A: As a child of Chinese immigrants, I was acutely aware my family and I were seen as “other.” People whispered and stared when we walked into restaurants. In stores, salespeople would follow us around because they didn’t trust us. At the same time, my parents wanted my brother and me to assimilate into white culture. That was really hard to do when they kept doing things that I perceived as outside the norm, such as collecting watercress from a muddy ditch.
When I was young, my parents rarely spoke of their lives in China before they immigrated to the United States. Over the years, they revealed a little more. But it wasn’t until college, when I took courses in Chinese history, that I began to grasp how difficult their lives must have been and what prompted them to emigrate. Later, I was still learning about Chinese history (on my own) and grappling with my identity as a Chinese American when my parents passed away, still leaving a lot unsaid. Writing about the memory of picking watercress was a way for me to process my grief and show them, finally, that I understood and was grateful for everything they had done for me. As I say in my Author’s Note, the book is both an apology and a love letter to my parents.
Q: The marriage of your prose and Jason Chin’s watercolors is exquisite. What was the collaborative process for the two of you?
A: Thank you! It’s interesting – the author and illustrator of a picture book typically don’t meet or have contact with one another. “Watercress” was the opposite – our editor actually suggested that Jason and I meet, since the story is semi-autobiographical. We shared stories of our families at that first meeting, and I sent Jason photos of my parents and grandparents as he started to work on the illustrations. Jason is a meticulous researcher. Occasionally, he would ask for more information, and I would go digging for the exact model of the car or we would discuss what dishes would be on the dinner table. Some questions I didn’t have an answer for, so I suggested he visit the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, and the Harvard-Yenching Library, both of which were able to give him the details he needed to make the Chinese scenes in the book authentic to the place and time. I tried to be very careful and not say what I thought the illustrations should look like, however. I wanted his interpretation and vision of the text.
Q: What is it about his illustrations that make them so magical and the perfect vehicle for your story?
A: The level of detail, the authenticity, the composition, the realism, the way the characters’ expressions and body language evoke complicated emotions, the personal connections he found to the story – I could go on and on about why Jason’s illustrations complemented my text so well. But I think it boils down to his process, which he’s talked about before in interviews. To paraphrase, he tries to inhabit whoever and whatever it is he’s painting. To paint the corn, he went out to a cornfield and studied the corn, tried to “be” the corn. I think that gives him this incredible ability to convey the essence of objects and characters in the illustrations.
Q: You spent part of your life in Greene County. Where did you live? What was that like?
A: I lived in Yellow Springs from the ages of 2 to 13, within a block of Mills Lawn Elementary School. It was a small college town, which made it a welcoming and progressive place to live in many respects. But in the 1970s, there were not many Asian Americans living there. As I recall, we were one of two Chinese American families in town, and I was the only Asian American student in my grade the entire time I lived there. It was also soon after the Vietnam War, and Asians of all ethnicities were often perceived as the enemy. As a result, my family and I were subjected to both macro and micro aggressions. Although my parents tried to brush off these experiences, they still had an effect on their behavior. They rarely socialized in town except with the other Chinese American family, and my brother and I were not exactly encouraged to invite friends to our home to play. I had a few good friends, but I also felt very isolated much of the time. So I have very conflicted feelings about my childhood in Ohio. On the one hand, it was idyllic. On the other, it was full of shame and resentment. I guess that’s why I write about it – conflict makes for a good story!
Vick Mickunas of Yellow Springs interviews authors every Saturday at 7 a.m. and on Sundays at 10:30 a.m. on WYSO-FM (91.3). For more information, visit www.wyso.org/programs/book-nook. Contact him at email@example.com.