over, for years. The first was Little Women by Louisa May Alcott and the second was Alice in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. Although they are both very different, they featured female protagonists who could have their own adventures. I still re-read these books as an adult.

4) I know that reading will continue to be essential in the future. Visual media like movies, TV shows, video games, etc. still depend upon their ability to tell a story.

The evolution in video games, for example, hasn’t just been in making the backgrounds and avatars look more “realistic;” gamers have tried to create more compelling narratives.

Reading stories and books teaches us how to think, how to analyze, how to communicate across time, how to create a narrative, how to imagine. If we lose this ability, we will also lose the ability to create visual media.  But there are many more important reasons for us to read.

In the 19th century, slaves were forbidden to learn to read and write. It was also illegal to teach a slave to read. Why is this? What was so important about the ability to read if you had no legal rights? According to the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision of 1857, for example, slaves were property even if they lived in “free states” for a time, thus they were not citizens and they had no right to sue in court for their freedom. It would seem if a person has no legal rights in a society, literacy wouldn’t make that much of a difference. So what was so dangerous about teaching slaves how to read that it had to be illegal? I think reading allows us to dream of a better life, to imagine a different future than the present that we know, to communicate better, to grow intellectually, and thus to outsmart our captors. It can create within us hope by learning about history as well as other people in our predicament and other ways of living. If human beings can have access to this knowledge, and thus to these ideas and these dreams, they will never accept their status as slaves.

Chairman Mao

Most totalitarian regimes—such as Mao-era China, Stalin-era Russia, East Germany under Communist rule—strictly controlled what citizens were allowed to read and prohibited most literature that was not propaganda written by the state.  The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia out and out killed people who were literate!  Why? These leaders were afraid that if the people could read about other ways of life, they wouldn’t accept the lies and deprivations inflicted upon them. The people who were literate would also gain the power to influence others and overthrow the oppressive regimes.

I think it’s significant that in North Korea today, students are allowed to study science and technology—hence North Korea’s nuclear program—but the study of literature is greatly curtailed and most world literature is banned. What does that tell us about the power of reading?

I know that reading is a necessary skill for Americans in order to keep our society strong and democratic. I don’t fear new technologies or competition from visual media. However, I do worry that cuts to school funding and cuts in early education, libraries, universities, etc., will hurt our nation’s ability to teach the next generation of Americans to read well.

I realize this is a rather long letter, B–, but I really loved your questions. I could certainly go on forever about my feelings about books and reading!

I’m very happy to receive your letter. Your Elements of Reading Literature class sounds very cool, and your teacher has come up with a very creative assignment for you.

Thanks for writing to me. (And thanks much for all your kind words about my story, “Saving Sourdi.” I’m quite gladdened to hear that you liked the story so much!)

Best wishes,

May-lee Chai

P.S. I would love to read about your own thoughts on reading and your favorite books. If you want to write back and tell me how you would answer the questions that you asked me, I’d be thrilled.


Click on the link for more information about Dragon Chica, my novel about the characters in “Saving Sourdi.” Dragon Chica will be in stores this October 2010. (Amazon.com currently says it’s for “ages 9-12.” That’s not accurate. I’d say that it’s appropriate for high school age students and adults. It’s definitely not for children.)

Dragon Chica (my novel about the characters from "Saving Sourdi"

My copy of L'AMANT by Marguerite Duras

English-language version of The Lover

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Wow, am I going to be in some amazing company! I just received the final list of contributors for the anthology CHERISHED: WRITERS ON ANIMALS THEY’VE LOVED & LOST. Anne Lamott! Jane Smiley! Thomas McGuane! Carolyn See! But wait, there’s more…Just reeling off these names, I feel as though I’ve stumbled onto the set of  a celebrity writers’ Ginzu knife commercial. This is very exciting!

The anthology is the brainchild of writer/editor Barbara Abercrombie and is coming out next year from New World Library.

All the essays (and one poem) are about the special relationship we’ve had with an animal in our lives and what we learned from that special animal’s death. Barbara’s essay is about her cat, Winesburg, whom she took to Vietnam and who lived to be 19. I wrote about the pig I raised in high school when I lived on a farm. (You can look up my post \”Red the Pig\” if you want to know more about that situation.)

Here’s the full list of contributors (in alphabetical order):

Barbara Abercrombie, Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, May-lee Chai, Michael Chitwood, Melissa Cistaros, Mark Doty, Samantha Dun, Linzi Glass, veterinarian Dr. Robert Goldman, Monica Holloway, Judith Lewis, Ted Kooser, Sonia Levitin, Anne Lamott, Thomas McGuane, Billy Mernit, Joe Morgenstern, Robin Romm, Jenny Rough, Carolyn See, Jane Smiley, Jacqueline Winspear, Victoria Zackheim.

My Pig and I

And if Ellen DeGeneres is looking for a book to read that she’d love, CHERISHED is definitely the one!

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Good news comes in twos apparently! My short story “Saving Sourdi” will appear in another anthology this fall, LITERATURE TO GO, and I’ve received good news about my novel, Dragon Chica, which is about the family in “Saving Sourdi.”

So what’s the Dragon Chica news? Updates mostly, but the good kind. I now know a little bit about the cover design and I received advance book catalog copy from GemmaMedia, the publisher.

My editor, Trish O’Hare, liked the photo that I shot of a friend of mine posing as Nea, the protagonist of Dragon Chica (as well as the narrator of “Saving Sourdi”) and so we’re going to use the photo on the cover!!! I sent it to the designer,  and I’ll be very excited to see what the final design looks like! (I’ll definitely post it when I know!)

In the meantime, here’s the photo:

Nea from my novel, Dragon Chica

Also, here’s the advanced book catalog copy. This is meant to be a very short summary of the novel’s plot that will appear in the publisher’s catalog to let buyers (bookstores and libraries, for example) get a quick sense of the story.

[Headline] A funny, bittersweet love story about a refugee teenager coming of age in the American Midwest

[plot summary]

Nea Chhim, a Chinese-Cambodian teenager, flees to Texas as a refugee from the Khmer Rouge regime when a miracle occurs.* Although her family has been struggling to support itself, they now discover that a wealthy aunt and uncle have managed to make it to America as well. Nea and her family rush to join their relatives to help run a Chinese restaurant in Nebraska. But soon Nea discovers their miracle is not what she had expected. Family fights erupt. Then a forbidden love** threatens to tear them all apart.

Dragon Chica follows Nea, an indomitable character in the tradition of Holden Caulfield, Scout Finch and Jo March, as she fights to save her family and herself.

[*Note to readers: Although it doesn’t say so in the catalog copy right now, there’s actually more than one miracle. First of all, there’s an apparition of the Virgin Mary in the permafrost of a freezer case in a QuikMart near Nea’s home in East Dallas. That leads to the discovery of the second miracle: living family members! And not just an aunt and uncle, but a RICH aunt and uncle with a palace! Okay, the palace is actually a business, a Chinese restaurant  named The Silver Palace, and it’s located in a small town in Nebraska, but a palace is a palace is a palace. And miracles are miracles.]

[**Another note to readers: Since there’s more than one miracle, you can bet that there’s going to be more than one case of forbidden love, too. That’s the only hint I’ll give you for now. 😉 ]

As for my other good news, the new anthology, LITERATURE TO GO, will be published by Bedford/St. Martin’s this fall around September or October. I’m very happy that people like the story “Saving Sourdi” so much. I hope that people will enjoy reading about Nea and Sourdi’s adventures in Dragon Chica–there’s really a lot more to tell about this family, believe me!

For updates and info, follow @Dragon_Chica on Twitter

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My essay “Red the Pig” will be appearing in the new anthology CHERISHED: WRITERS CELEBRATE ANIMALS THEY’VE LOVED AND LOST coming out next year (spring or summer 2011) from New World Library.

I’m very excited my essay was chosen for inclusion in CHERISHED. So many writers whose work I greatly admire have essays in this collection, including Anne Lamott, Thomas McGuane, Carolyn See (Lisa See’s mother), Barbara Abercrombie, and poet Ted Kooser.

In case you didn’t know, my senior year of high school we started raising pigs on our farm and I even had my mother take my high school yearbook picture with one of the piglets.

To give you a sense of what happens with me and the pig, here’s my opening paragraph:

“Growing up on a farm, I wasn’t a fool. I knew our animals were destined to become food. But the year I raised my pig, I hadn’t expected to be the instrument of his death. Red wasn’t even supposed to be mine to begin with.”

Yes, it’s a sad story. But my pig was special, and I’m glad I can honor him in this way.

I’ll be sure to update when I hear more info about CHERISHED, such as the exact publication date and who all the other writers are.

(FYI, Seven Oaks was the name of my mother’s photography studio when I was in high school.)

Red the Pig and Me

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