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May 2009

Monthly Wrap: Time for Waltzing

by Susan Henderson on May 8, 2009

If you haven’t seen very much of me in the last two months, it’s because I’m just finding my way in the new book.

Just after Thanksgiving, I took out a blank piece of paper and started to think about the things I love and the things I fear and the questions I’ve always wanted answers to; and I began to build those things into a plot. I went to bed with questions, and as the weeks went on, woke up with scenes and characters and more questions. Pretty soon, pieces of the book came into focus: a sense of setting, details about the characters and what they desired and what kind of mess they were in.

What a lot of faith you need to start with nothing and believe you can create something good and important.

Of the writers and artists I know, confident isn’t the first word I’d use to describe any of them. Cheery in their outlook on life and their place in it? Uh-uh. Excited by dreams of making big bucks? Buoyed by past successes and constant, overwhelming praise? Ha. Quite the opposite.

I can tell you that while I’m writing this new book, I have another on submission. And every day I have to pretend it’s not distracting, pretend I have room to be crushed a little bit more. Like all of you, I have to keep believing (knowing that belief and confidence are things I’ve lacked my whole life) that my writing will connect deeply with someone out there who will take a chance.

Maybe it’s precisely because it’s so easy in this business to sink into despair that I’m hesitant to give an honest answer to the Question of the Month. In fact, I’m hesitant to even think too long about what my answer might be. So I’m going to flip the question a bit. Rather than musing on the thing I desperately wanted and needed as a kid, I’m going to tell you a story about something I got, something truly simple but revolutionary that changed who I am.

I used to babysit every single day, for years and years, for a little girl who had a brain tumor – from age four when her parents first noticed the weird way her eyes would twitch and cross and how she’d bump into the door frame rather than walking cleanly through, to the surgeries and the horrible things that happen when you take away pieces of a person’s brain, to bike lessons and swim lessons and special schools and vacations (like the one in the picture; that’s me holding the baby bottles).

This is about a family who had every right to be stressed and focused soley on that tumor – killing it and saving the girl.

But that’s not how they did it. In this family that shouldn’t have had time for me or for each other, they read my dumb poems and stories, watched the skits and fake-Olympics I helped the three kids put on, listened to bad knock-knock jokes, and tolerated Vanilla Ice dance-offs. They always made sure there was enough food so I could stay for dinner. And one winter, in the middle of the worst of it, their father taught me to waltz.

The lesson I learned? There’s time. Time, even in the midst of a crisis, to give attention and show love. And there’s room for joy. There had better be. Or the cancer and wars and other things that are out of our control win it all.

So, for all of you who overwhelmingly answered that what you wanted and needed so dearly as kids was to be visible and to matter – and I’m talking the real you, not the potential of you, and not when you got your act together or hid parts of yourself away – my hope is you get that here because you deserved it then and you deserve it now.

Last thing…

This weekend, we’re having a huge, musical barbecue to celebrate our anniversary – 17 years; 22 if you count when we started dating – and I already know what Mr. Henderson got me: red Doc Martens!!

~

What I read this month: Chris Adrian, THE CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL (God floods the world again and the only survivors are inside a floating children’s hospital. The first 300 pages are some of the best pages I’ve ever read – quirky, profound, emotional, and the brother, Calvin, who is dead before the book begins, is one of my favorite characters ever. But something too magical for my taste happens in the middle of the book, including a wedding I didn’t care for, and for me, the book never quite recovers its magnificence after that. I’m going to recommend it all the same. Uneven or not, it lit me up from the inside in a way few books do.)

What I read to my boys: We did that thing I hate where we start too many books at once and kind of ruin the momentum of all of them, so the only finished book was John Masefield’s THE MIDNIGHT FOLK (The boys found it fascinating in that great and creepy Neil Gaiman-y way, but slow because of the 1920’s British writing). And I also read them a whole bunch of little-kid picture books because I’m their mom and they still go along with what I say, even though they groan about it now. So: Jacques Duquennoy, THE GHOSTS’ TRIP TO LOCH NESS; Robert Bright, GEORGIE; Mark Teague, THE SECRET SHORTCUT; and Leo Lionni, FREDERICK MOUSE.

Thanks to everyone who played here, and to my guest, Lac Su, for giving such an honest and emotionally powerful interview. And thanks to those who’ve been linking to LitPark: New Pages (best writer resource on the web – check ’em out!), Side Dish, Eat, Sleep & Read, Bliggidy Blog, Buy More Books, Mediabistro’s Galley Cat, The Book Deal: A Publishing Blog for Writers, CarolineLeavittville, Alpha FEmale Mind, In Her Own Write, A Title? What’s in a Title? I Was Never Told There Should Be a Title!, Paul Lisicky: Me Big Shiny Man, Kaylie Jones, Spaced Lawyer, Maureen McGowan, Raima Larter, Raven Books, Terry Bain, Ric Marion, and Terry’s LiveJournal Axis (Yo). If I missed anyone, let me know.

See you the first week in June with a new question and a new guest!

{ 41 comments }

Lac Su

by Susan Henderson on May 6, 2009

Lac Su left his homeland of Vietnam under gunfire, and at age five, began his life in America in an apartment teeming with drugs and prostitutes. His memoir, I LOVE YOUS ARE FOR WHITE PEOPLE*, tells the story of his search for a sense of worth and belonging from a violent father and local gangs. It’s a harrowing story, but told with heart, humor, and wisdom. I’m glad to have Lac here to discuss his book, and I hope you’ll leave him a comment at the end of the interview.

*LitPark encourages you to buy books from your local independent bookstore. Click here to find the store closest to you.

~

Your wife was pregnant with your first child when you decided to write this book. Talk to me about what it’s like to have the pain from the past collide with your hopes for the future.

It feels like I’m running in place, like someone fashioned a rope around a boulder and tied the other end to my waist. The only way I can break free from this rock is to cut the rope. The only way I can do this is to face my past, come to terms with the baggage I’ve been carrying with me for so long and learn from it. Writing I LOVE YOUS ARE FOR WHITE PEOPLE—plus therapy—helped. I sought therapy for the first time in my life while writing the book.

I was half way through the third chapter when reliving my childhood turmoil became unbearable. Gentleman Jack found his way onto the table beside my computer during my late night writing sessions. The book was dragging me back into a dark place where I didn’t want to go. I tried to convince myself that my life was different now. My hard work was beginning to bear fruit—all the blessings that would make a man feel content with life. But my soul had not rest. Unresolved issues left me like an agoraphobic trapped inside his home; he looks out the window, sees a beautiful spring day, but is unable to set foot outside and enjoy it. It was dangerous and unhealthy to continue living this way.

So, I tried therapy. The biggest thing therapy taught me was that I’d been living my life in denial. I always figured if I didn’t think about my past, it would just go away. But on a subconscious level, old memories that were out of sight and out of mind affected me far more than I realized. The embers of pain were still smoldering deep inside me.

“Please make him smarter so he doesn’t have to endure any more beatings. That’s all we ask, great ancestor of ours.” She looks desperate and distressed. I try to make her feel better by staring straight down at my paper, with my pencil poised. (I LOVE YOUS ARE FOR WHITE PEOPLE, p. 63)

You were raised by a survivalist—a father wanted by the communists, who once had to eat insects and tree bark to stay alive. How did his perspective on the world shape you?

My world still revolves around this tiny man. In spite of 25 years of bad health, he’s still alive and kicking. He’s even smaller now—doesn’t stand more than 4’ 8”. He molded and shaped the man I’ve become. It was in college that I first began to challenge his perspective on life. College taught me a lot of things that contradicted what my old man had plastered onto me through the years. At first, I didn’t trust what the professors or books were telling me—they were all lies. I remember reading in a child development class about the importance of demonstrating affection. In my father’s house, I love yous are for white people.

My father is a hard man; he’s lived through a lot. Many of his lessons contain grains of truth, as long as you can sift through the twisted parts. Let’s see…a perfect example of this is in the Alhambra chapter when he decided as a 13-year old it was important that I know that, “Money and women are the two most wicked things in the world. The sanest person you know will become lost and irrational the moment he sees cash or smells pussy.”

I walk into the kitchen to tell Pa I’m home. The four beating sticks on the table are various sizes and shapes. One of them is new—a three-foot section of eucalyptus tree branch that’s a good inch thick. (I LOVE YOUS ARE FOR WHITE PEOPLE, p. 194)

Talk to me about what it’s like to live in a country when you don’t understand the language or the culture.

Overall, it was a fun experience. The confusion and frustration that I carried bred curiosity, which forced me to look for answers. My parents didn’t provide answers for me, so I had a lot to figure out on my own. People-watching is still a favorite pastime. As a kid, I would sit by the window or on my porch and just absorb the happenings of street life. It was the 1980s in Los Angeles—there was never a dull moment on Sunset Blvd.

English was my fourth language. My father spoke two Chinese dialects to me, and my mother spoke to me only in Vietnamese. I had friends who spoke Armenian, Swahili, Spanish, Spanglish, and Ebonics. Yes, it was perplexing at times. I learned quickly to read body language. Sometimes, words that I understood didn’t have to fall from my friends’ mouths for me to know what they were saying.

Our trips in Pa’s little red Chevette are conducted in the bike lane on the far right side of the road. They are marred by a merciless barrage of honking cars. Pa yells and curses back at them, convinced that he’s done no wrong. He stops every few blocks to check his map—a tattered little number that’s dotted in the red ink he uses to earmark the route. Pa can’t read the English street signs, so the map isn’t much help. (I LOVE YOUS ARE FOR WHITE PEOPLE, p. 134)

So much of what’s happened to you is devastating. But there’s a surprising sense of humor in this book (albeit bittersweet)—a little boy chewing on thrown away condoms, the inevitable teasing of Phat Bich, scamming the YMCA Santa, and your uncles—just having emigrated to the U.S.—breaking the necks of geese down at the local park and bringing them home for a feast. When did you start to find the humor in your story?

I started to see the humor in these stories when sharing them with a white friend of mine. As I said before, many of these events I’d never shared with anyone, but as I was writing my memoir I had a friend I’d tell the stories to, just to see what he thought of them. I actually found it funny the way he thought my stories were funny. I find that when you put people from different cultures into one place, you will often get a humorous, dynamic, and irreverent exchange. I hope I was successful in capturing this in my book.

Finally, Ma comes to the table with the main course, a huge glass dish holding the roasted geese. The birds’ heads are still attached, and the birds are so large that their necks hang down over the side of the tray. (I LOVE YOUS ARE FOR WHITE PEOPLE, p. 210)

You were taking your family’s food stamps, selling them for well below their value, and also stealing money, and this resulted in a brutal and humiliating punishment. But it’s the reason for the stealing that’s so utterly devastating—to try to buy friendship from someone who gives nothing back. If you found a kid today who felt worthless, hopeless, without a sense of belonging or purpose, what do you think might make a difference to him?

I’d write the kid a letter—a letter that I wish someone would have written to me when I was that kid.

Dear Kid,

The world is not like what you see on television. Things don’t always turn out OK. Real people sometimes feel lost, hopeless, and sad. The pain you feel makes you real. I think you would have a bigger problem if you weren’t feeling what you’re feeling under the circumstances. The psychology books call these people “crazy.” So, be glad you’re not crazy. There are reasons why you feel this way; don’t ignore them.

How much do you hate your life right now? I ask because the feelings weighing you down will remain if you don’t do something about what is causing them. What can I do about them, you ask? There are two important things for you to do:

1. Surround yourself with smart people. I mean really smart people. Learn from them. Soak up everything they have to teach you. Ask them a bunch of questions.

2. Keep these three phrases on the tip of your tongue: “I am sorry.” “Will you teach me?” and “Thank you.” There’s actually another phrase to hold close, but you can’t use this one unless you really mean it. When you do, you better damn use it: “I love you.”

Good luck, kid. You can turn your T.V. back on. Actually, turn off that T.V. and read a book.

Love,

Lac

“Do you remember how to get back to where we were, Big Head?” Pa asks.
“No.”
“Why didn’t you keep track?”
“Because I’m sleepy.”
….”We’re almost there at the old trash bins. You know how I know?”
“No.”
“Because of that big number eighteen on that wall. That’s how I get around. Remember things that pop out at you. Are you listening to me?”
“Yes, Pa.”
“Okay, now you can walk home alone without me. I’m leaving you now.” (pp. 38-9)

You joined a gang when you were a teenager, and I was very, I don’t know, I think the word might be touched to find out it was a graffiti art gang, and all these little thugs had sketchbooks. What’s the connection for you between art and healing?

The beauty of art is that you can dump your negative energy into a medium and make it beautiful. It’s called “channeling”, I think. I understand how the most tortured and grieved writers and painters can create such beautiful masterpieces. When you look at a Van Gogh or Pollack, those intricate scribbles, patterns, and colors come from somewhere. Writers, like painters, tell stories with emotion. For a long time, I had a lot of negative emotions that I kept bottled up inside. Being able to release these bad vibes and make art out of it is soothing. Art says things that you’re unable to otherwise express. Writing is cathartic, and you hope that someone will connect with your art. For someone to say, “I know what that’s like,” serves as a form of healing for me.

My newborn brother never made it home from the hospital. The doctors said the Raid was the culprit. The crib that Pa pulled from the Dumpster—and was so careful to fix and polish to perfection—sat in our apartment collecting dust for nearly two years, until the day that Vinnie came home. (I LOVE YOUS ARE FOR WHITE PEOPLE, p. 74)

The scene of you rubbing Tiger Balm on the wounds you gave your little sister was a really pivotal moment in the book—a wake-up call that you didn’t want to become what you hated. But where does all that rage that was inflicted on you get released? How does your mind find peace when you carry such memories of fear and shame?

There are two things available to me: a quick fix and life-time maintenance. When I was younger, I wrote poems and drew pictures. These days, I paint and garden. Music has always been soothing. These are quick fixes—a bandage to cover my pain. (This is a great question, Susan. I’ve never really thought about this.) For the long haul, the way I heal and reconcile my past is to love people—and do things differently than what my father did to me.

{ 46 comments }

Question of the Month: Heal

by Susan Henderson on May 4, 2009

Say you come across a kid who hurts the way you did as a child. Tell me what you’d say or do that might make a difference to him. Or, to put it another way, what’s the thing you wish someone had done for you?

Wednesday, Lac Su will be here to discuss his memoir, I LOVE YOUS ARE FOR WHITE PEOPLE, and I’ve asked him this question. I hope you’ll be back to hear his answer.

Oh, and P.S. I’m reading at KGB with the marvelous Kim Chinquee Friday, May 22nd. Hope to see some of you there!

One more P.S. I know there aren’t a lot of TV watchers here, but if you happen to watch American Idol, one of the remaining contestants, Adam Lambert, belongs to friends of LitPark, Eber Lambert and Amy Wallen. Feel free to vote for him on Tuesday!

{ 74 comments }

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