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LETTERS FROM WAKE ROBIN FARM

Children of the River's 30th Anniversary

March of 2019 marks thirty years since my first novel, Children of the River, appeared in print. The story for me really began  ten years earlier, however, in the fall of 1979. I was the wiped out young mother of a brand new baby boy, struggling to get the hang of nursing while watching the televised images of Cambodian families pouring into the refugee camps of Thailand.  A couple of years later, Southeast Asian refugees from  Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos began showing up at our small farm looking for work during harvest.  I was fascinated by their stories of escape, and began researching and writing my novel, the story of Sundara, a seventeen year old refugee girl  who falls in love with an American boy as she's  adjusting  to life in America.

 

I took me years to write the book and 16 rejections before it was accepted for publication.  When I received my first review—a  diamond from Kirkus—I was so excited and optimistic, I jumped in the car, drove to Eugene and invested in a lovely taspestry suitcase.  I was going places!  My husband bad-vibed me for days over this extravagance, but I never regretted it as I hauled that suitcase around the country, speaking in schools and at teacher's conferences.

 

The Cambodians we befriended at Wake Robin Farm and the writing of this book altered the course of my life.  I doubt I'd have the two most precious  half-Asian grandsons if I hadn't looked out from my office window nearly four decades ago  and seen my husband  trying to communicate with Koh Sam-ou, the Cambodian woman to whom I eventually dedicated the book.  But the story of how the baby I nursed that fall became the father of these grandsons is too long and twisty-turny for a blog post.  It took a whole book, my memoir, Wedding in Yangshuo: a Memoir of Love, Language, and the Journey of a Lifetime to the Heart of China.

 

It's a lucky thing for me I came up with Children of the River when I did.  The YA world is a nasty place these days, with what I think of as the flying monkeys of PC  looking for every opportunity to  viciously pounce on victims,  then sit around parsing the apologies.  Ugh.  In the current climate, I doubt I'd have been allowed, as a white woman, to write the story of a girl with skin a shade darker than my own.   But if white kids were going to have the slightest clue what these newly arrived Asians sitting next to them in class had gone through, the story would have to come from somebody ready to write their story in English.  At that point in time.

 

From my research, I knew there was great  enmity between the Vietnamese and the Cambodians, so as I worked on the book, my main concern was that Vietnamese would be able to relate.  No problem. To my surprise, I received letters from  refugees to the US from every other region of the world indicating they did too.  The challenges of assimilation and generational conflict seemed universal.  Not only did the book find a home in 8th grade classrooms, it was also taken up by teachers of English as a Second Language.

 

Despite the  general  PC  argument against cultural appropriation and at least one comment I saw directed specifically at my book in later years, that I had "perpetuated the myth of the model minority," I stand by everything I wrote.  My research was thorough, and nothing has happened in the Cambodian refugee community in the years since publication to make me cringe and feel I'd misstepped.  The  Southeast Asians we knew, the ones on whom I based my characters,  went on to lead highly successful lives.  My main character, Sundara Sovann, dreams of becoming a doctor. Just recently I learned that one of the Cambodian girls whose mother worked on our farm, had become an award-winning surgeon. 

 

Here's the deal: it's not a myth if the success is real!

 

I wrote Children of the River in the 80's, anchoring the main timeline in 1979.  By the time the book came out in 1989, it was already becoming a historical novel. Many of the plot points are firmly anchored in the era before the common use of home computers, the  internet and smart phones.  Nevertheless, basic human emotions remain the same, and I believe Children of the River stands the test of time.  Although I've published many books after this first, clearly Children of the River is the one which will remain attached to my name when  I'm  gone.  I'm glad I can still feel proud of it.

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Another Amazing Immigrant Story

I honestly don't know why somebody is sending me People Magazine.  I never asked for it; I don't pay for it.  But an even bigger mystery is why I haven't yet figured out I could simply relegate it straight to the recycling bin.  Instead, I dutifully flip through, as if the trees used to make the pages will somehow be less wasted if I at least glance at them.

 

Tonight, though, I was glad I did.  In a L'Oreal, Women of Worth ad, I saw a tiny picture of a young Cambodian woman and stuck on the name: SreyRam.  Could that be our SreyRam?

 

The  SreyRam we knew was born in the Killing Fields during the Cambodian holocaust, and when she and her parents escaped they ended up in our town, Corvallis.  Hers  was one of several  Southeast Asian refugee families who came to work on our small farm during harvest, and factual bits of her story became a part of my novel, Children of the River.

 

SreyRam was, for me, one of the most memorable of the children who played on the farm while their parents picked raspberries and cherry tomatoes, and lately we have actually been talking about her, because  we could not get over how she sat in our kitchen at the age of three or four and studiously, ambitiously poked  a wire into each heliochrysum flower for drying.  We were astounded at her dexterity, because our son, close to her in age, could not have managed that in a million years.  Neither could our twins, later on. But now, Miles's son, turning five yesterday, has  that same phenomenal dexterity, which has given us cause to recall SreyRam with fair frequency.

 

We knew she had  done well, graduating as Valedictorian of one of the local high schools with perfect SAT scores.   The last we'd heard—and this was just a rumor—was that she had passed up a full ride to Harvard in order to go to Oregon State and stay near her ailing father.

 

So, tonight, when I started Googling, I found myself experiencing one shivery moment after another and repeatedly tearing up.  Because—guess what--the little girl who'd sat in my kitchen speedily wiring flowers with her astoundingly nimble fingers had become a surgeon!  She'd gone to med school here in Oregon and capped off her studies at Yale.  She was now in Houston, having garnered more scholarships and awards than I could write out here and is reportedly known for doggedly putting her energies towards helping vets, women, and all medically underserved populations.

 

When I wrote in Children of the River that my main character, Sundara, wanted to become a doctor because she'd been inspired by the kindness of a doctor who'd helped her family of refugees, I was basing that on an interview with someone other than SreyRam, who was too young to interview when I was doing my research.  But I love hearing that she too was inspired by a Red Cross surgeon who had operated on  her and her mother after they were injured by a rocket propelled grenade in a Thai refugee camp.  Apparently her mother had hammered that story home with the admonition to pay back by helping others when she could.

 

As I've said before, at our house we are very pro-refugee, pro-immigrant.  What could be more amazing than a baby born into Pol Pot's killing field surviving against all obstacles and actually thriving to become a surgeon?

 

Who knows what contributions to our society might ultimately have been made by seven-year-old Guatemalan asylum seeker Jakelin Caal Maquin who died at the border under the heartless policies of Donald Trump?

 

Can't we please get back to being the good guys?  The ones who send out the helpers to inspire the next generations?  

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