Mother’s Day, the bitter and the sweet

For many, Mother’s Day is a time of remembering our mothers no longer with us. My mother passed away in 2012 and sometimes it seems like only a few years ago. While we had a sometimes difficult relationship, we loved and cared for each other. I learned to feel lucky as I became aware that Mother’s Day can be a difficult time for those who did not have good relationships with their mothers or even had no relationship, not to mention those who have miscarried or have suffered the death of a born child of any age.

Some of the difficulties I had with my mother were from cultural differences and her wartime experience, and I did not realize this until I wrote her memoir of childhood in Japan around WWII. I learned so much about her, what she had been through and what formed her, and in turn how that formed me.

In Japan my mother took classes in sewing Western clothing which came in handy during the Occupation when she sewed the US Officers Club waitresses’ uniforms out of American parachutes—normal fabric was hard to come by right after the war. She was an excellent seamstress and made most, if not all, of the clothes for my sister and me when we were young. She especially liked making matching outfits which I did not always appreciate but I loved our red and white sailor blouses and shorts she made to match her own. My mother’s cultural upbringing made me upset one day when I had caught some minnows during a vacation. They were meant for our fishpond back home but my mother ate them, skewered and grilled over our Coleman camp stove!

I was so glad I thought to ask about and write my mom’s stories which became Cherry Blossoms in Twilight: Memories of a Japanese Girl. If you haven’t yet and if you are still able, isn’t it time to ask your own mother—or grandmother—about her childhood? Or maybe it’s you who were born in the first half of the 1900s and experienced so many technological advances and historical happenings. These stories are lived history and it’s time to write them down before it’s too late. They are your family legacy and a way for your mother, your grandmother, or you to be remembered forever. Don’t let these stories—and the memories—die.

Is it Time to Write Your Memoir? by Ben Kyriagis, author of the memoir Don’t Marry an American

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The Strength of Water: An Asian American memoir of challenges and persistence

I loved reading an advance copy of The Strength of Water, a memoir of King Ying “Helen” Yee by her daughter Karin Jensen. Karin’s mother, like mine, told stories that Karin, like me, eventually decided to capture through interviewing, remembering, and research – and, like me, completed after many years as life just gets in the way. As a Chinese American, Helen Yee experienced poverty and discrimination in the U.S. and terrible hardship in China where she was sent after her mother died – with the Second Sino-Japanese War starting soon after. Helen’s stories are a fascinating and sometime shocking look at culture and historic times in both countries. In the book’s epilogue, Karin says, “I have set down these stories for my daughters to understand where we came from and what a debt of gratitude we owe to those who came before us.”

Karin is my guest today, telling her story of writing and publishing her mother’s extraordinary, bittersweet memoir of persistence in the face of incredible challenges. I highly recommend reading The Strength of Water.

Capturing an Asian American Memoir Spanning Nearly a Century

Throughout childhood, my mother told stories of growing up in her parent’s Detroit laundry business during the Great Depression and later in a Cantonese village on the eve of the Sino-Japanese war. She also spoke of what it was like to survive on her own as a teen waitress in mid-century California.

There were stories of gamblers, an American dream, dashed hopes, dangerous superstitions, wartime privations, folklore, those who take advantage of the economically vulnerable, racism, and toxic cultural expectations relating to sexuality and marriage. There were also stories of persistence, resilience, the kindness of strangers, and the value of fighting for one’s true self.

In years past, I had interviewed Mom, my aunties, uncle, and sister and captured their stories on endless notepads, tape recordings, and Word docs. I had pipe dreams of publishing … someday. In 2020, in the emptiness of pandemic isolation, someday called. I finally organized all the stories into a proper draft document, sent it off to a developmental editor to assist with whittling it into a marketable manuscript, then began querying.

I queried only literary agents for a long time, hoping to hit the big time. I usually got a form rejection letter. The most common comment was that memoirs were difficult to sell without the author having an audience of fans eager to buy the book, such as through a popular blog or a massive social media following. I didn’t have either.

At length, I looked into small presses. As soon as I started, I regretted not researching them sooner. One press specialized entirely in memoirs. Another focused on stories of the Asian diaspora. Yet another focused on stories of California history, particularly related to ethnic minorities. The acquisitions editor for the third press I queried, Balestier Press of London and Singapore, responded. She thought my story’s illustration of Asian American history through one family’s deeply moving transpacific story was perfect for their portfolio of world literature. Bingo!

On March 1st, my book launched on Amazon, and a couple of weeks later, I had the great joy of seeing it on the shelves at my local bookstore. Now the next phase of my quest begins as I embark on the marketing journey. I cordially invite you to join me in stepping back one hundred years to a way of life that no longer exists and to see the world through the eyes of a spunky little girl who never gave up on her slice of happiness. The Strength of Water, an Asian American Coming of Age Memoir, is available on Amazon.

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May is Asian Pacific American History Month and on Wednesday, May 10, 2023, at 7pm Pacific Time (10pm Eastern), Karin will be featured in a free online discussion by the Friends of the Alameda Free Library. See the May 10 event listing to register.

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Telling Stories to the Bittersweet End

My aunt with dementia is in hospice care now, not eating, drinking only a bit, and mostly sleeping. Several of us are taking shifts sitting with her, making her feel loved and sometimes getting her to smile and even laugh whenever she’s awake. Otherwise, we don’t know what to do. But her out-of-state sister came to visit and the two had a lovely time as the sister told stories of their childhood and teen years and about their parents. The rest of us loved hearing those stories!

As my mother did when she was in her last years of dementia, my aunt enjoyed those old memories. Even if she didn’t actually remember, the stories were sweet and sometimes funny, and she was a part of them. The sister’s job is to start writing those stories for all the family. I had my mother’s stories from writing her Cherry Blossoms in Twilight memoir of childhood and young womanhood in Japan around WWII times. Doesn’t this remind us of the Nicholas Sparks novel and the movie The Notebook?

My tagline is “Saving the past for the future.” This holds poignant meaning when the future is our own.

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