Teaching Multicultural Literature: A Workshop for the Middle Grades
Research and Discovery: Edwidge Danticat, An Na, Laurence Yep, and more Authors and Literary Works
An Na: Biography & Works
Born in Korea, An Na grew up in San Diego, California. As a child she was a voracious reader, shutting herself up in the family’s bathroom (the only room with a lock on the door) to read in peace. In An Na’s first novel, A Step From Heaven, the protagonist, Young Ju Park, also makes the trip from Korea to California and grows up straddling the two cultures.
A former middle school teacher of English and history, Na began writing A Step From Heaven when she took a children’s literature class, then finished the book when she enrolled in an M.F.A. program. As a first novelist, An Na was something of a phenomenon. She was hailed immediately for her “exquisite voice” by the New York Times reviewer. A Step From Heaven won the Michael L. Printz award for excellence in young adult literature, and was a finalist for the National Book Award. It was included on numerous “best book” lists.
An Na visits schools frequently to talk about her book. She hopes, especially, to inspire Asian American children: “I think when writers go into schools, they allow children to imagine that this could be them… If more Asian American writers visited schools, I think more Asian American children would dare to dream of becoming artists.”
When asked by interviewer Cynthia Leitich Smith about advice she’d give other authors thinking about writing for a young adult audience, An Na says:
The best books and writers create stories that leave room for the reader to understand a character and their motivation. You are heartbroken when a character makes a decision that you feel is wrong, but you understand why they chose to act in the way that they did. That type of empathy is so much better than some story that bluntly hits you over the head with a moral lesson.
An Na considers Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street among the influences on her writing and also admires the work of Madeleine L’Engle and of her first writing teacher, Jacqueline Woodson.
An Na is a graduate of Amherst College, and received an M.F.A. from Vermont College.
A Step From Heaven
At age four, Young Ju Park believes that “Mi Gook” — Korean for “America” — is a magic word. In her house in a small fishing village in Korea, it seems to make her parents stop fighting and “smile big.” When the family finally moves to Southern California, Young Ju decides on the plane trip over that Mi Gook must be heaven. When she arrives, however, her American uncle gently tells her that America is not heaven, but “a step from heaven.” Young Ju and her family soon find out that this “step” is a very steep and difficult one indeed.
“Young Ju is the emotional center of the book,” notes The New York Times, “and a wonderful character she is: feisty, observant, empathetic, and resourceful.” An Na’s first novel tells the story of Young Ju’s struggles, from the age of four to 18, to find a place for herself in this new culture. When she chose to relate the girl’s story in short, episodic chapters, Na was influenced by Sandra Cisneros’s novel, The House on Mango Street. She says the style is her attempt to capture the way memory really works; readers should feel they are reliving the event with Young Ju.
Young Ju does not speak English, but struggles nonetheless to become the “Mi Gook” girl her mother wants her to be. Meanwhile, her baby brother is born, and her father begins to favor this son over his daughter. As the family struggles with money, her father, an alcoholic, becomes more and more mired in the disease, and abuses his family, physically and mentally. In a climactic scene in which her father beats her mother, Young Ju suddenly thinks, “I am not a child anymore,” and realizes she must call the police. In this journey from child to adult, Young Ju begins to find a voice — one that is neither completely Korean nor completely American — that allows her to finally speak the truth.
An Na writes that “A Step From Heaven grew from a need to express some of the longings and frustrations that I felt as an immigrant growing up in America. Many people ask me if this novel is autobiographical and I always respond by saying yes and no. As with all writing, the novel draws on past emotions, but the story is not my life. What the protagonist and I do share are some of the feelings of yearning, joy, and shame that come with trying to negotiate a foreign culture.”
While the path of this fictional Korean American girl was rocky, the author’s course has been smooth. A Step From Heaven garnered a raft of admiring reviews. Publishers Weekly called it “a mesmerizing first novel … the narrative unfolds through jewel-like moments, carefully strung together.” “A beautifully written, affecting work,” says School Library Journal. ALA Booklist gave the novel a starred review, saying, “As in the best writing, the particulars make the story universal.”
A Step From Heaven has won at least 25 awards and notable book designations. The novel was a finalist for the National Book Award and received the Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in young adult literature and the International Reading Society’s Children’s Book Award. Some of the “best book” lists on which it is included are the New York Times Book Review Notable Books, William Allen White Children’s Book Award master list, Asian American Booklist, Best Children’s Books from Publishers Weekly, Best Book for Young Adults from ALA, and Children’s Literature‘s Choice List.
Edwidge Danticat: Biography & Works
The life of Celiane in Behind the Mountains is drawn from Edwidge Danticat‘s own in many ways. Born in Haiti in 1969, Danticat came to the United States while the Duvalier regime ruled Haiti. Like Celiane’s, Danticat’s father was first to emigrate, moving to Brooklyn when she was two. Soon thereafter, her mother also moved, leaving Danticat and her brother in the care of their aunt and uncle. When she and her brother joined their family, when Daniticat was 12, they had two new younger brothers who had been born in the United States. “It was a big challenge for us to become a family again,” Danticat writes in an afterword to Behind the Mountains. “My brother Kelly, who had believed himself the first-born, suddenly found his birth order usurped, and he did not like it one bit.” Once in Brooklyn, Danticat felt lost, a feeling she draws on in her portrayal of Celiane. “It was all so very different. I didn’t speak the language. I felt very lost and I withdrew into myself, became much more shy than I already was. I sought solace in books, read a lot, and kept journals written in fragmented Creole, French, and English.”
The first book Danticat read when she came to the United States was Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. In an interview she recalls, “I was so struck by the level of revelation. It felt like she actually told everything, and I was overwhelmed and stunned by it. But it really opened up to me the possibility that it’s okay to tell these kinds of stories, to be painfully honest in the things that you write… To this day I feel like that book allowed me to be a lot more honest in my work.”
Some of the most important themes in Danticat’s work come from her own life experience — migration, the separation of families, and assimilation into a new world. Yet she feels that the idea of what it is to be an American is constantly changing, and that as a society we must make room for the voices of other immigrants. Each new wave of immigration brings a kind of person who has not come before, Danticat notes. “I think what ‘multicultural literature’ means has changed, just as what ‘multicultural society’ means has changed. There are many … people who we haven’t heard from before or we’re hearing from now. I think it’s important to have those voices heard.”
Because she grew up under the Duvalier regime herself, it is important to Danticat to show the political realities of Haiti and how they affect ordinary people. Yet she also wants to illustrate the everyday lives of Haitian families, since she believes Americans often see news of Haiti only at moments of violent change or natural disaster. From that, she worries, readers might view Haitians as “a mass of people” rather than individuals. She reflects in an interview about Behind the Mountains:
I wanted both teachers and students to get a sense that there are people exactly like them in places like this. There are little girls who dream, who keep journals, who miss their families, who hope that their loved ones are safe… When you have an individual character, you can relate to that particular person and they introduce you to a place. I think that makes a connection. If you have a Haitian child in the classroom, you end up having a deeper sense of that person and where they come from. You can look at them as an individual and then, I hope, the book becomes a point of departure for conversation.
In a review of Danticat’s novel, The Dew Breaker, New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani summarized Danticat’s career as a writer of fiction:
In her earlier books Breath, Eyes, Memory, Krik? Krak! and The Farming of Bones, Ms. Danticat … demonstrated an ability to use her lyric gift of language and her emotional clarity to show how the public and the private, the personal and the political are intertwined in the lives of Haitians and Haitian Americans, and to show how the past anchors and hobbles the present. The Dew Breaker … is a tale that uses its characters’ experiences as a prism to examine Haiti’s own difficulties in breaking free from a centuries-old cycle of violence and vengeance that continues through today, a tale that simultaneously unfolds to become a philosophical meditation on the possibility of redemption and the longing of victims and victimizers alike to believe in the promise of new beginnings held forth by the American Dream.
Since she published her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory (which she began as a high school student in Brooklyn), Edwidge Danticat has been hailed as one of America’s most talented young writers. For that work she won a Granta Regional Award for Best Young American Novelist. Her collection of stories, Krik? Krak!, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Danticat won an American Book Award and a Before Columbus Foundation award for The Farming of Bones. She has received fiction awards from periodicals including Caribbean Writer, Seventeen, and Essence; a Pushcart Prize for short fiction; and a grant from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Foundation.
Edwidge Danticat holds a degree in French literature from Barnard College and an M.F.A. from Brown University.
Talking with Edwidge Danticat
Why did you decide to write Behind the Mountains in the form of a journal?
I had always kept journals myself. What I found when I moved to the United States at 12 years old was that I was between languages. I had a journal that was a mishmash of Creole and English and French. It came out of my desire to note down the new things that were happening to me while I was still trying to remember the old things — the place that I had left, which was Haiti, and the friends that I had there. Back at that time, 1981, not everybody we knew had a phone, so I was writing a lot of letters to the people back home. So the journal was the form that most stood out to me. I liked the idea of not only describing for myself what was happening but also writing to others. So it became the natural form in which to write this particular story.
It was a very difficult time, I think, to have arrived here. First you had the first big wave of people coming by boat to Miami, which made the news really every night. And then it was also the beginning of this conversation about AIDS, and Haitians were the first — the only — people on the high-risk list by ethnic group. When you went to school, you were faced with those images, and the children teased you. So it was a very difficult time to be a child. My parents’ friends were fired from their jobs because of the scare about AIDS. Balancing all of that was really difficult. And that’s why I kept a journal: it was a way of dealing with it all. I would write in my journals and read a lot — just really go on this quest for identification, but also to escape. I had always read in Haiti, and I had been told stories and had really found a kind of solace in that. So I started writing from that sort of turmoil and turbulence.
Before Behind the Mountains, you wrote books for adults. How did you approach the new audience?
I didn’t come into it thinking that writing Behind the Mountains was going to be that much different because I felt that to write for young people, you had to write with a kind of respect for their intelligence, for their instinct — not to write down to them. But what was different was trying to gauge the reaction of the character based on her age, because she, Celiane, who was the main character, wouldn’t experience something, for example, the same way that her mother would. I had to try to narrow down this particular character, this particular young woman, based on her experiences and how she would react. So I think what was most different was gauging the responses to this particular character’s age and her experience in the world.
How important was reading to you when you were growing up?
I feel that it is such an important part of my growth as a person and as a writer to be able to read. Reading was often a great escape for me, but was also really a kind of a light, really something that contributed so much to my life as a student, as a person, and eventually as a person who would write. So I would definitely encourage the students to read and read, find what they love and just read as much as they can. I think it’s so important, even with the other mediums you can get — it’s true you can get a story through a tape or through a movie, but there’s nothing like that experience of just being completely immersed in a book.
Part of the joy of discovery of reading is being able to choose: being able to go on that quest for a book and finding just the right book, and not being able to wait to read the next one. I think it’s extremely important to have a great range of choices. Being able to wander and explore and find the kinds of books that might speak to you but might not speak to somebody else gives you a kind of ownership of that book, and a kinship with this particular author. When you come across a book that just gives you the desire to read more books like that, it definitely feels like you’ve found gold. To have that experience of reading as almost a treasure hunt, to be able to find what you love, just finding a book that speaks to you very strongly — there’s nothing more exciting than going on that quest.
When you came to America, were you able find books that could speak to you?
When I came here at age 12 I was so desperate, truly desperate, to find images of myself, or experiences that were like mine. And I looked and I looked and really was hungry to find books where I could read these parallels of people who were like me, people whose families had come from other places. And when I found them I was so elated, because I had the sense that I wasn’t alone in this experience. Then when I read books that talked about people who were new to this country, there was a kind of validation of my own experience. I think that was valuable because it helped me to tell my own story. And when you see echoes of your story in other people’s stories and you just feel that other people are going through the same experience that you are, I think it makes you feel more validated, a little bit more powerful — a little bit less silenced. It feels like you also would be able to tell your story; that your story is worth telling; that you have a story to tell.
What was it like growing up with your aunt in Haiti when your parents were living in New York?
The fact that we were able to go to school, pay for our schooling, the fact that we had clothes and food — that we were so lucky — it was always clear that it was because my parents had left and were working very hard in the States. It was very clear to me from the time I was very young that all this was funded by the absence of my parents. There was a kindergarten of children whose parents were abroad. And every once in a while, one or more of us would have our parents send for us. There was this idea that our life was kind of in limbo, that at any time we could be reunited with our parents. It was very difficult at times to be without our parents. I had very strong and treasured memories of my mother, because she left when I was four. But I didn’t really remember anything about my father because he left when I was two. I was always collecting what people told me about my parents.
There were special moments — every three months or so we’d go to a photo studio and we’d take some pictures. We’d send them our report cards and talk on the phone. But, as time went on, they became less and less real. It just didn’t seem like it was true. It just seemed like we were being told a fairy tale after a while. Things like Mother’s Day or Father’s Day were very difficult, because there were moments when you felt orphaned. I think we missed that kind of attachment a great deal. When I came here and saw my brothers, who had this opportunity to be with my parents their whole lives, I just felt even more that we had missed something wonderful.
What elements of Haitian culture have been important in your upbringing and your writing?
We had a very strong storytelling culture in Haiti, especially in the provinces and the countryside. Storytelling was a very strong part of my upbringing, and really the way that I learned about my culture. My first literary experiences really involved listening to stories. You heard warnings from the stories, and things that you were supposed to do, things that you were not supposed to do. And there are several rituals that were involved with storytelling. One of them, for example, was that you weren’t allowed to tell stories in the daytime or something bad would happen.
So there was this very strong element of learning about the culture, learning morals and lessons through these stories, through the folk arts, learning core knowledge of the country through stories. When I go now back to Haiti, I see less and less of it, but it’s something that has always been an important part of the construction of who I am, and something that I often infuse in characters like Celiane.
There’s a Haitian proverb, “Behind the mountains are more mountains,” which seemed a fitting way to name the series [of paintings in the novel]. The power of these Haitian proverbs is that they really allow you to interpret them based on your own experiences. Haitian Creole is such a colorful language — it’s a visual language, and basically you can pretty much communicate with somebody through those proverbs. You give them a proverb that they can translate based on your interaction, based on the circumstances, based on different things. Even the way you say it, or the intonation, gives the person something to interpret. So the proverbs are very loaded on some level, or sometimes they’re very specific. There’s a Creole proverb that my mother will say if I get impatient about something, which means, “Slowly the bird builds its nest.” There’s so much in that, you know: the whole imagery of the bird and the nest and patience and other things. There’s a great deal of wisdom compacted in these very small, pithy phrases.
Talk about the themes in your work.
One of the big themes for me is the idea of migration and all that it entails: separation, and the notion of having to reconstruct yourself in a different place. And often, as has been the case for Haitians and Haitian Americans here, of facing rejection, of not always being wanted. We see it in the case of refugees who come by boat and are returned, having to reshape a whole family: just taking pieces and the fragmentation of family and having to redo them, and to reconstruct an identity somewhere else.
We’re the first people calling ourselves Haitian American. It’s still very new, this reconstruction of identity. What is our role going to be in this society, even as we keep our ties back home, which are also very strong? So I try to integrate all of that in my work, but in a very personal way, considering what it means for our families. For example, when you think about young children who go back to Haiti and don’t speak the same language as their grandmothers, and may need a middle person, a translator — what does that mean to that particular family, what does it mean to their history? I deal with these larger issues, but also in very, very personal and intimate ways, seeing how they affect individual lives, and how they affect people in the deepest part of their core as human beings or as families.
I think, often, immigrant parents who have given up so much to have their child come here would like a kind of security for them, a sense that they’re going to have a better life than the parents had. And sometimes the ideas are very different about what that entails. In my case and in a lot of cases, parents had certain fields or careers that they thought guaranteed some security: you’re going to be a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer. And being an artist seemed like sort of a great luxury that only people who already have money would do.
It’s not easily understood that, for example, what Moy (in Behind the Mountains) is saying to his father is, “I’m willing to take these risks; I want to be an artist no matter what that means.” But the father doesn’t understand that. After all that’s happened, after all the years of separation, after all the sacrifices, he wants to know that his son will have a secure future. And the reward for the parents for all they have done is that their children are safe, that they’re stable, that they’re financially secure, that they have a nice house and so forth. But sometimes the children have different ideas, and that’s one of many places where conflict arises because really so much is invested.
How do you feel about being called a role model?
I consider myself a survivor more than a role model. I don’t think that there’s anything extraordinary about me except that I really love writing. I love writing and I’m lucky I’ve been able to do it. And I can’t say to somebody that you can do it exactly the way I’ve done it. But I hope that the things I’ve been able to do can inspire somebody else to do something that they really want to do. I feel that if I didn’t write, I would be so unhappy and my life would mean so much less. And so I’ve just been able to do something that I’m very passionate about, and that makes me very happy.
I feel like I’m one of the voices for my community. Any community is a chorus and any one of us can be a voice in the chorus. There are many voices, and I’m one of them. After me there will come other voices with more recent experiences, and there are others who came before me and for different reasons weren’t heard as much or weren’t paid attention to as much. Every one of us has a story. I think it’s very important to know that.
Pam Muñoz Ryan: Biography & Works
Pam Muñoz Ryan has written more than 25 books for children, including works of fiction, nonfiction, and picture books for every age from toddler to teenager. She has won many awards, including the national Willa Cather Award and the California Young Reader Medal. “I write about dreams, discoveries, and daring women. I write short stories about hard times, picture books about mice and beans, and novels about journeys,” she says. “That’s part of the enchantment of writing and creating characters — the variety!”
Born and raised in the San Joaquin Valley of California amid a large extended family, Muñoz Ryan considers her background an “ethnic smorgasbord” — she is a mix of Spanish, Mexican, Basque, Italian, and Oklahoman. During the long, hot summers of her youth, she found relief in the air-conditioned local library. She credits these visits with kindling her interest in books and reading. Muñoz Ryan’s devotion to books persisted through her college years, so she decided on a career in teaching, and later went on to be an administrator. When a colleague asked for help writing a book, she says, “That’s when I discovered what I really wanted to do with my life.”
The young adult novel Esperanza Rising is a story that is deeply connected to Muñoz Ryan’s life. As she explains in the author’s note that ends the book, Esperanza’s experiences are very much based on the life of her grandmother, who also grew up wealthy in Mexico until a series of circumstances forced her to come to America to work at a company-owned farm labor camp in California. Like Esperanza, she lived through the effects of the Mexican Deportation Act. Yet, Muñoz Ryan writes, “My family’s feelings for the company camp are deep-rooted and still filled with loyalty for their start in this country and for the jobs they had at a time when so many had none.”
Muñoz Ryan calls her grandmother a “survivor,” and says, “Our accomplishments were her accomplishments.” Muñoz Ryan is proud that all of her grandmother’s grandchildren learned English, and most went to college. “It is no wonder,” she writes, “that in Spanish, esperanza means ‘hope.'”
Pam Muñoz Ryan is a graduate of San Diego State University, where she also earned a master’s degree.
Walter Dean Myers: Biography & Works
Born in West Virginia in 1937, Walter Dean Myers spent most of his boyhood in Harlem. His mother died when he was two, and his father was forced to give him up to foster parents. Myers writes, “From my foster parents, the Deans, I received the love that was ultimately to strengthen me, even when I had forgotten its source. It was my foster mother, a half-Indian, half-German woman, who taught me to read, though she herself was barely literate.” A good student, Myers had a severe speech difficulty that gave him great trouble in school. A teacher who saw that he was having trouble expressing himself in speech suggested that he start writing stories about himself instead, and Myers’s life as a writer began this way at age nine.
From an accelerated junior high program, Myers went on to one of New York’s most prestigious public schools — Amsterdam High School — where he encountered a teacher who told him he was a gifted writer and steered him to the books of Emile Zola and Thomas Mann. He thought that his family’s finances ruled out college, and his life took a negative turn. His poetry reflected despair and he fell into the gang culture.
In 1954, Myers dropped out of school and entered the army. After his release, he worked at odd jobs, married and divorced, wrote everything from adventure stories to advertising copy, and attended City College of New York and a writer’s workshop at Columbia University that led to an editorial job at a publishing company. (Myers would finally receive a B.A., much later, from Empire State College.) It wasn’t until he won a contest for black writers that he published his first book, Where Does the Day Go? Writing for young adults, he says, “changed my life… The young adult and middle grade periods of my life were so vivid and, in looking back, so influential in how I would live the rest of my life, that I am drawn to [them] over and over again.”
The prolific Walter Dean Myers has written more than 50 books for children and young adults. His work encompasses historical fiction, adventure and fantasy, poetry, mysteries, biography and other nonfiction, and picture books. “I want to bring values to those who have not been valued,” he writes, “and I want to etch those values in terms of the ideal. Young people need ideals which identify them, and their lives, as central … guideposts which tell them what they can be, should be, and indeed are.”
Myers is the first winner of the Michael L. Printz award for his acclaimed book Monster, and has been a National Book Award Finalist, a Coretta Scott King Honor recipient, and a winner of the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award. His books have been on the American Library Association (ALA) Notable Children’s Books List, and many have also been on the ALA Best Books for Young Adults List. He has had works named Newbery Honor Book and Caldecott Honor Book, among still other awards. Myers was twice given National Endowment of the Arts grants.
At Her Majesty’s Request
“The attack came in the middle of the night.” So begins Walter Dean Myers’s account of the life of an African princess who, in 1849, watches as her parents are slaughtered by warriors before her eyes. Through research inspired by old letters he found in an antique bookstore in London, Walter Dean Myers tells the true story of Sarah Forbes Bonetta, an African girl who is saved from the warriors by a British naval officer on the very day she was to be sacrificed, after two years in captivity following the double murder. Her fate transformed overnight, she is to be brought up in the court of Queen Victoria. “Myers sets Sarah’s story within the context of daily life and culture in England, Britain’s attitudes toward Africa and slavery and the growing unrest across the Atlantic that would result in the Civil War,” according to Publishers Weekly.
Commander Forbes takes the young girl, whom he and his crew call “Sarah,” aboard his ship, the Bonetta. In England, the young girl is presented to Queen Victoria, who is impressed by how quickly she has learned English. Moved by her story, the queen allows her to be raised by Commander Forbes and his family and pays all her expenses. Soon Sarah begins to visit the queen regularly and becomes a playmate for her children. But as she tries to adapt to a new culture and climate, Sarah becomes ill, and the queen sends her back to Africa, to be educated in the British colony of Sierra Leone. Four years later, Queen Victoria calls her back to England. Eventually Sarah marries a fellow African, a businessman and missionary approved by the queen as a suitable mate for this young girl who belongs neither to Africa nor to Britain. Queen Victoria was the godmother to Sarah’s first child, who was duly named Victoria, and maintained a relationship with Sarah until Sarah’s early death from consumption.
The story of a life lived between continents, Sarah Forbes Bonetta’s biography raises questions of identity, race, class, culture, and family. The story is told against the backdrop of the Victorian era in England — a time of great scientific and intellectual advance, as well as a time when class and social position in England were rigidly defined. Sarah struggles to find a place where she belongs. Myers acknowledges in an epilogue to the book that there are still many things to wonder about her. “It is difficult to sum up her life… She seemed to find a measure of comfort wherever she was, but was destined to be apart from the world in which she lived. Throughout all of her turmoil and triumphs, she was always forgiving in her outlook and gracious in her manner. She remained, always, a princess.” Kirkus Reviews says, “This vividly researched biography will enthrall readers, and ranks among Myers’s best writing.”
Laurence Yep: Biography & Works
Chinese American writer Laurence Yep was born in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1948. He is a third-generation American, son of a mother who was born in Ohio and raised in West Virginia, and a father who came over to California from China. He has written more than 50 works of fiction, generally for young readers. Among the best known are Dragonwings, Child of the Owl, Sea Glass, and Dragon’s Gate. Writing mostly novels, but also short stories and plays, and even mysteries, Yep has created an original and personal blend of Chinese history, Chinese American history, mythology, fantasy, and science fiction. His work takes Chinese American fiction way beyond the meager supply of books with tired stereotypes from an earlier time. Page by page, chapter by chapter, book by book, he builds authenticity by rendering complex and nuanced characters and revealing them in highly energized plots that appeal to young people.
Yep’s work is deeply influenced and defined by his Chinese American background, his ability to observe ordinary life closely, and his willingness to do extensive research, digging deep into primary resources in visits to small-town libraries. Even though Yep takes his characters far and wide geographically and chronologically (he might say they take him), he maintains unity in the underlying themes, examining the Chinese immigrant experience from countless perspectives. The first generation’s concern with survival; their children’s interest in assimilating as Americans; the relationships and conflicts between the generations; the struggle to fit in, to find identity, and to deal with discrimination: all are in Yep’s purview.
For adolescents who read and reside in most of his works, a primary theme is alienation. “When you just look at adolescence itself, the very definition of it is alienation,” says Yep. “That sense of alienation has many levels, and I think that’s why I always try and write about it in different ways.” Personally, Yep had much experience with alienation. He often found himself apart from the mainstream — first as a Chinese American growing up in an African American neighborhood where his father owned a grocery store, and then when he went to elementary and middle school in Chinatown not being able to speak Chinese.
Laurence Yep couldn’t find a mirror of himself in books either. There weren’t many about Chinese Americans available when he was a boy, and “most of them weren’t real. The few that were done were usually by somebody who had spent just a couple days in Chinatown at most, if they had done any research at all. I couldn’t really identify with those books.” So the future writer turned to books of fantasy and science fiction. “In those books you have children leaving their ordinary world and going to some faraway place where they have to learn strange new customs and a strange new language. And so science fiction and fantasy talks about adapting, and that’s something I did every time I got on and off the bus.”
In high school, Yep seemed headed for science — he wanted to be a chemist — and won the science prize at graduation. But an English teacher had urged students to send stories to magazines for publication. Yep learned that getting rejected makes you sad, “but it doesn’t destroy you. So I kept on sending out stories.” He decided he wanted to be a writer, and went to Marquette University in Milwaukee to study journalism. Here, in yet another way, Yep was out of his element. There were few Asian students, and the cold and snowy climate depressed him. He retreated into science fiction again, this time writing a story, Selchey Kids, which was sold to If magazine and later included in the book World’s Best Science Fiction of 1969. Yep left Marquette after two years and went to the University of California at Santa Cruz, where he graduated with a degree in literature. He then went to the State University of New York at Buffalo for his Ph.D. in English literature.
“Sometimes I think of myself as a professional daydreamer,” says Yep. “I get paid for just staring at the wall about different situations, about ‘what if.'” The results of his daydreaming have reaped much praise and many awards. Dragonwings and Dragon’s Gate, both from the Golden Mountain Chronicles series, which follows several generations of a Chinese American family, were named as Newbery Honor Books. Dragonwings also won the Children’s Book Award from the American Library Association, the International Reading Association Award, the Carter A. Woodson Award from the National Council of Social Studies, the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, the Friend of Children and Literature Award, the Phoenix Award, and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. Child of the Owl received the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, the Jane Addams Award, and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom Award. The Rainbow People won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award. Sea Glass was given the Silver Medal of the Commonwealth Club of California.
Teaching at the University of California at Berkeley and Santa Cruz, and giving talks to schoolchildren, Yep has found that many of his students share a common misconception about writing. “They think you have to go to a faraway place … or be shipwrecked or have some kind of adventure before you can begin writing… That’s not true… Good writing brings out the specialness of ordinary things, and all you need to write about are your friends and family.”
Laurence Yep’s historical novel set in California just after the Civil War tells an inspiring personal story, while paying overdue attention to a larger story — the valiant contribution of Chinese Americans to the building of the transcontinental railroad. A 14-year-old boy named Otter journeys from his home in Three Willows Village, in China, to the icy Sierra Nevada Mountains, where he joins his father and uncle on a work crew that is digging tunnels for the Central Pacific.
In 1866, Otter accidentally kills a Manchu at a place called Dragon’s Gate. This site is home to a myth about a carp that swims through rapids and other obstacles, to pass through the gate and become a dragon. Otter’s mother, worried for his safety, finally allows him to go to America, the “Land of the Golden Mountain.” When he first arrives, Golden Mountain seems worse to Otter than any Chinese prison could be. The men work long hours on little food as they battle the icy cold, trying to pickaxe and blast their way through mountains frozen so solid that Otter at first likens the work to “knocking down a wall with a piece of straw.” “I really felt a responsibility to these workers on the railroad,” says Laurence Yep, “because they get such short shrift in all the history books… And the fact is, they performed heroic labors… They had to do such things as hang down the cliff face in a basket with a hammer and chisel, make a hole, pack the hole with gunpowder, and then hope that they could be hauled up in time before the explosion went off. I forget how many tons of bones were shipped back to China, of the men who died working on the railroad.”
Otter’s struggle is not just physical. In China, he had lived well because of the money his father sent back. “It’s a shock when he comes to America,” says Yep, “because all of sudden Otter he finds that his father and his uncle aren’t important; they are at the very bottom of society. What’s worse is he’s at the very bottom of society. And so here is Otter, he’s lived like a prince in China, and he comes to America and all of a sudden he’s expected to live like a peasant and a servant, and he doesn’t want to accept that.”
So Otter must learn the hard lesson that though America had just fought a war for the freedom of its slaves, that freedom does not apply to Chinese workers. He does make a Western friend: Sean, the son of the crew boss. “Sean and Otter are outcasts, so they have that sense of alienation in common,” observes Yep. But when Otter’s father is blinded in a tunnel explosion and Otter refuses to work as a result, Sean’s father whips him until he bleeds. Otter realizes finally what the rest of the work crew has known all along: “We either finish this railroad or die.”
Yet as Otter grows into a man, he begins to see that his Uncle Foxfire may be a hero after all — and that he too may have some of that bravery and defiance. When an avalanche takes out an entire camp of Chinese workers and volunteers are needed for the terrifying job of creeping through a storm to dynamite the remaining snow and prevent another avalanche, Otter and his uncle agree to go. Yep states, “And so with Otter, he’s like that little fish, and the Sierra Nevadas, these mountains, are this gate. And when he passes through that gate, he changes. …Because of the sacrifices of his father and his uncle, he begins to take more responsibility not only for himself, but for other people. And he begins to think about other Chinese, not just even his own clan or his own district; he starts seeing in a more general way that they all have things in common.”
Dragon’s Gate, which is a Newbery Honor book, is part of Laurence Yep’s Golden Mountain Chronicles, a series about several generations of a Chinese American family.
Talking with Laurence Yep
How would you describe yourself as a writer?
I think of myself as a storyteller. It’s what I do. If I were bagging groceries in a supermarket, I’d still be writing at night, and that would be my real identity. I try and listen to people and then take them inside myself, take those stories inside myself, think about them, and then put them out in my own way, and hopefully other people want to hear those stories. I read a lot of books and I take all those different stories and facts and take them into my own mind, and eventually my own imagination reworks them and I put them down on paper in a different form so other people can read them.
What kind of books did you read as a child?
When I would go to the library, the librarians would try to get me interested in best-selling children’s books, and I just couldn’t get into them because in all those books every child seemed to have a bicycle and they’ve always left their front doors unlocked, and since I came from two different ghettos, that just seemed like fantasy to me.
The books I really identified with were fantasy and science fiction, because in those books you have children leaving their world or their land — their ordinary world — and going to some faraway place where they have to learn strange new customs and a strange new language. And so science fiction and fantasy talks about adapting, and that’s something I did every time I got on and off the bus.
I cut my teeth on the Oz books first. But then I started reading Andre Norton and Robert Heinlein. And from Andre Norton I learned how to write about faraway worlds — especially worlds right at the point of change. And from Robert Heinlein, I learned how to write about characters; it’s why I write a lot of first-person narratives. In the space of two paragraphs, he could create this character that you would want to travel across the galaxy with. One of the things that I enjoyed about science fiction, and which I learned from reading Andre Norton, was how to create a world. You learn how to step into this other place and this other time. In the Kalevala there’s a Finnish wizard who sings objects into existence. In Nigeria, there are weavers who use chants as they weave their rugs, so that words and physical creation are intimately tied together. But one of the things you like to do is to be like Dr. Who. And so you not only travel to other places, you travel to other times. Some of the craft that you use in building a faraway world is similar to building another time period.
What made you decide to write Dragon’s Gate?
I actually decided to write Dragon’s Gate at the same time that I wrote Dragonwings. A lot of my books begin with images. I can see a character doing certain things and it’s almost like I’m watching a movie, and all I’m doing is writing down a description. And so at the same time I was writing Dragonwings, I began writing a scene of a boy walking through a tunnel of snow, because when the Chinese worked on the transcontinental railroad, they were caught in the Sierra Nevadas during the worst winter of the 19th century. The snow piled up so high, they actually lived underneath the snow. They would go to work through these tunnels of snow to the mountain and chisel out the granite. I had a vision of this boy just walking through this tunnel of snow with a load of wood for the cabin. But it took about 20 years to explain why he was there and what he was doing.
Part of it was research. I like to deal with primary research resources whenever I can. I found to my dismay that a number of things were just missing from all the libraries in California, including the Bancroft Research Library, which I think of as the repository for California history. And so what I like to do, though, is when I go and give talks in other cities, I usually check out the historical society or the local library to see if they have stuff on Chinese Americans. And in Reno they have this wonderful historical museum and they actually have the newspaper articles there that I needed, except that the newspaper was very fragile, they couldn’t Xerox it. I had forgotten to bring my reading glasses, so there I was like this medieval monk, just scrunched up over these newspaper articles with gloves on my hands, writing in pencil, copying down every word, word by word.
You said it took you 20 years to write Dragon’s Gate. Why?
Dragon’s Gate just took a long time to piece together. I really believe you have to write the story that you want to write. I think of it as a kind of social responsibility. I don’t think of myself as the great yellow hope. I don’t think you can take on that kind of burden, but I do feel a certain responsibility to the people from that time.
When I had done about seven drafts of Dragon’s Gate, I thought I had it all done. The seventh draft had a chapter in which there was a dragon and a pet boy, and they were such vivid characters that they stole the stage. So I literally junked everything that I had done before, because when you get those kinds of characters, you go with them, you just forget about everything else. I did another seven drafts centered around those two characters. At a certain point, though, my characters start taking on a life of their own and they start telling me what they would do. The dragon in that fantasy series said to me, “You know, the flight scenes in my book are too much like the flight scenes in Dragonwings.” So I went up in a glider to try and write about the experience of flight in a different way. There’s just something so powerful about this small selfish creature that is able to become this powerful creature that can effect all this change.
After the second set of seven drafts, my wife, who is a writer and used to be an editor, commented, “You know, you could do better.” So I took it back and worked on it for another year. And I think the results paid off. She was right.
What do you think is the value in making a curriculum more multicultural?
You know, sometimes people talk about multiculturalism and incorporating multiculturalism in the curriculum as if they’re doing you a favor, and in fact, it’s not. It’s a necessity. First of all, in terms of just being purely pragmatic, you need those skills that you learn about other cultures. You need those skills when you grow up and try and get a job in this global economy with all these interdependent jobs. But secondly, multiculturalism is just part of the way of seeing the world. If you can learn to look at your city and your surroundings from the viewpoint of another culture, you’re going to see things from a different viewpoint, and that’s at the very heart of magic.
After writing more than 40 books, what can you tell teachers to help their students who want to be writers?
I would encourage teachers to do what my English teacher did. He refused to let me set arbitrary limits for myself. I was on a set career path to become a chemist. And he didn’t say to me, “How absurd to have a teenager try and sell a story to somebody.” He said, “You do it.” And I think that’s important, especially with adolescents, not to let them set limits for themselves. They should try everything. If they want to write poetry, they should write poetry. They should try to be playwrights. They should try to be artists. They should realize that there’s more to life than making a lot of money.
I wrote about Chinese Americans because that’s what I know best. When I used to teach creative writing at UC Berkeley, I would try to convince my students that there’s a book in everybody. We used to do exercises, writing exercises, where I would just have them write about their desks. There were different things you could do to begin focusing in on paying attention to your desk and writing about all these details. Because a lot of the time, for instance, when we see a desk, we think in an abstract concept category: desk. But in fact, it’s this creation of wood — there’s grain, there are patterns, there are patterns of light that go across it, there are maybe markings on it, and you can ask yourself, “How did those markings get there?”
One of the things I would do with schoolchildren was go in and ask them to name an object in the class. So I would get a list of things in the classroom, and from that list I would pick one object, and we would create a whole science fiction or fantasy story based on that object. It doesn’t matter where you are, all you have to do is just learn to pay attention to your surroundings. And family history is just so important. I try now, when I visit schools, to get the kids to start asking their parents for family stories, because I thought I had forever to ask my grandmother and my father certain stories about our family and their lives. And now it’s too late.
The advice that I usually give to children and to college students is to start writing in their natural voice because everybody usually has at least one or two stories that they like to tell, and that’s the natural voice you should use. Then once you get it down on paper, you start adjusting it in terms of literary craft. But the heart of it is the voice that’s there on the paper.
Too many people worry about editing themselves. I’ve know a number of writers who have gotten writer’s block because they think it has to be absolutely finished in the first draft, and that’s just not so. The first draft is just this kind of skeleton that goes down on the paper. Another thing too is to keep in mind that while it has to have this voice, it also has to have a certain personal input from you.
Chinese Exclusion Policies (Chinese Immigration Policies)
In the mid-19th century, Chinese immigrants were encouraged to come to the United States because they provided cheap labor for the building of the transcontinental railroads. However, after the Chinese immigrant population quickly grew, there was a strong anti-Chinese sentiment among many Americans, especially those in California. Chinese immigrants were not allowed to own land, obtain government contracts, testify in court, attend public schools, bring their families into the country, marry non-Chinese, vote, or become citizens. In 1877 in San Francisco, large anti-Chinese riots broke out, demonstrating the extent to which the Chinese immigrants were considered to be stealing American jobs and also considered to be an inferior race. Soon after, many attempts were made to prevent Chinese immigration, but the government was not successful in doing so until 1882, when it passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. This law was extended until 1943, and by that time, almost all Asians were barred from entering the United States. This was the first time in U.S. history that any group was wholly prohibited from entering the country; European immigrants had also faced restrictions, but immigration policies were still far more lenient toward Northern Europeans than toward any other group. The ban was finally lifted in 1943, when a small number of Chinese were allowed to enter the United States, and it was completely abolished in 1965 by the Immigration and Nationality Act, which prohibited the quota system and discrimination against immigrants based on race, ethnicity, or nationality.
When gold was discovered near Sutter’s Mill in California in 1848, there was a rush to California, and the sparsely populated land in the western part of the United States soon held almost half of the nation’s population. This shift caused the U.S. government to seriously consider building a transcontinental railroad, and after much debate, contracts were given to two railroad companies. The Central Pacific Railroad Company and the Union Pacific Railroad Company were to build the two halves of the railroad, starting from the West Coast and the East Coast, respectively, and meet somewhere in the middle of the country. However, when silver was discovered in Nevada in 1865, the Central Pacific Railroad lost many of its workers and started hiring Chinese men, many of whom were in debt to the trading companies that had transported them across the Pacific Ocean. Thousands of Chinese workers were hired by the Central Pacific, and with their help, the railroad was completed in 1869. However, due to the general racism and discrimination Chinese people faced in California and elsewhere in the country, these workers were often subjected to dangerous and harsh working conditions and had to face racial tensions and discrimination from their bosses and co-workers. Chinese laborers were usually given lower wages and made to work longer hours in more dangerous jobs than white laborers, and while white railroad workers were provided free meals, the Chinese had to buy their own food. In some cases, Chinese workers organized strikes to demand better wages, safer working conditions, and shorter hours. However, these demands were often met with violence. One of the largest strikes, consisting of around 2,000 men, took place in 1867 in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and continued for a few days until a leader of the Central Pacific Railroad, Charles Crocker, ordered that food supplies be cut off. Eventually the strikers had no choice but to return to work, and those who still resisted were forced back to work by armed men. Chinese workers were also the targets of violence from other non-Chinese workers, as in the case of the 1885 Rock Springs Massacre in Wyoming.
Workshop 6 Historical and Cultural Context: Langston Hughes and Christopher Moore
Stanlee Brimberg and his students in New York City study the important contributions of African Americans to the United States and the recent discovery of the African Burial Ground in Manhattan through factual texts, video, art, photography, and poetry. The students interview writer, historian, and documentary filmmaker Christopher Moore to learn more about the everyday experiences of African slaves in early New York. They examine the works of Langston Hughes, and then — drawing on all of the texts — they write their own poetry and engage in peer review. As a culminating activity, the students take a field trip to the African Burial Ground Memorial, and then design their own postage stamps to commemorate the site.