Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

Last year several prominent politicians, including Donald Trump and Roanoke, Virginia Mayor David Bowers, evoked the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II in calls for discrimination against Muslims. Clearly people have forgotten, or have chosen to ignore, the suffering that the internment caused. Furthermore, Islamophobia and the ignorance that it represents must be actively denounced and combated. We should not return to the discriminatory policies of a bygone era. In this spirit, I decided to start off 2016 with a post on one Japanese American family’s experience during World War II.

Recently, I interviewed a friend, Stacie Kageyama, whose family members experienced both the internment during WWII as well as the discrimination that those Japanese Americans outside the camps faced. While more than 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry were interned, they were mainly from the West Coast as well as 3,000 from Hawaii. Other Japanese Americans were not put in camps but faced other kinds of discrimination. For example, the part of Stacie’s family in Wyoming found themselves in dire straits when Stacie’s grandfather was summarily fired from his job and suddenly had no way to support his family.

Stacie has a Ph.D. in Forest Science from Oregon State University and a B.A. in Biology from the University of Colorado-Boulder. Stacie and I first met as students in Boulder when I was working on a short story about the internment called “Your Grandmother, the War Criminal.” I asked Stacie if I could share her family’s internment story now as a rebuke to politicians who would have us treat Muslim Americans in a similar discriminatory manner.

I’ve put a transcript of the interview below (edited for clarity and length) so that readers can learn about this Japanese American family’s experience during WWII.

Interview with Stacie Kageyama:

MC: Where was your father’s family interned?
SK: My father’s family was interned in Manzanar in eastern California. However, my paternal grandfather, Kumaichi Kageyama, was arrested by the FBI soon after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Grandpa was born in Japan in 1894 but had been a legal resident of the United for more than thirty years. He was taken initially to a detention center in Lordsburg, New Mexico. They moved him to another detention center in Santa Fe at some point. He spent almost two years there but was never charged with a crime. He was finally allowed to join the my grandmother and their three sons in Manzanar at the end of November 1943.

Kageyama family before WW2

The Kageyama Family before WWII.

MC: How old was your father?
SK: My father, Hideo Kageyama, was six years old when the family was interned. His brother, Akira, was eight and their eldest brother, Hiroshi, was eleven. All three of the boys had been born in Los Angeles, California and were American citizens. None of them had ever been to Japan. Each of the boys enlisted in the US military when they were old enough. My dad enlisted in the Army during the early part of the Vietnam conflict.


Stacie’s paternal grandmother, Kuniye Ueda Kageyama, is the women in the scarf on the left. Photo by Ansel Adams of the Catholic Chapel in the Manzanar Internment Camp. (Library of Congress)

MC: When did they get out of camp and where did they move afterwards?

SK: The family left Manzanar in October 1945. Internees that had relatives in states that were not on the west coast of the US could leave the camps before the war ended. They could also leave if they chose to return to Japan, found employment (away from the west coast of the US), or joined the US military. My father’s family stayed in Manzanar for as long as they did because they had no place else to go. They didn’t want to return to Japan because their sons were American. After leaving Manzanar, they returned to Southern California but they were essentially refugees. They stayed in a tent city set up by a Christian church until they found a place to live in West Los Angeles. My grandfather started doing gardening for people. My grandparents eventually opened their own nursery in West LA. My cousins are running it now. It’s one of the few family-owned nurseries still in existence in Los Angeles.

MC:  I remember that you had told me about your mother’s father’s experiences in Wyoming. I believe that all the Japanese American workers in WY had to give up their cameras, guns, and was it radios after Pearl Harbor? After your grandfather was fired, how long till he moved? Was he already married?

SK: My maternal grandparents had also been born in Japan. Two of my grandfather’s older brothers had settled in Wyoming. He joined them in Rock Springs to work in the coal mines when he was seventeen. He returned to Japan in 1924 to marry my grandmother and bring her back to Wyoming. My grandfather [Kikuji Kumagai] was working for the Union Pacific Railroad as a section foreman outside of the town of Medicine Bow when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

The sheriff of Carbon County came to the house and confiscated my grandfather’s rifle and Kodak camera soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor. I don’t remember hearing anything about radios. My grandfather was fired from his job on the railroad in February of 1942, as were all the Union Pacific Railroad workers of Japanese descent. The family lived in railroad housing and were given 48 hours to evacuate their house. One of their neighbors helped the family to find a place to live in Medicine Bow. People in town tried to help the family by giving my grandfather odd jobs. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to support a family of six and they ended up moving to Salt Lake City, Utah, where my grandfather’s brother’s family was living. I’m not exactly sure when they moved to Utah. It was some time between February and June of 1942. We have a postcard in the family photo album from one of my mom’s classmates in Medicine Bow. It’s addressed to my mother in Salt Lake City and it’s dated June 12, 1942.Kumagai Family

The Kumagai Family.

MC: Can you tell me again about your maternal grandparents’ experiences during WWII? Did you say that your grandfather tried to get a job as a cook in a hotel but they asked him to make a salad with blue cheese and he spent a lot of time taking the mold out because he thought the cheese had gone bad? What did he end up doing? Also, was your grandmother the pastry chef during this time?

SK: My grandfather found a employment as a cook in the restaurant at The Hotel Utah in downtown Salt Lake City. He was told to make bleu cheese salad dressing but had never seen bleu cheese before. He thought that the cheese had gotten moldy and tried to salvage what he could. In spite of the bleu cheese incident, the management of the restaurant continued to employ my grandfather. I believe that he continued to work there for several years after World War II ended.

My grandmother [Tamai Tsuru Kumagai] also found employment working in a restaurant in Salt Lake City. She worked at Lamb’s Grill until my grandparents moved to California in the 1950s. Yes, she was the pastry chef and learned to make all kinds of pies, cakes, eclairs, etc.

MC: Thanks, Stacie!


I hope in 2016 our political leaders and pundits will act more responsibly and not continue to evoke one of the darker periods of discrimination against a minority group in America as anything our country should do again. The internment disrupted lives permanently—one-fifth of all former internees ended up living in poverty after being released from the camps, for example—and it is a blight upon the human rights record of the U.S. The U.S. government officially apologized for the internment in 1988.

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I’m honored that two renowned California authors, novelist Felicia Luna Lemus and journalist Chanan Tigay, were able to visit my classes at UNCW this week via the magic of Skype!

Felicia Luna Lemus visited my undergraduate Forms of Fiction class, where we are reading her beautiful novel Like Son, which her publisher (Akashic Books) describes as “A post-punk story of outsiders, family, inherited drama, and love set in downtown New York, Los Angeles, and Mexico City.”


Felicia graciously answered questions from students about her research into the Edward Weston photograph of Nahui Olin that inspired the book, her own writing process, and the years of revision she spent working to find just the right voice for her protagonist, Frank Cruz.


Everyone was charmed by Felicia’s grace, wit, and good humor!

Then acclaimed journalist Chanan Tigay visited my graduate Creative Nonfiction class and answered questions about his long-form narrative essay, “The Special Populations Unit” about Arab soldiers who served in the Israeli Army, which appeared in McSweeney’s. TigayPhoto Chanan generously talked about his research and gave advice on a wide variety of subjects ranging from how to gain the trust of interview subjects and the most important question to ask (“Always end by asking, ‘Is there anyone else you think I should talk to?'”) to what it was like to interview Hillary Clinton! (FYI, he said, she’s just as charismatic as Bill in person and just as smart.)


We were all especially thrilled to hear about his forthcoming book, Unholy Scriptures: Fraud, Suicide, Scandal—and the Bible that Rocked the Holy City, due out next winter from Ecco/HarperCollins. In it Chanan describes the mysterious case of a 19th century Jerusalem antiquities dealer who tried to sell the British Museum a manuscript that may have been a precursor to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Chanan’s research took him around the world from Berlin to Jerusalem to London and beyond. He ultimately visited eight countries on four continents. That’s dedication in pursuit of a story!

It was a treat to get to speak to both Felicia Luna Lemus and Chanan Tigay. Skype is an amazing technology that really is bringing the world closer together, and it’s such a great tool for the classroom. It certainly brought California closer to my classes at the University of North Carolina Wilmington this week!

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Here’s the most recent list of the upcoming events celebrating the launch of my new novel, Tiger Girl! All events are free and open to the public!

Fall 2013 Events:

Saturday, October 26, Tiger Girl Launch Party at Books Inc/Opera Plaza in San Francisco, 5pm.

Monday, November 4, Reading at Writers on Writing series at San Francisco State University, 7:00 pm.

Tuesday, November 26, Reading at Barnes & Noble bookstore, in Redlands, California at 6: 30 pm.












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Here’s an sneak peek at TIGER GIRL, my new novel coming out in stores and online this October 7, 2013.

Check out this four-minute excerpt:

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I wanted to let everybody know about a wonderful documentary, Golden Slumbers, about Cambodian movies of the 1960s and 70s that’s currently playing in the San Francisco International Film Festival. There’s still time to catch showings in Berkeley and San Francisco at the SFIFF.

The film beautifully blends interviews of surviving filmmakers, actors and fans, who describe the movies they loved so much before the Khmer Rouge took over the country in 1979. Between 1960 and 1978, Cambodian filmmakers made 400 films, which were wildly popular. Fans remember venturing out to some of 30 theaters in Phnom Penh despite bombs, grenade attacks, and the unrest during the 1970-74 civil war.  As one producer recalls pointing out to his financial backers in Hong Kong: When times are rough, people need to be entertained.

Director Davy Chou is the grandson of one of Cambodia’s most successful film producersp, Van Chann. Chou was present at the screening in San Francisco and participated in an ethusiastic Q&A after the late screening at the SF Film Society Cinema on Saturday night.

Chou was utterly charming. He revealed that he had to “fake” the visually stunning ending that showed footage of a classic movie projected onto the brick wall of a former movie house that now serves as home to 100-some impoverished people. In fact he said it’s impossible to project the film onto dark brick and so the shot was digitally rendered. But the metaphor was real and sincere: showing the beauty of Cambodian film as a haunting presence juxtaposed with the present lives of young Cambodians, who remain transfixed by the new movies and music videos they watch on TV.

Chou’s parents were also in attendance. (In fact, I discovered I was sitting right next to them!)

Chou mixes interviews, stunning shots of contemporary Cambodia, vintage posters and photographs, and snippets of 1960s and 70s -era soundtracks in this artistic exploration of Cambodia’s “golden age of cinema.”

I highly recommend this visually arresting film to all cinemaphiles.

(And yes, I got an autograph from the very talented French Cambodian director!)

Director Davy Chou's parents (at the San Francisco screening)

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“The old-timers say it’s good luck that it’s raining. A good start for the Year of the Water Dragon!” said my friend Ratha Kim, who is one of the coordinators of this year’s Cambodian New Year Festival in San Francisco.

(left to right: Ratha Kim and Jenny Chea-Vaing)

Indeed after a particularly sunny winter, we had an uncharacteristically rainy Saturday this March 31, in time for the Cambodian New Year celebration at the Tenderloin Children’s Playground. I hope that it is indeed a blessing from the water dragon, or water Naga –the giant mythological snake that is the ancient protector of Cambodia.

This year’s festival started with a blessing bestowed by orange-robed monks from the Nagara Dhamma Temple of San Francisco and King Monks Maha Ghosananda Temple of Oakland. After they chanted New Year’s blessings, people lined up to give the monks the delicious food they’d prepared for the celebration.

As the monks dined on separate gold-colored floor mats, the rest of us sat down on mats and rugs and ate the delectable Cambodian dishes prepared by members of the San Francisco Bay Area Cambodian community.

I loved the delicious ginger-and-lemongrass spiced chicken, curries, and silver thread translucent noodles!

This year’s festival had to be moved indoors because of the rain. Last year more than 400 people attended the day-long festivities which included band after band, dancing, food booths galore and vendors selling Cambodian-themed clothing. This year’s celebration was much smaller but had a nice family feel as most of the participants were from the Tenderloin.

A highlight was the Fashion Show. I managed to tape part of the rehearsal, which features students from Bay Area schools including San Francisco State University, CSU-Fresno, and the California Culinary Academy. (Ratha Kim is shown emceeing in the video:)

And of course there was lovely live music by local Cambodian singers. Here is a sample:

I was pleased to meet one of the organizers, Jenny Chea-Vaing, who has been volunteering to help put together the community New Year celebration for the past 10 years.

Jenny’s own story is quite remarkable. She moved to the Tenderloin as a child in the 1980s when her family was sponsored to come to America after spending years in refugee camps in Thailand. “Our sponsors were in Utah, but when we got off the plane, they weren’t there!” Jenny’s family was forced by officials to spend the night in the airport. Eventually they discovered their sponsors had sold their house and were in fact in the process of leaving Utah, so Jenny and her family were not allowed to stay. Instead her father sold everything of value– including the new clothes they’d bought to wear in America and her step-mother’s wedding ring–so that they could all buy Greyhound bus tickets to California where he had a relative. Jenny and her family ended up in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco.

“We lived with four or five families in one studio [on Leavenworth and Eddy],” she said. At night they slept on mats on the floor, head to toe, practically no space in the single room they all shared.

She grew up in San Francisco, attended Galileo High, worked in donut shops to earn money, and had an arranged marriage at age 16. She went on to graduate, study medical training, and now works in the insurance industry.

As a teenager, her oldest son, Jimmy, twice spent his summers as an apprentice monk so that he could earn merit for his family.

Jenny's son Jimmy (in the middle)

Jenny says she’s grateful for the opportunities she’s had in America. Having survived Pol Pot’s reign of terror and the violence and extreme poverty that followed the Vietnamese military takeover of Cambodia in 1979 (toppling the Khmer Rouge), she has seen incredible hardship in her young life. Her older sister rescued her from marauding soldiers by hiding her under dead bodies during the daytime. Her sister then hid herself under bodies nearby. “I could hear the soldiers come and kill people who cried out, ‘I’m a civilian! Don’t kill me!’ I knew I couldn’t make a noise or they’d kill me too.”

At night they walked on foot through the jungle, trying to find the rest of their family. “My older sister picked young leaves for us to eat. She’d always try them first to make sure they were safe. She saved my life. That’s why I was always grateful to her, I never fought with her [in America], I always honored her.”

Even after the Pol Pot-regime fell, Jenny and her sister were not safe. Their mother had died, their father fled to Thailand to try to make a better life for them, and they were put in the care of relatives who treated them as slaves. One day Jenny witnessed them trying to kill her older sister, taking her out on a canoe and hitting her repeatedly over the head with an oar. Jenny had climbed up a tall tree and could see everything. She called out for help as loudly as she could and an old fisherman finally heard her and helped the sister, throwing a log into the river so that girl could float to the bank to safety.

Finally her father was able to bring them to Thailand where they lived in the Khao I Dang refugee camp from 1980-1982 then two other camps for 3-6 months each before they were sponsored to come to America.

Despite this incredibly hard life, Jenny is a cheerful and kind person.

“That’s why I try to give back,” Jenny says of her life experiences. “That’s why I’m grateful today. I’m thankful. I had many people help me along the way.” She volunteers every month around the city as well as for AIDS Walk and cancer charities.

I think Jenny is an incredible person. She also embodies some of the loveliest qualities of Cambodian culture that extreme hardship have not managed to destroy including a warmth and graciousness that is hard to define. Despite the hell almost every Cambodian refugee in America has gone through, Cambodians can be some of the most warmly welcoming people I’ve ever met.

Because of the hard work of community volunteers like Jenny Chea-Vaing and her entire family (including her kids, husband, step-mother, mother-in-law, and nieces!), Ratha Kim, and the cheerful student volunteers from SFSU, CSU-Fresno, and other Bay Area schools, the Cambodian New Year Festival is a wonderful celebration of Cambodian culture in America.

I am hoping the New Year of the Water Naga is a good one!

The official New Year is celebrated world-wide April 13-15. Other area events this coming month include:

New Year Festival at the Oakland Branch of International Community of Khmer Buddhist Monks Center (King Monks Maha Ghosananda): 633 Douglas Avenue, Oakland, CA: April 13–chanting for the New Year; April 14-food, music, and dancing from 8:30 am to night; April 15-final ceremony. (call 510-924-7189 for more information)

New Year Festival at the Stockton Cambodian Temple: the weekend of April 13-15, when 1000s of California-based Cambodians gather for larger-scale musical performances and dances. Food stands will be open to provide many kinds of Cambodian dishes.

Members of the public are welcome to attend.

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This December my article on Asian American women artists in the San Francisco Bay Area appeared in The Jakarta Post Weekender Magazine. I really enjoyed interviewing the artists and getting to see their extraordinary work. I could only scratch the surface in this article, but I hope it gives everyone a taste of the exciting work that these  artists are creating. For more examples, people living in the SF Bay Area can check out the Asian American Women Artists Association website www.aawaa.net or individual artist’s websites, such as Nining Muir’s at www.niningmuir.com.

To see how the article appeared in the Weekender Magazine, you can download the pdf here: “A Place of Her Own”.

I’ve also pasted the text below with the permission of The Weekender editor so that people who follow my blog can read about these amazing artists and the San Francisco-based Asian American Women Artists Association. (Note: the pdf shows the much nicer layout from the magazine)

A Place of Her Own:

San Francisco’s Asian American Women Artists

By May-lee Chai

What does it mean to be an Asian American woman artist today?

Apart from superstars like Maya Lin and Yoko Ono, very few Asian American women artists ever make it into the public eye.

But one San Francisco-based art group is working to change that invisibility.

“Most of this country has not talked to an Asian person,” said artist Cynthia Tom. She recalls participating in an art exhibit in Indianapolis where she stood in a room full of people, but no one came up to talk to her. At first she felt perhaps they hadn’t liked her paintings. After she approached a few people, she realized that the problem was far more basic. “They weren’t sure I could speak English.”

That’s one of the reasons why Tom has dedicated herself to increasing the public’s awareness of Asian American women artists.

Tom is the current president of AAWAA, the Asian American Women Artists Association based in San Francisco, the first national organization dedicated to promoting such art.

“We fight for recognition all the time,” said Tom.

For this reason, for the past few years AAWAA has created an innovative series of exhibits and workshops to bring artists and the public together. Called “A Place of Her Own,” after the famous Virginia Woolfe essay about a woman needing a room of her own in order to be creative, the project asks, “If you had a place of your own, what would it be?”

Asian American women artists were invited to create original art installations that would answer this question and allow members of the public to participate in this “space.”

For example, artist Vivian Truong made a giant bathtub filled with foam “bubbles” and surrounded it with giant papier-mâché boulders covered with her own Post-It note “To do” lists. Members of the public were encouraged to write down on Post -It notes things that they wanted to let go of and stick them onto a giant cork board on the wall. Then they could climb into the giant tub and relax.

Another of the exhibits’ biggest hits was Irene Wibawa’s miniature dioramas that fit inside baby food jars. People could walk around her mini-worlds and imagine the life of the tiny characters depicted.

“I wanted to make my dioramas in jars using everyday materials. I wanted to say you don’t have to have a lot of money to make art. It’s accessible to everyone,” Wibawa said.

Wibawa, who is a biological science technician with the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), says she came up with her idea because of her work. “I work with plants and insects. I look into a microscope, looking for damage to leaves. Some of the insects are so small, you have to pick them up with an eyelash attached to a toothpick.  So I thought, ‘If I were this mite or this beetle, I’d want to hide. Where would I hide?’”

Besides engaging the public, the art exhibits also allowed the women to get to know each other. Because most of the women also have day jobs outside the art world, it can be hard to get to know other artists or have any sense of community.

Wibawa has felt this lack since immigrating to the U.S. from Indonesia when she was eight. “I’m always disappointed when I go to the Asian American section of anything and Southeast Asian women are less represented. The numbers aren’t there,” she said. “I wanted to join AAWAA if for no other reason than to say, ‘I’m Indonesian and I’m here.’”

In fact, through AAWAA’s exhibits, Wibawa was able to meet San Francisco-based artist Nining Muir, who like Wibawa was born in Indonesia.

“Prior to joining AAWAA, I didn’t know there were other Indonesian American women artists!” Wibawa said.

Muir echoed that feeling of excitement. In fact, she said her primary reason for joining AAWAA was to counter the sense of not having a community in America since she moved to San Francisco with her husband in 1996.

“I think it was a little surprise that there’s such a group of Asian American women artists,” Muir said. “Not that I wanted that label. But then I ran into Irene so I joined. I’m here as a foreigner, no family, so it’s a comfort thing.”

Muir feels their Indonesian heritage is in many ways more conducive to creating art than America’s culture. “In Indonesia, we think of art as a part of life. It’s a little bit exclusive here [in America],” Muir noted.

Muir who liked to work in wood as a sculptor in Indonesia now primarily paints, as wood is prohibitively expensive in the U.S. Her artwork has been featured in eleven exhibits and ten group shows in San Francisco since 2006.

Most recently, Muir’s oil paintings have been of cows. “I’m fascinated by cows because of the Hindu background, the holy cows concept from Indonesia,” she said.

Her latest series, entitled “This Little Sapi,” using the Indonesian word for cow, was inspired by a recent trip back to visit family.

When she discovered her nephew was thrilled with the English nursery rhyme “Five Little Pigs,” Muir decided to make paintings of the rhyme, but substituting cows for pigs.

The result is a series of five delightfully whimsical paintings depicting life-size heads of cows poking out of a red barn, each titled after one line of the re-invented nursery rhyme: “This Little Sapi Went to the Market,” “This Little Sapi Went Home,” “This Little Sapi Had Roast Pork,” and so on.

Muir is amused by the reactions from the public. She remembers at one show, a few male patrons came up to her and expressed their surprise. “They were shocked. They didn’t think a small female would paint such cows!” she said.

It is exactly this type of reversal of expectations that fuels AAWAA and its members.

“Some people question us, [asking] do you still need a women’s organization?” said artist and AAWAA board member Shari Arai DeBoer. “And we say, ‘Yes!’”


Copyright of the artwork belongs to the artists.  1st work ©Irene Wibawa. 2nd work: “Self Portrait” ©Nining Muir.

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