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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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Wedding in Yangshuo

Once upon a time at Wake Robin Farm in Oregon, I was miraculously pregnant with our first child.

That same summer, on the Li River in Southern China, a pretty woman exactly my age was also expecting. She and her husband were both artists.

Our child, born in August, was a son. Theirs, born in October, a daughter.

Twenty-two years later these children, now grown, would meet in Beijing.

The girl from Yangshuo had been studying English.

Our son, traveling with a university program, was rapidly become proficient in both Mandarin and Cantonese.

These two could talk to each other.

They could fall in love.

And did.

This is their story.

And ours.

Everything in this book actually happened, even the lovely, fateful coincidences.

Especially those........


So begins my new memoir, which is just out as an ebook and will be available as a paperback shortly. For readers of Children of the River, now in print almost twenty-nine years, Wedding in Yangshuo can be read almost as a companion book, as it explains the inspiration for the YA novel, and shows how deeply impacted the future of my life was by its research, writing, and publication.

For everybody else, my memoir is simply the story of my writing life, my marriage, and the life-changing trip my husband and I took to Yangshuo, trying to carry the family flag as our son married a girl from this most scenic corner of China.  Read More 
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Fond Memories

A year ago today it was like spring, and I decided to try acting like a well person. I took up my loppers and headed out to work in my trees. About a half hour later I tripped, fell, and broke my ankle. It’s amazing to me how long it’s been since I’ve given that fully healed ankle a second thought. If only brains healed so quickly and efficiently. But that’s a long story, a book, in fact (coming soon), and not what I want to write about here.

It’s just that this anniversary reminded me of some unfinished business derailed by my accident. The previous day last year I received, out of the blue, an email from Thy Chan, known now as Tony Te, with a picture of himself as a child at Wake Robin Farm. Through the magic of Facebook, the internet, and a helpful sister, he’d found my site. I loved this—him writing that he had such happy memories of playing at the farm while his parents helped during harvest. This was during the time when the stories of families like his were inspiring me to write CHILDREN OF THE RIVER.

Now he works for a wedding photography company in Southern California. He's also an events coordinator, in charge of the Cambodian New Years Parade in Long Beach, the biggest new year's celebration in Southern California.

Thank you, little Thy, all grown up into Tony Te, for coming back for a cyber visit!

I also recently heard from some middle school students in Nebraska who were reading Children of the River and wanted to know how things had turned out for my Cambodian character Sundara. Of course Sundara is fictional, so the best I can do is to report the "happy endings" of the good lives being lived here in the US by the Cambodian refugees we met back then. I'm glad to say that every follow-up story I've heard is a good one, and reinforces the idea that refugees from other countries have helped make America strong. As my husband likes to say, "Bring 'em on!"  Read More 
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The Barbarism of Football

My heart breaks for the mother of 22-year-old football player Kosta Karageorge, who received from her son a final text message apologizing for being such an embarrassment, explaining that all the concussions he’d sustained had messed up his brain.

Of course everyone claims to be shocked by his suicide. As somebody suffering from temporary brain damage due to drug withdrawal, I wasn’t. Brain damage, whether sustained by a war injury, drugs, or a collision occurring during a game played for entertainment, has a weird way of making people want to kill themselves. Sadly, Karageorge is not a tragic anomaly. There are far too many sad stories, some of them suicides, of retired NFL players whose lives were destroyed because of the brain damage they were paid the big bucks to risk. Susan Karageorge’s loss of her son is truly tragic, but it did not come out of the blue. It was not a random fluke of the universe.

I’ve always thought football was barbaric. Having ruined my own knee by kneeling on a sewing needle at the age of fifteen, I could never fathom why anyone would deliberately risk these joints so important to simply walking around. What it did to people’s brains was even worse. I dutifully put together football-uniform Halloween costumes for both of my sons, but I never made any bones over being delighted they neither of them had the brawn to be recruited. I was pleased to have my children be all about their brain power.

Thirty years ago I wrote a passage for my first novel, CHILDREN OF THE RIVER, where the main character, a Cambodian refugee named Sundara, visits her American boyfriend in the hospital after he’s been injured and carried off the high school football field on a stretcher.

“You have a lot of pain?”
“Only when I move. It’s like this horrendous headache.”
“Then it’s true, what Ravy tells me? You hurt your head?”
“Yeah, just a slight concussion, it turns out.”
“But this is very bad,” she said softly, “to be hurt in your head. Jonatan, your head is the place of your soul, your life force. You must take care.”

Here’s the thing about brain damage, whether temporary or permanent: You can stand there looking just fine, but if your brain isn’t working right, you’ve lost it all.

Maybe it’s true what some say, that football is going to be the next tobacco. It should be. How about we smarten up, face the painful facts about football, and shift our culture toward something less barbaric? Read More 
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