Archive for January, 2012

A South Korean Prisoner of Conscience

by on Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

In the spring of 1980, South Korea was in the hands of the military dictator Chun Doo-hwan, who had staged a coup a couple of months after the assassination of the previous military dictator, Park Chung-hee. It was a time of great social and labor upheaval, with disturbances caused by workers in various areas, demonstrations among the coal miners, industrial strikes and student demonstrations against Chun’s illegal seizure of power. Riot police were sent to squash all unrest. Chun disposed of his political rivals, dismissed the National Assembly, closed the universities and declared martial law. Then in May a peaceful demonstration on the campus of Chonnam University was attacked, not by the usual riot police with tear gas and night sticks, but by the Special Forces, paratroopers who had been deprived of sleep and food for three days then fed alcohol. In their mad frenzy they attacked people on and off campus with bayonets and created a bloodbath. The citizens came out in support of the students. Eventually the military was forced to withdraw. The townspeople elected a council which appealed to the U.S. as head of the United Command, but their request to intervene went unanswered. In the meantime, the military had sealed off the town, and they returned with overwhelming force. In the end an estimated two thousand people were massacred, many hauled away and buried rather than returned to their families.

The news about the Kwangju Incident was suppressed or distorted by the press by government order. This was in the most repressive period of Chun Doo-hwan’s rule. Given the reputation that the people of the Cholla Provinces had for being untrustworthy leftists and artists, much of the Korean population accepted the official rumor that Kwangju had made it up. But about five years later a video was put together from pictures the German and Japanese media had taken right after the massacre, and copies of it began circulating. Eventually, the news did come out. (For a fuller account, see “A Priest’s View of Human Rights in Korea” Also, Henry Scott-Stokes and Lee Jae Eui’s Kwangju Uprising: Eyewitness Press Account of Korea’s Tiananmen. (New York and London: M.E. Sharpe, 2000.)

Young-soo was in middle school when he heard about the event from his classmate. “When I heard about Kwangju, even though I didn’t know much about it, it was a very big thing for me. At first I couldn’t believe it.  Then another classmate said his brother was crippled. Then I knew. I rejected everything from school—every poem, every novel, every bit of history. I started over, and I saw the world with new eyes.”

Fast forward to 1996 when Young-soo was a university student deeply committed to social change. He was arrested after the riot police sealed off buildings on the Yonsei University campus where student organizations had assembled to discuss the reunification of the Korean peninsula and other issues. (For a description of the confrontation, see “5,715 Students Arrested After 9 Day Protest and Police Brutality” <>

Young-soo’s story

Some people thought students protested against the government because they didn’t want to study. That wasn’t true in my case. I really wanted to study, but I was desperately trying to find a way to develop a social movement. There were lots of uncertainties and lots of confusion. I wanted to work for democracy and social welfare and human rights. But every day things were changing.

In 1996, the president of the country was Kim Young-sam. He was a civilian president following several years of military rule, which was symbolic, but he wasn’t exactly democratic. Many of his policies reflected those of the previous regimes, especially Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo. Kim had been an opposition leader, but he wanted to be president, so he joined Roh’s camp in a three-party merger. While many people regarded the government as a democracy, others were concerned about Kim’s so-called reform policies, especially regarding Korean reunification and education. There was also a scandal involving Roh Tae-woo’s huge, illegally obtained slush fund—hundreds of millions collected from Korean businesses—and whether a large amount of that money funded Kim’s election campaign.

In 1996 the students were criticizing the government on three main points: the corruption issue I mentioned, the education issue and the reunification issues. The education concerned a big increase in university tuition and a proposed change in university structure. The university was not open. A student couldn’t enroll in the university and then decide on a major. Acceptance came for a particular major within that department. Both academics and the student hierarchical structure were based on the departmental system. All of a sudden, without any preparation, the Ministry of Education wanted to change it. There were no advantages to be gained, and the professors weren’t prepared for the changes. The students saw it as an attempt to dismantle the student movement by destroying its structure and the close relationships among students of the same department. Then there was the reunification issue. At the beginning of his presidency, Kim Young-sam had allowed a prisoner to return to North Korea, and he took other progressive actions. But then after the death of Kim Il-sung he canceled the North-South summit talks. In 1994 he returned to the old, repressive policies.

In early 1996, the students were demanding an investigation into the corruption issue. Whenever they demonstrated for reunification, they were severely suppressed on the streets by the riot police, which hadn’t happened in 1995. There was a very confrontational atmosphere. In March, when the students at Yonsei University demonstrated, there was a suspicious death which the students attributed to the riot police clubbing someone to death. A series of events in April, May and June caused the confrontations to escalate.

August 15 was National Liberation Day, the anniversary of freedom from Japanese colonial rule. Traditionally, students, dissidents, anti-government groups and democratization movement groups celebrated and held rallies for reunification and other democratization issues. The Korean Federation of University Student Councils [Hanchongnyon, which the authorities considered an “enemy-benefitting organization”] announced the event for August 13 to 15, but the government declared it illegal. There was conflict. Finally, the government shut off all access to Yonsei University. Nevertheless, a total of about 4,000 students got in. The riot police attacked. [With massive use of combat-grade pepper gas and liquefied pepper gas, fire and beatings even after the students surrendered.] Over the following days, the severity of the crackdown did not lessen although many prominent people outside the campus asked the government to let the students go home. The electricity and water were shut off and the radio and the news channels. No food was allowed inside. We almost starved. Some women’s organization tried to donate menstrual pads to the female students, but the police wouldn’t let the pads in. Students had been injured in the struggle with the police, but medical supplies were also not allowed in. We resisted until maybe the twenty-first or the twenty-second, then decided to escape. I was arrested on the way out. About 3,000 or 4,000 students were arrested by the police. A hundred—I don’t know—students spent one or two years in prison. I only got information after I was released. There was a very small human rights investigation. [See above link.] Some of my friends who had already done their military service said they had heard military guns shooting, like inside the building at a barricade. They said it was like another Kwangju. I don’t know exactly how many students were injured.

Before I was moved to the prison I stayed in a jail cell at the police office. Every day for about three weeks I was taken to the Hongjae office of the organization that was once the notorious Korean Central Intelligence Agency. I couldn’t see outside when I brought there. At that time the facilities were similar to when Park Chong-chol was tortured to death there in 1987. [Park Chong-chol, the head of the linguistics department student council at Seoul National University, was detained during an investigation into student activities. Park refused to confess the whereabouts of one of his fellow activists. During the interrogation, authorities used waterboarding techniques which eventually led to his death. Later in 1987 Chun Doo-hwan was overthrown, largely because of student protests.]

A lot of my problem came from being a leader. [In Confucian cultures, those at the top of the hierarchy always bear far more responsibility than those in the middle or at the bottom.] The two interrogating officers tried to terrify me. They forced me to stand and look at the wall for hours. They said, “You know this room and what happened here?” It was a room with a small bed, a urinal, a desk and a chair. They told me all of the student leaders were put in this room and not let out until they told exactly what they did. I was interrogated until midnight or one o’clock in the morning. They wanted names. I’d worked with someone high in the national alliance of student organizations. They kept asking me where he was. Every day they pressured me to write down everything I was thinking, especially anything about North Korea. “What do you think about Kim Jong-il? What do you think about the north Korean system?” They were looking for evidence that I had violated the National Security Law. In that law, especially under article 7, any criticism of the South Korean government was praise for North Korea. For two weeks I was told to write about North Korea. They were never very much concerned about the demonstration at Yonsei or what we were doing there. They wanted to know, “Who picked you for your position in the student organization?” “Oh, I was elected.” “But who picked you to become a candidate?” “What kind of books do you read?” I told them. “Didn’t you read Marxist things?” [Under the National Security Law, this was anti-state material.] They didn’t know much about Marxism or North Korea, but they had been instructed to ask or make me write about it. Funny—one day after the interrogation at Hongjae, a lower ranking official, drove me to the Seodaemun police office for more questioning. He was really eager to be promoted to interrogator, so he thought by getting information out of me he could further his career.

I spent a total of 18 months in prison. For the first six months I was at Yongdungpo, in a very small room, smaller than a twin bed. It was like a coffin. I’m short, but even so when I was lying down I couldn’t stretch out my arms because of the walls on both sides. There was no heat, and there was only a wooden floor with big holes in it. Inmates slept on the floor. Inmates were given two blankets and were allowed to buy a sleeping bag for the winter, which most of the prisoners did—except for the very poor—because otherwise it was hard to bear the cold temperature and wind. I’ve heard that the floors of the new jail are heated some. Wearing a lot of clothes didn’t help, although I didn’t have enough warm clothes. While I was lying there I could feel the rats. I stayed there the whole first winter, with ice on my body, my toes and fingers and ears. There was swelling and lots of blood. The skin got red and cracked and bled. My circulation was bad. I had regrets with regard to my colleagues and the younger students and my family, and that made the physical conditions harder to bear.

The food was bad. It was cooked by the other prisoners with ingredients that weren’t too good, and there wasn’t enough of it. We had three meals a day—a bowl of rice mixed with barley, a soup and two side dishes. Meat was available only three times a week. My family could buy kimchi and sausages and gochujang [hot pepper sauce] for me at the prison, and that made it bearable. Actually, the political prisoners were treated relatively well. My cell was a little bit modernized because I had a squat toilet instead of just a hole. I had a water tap so I could wash my face. In the other rooms water was carried in early in the morning so prisoners could wash themselves and their cutlery in their rooms.

I had thirty minutes exercise from Monday through Friday. For the whole eighteen months I was in a single cell eating alone, sleeping alone, then exercising alone—walking or running. There was no exercise equipment and no grounds outside the building. There was just a very small yard, a kind of garden.

Of the six months in Yongdungpo, the first three were really hectic, since I was called to the prosecutor’s office for investigation and the trial. I was there all day. I was so tired I couldn’t think. When I adjusted, I did yoga with some meditation as a way of overcoming my claustrophobia in that very small space. I needed escape from the darkness. There was a dim light, but it was still dark with no sunshine. I needed to overcome my fear. I felt if I could meditate and do yoga to increase blood circulation, it would also help me mentally. Through the window in the door, the prison guard saw me. He was a very experienced in Tanhak, a kind of Korean style meditation, so from time to time he came to my room and taught me. He told me, “Please lessen your rage.” His point was that if you didn’t deal with your rage, it would damage you.

I was convicted of violating the NSL, the prohibition against assembly and demonstrations, and then violence, which was a kind of collective charge. There were a lot of clashes between the students and the riot police. They had no evidence that I threw rocks or reacted in a violent way. They just lumped all the students together. After my conviction I was moved a remote area. It was the policy of the Justice Department to imprison convicted students as far away as possible from their hometowns or their families.

My second cell was two and a half times the size of the previous one. It was a little bit larger because the prison authorities were careful of all political prisoners, who were known to object to the conditions of their imprisonment. It was a kind of a tradition. They knew the political prisoners wouldn’t hesitate to go on a hunger strike or something like that. I think during the first six months I was allowed to see my family once a week for ten minutes. Later it was once a month.

In prison I was felt really disappointed and I had a sense of loss. At first I was always thinking about how to escape. But after the final conviction I needed to do something. I couldn’t think of anything, so I read books and other things. Six months before my release I read an article in the  monthly magazine Mal, which was very progressive and very critical of the government and U.S. interference. While staying in the U.S., the reporter wrote about why the U.S. empire had not collapsed and why it continued to prosper. At the end he asked what our young generation should do to prepare for the future. One of the things was to improve their English in order to work with other progressive groups and other countries on other continents. At that time my language skills were poor. Sometimes the prison guard had asked me to translate something about prison procedure for an inmate, like the English teacher who wrecked a car when he was driving drunk. I couldn’t do it very well, even something like “tomorrow we have to get up and get on the bus at 9:00.” The guard’s English was actually better than mine. I’d also been undecided about whether to finish my degree in engineering. At that time an increasing number of people were associated with human rights groups, but they were humanitarian rather than part of a social movement. After reading the article, I decided I wanted to be a bridge across borders. I felt if I could resolve the language problem maybe I could make a contribution. So I had a very clear objective.

That period is still a part of my daily life. From time to time I have dreams of being caught and thrown into prison. I don’t know whether or not it was a necessary channel to become the person I am now.

Another link: “SOUTH KOREA: Increasing Numbers of Prisoners of Conscience”

My First Japanese Family

by on Tuesday, January 17th, 2012

The speaker is a lawyer, a twenty-year resident of Japan and a good friend of mine.  The interview took place in 2011.

Cathy’s story

I first came to Japan in 1982 to live with the family of my first husband, a Japanese photographer. We’d met in France when I was twenty-two years old. I’d wanted to get married because I couldn’t figure out what else to do with my life. So at twenty-three I came to Japan, as the foreign fiancée of the eldest son in a conventional Japanese family, and lived with his extended family for six months, got married and continued living with his entire extended family. At that time the family consisted of his “grandmother,” his grandmother’s sister, his two younger sisters and his father and stepmother Kayoko, who came on weekends. After several years, one of his sisters got married, and her husband moved in, and they had two kids, so it really was quite an extended family.

My life was divided into two completely separate and distinct worlds. My first job in Japan was teaching English in a chain of English-language schools. Like a lot of foreigners, I taught English at multiple locations throughout the Kansai area in Western Japan, usually in the afternoon and evenings, and studied Japanese at a YMCA in the mornings. I quite liked this school since the teachers came from all over the world. The school I worked for was somewhat unusual in that it didn’t hire only blond, blue-eyed Americans. There were a lot of Asian teachers as well, which is unusual. We’d go out drinking in and to discos all the time (this was in the 80s). I felt like a tourist.

After this, I’d go home, where I’d try to be a typical Japanese daughter-in-law, wearing a kimono at home, doing Japanese cooking, even doing family ancestor worship ceremonies. This particular ceremony involved putting some rice in what looks like a small china teacup on the family Buddhist altar. You also put out sake an there are certain flowers that you change every two or three days. There are certain things that you dust, and there are certain things that you don’t move.

For me this part of my life in Japan was like acting. I wanted to experience the culture, and frankly I thought the only way to be accepted by a Japanese family was to be exactly like them. In my first few months in Japan, I learned from personal experience the maxim that the “nail that sticks out will be pounded down.” Conformity is highly prized. Individuality and self-expression is suspect and can be punishable by ridicule and isolation. At twenty-three I had no idea who I was, so I imitated what I saw and allowed the culture to define me.

With this kind of schizophrenic lifestyle, I’m glad I had a sense of humor because I really needed it. I was pretty independent, and I remember such things as going to the supermarket and buying what looked like organic peanut butter, taking it home, spreading it on bread, putting it in my mouth and discovering that—oh my God—it was miso. I got into so much trouble with my family. I’d decide to clean the house when they were gone during the day as a kind gesture, and I’d go out and buy cleaning products based on the size of the bottle and the color, assuming they would be the same as in the U.S. So I ended up using toilet cleaner to wash the dishes.

Yoshi and I were married for five years. After a couple of years of this Japanese-type existence with his whole extended family, I decided that we should move out. I thought married couples should live by themselves instead of with a whole boatload of relatives. I wanted out of this small town in which we were then living where I was the only foreigner. I thought that living in the either Kyoto or Kobe would work, since both of us would be within commuting distance of our jobs. He said no, he couldn’t do that. At the time we were living in a fourteen-room house, which is huge in Japan, left to Yoshi by his grandmother. He said he couldn’t leave his sister living there on her own. Six weeks after she met me, his grandmother had died from a heart attack which I’m sure it was brought on by her grandson’s marrying a big-breasted foreigner. She’d told everyone he’d only marry me over her dead body, and that was what happened. Yoshi’s grandmother left him this fourteen-room house, which is huge in Japan, and he couldn’t leave his sister living there on her own. At the time his sister was twenty-four, and I thought why the hell not? Then she got married, and her husband moved in, and they had two kids. So for a while there were two couples living there with two kids. Our marriage turned platonic, and in a way it felt like being married to my brother.

Looking back, there are a lot of things I really liked about his family. When I first got there, his parents were still really young and fun. They lived in Osaka and came home to this house on weekends. We spent a lot of time visiting temples all over the country. My mother-in-law was a Japanese kimono teacher who also taught Japanese tea ceremony and that sort of thing. I learned a lot from her about Japanese culture.

A family tree

My first husband’s family was quite unusual from an American perspective, but perhaps not terribly unusual for Japan at that time. When I learned about the complicated relationship of Yoshi’s family, it seemed like something from a Japanese novel. Yoshi’s father came from a poor but honest, hard-working farming family. Yoshi’s adoptive grandfather had only one child, a daughter, and they needed a son to marry into the family in order to carry on the family name. (In fact, Yoshi’s mother herself was not the birth daughter of Yoshi’s “grandfather” and “grandmother,” but was herself adopted. She was the result of a liaison between Yoshi’s “grandfather’s brother and his geisha mistress). So they went out scouring the villages for an eligible man to marry their daughter. They found Yoshi’s birth father—we always called him “Frank”—who at the time was seventeen or eighteen. He moved from his natural birth parents’ home to Yoshi’s grandparents’ home and was legally adopted as their son. He lived with them for two years before marrying their daughter. So for a couple of years, on paper, Frank and Yoshi’s birth mother were brother and sister. They got married, and he then legally became the son by adoption and was registered as such on the family register. This type of adoption of a son is a very common practice in Japan in families without sons. Yoshi’s grandfather, who was a wealthy banker, put Frank through college. Frank and Sumi had three kids, Yoshi and his two sisters. So the people Yoshi called his grandmother and grandfather were actually by blood his great-uncle and great-aunt.

Sumi had had a troubled childhood as the offspring of a long-term liaison between the brother of the man Yoshi called grandfather and a geisha mistress from Kyoto. This long-term liaison produced five children. To me what was interesting was that every time the mistress got pregnant, she would always go to her lover’s wife’s house to give birth, which was quite common in the Japan of the 1920s or 1930s. According to Japanese law, the lawful wife had the right to keep the children or have them adopted out. Of the five children, one was kept as a male heir and the other four were given to relatives for adoption. Yoshi’s mother was one of a set of identical twins who were split at birth and adopted by different relatives. Some of the relatives called Sumi flighty, and others called her slutty. After she married Frank and had three kids, she started running around and disappearing for long periods of time. Finally, when Yoshi was fourteen she disappeared altogether.

Yoshi’s father married a wonderful woman named Kayoko, my first mother-in-law. It turned out that Frank and Kayoko had also been having a long-term affair as well. What was amazing to me was that, by the time I got there, there was a grandmother who wasn’t really the grandmother and a father who was still legally the son of the grandmother whose adopted daughter he had divorced. Frank and Kayoko came on weekends. When the grandmother was ill and dying, it was Kayoko who came to take care of the grandmother, do the laundry, the shopping, the cooking, and all kinds of things like that, even though she was no blood relation.

This told me a lot about how Japanese families were constructed. It’s a kind of social fiction in a sense. Once you’re in a role it doesn’t matter what the reality is. Your role gives you your function, and there’s no way out of it. That’s really Japanese. I would ask Yoshi, “Have you ever met your natural grandmother, the geisha?” “Yeah, once.” “Weren’t you curious? Didn’t want to know more about her?” “No, why?” He thought it would be disloyal to the grandmother who had raised him.

I think the unusual family history made Yoshi’s parents really open because they themselves had been screwed by Japanese society. For example, some of the relatives said that when the grandfather was out scouring local villages for an heir, he already knew that his daughter had problems, but he didn’t divulge this to Frank.

In November, 1983, when I arrived in Japan, Yoshi met me at the airport and drove home to his house. It was Saturday, eight o’clock at night. His grandmother was already asleep. She just didn’t want to meet me. But Kayoko was there and Yoshi’s sisters and the great-aunt, who was wonderful, a real character. Frank worked for an architectural firm, and he was still at the office, but he called, and said to me in English, “Cathy, welcome to Japan and our family. Everybody crazy!” He came the next day bearing all kinds of gifts, including Japanese language tapes. His children weren’t fond of him because he had been absent so much during their childhood, but I think he saw me as a way to fill a hole in his soul.

We all lived in that big house. Through my English teaching we collected a whole menagerie of foreigners who used to come over for parties. Frank really loved that. One wing of the house had a huge room the size of a ballroom, but it was Japanese-style with tatami mats on the floor. That’s where we had all the parties. We had a stereo there, and Frank was really into disco dancing with the foreigners. Everybody was young, and it was a fun time.

Since the town was so small, I got to know the neighbors pretty well. I was the only foreigner for miles around. People often asked me to help their kids with English homework or to practice English conversation. I was never paid for any of it, but it gave me the chance to visit a lot of Japanese homes and see different types of lifestyles. One thing that was really fascinating about the town was that it was still divided into communities of ten homes, which was a system set up by the Japanese secret police in the 1930s as a way of group control—group spying, that sort of thing. In the 1980s, if somebody in one of the ten families died, all of the women would go to the house and manage the funeral, which would be held at home and last five days, from the wake to the Buddhist interment. So I got to be a part of that bunch of women. It was really amazing. They taught me how to make tofu and grow rice. That sort of thing was what made living in Japan an adventure.

I liked many things about Japan but I didn’t like my living situation enough to stay. I was getting tired of what I saw as a purposeless existence. I wasn’t using my mind enough teaching English [which can involve a lot of rote repetition and mind-numbingly simple sentences]. I got tired of playing a role. I didn’t know where Japan started and I stopped. I didn’t know how to tell my husband that the marriage wasn’t working out for me. .

I told Yoshi, “I want to go to Boston for a year, and then I’ll come back to Japan.” I thought of it as a permanent separation, but I didn’t say that. He decided he was going to come too. I taught in an ESL program t a U.S. University for a year, and I really liked that. Yoshi was in an English program at Harvard. We went through his inheritance from his grandmother. We bought a car and did a lot of traveling.

By that time I wanted out of the marriage, but I didn’t know how to do it. I wanted to go to law school, but I knew that enhanced language skills would be a plus, so I returned to Japan and went into a full-time Japanese language program from 9a.m. to 2 p.m. every day. I also needed to save money for law school so—this was in Osaka—I would rush out of the Japanese language school at one-thirty and start teaching English at two. I taught from two to nine at night, Monday thru Friday and all day on Saturday. I studied until midnight. I would study on the trains. I’ve always been like that. Even starting from age fourteen, I always combined working multiple jobs with studying.

I applied to U.S. laws school from Japan. Basically I chose the University of Denver because my undergraduate roommate was from there, and I’d visited, and it seemed familiar. In my early thirties I noticed that, although many people thought I was adventurous because I’d lived overseas and I’d moved a lot, every time I moved or changed jobs I went where I already knew someone. So I went to Denver, and Yoshi came with me. He found a job working for a real estate agency that put out magazines with pictures of the housing. He didn’t like that kind of photography, but he did it, and he also worked as a chef in a Japanese restaurant. I worked in the library, and I was a hostess at a Japanese restaurant on weekends.

Halfway through my first year of law school, I had a crisis of confidence and indecisions and wasn’t sure whether I wanted to continue either in the marriage or at law school. So I took a year off from law school. I found a job doing ESL in Chinatown that first summer, and then I found a job working for a really cool American lawyer who had worked in Hawaii and who had a Japanese speculator-billionaire as a client interested in investing in wine country properties and wineries. The lawyer needed somebody with Japanese language skills.

After about nine months, Yoshi and I decided to get divorced in Japan for various reasons, and we did. Then I went back to the States as a transfer student to a different law school—the Denver school had felt like a commuter school. I thought, “Okay, now I’m really done with Japan this time. I’m divorced, and I’ve said my goodbyes to friends and family. I’m going to a new school, and this is a new life.” Then the first week at school I met the man who became my second Japanese husband, which changed the whole course of my life, although I didn’t know it at the time.

The Author of “When the de la Cruz Family Danced”

by on Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012

Donna Miscolta

I first met Donna Miscolta in July 2009, when we were both in Chris Abani’s workshop at the Centrum Writers Conference at Port Townsend, Washington. I was impressed with her submission, a short story called “The Last Canasta,” which was later revised and then appeared in the Spring, 2010 issue of The Connecticut Review. Through the Squaw Valley Community of Writers alumni group, I learned of the publication of her first novel, When the de la Cruz Family Danced, which deals with the immigration from the Philippines. I read the novel and immediately loved the style and the interaction of the characters.

Dance is the dominant metaphor, and great attention is paid to nonverbal and verbal communication as a part of that dance. The narrative shifts with ease from the Philippines to Southern California and from 1971 to 1990 and to flashbacks of World War II. The point-of-view is always third-person limited, that is, restricted to the perspective of one person, but it shifts from one person to another. All shifts in location, time and perspective are clearly marked. At the beginning of the novel, the reader sees the world through the eyes of the two main characters, Johnny and Winston. After the other family members have been properly introduced to the reader, we see Johnny and Winston through their eyes as well. This gives the characters and their actions a rounded, three-dimensional quality because they are observed from several different angles.

When the de la Cruz Family Danced was released on June 28, 2011 by Signal8Press. Donna and I talked in December, 2011.

Link: Donna Miscolta’s blog a link to the video trailer, a synopsis and reviewers’ praise. The trailer is also available at <!>

Hopefully, Filipino book dealers can be persuaded to carry this lovely novel, In the meantime a look inside the cover can be found at Amazon, which offers both the paperback and the Kindle versions.

Donna’s story

The genesis of When the de la Cruz Family Danced was a class assignment: write the first chapter of your novel. I hadn’t anticipated writing a novel. After all, we were beginning students.I think the assignment was meant to make us consider the differences between short stories and novels and think about which story ideas were big enough to become novels. I started the assignment while waiting for a flight from Seattle to San Diego for my father’s funeral. I thought about my father’s life, about how little I really knew about him. I wondered what kinds of dreams he’d had and whether he felt he had achieved them. I thought about what it was like for someone to leave his home country to start a new life. What things got lost along the way? What things were sacrificed? Though the book isn’t about my father, I got the idea for it by thinking about him and the circumstances that led him to leave the Philippines. From there, I created the character Johnny de la Cruz and imagined his life.

Johnny’s aloofness and his reticence to touch–a simple hand on the shoulder, a playful slap on the back, an impromptu hug–comes, I think, from his sense of loss, of leaving something behind or perhaps never having it in the first place. For instance, the relationship he has with his daughters suffers because he was absent, away at sea in the U.S. Navy, during the early years of their childhood. He doesn’t know how to relate to his daughters because he feels removed from their experiences and emotions. Then there’s also the cultural preference for sons. Johnny think she might have had more of a connection to a son, but the appearance of young Winston Piña in his life challenges that belief. Leaving the Philippines as a young man and coming to a new country, making the transition from one culture to another, causes a gap in Johnny’s psyche, his soul. That gap can be hard to close, particularly for someone as introverted as Johnny.

In the novel, dancing is how people connect to one another. Dancing is important in many cultures, including Filipino culture. But Johnny doesn’t dance–something I can relate to in my own life. I’ve taken some dance lessons, and I’m a passable partner, but I don’t really have the confidence to go beyond basic steps. I love to watch people dance, which is why I had so much fun making a book trailer. Dancing is such a beautiful way to connect with music and with one another, and when you’re not good at it, I think you do have a sense of missing out.

You noted, Carol, in our email exchange that Filipinos tend to be warm and demonstrative. That’s absolutely true. But it’s not universal. It wasn’t my experience growing up in my particular Filipino (and Mexican on my mother’s side) household. I don’t know whether my father’s personality just didn’t fit this cultural pattern or whether something in his experience affected how he behaved in his interpersonal relationships. The story I gleaned was that my father’s rebellious adolescence coincided with World War II and the Japanese occupation of the islands, during which my father engaged in some guerrilla activities. Post-war, my father’s rebellion hadn’t subsided and my grandfather dealt with that situation by helping to engineer my father’s exit from the islands. My understanding is that there was some manipulation of my father’s birth year on the enlistment papers for the U.S. Navy. So my father left his home in Las Piñas because my grandfather wanted his son to have some direction in his life, not to mention opportunities that could accrue from eventual U.S. citizenship. It seems that my father left the Philippines not necessarily of his own accord. And I don’t think he ever liked the Navy. I think he just made the best of the situation and put everything behind him—the Philippines, his language, his customs—and made a concerted effort to become an American and to adopt American behaviors.

In our Southern California neighborhood there were quite a few Filipino families. My father rarely spoke Tagalog, preferring to speak English with the neighbors. I think it was also important to him to sound like an American. You could barely detect his Tagalog accent. He wanted us to be an American family. We ate American food, though on occasion he did cook pancit for us. The friends I hung out within high school were from households where both parents were Filipino. They knew the language, the food and the culture. So I did experience this sense of not quite fitting in—of being more of an observer of Filipino-American culture. Quiet and shy, I spent a lot of time observing inside and outside my family, comparing how we interacted with how other families communicated, both verbally and non-verbally. I became practiced at the “unsaid,” which I think plays a big part in my writing.

My father never shared much information about himself. When I was growing up, it never occurred to me to ask my father about his past. He never volunteered information, so it was easy to believe there was nothing to tell. Of course, anyone who lived in the Philippines during the war had some experience it. In the novel, there’s a flashback to the war when the teenage Johnny encounters a Japanese soldier in the rice field. That scene was based on an event my father shared when asked by my husband about his role in the war. It was really a revelation to me–my father as a teenager in real peril. You don’t imagine your parents being in such situations. That bit of information my father shared made me realize that there was so much about him that I didn’t know—and that I’ll never know.

Writing this book might have been an attempt to connect in some way with the Philippines and with my father. My knowledge of the Philippines has come through books, movies, photographs, articles, and talking to people about their experiences there. I felt very relieved that the two Filipino-American writers who read my book and wrote blurbs for it seemed to think that my scenes set in the Philippines felt authentic.

I think you can say that my fiction is a way of connecting with my roots. I have a short story collection that I’m hoping to have published. Three of the stories have been published in literary journals– “Rosa in America” in New Millennium Writings, “Strong Girls” in Calyx, and “The Last Canasta” in Connecticut Review.  The collection has three sections. The first is about four women—one named Lupita—who emigrate from Mexico. The next two sections are about Lupita’s children and grandchildren.  For these stories, I mined my family for a lot of material—things I observed or heard. I sort of appropriated them and made them my own. Again, the themes center on how one goes about making a life in a new country, how things are lost, how belonging can be an elusive thing and how the hopes of immigrants are often invested in subsequent generations.

My grandparents and parents did not go to college, but my circumstances were different. I have an undergraduate degree in zoology, and I have master’s degrees in education and public administration. I didn’t have much of a background in literature or writing, but I’ve been a lifelong reader, which served me when I decided at the age of thirty-nine that I wanted to be a writer. I think I’d always wanted to be a writer. I just never allowed myself to believe I could be. Maybe it was from reading so many books by long-dead authors. When I was in junior high school, I read a lot of William Faulkner and in high school it was Thomas Hardy and Henry James. After college I had my D.H. Lawrence phase. But I also had my Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield and Elizabeth Bowen phases. Eventually I came around to writers like Sandra Cisneros, Ana Castillo, and Gish Jen, writers of color who made it easier for me to believe that I could become a writer.

I do think those writers I read early on influenced me in some subtle and not-so-subtle ways. In 1998, when I was at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers conference, I had a one-on-one consultation with DeWitt Henry. He remarked on the stream-of-consciousness quality in my story and asked me if I’d read much Virginia Woolf. I wondered if he was suggesting that I was imitating her. I wasn’t aware of consciously having a style. I think at some level, we’re influenced by everyone we read. Like Henry James with his long, long sentences and pages of description. I’m sure I was influenced by him to some extent.

When I first started writing, all I did was exposition. Writing exposition is easy for me. It took me a while to really figure out story. I’ve attended a lot of writer’s conferences, I’ve taken classes, I’ve read how-to books, but still it took a lot of practice to figure out how to write the story. I wrote a complete draft of this first novel and was fortunate enough to have had an editor look at it and give me feedback. She was encouraging, but in the end, I saw that the novel wasn’t really working, so I tossed out all but thirty pages and started over.

The first chapter was published in an online journal called Cha: An Asian Literary Journal. That led to the book being published by Signal 8 Press, a new press based in Hong Kong. The press released four books last year, most recently a short story collection by Xu Xi called Access. Also released was a story collection by Bay Area writer Philip Huang and a non-fiction book by Chris Tharp on his experiences living and traveling in South Korea.

With my story collection completed, I’m working on a new novel. I came relatively late to writing, not starting until I was nearly forty. I’m fifty-eight now, and I have a sense of urgency about getting work done and out into the world. That’s what we want to do when we write something. We want to share it.

Reader feedback:

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