Category Archives: …Author Interview/Profile

Author Interview: Vaddey Ratner

In the Shadow of the BanyanAlmost two years after  Vaddey Ratner made her New York Times bestselling debut with In the Shadow of the Banyan – her fictionalized account of her survival, as a young child, of the Khmer Rouge genocide that took most of her family along with some two million others – her bookish peregrinations continue. I caught up with Ratner during a few days in her suburban Washington, DC, home – just back from her Norwegian book launch in Oslo and heading out to another speaking engagement in Arizona. In between the frenzy of family duties and repacking her suitcase, she graciously answered questions with acuity and alacrity … and alas, not without tears from us both.

Although you arrived in the United States at age 11 not speaking English, you graduated high school as valedictorian and then summa cum laude from Cornell. What was your career after college? In other words, what did you do before you published your first book after age 40?
I never had what you’d call a “career” before the publication of In the Shadow of the Banyan, before I became an author. I was always writing, albeit in anonymity, and in that sense, I guess I’ve always been a writer. In the years right after Cornell, probably the only job worth mentioning was a short stint at the Asia Society in Washington, DC, where I answered the phone and membership inquiries. So in short, I went from being an over-achiever to lying low, under the radar, wanting desperately to write and yet fearing what that meant – a leap back into my traumatic past, the nightmare and complicated history.

Where did that inspiration and drive to be “always writing” originate?
Language itself, that alchemy of illusion and allusion. My ineradicable fascination with storytelling, its magical power to transform and elucidate and even mystify.

I suppose it’s safe to say that I wanted to be a writer as soon as I became aware of the written language, aware of the existence of books and the universes they contain – in other words, as soon as I learned to read and write, when I was around four or five years old. This was in Khmer, my native tongue. As a small child, I lived and breathed stories, searched for meanings in new words, in the tales I was told and the ones I overheard.

How and when did you decide to write Banyan? And after decades of experience far-removed from Cambodia, was the process of recovering your memories difficult? How did you prepare yourself to relive such horrors in order to write this book?
When I was living in Cambodia from 2005 to 2009, the realization came to me that the story I wanted to tell was larger than me, than my own life. With Banyan, I wanted to pay homage to our humanity that part of us that not only survives but triumphs. I saw this everywhere in Cambodia. I still see it every time I return. Despite living in the shadow of genocide, people there possess a lightness of spirit that’s absolutely inspiring.

There is no way to really prepare oneself to write this kind of book. The tragedy and atrocity were not imagined nightmares but real ordeals I lived through. So to write it, I had to relive it. Every loss I endured as a child, I endured again and again each time I sat down to write. It was a heartbreaking story to tell because I not only had to invoke the past – a country’s violent history – but I had to delve into my family’s personal ordeals—our private tragedies. I mourned every memory I exhumed.

From the perspective of writing as a craft, it was an excruciating first project to take on. I had no formal training as a writer and had not published a single line to be able to confidently call myself a writer by virtue of experience. Still, I knew this was the story I had to write before I could even think about another. No matter how long it would take me, I thought, I would discipline myself to this one endeavor. After all, I’d survived those horrific events, when many in my family had not, so it was the least I could do – devote my life to remembering them. [... click here for more]

Author interview: “Q&A with Vaddey Ratner,” Bloom, March 5, 2014

Readers: Adult

Leave a comment

Filed under ...Author Interview/Profile, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Memoir, Southeast Asian American, Vietnamese American

Author Profile: Vaddey Ratner

In the Shadow of the Banyan“To transform suffering into art”: Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan

While the Vietnam War ended for the United States with the April 1975 military withdrawal, death and destruction continued, moving into neighboring Cambodia and Laos. With the evacuation of U.S. troops, the Communist Khmer Rouge stormed into Cambodia’s capital (and largest city) Phnom Penh and dispersed its inhabitants to remote areas. In an attempt to create a more equitable society, the Khmer Rouge destroyed the majority of those who were perceived to have power, particularly the wealthy and educated. To destabilize any remaining social structures, they fractured family units. Those who managed to survive were sent to labor camps where many would die of starvation, disease, torture, and execution. Over the next four years, Pol Pot and his heinous regime claimed almost two million lives – a quarter of Cambodia’s then-population.

Vaddey Ratner and her mother survived. No one else in their immediately family lived. Ratner was just five in 1975. Six years later, in 1981, mother and daughter arrived in the U.S. as refugees. Just over three decades later, in August 2012, Vaddey would publish In the Shadow of the Banyan, her fictionalized account of her young life, her missing family, and how she miraculously stayed alive while too many others did not.

In the transcript of a speech that Ratner’s Simon & Schuster editor, Trish Todd, gave at BEA’s 2012 “Editors Buzz Panel” [to watch fast forward to 28:36 for Todd/Banyan], she confesses to initially believing that Banyan “was not a natural fit for me” when Ratner’s agent first pitched Todd the novel. Intending to “honor [the agent’s] submission with a nice rejection and begin my vacation,” Todd – a 30-year veteran of publishing – finished the manuscript without pause (barely moving!) and realized that she “had just read what could be the most important book [she] would ever publish.” She cancelled her vacation and planned how to win the “very big auction” to buy this first novel of a new, untested writer. The rest, as they say…

The laudatory responses quickly followed. Readers made Banyan a New York Times bestseller. Critics agreed. Banyan was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice and appeared on eight 2012 best books lists, including Christian Science Monitor and Kirkus Reviews. The populist bibles O Magazine and People raved and recommended. The highbrows too applauded and nominated, naming it a 2013 PEN/Hemingway finalist, as well as a finalist for the 2013 Book of the Year Indies Choice Award. Ratner made the media rounds: NPR’s “Morning Edition,” USA Today, and The Washington Post, to name a few. She spoke around the world, at the PEN/Faulkner gala, the United Nations Association, the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, and more.

Unlike Todd, I took over two years to finally reach the last page of Banyan. Not even the prospect of meeting Ratner in livetime, thanks to a mutual writer friend who insisted I join them for dinner, could get me to finish reading Banyan! Thankfully, the mutual friend’s new book took precedence as dinner conservation. Not until this Bloom deadline loomed could I force myself to actually reach book’s end. Why the frozen hesitation? Because I simply couldn’t let the book go: holding on to the promise of unread chapters was more comforting than racing to the conclusion. I needed only a fraction of the 300 pages to realize that as wrenching and terrifying as the story is, Banyan would surely be one of the most heart-stoppingly gorgeous titles I would read in years. I wasn’t wrong. [... click here for more]

Author profile: “‘To transform suffering into art’: Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan,” Bloom, March 3, 2014

Readers: Adult

Published: 2011

Leave a comment

Filed under ...Author Interview/Profile, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Memoir, Southeast Asian American, Vietnamese American

Author Interview: Nina Schuyler (Part 2)

TranslatorFollowing is Part 2 of an extensive interview with author  Nina Schuyler. Click here to read Part 1. Click here for the Schuyler feature.

As a writer who is a woman, who also happens to be a mother of two small young kids – do you feel that motherhood has specifically influenced your writing? And if so, how?
My quick response: Writer’s block? I don’t have time.

On a more honest note, I have a two-and-a-half year old, and the world for him is full of wonder. A toddler’s way of moving through the world is slow, full of curiosity, and easily and delightfully dazzled.

An artist, any artist, works to see the world anew. Having a young son who naturally sees the world with bright eyes, well, it’s a blessing. He’s pointing out to me so much beauty and mystery.

Finally, I’ve learned to get the writing done any way I can. I am so flexible now I should be a contortionist. I have no rituals, no lighting of candles or music or anything. I manage to write nearly every day. If it’s only a sentence, or a revision of a sentence, I call that writing and let it feed me.

And are you and Mr. Timer still good friends?
We are. But I can now go for about 45 minutes instead of just 30. My two-and-a-half year old is older now. I wrote that [blog post] when he was just 1. Now I have more energy and can focus for longer periods of time.

Mr. Timer is still my buddy. He helps me bake and he helps me write.

You mentioned in an interview that you’d “love to read more novels with female characters that shake up and out of the stereotype. More females who experience anger, raw ambition, intellect, sexual hunger, arrogance, a solid ego, authority, power.” Who are some of your favorite women characters who fit such a description? Who are some of your own favorite writers (NO gender specified here on purpose!) who have created such women?
Lily Briscoe in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse for her ambition and passion for her art, painting right to the very end of the novel. J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello in the book of the same name for her intellect, her honesty, her solid ego. Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge in the book by the same name is dear to me. Olive gave me permission to go ahead and create a complex female character, full of impatience and patience, who is stern, driven, and utterly devoted to her art and her children. Leda in Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, for her brutally honest ambivalence toward motherhood. Grace Paley’s first person narrators, especially in her short story collection, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute.

Do you think writers who are also women (won’t dare use “women writers”!) need to create more female characters like those you describe above? Just as authors get outed, noted, criticized, or applauded for writing beyond their ethnic box, do you think authors can or should write beyond their gender?
Absolutely. In my first novel,  The Painting, I wrote my way back into the 19th century in Japan and Paris during the Franco-Prussian War, inhabiting both men and women. It was thrilling.

Now that I’ve outed that word—sex, albeit via “gender”—I have to mention your blog post, “Writing Sex,” in which you confess, “I have to write a sex scene. It’s inevitable.” I love that “inevitable.” In the post, you channel the words of Edmund White (“Most sex is funny…”) and Ernest Hemingway (“…and for her everything was red, orange, gold-red from the sun on the closed eyes, and it all was that color, all of it, the filling, the possessing, the having, all of that color, all in a blindness of that color”). How come no exemplary scenes by writers who are women?
You’re right. I’m not sure there’s one author, but let’s add the “Song of Solomon” from the King James Bible. Anaïs Nin. Marguerite Duras’s The Lover. I’m thinking of writers who do sex in an interesting way. Oh, Toni Morrison’s scene in Beloved between Sethe and Paul D. Garner.

I’d love to hear from your readers about their favorite sex scene in literature.[...click here for more]

Author interview: “Q&A with Nina Schuyler (Part 2),” Bloom, January 8, 2014

Readers: Adult

Leave a comment

Filed under ...Author Interview/Profile, .Fiction, Japanese, Nonethnic-specific

Author Interview: Nina Schuyler (Part 1)

TranslatorWith all the vastness of the internet, I had quite a difficult time finding answers to the sorts of questions I had about Nina Schuyler and her relationship to her fiction – most especially regarding race and identity. (I know, so loaded!)

In both of her lauded novels – The Painting (2004) and The Translator (2013) – Schuyler takes a giant leap into a country, culture, language, even gender into which she was not born …and unlike some who have attempted such chameleonic feats (and succumbed wholly to cringe-inducing exotic pandering), Schuyler is sensitively attuned, carefully authentic, and thoroughly convincing.

So when I wrote the feature about Schuyler, I felt a bit restricted because I couldn’t write what I didn’t know. How grateful was I to get the chance to find out more from Schuyler herself! (Her name, by the way, is pronounced NIGH-nah SKY-ler, and not “Nee-nah Shoe-ler,” as narrator Kirsten Potter mistakenly refers to her in the audio version of Schuyler’s The Translator. Choose the page!)

Let’s start with some obvious questions about language … how many do you speak, read, or write?
I speak enough Japanese to be dangerous. On a recent visit to Japan, I asked an elderly Japanese woman for directions to a tea house and ended up at a cemetery. Long ago, I learned Spanish. Now that my two sons are learning it, I, thankfully, am finding my way again in that language. When I lived in Denmark as a university student, I learned Danish. Unfortunately, that language has faded and I’m left with only one phrase: “May I have a cup of tea?”

Might I assume that English is your first language? Your last name is Dutch – is that also your family’s background?
It is. I’m Dutch on my Dad’s side. Pennsylvania Dutch, actually. I grew up knowing a little bit about my heritage, but it wasn’t dominant by any means. My father talked to us early on about the intersection of the Dutch and the Japanese, how the Dutch were one of the rare groups of foreigners allowed to live in Japan, though in confined quarters.

What drew you to learn other languages?
I think the allure of languages is intertwined with my love of words. In my novel The Translator, my protagonist, Hanne Schubert, says she learned seven languages, not to converse with the world, but to make an array of sounds. I understand this appeal.

Unlike my protagonist, however, I want to converse, to reach across the silent, lonely gap and speak, not in my native tongue, but in someone else’s. My attempts, however faulty, always unfold into something memorable.

And being so facile with languages – and your latest novel bears the title The Translator – have you ever considered taking on translating projects?
With my Japanese teacher, I’ve translated Japanese poetry. My small, feeble efforts have shown me how much skill and art there is in moving from one language into another.

Both your novels have been woven around an intersection of East and West – certainly the twain meet in your work. Where did that impetus come from?
When I was growing up, my father often traveled to Japan for work. He’d bring back the usual souvenirs – Japanese fans, geisha dolls in glass boxes, origami birds, chopsticks, and the occasional bonsai tree. The aesthetic was so different from the West, pared down, simple lines. It seemed the embodiment of grace, and I was transfixed. I began to read about Japanese art and artists, and from there, I wanted to learn the language, which I studied in college and then after I graduated. I embarked on that adventure, not knowing I’d be learning three alphabets, and that it would take about 3,000 kanji to read a newspaper. I also studied Japanese economics, with a fabulous professor who wove in psychology, society, and Japanese culture.

Because I am from the West, I see how much the two worlds – East and West – could learn from each other. I know that sounds idealistic – so be it. In my novel, Hanne Schubert moves from her isolated, lonely state to awareness of community and the other. This movement is, in some sense, representative of how the West could stand to absorb some of the lessons of the East. That is, the West, with its hyperbolic emphasis on the individual and individual rights, and the East, with its emphasis on community and harmony and the public good. [...click here for more]

Author interview: “Q&A with Nina Schuyler,” Bloom, January 8, 2014

Readers: Adult

Leave a comment

Filed under ...Author Interview/Profile, .Fiction, Japanese, Nonethnic-specific

Author Profile: Nina Schuyler

Translator“Like most writers, I work at the edges of the day”

Wife, mother, teacher, poet, writer – Nina Schuyler wears many labels. Her youngest is still a toddler, she balances multiple part-time jobs, keeps up with the daily-life expectations of cooking and laundry, soccer and basketball mom-ing, not to mention the care and feeding of the family’s dog and fish.

In the midst of all the multi-tasking, Schuyler has managed to write three novels, with a fourth in progress: her debut, The Painting, hit shelves in 2004 when she was 41; she wrote a second novel that she hasn’t yet shared with the world; her latest, The Translator, pubbed in July 2013, almost a decade after her first; and she’s already blogged about the sex scenes in her latest book-in-the-making.

“Like most writers, I work at the edges of the day,” Schuyler confesses in a recent blog post on her author website. “Early morning. Late at night. A babysitter who comes and watches the little one, giving me the luxury to stretch out in a big acre of time.” Although she refers to “discipline” as “an archaic word,” she relies on a $5.00 kitchen device to keep her writing. Literally.

[M]y friend, my enemy, my companion, my task master is the Timer . . . it sits on my desk and I set it for thirty minutes. The implicit agreement between Timer and me is that I cannot move from my chair until the beeper goes off. … A new novel, page by page, hour by hour, something – a story? … I sit and write until I hear the beep.

Schuyler had much to do before settling into writing fiction full time, including the study and mastery of many languages. Before, during, and after studying economics and human biology at Stanford University, then law at University of California Hastings College of the Law, Schuyler also acquired Spanish, Danish, and Japanese. She honed her writing skills as a journalist at a legal newspaper, where she dealt with facts. “[A]s I gathered stories for the paper, so much was left on the cutting floor, so to speak,” she told Amy Sue Nathan of the Women’s Fiction Writers blog. “A newspaper article uses a specific form that delivers information efficiently and concisely to the reader. Yet I met so many fascinating characters, characters in the true sense of the word.” That fascination sent her back for a third stint at school, this time to San Francisco State University’s graduate creative writing program: “When I was accepted, I got enough validation to keep writing.”

By the time Schuyler finished her MFA, she had what would become her first published novel. That debut – Schuyler’s thesis after many revisions – “had a speedy entrance into the world—in a matter of weeks, I got an agent, and she sold it quickly.” The Painting was the result of a confluence of sights, sounds, and smells during a Japanese language class in her teacher’s home. On Backstory, Schuyler recalled her introduction to ukiyo-e: “It means ‘pictures of the floating world,’ [Schuyler’s sensei] said, smiling faintly, as if she’d just laid down a winning card. She knew I dabbled in painting and she’d probably found a way to spark her flailing student’s interest.” During an afternoon redolent with green tea, mochi, and the scent of fresh-cut grass outside intermingled with the musty pages of books inside, Schuyler listened to her sensei explain: “’For the first time, art being created for [the] everyday person.’”

These popular paintings of “almost everything” produced during the 17th to 19th centuries became a major export item when Japan capitulated to the Treaty of Kanagawa in 1854, which opened Japan’s trade routes to the West after 250 years of isolation. That ukiyo-e prints traveled far and wide through open borders was especially fascinating to Schuyler:

I was struck by the image of colorful paintings flying through the air from East to West. Over the next weeks, I found myself thinking about these paintings, broadly, in history, and I couldn’t shake the questions: what is the purpose of beauty? The purpose of art? What if the world was knit together by beauty?

In seeking answers, Schuyler wove a resonating story spanning cultures, oceans, time. [... click here for more]

Author profile“Nina Schuyler: ‘Like most writers, I work at the edges of the day,’” Bloom, January 6, 2014

Readers: Adult

Leave a comment

Filed under ...Author Interview/Profile, .Fiction, Japanese, Nonethnic-specific

Author Interview: Julie Wu

Third SonAt 22, Julie Wu had a “vision” about a sad young boy that she immediately rushed to capture in words. From those initial notes, she would take almost a quarter century to bring him to the page: at age 46, she “bloomed” as a first-time novelist. The Third Son, about a Taiwanese boy and his journey from being the abused son in a privileged family to his reinvention as a successful American immigrant, finally hit shelves in April this year.

I just discovered this humorous post you did for Beyond the Margins: “What It Means When Your Reviewer is Mean, Unfair, and Totally Doesn’t Get It,” in which you “fess up” about your own state of mind when you wrote a negative review of a medical article years ago. So have you encountered any bad reviews of The Third Son? If so, how did you react?
Oh, of course. I know that reading taste is so individualized. I’ve been lucky that the majority of the reviews have been so positive, but when I get a bad one I read it and see if it makes sense to me. If I find a common thread in bad reviews, I should take note. If I find [it] totally different from what others say, I chalk it up to taste.

And what might you say to such a reviewer if you ever met him or her?
I guess I would say I’m sorry you didn’t like my book. Hope you like my next one!

I take it you’re not the confrontational type … no spats at the next AWP, huh?
No – you can’t browbeat someone into liking your book.

So at 46, let’s say you’re almost half-way to the other side, so to speak … our generation might easily live to be 100 apparently. And, even better, you’re a doctor, so you can heal yourself. You’ve had many incarnations during your first half – violinist, opera singer, doctor, mother. The “mother”-title you’ll keep forever, of course. So what about “writer”? Think this one will stick for a while?
I view the “writer” role as my ultimate one. It encompasses the whole of my life’s experience. Everything I have goes into a piece of writing.

Having fulfilled the stereotypical Asian immigrant parents’ dream of becoming a doctor, how did they react when you decided to give up your practice and devote yourself full time to writing? Do you think you’ll ever go back to doctor-ing?
Well, I kind of took the backdoor route to a full time writing career. I had kids first, so the reason I gave for quitting my medical job was to take care of them. And once I was home, well …

… and an immigrant grandparent wants ONLY the best for their precious grandchildren!
Exactly! And it’s possible I’ll go back in some capacity. We’ll see.

Let’s talk Third Son – which was almost a quarter-century in the making. Through the many, MANY drafts and revisions, you kept some two percent of the original draft – I read a quote that said the final was 98% different from the first draft. What was that writing process like?
It was a tremendous learning experience. It took all that time for me to mature as a person and a writer, for Taiwan to develop free speech, and for Al Gore to invent the Internet as it now stands.

The Taipei Times reported in an article last fall that yours is the first novel in English that talks about the 228 Incident and the subsequent White Terror. So your debut title has made literary history! How have your readers, especially Chinese Americans, responded to the history lesson you’ve woven into your epic story? [... click here for more]

Author interview: “Q&A with Julie Wu,” Bloom, October 30, 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

Leave a comment

Filed under ...Author Interview/Profile, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Chinese American, Taiwanese, Taiwanese American

The Third Son by Julie Wu + Author Profile

Third SonVision and Reinvention: Julie Wu’s The Third Son

So how many detours can a writer make before becoming that writer?

If you’re newbie novelist Julie Wu – who knew as a Harvard undergraduate in the 1980s that writing was what she wanted to do – the answer might include a Master’s program in opera performance (after serious training in the violin), medical school and the related internships and residencies required to become a doctor, a successful Boston-area practice, and motherhood.

Two decades-plus ago (but who’s counting?), Wu was “too intimidated to try writing,” as she revealed in an April interview for TaiwaneseAmerican.org. The award-winning novelist-to-be Allegra Goodman lived in Wu’s dorm, having already published, while other fellow Harvardites were also writing novels. Despite the encouragement of a teacher who admired Wu’s first freshman expository writing assignment so much that she suggested Wu move into a creative writing section, Wu decided instead to be “practical.” She thought about taking a short story class but didn’t have anything to submit for the application. She kept reading – “I simply love novels – the immersive nature of them. They’re really the original virtual reality programs, made to run on your brain” – and graduated with a degree in literature. Her own writing was yet to come.

Then at 22, Wu had a vision about “a little boy in Taiwan – it was so vivid I rushed immediately to write it all down, and that’s when I realized that that was how to write – that it wasn’t just pushing words around, it was about having a vision and really communicating that vision to other people.” She planned on a novel – “I wanted to be, you know, Tolstoy” – but another almost-quarter century would pass before Wu’s debut novel, The Third Son, finally hit shelves in April earlier this year just after she turned 46.

Wu began writing in earnest in 2001, producing Tolstoy-worthy lengths before eventually distilling her original vivid vision down to just over 300 pages: “I lost track of the number of revisions. I didn’t even print them all out, but I have drawers, trunks, and filing cabinets filled with drafts. Someday I’ll have a big bonfire,” she told Jaime Boler of Bookmagnet. She estimates she kept a mere 2% of the original draft.

The one element that remained unwavering throughout was, of course that “little boy in Taiwan.” He became Wu’s eponymous “third son,” Saburo Tong, who is more comfortable with his Japanese first name than his unfamiliar Taiwanese moniker Tong Chia-lin. Born into a politically prominent family in Japanese-controlled Taiwan, Saburo comes of age in the 1940s and ’50s, a tumultuous time on his small island home as it moves from Japanese control to U.S. invasion to mainland Chinese domination. Inextricably woven with Saburo’s narrative is the violent history of Taiwan’s 228 Incident, which began with the Taiwanese uprising against the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government on February 27, 1947, resulted in the brutal massacre of 10-30,000 Taiwanese on February 28 (“228”), and ushered in the White Terror, a period of martial law that lasted nearly four decades during which thousands of citizens were harassed, imprisoned, and murdered. [... click her for more]

Author profile: “Vision and Reinvention: Julie Wu’s The Third Son,” Bloom, October 28, 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

Leave a comment

Filed under ...Author Interview/Profile, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Chinese American, Taiwanese, Taiwanese American

Author Interview: Kim Thúy

RuKim Thúy is one tough writer to get to, although she declares in our first email exchange when I finally track her down, “I am not at all the kind who plays hard to get :-) .” Attempts to contact her included pleas to both her Canadian and U.S. publishers and publicists (multiple times, ahem!), as well as to her Canadian literary agent’s office. Two months had already passed since my feature piece on Kim Thúy had been filed, edited, and readied for publication.

So, I got personal. I sent random emails to friends who happened to be Canadian writers. How hard could six degrees of separation be, right? I asked an Israeli Canadian buddy and an American ex-pat-now-Canadian professor. Nothing. And then I remembered a Nepali Canadian journalist author friend, who quickly replied she didn’t know Kim Thúy personally, but she thought of two friends who might. The connection that finally came through was a missive from Shanghai from a novelist on her way to a Vancouver residency! Talk about searching the ends of the world!

Kim Thúy insisted on a Skype chat: “… my English is weak [it’s so not!]. Live Skype allows me to use my hands to speak to you.” And she requested an 8:33 call on a Thursday morning, warning “a later time will be interrupted by all kinds of daily stuff: phone calls, people at the door, wild cats … and bears in the garden …” I will add that, regardless, her phone(s!) rang as if on cue every few minutes.

Still, we managed a two-hour session of gesticulating and laughing and outright guffawing.

Okay, so you’ll hear me typing while we talk, and I’m also recording our conversation …
Don’t worry, don’t worry. I’ve said so many stupid things during interviews, I don’t worry at all anymore! So you can do anything you want with this!

Then I might as well ask you the most selfish question right up front: when’s the next book coming out?
I’ve written two more since Ru! They are already out in French. My second book is with another author, Pascal Janojvak. We met in Monaco because we were both there for a book prize [the Prix Littéraires Prince Pierre de Monaco]. I had not read his book [L'Invisible] and he had not read mine. Pascal is half-French, his father is Slovak, and his parents met in Switzerland where he was born. But now he is living in Ramallah, in Palestine. And I wondered why a Swiss would be living in Ramallah! He had been there for five years, he had his kids there. And I thought, there must be a love story! He met his Italian wife in Beirut at the Institut Français. They lived in Bangladesh, then worked in Jordan, then got jobs in Ramallah. Their children have many passports! We first met for only one-and-a-half hours, but something just clicked. We exchanged our first email, and the story was right there. So we started writing this book, going back and forth. It’s called À toi.

Since it’s not translated into English yet, can you tell us about it?
When we met, first I talked about French colonization, about the Vietnamese people’s love/hate relationship with the dominant culture. For the Vietnamese, we want the French to leave our country, but then we also wish we had French features. We still wish to be French, even though we despise them, because we wish to be like those who have the power.

Then Pascal came back with a great story about Palestine, about what the kids are playing in the streets. He noticed that when they had a choice, the Palestinian children chose to be an Israeli soldier, because that’s the closest they had to a hero! When they played with planes, they wanted the supersonic models from Israel, not the Palestinian versions. Israeli products are always thought of as better than the Palestinian. That was very interesting to me. I knew so little about Palestine – beyond explosions, smoke, guns. But Pascal told me about how when a pot of soup is made by someone’s mother, she shares it with her friends. I don’t have that sort of image – of mothers, fathers, their children living their daily lives. But of course, they have the same daily lives as everyone else!

Pascal told me about all the stress in Gaza that has led to a big controversy with black market sleeping pills and Viagra. The men can’t sleep. They’re too tense and not relaxed enough for that. When he told me this story, I finally realized how they must always live under such pressure all the time. The body is always reacting, the body has to keep changing and adapting. But by being under stress always, we are just muting ourselves.

I wanted to continue this conversation with him, so we did that through writing the book.

And also, he was very handsome, by the way. And now you know I’m just superficial! I just wanted to talk to him. Anyway, that’s how we started. The book is about the same length as Ru. It’s not yet translated into English but I think soon. [...click here for more]

Author interview: “Q&A with Kim Thúy,” Bloom, September 18, 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012 (United States)

6 Comments

Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ...Author Interview/Profile, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Memoir, .Translation, Canadian Asian Pacific American, Southeast Asian, Southeast Asian American, Vietnamese, Vietnamese American

Author Profile: Kim Thúy

RuKim Thúy’s Ru: An Apple for the Reader

Ah, well . . . better start with true confessions: my words appear on the back cover of the U.S. edition (at least the first printing) of Vietnamese Canadian author Kim Thúy’s debut novel, Ru. The blurb is excerpted from my starred review in the August 15, 2012 issue of Library Journal: “This extraordinary first novel unfolds like ethereal poetry . . . [an] intricate, mesmerizing narrative.”

So now, you’re fully aware of my publicly admiring bias for the novel. And clearly, I’m not alone. By the time Ru hit U.S. shelves in November 2012 (translated from the original French), it had already earned numerous, important, global accolades for its first-time author. After multiple lives as a refugee, interpreter, translator, lawyer, and restaurateur, Thúy was 41 when she “bloomed” with the initial publication of Ru in Canada in October 2009.

Success came quickly and broadly, with editions that appeared in 20 countries: nationally, Ru was shortlisted for Canada’s prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize; internationally, it was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize. The original French debut won Canada’s coveted Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction in 2010, only to reappear two years later on the shortlist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Translation when the English-language edition, translated by the award-winning Sheila Fischman, appeared in 2012. “This is an exemplary autobiographical novel. Never is there the slightest hint of narcissism or self‑pity,” read the Governor General’s Literary Award jury citation upon announcing Ru the 2010 winner. “The major events in the fall of Vietnam are painted in delicate strokes, through the daily existence of a woman who has to reinvent herself elsewhere. A tragic journey described in a keen, sensitive and perfectly understated voice.”

That enigmatic single-word title is as multilayered as the slender novel’s elliptical prose: “Ru” means “a small stream and, figuratively, a flow, a discharge – of tears, blood, of money” in French; in Vietnamese, pronounced quite differently but sharing the same spelling, “ru” is a “lullaby, to lull.” “Ru” is “the most beautiful word in our [Vietnamese] language,” Thúy told Vinh Nguyen in an interview for Diacritics, which named Ru the first-ever Vietnamese Canadian novel.

“I came into the world during the Tet Offensive, in the early days of the Year of the Monkey. . . . The purpose of my birth was to replace lives that had been lost,” Ru’s narrator introduces herself.

My name is Nguyễn An Tịnh, my mother’s name is Nguyễn An Tỉnh. My name is simply a variation on hers because a single dot under the i differentiates, distinguishes, disassociates me from her. . . . With these almost interchangeable names, my mother confirmed that I was the sequel to her, that I would continue her story.

The History of Vietnam, written with a capital H, thwarted my mother’s plans. History flung the accents on our names into the water when it took us across the Gulf of Siam thirty years ago. It also stripped us our names of their meaning, reducing them to sounds at once strange. . . . In particular, when I was ten years old it ended my role as an extension of my mother.

In just over 140 spare pages, Thúy constructs an intricate mosaic of vignettes that flow through decades, continents, generations, and cultures. The “Reading Group Guide” available at book’s end explains that Ru is “an autobiographical novel based on the author’s real-life experience as a Vietnamese émigré and how she found her way – and her voice – after immigrating to Quebec.”

Written as a series of prose poems that range from a precise few lines to a fleeting few pages, the emerging narrative charts a young girl’s journey from wealthy privilege in Vietnam; her rebirth as a war refugee in Canada; her return to her native country where the locals consider her “too fat to be Vietnamese” – not because of her stature, but because “the American dream had made me more substantial, heavier, weightier”; and eventually her own overwhelming motherhood. [... click here for more]

Author profile: “Kim Thuy’s Ru: An Apple for the Reader,” Bloom, September 16, 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2009, 2012 (United States)

2 Comments

Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ...Author Interview/Profile, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Memoir, .Translation, Canadian Asian Pacific American, Southeast Asian, Southeast Asian American, Vietnamese, Vietnamese American

Oleander Girl by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Grandma and the Great Gourd: A Bengali Folktale by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, illustrated by Susy Pilgrim Waters + Author Interview

OleanderGirl.Grandma

When I recently caught up with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, she was in one of her rare lull periods at home in Houston, Texas, having finished almost three solid months of book touring for her latest novel, Oleander Girl. Like her latest protagonist, Korobi Roy, a young woman from Kolkata who crisscrosses the United States on a personal quest, Divakaruni, too, took to planes, trains, and automobiles, from one coast to another and back again to reconnect with her readers.

“It’s great to be home,” she confesses, “although I’m getting very little done.” She has less than a month left before classes start again – she teaches writing at the University of Houston – and has started “just a little” that waiting next novel. She’s recently gone digital, tinkering with a new personal website, which she proudly “overhauled” completely on her own. Her two college-age sons are home for the summer, so for a few more weeks, they get most of her attention – and her home cooking!

Since she published her first collection of poems, Black Candle, in 1991, Divakaruni has managed a near annual output across multiple platforms, from poetry, to short stories (Arranged Marriage, The Unknown Errors of Our Lives), to middle-grade titles (Neela: Victory Song and the three-volume Brotherhood of the Conch trilogy), and her best-known, bestselling medium, adult novels including The Mistress of Spices, Queen of Dreams, and One Amazing Thing. A novel and short story have been transformed for the stage, while two other novels and another short story have had film debuts. In the latest glitterati film news, her penultimate novel, One Amazing Thing, just got optioned by Hollywood.

Earlier this year in March, Divakaruni added her first children’s picture book to her growing oeuvre: Grandma and the Great Gourd: A Bengali Folktale, based on a favorite story her beloved grandfather shared in her youth, now vibrantly illustrated collage-style by artist Susy Pilgrim Waters. As celebratory as Divakaruni is, the timing of the book’s publication remains bittersweet for the whole family: Juno, the beloved family dog who has been Divakaruni’s personal muse for years – “when I am mired in writer’s block, I rub her belly” – passed away a few months ago. Juno herself “inspired” Divakaruni to write this clever rendition of Grandma, about an audacious grandmother who braves the dangerous jungles to visit her daughter and grandchildren, protected from afar by her beloved canine companions. “‘What’s life without a little adventure?’” Grandma muses; clearly she’s channeling some of Divakaruni’s far-reaching energy.

That “can-do” attitude is clearly displayed in Divakaruni’s seventh adult novel, Oleander Girl. Korobi, who was protected, coddled, and carefully raised by her traditional grandparents since she lost both her parents at birth, decides, at just nineteen, she will venture beyond everything she has ever known in order to find out who she really is. Her grandfather has suddenly died, but his death finally frees Korobi – and her hesitant grandmother – to discover the truth about Korobi’s parents and their long-buried relationship. Although Korobi is engaged to one of Kolkata’s most eligible young men, she realizes she cannot enter marriage without having a better understanding of her Indian future, which is only possible by discovering her American past. The question looms: when she returns home, if she returns home, who will she be to the people who love her most?

The first thing I must know about Oleander Girl is how you chose the name – Anuradha Roy – for Korobi’s mother? A real-life Anuradha Roy wrote An Atlas of Impossible Longing and The Folded Earth. Is your character’s name mere coincidence?
It’s a coincidence. It’s a fairly common name in Kolkata – I had several friends in school who were Anuradhas! And Roy, too, is a very old name, which goes back a century at least.

When we talked almost a decade ago about Queen of Dreams, it was your favorite among your novels. You’ve had several titles since. Do you feel the same? I know choosing a favorite is something akin to naming a favorite child, so I’m asking as delicately as possible…
Yes, it’s tricky to choose a favorite. But right now it is Oleander Girl, because I gave myself some new challenges in this novel and was pleased at how they turned out. For one, I wanted a book that captured the pulsating heart of contemporary Kolkata, caught between the old and the new, and this was a challenge because although I visit regularly, I haven’t lived in Kolkata in thirty years. The other thing I wanted to do is to showcase multiple narrators of different genders. The main narrator (in first person) is Korobi, the heroine who goes on a journey across the world in search of a secret that will transform her. But I was particularly pleased at how the male voices – especially that of Asif, the chauffeur, turned out. It allowed me to weave together the complex class interactions that are such a big part of Indian society.  [... click here for more]

Author interviewFeature: “An Interview with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni,” Bookslut.com, August 2013

Readers: Children, Adult

Published: 2013

Leave a comment

Filed under ...Author Interview/Profile, ..Adult Readers, ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, Indian, Indian American, South Asian, South Asian American