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Reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved

Tuesday, August 14th, 2012
Cover of "Beloved"

Cover of Beloved

There is no single statement or simple summary that can express the complex emotions and reflection after reading Toni Morrison‘s powerful novel Beloved.

Thanks to John, one of our seven-member reading group, we selected Beloved for August reading. Except Norm, a professor of literature at a Chicago university, none of us had read Toni Morrison before. “It’s beautifully written,” Norm said. But he warned us it would be a heavy reading.

Heavy it was. The story dealt with the issue of slavery, the meaning of freedom, and the necessity to deal with the suffering in the past in order to move on to the future. It was so well-written that we found ourselves well connected with the lives of Sethe, Baby Suggs, and Paul D, key characters in the book, and felt their pain and unbearable suffering, as if we were present.

Our book group, from left to right: Susan, Norm, Francis, John, and Amy. I was taking the photo and Mary was absent for the day.

At our discussion session over the weekend, we voiced our own interpretation and addressed the questions we each had, bringing the understanding to a deeper level. There was so much to dig into: the symbol of the ghost “Beloved,” the child Sethe murdered out of deep love so she wouldn’t be subjected to slavery; the constant switching point-of-view in narration, making the story non-linear and more complex since it opened more doors to examine the roles both white and black played; and how the repressed past prevented people from moving into the future, an issue we could all related to, either in history or in our present life.

We talked for three hours over lunch and snacks. Afterward, John sent an email that strongly expressed how I felt about our group and discussion every time we met:

“I get so much more out of the book just listening to the various takes that people have on aspects of the book that often I miss completely. I always walk out enriched by you folks.”

Thank you all. I look forward to our discussion on 1Q84 next month!

Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China, which has been developed into an award-winning feature-length documentary by Susan Morgan Cooper and is narrated by Jacqueline Bisset.



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Monday, August 23rd, 2010

By Jian Ping

Jasmine by Bharati Mukherjee

Over the weekend, I finished reading Bharati Mukherjee’s novel Jasmine. It’s a story of a village girl from Punjab, India to the U.S. –her innocence, talent, love, adventurous nature and fierce resolve. The ordeals she went through didn’t diminish her and the traditional restraints on women, especially a widow, didn’t confine her. As she claims at one point: she is a survivor and adaptor. She is, in fact, much more than that.

I’ve been reading quite a bit of immigrant literature lately. From Gish Gen’s Mona in the Promised Land, Amy Tan’s The Opposite of Fate: a Book of Musings to Patricia Chu’s Assimilating Asians, I am reading several books simultaneously. While each writer has her own characteristics, Mukherjee’s Jasmine was the one that I couldn’t put down and finished reading first. Aside from the narrative that made me keep turning the pages, the indomitable spirit of the protagonist, the concise yet powerful language, and the presentation of immigrants, with a profound understanding and respect, struck me with awe.

I had attended a talk by Bharati Mukherjee at the Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago three years ago. I was impressed by the list of awards she had received for her writing and amazed by her talk on the writing of a recentlypublished book. I wish that I had started reading her books right then. Now I’m all excited about my “discovery” and can hardly wait to start reading another book of hers: The Middle Man and Other Stories—also on immigrant lives.

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

At the Southern Kentucky Book Fest

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

by Jian Ping

Left to Right: Dave, Margaret, me and Jessica

Last weekend, I attended the annual Southern Kentucky Book Fest in Bowling Green. It was a large event , organized by Western Kentucky University Libraries, Barnes & Noble and Warren County Public Library.

More than a hundred authors participated in the event, including featured writers such as Lisa Scottoline, Richard Paul Evans, local favorites and emerging faces. I was a panelist on the “serious memoir,” and had the opportunity to talk with my fellow panelists Randi Davenport, Jessica Handler, Margaret Edds and David Lanphear. Each of them shared their unique personal and inspiring stories. I also met with a few dynamic young adult authors, including Michael Reisman (Simon Blloom: The Octopus Effect) and Cynthea Liu (Paris Pan Takes the Dare) and a fellow writer from China Haiwang Yuan (This is China: The First 5000 Years).

It was a wonderful experience. I’d like a give a special thanks to Tracy Harkins, coordinator of the event. It was a joy working with her—a model of efficiency and hospitality.  
Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China.,

Perspectives on Writing a First Novel – (2) Creating Characters

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009
Victoria Breakwater
Image by ecstaticist via Flickr

One of the more frequent questions I have been asked in recent interviews is about creating the characters for my novel.

I believe a great deal of good fiction is based on fact.  I have found that, when one is creating characters, you are drawing upon personal experiences, people you know, or have met.  Some made positive impressions.  Some negative.

For BEAR ANY BURDEN, I had a number of key characters, the two most important being Sir Alex Campbell and Anna Kaluza.  Sir Alex Campbell, Head of a Scottish International Drinks Company had served in the Army Intelligence Corps. as a nineteen-year old Lieutenant at the end of the Second World War.  For the next forty years, he carried out “little jobs” for the British Secret Intelligence Services, from time to time.  His character was based on a number of people that I knew and worked with over 38 years in the Beverage Alcohol Industry, particularly in my 20 years experience of the Scotch Whisky Industry, before I moved to the U.S.

When I first started out in business, the first employee that I hired was a secretary.  As a young bachelor, perhaps it wasn’t surprising that I had chosen a very pretty Polish girl with high cheek bones, bright blue eyes, and long blond hair.  She had an aristocratic bearing and posture, and walked like a ballet dancer.  Her English was far from perfect and her typing was awful, but then you can’t have everything!

I remember her telling me of her family history.  She came from a land-owning family whose estates were overrun by the Germans at the beginning of the Second World War.  Her father was in the Polish Army, and she never saw him again.  She fled with her mother and brother and walked for well over 150 kilometers, eventually finding themselves in Russian occupied Poland.  They were herded on to trains and shipped off to the Russian Steppes, where she spent the whole of the War in a labor camp on a collective farm.  Just before the end of the War, they were released and spent five days and nights on a freight train, arriving in Baghdad more dead than alive.  I remember her saying that, she was so weak after that journey, she couldn’t stand.  They were then shipped off to a British camp in Uganda, eventually making their way as new immigrants to Australia, where she finished her education and became an airline stewardess.  I was deeply moved by her story and always remembered the details.  Her story provided the basis of my character, Anna Kaluza.

Other characters in the Book are also based on people that I’ve met, done business with, or socialized with.  If one is observant, it is not too difficult to call on your knowledge – past and present – of the people you’ve associated with, to create the fictional characters in your novel.  Creating the characters whom you get to know as your novel develops, can be a very interesting and rewarding part of your writing experience.

Ellis M. Goodman, author of Bear Any Burden:

The Power of The Book…

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009

We already know that our new President, Barack Obama, has outstanding ability as an orator. We also know that he is a writer and has the eloquence to use language that can persuade and inspire.  His devotion to reading and language has been a powerful force in his ability to communicate his ideas to millions, not only in the US but around the world.

His two bestselling memoirs – DREAMS FROM MY FATHER and THE AUDACITY OF HOPE –highlight the importance of books both classic and modern, which have influenced his thinking.  It has been well publicized that his recent readings have contributed to his strategic plan for governance of the nation.

TEAM OF RIVALS” – Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book about Abraham Lincoln and his decision to include former opponents in his cabinet, may have influenced the President’s decision to bring in Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.  He is clearly going out of his way to court Republicans from the other side of the aisle, and to develop a strong personal relationship with his former presidential rival, John McCain.  This appears to be clearly following Lincoln’s program.

He has also indicated that he has been profoundly influenced by books describing FDR’s first 100 days in office, which may help him deal with the enormous challenges, both economic and global, that he will face upon taking office.

Our new President has had a life-long love affair with books, and his personality, intelligence, and intellectual abilities have been shaped by his reading from the Bible, to Shakespeare, to the richness of American history. His use of language and its rhythms has been as important to Mr. Obama as his undoubted ability to inspire while at the same time provide down-to-earth analysis and inspiration.

As we enter a new era of change with a well-read intellectual President, who can exude and inspire confidence, maybe we shall truly see an America that once again surmounts major challenges and reinvents itself as the  Country of freedom and opportunity.

Ellis M. Goodman, author of Bear Any Burden:

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