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.