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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.

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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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“How liberated were you by the title ‘Dragon Chica‘?” a student asked me recently.

Young man who asked question is in back row, 2nd from left

Let me just say that is one of the best questions I’ve ever been asked about any of my books. Ever.

I was visiting Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, California for Women’s History Month and had been talking about my novel. This question really thrilled me.

“Liberated” is exactly how I felt when choosing this title. I just never thought of it as “liberating” until this wonderful community college student, Colin Madondo, thought to phrase his question this way!

So for everyone who’s written to me and asked about the title, here’s my answer:

anna may wong 1932 - by otto dyer

I chose the title Dragon Chica to address a number of issues I felt strongly about. 1) I wanted to drive a stake through the heart of the old stereotyped notion of the “Dragon Lady,” a term used in America to deride Asian women historically. In the 1930s and 40s, it often was used to characterize an Asian femme fatale who used her feminine wiles to seduce some hapless white man and then tried to harm or even kill him. (The wonderful Anna May Wong was obliged to play many such roles in her Hollywood film career, for example.) I thought the term had died out long ago, but then it showed up again in an obit for Madame Chiang Kai-shek (Soong May-ling) in the Washington Post! As I was working on the manuscript that would become Dragon Chica at that time, I decided to let my protagonist Nea take on the “dragon lady” term and trope. (If you’ve read the book, you know it’s explicitly referenced in Chapter 14.)

Soong May-ling with her husband Chiang Kai-shek and US General Joseph Stilwell

2) The title also refers specifically to part of the plot that develops Nea’s experiences in America. When she first starts school in a very small town in Texas, she is put in an ESL class for Spanish speakers. There was no ESL class with Khmer-English instruction as her family was the only Cambodian family in the town! So her introduction to America is in a mix of Spanish and English, and her first language becomes a kind of Spanglish. I liked this metaphor for the mix of cultures in the U.S. I also felt it dovetailed nicely with the plot as it reflects the ironies many Cambodian refugee children faced when entering the American school system. Schools had no experience teaching Cambodians, they didn’t have Cambodian language teachers, they didn’t have the resources available when refugees from the Khmer Rouge came to America beginning in the 1980s, and so many kids had to learn to adjust to this new American culture with very little guidance.

3) Lou Dobbs and his constant rant about Mexicans in America were driving me nuts. Many students I’ve met don’t remember him anymore (blessedly), but he was a constant fixture on CNN during the past decade (when I was working on the novel) and he made it his niche to rail about “illegal Mexicans” and about Spanish being spoken in the U.S., as though English and English-speakers were literally under siege. I thought, “This is ridiculous. There have been Mexicans in America well before many states became part of the U.S. Spanish doesn’t threaten English.” So for my title, I liked the idea of mixing English and Spanish with an overt Asian theme. That mix seems very American to me!

4) I thought Dragon Chica sounds cool. I noticed when I was teaching at various colleges that many young women of all ethnicities now refer to themselves and their friends as “chicas.” In some places the term has almost become as ubiquitous as “guys” has become  for young men and boys. I liked that.

I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to campus and discussion with sixty some students, all of whom have read Dragon Chica in Prof. Scott Lankford’s English literature and writing classes. Dr. Lankford is himself an author, and I am a huge fan of his nonfiction book Tahoe Beneath the Surface. Even if you’ve never been to California’s Lake Tahoe, this book weaves together fascinating stories from American history using Lake Tahoe as the touchstone for topics as diverse as how California almost became a slave state, the first victims of the Donner Party, the (mis)treatment of Chinese laborers, the discovery of prehistoric fossilized trees at the bottom of Lake Tahoe, Mark Twain, Marilyn Monroe, mobsters and even the Kennedy assassination.

I can tell Dr. Lankford, in addition to being a wonderful writer, is also a great teacher by the thoughtful responses of his students.

Another question that took me by surprise was “Will there be a sequel?”

I asked the students if they’d liked to read one. And the overwhelming answer was “Yes!”

In fact, I’ve had a hard time leaving Nea and her family. I still think of them as though they were real people and not characters in a novel. And I often think about what would happen to them after the events in Dragon Chica. In fact, I was working on a number of short stories about the future lives of the characters, not because anyone asked me to, but just because I myself wanted to explore possible trajectories for the characters.

I happened to mention to my publisher that Foothill students had asked me if I would write a sequel and that I was very happy to hear they liked the novel that much. My publisher, to my surprise, immediately emailed me that the Board for GemmaMedia also had wondered if there was going to be a sequel and had been asking for it!

So guess what? I’m going to write that sequel!

I’d like to especially thank Aigerim Zholmurzayeva, Emily Romanko, Vivian Reed, Elizabeth Jug, and Ksenia S., who went out of their way after the event was over to urge me to write a sequel to Dragon Chica.

Events like this one both humble and inspire me. Writing can be a lonely process and an act of faith. There’s no way to know in advance that what I write will ever mean anything to anyone but me. Thus, it is always a joyful experience for me (and I dare say most writers) to discover OTHER PEOPLE actually like the stories and characters we’ve created!

Finally, the students at Foothill College truly inspired me with their intelligence, humanity, brilliant questions and insight. I was blown away by them. (And thank you, Shervin Nakhjavani, for your comments about a Dragon Chica movie. That would be cool indeed!)

with Scott Lankford and Debra Lew

I don’t have time at this moment to write about all the issues they brought up with their questions and comments (about Nea’s use of “cutting” to deal with her inner pain, the theme of dreams, the character of “the Witch,” the particular difficulties Nea’s brother Sam must negotiate as a male and an immigrant male, the long-term effects of the escalation and spread of war from Vietnam and America to include Laos and Cambodia and the impact upon all of Southeast Asia, etc.), so maybe I will have to write a sequel to this blog post, too.

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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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Recently I had the honor of being interviewed by Young Adult author Medeia Sharif for her award-winning blog SharifWrites.Blogspot.com. She asked great questions about the writing process, how I picked the protagonist for my novel Dragon Chica, advice for writers trying to break into the business, and much more. (You can read the whole interview below.)

Medeia is a Kurdish American, New York-born writer and teacher. Her novel BESTEST. RAMADAN. EVER is coming out next year (summer 2011) from Flux.

I’ve posted the interview below but you can also read it directly on Medeia’s blog here: Sharif Writes Blog

INTERVIEW BY MEDEIA SHARIF for SHARIF WRITES BLOG:

Last month I had the pleasure of reading DRAGON CHICA by May-lee Chai.  It’s a gripping tale about Nea, a teenage Cambodian refugee girl whose fighting spirit gets her in and out of trouble.  History, politics, family secrets, and racism are brilliantly interwoven in this novel as Nea’s family travels from Cambodia to Texas and Nebraska.  The novel is realistic, showing both the beauty and ugliness of the immigration experience and what happened under the Khmer Rouge regime that drove Nea’s family out of Cambodia.  The author agreed to be interviewed, so I’m happy to have her here today.

Give us a brief bio so that we can get to know you better.

Hi! Thanks for interviewing me for your blog. This is exciting! As for my bio, I’ve written five previous books, including a novel, short story collection, personal memoir, family memoir, and a straight-forward nonfiction book. I’ve also published short stories in various journals. I used to be a reporter with the Associated Press. I’ve taught at a number of universities, lived in four countries and 14 states in the U.S., and traveled even more.

(author photo by Jeni Fong/Grace Image)

Your new novel DRAGON CHICA is being released this month by GemmaMedia.  Give us a short description of the novel.

In a sentence, it’s about Nea, a teenage survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime, who comes to America and discovers that she’s going to have to fight to save her family and herself. It’s also about the secrets that can bind a family together but also drive a wedge between the generations.

I can see DRAGON CHICA being read by teens and adults.  Did you have an intended audience for the novel or you were just driven to tell Nea’s coming of age tale?

I definitely wanted to reach a cross-over audience. I wanted Dragon Chica to be accessible to young adult readers but also adults. I had written a short story called “Saving Sourdi” about the characters in the novel, focusing on Nea, her older sister Sourdi, and the mother. It was published in the literary journal Zyzzyva, but then was picked up in a number of anthologies that are often taught in high school AP English classes as well as colleges. So over the years, I’ve received a lot of emails from students and teachers who’ve told me that they were really moved by the relationship between the two sisters. Even teenage guys related to the story! So I felt inspired by these positive reactions to write the novel.

Writers have varying stories about how they come up with their main characters.  When and how did Nea appear to you?

At first I thought the beautiful older sister Sourdi would be the ideal narrator because she’s easy to relate to and she understands everyone so well. She’s old enough to remember the war and her relatives’ lives before the Khmer Rouge takeover, and she also takes care of the younger kids. But I discovered that she knows too much, she can explain too much. Plus, she’s just too sweet. Sweet people are great in real life, but not so great in a book. A sweet narrator, the kind who’s always trying to make peace with everyone, doesn’t create a lot of drama.

Nea was the character whom the others could never understand. She is inherently dramatic because she’s so pro-active. If she sees a problem, she immediately tries to think of a solution and act upon it. She doesn’t remember enough to know WHY the adults have these mysterious rivalries. She’s smart, she understands America pretty quickly, but because she’s young, she can’t explain herself yet to her family. Thus, there’s going to be inherent conflict. Once I started writing a story from Nea’s point of view, it just took off! It became dramatic, exciting, interesting. In the novel, Nea’s quest to try to understand what’s going on with her family mirrors the readers’ journey.

DRAGON CHICA takes us through different decades, countries, and states.  What kind of research did you have to do for this novel?

The seed for the novel was planted when I was fifteen and a Chinese-Cambodian family moved to the small town in South Dakota where my family and I were living. I hadn’t even known there was such a thing as Chinese Cambodians until that point. The mother of the family was very kind to me, and she eventually told me how three of her children died in Cambodia as she tried to escape from the Khmer Rouge.

Over the years of my life, I’ve met with many different refugees from Cambodia and Southeast Asia. I formed a mentoring group for refugee children when I was a student at Grinnell College in Iowa. Later as a reporter for the AP, I made sure to include the SE Asian community in my reporting. I had seen there was a lot of prejudice against refugees, a lot of misunderstanding, so I felt as a reporter it was my duty to try to cover these newest members of the communities I was living in.

Obviously at this point in my teens and twenties, I wasn’t thinking about writing a novel.

When I started writing about the characters in Dragon Chica, I first started writing about them in short stories. I already had quite a bit of background. But then when I decided that I wanted to write a novel so that I could go into the characters’ lives more deeply, I had to do a lot of research. One of the hardest things to find was background on Cambodian society BEFORE the Khmer Rouge regime.

Fortunately, I was able to find books and even some videos in French and English about Cambodia at the University of California-Berkeley, where I was a research associate for a number of years. What I discovered was that Cambodia was experiencing a tremendous golden age in its culture in the 1960s and early 1970s, even as politically things were unstable and war on the borders threatened. The arts and schools were flourishing; the people had a lot of hope and expectations for a better life. Nobody writing about Cambodia in the 1960s predicted that in a mere ten years all of that would be destroyed. Nobody.

You’re also a memoirist.  What are some similarities and differences between the writing processes of memoir and novel writing?

The biggest difference is that with a memoir, I have actual memories to work with. With a novel I had to invent everything: the characters, the plot, the timeline.

The similarities are that for both types of book, I’ve had to conduct a lot of research to provide context. For the family memoir I wrote with my father, The Girl from Purple Mountain, for example, I had to learn to speak and read Chinese, and then I went to live in China so that I could understand what my grandparents’ and father’s life had been like before, during and after World War II. I had to learn the larger history, the geography, the architecture, all the external details even though I knew the characters (my family) quite well.

Memoirs and novels are also similar in terms of the storytelling. Both require the same set of writing skills to develop the characters, make the scenes come alive, move the plot forward, etc.

What’s your favorite time of day to write?

Night. I’ve always held “day jobs” so my only time to write IS night. Plus, I need time to just let the concerns and worries of the day fall away. Night allows me to feel peace.

What are some of your favorite books?  Is there any author(s) or book(s) in particular that influenced you to become a writer?

When I was twelve, I read an interview with Ursula K. LeGuin who said if you want to be a writer then you must write every day. I just loved her novels, including The Earthsea Trilogy, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Lathe of Heaven, so I took her advice to heart. And I’ve written every day since then.

There are so many writers who continue to influence and inspire me. I’ll just name a few (or else I’d end up with a list of thousands): Marguerite Duras, Julian Barnes, Luis Alberto Urrea, Nina de Gramont, Cynthia Kadohata, A.S. Byatt, Primo Levy, Louise Erdrich, Toni Morrison, Kiran Desai, Robert Olen Butler, Percival Everett, Margaret Atwood. The list could go on forever.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a crime novel! It’s still very literary and character oriented, but I like the idea of exploring a crime, why it occurs, who tries to cover it up, how it ultimately comes to be exposed.

What advice would you like to share with writers who are trying to break into the business?

1) Write every day. Even if it’s just a paragraph, start writing! Then keep writing every day so that it becomes like eating or breathing, a part of your life that you can’t live without.

2) Write what you love and want to write about. Don’t try to second-guess the market. Your passion will come through if you’re writing about something you truly care about.

3) When you revise, think of it as an opportunity to re-envision your story, to explore a new path. Don’t think of it as a chore.

4) Don’t give up!

Thanks for stopping by, May-lee.

Medeia Sharif


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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!

Sincerely,

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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Had a great time in Albuquerque and especially at the University of New Mexico this past week!

At San Felipe de Neri, oldest church in Albuquerque (1706)

Albuquerque really put on a show: heat, a dust storm with 63 mph winds, snow (!), and then more of that famous southwestern sunshine! All in the space of three days. Wow. I was impressed, New Mexico. You get four seasons all at the same time!

Thank you, everyone, who attended my reading at UNM on April 30. I was very excited to meet the wonderful writer (and Director of the Creative Writing Program at UNM) Julie Shigekuni.

Julie Shigekuni (left) is the author of UNENDING NORA, which I'm holding

And the UNM bookstore really rocks! They put together the coolest poster for me of my book covers. (Hey, authors! If you get to read at UNM, the bookstore staff will make a poster for you, too.) I love when bookstores not only stock cool books but are also staffed by cool, creative people.

The UNM Bookstore's staff rocks!

I was surprised by the big turnout for my reading. I read my short story, “The Dancing Girl’s Story” from my collection Glamorous Asians. In the story, a Cambodian Apsaras, a goddess, is mistakenly picked up by the INS and interrogated. She gives them an earful as she explains her life to them and why she decided to flee her home temple. They don’t understand her, but how is one supposed to explain a life in one story?

Then I talked about “The Lone Apache” chapter from my memoir, Hapa Girl, which describes how my brother was nearly killed when he was a teenager. He was mistaken for a Native American in a small town in South Dakota, and a group of white boys decided to teach him a lesson for going to watch the white girls play basketball. In the parking lot after the game, my brother suddenly found himself approached by this pack of bigots–armed with baseball bats and a two-by-four, no less. They called him a local slur used for Native Americans and approached. My brother put up his fists, knowing this would most likely be a fight to the death. His friends deserted him…but then one white boy in the group suddenly decided to stand by my brother. That changed the dynamics, and the would-be killers got scared. They thought: What if the crowd turned? What if they got beaten instead? So the thugs ran away.

Me and a UNM history student

I told the students that because of this, I know one person really can make a difference in this world. If not for that one boy siding with my brother, my brother could have died that night. We can all try to be that one voice that makes a difference, each in our own unique way. I try to be that voice with my writing, but every one of us has a way that we can make a difference. We shouldn’t be afraid to try.

I was also invited to participate on the MFA Thesis Committee and Defense of my former student, Chris Boat. His thesis passed with flying colors. I won’t give away anything about the plot now, but someday y’all will get to read his novel, I’m sure.

Me, Junko Boat, Naomi Boat, & my former student, Chris Boat

Finally, I also got to see some beautiful sites in Albuquerque, including the historic “Old Town” neighborhood, which dates from the 1700s and features adobe buildings, the area’s first Catholic church, and a lot of local artists.

Entrance to the historic Old Town

Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine in Old Town

Snow on April 30, 2010!

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My short story, “Tomorrow in Shanghai,” is in the spring issue of The Missouri Review, now available in bookstores and online.

Excerpt from \”Tomorrow in Shanghai\”

The Missouri Review

For more information about the spring issue of The Missouri Review (and a summary of my story) check out TMR editor Speer Morgan\’s Foreword, “Uncharted.”

If your library or local bookstore doesn’t carry The Missouri Review, you can order a copy  of Vol 33, No. 1 online: The Missouri Review Spring Issue home page.

And yes, there is a novel in the works.

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