Competitive speed skaters make it look so easy when they write a book. Apolo Ohno showed up for an event in Seattle scheduled an hour after my reading, and hundreds flocked to the bookstore for his autograph. He arrived in a bus big enough for a rock band, with his handsome mug splashed across the side. For my first novel, I paid my own way to Seattle, flying economy class as usual.
Apolo’s story embodies the immigrant American dream. An inchoate voice, resembling my mother’s, posed the question, “Why did he make it?” Raised by his Japanese father, he was travelling all over the Northwest and Canada for speed skating competitions at the age 12. I hardly left Chinatown when I was growing up, except to vacation in casino country with my folks. There’s my explanation: early success demands uprooting, where the prodigy must give up the comforts of home and family to fulfill his quest far and wide. I imagine his life has been pulled in so many directions that the act of memoir writing has finally given him the chance to come back to himself. I read about stories like his, and that of the pianist Lang Lang, envying the ground they have covered as they’re elevated to the realm of stars. For me, it’s the storytelling that gives me a chance to roam, literally and figuratively, to places outside my comfort zone. Thrown out of one’s range to distant points on the compass, the athlete, and the writer, are truly tested.
Speaking about my debut novel that night, I had, well, less than a few hundred folks. I lost an audience member who went upstairs to get a moment with Apolo. I don’t watch Dancing With the Stars, or I might have defected myself. Unfazed, I regaled my small group with stories of encounters in China that informed my novel, In the Lap of the Gods – about a farmer who became destitute when the government seized his farmland, the mother who found her little boy when he was abandoned as a baby. The Three Gorges dam has not only tamed the Yangtze but displaced nearly 1.4 million Chinese from their homes. These are stories of uprooting that tug at me. The farmer, the mother and son, are neither driven by desire to win the gold or find a better life elsewhere, but are moved along the great river of desperation by the unbending will of the Chinese government.
I must remember, from my humble place as a rookie author, that I have privileges the characters in my book can never dream of. Perhaps it’s unwise to compare myself to other immigrant writers who are celebrities, or who come from ‘hot’ areas, nowadays the Middle East. I was relieved that one of these authors, who remains unnamed, had small numbers at this store when he was still nobody. And then he became somebody, and one librarian in southern California told me he recently charged $30,000 for an appearance. This writer has achieved the two things that would make my mother proud: 1) he became a doctor, and 2) he’s earning his money the American way.
In the meantime, I’m spending money the American way. I’m carving out my own Silk Road of sorts, taking my story from the Far East to new territory in the West. And the rewards aren’t monetary at this point. People have been moved to buy my book; they’ve cried, they’ve laughed, and it’s not just my mother-in-law who can’t put the book down. Publishers Weekly and Booklist said nice things about it; even Barnes & Noble Review picked it out of the litter. That knowledge should fortify me on this book tour. And if it doesn’t, maybe I’ll just take up a competitive sport closer to home, like Olympic-style speed writing. Oh, wait. Everyone’s doing that during NaNoWriMo, and nobody’s getting paid for it. Not a cent.
~ IN THE LAP OF THE GODS ~
A massive dam rise, a million lives are thrown in turmoil...and a widower saves an abandoned baby girl from the Yangtze.