Monday, March 30, 2009

I'll Take My Advice

Recently I was asked to critique a 3-page college essay. As I went through it, I felt like a lot of words had been included to fill space. To mask obscure ideas. And then there were some fun errors--like “vibrantly remember.” Do you mean “vividly remember?” Isn’t “remember” good enough?
I sent off my ideas, and while the student accepted some of them, she got busy and ended up not reading through all my comments (“vibrantly remember” stayed). I was initially miffed--if you’re not planning to read my ideas, why bother asking?
But then I noted, when I sat down to write, that I was more aware of my use of the language. Were all these words necessary? Was I just filling space with these sentences? In essence, I remembered the reason for critiquing: it’s as much to the benefit of the critiquer as it is the author.
Writer’s Digest is putting out a book on critique groups. The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide: How to Make Revisions, Self-Edit, and Give and Receive Feedback by Becky Levine. It covers all aspects of critique groups. What to expect. How to behave. What's the purpose. How to find the positive aspects of a piece as well as those which could use improvement. Even as a seasoned critique member--I’ve been in my group for 9 years-- I've pre-ordered a copy (as I tend to vibrantly forget some of these important points.)
What are your thoughts on critique groups? What stories do you have to share?

Monday, March 23, 2009

Discovering this new DR.

I always associated DR with physicians until my son got his assignment for the Amigos Program, a non-profit organization which sends volunteers to Latin American countries to encourage self-development. He's going to Azua in the Dominican Republic, often referred to as "DR."
I'd never heard much about this DR, except as a small group represented in the Olympics. My brother, however, said his wife and mother-in-law went there on holiday, and they enjoyed the beaches, the sparkling Caribbean waters, the five-star hotels. I loved that image, and even bought a shoe-string guidebook to the place. What an amazing island!
On the other hand I found it hard to believe that a non-profit would spend months preparing my child for aquamarine waters and white sandy beaches.
A past volunteer suggested reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. On the surface this Pulitzer Prize winning novel is about the love life of Oscar, a poor New York boy who is originally from the Dominican Republic. But it's a complicated story--with footnotes and lots of Spanish--about the fall from grace of a prominent physician during the Trujillo regime. Oscar is the doctor's grandson.
While at times confusing, the book gave me some insight into Azua, which Diaz calls "the Outland, the Badlands, the Cursed Earth, the Desert of Glass, the Burning lands, the Doben-al, the Salusa Secundus, the Ceti Alpha Six, the Tatooine." (like I said, at times confusing.) The book gave me insight into the Dominican Republic, a lovely island which has suffered nightmare after nightmare in its leaders. Or more specifically, its Leader Trujillo.
Do you have stories about the DR? Books to recommend?

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Cultural Binds

No written law has ever been more binding than
unwritten custom supported by popular opinion.
--Carrie Chapman Catt, Senate Hearing on women's suffrage , 1900

Wednesday, I got to play hookey....
At least that’s how it felt as I left my manuscript behind (I’m down to the last few chapters which aren’t flowing as easily as I’d hoped) and went over to take part in the Foothill Authors Series at Foothill College.
This month is Women’s History Month. Since My Half of the Sky focuses on a young woman who wants to change with the day but is held back by tradition, I was pleased to speak on this auspicious occasion.
To be honest, though, I couldn’t remember Women’s History Month from my childhood. Or what we did. How we celebrated.
I was relieved--sort of--to discover the reason was not my mental capacity. When I was a kid, Women’s History Month was only a day (which started in 1909). The day turned into a week in 1978. The week turned into a month in 1987. Perhaps if we can keep the momentum rolling, we can look forward to a year....a century....a millennium...forever.
The Foothill gathering was interesting, as one would expect with a room full of intelligent students. One question that particularly struck me was a student who asked, “Do you think that part of the culture that defines gender is speech? Are men and women’s speech different?”
Although I couldn’t think of examples in Chinese, I was reminded of Japan where there was definitely a difference in the way one spoke as a female/male, superior/inferior, stranger/friend.
The question has me still thinking. Does the English language have gender-based speech differences? Can you think of examples in other cultures?

Book of the Week: The Soloist by Steve Lopez.
LA Times Columnist Steve Lopez takes us on a fascinating trip into the life of gifted musician, Nathanial Ayers, a past student at Julliard who impressed the professors so much he was annually given a scholarship. The third year at Julliard Mr. Ayers went nuts.
For thirty-some years he battled the demons in his head and wandered the streets. He was happy playing his music in the tunnels of LA and sleeping outside a factory in the toy district where he used a pair of drumsticks to keep rats at bay.
Mr. Lopez often saw him on his way to work, and one day wrote a column about Mr. Ayers, thinking it was a one-off topic. But Lopez became so entrenched in the well-being of this man that each time he tried to back away, he was drawn back in. The story is his unsuspecting, funny, depressing, sometimes heartbreaking journey.

***If you haven’t had a chance, please ask your local library to order a copy of My Half of the Sky.
Please leave your opinion about the book at your favorite online bookstore (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powells,/etc.)
Please keep spreading the word.
Thank you!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Important Stories

Thanksgiving two years ago, we were all gathering at the dinner table ready to feast. My eldest daughter, however, was missing.
“Oh, she went down to the mailboxes for a minute,“ my husband said.
The mailboxes? On Thanksgiving?
When mouthwatering steam no longer rose from the turkey slices, I decided to check the mailboxes.
I walked down (our boxes are a ten-minute walk) and there was a car parked haphazardly across the road. My daughter sat in the car next to some boy without a shirt on who gestured wildly to his chest where there were some red markings. I went up to the car and knocked on the window, expecting the boy to get out and introduce himself, perhaps even explain what he was doing here...on Thankgsgiving...without his shirt. Instead, he locked the doors and continued talking--no, shouting--at my daughter. My daughter rolled down her window, saying “Mom. It's okay. He needs my help.“
The boy wanted my daughter to accompany him to a temple somewhere to do some ceremony that would keep him from dying that night. Mentioning Thanksgiving dinner on the table as an alternative activity seemed frivolous, but I did. Would he like to stay?
The whole night he talked of God. How he was God. We were all God. We could do anything. I kept thinking this lonely kid had ingested more during the day than turkey and cranberry sauce. God ended up spending the night on our couch (with my husband sitting vigil), as he was afraid to go home.
As soon as the holiday was over, I called the boy’s mother. She listened, and while I expected her to say she'd investigate a 12-step recovery program or contact CASA, she broke down and said. “He has Lyme’s disease.“
At least that was what I thought until last night when I saw the movie Under Our Skin. Lyme disease, caused by tick bites affects 200,000 Americans every year. It's more rampant than West Nile Virus and AIDs.
The disease affects every part of the body and is often misdiagnosed as Lupus, MS, Parkinson’s, craziness--or drug problems . The best treatment so far is long-term antibiotics (2-3 years), but health insurance companies don’t want to pay for that so they do their best to keep doctors from finding Lyme’s disease, including registering complaints against and having licenses revoked from some of the best-known Lyme Disease doctors.
The movie was quite an eye-opener.
Another eye-opener on a much grander scale was Greg Mortenson’s book, Three Cups of Tea. I’m probably coming late to this tea party, as the book won the Kiriyama Book Prize, was a New York Times bestseller, and every club I know has read it. Still, on the off chance you haven’t read this phenomenal story, I wanted to mention it.
Mortenson, a nurse with a passion for climbing, was conquering K2 (Pakistan) one year when he got separated from the other climbers and lost. A porter found Mortenson wandering around the next day, hungry, dehydrated, and disoriented. Mortenson was so grateful to this porter that he offered to build a school for the man's village. He thought it was a one-off kind of thing, that he would build the school and then “get on with his life.” However, one school led to another to another. During the 9/11 crisis and the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mortenson was in Pakistan and Afghanistan building schools and trying to help the US government see the humane side to these lands. He's still there.
Two great quotes from the book:
“You have to attack the source of your enemy’s strength,” said Brigadier General Bashir Baz. “In Americas’ case, that’s not Osama or Saddam or anyone else. The enemy is ignorance. The only way to defeat it is to build relationships with these people, to draw them into the modern world with education and business. Otherwise the fight will go on forever. “
“I had no idea what education was,” said Jahan, a Korphe, Pakistan village girl. “But now I think it is like water. It is important for everything in life.”

**This Wednesday, I’ll be doing a talk in honor of Women’ History Month at Foothill College. Please come join the discussion.

**Also, if you haven’t had a chance, please ask your local library to order a copy of My Half of the Sky.
Please leave your opinion about the book at your favorite online bookstore (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powells,/etc.)
Please keep spreading the word.
Thank you!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Dealing with Our -Isms

I took part in a fascinating panel at the Indian Business and Professional Women Council discussing Silicon Valley Reads Not a Genuine Black Man by Brian Copeland and the heavier outcome: race relations in the US...and the world. I was really pleased to be part of this panel, as the central theme of my novel, My Half of the Sky, is how do we reconcile traditional thoughts (and fears) with the reality of the moment?
The other panelists included journalists, Mike Swift
Diana Rohini ,and De Anza Professor Ulysses Pichon.
Moderator Shubangyi Vaidya asked us what part of Copeland's book reminded us of our lives. Copeland grew up in San Leandro, an all-black family in an an all-white neighborhood. His mother had trouble getting their apartment (and keeping it.) To that part of the book, I could totally relate.
When my Chinese husband and I went looking for our first apartment in Japan, we ventured outside of Tokyo (where it was cheaper and greener). In fact, we traveled willy-nilly on the train until we saw enough greenery. When we got off the train, there were three real estate agencies beckoning to us with huge advertisements for lovely apartments. But when we walked into the first one, they said, 'Oh, we have nothing right now. Sorry."
We walked into the second place and got the same response.
"This is too strange," I thought. "Something else is going on."
At the third place, I asked my husband--who spoke Japanese fluently and who had lived in Japan long enough to look the part (short spiky hair, jeans, clunky shoes)--to please go in without me. This time there were plenty of apartments.
What had been the problem? Foreigners, the agent explained. Foreigners weren't raised the same as Japanese. They made big grease fires, cooked smelly foods, left a huge mess...needed special permission to live.
Our IBPW panel, after hours of discussing various experiences at home and abroad, came to no ground-breaking solutions to the issue of Fear of Others. We concluded:
1) There is no innoculation against racism. We need to just keep addressing the issue over and over and over again.
2) It's not just about color, but about ethnicity--traditions, language, culture. (We didn't even get started on religions.)
3) It's important to constantly question our -isms: racism, sexism, agism, homophobism, etc. Why do we act and react the way we do?

Do you have any experiences to share? Any thoughts to add?

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