Saturday, November 29, 2008

Shaking my limbs

I feel as if I'm just emerging from a pool of family and food and thanksgiving. It was warm and reassuring and nurturing. And it's hard to get my limbs moving again.
Over the holiday, I read Sipping from the Nile by Jean Naggar. She writes about a part of history I was only peripherally aware of--the Suez Canal Crisis of the late '50s when Jews were persecuted and pushed out of their homes.
Naggar grew up in Egypt in the kind of fairytale existence we only dream of: surrounded by caring extended family, living in a mansion with cooks and servants and dressmakers, constantly hearing a handful of languages and understanding them all, never wanting for anything.
Naggar details her "ivory tower" livelihood, as one of her relatives referred to it. I loved hearing about all the Jewish traditions, as well some of the superstitions of the time. One of those superstitions was whenever Naggar went on a trip--which she often did, and was in fact one of the first to ride in the revolutionary Comets, the first jet-propelled airplanes--she drank water from the place she was leaving from. That would ensure her safe passage back. She often sipped from the Nile. Unfortunately, this superstition didn't always work. Naggar's "ivory tower" started crumbling in 1956 with the nationalization of the Suez Canal. Jews were suddenly the target of hate. All they wanted now, after centuries of building a successful livelihood in Cairo, were exit visas to someplace safe.
It was a fascinating--and poignant--peek into a part of history we don't hear much about...
Read any good books over the holiday?

Friday, November 21, 2008

Traditions Are Great... Until They're Not

Tuesday, I spent a wonderful morning with Jill Ferguson's
Asian Literature class at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. They are reading My Half of the Sky as part of their class, and invited me to join in on the discussion. After answering their questions--How did I think up the idea? How did I get in the head of the character? Why did I go to live in Japan? How did I get published?-- I asked them, following the theme of the book, to tell me stories of times when they questioned or went against a tradition.
This was certainly the right group. As musicians, they were often in the position of having to buck the norm. Several students said their parents wanted them to get a four-year liberal arts education, to become a doctor, to pursue a degree that would be more secure. They had to convince the parents that no, they wanted to play music. One student actually quit high school to study voice. She didn’t get flack from her parents, but from the public school system. One student said her parents were from Russia, and all the time growing up she had wanted to celebrate holidays like her friends in the US, but her father wasn’t interested in celebrating those foolish American holidays. He finally relented. Now she celebrates all the holidays. (My partner in joy. )
What made me laugh, though, was that at the end of this enlightening discussion, this man whose parents had wanted him to be a doctor instead of a pianist, raised his hand and said, "But I like tradition."
Everyone agreed. Traditions are fun--like everyone sitting together to eat turkey on Thanksgiving. But what happens when those traditions become barriers?
I shared the story of when we arrived here ten years ago and were in need of furniture. I knew that my mother had a wooden bed in storage in her garage, a bed that my great-great grandfather had built. So I called her and asked if we could have that bed for my daughter's room. "No," she said . "That's your brother's bed."
My brother lived in Germany at that point.
My modern-minded, women's libber of a mom said that the bed had been handed down through the male lineage. But if I called my brother and he said it was okay for us to use, we could have it. I called him, the whole time thinking this was ridiculous. Of course he'd say I could use the bed. But you know what he said?
"No, that's my bed."
That bed, ten years later, is still in storage in the garage.
We all had a good laugh and everyone agreed that traditions are great...until they're not.
Do you have an example to share?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Follow the Qi of the Day

My thighs are aching. I hobble up and down the steps. Put my hand out to ease myself down into a chair. You'd think I'd spent a week skiing. But, actually, I just took my first Taiqi class.
I've always been intrigued by Taiqi. The first time I went backpacking in China, I followed my shoestring guidebook, getting up at 5am to rush to the People's Park in Shanghai to watch people perform. It seemed like the whole neighborhood had come out to participate, and I felt like I was watching a silent ballet. Their movements were fluid, like a wave, as they picked up an imaginary ball and moved it up, then down, from side to side. My Father-in-law practices each morning at the local elementary school in the village. He and my husband often said that I should pick up the practice. That it's healthy, would be good for my back. "Someday," I thought.
A couple of months ago, I was up the road picking blackberries and I ran into a man I'd never seen before-- a neighbor-- who said he taught the martial arts, including Taiqi. I told him I'd always wanted to do that, but never had the time. He said of course there's time. That he'd arrange a class up here.
This last Sunday I finally made it to his class. I felt like a kid who'd put on a pair of ice skates for the first time, wobbling this way, falling that. The movements aren't difficult. To do them correctly--synchronizing the movement with breathing and balance--feels impossible.
What intrigued me more than the movements, though, were the ideas. The idea of harnessing the energy (qi) of the universe, bringing that energy to your body, your life. The idea of thinking and moving not in a solid forward movement, but forward and back, from side to side, depending on the situation. The idea that the body follows the mind. So if you focus your thoughts, your body will find its way there.
For me, these are great gifts to take with me into the holiday season--a season full of shopping and decorating and parties and vacations. A season when my forward writing momentum comes to a grinding halt....and I often feel frustrated. This year, I'll bend my aching legs, pick up the imaginary ball, take a deep breath and try to follow the energy, the qi of the day.

**A great writing opportunity: Martha Engber, a journalist, playwrite, Pushcart Prize nominee, and author of Growing Great Writers From the Ground Up, is holding a workshop on character development Sunday, November 23, 10-2, Books Inc., 301 Castro St., Mountain View.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Speaking of Books and Reviews...

I have some fun news to end a long week of writing. Midwest Book Review gave My Half of the Sky the following 5-star review:
"A lot is expected of a young Chinese girl. My Half of the Sky by Jana McBurney-Lin is the story of Li Hui, a young girl who has just achieved marriageable age. She seeks to make the most of herself, but the expectations all around her make it difficult, as her parents seek to use her as pawn to their advantage, she is faced with what she believes to be true love. She must balance career, romance, and family, all to somehow make everyone happy, a tough endeavor indeed. An engaging and entertaining read from beginning to end, "My Half of the Sky" is a poignant tale of the modern Chinese woman, and recommended for community library collections."--Midwest Book Review.
Happy weekend!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Tis the Season

This is one of my favorite times of the year--when it's cold and rainy. (No, I'm not pining for my hometown of Chicago. ) When the weather outside is unfriendly, though, I get to sit on the couch, the sound of rain on the roof, a fire in the fireplace giving out warmth, and just read. I've read some fun stuff this past month...

The Lizard Cage by Karen Connelly took me a really long time to get through because it was so rich, the words so full of poetry, so lovely to savor. The story takes place in Burma (Myanmar), and is the tale of a young political dissident singer/songwriter in prison, in the lizard cage. Connelly does an amazing job of putting the reader right there in the hot prison cell--I've never felt so hungry or beaten or thirsty or dirty. It's a beautiful book with a poignant ending, winner of the Orange Prize for New Writers and a finalist in the Kiriyama Book Prize. And, I have to brag a bit....My Half of the Sky is alongside The Lizard Cage as required reading at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Somebody's Daughter by Marie Myung-Ok Lee is a touching story about an adopted Korean who travels from America to Seoul to try to learn about Korean culture (because it wasn't discussed growing up), to learn the language of her biological parents, to try to find her mother. The story is at times very humorous, at times very sad. The ending is not warm and fuzzy, but very thought provoking.

Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris. I had the chance to do a Salon with Zoe at the Book Group Expo two weekends back. Her story takes place in the Middle East. It's a murder mystery with the fascinating backdrop of a life and culture foreign to anything I could imagine. An interesting read.

Blood of Paradise by David Corbett. David was also part of the Salon at Book Group Expo. In fact, he was the moderator. But, I first met David when he was one of the keynote speakers at East of Eden. I bought his book, started reading, and realized right away that this is normally not the kind of book I read. It's the story of a young American man, living in El Salvador and working as security for a water company. It's peppered with thugs and violence and macho soldier types. But I was drawn in not only by the main character (who is not too macho), but by the history and culture of El Salvador.

As I'm on a roll with Salon members, the third party in our Salon was John Nathan, author of Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere. I've already talked on and on about this book. I loved it. It was fun to hear of all the places in Japan---twenty years before I got there. For anyone it's an interesting peek into Japan during the 60s, the world of a filmmaker, author, and translator.

Dewey by Vicki Myron and Brett Witter. My book club is reading this, and thus so was I. This is also not the type of book I normally find myself picking up. It's got a cute cat on the front and looks so warm and fuzzy from the beginning, you might as well buy a Hallmark card as a bookmark. I was pleasantly surprised, though. Myron discusses her battle with cancer, the loss of her brothers from cancer and suicide, the struggle to keep her marriage going with an alcoholic husband, the struggle to keep communication going with her teenager. And in the midst of all of these struggles came healing in the oddest form--a cat. A fast read. A fun book.

Finally, I want to tell you about a book that comes out next week by author, Jean Naggar: Sipping From the Nile: My Exodus From Egypt.
As I haven't read it yet, let me share what the publisher, Stony Creek Press, says. "Powered by the explosive impact of the Suez crisis this memoir brings to vibrant life the elegance and serenity of a life bathed in the customs and traditions of a community held together by a common past and faith. It is the story of an exotic childhood spent in the opulent surroundings of Giza, Aswan, Zamalek, the Gezira Sporting Club and the Alexandria beaches of Sidi Bishr, in a world that seemed as if it would endure forever but was in fact about to explode."
Jean is witty, intelligent, and inciteful, so I imagine her book will be the same. If you have a chance, read it with me....

What People Are Saying About My Half of the Sky

My Half of the Sky was the BookSense Pick for August 2006 as well as a Forbes Book Club Pick.

"McBurney-Lin tells a wonderfully entertaining story with the traditional coming-of-age theme (which is experienced universally)...weaving in the cultural challenges of growing up in China's rapidly changing social system."
Mary Warpeha, co-President of the Minnesota Chapter of US-China Friendship Association
March 2010

"The novel ...includes many of the tales and the folk ways of the people living in the rural areas of South China, still followed provincially. The story takes place in current China, but could relate the dilemma of any young woman in rural China through the ages."
Kitty Trescott, National Board of the Midwest Region of US-China Friendship Association. March 2010

"A lot is expected of a young Chinese girl. My Half of the Sky by Jana McBurney-Lin is the story of Li Hui, a young girl who has just achieved marriageable age. She seeks to make the most of herself, but the expectations all around her make it difficult, as her parents seek to use her as pawn to their advantage, she is faced with what she believes to be true love. She must balance career, romance, and family, all to somehow make everyone happy, a tough endeavor indeed. An engaging and entertaining read from beginning to end, "My Half of the Sky" is a poignant tale of the modern Chinese woman, and recommended for community library collections.
--Midwest Book Review November, 2008

“It is a rare women’s novel that sensitively describes the life of a young educated woman in modern-day China in its full complexity, without resorting to unnecessary sentimentalism. Jana’s deep knowledge of the realities of life in China and Singapore makes the reading extra rewarding. In fact, with every new page the novel gets harder to put down and you find yourself gobbling it up before you know it. Finally, the author has given a voice to the Li Hui in all of us, as we struggle for the golden middle between tradition and the modern momentum of our world.”
Isabella Sluzek
Friends of the Museum Book Review 2008

You'll be rooting all the way for Li Hui as she struggles, ahead of the curve, to be her own woman in an emerging, modern China. Jana McBurney-Lin's My half of the Sky is a beautiful, witty, touching debut novel.
Thomas B. Sawyer
Head Writer TV Series "Murder, She Wrote,"
Author - The Sixteenth Man

A complex and mesmerizingly original tale of a young Chinese woman caught between the modern world and the pull of her ancient culture. McBurney-Lin’s intimate portrait of China sparks with insights and is peopled with characters so rich and alive, they seem to breathe on the page. Dazzling and unforgettable.
Caroline Leavitt,
Author - Girls in Trouble

McBurney-Lin's debut novel is a gift. Li Hui is a memorable heroine, a young woman torn between her heart and her culture.Her daunting journey is a trip into China's complicated soul, and a deeply moving exploration of love, honor, duty, and loss." Frank Baldwin, Author - Balling the Jack

My Half of the Sky is a wonderfully-crafted story that was obviously written with a piece of McBurney-Lin's heart. A masterpiece."
Lee Lofland, Author - Howdunit: Police Procedure and Investigation

My Half of the Sky heralds the arrival of a fantastic new storyteller. With artistry and precision, Jana McBurney-Lin's clear-eyed prose takes the reader on a new journey into a past world that speaks to a modern sensibility, a modern world, a modern woman. This is a book to be treasured.
Emily Rapp, Author - The Poster Child

Through vivid descriptions of sights and smells, Jana McBurney-Lin's My Half of the Sky is a haunting, emotional journey of what it means to be an honorable female in modern China. Jill Ferguson, Author - Sometimes Art Can't Save You