Listening to Dad

By Julie Wu

I was thirty-five and pregnant with my first child by the time I figured out that I needed to listen—truly listen—to what my father had to say. For years I had been trying to write a Taiwan-based novel and I could not, despite my best efforts, make it work without my parents. The fragments of stories of their childhoods in Taiwan had inspired my writing in the first place. Now I needed the whole story.

My first interviewing session started with the same mundane gestures that all my visits to my parents did. We kissed each other’s cheeks at the door, which my father had painted shiny red for good luck. My mother offered me tasty treats from Kotobukiya and Trader Joe’s. We chatted about my plans for the baby. And then, when I brought out the tape recorder, my father went right down to the family room and settled back into the brown striped recliner where he watched Dan Rather and Washington Week. He sat there so much that my mother was convinced the shape of his spine had molded to fit the chair. Yet he still managed to look easily twenty years younger than he was—tall, athletic, his hair at sixty-six freer of gray hairs than mine.

“So, where do you want me to start?” My father joked as I set up the recorder. “When I was a baby?”

I laughed with him, almost convinced to dismiss his childhood entirely. Then I said, “Yes.”

He leaned his head back in the recliner and the smile dropped from his lips. His jaw, square and handsome as any Hong Kong movie star’s, set so a muscle bulged in front of his ear. Behind him on one side were shelves filled to the ceiling with our old books, board games, and marble collections, and on the other side large picture windows showcasing the lush New England landscape surrounding us, the maple leaves tipped with orange, the pine trees tiered in shades of darker green.

My father spoke, staring straight ahead, his voice gravelly. “My memories of my childhood,” he said, “are not exactly happy.”

And then he told me about the beatings.

I should not have been surprised. My parents, especially my mother, had always intimated that my father had not been in favor with his parents, had not been adequately loved. But before now he had never given me the details, and I had never asked.

At least, I had never asked the right questions. I had, in fact, interviewed my father before. For a sixth grade biography assignment, at my mother’s insistence (“Why don’t you write about your daddy? He had a very interesting life!”) I had dutifully inscribed his date of birth in my black-and-white composition book, followed by the name of his schools in Taiwan, his immigration to America, his job working for the Department of Defense. “Junior college in Taiwan,” he pointed out. “And then PhD in America. Not so easy, you know.” I spelled out the university names in cursive on the light blue lines of my book, thinking that I might have written about Itzhak Perlman or Pinchas Zuckerman, Beethoven or Mozart.

“Your father sounds like a remarkable man,” my sixth grade teacher said as she handed back my composition book, and I looked up at her in wonder. My father was an electrical engineer who never discussed work. He was home every day at 5:16. He dozed respectfully through all my chorus and orchestra performances, told terrible puns, and was a regular American Dad. The one way he might have differed from my friends’ dads was his knowledge of, seemingly, everything. One summer he single-handedly poured the concrete foundation for a storage room attached to our house, then topped the room with a mahogany-stained deck, complete with built-in benches and room for a picnic table, grill, and bug-zapper. When he gardened, he built a cold frame, made compost, and harvested so many vegetables that we had to buy a full-sized freezer for our storage room. And his English was always so excellent I failed, at one point in my life, to recognize that he had an accent.

I interviewed him again, during the time I was dashing his hopes for my future as a physician by attending graduate school in opera. Before I left his house, my father, a wonderful amateur singer himself, declared that artists were parasites of society.

All Chinese parents just want their children to be doctors, I said derisively.

That’s not true! He said. I didn’t want it for your sister and brother. Only you.

And yet it was during that nadir in our relationship—as I sat at the worn green formica counter in my parents’ kitchen, getting ready to throw my Harvard education in the Bloomington, Indiana trash, that an image came to my mind. It was the image of a lonely, unhappy little boy on the musty floor of his parents’ house in Taiwan, an image so vivid that I rushed to write it down, to capture the feel of the dark floorboards, smooth and worn under his fingers, and the smell of sandalwood-scented dust. At the time, it didn’t matter to me where the image came from or why. The only thing that mattered to me was that, at last, I knew what it was to write.

With all the enthusiasm of a novice, as soon as I landed in Bloomington, I embarked on a novel about that boy. I moved him to suburban America and gave him a disenchanted artist sister. The main plot was suburban American; there would be a background story in Taiwan. To research this background story, I realized I would have to call my parents.

The last thing I intended to do, however, was to write a book about my bourgeois mom and dad. Sure, they had lived through the Japanese occupation, seen the Chinese Nationalist takeover, and overcome tremendous odds to come to the United States. But had Tolstoy based Anna Karenina on his mom? Had Dickens written A Tale of Two Parents? I did not want to be that idolizing Asian child, blindly demonstrating filial piety. I wanted to write a masterwork of high drama, of romance and pathos and sociological importance, not a mere immigration story about an engineer and an accountant. I wanted a hero slaying a dragon.

On lined notebook paper, I scribbled questions about Taiwanese wedding and funeral rituals. I left a few lines between questions for my parents’ answers. But when I did my interview, their answers did not fit the lines.

“But when my brother died—”

“What brother died?”

“I never told you about that?”

Every answer they gave me was so unexpected—my great grandfather had sold my grandmother for complaining too much, my uncle picked up a bag of family money at the bank and found it transformed into foil-wrapped chocolate—that instead of inspiring me, these conversations stopped me short. How boring and pointless my novel now seemed in comparison. And yet, still, I would not, could not be my parents’ biographer. Instead, I stopped asking them questions, continued to write short stories, and abandoned the book entirely.

I abandoned opera as well. I considered pursuing an MFA in creative writing, but I detested the idea of sheltering myself even further from life. Surely I would do better as an artist to leave the enclave of academia. In the end, I decided to go to medical school—not, I convinced myself, to please my parents, but because I wanted to feel useful and experience the core of life.

So it was that at the time my father spoke to me from his recliner, I was, in fact, both a physician and a writer. Whether or not I had become a physician for my own reasons as I thought or to satisfy some deep, unconscious need to please my parents, I found it to be both tremendously gratifying and a window into worlds I would never have known otherwise. And I had managed to find a half-time job to facilitate both writing and spending time with my family. It was the ideal balance, as life can only be before having children. In that state of perfect equilibrium I threw out the flimsy starts of novels I had written since Indiana and came to terms with the fact that the best story I could write might be the one I had been avoiding all along.

“My mother would hide behind the door,” my father said, continuing in the same, gravelly voice. “Before I got to the door, I already knew what’s coming, what to expect,” he said. “I don’t recall I ever lucked out.”

My own mother was cooking dinner in the kitchen, and as the savory smells of ginger and cloves, of sesame and soy, wafted downstairs, my father continued staring ahead, telling me that he had, in one of the town’s wealthiest households, become malnourished enough to require medical treatment for a year. How standing up to a teacher in school landed him in vocational school in an oppressed country with no room for second chances.

It was my mother, he told me, who had been the first person to believe in him, to get him to believe in himself. If it hadn’t been for her, he might have spent his life in Taipei, sleeping over an electronics storefront, fixing up old radios for resale.

In my own house afterward I rushed to play back the recording of the interview. The microphone, to my horror, had been inadequate and I had to turn the volume all the way up on my stereo to make out the words. I typed it all out—right away, three hours worth of speech, because I wanted to get it down before I forgot it. I never wanted it to be lost. For my own sake and for my child’s.

I never had a role model. What a father was supposed to be like with a child, and so forth . . .

I did have a role model. And now I realized what a miracle that was.

I finally had my book. And eventually, through the years, the book became both my parents’ story and that novel of drama, romance, and pathos that I always wanted to write. I changed many facts—major ones even, something I eventually had to do to increase the unity and drama of the story. But the essential journey, the emotional one, remains my father’s.

I can’t help thinking that the sad little boy on that musty floor in my image was my father. Perhaps, at a time when our relationship was at its most strained, my mind intuited some reason for its strain and at the same time suggested a means—writing—for us to stay close. In my self absorption and worshipping of rebellion I took the image of the boy and tried to wrest it into telling the story of my own suburban American angst. I had to grow up to let the boy tell his own story and to find out that he was, in fact, the hero I was always looking for. Because being home for dinner can be an act of grace, and a kiss at the door can be, for some, a feat braver than fighting any kind of dragon.

Portrait of the Artist as a Societal Parasite

Microphone in Fist

 

By Julie Wu

So Mia, the pink Asian Power Ranger, finally stars in an episode. Her little brother shows up with an electric guitar and wants her to sing in his band for an upcoming concert. Cool, I’m thinking, as I snuggle on the couch with my ninja-loving daughter. I’m looking forward to Mia’s being the hero for once and to her being depicted as that rare thing, the Asian-American pop artist/singer/entertainer. But then, what does Mia tell her little brother? This gem:

“You’re supposed to be thinking about your future. You have a much better chance of getting into medical school than you have of becoming a rock star.”

I almost fell off the couch.

Lest you think this episode will turn out to be about Mia’s coming to realize that her brother should pursue his own passions, this is what actually happens: Her brother recruits one of the other Power Rangers to be his lead singer. Mia, who originally decides to shun her brother’s concert, joins him at the last minute onstage only because she discovers that the concert is actually a fundraiser for a children’s hospital. At the end, her brother reassures Mia that he still wants to go to medical school, and everyone is happy.

Excuse me, not everyone.

I’m deeply grateful for what the episode did offer, which was a rare example of Asian Americans being cool on stage. (Thank you, Nickelodeon.) But even sadder than my gratitude for this little bone to gnaw on is the notion that for Mia and her brother the arts are only worthwhile if they’re in the service of something “worthwhile,” like medicine. And saddest of all is that this episode actually strikes pretty close to home. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if an Asian American wrote it.

When I was growing up, my parents drilled into us the notion that the arts, while important to be good at (as with everything else except sports) were peripheral. My siblings and I, like most of the Taiwanese and Chinese kids we knew, played classical instruments and were encouraged to excel at them, but only insofar as they garnered recognition and made us more enticing to colleges. As a dreamy adolescent, I periodically talked about attending a conservatory and was periodically, soundly, silenced. Artists were parasites of society. I would make a great doctor.

I didn’t buy the doctor idea at the time, but I did decide that my future as a violinist—most realistically as one of a sea of violinists all bowing and plucking together in some orchestra or other, didn’t look like that much fun to me. So I did go to a regular college, where my decision to major in Literature met with some bemusement, not just from my parents, who at this point were grateful enough that I was getting a liberal arts degree at all, but also from my relatives. One uncle said to me, “Why English? You were born here. You already know English, right?”

Is this lack of regard for the arts and humanities simply cultural? Are Taiwanese and Chinese naturally bent toward the mathematical and the pragmatic? Any and all of these are possibilities, and the reverence for physicians and scientists is certainly deep rooted in Asia, but it is perhaps also crucial to note that my parents and my uncle grew up in the most repressive era of Taiwanese history, the White Terror. During that time, scholars and artists were routinely imprisoned, tortured, and executed. The government purposefully encouraged study of the sciences and discouraged the study of the social sciences and the arts. After all, it’s the artists, the humanists, who sit back and look at the big picture, who analyze the society they live in and compare it to others. The more young people were absorbed in engineering and medicine, the fewer dissidents there would be.

As for the Chinese–while artists on Taiwan were being smothered, those in China were getting blasted by the Cultural Revolution. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that people from these backgrounds would tell their children to avoid the arts. Sure, it was a matter of prestige and making a good livelihood. But it was also a matter of survival.

Of course, Asian societies—whether oppressed or not, do not by any means have a monopoly on placing artists on the bottom of the totem pole. And with good reason. It’s easy to appreciate a surgeon’s cutting away a cancer and difficult to imagine that a painting, play, or poem could possibly be as important. In fact, it’s easy for an artist, himself or herself, to feel irrelevant in comparison with almost any other member of society. After all, if I’ve spent all day writing two paragraphs about imaginary people and the carpenter next door has raised a roof, who is the more valuable member of society?

It was my own feeling of irrelevance, compounded by my family’s and my Asian-American culture’s values, that ended up driving me to medical school after all, despite my discovering in writing what I knew to be my ultimate vocation. It was this need for relevance, for wanting to be, as I saw it, at the core of life, that carried me through residency and a few years practicing primary care. I only dropped medicine and started writing again when I had my children, my social conscience assuaged because in early motherhood I now had another undeniably core role in society.

Now that my children are a bit older, the question of social utility rears its head again. Instead of typing imaginary stories on the computer or, worse still, tweeting, Facebooking, and blogging about them while my children are at school, I could be saving lives. I feel less guilty because my debut novel, The Third Son, is one of the first of its kind to explore the modern historical suppression of the Taiwanese people. I can feel satisfaction, then, that my writing is part of a larger cause than my own self-indulgence; I’m not writing, tweeting and Facebooking for my own artistic ego—it’s for the sake of the Taiwanese people.

Here’s the thing: at a recent talk to a Taiwanese organization, I found myself justifying my use of fiction to attract people to Taiwan’s history and people. I explained how people are drawn to story, that many more people will pick up a novel set in Taiwan than will pick up a Taiwanese history textbook. I urged them to support other Taiwanese artists who strove to do the same thing. To this audience, my reasoning made a lot of sense.

“Don’t denigrate the arts,” I said. And as I said this, I felt funny about what a sad statement it was—first, that I felt the need to say it, and second, that in the context of my talk I was essentially defending the arts as a utilitarian tool. I was being just like Mia and her brother.

In fact, my decision to write The Third Son was not merely a calculated and rational decision to educate people about Taiwanese history. I wrote this novel because I love epic historical novels. I love a great story and I’m particularly a sucker for a great love story. I love the feeling of being immersed in someone else’s mind, heart, and world, and I love creating that kind of experience for readers.

What if I were a different kind of writer, drawn to write a different kind of book, a suburban domestic drama or a metatextual anti-drama? Would I consider that as “worthy” a project? It pains me to think that I might not. And that makes me wonder whether, in my talk and in my work, I am perpetuating the idea that art for its own sake is worthless, that a rock concert is only worth what it raises for the hospital.

.

As I get caught up in the whirlwind of promoting my first book and talking to strangers about the history of Taiwan, I should be learning from that history, too. There are many reasons authoritarian regimes have always suppressed artists; it’s not (just) because artists are parasites who most often need financial support. It’s not even just because artists can produce direct social/political commentary that inflames the masses. It’s because art is a distillation of consciousness, a reflection of humanity that intersects society at infinite levels, and that is passed down from generation to generation. Smart governments understand this. At a recent State House function honoring Massachusetts artists, State Representative Cory Atkins said, “Whatever work we do here, whatever laws we pass, it will all be forgotten in five years. But the art will live on forever. Without artists, no one will remember what we did here.” Thus, a free society will encourage artistic expression, whereas a savvy authoritarian regime with much to hide will squelch it.

I am so very lucky to live in a free society. I am lucky to have the means to pursue an artistic career. And it’s my job as an artist not only to promote freedom of expression in general, but also to make sure that I don’t personally restrict anyone’s expression, including mine. I shouldn’t be exhorting people to support artists with the same vision as mine, I should be exhorting them to support artists of all kinds. And I myself should feel free to pursue art of any kind, not just the historical/political, though that is my bent. And though I was bothered by that Power Rangers episode, it’s only because it’s in some ways a reflection of myself and my own culture. I should be and am grateful to whoever wrote it. It caused me to reflect and will live on forever, as will this essay written in reaction to it, for better or worse. And as will your reactions to this essay, if you make that choice, and if you, too, are a free member of society.

Newtown, the Holidays, and Our Search for Meaning

 

Candles.  Image courtesy of MIcrosoft.

By Julie Wu

Such a time for a massacre this has been—the holidays. This weekend, as we lit our Menorah–and, because we are an a la carte family, hung our stockings up for Christmas–I smiled and laughed and shooed away the images in my mind of murdered children.  While my children slept I lingered over their beds to watch them, and then sneaked away to pore over pictures of those beautiful Newtown first graders.  I read the stories of heroism and sacrifice, all those precious lives cut short.  And in the morning I was back to face the seasonal routine—shopping for presents, planning a Christmas party, clearing space for the tree, sending and receiving happy holiday cards. It’s hard to do it now without wondering what it’s all for.

In my adolescent, Holden Caulfield days I would wonder why people did holidays so dutifully—it seemed like a kind of brainwashing by Mattel, Hasbro, and Hallmark. It was the Christmas Industrial Complex that made adults shuffle to malls and supermarkets to buy Christmas sweaters and fancy toys and chestnuts and all the trappings of Christmas past to create–with a scented spray if you weren’t handy with a spatula–the smells and tastes, the experiences that were expected in December in a mostly Christian society. To me, it was commercialism at its worst.

It was during my very cynical adolescence that my mother told me about a fight she had had with my father, more than once, about holidays, about gifts.

When they were first married, my father didn’t take much stock in the whole schtick—birthdays, Valentine’s Day, Wedding Anniversary, Christmas. His parents had never celebrated any of these holidays and he didn’t understand what the big deal was or why he was required to go purchase things according to the calendar. My mother cried and railed. Finally she said, “If you don’t celebrate the holidays, what is life?”

She related this story to me as a lesson, but I didn’t buy it, so to speak.  How sad, I thought, that life’s meaning can be determined by such shallow, superficial things. I planned a future of greatness—I had far more important things in mind than baubles and birthday songs.  I thought my father had had the right idea and that it was too bad he was forced to cave in.  It was much later that I learned he had been an unhappy child, and that it was my mother’s vitality–her love of life, that saved him. [Read more...]

Friday Faves: Free Your Mind

By Julie Wu

In fiction, structure is essential, but so is a free and open mind. In honor of the approaching end of the year, I offer you a selection of recent pieces on different aspects of letting go:

In A Book Is Not a Camera, Colin Dickey recalls the worst advice he ever received, from an established writer whose aim was to slavishly imitate life: http://unbridledbooks.tumblr.com/. Young writer, the best writing uses mimesis to create a vision and impart meaning, not to demonstrate skill in mimicry.

In Can You Break the Rules? The Single Screenwriter defies us to break free of the Google herd: http://thestorydepartment.com/can-you-break-the-rules/. Are we really that close to being a Borg collective?

Dave Magee answers an emphatic “No” in his fascinating piece on writing the screenplay for Life of Pi: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/11/adapting-life-of-pi-for-the-big-screen-took-170-script-revisions/265367/#

On the more conventional side, Martha Alderson, The Plot Whisperer, urges us, in an early draft, to let go of the beginning and write straight through to the end of your draft, because The End Determines the Beginning: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nc4BDUB8zSk&list=UUQQuZN6EzQpCeVbhs07TGQw&index=6&feature=plcp. I couldn’t agree more. I had four different openings to The Third Son. How much time did I waste polishing and trying to hang on to each one of those openings? A lot.  Learning experience?  Maybe, but I might have learned more, faster, if I’d spent more time thinking about the novel as a whole instead of pushing words around on the first page.

And Laurie Frankel describes how clutching to stability in her real life lets her slash and burn her manuscripts. Now, there’s food for thought: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/one-true-thing/201211/change-bad-revision-good

While we’re talking about real life, here’s a piece  by Sarah McCoy on letting go of your agent to make way for the right one: http://www.themillions.com/2012/11/finding-true-love-finding-a-literary-agent.html

And finally, because I can’t resist, a video demonstrating an undiscovered property of Crocs (that would be what most people just put on their feet and walk in), by someone near and dear to my heart.  Because this amazing kid shows how playing around can lead to great discoveries:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-mj2hniy6yg

May the rest of your Friday be wild and free.

The Shoe That Never Dropped: One Reason You Don’t Go to Opera

 

By Julie Wu

“You’re rebuffing Jaquino now, but eventually you’ll get together,” the conductor told me.  “I mean, we assume so.”

We stood at a grand piano overlooking a breathtaking vista of Manhattan to rehearse the opening duet of Beethoven’s only opera, the rarely performed Fidelio.  The next day, we would be doing our informal, private run-through with full cast, orchestra, and chorus.  The conductor, pianist, and the tenor playing Jaquino are all pros, while I am a former wannabe who gets into shape once every year or two especially to sing with this group, affectionately termed the Occasional Opera Society.   I read the libretto, I admit, on the bus from Boston.

The opera is set in a political prison.  Marzelline, daughter of the prison warden, fondly rejects Jaquino’s advances because she is in love with the heroic new prison worker, Fidelio. Marzelline does not realize that Fidelio is actually a woman named Leonore who has disguised herself to save her imprisoned husband.  The bulk of Act I in this two-Act opera displays this complicated situation, and describes the upcoming wedding between the supposedly love-lorn Marzelline and Fidelio.

By the end of Act II, Leonore not only blows her cover and throws herself in front of a dagger to save her husband’s life, but also indirectly gets all the other prisoners sprung loose. Soloists, chorus, and orchestra join together in a rousing celebration of Leonore’s  wifely devotion.  As for Marzelline, she is allotted two-and-a-half measures to react to the news that the love of her life is actually a married, cross-dressing woman:  “O weh’ mir!  Was vernimmt mein Ohr!”  And then she happily joins in with the chorus of praise for wifely devotion.  Joining the chorus as well is Jaquino, at this point apparently devoid of any personal opinion.

“This should get resolved,” I insisted at the rehearsal.  “They need to get together in the end.” [Read more...]