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.

* * * * *

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.


About moonbridgebooks

Co-author of Cherry Blossoms in Twilight, a WWII Japan memoir of her mother's childhood; author of Poems That Come to Mind, for caregivers of dementia patients; Co-author/Editor of Battlefield Doc, a medic's memoir of combat duty during the Korean War; life writing enthusiast; loves history and culture (especially Japan), poetry, and cats
This entry was posted in book reviews, book talk, capturing memories, heritage, history, lifewriting, multicultural, overcoming, publishing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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