Category Archives: …Author Interview/Profile

The Blind Man’s Garden by Nadeem Aslam + Author Interview

Blind Man's GardenFrom the opening few pages of reading a Nadeem Aslam novel, I knew his writing was something to treasure and behold. Serendipitously, I used my then-day job to bring the Pakistan-born, British-educated-and-domiciled Aslam over the Pond to be a featured guest at the then-annual South Asian Literary and Theater Arts Festival (SALTAF) at the Smithsonian Institution. In SALTAF‘s eight-year history at the Smithsonian, Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers – published stateside just in time for his appearance –is the only book that has ever sold out its sizable inventory before the lunch break. Never before or since has another SALTAF author commanded such exceptional sales.

The Smithsonian reading public’s sophisticated taste resonated far beyond: Maps for Lost Lovers won the Kiriyama Prize, was longlisted for the Booker, shortlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Award, and named a New York Times Notable Book. Maps is a contemplative, intimate look at a Pakistani community in northern England – self-named “Dasht-e-Tanhaii,” meaning “The Wilderness of Solitude” or “The Desert of Loneliness” – where a pair of unmarried lovers go missing. Five months later, the woman’s brothers are charged with their murder, and the man’s older brother must bring not only the families, but their reeling community, back together.

After discovering Maps, I instantly declared groupie status: Aslam is one of less-than-a-handful of personal favorite authors whose latest title causes nervous paralysis. For fear of the potentially long wait ahead until the next book (because there must always be a next book!), I agonize for months, even years, before actually daring to open certain authors’ newest titles.

Three years following Maps, in 2008, The Wasted Vigil hit U.S. shelves; I waited almost five years to finally read the novel. In fact, until I had this year’s The Blind Man’s Garden in hand, I couldn’t even peek at Vigil‘s first page. What I eventually discovered was a book of extremes: Aslam wields his language like a weapon, his mellifluous prose in cutting contrast to the horrific acts witnessed in the name of God, patriotism, honor, truth, and even love. Weaving in and out of the turbulent decades of Afghanistan’s modern history, Vigil gathers the interconnected stories of four disparate lost souls – Marcus, a septuagenarian British ex-pat doctor; Lara, a Russian widow searching for her late brother; David, a former CIA operative; and Casa, an injured young fundamentalist Muslim.

Aslam traveled extensively through Pakistan and Afghanistan in order to write Vigil, as well as interviewing some 200 Afghan refugees living in Britain. His international, peripatetic background places Aslam simultaneously on both “sides” of an incomprehensible conflict; that unique dissonance imbues Vigil with its unfathomable opposites – its terror and beauty, its deception and truth, its abhorrent hatred and unconditional love.

With Vigil finished, I might have hoarded the promising potential of Aslam’s Garden for a few more years (as it was, I had the galley for a good six months before its publication date) – had I not been assigned this interview. As a bonus, I also had a copy of Aslam’s 1993 first novel, Season of the Rainbirds, which finally made its stateside debut in March of this year two decades after its British publication, clearly timed to overlap with the May publication of Garden.

Dovetailing the reading of Aslam’s first and latest books reveals unexpected parallels. Rainbirds – spare and atmospheric – proves to be a character study of a remote Pakistani village’s inhabitants after the murder of one of its leading citizens. Garden is another detailed, careful observation of a not-so-dissimilar isolated town in Pakistan, the spotlight shrunken onto a single extended family and what happens when two sons – one by birth, the other by informal adoption – disappear. Garden tunnels deep into the tragic “war on terror” to examine the very lives of the individuals who must live through (or not) the shattering decisions of faraway leaders, governments, and regimes. When one brother secretly decides to go to Afghanistan in hopes of caring for the human collateral damage from the post-9/11 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the other immediately decides to join him. Together (and too soon apart), they embark on a harrowing journey of Odyssean feats in an attempt to return home.

For readers who have experienced Aslam before (and the apt word really is “experience”), you’ll recognize (and be awed by) his mesmerizing prose in Garden. Of course that sense of awe comes at a high price for me: as grateful as I am for the one-to-one opportunity to chat, I remain bereft that preparing for our authorly exchange cost me all lingering comfort of knowing I still had more Aslam to read. Now having finished his entire oeuvre, I wait (and wait and wait). Patience is not my virtue.

Is it true that you write your novels by hand? Is that why I’ll have to wait so long for the next book? And how, if ever, does the computer play a part in your writing process?
I write the first draft longhand. There is a feeling of direct contact with the paper through the nib. And the words seem to be flowing from my mind into my hand, then down the pen, and onto the page – blood becoming ink. But after the first draft, I move everything onto the computer, mainly for editing. (I use an eight-year-old Dell laptop, very heavy and gray.) I print out each chapter in three font sizes: First in 12-point, which is my usual size. Then in eight-point – which is the smallest size available, so there are more words in each line – and therefore the eye reads faster, instinctively. The eye, in its hurry to get to the end of each line, takes in more words – so you think not about individual words but about the overall narrative and the storyline, the pacing. Then I print the chapter in 14-point – which means there are fewer words in each line, so the eye slows down, and you do think about every word – the weight of it, the lightness of it. [... click here for sooooo much more]

Author interview: Feature: “An Interview with Nadeem Aslam,” Bookslut.com, July 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Author Interview: Don Lee [in Bloom]

CollectiveWith his eyes and body still “bleary from post-windsurfing and traveling,” Don Lee nonetheless graciously agrees to be grilled yet again – we’re going on a decade-plus of various interviews through four books! He’s tired, he’s rambling, but he’s always entertaining … and once more he’s game to talk about all manner of things, from writing and ethnicity, to blooming late and Eeyore-style lamentations.

With all that literary editing, mentoring, teaching, how come you didn’t publish until you were 41?
Oh, I could give you all kinds of excuses: that I was busy with Ploughshares (true), that each short story took me a long time to write (very true), that I never really planned or wanted to publish a book (sort of true), that I was happy writing stories once a year or so and getting them into journals (almost true), but frankly, the real reason was that I was scared shitless. I think unconsciously I didn’t want to lay it all out on the line and try to publish a book and then fail. It was easier not to try.

But then I turned 38, and I decided I’d really like to have a book, one book, before I turned 40. I didn’t want to end up thinking for the rest of my life about what could have been, and become bitter. So I wrote two new stories, revised a bunch of old stories to form a collection, and set about finding an agent to represent me, all of which took over a year and a half. Whereas the goal originally (and unrealistically) had been to publish a book by the time I turned 40, the new goal became to sell the book by then, and I did: W. W. Norton offered me a book contract the week I turned 40, and Yellow was published the following year [in 2001].

Okay, so what prompted you to write that first story? And how did that first story eventually morph into the determination to become a writer for real?
Unlike many authors, I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer at 7 years old or whatnot. I didn’t know what I’d do with my life. I was, however, a tinkerer as a kid. I would take apart things, make things. My bedroom was scattered with detritus – tools, wires, glue, balsa wood, batteries, a soldering iron, capacitors, motors, model cars and planes. When it came time to go to college, my quixotic plan was to get my mechanical engineering degree and then a Ph.D. in physical oceanography and build and pilot underwater submersibles (I watched a lot of Jacques Cousteau as a kid). I was a dreamer. I didn’t write a short story until my sophomore year at UCLA, after a comp teacher told me I had a flair for words and might enjoy taking a creative writing class.

And now four books—and oh so many awards!!—later, are you still scared shitless? Or are you finally resting a bit on your laurels?
Naw, I’m still a tortured soul who never allows himself to feel good about his accomplishments, who doesn’t really believe he’s accomplished anything. And yes, each time I start another book, I am petrified that I won’t be able to pull it off and finish it, and if I can, that I won’t be able to sell it, and if I can, that no one will like it. Why do I keep doing it, then? Because it’s a challenge, and I’m compelled to do it, and I love being inside the process of writing a novel, of thinking about it all the time and figuring out structure and motifs and themes and connections. In a way, I’m still a tinkerer, building things with words. [... click here for more]

Author interview: “Q&A with Don Lee,” Bloom, May 29, 2013

Readers: Adult

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Author Profile: Don Lee

CollectiveWhen Don Lee’s first book debuted in April 2001, he probably didn’t know that he was the forerunner of a colorful trend – literally. His collection, Yellow, had the shortest of subtitles, simply Stories. Three months later, in July, another yellow-tinted cover appeared: Yell-Oh Girls!: Emerging Voices Explore Culture, Identity, and Growing Up Asian American edited by Vickie Nam, in which young Asian American girls from all over the country shared poems, essays, and stories that spoke of their bicultural roots. And then 9/11 hit … moment of silence … and the end of that fateful year seemed to be just the right time for the publication of law professor Frank H. Wu’s Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White.

Among those various shades of yellow, Don Lee’s is my personal favorite. The quirky collection of short stories is populated by the inhabitants of a fictional California seaside town, not unlike the real-life Half Moon Bay along Northern California’s coastal Highway 1. Lee’s memorable characters are convincing; as a onetime Golden State resident, I swear I’ve run into some of them!

“Late … according to whom?” indeed! Lee was 41 when his Yellow hit the shelves. After almost two decades of encouraging, editing, publishing other people’s writing for Ploughshares, at 38, hoping to avoid middle-age ‘coulda-woulda-shoulda’-reget, Lee decided to produce a book of his own by the time he hit 40. His timing was a bit optimistic, so he revised the plan to sell that first book by the big 4-0; remarkably, his birth week arrived complete with a book contract. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one playing colorful favorites: that 40th birthday sale won Lee the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, as well as the Members Choice Award from the Asian American Writers’ Workshop.

As the son of a second-generation Korean American and his Korean-born wife, Lee is technically classified as a third-generation Korean American, although he was born in Tokyo where his career diplomat father was working at the U.S. State Department. From Japan, the family moved to Korea when Lee was four, where he had his first identity crisis: “Japanese was my first language,” he said to me in a 2004 interview for AsianWeek. “But here I was in Korea, speaking only Japanese. I was a little confused to say the least. I thought I was a Japanese kid, but now I was a Korean kid?” To add to his bewilderment, the Lee family lived on a U.S. Army base in Seoul. “Now I was an American, Korean, and Japanese,” he says. “And that’s all you need to know why I’m so hung up on identity,” he laughs.

Identity is at the crux of Lee’s first novel, Country of Origin, which came out in 2004. Not one of his characters is who he or she appears to be … not Tom Hurley, the half-Korean foreign service officer stationed in Japan, nor his photographer lover, nor her CIA husband. And then there’s Kenzo Ota, the Japanese policeman assigned to investigate the aptly named Lisa Countryman, an African-American hapa whose disappearance brings all the characters together. Country of Origin earned Lee an American Book Award and a Mixed Media Watch Image Award for Outstanding Fiction. He also won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel – the Edgar being the top literary prize for mysteries – although he’ll be the first to tell you that he never intended to write that sort of mystery: “I intended to write a sort of Graham Greene political novel, but it strongly appealed to mystery readers, for which I was extremely grateful. Mystery readers buy a lot of books. It also ended up to be my most translated book, and for unknown reasons especially struck a chord with German readers.” [... click here for more]

Author profile: “Don Lee’s Pure Stories,” Bloom, May 27, 2013

Readers: Adult

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On Sal Mal Lane by Ru Freeman + Author Interview

On Sal Mal LaneAllow me to start with the simple end: Ru Freeman‘s On Sal Mal Lane is stupendous. I’ll even embellish that verdict and add that it is actually fan-huththa-tastic... the tmetic meaning of which should encourage you to go get your own copy and check the “glossary” at book’s end. You’ll surely find some choice vocabulary there to aptly describe your own reading experience.

As in Freeman’s absorbing 2009 debut, A Disobedient Girl, the intricate lives of young children take center stage in On Sal Mal Lane. In 1979, the titular Sal Mal Lane is a small cul-de-sac on the outskirts of Sri Lanka’s largest city and former capital, Colombo; in spite of the diverse households, the residents live in relative peace. If they are not exactly friendly, then they certainly live as tolerant neighbors one and all. The Herath family of two parents, four young children – Suren the musician, Rashmi the singer, Nihil the cricketer, and baby Devi the favored – and their servant move into the quiet enclave, reshuffling friendships and alliances throughout the lane.

The Heraths are educated and cultured, and their four children, whose ages range from 7-and-a-half-year-old Devi to 12-year-old Suren, “were different from all the others who had come and stayed for a while on Sal Mal Lane.” In addition to each being neat and clean, well-mannered and talented, their devotion to one another – “the way they stood together even when they were apart … every word uttered, every challenge made, every secret kept, together” – is a gift to behold.

Even as the Heraths’ lives intertwine with that of their neighbors, beyond the safety of their small street, the rest of the country is at an impasse. Ethnic, religious, and political differences among a population with a long history of divisions, colonizations, and suppressions foment through the years, leading up to a coming civil war that will break out in 1983 and last over a quarter-century. “Everyone who lived on Sal Mal Lane was implicated in what happened … the Tamil Catholics and Hindus, the Burgher Catholics, the Muslims, and the Sinhalese, both Catholic and Buddhist. Their lives were unfolding against a backdrop of conflict that would span decades … And while this story is about small people, we must consider the fact that their history is long and accord them, too, a story equal to their past.”

Freeman surely doesn’t disappoint. As she unwinds what happened – with prose both lingering and breathtaking – the children, even the lane’s bully who could have been different with just the occasional kindness, will charm you, tease you, play with you, and when they leave you, they’ll shatter your heart. “To tell a story about divergent lives, the storyteller must be everything and nothing,” Freeman’s prologue concludes. “If at times you detect some subtle preferences, an undeserved generosity toward someone, a boy child, perhaps, or an old man, forgive me. It is far easier to be everything and nothing than it is to conceal love.”

What possessed you to write this novel? How did it come about?
First, I had been a little down about a magazine piece that did not work out. [The article] had to do with the end of the war [the Sri Lankan Civil War – July 23, 1983, to May 18, 2009], and the editor wanted a very pared-down story with easily identifiable villains and saints. I wanted to write a more nuanced story. Second, I didn’t set out to write this novel, in particular. I was just dabbling with this and that, sketching out some anecdotal bits about growing up down a lane like this one. It was one of my brothers, Malinda, who nudged me down this road. He started chatting back with me – via Google Chat – reminiscing about that time and there it was – the novel I wanted to write. This story that was the one I had been trying to put into that magazine article, the one that was not easy but faceted and brittle and gentle and layered. [... click here for more]

Author interview: “Feature: An Interview with Ru Freeman,” Bookslut.com, May 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots by Jessica Soffer + Author Interview

Tomorrow There Will Be ApricotsIt began with a story. I know, I know, that’s what they all say.

But Jessica Soffer‘s debut novel, Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots, really did begin with a short story she wrote in 2009 for a graduate school assignment. In sharp contrast to the novel’s lyrical title, the short story was severely entitled “Pain,” and encompassed a woman’s life from early childhood to adulthood lived in, well, pain. The story’s protagonist was a self-harmer, addicted to pain. “There was something about her voice that I found so compelling,” Soffer explains, “and I wanted to make her something larger, to take her with me.”

Four years later, that woman reappears as the teenager Lorca, half of Soffer’s protagonist duo in Apricots. “Soon into the writing process, an image popped into my head of a young girl and an old woman cooking together in a kitchen,” she recalls. And thus Victoria, the novel’s octogenarian widow, came to life: “Victoria is a nod to my father’s [Iraqi Jewish immigrant] culture.”

In a city of millions, Lorca and Victoria are isolated, lonely Manhattanites. Separated from her country-dwelling father in New Hampshire, Lorca lives with her less-than-maternal mother in her aunt’s apartment. A wise-beyond-her-years eighth-grader, Lorca is suspended when she’s discovered in the bathroom harming herself (yet again), and has just one week to convince her mother not to send her away to boarding school. She’s convinced that if she can duplicate her chef mother’s favorite dish – the elusive grilled fish called masgouf, redolent of memories and spices – she will somehow escape further separation from what is left of her family.

Lorca’s search leads her to Victoria, who once upon a time with her husband ran the Iraqi restaurant in which Lorca’s mother last tasted that perfect masgouf. The uptown restaurant closed years ago, Victoria’s husband Joseph has just passed away, and Victoria’s one leftover relationship in the world is with the needy upstairs neighbor for whom only Joseph seemed to have any patience. In the week following Joseph’s death, Victoria must confront their decades together, filled with too many secrets and unsaid truths that refuse to remain buried. In the maelstrom of Victoria trying to reclaim her life, Lorca appears at Victoria’s door – impossibly young, beautiful, and perhaps even hopeful enough for both lonely souls.

“I’ve always found that something profound exists in a relationship between an older and younger person,” Soffer says. “They can illuminate corners of life for each other in such a unique and energizing way.” That profundity – and the shared humanity – is at the core of what becomes Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots.

Reading Apricots, I admit, made me so hungry. Those sort of descriptions has to mean that you’re very facile in the kitchen. So, who taught you to cook?
My father’s mother was a healer in Baghdad and instilled in my father the notion of eating for one’s wellbeing. There was nothing processed in our house when I was growing up. For a cold: ginger, ginger, ginger. For dessert: honey on an apple. My parents weren’t big cooks or fans of elaborate eating, but they did think about consumption, about nurturing the body through food, in a way that stuck. I imagine that a childhood like that, with an emphasis placed on eating mindfully, is likely to turn out a person deeply interested in food, which I am. I learned about flavors from my father and his sister – but I’ve been self-taught from there on out. I read insatiably about food, watch cooking shows, eat out, ask questions: I’ve absorbed a lot of cooking know-how from the world.

And you’ve also discovered a way with words. How did you decide to become a writer?
My mother is a voracious reader, and an editor, grammarian, and true crime writer. She put a book in my hands before I knew what to do with it and so it began. Red pens, manuscripts, books on every surface of our apartment attributed value to words above all else. Words for decoration, for work, for pleasure, forever. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t write and, perhaps more importantly, when I didn’t organize my thoughts in sentence form. There’s a constant narration stream gushing through my head always and the only way to interrupt it is through writing. So I write.

I wasn’t quite sure from this part of your bio: “the daughter of an Iraqi Jewish painter and sculptor.” Are both of your parents Iraqi Jewish? How did your ethnic history affect your identity formation?
My father is an Iraqi Jew. My mother is not. Her grandparents came from Russia, but her parents were born in Brooklyn, and she was born in Florida. Her parents were the only grandparents I knew and big fans of pickled herring, matzo brei, gefilte fish. They ate Chinese food on Sundays and went to the movies on Christmas and lived in Boca Raton and played Barbra Streisand in their Cadillacs. I like matzo brei but I can’t say that my grandparents’ “experience” informed mine. My parents built their own bubble of culture around art and books and New York City and that is the particular background I owe most to. [... click here for more]

Author interview: Feature: “An Interview with Jessica Soffer,” Bookslut.com, April 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Author Interview: Pauline A. Chen

Red ChamberA couple of days after filing my feature on Pauline A. Chen, I got on the phone to ask her all the questions I couldn’t find answers to out there in the virtual world of google-ing.

True confession moment: I admit I was a wee bit intimidated as the land lines connected us between DC and Cleveland – just what sort of person takes on the most canonical text in Chinese literary history (The Dream of the Red Chamber) and makes it her own (The Red Chamber)? I actually expected a Glenn Close/Cruella de Vil sort of megalomaniacal voice to pick up. Lucky for me, I could put that overactive imagination away, because really, as gutsy as her literary move has been, she’s not at all the hardened character I had dreamt up. Always good to start an interview with a sigh of relief.

Let’s begin with the basics: I understand you spoke rudimentary Chinese as a child because your parents didn’t want their native language to impede their children’s English proficiency. So when and how did you learn Chinese? Which dialect? And are you fluent now?
I took beginning Mandarin in college [Harvard], but the Chinese language program was just getting started at the time, so the classes were not terribly challenging. After I graduated, I spent a year in Taiwan teaching English and that’s when my proficiency really improved, just because I was living in a Chinese-speaking environment. One of my English students in Taiwan introduced me to 9th-century Tang poetry, which I fell in love with – until then I had never imagined that such a developed and sophisticated literary tradition even existed in China.

I came back to the U.S. and went straight to law school, but on the side, I took classes in classical Chinese language and literature. By the time I finished law school, I had realized working over the summers at law firms that I did not want to be an attorney. I went straight into a PhD program in East Asian Studies, and that’s when I began to study Chinese literature in earnest.

I’m pretty fluent in Mandarin, but my training in graduate school focused on reading pre-modern texts – mostly poetry from the fourth century to the ninth century – so I would say I’m stronger in classical Chinese. I can understand quite a bit of Taiwanese, but my attempts to speak it are usually treated with frank derision by native speakers.

You were so certain going into college that you wanted to be a writer. Where did that determination come from?
For as long as I can remember, I liked to write; I had an impulse to make up stories. And reading always gave me such tremendous pleasure. But really, I had no idea what it meant to be writer. Growing up, I never revised anything I wrote, or asked another person for feedback. I just had this dream as a child, but had no comprehension that this was something I had to work towards.

And then during your four years at college, your writerly ambitions just disappeared. How? Why?
The first reason was that at Harvard, students have to apply to get into creative writing courses, and I got into poetry, not fiction. I struggled in the poetry because then, as now, I was fascinated by poetry in other languages – I studied Latin poetry back then – but really didn’t know the English poetic tradition very well. The deeper reason was that I just didn’t know how or what to write. As a teenager I had loved Jane Austen, but at college I started to realize that emulating her style and subject matter would have been faintly ridiculous, and that I needed to find a way to incorporate my own perspective and experience into what I wrote. Years later, when I read V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival, I understood that this was what he had experienced when he tried to write like a worldly, Evelyn Waugh-like sophisticate, while trying to suppress his own experience in a peasant family on colonial Trinidad. I also was too undeveloped, too uncomfortable with my own background to use it as a platform from which to write.[... click here for more]

Author interview: “Q&A with Pauline A. Chen,” Bloom, February 20, 2013

Readers: Middle Grade, Adult

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The Red Chamber by Pauline A. Chen + Author Profile

Red ChamberWhen the teenaged Pauline Chen arrived in Harvard Yard, her intention was to become a writer. The American-born daughter of Taiwanese parents, she grew up amidst Long Island’s endless strip malls and was determined – she wrote in July 2012 at Tribute Books – to shed her “provincial” upbringing. By the time Chen graduated in 1986, she had reinvented herself as an “international sophisticate” whose literary preferences had “distinctly European sensibilities: cigarettes and grappa at Parisian cafés; country dances and muslin frocks in a Derbyshire ballroom.” Her undergraduate degree was earned in Classics, and belied a particular interest in Latin poetry.

During her four years in Cambridge, she shed her “frizzy perm and Long Guyland accent,” but gone, too, by the time she graduated, were her authorly ambitions: “… I stopped feeling that I had anything to say. My writing dried up; I did not understand that the experiences which made me nervous and uncomfortable, which I was quick to bury, also made me creative.”

Although she didn’t create, she also didn’t stray too far from the page. After Harvard, she went to Yale Law School and got her JD. She went south to Princeton where she finished a PhD in East Asian Studies with an emphasis on reading pre-modern Chinese poetry from the fourth to ninth century in original classical Chinese. She had stopovers in Taiwan and Hong Kong, where she honed the rudimentary Mandarin of her childhood into fluency, before settling in “most alien of all” – Ohio – to become a professor of Chinese language and literature, squarely on the tenure track. She got married. She had a child.

And then she got cancer.

Diagnosed with a rare, highly aggressive ovarian cancer in 2001 just weeks after giving birth to her son, Chen returned to some of the comforts of her childhood when her mother moved from New York to Ohio, to take over Chen’s family’s care. Chen’s mother… mothered: she cooked, cleaned, and cooed over her newborn grandson. When the chemo erased Chen’s appetite, her mother’s rice was sometimes her only nourishment. When her baby cried, only his grandmother could comfort him. When Chen required more advanced treatment in another state, Chen’s mother took full charge, following her daughter with her grandson, setting up a new apartment, and smoothly continuing her patient care.

Chen’s mother’s “generosity and talents … enabled [her] to survive,” Chen wrote at Goodreads in September 2012. Before her cancer, Chen’s focus was honed on her demanding academic career and the financial independence it offered, which she thought set her far apart from her traditional mother who had arrived in the U.S. to pursue a PhD in Pharmacology but chose to stay home after her eldest was born with a congenital defect (from which she eventually recovered). Not until her youngest of three children entered school did she get her pharmacist’s license, with which she worked in hospitals for the next 30 years. Growing up, Chen internalized the contempt with which her engineering professor father treated her mother: “I had always failed to give her credit for her talents, for the very reason that she had chosen to devote them to the service of those she loved, rather than to the professional realm.” Only as an adult – and a cancer patient relying on her mother’s unconditional support – did she recognize the “idyllic period of our childhood”: “For years I deplored my childhood circumstances as narrow. In fact my parents had lived on two continents and spoke three languages. All along the narrowness had been in my own vision—and I had had to travel to the ends of the earth in order to see the place that I had come from.” [... click here for more]

Author profile: “Pauline A. Chen and The Red Chamber: ” … to finish the story for myself,” Bloom, February 18, 2013

Tidbit: Click here for my review of The Red Chamber, originally published in Library Journal. Click here for my review of Peiling and the Chicken-Fried Christmas in BookDragon. And click here for a follow-up Q&A with Chen.

Readers: Adult

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Prophecy [Book 1 of Prophecy Series] by Ellen Oh + Author Interview

As the mother of three young girls, Ellen Oh is constantly on the lookout for good books that showcase female empowerment. She’s found a few here and there – say, The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, The Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy by Rae Carson, The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley, and maybe a few others – but to ask for characters with whom her Korean American daughters might directly identify seemed too tall an order. So the former entertainment lawyer and adjunct college professor decided to write her own: Prophecy, the first of a planned trilogy, debuts this month.

“People feared Kira,” the heart-thumping, fantastical young adult novel begins. With her yellow eyes and unprecedented fighting skills, Kira is hardly the average teenager, much less the picture of modesty and subservience befitting a court royal. Her uncle the King considers her a “freak of nature, and a terrible embarrassment to the royal family,” and yet he must rely on her warrior strength to protect his only son and royal heir.

Throughout a fantasy version of third-century Korea, demons, imps, hobgoblins, and shamans threaten the entire peninsula, falling the seven kingdoms one by one. In Kira’s home kingdom of Hansong, evil forces are moving through the ranks, possessing even once-trusted officials. The horrific events that the great ancestor, the Dragon King, prophesied are proving true: “Seven will become three. Three will become one. One will save us all.”

When and how did the idea for your Prophecy trilogy come to you? Did Kira arrive fully formed like Athena? Or did you struggle to bring her to life?
Kira and [her cousin Prince] Taejo were the easiest characters for me to write, because they did literally spring out of my head, much like Athena – I love that analogy, by the way. I like pretending I’m Zeus! The cousins arrived fully formed, with very specific details about how I wanted them to be. When the idea for Prophecy first came to me, it was about a young prince who is believed to be the hero of a legend. But as the legend progresses, his female cousin – who is also his bodyguard and a far better warrior – turns out to be the true hero. I initially wrote Prophecy from Taejo’s perspective, but he was coming out too whiny and jealous. That changed when the point of view switched over to Kira’s. That’s when the story became more alive, moved faster, and became more relatable, at least to me. Which makes sense because the story was always about Kira – I just had to let her tell it.

Besides the shift in perspective, did the story change in other ways over the various revisions?
I think, overall, the story became more emotional. As a writer, I tend to be oriented more toward action, action, action. Both my agent and editor were really good at making me pause and ask, “Yeah, but what does Kira feel when this happens, or that happens?” I always knew the “how” and “what,” but during the revision process, I had to really work on expressing Kira’s reactions, her emotions.

Besides the obvious fact of your Korean ancestry, why did you choose to set your first novel in ancient Korea? As a fantasy writer, you pretty much have unlimited freedom as to where and when.
I chose ancient Korea for two specific reasons: the first was just practical – I couldn’t find anything like a fantasy adventure story set in ancient Korea in libraries or bookstores; the second was more personal – ancient Korea was such a fascinating, turbulent time with kingdoms changing, collapsing, being taken over, dealing with amazing politics and endless intrigue. But the specific moment I realized I had to write about ancient Korea was when I read a Genghis Khan biography and came to a point in the book when the Mongols invade Korea, and the entire royal court flees to Ganghwa Island (which is at the mouth of the Han River), where the Mongols aren’t able to cross the river to get to them. The Korean leaders are out there laughing, while the poor peasants are getting raped and killed by the Mongols. And then the royals, who’ve been safe and sound in their island fortress, come back to tax the hell out of the peasants and steal all their food. All those layered dynamics between the haves and have-nots were just so visual, interesting, and ultimately inspiring to me. That was feudal society at its best – from my perspective as someone who’s interested in the history – and at its worst – from a human perspective because you really see the worst of what people in power do to their citizens. And through it all, the common peasants endure and survive. [... click here for more]

Author interview: Feature: “An Interview with Ellen Oh,” Bookslut.com, January 2013

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2013

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Publisher Interview: Sunyoung Lee and Kaya Press

Early this year, at almost 18 years old, Kaya Press flew the nest. Leaving behind the comfort and familiarity of New York’s publishing world, the non-profit indie specializing in “books from the Asian diaspora,” moved offices across the country to Los Angeles. Now comfortably ensconced in the Department of American Studies & Ethnicity on the University of Southern California campus, Kaya has a new address, new community, new books, new staff, and is definitely basking in new energy.

With all the latest changes, the one Kaya constant is Sunyoung Lee… although she does have the fairly new title of “Publisher and Editor.” Founded in 1994 by Soo Kyung Kim, a postmodern Korean writer, Kaya was originally intended to house a journal of Korean literature-in-translation, which eventually morphed into Muae, a spirited anthology highlighting the newest in Asian Pacific American writing that Library Journal named one of “The Best Magazines of 1995.” Muae fell victim to the Korean economic collapse of 1997, but under the bolstering management of Juliana Koo and Lee, who took over that year as managing editor and editor, respectively, Kaya managed to survive – and thrive – living up to its namesake: “Kaya was the name of a tribal confederation of six Korean city-states that existed from the middle of the first until the sixth century CE,” their website officially explains. “Although the Kaya kingdom was an iron-age culture, it is remembered as a utopia of learning, music, and the arts due to its trade and communication with China, Japan, and India.”

Kaya Press channels that international history, feeding its artistic vision by regularly pushing the boundaries of the Asian Pacific Islander (API) diaspora through the titles the tenacious press has published thus far. A small sampling might include an enhanced reprint of the groundbreaking 1937 classic East Goes West by the first Korean American novelist Younghill Kang; American Book Award-winning The Unbearable Heart by Japanese German American poet Kimiko Hahn; Chinese Australian Brian Castro’s already-major-award-winning-in-Australia novel, Shanghai Dancing; the lauded Commonwealth Prize-winning Where We Once Belonged by Sia Figiel, which was the first novel by a Samoan woman to be published in the United States; and Migritude by Kenyan-born, South Asian-descended, citizen-of-the-world performance artist Shailja Patel.

The word “kaya” echoes the diversity of its authors: in addition to its ancient Korean representation, in Japanese, Kaya is also “summer night” or a type of yew tree that withstands harsh environmental conditions; in Malay, kaya means “rich”; in Indonesian, “prosperous”; in Tagalog, “to be able”; in Sanskrit, “body”; in Turkish “rock”; in Zulu, “home.”

For Lee, home is where the press is. In order to sustain it, she’s worked endless day jobs and freelance gigs – from Billboard magazine to Publishers Weekly – in addition to teaching the requisite composition classes, to pay the bills so she could nurture Kaya well into its teenage years. Now that she’s settled into rooms of her own at USC, Lee’s ushering out the next set of Kaya titles: Lament in the Night, which includes two 1920s Japanese American novellas by Shōson Nagahara, translated by Andrew Leong; The Hanging on Union Square, an experimental novel originally published in 1935 by H. T. Tsiang; Water Chasing Water by Seattle-based poet Koon Woon; and Korean American adoptee Nicky Sa-eun Schildkraut’s debut poetry in Magnetic Refrain.

It’s been a full decade since we officially talked about Kaya. So, what’s your latest, greatest news?
The biggest news, as you know, is that we moved to LA this year. We’re publishing a bunch of new books, and a lot of wonderful new people are working with us. This is the largest group of people we’ve had involved with Kaya. USC gives us funding to pay for two part-time grad students – they’re 25% part-time – and we also get a lot of volunteers. Their involvement – both undergraduate and graduate students – means while they learn hands-on about the publishing process, I’ve been able to do more strategic work, to put more energy into Kaya, and that’s been really gratifying. [... click here for more]

Publisher interview: “Feature: Sunyoung Lee and Kaya Press,” Bookslut.com, December 2012

Readers: Adult

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The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng + Author Interview

I can count on one hand the books that I’ve given by the dozens to lucky relatives and friends over the decades. One of those counting fingers belongs to Tan Twan Eng‘s debut stunner, The Gift of Rain. With the impending American release this month of his long-awaited second novel, The Garden of Evening Mists, I grabbed the chance to interview the young writer … only to thoroughly embarrass myself by the third question by revealing my inexcusable myopia, as I referred to Tan’s native Malaysia as an island.

“Terry,” he gently corrected, “Malaysia isn’t an island, but a peninsula, and Penang is an island off its northwest coast.” My mortified apology was met with “It’s a part of the world not many people know much about,” which gave me yet another reason to continue to spread Tan’s titles far and wide.

Longlisted for the coveted Man Booker Prize in 2007The Gift of Rain was an astonishing accomplishment. Its protagonist is the half-British, half-Chinese Philip Hutton, the youngest (and only mixed-race) child of a powerful British trading family based in Malaysia. On the eve of World War II, the gorgeous islands show no hint of the devastation about to unfold, and young Philip finds himself befriending an elegant Japanese man, Hayato Endo, who has taken residence on the tiny island across the Hutton estate.

Endo begins to train Philip in the Japanese martial art aikido, transforming the distant teen into a strong and confident young man. But nothing is as it appears, and as the much-feared Japanese military finally lands on Malaysian shores, surviving the war will mean betrayal and redemption, and ultimately love.

Like Rain, Tan’s second novel is exquisite; like Rain, The Garden of Evening Mists arrives stateside with Booker-longlist approval, announced just weeks before the U.S. publication date. This time, Tan’s protagonist is a damaged, wary woman, Teoh Yun Ling, who has just taken early retirement from a lauded career as a respected judge; she has at most a year before she will lose all language and memory to aphasia.

She leaves Kuala Lumpur for the highlands of central Malaysia to Yugiri – the eponymous Garden of Evening Mists – where she’s agreed to meet a Japanese scholar writing a book about Yugiri’s creator, Aritomo, the self-exiled former gardener to the emperor of Japan. Four decades earlier, in spite of being the single survivor of a murderous World War II Japanese prison camp, Yun Ling apprenticed herself to Aritomo; she sublimated her fear and loathing in the hopes of learning to create the perfect garden to honor her older sister who died in the camp. Almost 38 years have passed since Aritomo disappeared, and now threatened with erasure, Yun Ling begins to record her, his – their story.

In both unforgettable novels, Tan manages to intertwine the redemptive power of storytelling with the elusive search for truth, all the while juxtaposing Japan’s inhumane war history with glorious moments of Japanese art and philosophy. His is a challenging balancing act, and yet he never falters, intimately revealing his stories with power and grace.

Because you’ve set both novels primarily during and after the brutal occupation of Malaysia during World War II, both are understandably infused with a symbiotic mixture of horror and beauty. What is your fascination with that time period? You were decades from being born.
The Japanese Occupation of Malaya (as it was then called) was one of the country’s most traumatic experiences. Growing up, I heard some stories about the Occupation from my parents. My father was a child when it happened, so he didn’t have any terrible experiences, but he heard about them from his family. My mother has no direct experience of it either, as she was born after the war.

Do you think you will return to that time again in future works?
I don’t know if I’ll revisit that terrain in my future works. If I do, I’ll want to find something new about it to write, angles that haven’t been explored before.

How have you lived with the terror of your homeland’s history – World War II through the “Emergency” that finally ended in 1960 – that you recreated in your books? Both books must have taken years to write, which means you must have had to endure long years of inhabiting the historically accurate world you had to conjure forth on the page?
I’ve always been interested in that period of our past, so I had been reading up and collecting materials on it for years. When I wrote The Gift of Rain, I had all the details I needed in my head and it was a just matter of crafting the story. There comes a point when the writer has to forget his research and just, simply, tell the tale.

Writing The Garden of Evening Mists, on the other hand, required more extensive research. The settings and the time period were different from Gift‘s, and I was never much of a gardening man, so it took a lot of work to learn how to create a Japanese garden. But the more research I did, the more fascinated I became with it and the more I appreciated it; I realized that the principles of gardening could be applied to life, too.

Dealing with the horrors of the Japanese Occupation and the violence of the Malayan Emergency was at times emotionally draining, but it’s the writer’s responsibility to feel, and then to convey those emotions to the readers, otherwise the writing will come across as lifeless. [... click here for more]

Author interview: Feature: “An Interview with Tan Twan Eng,” Bookslut.com, September 2012

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ...Author Interview/Profile, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Japanese, Malaysian, Southeast Asian