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Mid-February Update

The website has a new design! Thank you to Julie Thi Underhill, Ben Robinson and Jonathan Young for their collaborative effort to bring it all together.

2. I am at Hedgebrook for a writing residency and after two full days of solitude in a beautiful cabin in the Puget Sound, I already know it’s going to be productive. The fellow residents here have exceeded my expectations: they are warm, funny, kind and also deeply appreciative of the gift we have here. It is hard to be cynical right now. I am only grateful. I also miss my husband and daughter like crazy, so thank goodness for Skype.

3. Elle Magazine readers have chosen Cherry as their March Book of the Month. I feel deeply honored and love reading their thoughts on the book. It makes all those years of writing and revising worth it!

4. I am working on a personal memoir essay for The Rumpus on my father’s memory, our relationship and his relationship with my daughter Amelie. It is probably the most vulnerable piece of writing I’ve ever done, but I do feel it honors (almost) everything I love about him.

a crash course on appearing on a conservative radio talk show

ImageYesterday morning, I got an email from an associate producer of the Michael Medved show inviting me to discuss the recent USA Today oped on ethnic studies. They were hoping I could go on the air that afternoon—in four hours.

I was interviewed once before based on a USA Today article, over ten years ago, but that was for a puff piece on tips to survive the annual summer heat wave. I also googled and facebook inquiried Michael Medved and realized he was a conservative, which probably meant he did not want to interview me to agree with my opinion. So I had to prepare.

My main goal was not to look like a weak, lefty, sputtering fool on the air. I care deeply about this issue and believe in it. I wanted to defend it properly. So in the dwindling hours I had before my interview, I reinvested myself in the issue, realizing that from the comforts of my brief oped, where no one was opposing me, I couldn’t rely on my old argument. I had to have my talking points and be prepared to debate.

Facebook and Twitter were excellent resources, with friends chiming in on how to best handle the interview. The highlights:

  1. My college provost, who I coincidentally had a meeting with that morning, had some of the best advice: don’t use the old argument of why ethnic studies is necessary–even if it’s true—that the curriculum provides a more balanced representation of perspectives in history and society for people of color. Honestly, the host and his listeners are not going to care about that argument. Reason with their bottom line, which is their fear that these kinds of courses waste taxpayers’ money and promote division within an assimilated American society. The new argument for ethnic studies: these courses are crucial to a 21st century education, that in this international economy, our future students need cultural understanding of other perspectives to be able to compete in a globalized world. I do believe this, especially the stance that these courses do not have to be divisive. If anything, ethnic studies broaden and complement our traditional curriculum by being more inclusive.
  2. Monique Truong shared some media interview tips with the overarching theme of not being bullied or led by the interviewer. It is not my job to fill the air—it’s theirs. And don’t ever pretend to be an expert or speak on any issue you don’t know about.
  3. My former colleague Todd Butler at WSU shared a fabulous tidbit about a young liberal appearing on the Bill O’Reilly Show: keep your talking points short—to fifteen seconds. That way, you get your point across and you never get interrupted. It also riles your debating opponent.
  4. Over pho lunch, Matt peppered me with every possible hostile question I could get from potential callers. This helped immensely. So I wasn’t rattled or surprised when these calls did come in.

What I learned from the actual interview:

  1. There were a ton of commercials. One hour of interview was in reality only 37 minutes of airtime. I am used to listening to talk show interviews on NPR—where the guests can speak at length and debate back and forth. That didn’t happen on the Medved show. He would speak, direct a question at me as the music swelled to a commercial break, and I’d often have to wait  a few minutes before I could provide my answers. This actually helped me think through my argument, so I didn’t mind.
  2. I actually found myself moving away from my talking points to simply engage in the debate, making me realize I knew more than I thought. The interviewer and his callers, while certainly full of opinions on ethnic studies courses, had such a wildly different perspective on these classes. They clearly hadn’t taken the ethnic studies courses I had in my undergrad—which I credit for making me the writer and person I am today. This helped me stay cool and collected during the points, when I could have flown off into a nonsensical rage (which has happened to me before—often while driving in traffic or dealing with pushy parents at the farmer’s market.)
  3. Tweeting and facebooking during the interview was a wonderful way to get through the commercials. I was getting emails and wonderful comments of supports from friends and colleagues.

So I feel aptly prepared the next time I get a radio interview request. I doubt I’ll ever evolve into a regular talking head, but it was great fun.

Additional Thoughts on Arizona’s Ethnic Studies Ban

My oped on the ethnic studies ban in Arizona appeared in this weekend’s USA Today.  Here were some additional thoughts that didn’t make the final cut.

  • The continuing fallout from Arizona’s controversial ethnic studies ban has outraged teachers, students and supporters of diverse education, reigniting concerns that the state’s regressive initiatives could spur similar actions nationwide.
  • When Arizona passed the HB 2281 law, which prohibits courses primarily designed for a particular ethnic group or that promote resentment, ethnic solidarity or overthrow of the US government, many feared the divisive ramifications this would have on school curricula that includes the histories and perspectives of American people of color.
  • Those concerns were recently confirmed when the Tucson Unified School District released an initial list of books banned from their curriculum. They range from longtime used anthologies such as “Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years” and “Chicano! The History of the Mexican Civil Rights Movement” to Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” which deals with themes of race, colonization and oppression. In response to the media outrage, Tucson officials claim the books are not banned, but merely being housed in a storage facility–where students and faculty presumably have no access to them.
  • Last year, the University of California, Santa Cruz and California State University, Los Angeles suspended their ethnic studies programs, citing budget cuts. (CORRECTION: The CSULA Asian American and ethnic studies programs were saved from proposed suspension in June, 2011. Thank you to Paul Browning, Public Affairs, at CSULA for alerting me of this error.) Other ethnic studies programs across the country are facing slashed funding or being completely phased out. In Texas, the state board of education voted to revise the guidelines for their social studies curriculum, which members claimed had moved too far to the left. The new revisions emphasize Christian conservative figures over liberal, secular personalities, and also minimize the contributions of Latino and other minority figures in American history.  Since Texas is one of the largest textbook buyers in the country, many textbook companies will adopt the state’s guidelines, which in turn forces smaller states to inherit these biased preferences.
  • If more states begin to unfairly target the work and progress that ethnic studies programs have already accomplished in their short existence, our students will lose. These racist initiatives can have a profound impact on what history can be taught to our students, when it doesn’t include stories of minorities and discrimination, for fear of promoting “biased, political or emotionally charged” ideas. Killing these programs when we are just beginning to experience their benefits would risk alienating our youth, who desire and deserve a curriculum that is reflective of the history and realities around them.

Packing for a writing residency

In less than two weeks, I will be spending 14 days in writing isolation/bliss at Hedgebrook, a writing residency on Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound, Washington. It will probably be my last opportunity to get a good chunk of writing done before the baby and book launch, so I am anticipating taking full advantage or worrying myself into a stupor that I didn’t write enough. My only previous writing residency experience was at MacDowell in 2004 and it was amazingly, astoundingly productive. I’d never written so much in my life. And those chapters, ironically, remained the most in tact of any in the novel. That’s what happens when internet and phone service are taken away from you. It’s just that simple.

Now before I became a mother, I would have obsessed over what to pack. But the primary thing I’ve done in preparation for this writing residency is try to get childcare lined up for Amelie. Matt teaches an afternoon class in SF two times a week, so we have this odd window of three hours where we need someone to watch Amelie, who has loudly insisted every time the subject comes up that she doesn’t want a babysitter–only mommy or daddy. That is an entirely different post about the enormous weight of mommy guilt I am feeling about leaving for two weeks. So the babysitter search continues, but in the meantime, I also need to compile a list of things to pack.

Luckily, google directed me to some great blogs that have already covered packing tips for writing residencies, most notably Nova Ren Suma’s, Christine Lee Zilka’s and and Christy Strick’s posts.

I am especially looking forward to packing primarily pajamas and loungewear since I will be alone most of the time in my own cabin. I made the mistake at my last residency of packing too many other clothes, when really I wore the same pair of sweats the entire time. Also, it’s not like I have much wardrobe to bring since I’m almost seven months pregnant. I currently rotate between five long sleeve shirts and three pairs of maternity pants.

So what’s coming with me? Space is at a premium, and since I have to carry it on the plane and a ferry all by my lonesome, I need to be smart and choosy.

  1. Laptop, obviously, though I need to empty out the last five years of pictures from my hard drive, which is slowing down my creaky 2007 Macbook.
  2. A few, select print books, specifically love stories and the history of Vietnamese rubber plantations.
  3. Ipad: for under the cover snuggling with some e-books.
  4. Index cards and thumbtacks for character bibles and plot points in the novel.
  5. The two notebooks I found in Paris over the summer that have become my visual  inspirations on who my two main characters should be.
  6. My five long-sleeve shirts and three pairs of maternity pants.
  7. Three pairs of soft, comfortable pajamas, slippers, luxe socks.
  8. Puffy jacket, rainboots and umbrella—this is the Pacific Northwest.
  9. Towel and toiletries for showering.
  10. Postcard stamps, for those evenings I miss my family and friends.
  11. Room in my suitcase for Pacific Northwest goodies that we miss.
  12. External hard drive? Still debating.

So is this about you?

With any novel, a writer must answer the question of how true it is: if the characters are based on real people and whether the plots are inspired by actual events. Especially if said novel has a main character who appears eerily similar in age, gender and circumstances to the author. So I imagine I will get asked if this novel is based on my real family and actual events. And I will say no because that is the truth. This novel is fiction.

But look at the family tree, imaginary reader will say! You have a dad, a mom, a brother, and tons of aunts and uncles and cousins on both sides living in America and France. True, I will reply. But that is also the case for many Vietnamese immigrants. And that was why I was drawn to writing a Vietnamese family saga, because of the size of the extended cast of characters, and the opportunity to create and develop rich, complex, overlapping stories for every one of them.

I was also asked this question for my first book, though it comprised of characters related to Operation Babylift, and I pointed out back then as well, that I felt much more comfortable creating my own characters because they had to have the freedom to commit sins and mistakes without the burden of real-life counterparts shadowing me. The same goes for this novel. I knew of the betrayals and choices these characters would have to make, and to do that, I had to fully imagine their histories and motivations as wholly their own.

For me, as a fiction writer, I have a lot more fun making things up. It satisfies my need for control, something I have precious little of in my real life. Tweaking a character’s backstory for the sake of the plot, changing a setting because it is not working, or determining who will get the girl in the end are just a few of the godly powers I lord over my characters. And even better than that? The moment two hundred pages in where I finally connect a character’s secret to another’s, and realizing that had been lurking, developing, since page 67. That doesn’t happen in my nonfiction.

So while these novel’s characters are not my biological family, I still feel they are family, nonetheless. They are my babies. I ache and feel for them as much, perhaps even more, than I do for my real-life relatives, which perhaps sounds strange. But I do know them, much better, much more intimately than anyone else. And I’m okay with this. While I can invade the privacies of my own characters, I am not prepared to infringe on the histories of my real-life extended relatives.

To be honest, the secrets and tragedies that encompass my family history are too hard for me to write. They are stories that don’t belong to me. I do not know them clearly enough, and if my family ever chooses to share them with me, that is their choice, and the stories will stay theirs.

In this way, I’m actually very different from my main character, Cherry, who is hell-bent on learning the truth about her family’s skeletons. I realize that some pain and trauma from the previous generations must stay in the past for a reason. There are certain stories and experiences that should not be passed down and I respect their decision to remain silent about them.

That is not to say these stories do not feel emotionally autobiographical. I don’t think a writer can concoct emotion out of nowhere, even in fiction. So those pangs of bitterness and regret or moments of love and forgiveness within these pages are certainly inspired by my own feelings, or memories of my family’s experiences, but they’ve been gifted to my characters. In this way, my family is an emotional muse to my writing.

So family, feel safe. These are not your stories. You know that. But I hope you’ll read anyway.

The book cover

Book covers are a big deal. It’s one of the most exciting milestones an author experiences after the book is accepted for publication. I remember reading an author’s roundtable and one author, Mark Jude Poirier, described the book cover as an author’s wedding dress: you want it to make you look prettier and better than you are in real life. And I thought, Exactly.

When my first book, We Should Never Meet, was still in pre-production, my editor asked me at the time to send my ideas in for the cover now, while they were still generating the concept. But with little experience–and zero design aesthetic–I hadn’t a clue what to say. I very much regret not giving any kind of inspiration or direction, because when the first draft came, it wasn’t what I imagined at all. After some negotiation with my agent and a few changes, I felt more at peace with their final version. But I never loved it. Eight years later, I look at the cover with much more perspective. Both the hardback and paperback covers accurately reflect the gritty, blunt stories inside. But as an author, one’s vanity always gets in the way. I wanted to be pretty too.

With the second book, my feelings for the cover are completely different. It was immediate love. When my editor first sent it to me, I couldn’t stop staring at it on my computer, the intricate detailing and lush colors, the romantic pictures of Cherry, France and Vietnam. I wanted to call the designer and thank him or her for honoring my book with such a gorgeous composite image. There was some back and forth on the original model for “Cherry” at the top: the first model was beautiful–actually too beautiful for our bumbling, naive protagonist. The agent and editor also debated how much of Cherry’s face we should see: the back of the head had been done so much in recent book covers, but did we really want to see her full-on face? The final model is appropriately Cherry–sweet, but not a temptress. She actually reminds me of a friend of mine from graduate school, who is now a published, esteemed author herself.

What have I learned with these two covers? Even though my feelings for both were so different, I also understand why these design choices were made–even if I didn’t like some of them. I feel fortunate that with this book, which I’ve spent so many years on, has a cover that I’m excited to show to my friends, family and colleagues.