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Archive for February, 2009

Stimulus for the Arts…

Saturday, February 28th, 2009
Ruth St Denis in The Greek Veil Plastique.  Us...
Image by New York Public Library via Flickr

It was encouraging to see that President Obama’s Stimulus Package did finally include $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts.  Amazingly, there was considerable opposition to these proposals; and, until the last minute, threats to remove this minuscule portion of the nearly $800 billion package from the final version.

Under the Bush administration, support for the arts had been slashed.  So, perhaps it was not surprising that there were voices raised that this aid for the Arts would not produce jobs.  It transpired, however, that Arts Organizations employs nearly 6 million people across the U.S.  Many of these organizations are supported by city budgets, private donations, charities, and fundraisers.  All of these are feeling the pinch of the major economic downturn.  Help is desperately needed.

We live in an age where school funding for music, theatre, and other creative arts has been relentlessly cut over the years.  In this electronic age, young students are actively engaged in text messaging, electronic games, and a barrage of entertainment alternatives.  Writing an essay is no longer the norm.

Creative thinking is suffering and many American students enter adulthood having never seen a live play or a concert, opera or the ballet, or even visited a major museum exhibition.

Perhaps, the leaders of the creative arts community are somewhat to blame as they have not pressed their case with successive governments and have allowed this declining support to continue, relying on the private sector to fund their deficits.

However luckily for the arts community, one of the members of Obama’s transition team,
Bill Ivey, a former Chair of the National Endowment of the Arts, stated, “The NEA really can give away money efficiently and effectively and quickly through a very responsible peer review grant-making process.”  Ivey believes that a healthy arts community is especially important during hard economic times. “We are not going to be able to think about happiness and quality of life, only in terms of the next vacation or the bigger house, or the new car.”  He says,
“Once we move away from a consumerist’s view of a high quality of life – once we are forced away from it – arts and culture, creativity, home-made arts, those things can begin to come to the fore”

Let us hope that this administration led by a President that values history, poetry, good books, and higher standards of education for our children will play an increasing role in making sure that the arts community flourishes.

Ellis M. Goodman, author of Bear Any Burden:

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Talking to Students at St. Thomas

Friday, February 27th, 2009
Remnants of a banner from the Cultural Revolut...
Image via Wikipedia

I always enjoyed talking to young students about China and my book Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China. Their eagerness for the stories from a different culture, their questions about my growing up experiences and their responses to the resilience and strength of my family members surviving the Cultural Revolution always bring back vivid memories of my childhood.

My talk to 150 students at St. Thomas School in Fairfield, CT yesterday was no exception. Even though only 2 students among the group have been to China, everyone raised their hands enthusiastically when they responded to my question if they watched the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games on television. I told them that China today is a very different from the China presented in my book. But it is important to remember the past, so that we can prevent the tragedies from happening in the future. What’s more, the resilience and strength that enabled my family to survive the Cultural Revolution are still relevant today in overcome the hurdles we encounter in our daily life.

I read a section of my story when I was requested to criticize my father as a first grader. I told them the impact it had on me. I could feel the intensity of their attention as I unrevealed the details. As soon as I was done relating the story, many hands raised in the audience:

“How long did your family live in the mud house?”

“What happened to your sisters and brother?”

“Why is the book titled Mulberry Child?”

I wish I had more time to address each of their questions. I was reluctant to end the section as so many students still had their hands up. I told them to reach me via e-mail and promised I’d respond to each of them. As an author, I always feel the deepest gratitude when I realize my story can touch the hearts of others and give them inspiration to deal with the challenges in their lives.

Jian Ping, auther of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China. www.

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Perspectives on Writing a First Novel – (1) Inspiration

Friday, February 27th, 2009
Majestic Tree
Image by Garry’ via Flickr

I have recently done some online interviews and responded to a number of questions, starting with what inspires somebody to write a novel?

Everyone believes they have a story to tell, and that there is the great American novel inside them, just waiting to be written and make the best seller list.

In my case, a cousin of mine in London had completed a Genealogical research into our family history, which he had published privately.  He had retired and decided he would spend a few months creating a Family Tree.  The few months eventually turned into five years, by which time he had traced 1500 members of our family through 42 branches, back to 1760, and had communicated with many of them around the world.  His research produced a comprehensive encyclopedia of information about the history of Tarnow, located 45 miles west of Krakow, when it was part of an independent Poland, part of the Austrian Hungarian Empire, and during occupations by the Russians and more recently in the mid-20th Century – the brutal Nazis.

As I read through this award-winning piece of Genealogical research, I started to formulate a story based upon our family experiences, coupled with my knowledge of the Beverage Alcohol Industry and some of the characters that one meets over a busy lifetime.

The result is BEAR ANY BURDEN – A Cold War Espionage Thriller set in Poland in 1983.  Sir Alex Campbell, head of an international drinks company is on a business trip to Poland, a country in the midst of political turmoil.  A new “Solidarity” movement is rising on the streets, and the Communist government is cracking down mercilessly.  Alex Campbell has an additional mission, a “little job” for the British Secret Intelligence Services.  He will deliver an airline bag containing money and passports to a British agent who is to help the world-renowned nuclear scientist, Dr. Erik Keller, escape across the Iron Curtain to the West.

Alex meets the beautiful Anna Kaluza, the British agent, whose life, like his and that of Erik Keller, had been impacted forever by their World War II experiences.

Alex agrees to help Anna complete her mission.

What begins as one of many routine “little jobs” Alex has done for the SIS, quickly turns into an increasingly dangerous game of cat-and-mouse, involving murder, bribery, and international politics.

I hope I created an interesting Espionage Thriller, which illustrates the lifetime impact of war-time traumas, and is also a family saga spanning 90 years of European History.

Ellis M. Goodman, author of Bear Any Burden:

Discussion on Diversity

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009
NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 04:  Residents of the hist...
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Last Sunday, I attended the round table talk on diversity organized by the Center of Asian Arts and Media. Nancy Tom, Executive Director of the Center and a close friend, invited me to the event. Nancy, as always, dressed elegantly and greeted everyone going through the door with a warm smile and friendly handshake. Petite but full energy and enthusiasm, Nancy wasted no time in introducing me to the people around her. Lily Zhang, from the Chinese Consulate General in Chicago, Yuchia, Director of the Center of Asian Arts and Media, Erikka, partner of Akira clothing store… Nancy was proud to bring a group of people together.

We soon sat around a circle at the studio of Earnest, a city planner and chatted. As we munched on cheese, fruits and nuts and sipped wine, we covered many areas on diversity—from Nancy’s experience of being openly discriminated as a Chinese growing up in the US, to Erikka’s success as a young, successful entrepreneur in clothing business, to Lily serving as a bridge between the West and East, and Peter, a professor at the Audio Arts and Acoustic at Columbia College, teaching students in Acoustics, we shared our stories and learned about the importance of persistence and reaching out.

We were a group of diversified people, from ABC (American Born Chinese), to FOB (fresh off the boat, or rather first generation Chinese immigrants), to Hispanic descendent and Eastern European origin, we marveled at the melting pot that brought us together and talked about the opportunities and challenges we face today. It was wonderful to learn the stories of persistence by new immigrants and the importance of us playing an active role in improving the presence and equalities of Asians and other minorities in this country we now all call home.

Nancy Tom eventually turned to me to talk about my perspective. As always, she gave me a big plug by introducing Mulberry Child, my latest book. I talked about reaching out to others in corporate America, playing an active role in enhancing the communication and understanding between the West and East… By the end of the two-hour meeting, I was full of pride and elation. I know we are lucky to live in an era when various voices are heard and faces accepted.

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China.

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“Just Write”

Friday, February 20th, 2009
Bela Writing His Memoirs
Image by elkit via Flickr

Eight years ago I wrote to Larry Engelmann for writing advice. I had just finished reading his book Daughter of China. I liked his simple and precise language, his voice and style so much that I took the liberty to send him a letter. At the time, I just started writing Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China and was struggling to put my story together.

A month passed before an email eventually came from him. It turned out that he only stopped by the university where he taught once for a while, therefore, the delay in getting back to me. I was thrilled to hear from him and eagerly looked for the magic answer to my question on writing. I had to say I was a little disappointed when he simply spelled out two words: “Just write.”

Over time, he would point out not to hang up over finding one’s voice—it would come by itself, he assured me. He also emphasized to me the importance of reading aloud what had been written down. “Let your ears tell you if the sentences sound right or not,” he wrote. And above all, he insisted on “just write.”

It would take me a long time to truly appreciate the “just write” advice. I attended writing classes, sought out friends’ feedback, and questioned myself. I did wrote, albeit on and off. I was compelled by the story I wanted to tell, and meanwhile, agonized over the way I should tell it. However, when I wavered, I thought of two words and repeated them like a mantra. By the time I finally finished my memoir, I realized the magic of “Just write.”

“Just write,” I start giving the same advice.

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China.

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Appearance at a Men’s Book Group

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009
Chinese poster saying: "Smash the old wor...
Image via Wikipedia

I rushed back to Chicago from a business trip yesterday, Feb. 17, to participate in a men’s book group to discuss about Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China. I had joined discussions in several women’s book groups before, but had never appeared in an exclusive men’s group. I was anxious to meet the guys, wondering what their take would be on a memoir.

My friend Hank introduced me to this group. They meet regularly, rotating the hosting of the group meeting at its members’ homes. Last night, the discussion took place at Bill’s home in Barrington, northwest of Chicago. In the cozy setting of his living room, with ample supplies of drinks and snacks, a dozen men in their fifties and above and I sat in a circle on sofas and armchairs and engaged in heated discussions soon after the introduction. Hank surprised me by distributing a well organized list of events addressed in my book to every one. It placed the year in chronological order in the middle, with major happening in my family listed on the left and China’s political movements on the left. I wished I had thought of such a simple yet clear layout when I was working on the book!

I listened and took notes as each man took his turn making comments. I thought they’d be more focused on political issues vs. the incidents happened to my family. I was genuinely touched when half of the men marveled at the strength of Nainai, my grandmother, who was illiterate, walked with bound feet, but was defiant when faced with political persecution. One member did state he enjoyed reading the historical information presented in the book much more. I nodded to him, fully understood his perspective, and later, when I had a chance to respond to the questions raised, I explained to him and the group my deliberate approach: to focus on the family story, and via which, to show the devastating impact of the Cultural Revolution.

I truly enjoyed their comments on my father’s unwavering devotion to the Communist Party, their comparison of the political movements in China with those in Russia and Germany and their discussion about the changes in China today and the challenges China faces in the economic slowdown, especially in the export segment.

As I joined them, providing more historical information on China, I felt I learned just as much from them.

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China.

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The Envelope Please…

Tuesday, February 17th, 2009
The image of the Academy Award Oscar presented...
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The 2009 Academy Awards are approaching once again. I have been reflecting on how influential Hollywood is on America, its way of life, and the spread of its culture. Hundreds of millions of people around the world will watch the Oscar ceremonies.

They are familiar with the movies, the stars, and sometimes directors and writers. This is the window to the world that America can portray; and, as such, it can be very influential in creating, guiding, or changing public perceptions.

I can say that my own life experiences were definitely influenced by the Hollywood cinema. As a young boy in England during the Second World War, my weekly visits to the “pictures” was an escape from war-torn England, blackouts, air-raid shelters, food shortages, and rationing. On the screen, I saw cowboys and Indians galloping across wide-open spaces, American families living in pretty houses with white picket fences and gardens full of flowers, talented young stars – Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland – planning high school musicals and dancing down the streets, and tough detectives solving mysteries and always getting the bad guy.

I also saw on the screen a society that appeared to live in perpetual sunshine with close family relationships, and even owning motor cars! I had a great desire to be part of this sunny lifestyle, and announced to my family at eight years old that I was going to live in California when I grew up. Coming out of my weekly cinema visit into bleak, blacked out streets, highlighted the contrast with the U.S. even more.

I’m sure today that there are millions of people at various social levels around the world, who seeing American movies, also yearn for the American way of life. Our adversaries whose leaders may call the U.S. the great Satan, or even worse will know that whatever demonstrations are going on in the streets, whatever flag burnings may be taking place, their people are still envious of America’s freedom and our way of life.

Today, the whole world is facing economic challenges, political instability, population movements, and increasingly billions of people who are becoming part of the “have-nots.”

To them and indeed all of us in these difficult times, the cinema still provides a few hours of fantasy and escape from the daily realities.

Ellis M. Goodman, author of Bear Any Burden:

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Lincoln Revisited…

Sunday, February 15th, 2009
Lincoln House
Image by JNikon via Flickr

As probably everybody in America now knows, this week marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln.

This anniversary has added interest because of our current president Obama’s analysis of Lincoln’s dealings with his supporters and adversaries, and how he met the challenges of the Civil War, which threatened to destroy the Union only a few months after he took office.

President Obama perhaps has recognized that he faces similar challenges, particularly in a financial crisis that threatens our people and the basic elements of our economy.

There is a spate of new books about Abe Lincoln flooding the market, but I was interested to read in the “NEW YORK TIMES” Book Review, an article by William Safire, of some of Lincoln’s imperfections. People are inclined to look back on their past leaders with a softer eye than when they are in office. Undoubtedly, Lincoln’s brilliance, his leadership qualities, oratory, and his handling, as an inexperienced Commander in Chief, of the Civil War, deserve the accolades and unique reputation that has been built over the years.

However, I was interested to read of some of his imperfections. We are told that his gentle humor and love of anecdotes was mingled with bouts of depression. Though a member of no Church, he continually meditated on God’s justice. He was a loving family man in many ways, but refused to attend his own father’s funeral. And although he continually exhibited his modesty, particularly in his achievements, he was strong willed and pursued his political goals with total dedication.

I am particularly interested in his personal life as a guide to the “great man.” I recently visited Mary Todd Lincoln’s home in Lexington Kentucky and learned from the knowledgeable tour guide that Mary Todd, a small woman, who from her portraits appeared somewhat less than attractive, met the 6’4” young lawyer, Abraham Lincoln at a dance in Springfield, Illinois. Mary was considered “difficult.” She was often unbending, undiplomatic, of a fiery temper, but, sensitive and easily hurt. Their courtship was somewhat rocky. Mary Todd’s father did not approve of the match, believing that she could do a lot better than Abe Lincoln. Although Lincoln abhorred slavery, he accepted invitations to the Todd home where numerous slaves, living in outhouses on the five acre property, served the Todd family. The house was located within walking distance of both the whipping post and slave market.

Mary was well educated, cultured, and interested in music and the arts. She spoke fluent French and was well read. When she moved to Washington as First Lady, she was upset that she was treated by the local establishment as a country hick. Her testy personality did not endear her to her husband’s political and diplomatic circle, and she was never really accepted. Lincoln was unable to do much about this rejection.

She often withdrew into herself and turned to laudanum as a comfort for her pain after losing three of her children. Her depressions became more severe, and her behavior more erratic after Abe’s death, ultimately leading to her commitment by her son, Robert, to an asylum.

Lincoln’s personal life was more than most, one of triumph and tragedies, happiness and pain, but did not deter him from his responsibilities.

Lincoln was a pragmatic and canny politician who had a delicate touch in communicating his policies to the populace, and the foresight to see beyond the tragic Civil War, recognizing the necessary actions to bring the Union back together.

This country has needed these qualities many times over the centuries, but perhaps now more than ever.

Ellis M. Goodman, author of Bear Any Burden:

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A New Media Approach to Family Recipes

Saturday, February 14th, 2009

In today’s light-speed world of having everything now it’s interesting to note the veritable renaissance home-cooking is enjoying.  A new blog concept shows just how far we’ve come in our quest for the reassurance of the tried-and-true tastes of past generations.

Comfort Food is Everywhere

 Scan the shelves of the cookery aisle at your local bookstore and you’ll see what I mean.  On a recent foray to W.H. Smith here in Paris, I found the choice of books containing cozy photos of dishes presented in chipped crockery, of titles assuring the old-world authenticity of the recipes tucked between the fabric-bound covers, to be truly staggering.  The same can be said of the cookery programs on offer these days.  Flicking through the channels available through my cable package, I noticed the networks dedicated to all things domestic have a penchant for genial hosts with rolled sleeves serving up decidedly homey fare in welcoming kitchens.  They’ve all but replaced the expert, white-clad chefs cooking on the pristine studio sets of past cooking shows.

Enter the blog

It was, of course, only a matter of time before this trend, if indeed taking the time to prepare meals with care and honest ingredients can be called a trend, caught on in the blogosphere.  There are more food blogs than you can shake a breadstick at, and while the topics addressed span the far reaches of the culinary arts, there is a particular recurrance of the home-cooking theme among these sites.   The appeal of a home-cooked meal is universal, and so it stands to reason that in the environment of prepared, pre-packaged, convenience foods, supplements, dietary restrictions, political-correctness and a general suspicion of gastronomic pleasure, there is something of a boomerang effect at play.  The further we stray from the simple pleasures of food, the greater the need to get back to them.

Bridging the Generational Food Gap

At Thursday for dinner they’ve taken the bull by the horns.  Here, home-cooking has entered a new arena, and in so doing, has reached a new audience.  Dedicated to preserving family recipes, the site, created by second generation Greek-Canadians hoping to not only learn to prepare the dishes which were an integral part of their childhoods, but to archive them in such a way that others might enjoy them too, is a cookbook of traditional recipes for the “now generation”.  Step-by-step videos of family members and friends preparing simple but treasured recipes are uploaded onto the site weekly.  Neither the cooks nor the videographers are professionals, which only serves to highlight the grassroots appeal of the site.  The clips are, however, very clear and easy to follow, and the results are spectacularly tempting.  That the site is available through RRS feed and e-mail updates, can be downloaded to your iPod or accessed via several networking sites makes it particularly attractive to an audience that might otherwise never even consider sorting through Grandma’s stained and dented recipe box or Mum’s dog-eared kitchen bible.  Originally designed to document the family’s Greek-Canadian heritage through the recipes that have been handed down from generation to generation, Mercina and George, the site’s creators and administrators, will be taking things a step further by integrating an interactive feature to the blog.  Soon others will be able to upload their videos of traditional recipes being prepared lovingly in the family kitchen, too.  A cross-cultural, cross-generational feast, if you will, and a deliciously creative way of bringing a generation back to their roots while giving them a little soul-warming nourishment at the same time.



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“40 to 60 Words a Day”

Saturday, February 14th, 2009
Illustration of a scribe writing
Image via Wikipedia

I went to Victoria Lautman’s Writers on the Record on Tuesday, February 10. Writers on Record is a monthly program featuring well-known authors during an hour-long interview. The program used to be held at the Looking Glass Theatre in downtown Chicago and has been moved to the Harold Washington Library Center since 2008. Victoria has this wonderful ability of bringing a book to life with her brief introduction and well selected questions. Even if you haven’t read the featured book, you walk away with a good grasp of the narrative and understanding of the author. Whenever I am in town, I make sure to attend her program.

The featured author was Manil Suri this month. He is a Bombay-born author and the interview was focused on The Age of Shiva, his second novel. Mr. Suri explores the social, religious and political upheavals of the post-partition India in this book. I had just finished a full year of study on India in the Asian Classics Program at the Graham School, University of Chicago and found the topic particularly interesting. Mr. Suri talked about his trilogy on Vishnu, Shiva and Braham. But what struck me about the interview was not the topic of God Shiva or mythology, but rather his statement that he wrote 40 to 60 words every day, early in the morning before he begins his day-time work as a mathematics professor. Reportedly, Hemingway wrote 300 words every day. That totals over 100,000 words per year, averaging a good length book in a year or a year and a half. But 40 to 60 words a day? I was shocked and amused. As I was doing the math and pondering the fruit of persistence and consistence, I heard Victoria asked him, laughing:

“Are you going to write 80 words a day when you start writing your third book?”

I sat up in my seat, watching him intensely.

“That will be too much,” he said, in a calm, but serious tone. “40 to 60 words are good.”

From 2001 when he published The Death of Vishnu, a bestseller, to 2008 when The Age of Shiva was released, it took him seven years. But he delivered, presenting to the world another well-written, highly acclaimed novel. Talking about writing consistently every day! Here is an outstanding example. The key: writes every day, if only for 40 to 60 words!

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China.

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