About aimeephan

Aimee Phan is the author of the forthcoming novel, The Reeducation of Cherry Truong (March 2012, St. Martin's Press) and the story collection We Should Never Meet (2004.)

New York!

We are headed to New York this Sunday so I can read at the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop Series at Bookcourt and the Asian American Writers Workshop. I think I am even more excited about this trip than our Pacific Northwest trip for several reasons.

1. We will have help. Matt’s parents have generously agreed to join us and hang out with the grandkids. Four adults to two children is always ideal so that people can actually rest.

2. We are visiting with old friends and family. Not only will Matt’s parents be there, but we also will see some old grad school friends: Julia Fierro is the director of the famous Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, and I will be reading with her husband nonfiction writer Justin Feinstein. We will also hang out with Joe Pan Millar, founder and publisher of Brooklyn Arts Press, who released Matt’s chapbook last year. Also, my cousin who I haven’t seen in five years has promised to come up from Baltimore.

3. We can take the kids to Central Park. This is the one touristy thing I want us to do. I will be fine if the rest of the time we simply hang out and eat good food.

Of course, there are a few concerns too. Like the heat. The bay area has been exempt from this oppressive heat wave the rest of the country has been suffering this summer. I am wearing long pants and a sweater as I write this. I’ve been advised to bring small, thin clothes. But a postpartum mother doesn’t exactly look her best in teeny tiny attire. Also, the plane ride. Thankfully, we booked a direct flight to NY. And we will stuff our diaper bag and computer bags with as many distractions, snacks, and extra infant/toddler clothes as possible.

So, as I said, our schedule is blissfully open except for the readings, so if you have any tips on what to see, eat or hear, let me know!

Reading Details:

Monday, July 23, 7pm: Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop Reading Series with Justin Feinstein, Maura Kelly, Jennifer Miller at Bookcourt, Brooklyn, NY. 163 Court Street, Brooklyn, New York 11201 http://bookcourt.com/events/sackett-street-writers-workshop-0

Thursday, July 26, 7 pm: Asian American Writers’ Workshop Bricolage: Journeys of Recovery with Don Lee and Pauline Chen. Manhattan, NY. 110-112 West 27th Street, 6th Floor Between 6th and 7th Avenues Buzzer 600 New York, New York 10001 http://aaww.org/curation/bricolage-journeys-of-recovery/

Pacific Northwest Tour

So back in my second trimester, it seemed like a good idea to set up a few readings in the summer–not a full fledged tour, but a few out of town dates that could be buffered with visits to friends and family. But that was before we tried juggling two kids, which we are realize with each passing day is a long, steep learning curve.

But despite the long travel days, Amelie’s unflagging determination to perform princess plays every minute of every day (complete with swaddle blanket costumes), and Isaiah’s reliable witching hour (which just happened to occur during my reading times), we had fun. The Pacific Northwest is our absolute favorite region of the country. If I could transport those massive walls of trees to wherever I lived for the rest of my life, I would.

In Portland, I returned to Annie Bloom’s to read, and it really is one of the sweetest independent bookstores we’ve frequented. There is a bookstore feline ambassador who sleeps on the counter in a groomed, snug catbed. This time around, it was a friendly, tiny three-year-old black cat named Molly. The audience was mostly comprised of old friends, students and colleagues, so it didn’t even feel like a reading, but more of a chat of what I’ve been doing for the last eight years.

Any fantasy I had of revisiting our old favorite restaurants and sights while in Portland was quickly replaced with the more pressing objective of keeping the children happy and occupied between naptime and bedtime. So instead of eating at Pok Pok or catching a movie at the Kennedy School, we visited the children’s museum and the zoo. But some overlapping activities included visiting Multnomah Falls, my favorite waterfall, bookstores, and strawberry picking at Kruger Farms in Sauvie Island.

But the best activity probably had to be visiting the Enchanted Forest, an adorable, ethereal children’s park in Salem, Oregon with our old friends Mika and Loren, and their children. It is like Oakland’s Fairyland, but in a wooded, mossy forest. And no crowds. On a Saturday morning, we could walk on to any attraction or roller coaster we wanted without any wait. Amelie fell in love with this park, expressing both fear (she refused to enter the witch’s mouth) and wonder (she ran with both arms open to hug the life-size park mascot, a chipmunk.)

Though I’ve read at several branches of the Seattle Public Library in the past few years, I’d forgotten just how beautiful and impressive the central library was. We took the kids to the Children’s Center, where Amelie was warmly approached by a librarian to participate in a lamb hunt. The scavenger hunt, which is refreshed weekly, encourages kids to read a book about a beloved children’s character, and become more familiar with the luscious space. The reading took place on the red floor, which is also gorgeous eye candy. The attendees, including some of my Hedgebrook sisters, were warm and supportive.

Both literary cities refreshed my faith in the state of contemporary reading, reminding me that there are actually people out there who read and attend book readings for pleasure.

Readings, writing and Baby ZZ

So the plan was to work and work and work until the baby was born and that was just what I did. In fact, I finished up the last service duty the day before ZZ arrived, which I felt very grateful for. It has been a lot, and I think my mind and body needed to go on lockdown for a while, which is why I haven’t been posting here (though facebook and twitter have been easier–because you can maintain those on an iphone.) I haven’t yet learned how to successfully blog/type with one free hand.

ZZ is here and he is just as amazing and wonderful and tiny as Amelie was. And realizing he may be my last child, I’ve wanted to savor every minute and moment with him. Having a baby right after getting your book published has actually become a blessing–it really does put a lot of my worrying and stress into perspective. I will always make time to write. But ZZ won’t always be this little, the perfect size to curl into my shoulder, or fall asleep on my chest.

Which is why the readings I scheduled while I was pregnant suddenly became more cumbersome than I thought they would be. Anyone probably could have predicted this. But I’ve had a lot of help from Matt and super big sister Amelie.

In the coming months, we’re embarking on two trips so that I can read for Cherry, and also visit family and friends. In June, we head to the northwest for readings in Portland and Seattle, and in July. NYC for readings for the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and the Sackett Street Workshop (hosted by our dear friend and workshop founder Julia Fierro.)

My big concern now is that most of this summer’s readings take place at 7pm which most parents of newborns know is the witching hour for babies. I worry more about ZZ torturing his father and sister than audience turnout!


Publication Party and Book Launch

The day of the book launch also brought one of the wettest days the bay area has seen all year. So thank you to all my friends, family and colleagues who came out in the pouring, unrelenting rain to help celebrate Cherry’s debut.

Diesel Books of Oakland was incredibly welcoming to us bringing food and drink to make it more festive. Matt was a trooper carrying the egg rolls, summer rolls and beverages in through the rain. In my 37th week of pregnancy, I can’t lift much of anything anymore without activating the Braxton-Hicks. And I’m suspicious these aren’t Braxton-Hicks anymore and this little boy is going to arrive any day now, instead of mid-April, as estimated.
I had really wanted to make the party family-friendly, which is why I encouraged our friends to bring their toddlers, so Amelie would have playmates. We didn’t count on Amelie falling asleep on the way to the bookstore, which made us suspect she hadn’t napped at preschool. For those who do not have children, an unnapped toddler is an unpredictable X-factor. She can be cheerful, or she could be a terror. And you have absolutely no control over which way it goes. So Matt stayed in the car to give her some precious minutes of sleep, while I prepared inside.
The bookstore soon filled with former and current students, colleagues, friends and family. My brother, sister-in-law and nephew drove in over two and a half hours of rainy traffic from Sacramento to be there for the event. I felt incredibly grateful and appreciative for sacrificing their Friday night to be with me.
I wasn’t planning on reading much, but the chairs and podium were set up for a traditional reading and discussion, so I quickly picked out three short scenes I felt best represented the feel of the book. Hopefully, it enticed more readers to buy!
When Matt carried Amelie inside, we should have known. Friends began approaching her to say hello, some who haven’t seen her in months, and she immediately burst into tears, running behind me or Matt to hide. She didn’t want to play with her friends. She didn’t want a snack. She didn’t want to look at books in the children’s section. We even offered her a seat next to me during the reading, but we knew she was a ticking time bomb. We weren’t sure what to do. We had to start the event.
During the reading of the first scene, Amelie wandered off from Matt and walked right up to me at the podium. Our friend Donna had brought me a bouquet of flowers, which Amelie had promptly taken for herself. So while I continued to read, Amelie held my hand with one hand, and her bouquet in the other, looking suspiciously at the audience, wondering why they were staring at her.
I got through the first two scenes, reading confidently and hopefully compellingly, all while holding my daughter’s tugging hand. For a brief few minutes, I thought I could do this–keep her calm and finish the reading. It would not only be a victory for me, but for any other working writer-mom who has been told that children did not belong at literary readings.
But of course I had to push it by trying to read the third scene. By this time, Amelie had had it. She began pulling harder at my hand, whimpering, making it clear that she wanted me to stop and pay attention to her.
The audience was delightfully receptive to her interruptions, but eventually, I had to give Matt the signal to come up and get her. The exit was not smooth: Amelie kicked, screamed, wailed all the way out the bookstore. All while I was reading a scene where a UN worker was assuring terrified Vietnamese refugees at a Malaysian refugee campm to remain calm and that everything was going to be all right.
Once Amelie and Matt had exited–which did make me sad that the two most important people in my life could not stay for this event–the reading and q&a went much better. I have no idea if I was coherent, but that’s the great thing about reading in front of an audience comprised mostly of people you already know: they don’t care. They are just happy for you. And that is an incredible feeling.
So thank you again for making the publication party for Cherry such a success. I will remember it for a long time to come.

Publication eve thoughts

Tomorrow, March 13, is the official book launch of The Reeducation of Cherry Truong, though the official celebrating won’t occur for at least a few more days. I have a few meetings for work and I plan to take my daughter to preschool, which is my typical weekday.

For the last two months, I feel like I’ve been on a slow jog preparing for this day and the next big event in April when Baby Boy finally arrives. He is ready to get out, and I have this sinking feeling he is going to come early. He is always moving, impatiently pushing against and distending my belly, approving or disapproving of whatever food or drink I’m having at the time. I am noticeably larger: bumping into everything because I cannot gauge my size. And anyone who looks at me says the same thing: “You’re ready, aren’t you?!”

We are not ready. I don’t even have his crib or dresser. Nothing is in order.

I’ve been writing more nonfiction essays, which I’ve actually enjoyed a lot, and they’ve found homes in some pretty wonderful places, such as The Rumpus, Guernica, Distraction99 etc. I also feel like the book launch preparation has given me a crash course in the chaotic, ever-changing world of book publicity and social media, some of which is so overwhelming that I have nightmares about them. And then I wake up, wondering how one can possibly have social media nightmares. So far, the writers and reviewers I’ve met on twitter and facebook are genuine, smart people who are enthusiastic about writing and literature. They are the ones who have saved contemporary literature.

This past weekend, we took an impromptu trip to Lake Tahoe. It was probably one of the last weekends where people could really take advantage of the snow. It was gorgeous, snow still on the trees and ground. Matt took Amelie sledding and skiing for the first time, and she was typically fearless, insisting on doing it all by herself. We took her to a family friendly ski area that only had a bunny hill and green level slopes. Free parking and plenty of toddler meltdowns around us.

I will have readings both before and after Baby Boy’s arrival, with three in the next two weeks. We start with a publication party at Diesel Books in Oakland, which is our neighborhood bookstore. I’ve promised family and friends some delicious Vietnamese food and refreshments. Then a reading in Corte Madera and the last in San Francisco. It would be lovely to see your friendly faces.

early March tidbits–one week before Book Launch

1. I am back from Hedgebrook and it’s been a strange, fast transition back into the real world. I promptly got the daycare cough from Amelie, who was thrilled, nonetheless, to have me home. We said goodbye to Matt, who went off to AWP for four days. I followed his adventures through Twitter and Facebook, half-jealous to miss out, and also half-relieved to miss out. 9500 people at AWP! I’m already feeling overwhelmed as it is.
2. The book launch is a week away and it still feels surreal. I received my finished copy of the book in the mail over the weekend, and even though I’ve had a sneak peek of every element of the book, from the cover and layout to flap copy, it was still a lovely thing to see it all come together, that I ended up holding the book in my hands for a long, long time.

3. The Rumpus published my essay on my father and memory, and the reaction has been nothing but supportive and warm. Still, it feels strange to have something so intimate and painful for many years now so public for anyone and everyone to see. The comments on the Rumpus page were also incredible, but now I can’t seem to see them due to some server issues. I hope they are not lost. When people compliment the essay, I feel both grateful and uncertain. It’s unlike getting praised for fiction, where you feel entire ownership over the work (the characters, plot, every detail.) Instead, the praise for nonfiction seems like a combination of the craft and the subject matter. It’s much more emotional and personal, and I’m not entirely comofortable with it yet.
4. I have a few more essays in the pipeline that I hope to announce soon. One will be in Guernica regarding the foreclosure crisis.

Writing at a writing residency

So one of the biggest fears I’ve had about entering the writing residency last week was actually getting any writing done. A gift of two weeks comes with a lot of expectations. If I’m going to leave my adorable husband and daughter for fourteen days, I better bring back a sizable chunk of material to prove it was worth the family’s collective sacrifice. My last writing residency was ridiculously productive (before marriage and motherhood) and instead of a point of pride, had become an unrealistic standard by which to measure this writing residency. Unfair, I realize.

It has been eight years since I attempted a first draft of a large fiction project. And the blank document page is scarily bright and intimidating. All kinds of paranoid thoughts clutter my head: What if I have nothing to say? What if I’ve forgotten how to write? What if all that comes out is terrible drivel?

So I created this little index card to get me through my daily word count:

So far, it has been very helpful. This is how I approach most of my other writing (nonfiction, oped articles, emails, blog posts, etc.) so why shouldn’t I apply it to my favorite genre? I will never oblige myself to finishing a scene or a paragraph or anything from start to finish again. My writing has always been a pastiche, patchwork-like. Instead of resisting this strategy, I must learn to embrace it.

The adjustment to long writing days and nights has taken some getting used to. The first day, I started at seven in the morning, coffee in hand, notes all over my desk. After some time typing, I felt exhausted. I looked at the clock, wondering if enough time had passed and I could raid my lunch. It was only 9:40am. Since then, I’ve become much better at pacing myself, appreciating my side trips of getting more firewood, preparing a snack or tea, or even taking a bath. The writing is still floating in my head, and I don’t have any cats or dirty laundry to trip over to get to my computer that patiently sits on the spacious, wooden desk in my cottage.

Oh, and the other fears?

That the other women writers would hate me: I’ve heard from several alumnae who admit being shunned by the potential clique-ness of the writing residency, especially when it is only comprised of six-seven strong, independent women. But since most of us arrived at the start of the residency season, we were all fresh and new. And they are all incredibly nice and supportive, and after yesterday’s brunch reading revealed, immensely talented and bad-ass. I’ll probably write a longer blog post about this later, how both refreshing and unsettling it is to be immersed in such a supportive environment of women. It is very hard to be cynical about it.

That the isolation would drive me batty: Honestly, there have been a few moments during my first week where I suddenly craved conversation, any conversation, and I knew that I had many hours until the next communal dinner. I’ve obsessively tended my wood-burning stove and even looked for wildlife outside my windows to keep me company. Apparently there used to be an owl that sat in a tree outside my cottage’s window and whose stares would freak out the previous residents. Alas, he or she is not here. The best I have is a mundane gray squirrel, and I see plenty of those in Berkeley. This morning, I ventured on my first mini-walk (I can’t walk far this deep into the pregnancy—for fear of Braxton Hicks attack), and feeling the cold air in my lungs was revitalizing.

That I wouldn’t like the food: Hedgebrook is famous for their organic, vegetarian-friendly fare, and my pregnancy has been craving carbs, carbs, carbs. My belly laughs at rabbit food. But so far, most of the food has been delicious and filling. And I have created a dynamite breakfast combination of French press coffee, hard boiled eggs and cream-cheese smeared toast. Also, I believe the chef knew I was coming and what I was craving because we’ve had two Vietnamese dishes here already!

Mid-February Update

1. The website has a new design! Thank you to Julie Thi Underhill, Ben Robinson and Jonathan Young for their collaborative effort to bring it all together.

2. I am at Hedgebrook for a writing residency and after two full days of solitude in a beautiful cabin in the Puget Sound, I already know it’s going to be productive. The fellow residents here have exceeded my expectations: they are warm, funny, kind and also deeply appreciative of the gift we have here. It is hard to be cynical right now. I am only grateful. I also miss my husband and daughter like crazy, so thank goodness for Skype.

3. Elle Magazine readers have chosen Cherry as their March Book of the Month. I feel deeply honored and love reading their thoughts on the book. It makes all those years of writing and revising worth it!

4. I am working on a personal memoir essay for The Rumpus on my father’s memory, our relationship and his relationship with my daughter Amelie. It is probably the most vulnerable piece of writing I’ve ever done, but I do feel it honors (almost) everything I love about him.

a crash course on appearing on a conservative radio talk show

ImageYesterday morning, I got an email from an associate producer of the Michael Medved show inviting me to discuss the recent USA Today oped on ethnic studies. They were hoping I could go on the air that afternoon—in four hours.

I was interviewed once before based on a USA Today article, over ten years ago, but that was for a puff piece on tips to survive the annual summer heat wave. I also googled and facebook inquiried Michael Medved and realized he was a conservative, which probably meant he did not want to interview me to agree with my opinion. So I had to prepare.

My main goal was not to look like a weak, lefty, sputtering fool on the air. I care deeply about this issue and believe in it. I wanted to defend it properly. So in the dwindling hours I had before my interview, I reinvested myself in the issue, realizing that from the comforts of my brief oped, where no one was opposing me, I couldn’t rely on my old argument. I had to have my talking points and be prepared to debate.

Facebook and Twitter were excellent resources, with friends chiming in on how to best handle the interview. The highlights:

  1. My college provost, who I coincidentally had a meeting with that morning, had some of the best advice: don’t use the old argument of why ethnic studies is necessary–even if it’s true—that the curriculum provides a more balanced representation of perspectives in history and society for people of color. Honestly, the host and his listeners are not going to care about that argument. Reason with their bottom line, which is their fear that these kinds of courses waste taxpayers’ money and promote division within an assimilated American society. The new argument for ethnic studies: these courses are crucial to a 21st century education, that in this international economy, our future students need cultural understanding of other perspectives to be able to compete in a globalized world. I do believe this, especially the stance that these courses do not have to be divisive. If anything, ethnic studies broaden and complement our traditional curriculum by being more inclusive.
  2. Monique Truong shared some media interview tips with the overarching theme of not being bullied or led by the interviewer. It is not my job to fill the air—it’s theirs. And don’t ever pretend to be an expert or speak on any issue you don’t know about.
  3. My former colleague Todd Butler at WSU shared a fabulous tidbit about a young liberal appearing on the Bill O’Reilly Show: keep your talking points short—to fifteen seconds. That way, you get your point across and you never get interrupted. It also riles your debating opponent.
  4. Over pho lunch, Matt peppered me with every possible hostile question I could get from potential callers. This helped immensely. So I wasn’t rattled or surprised when these calls did come in.

What I learned from the actual interview:

  1. There were a ton of commercials. One hour of interview was in reality only 37 minutes of airtime. I am used to listening to talk show interviews on NPR—where the guests can speak at length and debate back and forth. That didn’t happen on the Medved show. He would speak, direct a question at me as the music swelled to a commercial break, and I’d often have to wait  a few minutes before I could provide my answers. This actually helped me think through my argument, so I didn’t mind.
  2. I actually found myself moving away from my talking points to simply engage in the debate, making me realize I knew more than I thought. The interviewer and his callers, while certainly full of opinions on ethnic studies courses, had such a wildly different perspective on these classes. They clearly hadn’t taken the ethnic studies courses I had in my undergrad—which I credit for making me the writer and person I am today. This helped me stay cool and collected during the points, when I could have flown off into a nonsensical rage (which has happened to me before—often while driving in traffic or dealing with pushy parents at the farmer’s market.)
  3. Tweeting and facebooking during the interview was a wonderful way to get through the commercials. I was getting emails and wonderful comments of supports from friends and colleagues.

So I feel aptly prepared the next time I get a radio interview request. I doubt I’ll ever evolve into a regular talking head, but it was great fun.

Additional Thoughts on Arizona’s Ethnic Studies Ban

My oped on the ethnic studies ban in Arizona appeared in this weekend’s USA Today.  Here were some additional thoughts that didn’t make the final cut.

  • The continuing fallout from Arizona’s controversial ethnic studies ban has outraged teachers, students and supporters of diverse education, reigniting concerns that the state’s regressive initiatives could spur similar actions nationwide.
  • When Arizona passed the HB 2281 law, which prohibits courses primarily designed for a particular ethnic group or that promote resentment, ethnic solidarity or overthrow of the US government, many feared the divisive ramifications this would have on school curricula that includes the histories and perspectives of American people of color.
  • Those concerns were recently confirmed when the Tucson Unified School District released an initial list of books banned from their curriculum. They range from longtime used anthologies such as “Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years” and “Chicano! The History of the Mexican Civil Rights Movement” to Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” which deals with themes of race, colonization and oppression. In response to the media outrage, Tucson officials claim the books are not banned, but merely being housed in a storage facility–where students and faculty presumably have no access to them.
  • Last year, the University of California, Santa Cruz and California State University, Los Angeles suspended their ethnic studies programs, citing budget cuts. (CORRECTION: The CSULA Asian American and ethnic studies programs were saved from proposed suspension in June, 2011. Thank you to Paul Browning, Public Affairs, at CSULA for alerting me of this error.) Other ethnic studies programs across the country are facing slashed funding or being completely phased out. In Texas, the state board of education voted to revise the guidelines for their social studies curriculum, which members claimed had moved too far to the left. The new revisions emphasize Christian conservative figures over liberal, secular personalities, and also minimize the contributions of Latino and other minority figures in American history.  Since Texas is one of the largest textbook buyers in the country, many textbook companies will adopt the state’s guidelines, which in turn forces smaller states to inherit these biased preferences.
  • If more states begin to unfairly target the work and progress that ethnic studies programs have already accomplished in their short existence, our students will lose. These racist initiatives can have a profound impact on what history can be taught to our students, when it doesn’t include stories of minorities and discrimination, for fear of promoting “biased, political or emotionally charged” ideas. Killing these programs when we are just beginning to experience their benefits would risk alienating our youth, who desire and deserve a curriculum that is reflective of the history and realities around them.