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Archive for March, 2009

Goodbye Charlie Gibson

Monday, March 30th, 2009
Charlie Gibson in Manchester, NH
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I’ve always liked Charlie Gibson.  He’s like an elderly neighbor, polite, kind, and gentlemanly.  He is of course the veteran television journalist, who anchors ABC “World News Tonight.”

Unfortunately, ABC World News Tonight has become “No News Tonight.”  Let us take a typical 22 minutes last Monday, which covered the following:

Charlie Gibson led with – not unexpectedly – the AIG bonus outrage, which of course received coverage ad nausea.  This included a few follow-up questions to George Stephanopoulos of ABC’s This Week.  The second report was on the health advantages of aspirin.  This was followed by another bit of fluff on “Where we stand in Iraq,” a nightly report which had been dragged out for a whole week and basically was a series of interviews with Iraqi police, American servicemen, and the usual street vendors of Baghdad. The news wound up with a piece on food allergies, which of course followed all the drug companies’ ads that are a permanent part of the network news programs, with those pleas of “Ask your Doctor.”

This is ABC’s offering of world news to the American public.  No wonder there is a continuing decline in viewer numbers for this and other network news programs.

So, I have turned to BBC America as my source of world news.  BBC also covered the AIG “scandal” but also gave me news on the Zimbabwe political and economic problems, the Sri Lanka Civil War with the Tamils, and an update on the European Union and the global financial crisis.

None of this can be called joyful news, but whether we like it or not, it is world news.  The BBC still has bureaus and reporters around the world unlike any of the U.S. major networks.  When the BBC interviews someone on one of their news items, the questions are probing, aggressive, and demand a response, unlike interviews on our major news networks.  Although I appreciate the BBC coverage, I am upset from time to time by the obvious bias in their reporting.  However, I do believe that I am informed about our world as a result of watching the BBC.

Although ABC claims that, “More Americans get their news from ABC News than from any other source,” it is a sad state of affairs that, in the continuous dumbing down of America, most of our population now have no sources of information as to what is going on in our world.

So, for me, it is now Goodbye Charlie Gibson.  I am just one more minor statistic in the declining viewership of network news.  So as they continue to have censorship by ratings and service their drug-company ads by catering to the lowest possible denominator, Americans will continue to slide into ignorance of the world around us.

Ellis M. Goodman, author of Bear Any Burden: www.bearanyburden.com

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A Very Special Event

Friday, March 27th, 2009

I used to live in Green Trails in Lisle, a western suburb of Chicago. For more than tbenedictine-university2en years, the moment I pulled the curtains from my second floor bedroom window, I saw the administration building of Benedictine University (BU). I witnessed the demolition of the old building and the emerging of the new library in its place. I went to the Rice Center on campus to vote several times and always felt Benedictine University was part of the local community.

 

I had the honor to give a talk about Mulberry Child at BU yesterday. I first met Elsie Yuan, Director of China Institute and Dr. William Caroll, President of BU last October. We talked about China and my book. Dr. Caroll surprised me by addressing incidents that I described in my book in detail, and more, he referred to each of my five siblings by name! When we parted that day, Dr. Caroll and his wife Marietta gave me a large, dark green mulberry leaf. I was very touched. To date, that green leaf, despite its faded color, is still pinned to the China map on the wall of my office. I see it numerous times a day—it reminds me of my growing up experiences in China and my friendship with Dr. Caroll and Elsie that has developed since then.

 

I arrived at BU at 4 PM. Elsie had asked me to come early to have an interview with BU’s “Eye of the Eagle,” an in-circuit student TV network. I did the interview and I was impressed by the student reporter’s questions and skills. Elsie told me there would be an early dinner before my talk. I was overwhelmed walking into the Boardroom with Dr. Caroll: the conference tables, covered with white table cloth, were lined up in a square, and more then twenty plates were set up for dinner. Soon members of the Benedictine University Unity Foundation (BUUF), faculties from College of Business, College of Liberal Arts, China Institute, Community Development and International Programs, all sponsors of the event, came to the room. Several Chinese Fulbright Scholars who are doing graduate studies or teaching at BU also came. Mr. Donald Taylor, Provost, was also present. I was very honored by the extraordinary hospitality. Then I saw Marietta, Dr. Caroll’s wife, walk through the door—another wonderful surprise. 

 

Dr. Caroll personally gave the welcome and started the evening event, and Nikki, President of BUUF, introduced me to the audience. I enjoyed the opportunity of talking about China, especially the Cultural Revolution and my family’s experience surviving the persecution and chaos. I also read a section of my book to have the audience experience a particular moment with me. I felt I could have heard a pin drop when I related my story. 

 

What a special event! My heartfelt thanks to Dr. Caroll, Elsie, Nikki and the other students and faculties whose support made the event possible.   

 

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

Talking to International Women Associates in Chicago

Tuesday, March 24th, 2009

 

 

Jian Ping (2nd left) with IWA Members, photo taken by Susan Hanes

Jian Ping (2nd right) with IWA Members, photo taken by Susan Hanes

  It was in late 2008 when I first received an e-mail from Kuri Shea, Chair of the Asian Culture Group of the International Women Associates (IWA), an organization founded 31 years ago for women who were either born in foreign countries or worked abroad or did (doing) international business. A mutual friend mentioned my book Mulberry Child to Kuri and she invited me to talk the Asian Culture Group. We’ve maintained contact since then, and today, March 24, was the date we selected for the talk. I took the day off from work and was eager to meet Kuri and her group.   

Heather hosted the meeting at her residency, a spacious, high-ceilinged apartment on the 1st floor of a well maintained building at Hyde Park. Kuri had informed me that Heather came from Britain and was very interested in Asian cultures. I thought I was early, but was pleasantly surprised to see more than a dozen women in the room as I walked through the door. More, trays of fruits and pastries had covered the counters in the kitchen. The setting was warm and cozy.

Kuri, a Japanese descent, and I shook hands. Her brilliant smile and friendly remark made me feel I was meeting an old friend. Kuri wasted no time to introduce me to Marilyn Clancy, President of IWA, Heather, our hostess, Juling from Taiwan, and a number of others. As I greeted each of them, I realized the majority of the women present were not Asians, but Westerners who were interested in Asian cultures. Interestingly, half a dozen of them were wearing the wide-sleeve, elegant kimonos and they looked natural and beautiful in them. 

Nearly everyone raised her hand when I asked if they had heard of the Cultural Revolution. Seeing this, I optioned to focus on my family experiences during this chaotic era and skipped the introduction on recent Chinese history. Soon I found myself in deep discussions with them about the metaphor of mulberry trees and the resilience of people, the physical abuse rampant during the Cultural Revolution, and the changes taking place in China today. An hour and a half quickly flew by.

We continued to chat after the group session and I was pleased to hear they found my talk informative.

“I hope my accent didn’t hinder you from understanding me,” I said, conscious of my soft voice and Chinese accent.

“Not at all,” one woman said firmly. “You are clear and eloquent,” she moved closer. “You should always keep a touch of that accent. It has character,” she continued.

In the end, Marilyn presented me with book on Chicago titled Our Chicago. She wrote the text for the book. “Thank you for sharing your story with us,” she said. “Please share Chicago with your family next time you visit China.”  

I didn’t know the background of each of the women present, but I felt their genuine interest and open-mindedness—they certainly lived up to the name of their organization.  

With the click of a camera, we registered our shared moment and connection in a frame.  

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

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Biking along Lake Michigan

Sunday, March 22nd, 2009
Chicago on Lake Michigan
Image by llprice via Flickr

It’s another beautiful spring day in Chicago. Instead of working out at the small gym in the condo building, I pumped up the deflated tires of my bike that had been collecting dust all winter and hit the trail along the lake.

Many people were out there early this Sunday morning. Cyclists dressed in smart biking uniforms whisked by, and others in bulky jackets and long pants pedaled their bikes with leisure, and walkers and joggers dotted the trail at their own pace. I used to secretly race with the cyclists. When I heard their shout “On your left,” I’d gather all my energy and follow them as soon as they were ahead of me. Despite my desperate push, however, they’d spring forward, leaving me puffing and blowing far behind in a matter of minutes. I’d watch them disappear with envy, until the next shout came along. Today, I didn’t race with anyone. I was busy taking in everything in sight: the golden sunshine casting on the bare tree branches, the ducks swimming and diving not far from the shore, a single middle-aged man fishing on the concrete platform, and the different color of the lake water each time I cast my eyes on it. I felt the vibration of life and the start of spring.

I remember Joyce Carol Oates once answered a reader’s question at a talk about her writing process. She said she was a jogger and the best time for her to muse was when she was jogging. “I never listen to music when I jog,” she said. “It’s the best time for me to think.” Her words left a lasting impression on me. Today, I left behind my iPod and gave all my attention to the scenes and the thoughts—I’ve started working on the next book, with my daughter Lisa together. We want to examine her growing up in the US—the conflicts between a mother and daughter and the Oriental and Western cultures. Could we really dig into issues that set us on the opposite side of arguments? Or would it stir up our past frustration and push us further apart? What kind of role did I play in her most formative years, despite my best effort and good intention? Could I honestly treat her as a co-author, leaving behind my Chinese mother mentality that requires submission and respect from her child? “Mom, you don’t want to know what I was thinking back then,” Lisa laughed when I first proposed we write the book from each of our perspective. It took her a long time to make her decision. Now that we’ve started, I realize it is as much a self reflection and discovery journey for me as it is for her….

As my mind wrestled with various ideas and my eyes absorbed scenes coming into view, I reached the end of my 15 miles routine journey without my noticing the passing of time or the climbing of a couple of steeper slopes.

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

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Perspectives on Writing a First Novel – (6) Research

Sunday, March 22nd, 2009
D C Thomson & co. Ltd.
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Because most fiction is based on fact, I believe most readers like the factual part to be accurate.  I know I do.  Nothing is more irritating than reading a description of a location or an historical fact that you know is wrong.  For my espionage thriller, “BEAR ANY BURDEN,” I tried to do the necessary research to make sure that my facts are right, however, always with the knowledge that I am writing a work of fiction.  With the advent of the internet and in particular Google, research has become a lot simpler than it used to be.

In my novel, I had immigrants arriving in Dundee, Scotland in 1892.  I was easily able to access information on Dundee in that period including maps of the street layout, active industries in the area, and even comments on traffic congestion from horse-drawn buses.  I also had one of my characters living in Sydney, Australia in the 1950s and was again able to access similar information.  It is amazing what one can find on Google.  Since another of my main characters was a world renowned nuclear physicist from Poland, and the action takes place in the 1980s during the height of the cold war, I did my research and found a wealth of information on nuclear physicists, their work, and the scientific body called the Polish Academy of Sciences.  Without getting too technical, I was able to include many of these facets into my fiction.

When it came to writing about London, England, I had no difficulty since I am from there and was living there during part of the time period covered by my novel.  However, writing about Krakow and Tarnow in Poland was another matter.  In addition to the research that I was able to access, I decided that I would feel more comfortable getting a feel of those cities if I went there.  So last summer my son and I made the trip.  Krakow is a beautiful city with great historical significance, magnificent colorful buildings, churches, and the largest market square in Europe.  Tarnow, some 45 km from Krakow, was a smaller version.  A former walled city unharmed during WWII, with a pretty market square colorful houses with Venetian style balconies in some cases, all of which were painted in lovely pastel colors.  The center of the town was very pedestrian friendly, and I had no difficulty in identifying street names which I was using in my book and making the necessary adjustments when I realized the distances were not quite what I had expected.

I believe blending fact with fiction always make a novel more interesting.  What do you think?

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Perspectives on Writing a First Novel – (5) The Traumas of War

Thursday, March 19th, 2009
Montage of World War II
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An individual’s life experiences often influence their character, personality, and behavior.  Traumas in a person’s life, at any age, can often have a much deeper impact.  This is even more significant, when the trauma relates to war time experiences.

In “BEAR ANY BURDEN,” my Cold War Espionage Thriller set in Poland at the height of the Cold War in the 1980’s, I have tried to show how the traumas of World War II affected the personality and behavior of the three main characters.

Sir Alex Campbell had grown up knowing of his grandparent’s emigration to Scotland from Poland to get away from the Pogroms, persecution, and poverty.  In April 1945 at the age of nineteen as an officer in the British Intelligence Corps Army, he was at the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp and saw for himself the horrors of the brutal Nazi death camps.  A few weeks later while interrogating a captured German officer, he was attacked and wounded and then watched the officer, a Nazi fanatic, commit suicide before his eyes.

These traumatic events stayed with him over four decades, regularly causing him to wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, as he relived those experiences.

Anna Kaluza was born in a Russian labor camp in 1940.  The daughter of an aristocratic landowning family, she never knew her father, who joined his regiment as the Germans were invading Poland at the start of the Second World War and was never seen again.  Her mother, Maria, was forced off her estate by the Germans and, pregnant with Anna, fled east with her brother, Jan, eventually ending up in Russian-occupied Poland.

Anna grew up with a deep affection for her brother, three years her senior, who was her hero and role model.  When she blossomed into a beautiful young woman, she found she was not attracted to her brother’s friends, but sought the company of much older men.

Despite warnings from her close friends, she threw herself into a wild love affair, which eventually led to marriage, but which unfortunately, her husband could not sustain.  Three years later, they divorced.

Naturally, she was wary of getting involved in similar relationships, but realized she could use her beauty and charms, to her personal benefit when need arose, ideally suited to the challenges and excitement of the British Secret Service.

Eric Keller was a teenager when the Nazis marched into his hometown of Tarnow in September 1939.  Over the next three years, he lived through the ever-increasing brutal occupation – murder, mass killings, persecution, starvation, death and living in perpetual fear.  When he escaped from Tarnow and joined the Resistance in the surrounding forest, he became adept at silently killing Germans with weapons, knives, or even his bear hands.

These three characters were thrown together as part of a British Secret Service plan to help Professor Eric Keller defect from Poland.  They were, however, inexorably tied together through their wartime traumas, which shaped and dramatically influenced their characters and personalities.

Ellis M. Goodman, author of Bear Any Burden: www.bearanyburden.com

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Columbia College Story Week

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009
Harold Washington Library
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The annual event of Columbia College Story Week started on Sunday, March 15 and will last until March 20. This is my third year attending the event—author interviews, readings, discussion panels with representatives from publishers, magazines, literary agents, mixed with student and faculty readings and performance. It is a well-organized literary feast.

 

I went to the reading/conversation featuring Francine Prose last night. It was hosted by Donna Seaman, Booklist Associate Editor, at the Harold Washington Library. The Cindy Pritzker Auditorium was packed, and I was mesmerized by the story Francine Prose read.

 

I have a full day of work scheduled today, including hosting a group of company guests at United Center for a Bulls vs. Boston Celtics game. Not a bad way to spend St. Patrics Day! But I’ve requested a day off on Wednesday, so I can attend most of the events at the Story Week throughout the day. I’m looking forward to it.

 

Here is the link to the website of the Columbian College Story Week:

 

http://www.colum.edu/SpecialEvents/Story_Week/2009/

 

Check it out. I assure you it will be time well spent.

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

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Letters from St. Thomas Aquinas

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009
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 I was surprised by the thick yellow envelop handed over by the doorman. The handwriting of Ms. Crescent Kral from St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic School in Fairfield, CT on the upper left corner immediately caught my attention. I rushed into the elevator and put aside the rest of the mail on the kitchen counter the moment I stepped into my apartment.

Five or six thumb-sized metallic butterflies, pigeons, and stars in silver, purple and beige color landed on my desk as I opened the envelop. To my surprise, the thick deck of paper was thank you letters from the 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students I talked to at St. Thomas Aquinas. The mini creatures flying out of the envelop were from the decoration on Aidan’s note. Another half dozen of them were still glued to the border of her letter. I started reading.

谢谢您” Three large Chinese characters jumped into view. It was from Brittany. While the note was printed from a word document, the Chinese characters were carefully hand-drawn, surprisingly well written. “Based on what you told us, I’d love to read our book in the future,” she wrote.

I smiled and turned to the next one. “I was very interested in your talk,” Tim wrote. “I think it’s just amazing that you go through so much and still have a positive attitude.”

I want to promote the spirit of resilience through my story and was thrilled they got the message.

“You inspired me to become a better person and appreciate what I have and not what I want more,” Kara wrote.

I eagerly read the letters, one after another. The images of the students listening with interest and raising their hands for questions at my talk emerged in my mind.  

“I was amazed that even though you grew up during a difficult time in Chinese history, you can still love your country,” Mary wrote.

“Even though I can’t comprehend what you endured, I appreciated your story and I am convinced I will read your book.” “The one thing that is unbelievable is that the U.S. did nothing.” “I hope you continue to write good compelling stories for the rest of your life.” I was genuinely touched by their innocence, indignation, and good will.

Nearly every letter was nicely decorated with images—from colorful drawings of the book cover of Mulberry Child, to clippings of mulberry trees, silk worms, the red flag of China or the Red Guards—they all put much thought and effort in their writing.

I wish they have a happy and carefree childhood and they will grow up strong and resilient to overcome all the hurdles in their lives.

 

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

Reading and writing

Friday, March 13th, 2009

I am never sure which affects the other more: what I am reading or what I am writing. All I know is that for me the two go hand in hand.

When I was researching my last book, Kentucky Clay: Eleven Generations of a Southern Dynasty, I read only non-fiction. I could not get enough of histories of the early Virginia colonies both in primary documents like John Rolfe’s account of “A True Relation of the State of Virginia” written in 1616 or in overviews of the history of the Virginia and the early colonizers.

When I began to write, however, my reading choices became more difficult. I had digested the history of the early colonies and the Clay family. I had the family names straight generation by generation. I had pictures of places and people. Now it was time to find my voice.  And in doing that — finding my voice — I did not want the voices of others to intrude. On the other hand, I wanted to hear a myriad of voices in my head. Smooth voices, clear voices, lyrical sounds. I wanted those voices to feed me just as the data had earlier.

Among my choices then were Iris Origo, Images and Shadows, about living in Tuscany during WWII, William Maxwell, Ancestors, about his family in Illinois, Alice Munro, The View from Castle Rock, about her life in Canada, and even Lee Smith, On Agate Hill, to remind me of the voices of the Big Sandy River Valley where I grew up. No book could be picked up casually. No book could sully the good sounds I wanted in my head. No book could be purchased for just “a good read.”

Now I am beginning to think about my next book, about the women in the Clay family. I have started my research. But on the side I am reading Frances Wilson, The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth: A Life. It is elegant and straightforward. It is giving me clues regarding writing about the strong Clay women, about their fights for equal rights. I seems that now I am both researching and writing.

Katherine Bateman, author of www.kentuckyclay.com

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Perspectives on Writing a First Novel – (4) The End of the Story

Friday, March 13th, 2009
Au dessus de la vallée... un bleu brésilien...!!!
Image by Denis Collette…!!! via Flickr

Creating an exciting end to a novel, seems to be a regular question from my interviewers.

Fashion and changing perceptions over time, have influenced the endings of many novels.

Romantic novels – where boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back again, love blooms, and they live happily ever after – still have a large audience.  These stories are of course variations of the theme.  In Shakespeare, we see many a boy meeting a girl, who may or may not be disguised as another boy, and through much intrigue, parental disapproval, and devious friendships, we could see the girl at the end of the story appearing to die from an overdose, and the boy committing suicide, desperate and distraught.

I believe that a more modern approach has been to ask the audience to think.  This means that many of today’s plays, movies, and books do not have neat, tidy endings.  To some audiences, this can be infuriating.  However, others enjoy the experience of putting their own interpretation and ending to a story.

In my novel, “BEAR ANY BURDEN,” I have gone for the more modern approach.  While circulating my manuscript to many literary agents and receiving many rejections, I realized that some adjustments to my story needed to be made.  One particularly well-established New York literary agent called the ending of my manuscript “serendipitous.”   Only a literary agent would use such a delightful word.

I did however give further thought to my ending, trying to decide whether I should have all the pieces of the jigsaw fall into place or not.

Accordingly, the end of my book now leaves many questions unanswered.  Some say this should lead to a sequel.  Maybe so.  But the objective is to make the audience think and not to have a “cheesy” ending in which all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place.

Do you agree?

Ellis M. Goodman, author of Bear Any Burden: www.bearanyburden.com

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