Remembering a Beloved Author

Toni Morrison (1931 – 2019)

Toni

She made me think about our country’s dark history of slavery, the American identity tied to these atrocities and other acts of emotional and physical abuse against nonwhite Americans, and the legacy of these events. She made me think hard and deeply. Her words pierced my body, compelling me to comprehend the pain of those oppressed.

I don’t remember where I first heard about the novel Beloved, but I tried to read it twice and had to put it down. Morrison’s words were incomprehensible, full of such power and generational pain I was not accustomed to at the time.

In 1993, I was a working adult determined to complete my B.A. at the University of Washington, Bothell. I elected to take an Independent Study course on Black American Literature. Reading The Bluest Eye introduced me to Morrison’s literary ethos and gave me a context for appreciating and completing Beloved.

Here’s an excerpt from a response paper to Beloved for that class:

Can any form of violence, even one based on a mother’s love, be a real solution? In this novel, Sethe chooses one form of violence (death) over another (slavery) and ends up with another form of violence that harmed all the people she loved (Baby Suggs and her children) with alienation, fear, and mistrust. And yet, given the history of violence that is synonymous with slavery, which was the context for her decision, did Sethe really have any other choice? Furthermore, what does this history of violence against blacks say about America and present-day problems that black Americans confront?

Reading Morrison is often challenging. She asks readers important questions, some they’d rather not think about or might not have ever considered before. She requires critical thinking beyond her characters and stories, often pushing readers into uncomfortable places, forcing their minds and hearts to open in new ways.

Reading and re-reading her words are often necessary to appreciate the complexity of her characters and the unfolding story.

Morrison writes about black lives that hold true for many people of all colors. She appeals to our humanity while revealing our inhumanity to each other. Her truth-telling often promotes discomfort, yet it’s a necessary discomfort that can result in transformation. She gives us darkness so that we can recognize the light.

I, like so many, have been changed and blessed by Morrison and her fearless commitment to the truth about our violent history, women’s lives, and issues of equality that still haunt us.

In a Washington Post article (August 9, 2019), Michelle Obama says:

For me and for so many others, Toni Morrison was that first crack in the levee — the one who freed the truth about black lives, sending it rushing out into the world. She showed us the beauty in being our full selves, the necessity of embracing our complications and contradictions.

Here’s a link to an interview of Morrison with Pam Houston from Oprah.com: “Precious Moments a Writer Lives For.”

Note: Thank you to artist Nina Krebs for giving me permission to post this portrait–a painting/collage with book titles on Morrison’s blouse and excerpts from pages of her books haloed in the background.

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Hawai’i and Racial Diversity

NY Times journalist Moises Velasquez-Manoff wrote a thoughtful article about race in Hawai’i, specifically about mixed-race people.  Regardless of the headline “Want to Be Less Racist? Move to Hawaii” (New York Times, June 28, 2019), Velasquez-Manoff does not paint Hawai’i as any utopia free of racial bias nor suggests that anyone should move there.

This discussion of mixed race people and multiracial identities is especially timely and instructive. He reminds readers that race is a “social construct,” a fabrication by humans, not nature, for the purpose of categorization, which then determines behavior between groups. Racism establishes hierarchy to promote economic and political self-interest, advantage, and power. These are important concepts to keep in mind as Americans battles over diversity vs homogeneity. 

NYTimes articleHawai’i is a reminder about the value of diversity. And its people reflect this. In the islands, people are likely to refer to President Barack Obama as mixed race instead of African American. This acknowledges his dual heritage and genetics in both White and Black cultures. In contrast, most Americans want to categorize people as if a single label can define the whole person.

In my memoir, I face this American mindset and struggle with how to define myself. Chinese or American or Hawaiian? These are the cultures that impacted and defined me. I felt pressed to choose one of these labels to conform to American ideals and reject the others.

Consequently, mixed race people present a conundrum in American society. The blurring of recognizable physical markers in many mixed race people seriously subverts racist attitudes. However, questions like “What are you?” and “Where are you from?” are often tainted since White people don’t generally ask such questions of each other. 

While the aloha spirit contributes to an ethos of racial harmony in the islands, equally important is the Hawaiian value of aloha ‘āina, or love of the land. People and land, including natural resources, are connected. If people take care of the land, the land will take care of them. This belief in mutual reciprocity is both simple and profound. Resources may seem unlimited, but they aren’t, especially in island communities.

This is where Hawaiian and local island cultural values diverge from White cultural values—American capitalism that privileges White males and justified colonialism. By no means are Hawai’i’s local communities devoid of conflict; wherever humans cohabitate, there will be conflict. However, island people may be more conscious about the need for conflict resolution. There are incentives, or a “geographic motivation” since islands are generally small.

Velasquez-Manoff has done his research to begin an important conversation. Hawai’i  is special to many people. Their racial diversity and acceptance of mixed race people offer additional reasons for why this is so.

Reader responses to this article can be found at this link: Opinion | Is Hawaii’s Racial Harmony a Myth?

On the Shelf

Someone wants to publish your manuscript. Hooray! Break out the champagne and confetti! It’s every writer’s dream. The book is tangible proof of all your hard work. It’s a BIG moment!

As the publication date approaches, the worry begins. Will people buy the book? Will they like it?

The author does her best setting up book events and readings, asking for book reviews, using social media. She taps into her networks and informs her various communities about her book being published.

My communities include North Seattle College where I tutor, various writing groups (Hedgebrook, my personal writing group called The Cake Quartet, It’s About Time Reading Series, Jack Straw Writers Program, other writers I’ve met at various conferences), the ta’i chi group at Lake Forest Park, residents in my apartment building, my mahjongg group. I was surprised when I listed these various groups and began reaching out to inform them about my book. They were excited for me and eager to support my book.

I printed out promotional postcards and informational flyers and distributed them. I also gave them to friends to give to their friends.

So far, I’ve promoted my book in Portland, Seattle, and New York. I recently did a reading at Elliott Bay Book Co. here in Seattle. This historic bookstore is a literary icon, so I was very pleased to schedule this event!

Authors can do a lot.

However, there’s also a lot that’s out of their control. For example, placement of books on book shelves is up to the book store.

EB author shelf

The more visible the book is, the better the odds for book sales. Because I did an event at Elliot Bay, they placed my book on the shelf for their book events.  The top shelf is pretty nice placement! (I’m aware that this will change as more current events occur, but I can say I was on the top shelf at Elliott Bay, even if only for a short time!)

At Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park, I’ve been on their bestsellers shelf since early June, at least that’s when one of my friends spotted it and informed me. I am

TPB best sellers

the store’s #5 bestselling book! Very cool for a debut book and non-professional in marketing. I guess networking works!

Here’s something else I do. I prepare for each book event with the intention to give my best reading. I hope to bring a piece of Hawai’i into the room, to interest the audience enough so they buy a book or two. Maybe for gifts.

I want bookstores to sell books, especially my book!

I arrive early so I can personalize the podium. Since I like colors, I bring a few things from home. A colorful cloth that evokes the tropics or a brightly feathered hula implement. When the audience walks in the room, they will immediately get a personal glimpse of who I am when they look at the front of the room.

Testing the mic and getting a sense of the room are also important tasks to ensure my comfort.

Bookstores and booksellers are an author’s friends. It’s important to have good relationships with them. I send thank you cards after each reading and let them know I appreciate what they do, that they’ve made the time to promote my book. After all, we are partners in this book business.

My book is now available as e-books in all formats. It’s wonderful to offer these options to readers.However, I’m sorry I cannot sign e-books.

It’s at book events, whether at stores, schools, libraries, or private homes, where I get to meet my readers. It’s very moving, both humbling and exhilarating, to see the faces of readers who have spent time with and money for my book, especially when they have connected with some part of my story.

 

 

 

 

 

Being an Author

Being an author requires marketing and promoting your book. It’s another side of myself I am getting to know. I am still not completely comfortable with this New Self, who’s always focused on her book, but so far she is behaving herself and not being totally obnoxious!

It feels like the cells of my body are rearranging themselves to accommodate this New Self. My old self did not feel comfortable in the spotlight, but would gladly support others to take the center of attention.

At AWP in March, I was handing out my publicity postcards to people I’d just met at the Portland Convention Center, leaving them on information tables, and so on. I had to make self-promotion part of my daily life.

PL portrait

Portland Reading

I first went public as an author of The Lava Never Sleeps: A Honolulu Memoir at Passages Bookshop in Portland to a SRO crowd in late March. The reading featured several Willow Books authors at an off-site event during the conference.

Having printed lots of postcards to help promote my memoir, I unabashedly distributed them. The book cover is visually attractive and I hoped it would get people’s attention and generate interest in the book.

I was nervous about Seattle book launch scheduled for Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park on May 2. Since May is Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I wanted to connect my book to this national cultural observation. It seemed to make sense even though API Heritage Month is not hugely recognized. LFP poster.jpg

I wasn’t sure who would actually show up although I was talking to people in all my various communities. And, yes, handing out postcards.

I planned and rehearsed my reading.

I made arrangements to serve island-style snacks like taro chips, mocha crunch, coconut candy, and butter mochi cake. Hawai’i people love their snacks! My friends helped me with the shopping and displaying/arranging the snacks for the reading with table cloths, ti leaves, plumeria blossoms.LFP book display snacks

As more and more people arrived, additional chairs had to be added to the original 40 already set up.

It felt overwhelming: So many people wanted to support me and my book. Longtime friends, my mahjongg sisters, colleagues at North Seattle College, people in my tai chi group, my neighbors in the apartment building where I live, and of course my writing friends.

Writing friends in Santa Barbara and Atlanta sent a bouquet of flowers. My Seattle friends surprised me with several lei, which touched me very much. 

LFP audience of friends neighborVery humbled and grateful for the SRO crowd standing in the aisles between bookshelves, I began the reading with an ancient canoe chant. I felt the aloha in the room during my reading and later as I signed books.

A friend came over from Pt. Townsend. Other

LFP ti leaf

Showing the book cover and a ti leaf. My mother used many of these to make the ti-leaf skirt shown on the cover.

friends came from the Eastside whom I had not seen in decades. It was a wonderful evening of surprises! I could not have wished for a better book launch and celebration for my book.

A definite celebration because people understand how dang hard it is to get published by any traditional press. It can take years, which it did for me.

Here’s the thing. There are no guarantees when you’re a writer. You can only keep writing, keep learning your craft, keep submitting, ride the emotional roller-coaster, and just keep going. Persevere is the mantra if a writer wants to become an author. Or as they say in Hawaiian: Kulia!

 

 

Year of the Pig

Whether you call it Year of the Pig (a more gentle animal) or Year of the Boar (a wild animal with sharp tusks), this animal marks the end of 12-year cycle in Chinese astrology. A new cycle starts next year with the Year of the Rat.

The Lunar New Year began on February 5 with friends and family getting gathering for dinners to celebrate a new beginning. I appreciate having another chance for a fresh start. I celebrate New Year’s Day on January 1, then I celebrate the Lunar New Year whenever it falls according to the Chinese calendar. Being Chinese American, I can draw on both cultures for multiple celebrations!

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We in the Pacific NW will not likely forget the first few weeks of this lunar year. It’s unusual snow and freezing weather kept most of us indoors and off the roads for several days. I will remember it as the year of the “Snow Pig.”

When I was growing up in Honolulu, Dad had a store in Chinatown, Yuen Chong Co., Ltd. Because it was a retail and wholesale business, Chinese New Year was very busy, with sales to both store customers and Chinese restaurants. Crowds thronged the stores and sidewalks in Chinatown to shop for gifts, buy prepared food from various temporary stalls set up in the streets by various Chinese family associations, and be part of the festivities. Thousands of firecrackers were burned for good luck at each business, creating clouds of acrid smoke in the streets.

Here’s a brief excerpt from my memoir The Lava Never Sleeps that recalls the excitement of this holiday.

One of the busiest times was Chinese New Year. The Chinese community purchased ingredients for special holiday dishes, firecrackers, and presents, while restaurants increased their orders to prepare for New Year dinner parties. Our entire family descended on the store to witness the community celebration and absorb all the good luck and excitement floating through Chinatown. At night, streets filled with people waiting for the many-legged lion amid a cacophony of firecrackers, gongs, and drums that accompanied the dancing lion, which stopped at each business. Both were essential for good luck in the Lunar New Year. All the activity excited and frightened me. The smoke from the firecrackers burned my throat and eyes. The lion was huge, flapping its large gaping mouth and directing its large eyes at me. I had to be carried to see above everyone’s heads, but when the lion looked at me, I covered my eyes. Even though the black slacks of the teenage boys and girls, who brought this mythical creature to life, were visible, the wagging lion’s head seemed enormous and all-too-real.

Happy Lunar New Year to all! May the year bring good health and prosperity to you!

2019: Year of the Book

 

Mark your calendars!

March 1, 2019: Publication date for my memoir

Mid-February 2019: The public can pre-order copies from bookstores

If you’ve been following my blog, you know that I have had moments when I seriously doubted that The Lava Never Sleeps: A Honolulu Memoir would ever be published. But persistence (or stubbornness) paid off.

It’s been a strange time. Between signing the book contract and the present, I have felt in limbo. I’ve been developing new writing, gathering information on marketing and promoting the book, sinking back into the manuscript during the editing process, and basically feeling like someone with multiple personalities.

Receiving the final artwork for the book cover helped to ground me. This was something physical, an important milestone in producing the book. I began to feel this is real, this is happening!

TA-DA! Here it is:

lava cover edit

 

In a bookstore, a well-designed book cover can determine whether a reader picks up a book or not. I love this cover and hope readers will too! MAHALO to the graphic artist at Aquarius Press for a terrific job.

Note: My mother made my ti leaf skirts for hula performances, as all mothers did in the 1950s. We had several ti plants in our yard, and I remember watching her cut the leaves with stalks long enough to bend. She used string to weave the stalks together. When it was done, she shredded the leaves into strands. I don’t remember if I was nervous about performing on a stage or any of the dances, but I remember the swish of these green skirts.

 

Writing Communities

Writers need people. We need community. Or as they say, “It takes a village.”

Truly.

In this Thanksgiving Season, as publication date of my book gets closer, I reflect on my journey as a writer and the many people who have contributed to my development as a reader and a writer. Many have inspired me, nurtured me, taught me, challenged me. They may be family, friends, readers, other writers. Writers must carve out time to write in solitude, but we cannot thrive without community.

My mother was a reader and took her children to the Honolulu Public Library. I fell in love with words and stories. Reading was addictive and I borrowed as many books as I could. The freedom to explore all the books in the library fed my curiosity. As a result, I love libraries and librarians are my heroes.

Raising a child is one thing. Raising a reader who chooses to be a creative writer is quite another. 

I am grateful to the many writers I’ve met and the writing events I’ve participated in over the past  twenty years. These are only a few. However, every event has contributed to my growth as a writer. And has led me to publishing my first book The Lava Never Sleeps: A Honolulu Memoir.

With many thanks to Willow Books and Aquarius Press, publication date is March 1, 2019!!

Meeting other writers and learning from each other can be exciting. It can bring unexpected rewards.

Writing groups have been essential to my growth. I am not the most disciplined writer, so our meetings have served as catalysts for writing, compelling me to produce something to share in our meetings. I learn so much from the other writers as we read and discuss their writing, as well as when they provide feedback on my pieces. 

One important lesson I learned is that while I hold the story I’m writing in my head, all the details in my head may not always get transmitted to the page; I need to read and reread my work carefully to ensure that the reader has what’s necessary to follow what’s happening. Writing groups have given me valuable feedback on what’s working and not working.

Someone in a writing group told me about the Port Townsend Writers Conference and I decided to apply. I dived in and took my first creative nonfiction workshop from Bill McKibben and Sue Halpern in 1997. This was my first foray into writing workshops and a very positive one. I felt validated to be accepted into this group of writers.

A decade later, Cristina Garcia took over as artistic director for this conference, and diversity flowered, both in faculty and students. Instead of being the only writer of color, I witnessed a conference peopled by many cultures, many colors and did workshops with Chris Abani and Denise Chavez. Too many conferences are too white. For any writer, especially an emerging writer of color, having other writers of color in the room, not only validates their voices, but also their dreams as writers. Garcia later moved on to organize Las Dos Brujas Writers Conference in New Mexico, then in San Francisco. 

Another writer informed me about  Hedgebrook, a writing retreat for women writers on Whidbey Island. In 2000, I was very much a beginner, but decided to complete the application even though I expected to be rejected. I thought it would be good practice, that I could apply again. I really had not intended to write a book, but during the application process, I began to envision the possibility of a book. I was surprised and thrilled to be given a residency in 2001. During my three weeks at Hedgebrook, I began to organize my writing into a manuscript with the title Once Upon An Island. 

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Hedgebrook took me seriously as a writer. Even though I had no publishing credits and had no completed pieces, they treated me with extraordinary respect and appreciation. This was life-changing for someone full of self-doubt. I began to feel like an authentic writer.

Hedgebrook opened up a whole universe for me. I did my first public reading of my writing at a Hedgebrook-sponsored event. On my list of writing workshops and conferences, I can draw a straight line from Hedgebrook or Hedgebrook alumnae to half of these events. I also found alumna Priscilla Long to edit my memoir, and she encouraged me to submit it to university and independent presses. The alumnae network has been a surprise bonus, an active force and a gift that keeps on giving.

One example is the VONA Writers Conference (Voices of our Nation Arts Foundation), which HB alumna/author Donna Miscolta recommended. I took a Creative Nonfiction and Memoir Workshop in 2007 from Elmaz Abinader and Faith Adiele; all the writers and instructors were people of color, the first conference where I experienced this kind of support and where I didn’t have to explain myself.

In 2008 I decided to set aside my original manuscript because it wasn’t working, and I wasn’t sure how to fix it. I began a new memoir from scratch. When Hedgebrook began offering master classes, I heard about a Master Memoir Class with Faith Adiele, and I knew I had to go. This was in 2010. IMG_3647

Faith asked me an important question. I workshopped a piece about sexual abuse and used only the initial of my abuser: “Mr. K.” Faith asked me an important question: “Are you still being silenced by not naming him?” I realized I had a choice and decided to provide his full last name in the manuscript.

I also met Janice and Connie here. We decided we wanted to continue to meet and support each other’s writing. We lived in three different cities–me in Seattle, Connie in Atlanta, and Janice in Santa Barbara. We met virtually on Skype once a month for 2-3 years. In addition, my Seattle writing group was meeting every other week. 

Two years later in 2012, I completed a first draft of my memoir The Lava Never Sleeps: A Honolulu Memoir.

In 2013 I attended a CNF Writing Conference in Oxford, MS. I attended a workshop led by Dinty Moore. HB alumna/author Allison Green had recommended it. Lee Gutkind was the  keynote speaker. Vanity Fair acknowledges Gutkind as “the Godfather behind CNF.” Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild had been published to wide acclaim in 2012, and Gutkind discussed the opening first page of her book, how it hooked the reader. I had completed my first draft at this point and decided to draft a similar first page.

I am fortunate to live in Seattle where there are so many literary events and opportunities to grow as a writer. Another writing community I want to mention is the Jack Straw Writers Program, which focuses on getting work out in the world through a series of readings, assisting writers in using their voices and a microphone, preparing for public readings. Thanks to another HB alumna Felicia Gonzalez, who invited me to apply for the 2014 program, I was able to participate in an amazing experiential learning opportunity and be part of another enriching writing community.

From writing bits of vignettes to completing a full-length book, I know I could not have progressed as a writer without my various writing communities, including It’s About Time, the monthly reading series at the Ballard Library founded by Esther Altshul Helfgott and currently directed by Peggy Sturdivant. We learn just by hearing the words of other writers. We learn as we present our own words. I often revise when I have to read my writing out loud.

My current writing group is Cake Quartet, a mixed genre group that includes Esther Altshul Helfgott, Ann B. Hursey, and Trish Honig. I have dabbled in poetry in the past, but consider myself to be a prose writer. My writing group has provided essential support in my creative life. And poets Esther and Ann have introduced me to more poetry like the Haibun, which combines prose and haiku and opens me up to new creative possibilities. 

This is what I love about creative communities, you never know where they will lead. It can lead to honing craft, to breakthroughs in writing, to publication or reading opportunities, to new forms of writing….  To a writer with the expertise to create a chapbook (Ann) or to bake a cake from scratch (Trish)!

I give thanks for my writing life and my writing communities!