Archive for the ‘Questions from readers’ Category

I was honored to speak at City College of San Francisco, John Adams Campus, for APA Heritage Month. As part of the “East Meets West” Reading Series, I lectured and read from my newest novel, Dragon Chica on May 5, 2011.

At CCSF with librarians Mary Marsh and Mauro Garcia

Every reading at colleges that I’ve given for Dragon Chica has yielded new and important questions from the students. Today was no exception. One student who is himself originally from Cambodia stood up and asked, “Why did the Khmer Rouge kill?” He explained that he wanted to know what have scholars found out all these years later about why the Communist regime that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to the end of 1978 killed 1.5 million to 2 million Cambodians.

The answer is not simple. And many scholars have debated what the motivations of the Khmer Rouge were. Here are some of the explanations: 1) at first the leadership wanted to eliminate anyone that they felt could threaten their hold over the people, so they wanted to kill anyone who was associated with the previous government and with America and thus possibly with the CIA. They also wanted to kill anyone who could become a leader or voice of dissent against their regime: so that meant killing anyone with an education (even a junior high education was considered dangerous), teachers, Buddhist monks and nuns, professionals like engineers or doctors, etc. Trained artists including singers, dancers, actors, poets, and musicians were also eventually considered a threat.

Since they had no way of knowing who was educated or not after they’d evacuated all the cities and forced everyone in Cambodia to move to work camps in the countryside, soldiers began to use arbitrary methods to determine if someone was educated: if that person wore eyeglasses, had soft hands, had a lighter complexion, if a person understood a foreign language (despite the fact that anyone living in a city might learn some foreign phrases, for example, as a street vendor or a pedicab cyclist), if a person could read and write, if a person used correct grammar when speaking, etc.

2) Secondly, the Khmer Rouge leaders claimed they wanted to re-make society and banish all “un-Cambodian” influences: so they targeted ethnic minorities such as the Cham Muslims, as well as “city people” whom they felt had absorbed influences from foreigners, including the French. As Cambodia had been a “protectorate” under French colonial rule in parts of the 19th and 20th centuries, there were many French influences in Cambodian cities–from Catholic cathedrals to pastries and other cuisine to the French lycées (high schools) to the pervasive way many French phrases had become part of the Cambodian language.

3) The Khmer Rouge became increasingly paranoid and began killing anyone they thought did not support them 100 percent and then they killed the family members. As a result entire families including babies were slaughtered.

4) Because the Khmer Rouge’s decision to return Cambodia to “Year Zero,” ending all city life, commerce and schooling, Cambodia went from a highly civilized, complex society to a land of primitive slave camps. Famine and illness resulted, killing even more people.

4) Finally, scholars have pointed out that the Khmer Rouge had been hardened during years and years of warfare. Even before they came to power, the Khmer Rouge recruited children and teenagers (many orphaned or displaced after American bombing raids and border fighting with Vietnam), and trained these young people to be obedient soldiers who would kill whomever their commanders deemed the Enemy.

I also showed a clip from the documentary “The Trials of Henry Kissinger” that explained Kissinger’s rationale for the secret and illegal bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War. Cambodia was a neutral country up until 1969’s coup d’état. Technically speaking, President Nixon should have sought authorization from Congress before ordering bombing raids on Cambodia. He did not. Under Kissinger’s policy advice, Nixon ordered “Operation Menu” in which B-52s were sent to drop bombs on Vietnam but then mid-flight their coordinates were changed so that they instead dropped bombs over parts of Cambodia, code-named after menu items: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Snack. As a result, 3,630 bombing raids were flown over Cambodia during a 14-month period and an estimated 600,000 Cambodians were killed just during this short time period.  (You can read the account by Christopher Hitchens in Harper’s Magazine by clicking on his name). Cambodian civil society was disrupted, people fled from their villages to the cities (straining resources and leading to much upheaval), and the Khmer Rouge–once a fringe group of about 10,000 members–was able to increase its ranks to 200,000 members by recruiting people and even children to fight against this mysterious “Enemy” who was dropping bombs from the sky on Cambodia.

As a result of the disruptions to Cambodian society, after the U.S. forces left Vietnam and Cambodia in 1975, the Khmer Rouge were able to take over the government and the country.

Some 150,000 Cambodians came to America as refugees in the 1980s, after having fled Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge. Many lived in refugee camps for years, and some Cambodians were even born in refugee camps while their families awaited sponsorship to another country.

In Dragon Chica, I re-create the era when Cambodian refugees first began arriving in America in large numbers in the early 1980s. I want to bear witness to the many struggles Cambodians still faced as they learned to survive in the U.S.

I’m so happy that schools across America celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month so that the history of the many different Asians in America will not be lost and that opportunities for writers like me to speak with students exist.

(With CCSF librarian Maura Garcia and bookstore manager Eden Lee)

For more background information, check this previous blog posts and pdf:

Dragon Chica, Liberation and the Sequel

dragon-chica-book-club-and-classroom-guide (questions for discussion)

Here are a few nonfiction, mostly academic books that provide some useful background on Cambodia:

David Chandler’s A History of Cambodia (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996); J.-P. Dannaud’s  Cambodge (Lausanne: Éditions Clairefontaine, 1956); Wilfred P. Deac’s Road to the Killing Fields: The Cambodian War of 1970-1975 (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1997); Christopher Hitchens’s The Trial of Henry Kissinger (NY: Verso, 2001); Ben Kiernan’s The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996); Samantha Power’s A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide (NY: Harper Perennial, 2003); Dith Pran’s Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields: Memoirs by Survivors (edited by Kim DePaul, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997); William E. Willmott’s The Chinese in Cambodia (Vancouver: University of British Columbia, 1967).

(This list is far from comprehensive; it is meant simply to be one possible  starting point for students who want to read more background.)

CCSF John Adams Campus library's display for APA Heritage Month

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Women In Art: May-lee Chai on women of colour writers

[I was very honored to be featured on the Canadian blog: KickAction, a blog for Girls Action Foundation, which is a feminist, anti-oppression non-profit in Canada. I was interviewed by the blogger: J. Rosel Kim. You can follow her on Twitter @jroselkim and read her blog here: JRoselKim Blog. I am pasting the interview from Kickaction.ca below.]

Submitted by jroselkim on 8 February, 2011 – 11:59.

May-lee Chai is a writer, and an educator, based in California. I had first encountered her through the Angry Reader of the Week series in Angry Asian Man (a great resource for Asian-Americans and Asian-Canadians), and was impressed by her articulateness as well as her impressive bibliography. Her books have been recognized and listed by many awards, as well as translated into other languages. When I contacted her via Twitter about this Q&A, she was gracious enough to provide me with thoughtful answers about working as a woman of colour writer, and the health scare that turned her to book-writing.

I’ve noticed a common theme of migration in your books, as well as your own life. How has your own history and background influenced your writing career? How do you decide to write about the things you do?

I’ve moved a lot and lived in several countries. Both my parents moved a lot in their lives and childhood. My father as a child of WWII had to move multiple times in order to escape the advancing Japanese Army in China. My mother in America didn’t live through war, but her family moved 27 times by the time she was 17. After they married each other, they moved us all as a family to very different kinds of environments. I don’t have a sense of having a hometown or a place I can return to that is, definitively, “Home.” I think perhaps this may be why I’m drawn to stories about migration, war, disruption… but I’ve never tried to analyze myself seriously and figure out why I’m drawn to certain topics.

Your works have been translated into many languages – how involved do you get in the translation process? What kind of communication do you engage in with the translators before and during the process?

Sadly, I’m never involved in the translation process! Foreign publishers either contact my agent or my American publishers. I’d love to be involved, but no one’s ever asked me any questions.

However, I’ve translated a book (from Chinese to English): the 1934 Autobiography of Ba Jin, the famed 20th century Chinese novelist. My publisher worked very closely with Ba Jin’s daughter and a member of the Ba Jin Association in China so that we could have the translation rights as well as family photos. Ba Jin was unfortunately deceased by the time I had found a publisher, but his daughter actually let my publisher go through private family albums. I was able to tell my publisher what kind of photos I’d like for the book and I had a whole CD to choose from by the end of the process.

I can understand why most commercial publishers don’t have the time to deal directly with the author in another country, but I think it’s kind of a shame that authors are usually not involved in the translation process.

You worked as a reporter for the Associated Press before turning to writing books. When and how did you decide that you wanted to switch to fiction (and non-fiction) writing?

I decided to take the plunge into novel writing after I had a cancer scare. I had a fast growing tumor and, suddenly at age 24, I thought I might be facing great illness and even death. Before that moment, I never dared to devote myself to writing a whole novel. It seemed impractical. I didn’t know anyone who wrote novels or short stories. But when faced with the prospect of dying without having at least tried to write a novel, I realized it was time to pursue my dreams.  Fortunately, my tumor turned out to be benign and my first novel was published after I wrote it. But if I hadn’t had that wake-up call, who knows if I ever would have dared?

In your opinion, what are some challenges that are unique to women of colour writers?

Stereotypes are still persistent and, alas, they often sell very well. So in addition to having to write really, really well (as all writers should do), we also have to battle stupid notions of what we should be writing about and how we represent ourselves and our characters. It’s really insulting, for example, to be told, “Your English is too good!” I’ve heard that criticism because some people in publishing think Asians need to sound like fortune cookies. Fortunately, I do think the stereotypes are changing. But I’d be lying if I said the stereotypes weren’t a problem.

What are some tips you have for young women of colour writers? What are some resources they could use?

Don’t give up. Read, read, read. Know your field. Read the classics and contemporary authors. Read world literature. Make connections to other writers. If you find a writer’s work you like, write to that person and say so! It’s easier to fight the stereotypes when you have friends helping you, so reach out to others. As for resources, there are some great blogs out there. For example, I love Angry Asian Man and Disgrasian. They have tons of news and make fun of the stereotypes about Asian Americans, which helps. SharifWrites and LargeHeartedBoy have interesting interviews and essays by all kinds of writers. Your  blog– www.jroselkim.wordpress.com –is a great resource!

What are you working on at the moment? Where can people find updates about your upcoming work(s)?

I’m working on a novel about a man who uncovers a terrible crime but can’t reveal it outright because he himself is involved in shady activities. It’s still considered “literary fiction” as opposed to a straightforward detective or crime novel, and it features people who have to leave their home and hide in a faraway city. Somehow I just can’t leave that “migration” theme, can I? For updates, readers can always check my blog.

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I wanted to write about some fantastic Chinese documentaries I’ve seen over the past year, but instead I’m going to have to write about the debate raging over Amy Chua, of Tiger Mother infamy.

I’ve received enough emails from people wondering if her approach is really typical of “Chinese” parenting or my own upbringing (God forbid!) that I want to reply once and for all here, and then I’ll refer everyone to this blog entry.

First, Chua’s super-controlling style of parenting is not “traditional Chinese” for many reasons, most obviously the fact that most Chinese have had no opportunity to parent the way Chua does. She takes one grain of truth–that Chinese traditionally have emphasized the importance of education–and then manages to conflate that with her own hyperbole to promote her book. Controversy sells. But let’s get a few facts clear. Chua is American. Her parents were ethnic Chinese from the Philippines. (I guess the title “Battle-hymn of the Imelda Marcos Mother” just didn’t have the same ka-ching to it.) However, Chua is exploiting current fears of a rising China,  stereotypes about Chinese (and “Westerners”), the “model minority” stereotype, and almost every mother’s own conflicted feelings about her parenting in order to sell books.

Secondly, there’s been a lot written already about the harmful effects Chua’s abusive language and control-freak style may actually have on children. I will refer everyone to several of the myriad articles about this subject, including this CNN report showing that Asian American females, ages 15-24, have the highest suicide rate of anyone in the U.S. in that age group. This beautiful essay,  \”My Life as the Child of a Tiger Mother\”,by memoirist Lac Su, explains how he would give up all his current success if he only he could erase the psychic scars caused by his parents’ abusive behavior, which in some ways dovetails with Chua’s name calling. This article written by Betty Ming Liu, Parents like Amy Chua Are the Reason Why Asian Americans Like Me Are in Therapy, describes her critique humorously while this Quora post by Christine Lu explores how her older sister’s efforts to fulfill the pressure to be  “perfect” and “successful” resulted in her sister’s suicide. (Meanwhile, a good round-up of bloggers critiques as well as thoughtful analysis is provided by Cynthia Liu.)

Finally, I’d like to address the fundamental problem with Chua’s thesis: she oversimplifies a complex issue with a simple binary of Western indulgent v. Chinese strict.

In fact, this issue is about class not ethnicity. How many people can afford the nannies, tutors, special camps, private schools, etc. that Chua and her husband have paid for? Yet Chua’s book and PR do not emphasize this class privilege or all the people who have contributed to her children’s academic successes. No one woman could do everything, or seriously spend as much time as Chua claims that she did micromanaging her children’s every rehearsal and lives, as Janet Maslin points out in her review in the New York Times.

Chua’s parents were from very wealthy families. (See Chua’s first book, World on Fire, for anecdotes about her relative’s stash of solid gold bars.) Chua is also extremely wealthy. (For example, her daughters attend the private Hopkins School, which charges $30,000+ per year for tuition for grades 7-12.)

Money buys many wonderful opportunities. For example, want your kids to have a recital at Carnegie Hall, too? Anyone can pay to rent one of Carnegie Hall’s many venues. Current cost for a recital at the smallest of the halls (capacity 268, Weill Recital Hall) is about $4,500 for a weekend evening or Sunday afternoon. How do I know? I emailed Carnegie Hall\’s \”Hall Rental\” page on its website and asked.

So what’s wrong with spending a ton of money to raise your kids to have a great education and a lot of special opportunities? Nothing, in and of itself…if you’ve got the money. But it’s alarming that the issue of money and privilege is being obscured in this debate, and the focus in the media is solely on the efforts of one person–the mother–as though it doesn’t take a village (or an incredibly wealthy community) to raise a child.

This refusal to acknowledge privilege and the greater role of community in helping to raise successful children reminds me of The Atlantic‘s cover story, The Rise of the New Global Elite, about the new wealthy who relate to each other around the world but feel little to no obligations to the societies in which they grew up.  (See especially pp. 6-7.) According to the article, the new elite believe that solely through their own hard work and merit did they rise to the top. They don’t recognize the privileges of growing up in a largely middle-class society without crime to worry about, with good schools, and with access to jobs. They do not acknowledge the role of luck in their own success or being in the right place at the right time in history. For example, most of the American elites featured grew up in an era that did not have a universal draft, which would otherwise have required them to serve in America’s two ongoing wars, rather than continue their educations uninterrupted and to travel freely to make money for themselves and their companies. The fact that others–generally poorer and less educated– make these sacrifices of going to war for the nation, and thus for them, does not apparently translate to gratitude.

We used to recognize in America that having a strong middle class made us a strong nation. But according to The Atlantic article, we are creating an entitled class (yes, they are smart, they go to good schools, they work hard, but they also have the opportunity to do so) and an underclass, who cannot get ahead no matter how hard they work because they simply do not have access to the best education, connections, and opportunities that the elite enjoy. This divide is dangerous.

We as a nation need to look for real solutions that will help ALL OF US as a society, not just a few of us. We need to stop blaming “indulgent Western parents” or unions or teachers or such-and-such ethnic group, and look at the lack of opportunity that a society increasingly segregated by class leads to as well as the declining state of our public school systems, for example. If you can put your kids in a $30,000/year private school, then of course the kids can get a good education and meet many children of influential people who will help them later in life.

But most parents who are working two full-time jobs just to get by do not have the time, which Chua claims somehow that she has, to self-tutor their children. Nor do most families have hundreds of thousands of dollars to use just to put their kid through a private junior high and high school.

Some parents are truly neglectful of their children, of course, but the problems we see in our education system and economy are not simply issues of bad parenting…or “lax Western parenting” to borrow the publicity’s inflammatory rhetoric.

But notice how the debate raging in our media now is solely about parenting styles and not about the class issues or real solutions to the greater gap in educational opportunities in America for poorer or middle-class people.

Perhaps the elite who are able to take advantage of their opportunities and make the most of them feel that’s enough. Perhaps they feel no obligations to the greater good of their societies. Perhaps it’s enough to grab a bigger piece of the pie for themselves. And maybe they truly can convince themselves that the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans deserve to have more collective net worth than the bottom 90 percent (Kristof, 1-1-2011). But if they’re wrong, and we really do need a thriving middle class to prevent most of America from sliding into a permanent underclass, if we need a thriving middle class to keep our country stable, to help lift the poor, to nurture people who will think outside the box rather than think merely how to preserve their own privilege, to innovate for the greater good, then we are all in trouble.

I wish the American media would recognize that we need real solutions and a real examination of our growing societal inequity, not stereotypes.

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Today I heard two stories, one sad and one heartening. Both relate to the media and stereotypes that lead to violence.

Sometimes when I see a particularly noxious person on the news receive a lot of acclaim and money for trafficking in the worst kind of race-baiting and  fear-mongering stereotypes, I feel completely disheartened. How can we fight against these forces that would have us turn off our minds and react like Pavlov’s dog? BE AFRAID OF SUCH-AND-SUCH! Shout it once and I might wonder, Why are you shouting? Shout it enough from a big enough bully pulpit and it might permeate my subconscious, as much as I might hope that it won’t.

Often these days I feel too exhausted by the negative media barrage to muster the energy and will to fight back against the lies.

So what am I talking about? Here are the two stories. You’ll see why one is discouraging, one encouraging. Both show that we mustn’t give up. We have to speak up against racist stereotypes, again and again and again.

1) a sad story from a friend, who is a very well-known and bestselling author. Today he received a package in the mail from some jerk, who called him all kinds of racial slurs, blamed my friend for inciting violence on the U.S.-Mexico border, and then enclosed a bunch of loony and nasty DVDs. My friend is one of the sweetest people I know…and the least violent. His books are not about promoting violence, as you might have guessed, but because my friend is Mexican-American, this crazy person who wrote him felt as though my friend embodies all the negative stereotypes ever reported about Mexicans and Mexican Americans.

Caution: Stereotypes Can Hurt

Although my friend also received much support from his fans, this episode clearly hurts his heart. I understand. It hurts. It will always hurt.

2) But then there are also moments that are completely unexpectedly wonderful. Today I also received a letter from a reader about my book Hapa Girl. And he understood exactly what I was trying to get across! That makes me happy. It makes the years of writing and re-writing worth it. Here’s the letter:


Sent: Mon, Jan 10, 2011 11:29 pm

Subject: hapa girl

I just finished reading your memoir, Hapa Girl, and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was especially moving and relevant for me because I am an Asian man married to a blonde girl. We have two children, a girl and a boy. It’s also funny that I grew up in New Jersey, and now we happen to live 10 minutes from Redlands, in California. As I read your memoir, I often thought of my daughter and the world she will grow up in as a biracial girl. I’ve always told my wife that I have fantasies about one day moving to a place in middle America, like […], and buying a farm and “living off the land.” Your memoir showed me a different side of that idea!

I would hope that we live in a different era now.

I am glad for the sections which included some historical, economic, and political context to the racism that you encountered while growing up. It would have been too easy to just portray those people as evil ignorant hicks. I thought it was important that you tried to show that racism doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

Thank you for a great read! My wife also read it and enjoyed it.

btw we bought your book as an e-book from B&N


[And here’s my response:]

Dear J—,

Thank you very much for your kind and thoughtful letter!

The Redlands-New Jersey connections and similarities in our families are indeed interesting! (And as you know, families such as ours are not considered “weird” in Redlands, Ca. or New Jersey.)

My goal in writing Hapa Girl was very much to put what we experienced into a historical and media context as I know that the media’s fear-mongering doesn’t fall on deaf ears. Back in the 80s, all the hateful stories about Japan’s rise and the Native American civil rights movement created an atmosphere conducive to violence. And I think that while our type of family isn’t targeted in the media today, the heated rhetoric in the media is having ill effects yet again.

Today I worry about the anti-Muslim statements, anti-immigrant movements, fear-mongering over the state of a rising China, and the extreme anti-government rhetoric. I know from experience that fear mongering works: it produces both fear and big ratings. Maybe the bigwigs on TV and the pundits won’t feel it, but the rest of us will have to deal with the fallout sadly enough.

Thank you again for sharing your thoughts with me and for telling me a bit about your family. I appreciate knowing that somebody liked my book, and also I’m very happy to know that you liked my efforts to put the racism into a context. I agree with you 100 percent. Racism doesn’t exist in a vacuum!

Best wishes to you and your family for a Happy 2011 and a Happy Year of the Rabbit!


(P.S. Cool to know Hapa Girl is now available in e-book form!)

Life on the farm...

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I had great fun visiting with the students at an English class at Jefferson State Community College in Alabama recently. No, I didn’t actually get to go to Alabama, alas, but we all were able to talk using whiteboard’s “chat” app, thanks to Prof. Sharon DeVaney-Lovinguth, who set it all up.

Jefferson State Community College students

The class is reading my short story “Saving Sourdi” and had a lot of questions about the characters, the plot, writing process, etc.

Because I get emails from a lot of students who read this story for school, I’m going to give you some of the questions and my responses (as best I can remember). I know that if one person had that question, somebody else out there probably did, too.

One question was “Is the baby in the picture supposed to be Duke’s? When Duke says ‘It looks just like–‘ and trails off, is that because he thinks it looks like him?”

Me: Wow! I was really surprised by this question because I never imagined in a million years that people would think the baby in the picture was fathered by Duke. My answer is therefore, No. Too much time has passed for the baby to have possibly been Duke’s (and everyone would have figured it out if the baby were born just a few months after Sourdi got married). Also if the baby looked mixed-race, that would have been something the family would have remarked upon. When I wrote that line, I imagined that Duke was thinking to himself that the baby looks just like Sourdi and that he misses Sourdi.

Another question came from Prof. Lovinguth. She asked about the scene where Duke takes Sourdi and Nea to the field with the hollow in the ground where the rest of the world seems to disappear because they can no longer see it.

Me: The scene shows how our point of view affects how we see the world. To Duke, the field is normal and beautiful, but to Sourdi, the field reminds her of war when she had to walk over barren fields filled with dead bodies and bones. So what is beautiful to Duke is terrifying to Sourdi (in this instance) because of their different perspectives and experiences.  As for the hollow in the ground, I wanted that to represent our individual perspective and point of view. The rest of the world–the town, the trees, the road–become invisible when you’re standing in the hollow. Seeing from the point of each individual character is like standing in that hollow. We all only see the world from our own point of view, which means other things are blocked out.

Some other questions were about my new novel Dragon Chica, which continues the story of the characters from “Saving Sourdi.”

Me: Dragon Chica gives you the full story of Nea, Ma, Sourdi, Nea’s younger siblings (whom you don’t get to meet in the short story) as well as Nea’s Auntie and Uncle. The novel begins before the events of “Saving Sourdi” when the family has been living in America only a few years then continues onward until Nea is 18. There are also flashbacks to the family’s life in Cambodia before the war as well as during the Khmer Rouge-era. There are a few changes in the timeline and locations, but overall you will recognize the same characters (including Duke!).

There were many other questions (as well as comments about the World Series, of course), but I’ll end here so I can get this post up today.

And I want to give a big thanks to Prof. Lovinguth and her students for showing me some genuine Southern hospitality! Thank you all for inviting me into your class!

(And this lovely picture is of Prof. Sharon DeVaney-Lovinguth with her son.)

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Much thanks to www.LargeHeartedBoy.com, the amazing music and book blog, for featuring my new novel! Here’s my essay on the musical playlist (w/ links to the actual music) that I imagined the characters would listen to and that inspired me as I was writing Dragon Chica!

Book Notes – May-lee Chai (“Dragon Chica”)

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

In a year filled with moving coming-of-age novels, May-lee Chai’s Dragon Chica stands apart with its gripping story of the young Chinese-Cambodian girl, Nea. Her tale of facing bigotry as an immigrant to the United States after surviving the Cambodian civil war and Khmer Rouge is skillfully told and enlightening.

Dragon Chica is an important book both teens and adults will find fascinating, especially if they read (and discuss) it together.

Robert Olen Butler wrote of the book:

“It is very rare that a coming of age novel transcends its inherent limitations and attains the complex emotional resonance of adult fiction. Dragon Chica does this with great aplomb. The book explores with subtlety and depth the mature, universal issues of identity and connection, but it also retains its direct appeal to younger readers. May-lee Chai has performed a remarkable act of literary magic.”

In her own words, here is May-lee Chai’s Book Notes music playlist for her novel, Dragon Chica:

When I first started writing my novel Dragon Chica, I knew music would play an important part in the life of the narrator, Nea Chhim. She comes to the U.S. as a young child, a refugee and survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime. Music (except for a few propaganda songs) was banned by the Khmer Rouge, so music will be a complete revelation to Nea. While many experiences about adapting to a new culture and a new language are painful, I know music would be like the American Dream wrapped up in a bow. Better than candy. Better than Christmas and New Year’s combined. Music unleashes the power of the soul to feel again, and Nea’s soul needs a lot of healing after all that she has been through.

At one point Nea’s mother berates her: “What’s the matter with you?” she demanded, and then before I could reply, she listed my sins herself: I wanted to be an American, I talked back to my mother, I never obeyed, I thought of myself before my family, I sang their songs, I danced around just like them.

But to Nea there is no “us” versus “them”: Music is for everyone. And that is precisely why regimes like the Khmer Rouge ban music. . . because totalitarian regimes fear the fundamentally democratic, rebellious, uncontrollable power of music.

As I wrote Dragon Chica, different songs came to mind for different scenes and different characters. Some of them ended up in the book, some still play only in my head as I read the passages to myself.

Here’s my Dragon Chica playlist:
“Surfin’ USA” by the Beach Boys

What could be a more quintessentially American song? In my mind, Nea hears this song late at night on the radio on a Golden Oldies program as she tries but fails to sleep in her family’s too-hot trailer in their first American home in Texas. She can’t make out the words yet, but she loves the optimistic, almost silly beat, the simple rhymes, the carefree sound of this song. Will her life ever feel as happy as this song? She hopes so.
“La Llarona” by Lila Downs

Since Nea’s family first ends up in Texas, it makes sense she’ll hear Spanish-language music on the radio. In fact, her introduction to “American” is a mix of Spanish and English words (hence the title of the book, Dragon Chica). Nea won’t understand the words of “La Llarona” when she first hears them, but I imagine that later in life, when she revisits this song, with its tale of a beautiful woman whose ghost haunts the river banks where her children drowned, it will have a new poignancy, as it will recall her own family’s losses to war, the sacrifices of the women in her life, and the children who did and did not survive.
“Jolene” by Dolly Parton
(This video is of a live performance with Dolly and Mindy Smith)

By the time Nea moves with her mother and siblings to Nebraska in the early 1980s, the music scene changes dramatically. Here country/Western dominates the radio waves. Even though “Jolene” was written a decade earlier, it’s a song that has an eternal quality, as its many covers show. How could Nea not hear and like this song? Although the song at first seems like a plaintive lament from a woman with no confidence, Dolly’s subversive qualities—her outsize appearance, personality, and amazing voice—enable the listener to imagine a woman who may be in fact warning her rival to back off. There is steel behind Dolly’s lilting soprano. The song’s not in the book, but I bet you can hear it in the back of your mind as you read.
In the Mood for Love, Movie Soundtrack by various artists

As I was writing the novel, I thought of the music on this CD every time I wrote about Nea’s mysterious and once wealthy Uncle. He is ethnically Chinese and the embodiment of a tragic, romantic hero from a different era, one of prosperity, urbanity, and a sophisticated mix of many cultures. Now transplanted to running a Chinese restaurant in a small town in the Midwest, Uncle is too old and too injured to resemble the actor Tony Leung from the movie In the Mood for Love… except for his beautiful, sad eyes.

“The moon always reminds me,” Uncle says at one point, thinking of a lost child, a lost love, a lost way of life.
“Ces petits riens” by Serge Gainsbourg

This is the kind of sophisticated, French pop music that Uncle and Auntie would have listened to in Phnom Penh before the wars destroyed their life together.
“Glass of Wine” by Ros Sereysothea

Nea gets to hear only one Khmer pop song that Auntie has on an old cassette that she bought off a family who immigrated from Cambodia years earlier. Nea doesn’t recognize the song or the singer, but she is transported by its mix of electric guitar, go-go drums, and the soft voice of a woman singing about love. For me the song has to be by Ros Sereysothea, one of the most successful Khmer pop singers from the 1960s and early 70s. She was brutally murdered by the Khmer Rouge, but her music lives on…in the soundtrack CD to the movie City of Ghosts, in online homages, and in covers by contemporary American bands like Dengue Fever and The Like Me’s.
“Walk This Way” by Run DMC

As rap music gains in popularity, in the late 80s even in Nea’s small town, this song will herald a turning point in Nea’s life, a moment when she must decide to save her beloved older sister, Sourdi, even though it means betraying her mother’s trust. On a symbolic level, the song shows the tug of war within Nea’s heart because ultimately she can’t follow in anyone else’s steps anymore; she must forge her own path.
“Lucky Star” by Madonna

As Nea drives in a borrowed pickup truck down an icy highway in the middle of the night, this song is playing on the radio. Yet all she can think of as the moonlight glints eerily off the patches of snow on the sides of the road is how the minefields in Cambodia looked at night as her sister, Sourdi, carried Nea as a child on her back. Sourdi stepped on the bones of the dead because she knew it was safer that way; after all, the dead had already exploded the mines that lay hidden in the ground. “Lucky Star” cannot seem farther away at this point in Nea’s life.
Chanting by Buddhist Monks

This type of music isn’t played on the radio, but it plays an important part in Nea’s life as she reaches adulthood. Visiting the Cambodian Buddhist temple in Des Moines, Iowa, as the monks chant, Nea is suddenly able to remember her father’s face. But what does this memory mean? As more revelations follow, Nea must decide if her heart has grown strong enough to forgive.
May-lee Chai and Dragon Chica links:

the author’s blog

Chien Route review
Librarian of Doom’s Chaos Lounge review
The Lost Entwife review
Marjoleinbookblog review
Medeia Sharif review
Paper Adventures review

Medeia Sharif interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film’s soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week’s CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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We had an amazing launch party for my novel Dragon Chica co-sponsored by Books Inc. and the publisher GemmaMedia. San Francisco, live music by the Asian American band The Like Me’s, dim sum, a little talk by me about the book, and time to mingle with friends! I feel truly blessed.


photo by Jeni Fong/Grace Image Photography


For everyone who couldn’t be there in person, I’m putting up photos and videos from the event so you can check it out!

Here’s my photo album: Facebook Fan Page \”Dragon Chica Launch Album\”. (I’ll put up more photos periodically. This is all I had time to post right after the launch.)

We had a wonderful turnout. I will be posting the Q&A, but for now you can watch the videos for the Introductions, my discussion of how I came to write Dragon Chica including my involvement with Cambodian refugees in America since I was 15 years old, and the amazing acoustic version of The Like Me’s hit “Monkey, Dance Monkey.”


My dad took the videos! 🙂


I chose to read the excerpt from Dragon Chica that I thought would give everybody a strong sense of the personality of the protagonist, Nea.

It was great to see so many friends, including the writer Gwynn Gacosta and her husband Dustin Gordon, George Lew, writer Miki Garcia, Denise Kitt, Jeni Fong, Howard Wong, Madeline Tam (and her charming husband), Claudia Villalon, Dr. Herena Kim, Trish O’Hare, and many new friends!


Writer Gwynn Gacosta, me, Dustin Gordon



With Sandra Sengdara Siharath (founder of http://www.Seachampa.org)


It’s always great to see Sandra Sengdara Siharath, who founded the Southeast Asian Cultural Heritage and Musical Performing Arts Center of Oakland, California! You can check out her arts center, which offers classes in SE Asian dance, cooking, music and other cultural activities here: www.seachampa.org

And of course, we had an amazing live set of songs performed by the Bay Area’s own musical group The Like Me’s:

(I’ll be posting more of The Like Me’s songs in the coming weeks, so keep checking back!)


Laura Mam, lead singer of The Like Me's


You can follow Laura Mam and The Like Me’s online: www.thelikemes.com.

And last but not least, here is my amazing publisher, Trish O’Hare of GemmaMedia:

Trish O'Hare, publisher of GemmaMedia

Dragon Chica is now available in bookstores (you can ask your local independent bookstore to order a copy if they don’t have one in store), online,  and on Kindle.

And be on the lookout for upcoming readings at EastWind Books of Berkeley on November 13 at 3pm, the Tattered Cover in Denver, CO, on November 18 at 7:30 pm, and City Lights back in San Francisco in the spring!

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