A perfect combination of literary fiction and suspense, in Searching for Sylvie Lee, Jean Kwok lets us inside the minds of Chinese immigrant sisters Sylvie, Amy and their Ma. Smart, pretty and accomplished, Sylvie is the golden child in the family. Having grown up with her grandmother in the Netherlands, she felt compelled to return there when Grandma became ill. Younger sister, Amy, is shy and insecure. When Amy hears that Sylvie has mysteriously disappeared, she has to pull it together to be strong, and travel overseas to find out what happened to her beloved big sister.
Ma’s relationships with her daughters are complicated; she immigrated to NYC when she and Pa were young and she was pregnant. They were very poor and worked many jobs to stay afloat. Once Sylvie was born they sent her to the Netherlands to be cared for by Ma’s mother, as they thought it would be a better life for her. The feeling of rejection had a huge impact on Sylvie and her other relationships. She stayed in Amsterdam for more than 8 years, and when Ma and Pa had another daughter, Sylvie returned to NY, yet she felt she was called home to be a babysitter for her younger sister, Amy.
Communication barriers and lack of understanding add to the tension of this story and is often the case with immigrant families. The relationship with children can be strained and sacrificed when coming to a new country as the parents have a hard time learning the ways of the new home yet the kids haven’t lived any other way.
Ma’s communication skills are limited because she only speaks broken English, but her thoughts in Chinese are clear and strong. Sylvie spent her formative years in Dutch culture, feeling loved by her Grandma and cousin and on unsettled ground with her aunt and uncle, and Amy was from NY, had hard working, supportive parents but struggled with a stutter and had a hard time expressing herself.
Searching For Sylvie Lee is a story of love…the beauty and the pitfalls, the joy and the heartbreak. An unexpected disappearance becomes a full on mystery, and pain, confusion and misunderstandings are the results of buried family secrets – unintentional hurt is inflicted all around, but does the truth come out too late?
A Chinese immigrant experience in NY and Amsterdam, Searching For Sylvie Leeis full of suspense and wonderful writing. This is one of my favorite books of the year!
Q: What inspires you to write and how do you decide the format and genre?
A: I always write about issues that mean a great deal to me personally. Searching for Sylvie Lee was inspired by the real-life disappearance of my beloved and brilliant brother. I changed the main character to a woman, Sylvie, to escape the gravitational force of the true story, and Sylvie, her younger sister Amy and Ma indeed took on their own lives. However, since I did want to write about a disappearance and the ways in which we are hidden from each other by language and culture, it was natural to shape this book as a mystery surrounding a suspenseful immigrant family drama.
Q: The backdrop for Searching For Sylvie Lee is an immigration story about a family. How similar is your personal story?
A: Like Sylvie, I’m a first generation Chinese American immigrant and my family was also very poor when we first came to this country. Although I wasn’t sent away to be raised by my grandmother the way Sylvie was, I saw firsthand what it was like for every able-bodied person in my family to work day and night just to make ends meet. Even though I did end up going to Harvard and Columbia, I was never considered the golden child in my family – that role was reserved for my brother, the one who disappeared. I was too bad at being a Chinese girl: terrible housekeeper and cook, too opinionated and independent. So when he vanished, I had the same feeling that Amy did, of needing to pull myself together to try to figure out what had happened to my beloved sibling.
Q: The Grandmother took responsibility for Sylvie as a baby and in the end Sylvie felt it was important to be with her when she was ill. Typical family structure with traditional upbringing of the children by the parents was not the route this family took. How did you come up with this scenario? Can you tell us about your grandparents?
A: I actually never met any of my own grandparents because they were left behind in China when we emigrated. However, as the youngest of seven children, I often felt like my parents were in some ways my grandparents too, since they were the age of my friends’ grandparents. I also know many people who either needed to send their children back to their grandparents to be raised because they couldn’t afford to keep them or were sent back themselves as children. So the loving relationship between Sylvie and Grandma is something I understand deeply, even though I didn’t know my own grandparents. I watched my own parents grow older and more frail.
Q: I enjoyed all of the details that added to the richness of your story: the bike riding, the music lessons, the trip to Venice, the apple tart…where do you get your ideas?
A: Actually, all of the instances of flirtatious Dutch men on bicycles actually happened to me, which is not as fun as it sounds because my biking skills are even worse than Amy’s. When a huge Dutch guy swung himself onto the baggage rack of my little bicycle as I rode by, I lost control and we almost dove into a canal, which was terrifying because like Sylvie, I can’t swim! I like to use incidents from real life in my books and I also enjoy interviewing people and adding slices of their lives.
Q: I love that each of your main characters, Sylvie, Amy and Ma express their points of view in alternating chapters and yet the reader is the only one that sees the full picture. How did you decide to write it this way and what was your process? Did you have to make an outline or organize in any way before you started?
A: One of the questions that Searching for Sylvie Lee asks is, “How well do we truly know the people we love most?” In many immigrant families, the children adopt the dominant language of the country, English, while the parents still struggle with it, resulting in parents and children who no longer speak the same language fluently. I combined those two ideas by having the novel be told by three different narrators – Sylvie, Amy and Ma – all thinking in their own languages: Dutch, English and Chinese. Of course, the book’s written in English but since the inner dialogue is in each woman’s own mother tongue, we are able to get to know each of them in a way that the others can’t. So Ma thinking in Chinese is a much deeper, more complicated person than Amy, her own daughter, will ever know because Amy can only hear the Ma who speaks broken English.
I did outline the entire novel before I started writing. The release of information and clues is essential to the pacing of the book, so I had to figure out where to place the Facebook messages, newspaper articles, etc. to keep the reader turning the pages. Many details changed over the course of the novel but I was constantly backing up to check that the overall structure of the book was working well.
Q: Many of your characters have secrets and throughout the story you provide us with clues right up until we learn the truth. Did the clues appear naturally or did you add them in after you wrote the book?
A: I planned everything from the very beginning and I did know exactly how the book would end. I personally need to know the ending in advance because the progression of the entire novel is shaped by the ending. I always hope that my work will be both entertaining and enlightening, so I want the reader to enjoy the ride. I’m anticipating the reader experience throughout so that the ending is hopefully both surprising and yet earned.
Q: Sylvie is smart and pretty and looked upon as a being successful…Amy is insecure and lacks direction, but deep down, it seems these sisters are more alike than different. Can you give us some insight and tell us which one you relate to most?
A: I definitely relate to both of the sisters. I have the same perfectionist drive as Sylvie but am sadly not as talented, so I can identify with Amy who always felt like she was in Sylvie’s shadow as well. In my family, I was never considered smart or successful – that was my brother, and yet, my brother and I loved each other so much. He always took care of me and when we were very poor, he was the person who gave me a blank diary and said, “Whatever you write in this will belong to you.” That was the beginning of my life as a writer. So the love that binds the two sisters is very real to me as well.
Q: How long did it take to write this book and did you have to make any majors changes during the revision process?
A: It took about three years to write this novel and it really seemed to flow seamlessly. I sketched out the story and started writing. There were minor revisions along the way but it almost seemed to write itself. I have a wonderful editor who helped me enhance the relationships, and she also let me know when the foreign languages needed to be pruned back a bit, that sort of thing, but basically, the book has remained unchanged from its initial conception.
Q: This book is a beautiful combination of compelling fiction with well developed characters, varied and descriptive background settings and an addictive mystery. Do you recommend any other books that have a similar storytelling or other authors that have accomplished the same?
A: Thank you for your kind words. I think that Miracle Creek by Angie Kim is a wonderful novel that is similar in that it’s a page-turner wrapped around an immigrant family. This novel about a murder trial involving a Korean immigrant family after their medical facility explodes is a suspenseful, deep read.
Q: Can we expect another page turner that takes us on a journey from you?
A: I’m working on a new novel right now and it’s about a young Chinese American immigrant woman who comes to the US to start a new life, but that fresh start is threatened when she gets involved with her white English teacher and he dies in a suspicious accident involving her. So indeed, I hope this will be another page turner that deals with deeper issues of immigration, culture, race and language.
Jean Kwok is the New York Times and international bestselling, award-winning author of Searching for Sylvie Lee, Girl in Translation and Mambo in Chinatown. Her work has been published in eighteen countries and taught in universities, colleges, and high schools across the world. She has been selected for numerous honors, including the American Library Association Alex Award, the Chinese American Librarians Association Best Book Award, and the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award international shortlist. She is trilingual, fluent in Dutch, Chinese, and English, and studied Latin for seven years. Jean immigrated from Hong Kong to Brooklyn when she was five and worked in a Chinatown clothing factory for much of her childhood. She received her bachelor’s degree from Harvard and completed an MFA in fiction at Columbia University. She currently lives in the Netherlands with her husband, two boys and three cats.
This is Home is a emotional story of Libby, a motherless teenage girl trying to create and define her home along with Quinn, a military wife who feels abandoned and is searching for belonging. The characters are searching for connection and the family they really want is not always an option.
Teenage Libby lives with her father, Brent, who has returned from the military to raise her. Her mother left when she was very young, came back in time to fight and lose her battle with cancer, leaving the father and daughter to face the world without her. Brent’s sisters live in the apartment upstairs and are on hand to take care or Libby when he is at work.
Quinn’s husband, John returned from the military with PTSD and then abruptly goes missing, so, now all alone, she moves in to the first floor apartment of Brent’s house to figure out her life. Brent was John’s platoon leader in Iraq and he feels responsible for helping Quinn out. Initially, Libby is not happy with the intrusion of a stranger in her house and in her life, but she and Quinn, both struggling with abandonment and redefining home, develop a friendship.
Lisa Duffy’s characters are imperfect and believable – they all are in search of something and they also offer comfort, camaraderie and support to each other, making this a book I didn’t want to end. The author touches on PTSD, pregnancy, drugs and alcohol, and coming of age – real life problems and challenges that are relatable. I enjoyed all the relationships that were forged, the growth each character experienced, and I was rooting for them all! I highly recommend This is Home as well as Lisa Duffy’s first book, The Salt House.
Q & A with Lisa Duffy
Do you have experience with ptsd and the military and how much research did you do for this book?
One of the reasons I wanted to write about this subject was my lack of personal experience with the military. When my oldest daughter graduated high school, a number of her classmates joined the military, some in potential combat positions, and it raised so many questions for me. What makes someone choose this as a future? How do the loved ones staying behind feel about it? What sort of sacrifices and challenge arise when someone deploys on a tour and then returns to civilian life? As a writer, this is the material I always want to explore. The things that pique my curiosity. My research started with reading a lot of memoir and fiction. Then watching a lot of documentaries on the subject. I have several friends in the military and they put me in touch with people who were willing to talk about their experience and answer any questions that came up as I wrote the book.
Dogs can certainly bring out the best in people. Why did you decide to include Rooster as a character?
A lot of things that come to life in a book aren’t really decisions. When I started writing the character of Libby, she had a dog. It wasn’t really a conscious decision that I made, more of a feeling that this family would be a family who owned a dog. So…Rooster Cogburn appeared. And he was immediately this big, lazy beast. Maybe because we’ve always had big, lazy labs and they’ve always been such a huge part of our family. Rooster was a lot of fun to write. I miss spending my days with him.
None of the characters had a stable upbringing or current adult family life that felt solid yet they were all in pursuit of normalcy. What is the significance of the title This is Home?
The title comes from a moment in the end of the first chapter when Libby is wishing they could move out of the noisy, crowded triple-decker and back to their old home—the one she’s always known. But she doesn’t bother talking about it with her father. She doesn’t ask him to move back home because she knows that his answer will be that this is home, even though it doesn’t feel like it to her. It’s the beginning of her journey to redefine home, and what it means to her.
What have you read lately that you recommend?
I loved Sandi Ward’s Something Worth Saving, Devin Murphy’s Tiny Americans and Elise Hooper’s Learning To See. All second books that hit shelves this year from authors I met in an online debut group for The Salt House. One of the great things about this author gig is finding new favorite writers. I’m waiting eagerly for the third novels from all of these folks.
What is on your nightstand to be read next?
I’ve been looking forward to diving into Michelle Obama’s memoir. I also have a second draft of a friend’s novel-to-be waiting on my Kindle. And a stack of novels on my bedside table that is growing and growing. I’m not doing a lot of reading right now because I’m close to finishing the first draft of my third novel, and I find that at night, I just want to sit and clear my head. But when I’m done with the draft, I’ll be ready to dig in to other stories.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on my third novel, releasing from Atria next summer, about class, identity and betrayal colliding when a young girl is orphaned in a close-knit island community off the coast of New England.
Lisa Duffy is the author of This is Home and The Salt House, named by Real Simple as a Best Book of the Month upon its June release, as well as one of Bustle’s Best Debut Novels by Women in 2017, a She Reads Book Club selection and Refinery 29’s Best Beach Reads of 2017.
Lisa received her MFA in creative writing from the University of Massachusetts. Her short fiction was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and her writing can be found in numerous publications, including Writer’s Digest. She lives in the Boston area with her husband and three children.
This wonderful debut novel, If You Leave Me, centers around five characters growing up during and after the Korean war. Haemi is a spirited, willful and independent 16 year old refugee who lives with and feels responsible for her widowed mother and her sickly younger brother, Hyunki. She and her lifelong friend, Kyungwan, are experiencing young love, but he wants to get an education and be a better man before he expresses his feelings. Kyungwan’s older, wealthier cousin, Jisoo, has no immediate family, and he also takes a liking to Haemi. Before he goes off to war he asks her to marry him, with the hope that when he returns he will have family waiting for him. Jisoo can ensure less struggling and provide food and medicine for Haemi and her family. Despite her connection with Kyungwan, her hope of having a life with him, and her desire for education, she ignores her emotions and accepts Jisoo’s proposal, knowing this union will provide stability and financial security for her aging mother and sick brother, and will allow all of them to continue living together. Understanding he cannot provide the security Haemi needs, Kyungwan leaves. Jisoo returns from war and he and Haemi have children, but she struggles with life and loss, and has a difficult time finding peace with her decisions. After 11 years, Kyungwan returns for a short visit…
If You Leave Me is a war story and a love story; life choices are influenced by the Korean war and the challenges of being a refugee. Crystal Hana Kim takes us through 16 years and we witness the struggles…what they do for love and what love does to them. This is a generational saga with multiple prospectives over time, and we see how the old and the young are influenced by western culture as it is integrated into Korean life. Families are torn apart during the civil war in Korea, and the people are desperately trying to repair their lives. If You Leave Me is about difficult decisions, the security found in new families, and the unforgettable ache of lost love. If you loved Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, you will love this one!
Crystal Hana Kim Book Talk
I had the wonderful opportunity to meet Crystal Hana Kim and as always, hearing from the author enhanced my understanding of where the story ideas came from and gave me a deeper appreciation for the creativity, effort and final product. I learned that Crystal’s Korean maternal grandmother came to New York to help raise her for a few years when she was a baby and then returned home to Korea where she goes to visit every year. Crystal remains close to her grandmother and they keep in touch through texts and selfies. Her parents are immigrants and throughout her childhood they spoke Korean, were influenced by the culture and ate Korean food at home. When Crystal went to school she felt people did not understand her or know who she was. When she told a boy she was Korean he said no, she must be either Chinese or Japanese. Shocked to realize Americans knew little about Korea she decided she would one day write about her culture and her family’s country.
Crystal’s grandmother often tells her stories about her youth and how she was a teenage refugee and had to flee her home during the Korean war. She talks to her about poverty and the restraints on women and how marriage gave her stability even though she wanted an education, likely influencing Haemi’s character development in If You Leave Me. (In order to fulfill her dream of education today, Crystal’s grandmother is taking harmonica lessons and is in a poetry class!)
Research for the novel started with Crystal’s knowledge of Korea and her own personal family experiences and traditions, and then expanded to a civilian focused effort, interviewing many of her Korean relatives. Her hope was to create a novel that was vivid, descriptive and portrayed family and cultural history with integrity, and I believe she was hugely successful. I loved If You Leave Me and highly recommend it.
Q & A with Crystal Hana Kim
Q: I enjoyed the multiple perspectives in If You Leave Me, and each character painted a vivid picture of their life and surroundings. I know you are a first generation American…have you been to Korea? How much of your story came from your experiences or people you know? Did your parents’ experiences influence your story?
A: I grew up going to Korea every summer because my mother’s side of the family all live there. She wanted to make sure that my sister and I spent as much time with our grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins so that we could maintain strong ties despite the physical distance. The stories in If You Leave Me are all fictitious; my favorite part of writing is creating characters, lives, and circumstances. My grandparents all survived the Korean War, and the tragedy of this war did inspire me to write about this particular time, but the characters are all my own.
Q: All your characters were flawed and realistic – and the war and political situation influenced their life choices and decisions. In addition, the western cultural influences had an impact and it seemed like traditional values were being challenged by new thinking. Do you think people who live through these type of unstable times and suffer terrible loss can recover from them and find happiness?
A: I’m an optimist, so yes, I believe in the resilience of humankind. However, I do think that the ways in which we cope with violence, civil war, hunger, and tragedy depends on the individual. There are so many factors that shape our individual selves, from our family relationships to cultural expectations to our access to class, privilege, and opportunity. In If You Leave Me, my goal was to create a complex, diverse group of characters who felt as real and human as possible.
Q: We never find out who received the yellow dress but are made to feel like Jisoo bought it for another woman. Why did you choose not to tell us who received it? Did it not matter? (It came up in the book discussion!)
A: Ah, the yellow dress! I prefer books that do not tie up every loose end, that instead allows room for the reader to make their own judgments. What the yellow dress represented—mistrust, disloyalty, and the fracturing in Haemi and Jisoo’s relationship—were more important and interesting to me than neatly concluding whether or not Jisoo bought a dress for another woman.
Q: Haemi loses everything over the course of her short life…her father dies, she spends her childhood caring for her widowed mother and ailing brother, she gives up her relationship with Kyunghwan so her family has financial stability, she sacrifices her will to be educated to become a wife to a man she doesn’t love and she loses her brother. She mentions several times how she has a hard time recovering after pregnancy. She also was so angry and seemed to recognize this and try to control it at times. Did Haemi have post partum depression or a mental illness?
A: Haemi had to sacrifice a lot for her family, and yet there were real moments of joy in her life as well. For example, even in her relationship to Jisoo, there is a form of love in the earlier years of their marriage. Even though she finds motherhood difficult and is not the perfect caretaker, she also deeply loves her children. I wanted her life to be complex and yet realistic to the time she grew up in.
I specifically depicted Haemi struggling after pregnancy because I wanted to write about a strong female character suffering from post partum depression. Haemi tries to articulate how she is feeling to those around her, but they cannot comprehend her illness and thus have no empathy for her. I wanted to showcase how frustrating this could feel for a mother of young children—in addition to suffering from post partum, she does not have the vocabulary to articulate her illness to others.
Q: How long did it take you to write this book?
A: In 2011, when I started my graduate studies in MFA at Columbia University, I began writing about Haemi and Solee. I was interested in their mother-daughter relationship and their circumstances. As I wrote scenes from their perspectives, the other characters began to take shape. At first, I thought I was working on an interconnected short story collection about a Korean family over three generations. In 2014, I realized that I could take part of that collection and turn it into a novel. At that point, the premise and scope of If You Leave Me was born, and it was published a few years later in 2018.
Q: Would you ever consider writing a book centered on one of the daughters as a continuation?
A: Yes, I’ve actually toyed with the idea of writing a book about the daughters in their adult years! I think it would be interesting to explore the different trajectories these daughters’ lives would take as they grapple with their childhoods, their mother’s leaving, and Korea’s modernization. I also think this could be a way to explore immigration to the United States, which, as the daughter of Korean immigrants, I would love to write about.
Q: What 3 books have you read recently that you recommend?
A: There are so many books I’d recommend! Chemistry by Weike Wang was published in 2017, but I read it this year. Chemistry is a funny and moving story about an indecisive Chinese American Phd Chemistry candidate trying to understand what she wants out of life. Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (translated by Megan McDowell) is a slim, powerful, eerie, and odd conversation between a sick young woman in a rural hospital and a young boy. It’s an unsettling book that is difficult to describe but that will stay with you for a long time. The Return by Hisham Matar is a memoir about the author’s return to Libya to investigate the mysterious disappearance of his father decades before.
Q: What books are on your nightstand that you are looking forward to reading?
A: I am very excited to read Heavy by Kiese Laymon, Trust Exercise by Susan Choi, and American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson.
Crystal Hana Kim holds an MFA from Columbia University and is a contributing editor for Apogee Journal. She has received numerous awards, including PEN America’s Story Prize for Emerging Writers, along with fellowships and support from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Born and raised in New York, she currently lives in Chicago.
If you like a story that rips your heart out over and over, grab a box of tissues and a copy of The Last Letter. Special ops officer, Beckett, grew up in foster care and went into the armed services to run away from his difficult, transient life. His best friend was killed in action but before he died, he wrote a last letter, asking Beckett to take care of his sister, Ella if anything happened to him. She had been married and pregnant at 17, her husband left her to raise twins on her own. One of the twins was very sick and needed treatment, and without her beloved brother, she really could use some support. Will Beckett leave the military to follow up on his buddy’s last request?
The book is a back and forth exchange of letters, where we not only learn the day to day happenings and the past leading up to it, but also the deep feelings, insecurities, hopes and dreams of Ella and Beckett. Through the eyes of a military family, Yarros has mastered the tugging of heartstrings and created complete characters who fight their own demons and exercise restraint, while at the same time explore love and loss, worry and hope, with physical chemistry that rivals 50 Shades of Grey at times. Life’s mix of emotions is experienced in this sorrow-filled, yet beautiful love story. One day at the beach or on a plane with this book is all you need to become immersed, absorbed and drained! Add The Last Letter to your list for a quick and emotional read. Don’t forget the tissues!
Rebecca Yarros is a hopeless romantic and a lover of all things coffee, chocolate, and Paleo. She is the author of the Flight & Glory series, including Full Measures, the award-winning Eyes Turned Skyward, Beyond What is Given, and Hallowed Ground. Her new Renegade Series features Wilder and the upcoming Nova, and is sure to keep your heart pounding. She loves military heroes, and has been blissfully married to hers for fourteen years.
When she’s not writing, she’s tying hockey skates for her four sons, sneaking in some guitar time, or watching brat-pack movies with her two daughters. She lives in Colorado with the hottest Apache pilot ever, their rambunctious gaggle of kids, an English bulldog who is more stubborn than sweet, and a bunny named General Fluffy Pants who torments the aforementioned bulldog. They recently adopted their youngest daughter from the foster system, and Rebecca is passionate about helping others do the same.(less)
What could be better than living on sprawling beautiful property in the country, healthy food being served to you, fresh air and exercise, massages and pampering, and a generous, life changing paycheck, while all your needs are being met? The catch…you must stay on the premises and be separated from your family and friends for nine months while you are pregnant with a baby that doesn’t belong to you.
In this stunning debut novel, The Farm, female-centric and slightly dystopian (will be appealing to fans of The Handmaid’s Tale), author Joanne Ramos creates Golden Oaks, a secluded, country club atmosphere in Hudson Valley, NY where mostly foreign women are bearing children for elite clients who are not able to get pregnant or who choose not to.
Jane, a young, single Filipina mom with an infant, no husband and no secure place to live, decides to leave her own baby with her cousin, Ate, and take a job at Golden Oaks, where she will make enough money to better her life. She is chosen to be a Host, living in a luxury house in the middle of the countryside where her only job is to rest and keep the baby inside her healthy. Nine months is a long time to be separated from your family and as time goes on, Jane starts to question the value of that big paycheck versus her sacrifices associated with being away. She is worried about her young daughter and her cousin, and is unsure the money alone is an adequate tradeoff for the painful separation and the missing of milestones.
Joanne Ramos takes a look at class status; what poor women will give up to ultimately improve their lives, and what wealthy women give up to avoid inconvenience. How much is worth sacrificing for the American Dream? This is a thought provoking, emotionally charged novel I highly recommend! Available on Amazon Today.
The Farm is part of the Bedside Reading program where books are placed on the nightstand at 5 star, luxury and boutique hotels.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for a novel centered on a surrogacy farm and do you know anyone that ever worked at one?
A. When I finally dared to commit to writing a book, a childhood dream I’d deferred for decades, I was already forty. Certain ideas had obsessed me for much of my life but finding a way into them—finding the right story to contain them and, also, allow them room to breathe—was difficult. I spent well over a year writing short stories, flash-fiction pieces and “first chapters” of stillborn novels. It was an exercise in persistence and, also, faith. Then one day, when reading my husband’s Wall Street Journal, I happened upon a snippet of an article about a surrogacy facility in India. The what ifs began swirling in my mind almost immediately, and The Farm began to take shape.
Q: In this country do you see Filipina women experiencing economic and social challenges and in general struggling more than white women? And if so, in what way?
A. I don’t think you can really generalize in this way. I know Filipinas who struggle and those who lead cushy lives, and the same goes for white women. I think new immigrants to this country—and they come in all races and colors—do face challenges that ensconced Americans do not. I think domestic workers occupy a strange netherworld where they work in the intimacy of someone’s home and are often hailed as “part of the family”—but of course, they aren’t. That’s a difficult line to balance every day, and by and large, domestic workers don’t enjoy the protections that other workers in this country do. And of course, racism exists—here and everywhere.
Q: In The Farm we see women of different social classes and even in the same class using each other to get ahead. With the #MeToo movement, it generally seems as if most women are outwardly supporting all women across dividing lines. Do you think the situation in your novel is closer to reality? Do you believe women stand by their children first, then other women second?
A. Women, like men, have conflicting needs, desires and loyalties which they try their best to balance. Sometimes they need to compromise; some compromises are betrayals, depending on which side you sit on. Even within the #MeToo movement you see divisions—women who feel #MeToo has gone too far, women who feel it has not gone far enough, women who can relate and women who can’t, women who are changing their minds because of it.
Q: The influence men have on the women in The Farm seems nonexistent. Why did you decide not to include men in the storyline?
A. I didn’t exclude men from The Farm consciously. The book started with Jane and Ate. Their voices came first. All the caregivers I happen to know well are women, and almost all of them are raising their children on their own—the fathers are absent. So, in this way, Jane and Ate’s stories reflect the reality I know. Of course, the Hosts are women, and it made sense to me that the person running Golden Oaks would be a woman. The decision was not one made “on-high”, but an organic development.
Q: Female inequality is a subject that is underlying throughout your novel. But the women considered to be the lowest on the totem pole also have the greatest power, the ability to bear a child. You could have gone a different way in the novel, giving the pregnant women the upper hand. Why choose to create a world that diminishes the unique and valuable aspect of womanhood?
A. I don’t think that motherhood or pregnancy is diminished in The Farm at all! In fact, they are central to the book. The reality is, though, that the power dynamics of the world are not built around motherhood and pregnancy. In fact, for most of history, and in many parts of the world still, the opposite is true.
Q: How long did it take you to write this novel?
A. If you count the year and a half when I wrote in the dark, trying unsuccessfully to find a way “into” the themes that mattered to me, it took around five years. Once I came upon the idea of setting the action in a luxury surrogacy facility, the book took three and a half years to write and edit.
Q: What are you working on now?
A. I have some seedlings of ideas for a second book, but nothing coherent enough to discuss.
Q: What are the last three great books you read and what is on your night stand now?
The History of Love, Nicole Krauss
Essential Essays, Adrienne Rich
Hold Still, Sally Mann
On my nightstand: Forest Dark, Nicole Krauss; Citizen: an American Lyric, Claudia Rankine; The Order of Time, Carlo Rovelli; Saltwater, Jessica Andrews
Joanne Ramos was born in the Philippines and moved to Wisconsin when she was six. She graduated with a BA from Princeton University. After working in investment banking and private-equity investing for several years, she wrote for The Economist as a staff writer. She lives in New York City with her husband and three children. The Farm is her first novel.
I loved Lynda Cohen Loigman’s debut, The Two Family House, and she has written another emotional family story, this time taking place in Springfield, Massachusetts. Filled with detail and charm, she clearly knows how to use research to create an authentic atmosphere in her latest novel, The Wartime Sisters. Her fully formed characters seemed like real people to me, and thanks to her skilled storytelling, and unique use of music to create scenes, I felt like I was living at the Springfield Armory during the war.
This is a story of sisters. Ruth is the older, smart one; she likes to read and do math. Not a looker, but is capable and given responsibility in the family. Millie is three years younger, gets away with everything, and receives all the attention because she is the pretty one. Now adults, parents gone, Millie has a young son and her husband has gone off to war. She cannot support herself and her boy so they go to live at the armory with her older sister Ruth and her family. Ruth has two children and works at the armory, and her husband is an officer and has gone off to war. Bad blood and secrets between the sisters linger while they learn to co-exist at the armory, but with the tragedy of war and loss, and the importance of family, the gift of time often heals wounds.
Music was an important part of this book, and Lynda Cohen Loigman shares:
HOW MUSIC HELPED TO SHAPE THE WARTIME SISTERS
Early on in my research, I read a line in a book about the Springfield Armory that mentioned an opera singer who worked as a cook at the Armory cafeteria. When I read this line, I knew I wanted to create a character like that – a woman who would work behind the stove preparing food for the factory workers, but who would have another, more creative and outgoing side to her. From that one line (and a lot of subsequent research), I shaped the character of Arietta. She is the daughter of an Italian immigrant, a former vaudeville singer who performed in theatres owned by Sylvester Poli in Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Unlike Arietta, Sylvester Poli was a real person – an immigrant himself, and the owner of several vaudeville theatres throughout the northeast. He started in New Haven, and built his theater empire from there.
In the story, Arietta has a big personality and an even bigger heart. She is a wonderful friend and support for Millie, and very protective of her.
I had the best time listening to 1940’s music, trying to come up with the songs I wanted to include in my story for Arietta to sing. My favorite was a song called “A Pair of Silver Wings,” originally performed by Kay Kaiser, and later sung by Dinah Shore.
One of the pivotal scenes in The Wartime Sisters takes place during a concert that was held on the Armory grounds, put on by the Victory Parade of Spotlight Bands radio show. This scene was modeled on a real concert that occurred at the Armory in September of 1943. Benny Goodman performed for a crowd of thousands on Armory Hill, and the radio show was broadcast throughout the country.
Of course, in my version, I had to move the date slightly, and also make sure that Arietta had the opportunity to perform. The last song she sings at my fictional concert is one that helped to shape my character, Lenny. It’s called “Why Don’t You Do Right,” and Peggy Lee recorded it with Benny Goodman in 1942. It has a particularly haunting and almost ominous melody, perfect for my scene. There were so many additional songs I wanted to include, but I was only able to add a few more to the story. I hope you enjoy them, and I hope you get a chance to listen to them too!
Research is a huge part of writing a novel and here Lynda shares:
THE RABBIT HOLE OF RESEARCH – BALANCING THE “HISTORICAL” WITH THE “FICTION”
Immersing myself in research can be tremendously rewarding. But after a while, there is a fine line (at least for me) between research and procrastination. I could research forever, and never stop to develop my characters or think about my plot. In many ways, knowing when to stop is the most difficult skill to develop.
In researching The Wartime Sisters, my goal was to create an accurate picture of daily life at the Springfield Armory, from the perspective of both the residents and the workers. I spoke many times with the curator of the Armory museum to try to get all of the details right. But there were two questions that gnawed at me, for which I couldn’t find answers. At the end of the day, one of the answers mattered, and one really didn’t. And I had to force myself to let go of the question that I knew wasn’t going to further my story.
The question that mattered had to do with the Armory’s “On To Victory” dance that occurred in February of 1943. There was an article about the dance in the Armory Newsletter, full of photographs and all kinds of information about the evening. I learned how many tickets were sold, the refreshments that were served, and the name of all the musicians and entertainers who performed. There were detailed photos of various people in attendance so I could see what they were wearing. I read about the war bond raffle and the jitterbug contest. There was, however, one crucial piece of information missing: the article didn’t mention where the dance was held. The curator of the museum had no idea, and neither of us could believe that the venue wasn’t mentioned in any of the articles we found. Finally, after seeking additional help from the Springfield Museums, we found the answer through a ticket advertisement in an old edition of The Springfield Republican. The dance had been held at the Springfield Auditorium.
Knowing the location was crucial to getting the description correct in my story. I wanted to be able to picture the hall, to see where one character stood and where another stopped to rest her feet. I wanted to know what it was like to enter the venue, to walk up the auditorium steps, and to set foot inside. This was a piece of information very worth the time and energy that went into its discovery.
At another point, however, I became fixated on a historical detail that wasn’t nearly as relevant. For whatever reason, I became obsessed with learning how it was that armory residents received their mail. They didn’t have mailboxes, so where was it delivered? Was there a separate mail room? Mail slots in the doors? I never found the answer, and the curator couldn’t help me. Ultimately, I had to let go of that small detail. I knew in my heart that writing about the specific path of a letter from the post office to the postman to my character’s hands wasn’t going to move my plot along. And, to be honest, it probably wasn’t going to be interesting for readers either.
So, there you have it – two tiny mysteries, but only one solved. The mail question continued to bother me for a while, but I forced myself to stop thinking about it. Instead, I focused on my writing and the contents of that letter I had been worrying about. Ultimately, what the letter said about my character was much more important than how it got delivered.
Writing historical fiction is not an easy task, the research alone is endless and the commitment to accuracy seems like it could be a draining process. I admire Lynda and so many others who put in the time to write such wonderful, creative and fulfilling stories, creating opportunity to learn about a specific time in history.
Lynda Cohen Loigman grew up in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. She received a B.A. in English and American Literature from Harvard College and a law degree from Columbia Law School. Lynda practiced trusts and estates law in New York City for eight years before moving out of the city to raise her two children with her husband. She wrote The Two-Family House while she was a student of the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College. The Two-Family House was chosen by Goodreads as a best book of the month for March, 2016, and was a nominee for the Goodreads 2016 Choice Awards in Historical Fiction. Lynda’s second novel, The Wartime Sisters, was published on January 22, 2019.
In 8: Rediscovering Life After a Brain Tumor, Nathalie Jacob tells us her incredible story of bravery and rediscovering life and purpose after doctors discovered a golf ball size tumor in her brain. Enjoying a successful career and an exciting and energetic lifestyle with her new husband and friends, she was shocked when told she required surgery. Assuming she could be back to work and usual life in 3 weeks time, Nathalie and her family were blindsided when the results were not what was expected, and all of a sudden her hopes and dreams were not attainable. A devastating situation with a glimmer of hope, Nathalie had to adjust to the new normal and redefine who she is and what she can accomplish.
I had the pleasure of meeting Nathalie, and without a doubt, she is an incredible, eloquent woman with strength and a kind heart. She is worldly, well traveled, educated, accomplished, trilingual, with fantastic memories and stories from her days training for the Olympics in sailing and living in Madrid, Columbia, the Caribbean and Miami. Left with some considerable deficits that prevent her from getting a full time job and returning to her active lifestyle, she is now creating new memories in Connecticut with her husband and beautiful young daughter. Nathalie started several groups on Facebook, some the are social and one that is for Spanish speaking brain tumor survivors and their families. She likes connecting people, has found playdates and enjoyed mom’s outings with many of the people who have joined her groups, and her next challenge is to develop a not for profit to benefit children in Colombia. Her planned path in life may have changed but she is destined for great success.
Nathalie Jacob was raised in Colombia, went to high school in France, and later moved to the United States. She is trilingual in English, Spanish, and French.
Nathalie studied business administration at the Universidad de los Andes in Colombia and received her master’s in business administration from IE Business School in Spain. She spent ten years working in high-level marketing jobs for Fortune 500 companies in five different countries. In her spare time, she enjoyed sailing and won several national championships.
The aftereffects of a brain surgery left Nathalie disabled and unable to work. She has done three voluntary jobs since, until the birth of her first child. She is now focusing on being the best mother she can be to her baby daughter, Nicole.
I loved the author’s debut, Hum if you Don’t Know the Words, and feel the same about this wonderful newly released novel. The beauty and strength of the South African women will stick with you…ORDER your copy today!
If You Want to Make God Laugh is the fast moving and compelling story of three ladies, Zodwa, Ruth and Delilah, set in South Africa. Easy to read chapters alternate points of view:
Zodwa is young girl, raped, pregnant, living in a squatter camp and ashamed of her romantic feelings of infatuation with her close girl friend. When her baby is born, she was taken from her and later the same day her mother dies, leaving her alone, desperate and feeling lost.
Delilah was raped when she was a teenager and was forces to leave her child at the convent she was excommunicated from due to her pregnancy. She spent her years repenting while working at an orphanage, alone and lost.
After a career of stripping and feeling unhappy in her relationship, Delilah’s older sister, Ruth left her husband feeling sad and regretful for never being able to have a child. Ruth and Delilah hadn’t spoken to each other since they were young.
The estranged sisters meet at their parent’s empty house, Ruth intending to sell it and Delilah hoping to live there. Tension runs high between the siblings, but after a newborn black baby was left on the doorstop, Ruth realizes her calling is to adopt this child and give him the life he deserves. Delilah is not in agreement and so much pain rises to the surface due to the past. As the sisters work to break down walls and understand each other’s emotions, they are faced with prejudice and harassment from the neighbors. The sisters decide to secure the house and hire a live in maid to help with the baby.
If You Want to Make God Laugh is a masterfully written emotional journey of three women where everyone is either running to or from something as they try to find peace and understand in their calling. It is a testament to the incredible strength women have and what lengths mothers will go to to protect and care for their children.
Q and A with author Bianca Marais
How did you come up with the title If You Want to Make God Laugh? The words appear once in the text – do you write the book first and then choose the title out of the text or do you fit in the words of the title after the book is written? Was this the same process for Hum?
HUM was originally going to be called ‘It Aint Over Till the Fat Lady Sings’ because I envisioned Mama Fatty, the shebeen queen of Soweto, singing at the end. But that changed during the writing of the book when Robin’s aunt Edith tells her to hum if she doesn’t know the words to a hymn at her parents’ funeral. That line stayed with me because it was such a great metaphor for what the characters were going through.
With LAUGH, the title stuck from the beginning because of that saying, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans” which really sums up what all three of these women are going through. It’s always a thrill for me to write the title into the book because I love discovering the title when I’m reading a novel.
It comes clear while reading the novel that for your characters, having ideas and making plans for the future have minimal impact on how things turn out. Do you believe in fate? How much control do you think we have of our future?
Oh wow, this is a tough question.
I think we have a lot of control over our lives in that the decisions we make today will influence the way things play out for us down the line. Work hard and you’ll generally reap the benefits. Be a kind person and it will definitely have a knock-on effect in both your life and in the lives of others. Take care of your health and you’ll live longer than if you treated your body like a garbage can.
But there are definitely things in life that we can’t possibly see coming: accidents, illnesses, bad luck. And this is the part that’s tough for me as an A-type Capricorn to accept: that there are certain things in our lives that are completely beyond our control. And that we can be good people and do good things, and we can plan and save and do everything right and still have tragedy strike. But even when the unimaginable happens, we then still have agency in terms of how we move forward and how we handle that situation which is what the women in my story show: how to keep going when the worst has happened.
In terms of believing in fate: it’s hard not to believe that some things are fated because they seem so improbable and yet they happen regardless. I want to believe in fate and that some things are meant to be.
AIDS was an epidemic in South Africa at the time of the story and in it, the white people seemed to put blame and shame on the black women and children…what about the black men? Did we just not see it in the story because the black men did not infiltrate the white people’s world in the same way that black women maids and housekeepers did?
Black families were torn apart during apartheid with most black men being forced to work in gold mines and black women having to work as maids in the city. Husbands and wives got separated from their children and lived miles and miles apart from one another, often only seeing one another once a year. This led to the disintegration of the black family and allowed the perfect conditions for the spreading the HIV virus. Also, many black men refused to wear condoms despite having multiple sexual partners which put women at greater risk.
Since most of the black men worked in gold mines or as laborers, they weren’t a part of white people’s lives like black women were. These were the women caring for white people’s children, living in their homes and being a huge part of their daily existence. When they began to get sick, white people were forced to take notice of the epidemic and focused that attention on the people who were closest to them and therefore at most risk of passing the virus onto them.
The saying Blood is Thicker Than Water means relationships built through choices will never be as strong as family bonds. The bonds your characters have seem to support this theory; Delilah and Ruth slowly reconcile through the course of the book (so skillfully written, I might add, that at first they were so at odds, and without realizing it, little by little they developed a wonderful, supportive relationship right before our eyes), Zodwa and Mandla felt connected the moment they met, Delilah and Daniel were drawn together virtually although they never met. How do you feel about this?
Family bonds are incredibly strong in the story in all the ways you mentioned but I also believe that friendships and the relationships we choose can be just as strong if not stronger. I believe that it’s hardship and struggle that truly puts a relationship to the test, and it’s in overcoming adversity that true bonds are forged whether they’re familial or of another nature. Something I find fascinating is that often the people who are meant to love us most are the ones who can hurt us the deepest which we see playing out with Ruth and Delilah. For me, the important thing is choice. Choosing to work on a relationship and to be there for someone through the difficulties, and choosing to have them in your life.
How did you come up with the rustic home environment for Zodwa?
A lot of Zodwa’s experience in the squatter camp was inspired by my ten years of volunteering in squatter camps in Soweto and the rest of Johannesburg. Here are some photos from that time.
It was a joy to see Beauty and Robin from Hum weaved into this story…did you start this new book with them in mind with the story growing out of them or did you add them in after?
I started writing the sequel to HUM which I never got to finish, and so it’s always been very clear in my mind what Robin and Beauty were doing in the 90s. When I started writing this book, I very much wanted to incorporate their stories in this one but in an organic way so that if readers hadn’t read HUM, they wouldn’t find Robin and Beauty’s presence strange. It was lovely to get to spend time with them again and to give HUM readers a glimpse into their futures.
All of your characters have lost so much. They are all searching for something…Ruth wants to fulfill her lifelong dream to be a mother, Delilah wants to connect with Daniel, Leleti wanted to find her son, Zodwa wants to be a mother to Mandla…they also have secrets from suicide attempts, to a secret child to sexual orientation. These women are so well developed with a past, present and hopes for the future; do you have a formula you use or a certain process to create them?
Thank you. That’s a wonderful compliment!
I don’t have a formula, per se. I always start with characters. They come to me before the plot or the storyline comes to me. I see these characters as real people who are struggling with something and that then forms the basis of the story. I write to get to know them better and by the end of the book, I always know so much more about my characters than what finds its way onto the page. In that way, they become real to me. If I’m not suffering and laughing and crying with them while I write, then I’m not connected to them and how can I expect my reader to be?
If this were to become a movie, who would you want to play the main characters?
When I write, I often picture characters as actors or people I know, etc. They were pictured as follows for LAUGH though they obviously couldn’t all play the characters now:
Ruth: Debbie Reynolds
Delilah: Dame Judie Dench
Zodwa: Lupita Nyong’o
Riaan: James Brolin
Vince: John Goodman
Leleti: Lupita Nyong’o’s mother, Dorothy Nyong’o
Thembeka: A young Leleti Khumalo (a South African actress)
Here is what my vision board looked like while writing LAUGH:
What are you working on next?
In a complete change of genre for me, I’m working on a psychological thriller. I thought I’d try my writing chops at murder, sex and mayhem. I’m having a lot of fun! LOL.
Bianca Marais holds a Certificate in Creative Writing from the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies.
Before turning to writing, she started a corporate training company and volunteered with Cotlands, where she assisted care workers in Soweto with providing aid for HIV/AIDS orphans and their caregivers.
Originally from South Africa, she now resides in Toronto with her husband and three pets (Muggle, Mrs Norris and Wombat). Yes, she is a huge Harry Potter fan. And also isn’t at all uncomfortable talking about herself in the third person.
Chicago is the third largest city in the US and we rarely associate it with the AIDs epidemic, yet, the city and its people were deeply impacted by the then mysterious and untreatable, deadly disease. Rebecca Makkai set the story, The Great Believers in her beloved hometown and takes us through overwhelmingly emotional times as we witness deep friendships, brotherly camaraderie, romantic and platonic love, unwavering support and devastating depression and loss.
It is 1985 Chicago, and Yale Tishman, the Director of Development at the new art gallery at Northwestern University is working on an exciting and valuable acquisition. His career in the art world is taking off at the same time AIDs has reared its’ ugly head and sadly, Yale loses his best friend Nico. Then, one after another his other friends and acquaintances are getting sick and dying. Yale tries to be a good friend to others as he grapples with his life and this dangerous disease that is making his social circle smaller and smaller. Nico’s loyal younger sister, Fiona is all he has left of his tight little community and they both struggle with the fears they face and the losses they have experienced.
Author Rebecca Makkai alternates back and forth in time and jumping ahead, in 2015, Fiona goes to Paris in search of her daughter, who has run away and joined a cult. Their relationship is estranged and at best strained. During her search, Fiona stays with an artistic friend from her youth who has documented the 1980s AIDs crisis through art and has a show scheduled in Paris during her stay. Time in France gives Fiona opportunity to try and deal with the trauma of her past, the loss of her brother and his friends, and understand how it has affected her relationship with her daughter.
Makkai has developed complete and complex characters that I feel like I know and truly care about. Her writing evokes overwhelming emotion and I love how the two time periods are weaved together through her compelling storytelling. Some people compare this book to A Little Life, and yes, both are gut wrenching and sad, but in The Great Believers there is a well researched overview of Chicago history and AIDs in the 1980s, a window into the art world, terrorism in 2015 Paris, so much love, friendship and family…a much warmer novel that combines the burden of memories with hope and positivity. I highly recommend this book – great for book clubs!
About the author:
Rebecca Makkai is the Chicago-based author of the novels The Great Believers, The Hundred-Year House, and The Borrower, as well as the short story collection Music for Wartime. Her short fiction won a 2017 Pushcart Prize, and was chosen for The Best American Short Stories for four consecutive years (2008-2011). The recipient of a 2014 NEA fellowship, Makkai is on the MFA faculties of Sierra Nevada College and Northwestern University, and she is the Artistic Director of StoryStudio Chicago.
Rebecca Makkai’s first story, at the age of three, was printed on the side of a cardboard box and told from the viewpoint of her stuffed Smurf doll. Sadly, her fiction has never since reached such heights of experimentalism.
Rebecca holds an MA from Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English and a BA from Washington and Lee University. Her books have been translated into ten languages, and her short fiction has been anthologized in The Pushcart Prize XLI (2017), The Best American Short Stories 2011, 2010, 2009 and 2008, The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2016 and 2009, New Stories from the Midwest and Best American Fantasy, and featured on Public Radio International’s Selected Shorts and This American Life.
Rebecca has two young daughters. She does not run marathons or do cartwheels, but she does know how to make marshmallows. She was an elementary Montessori teacher for the twelve years before the publication of her first book.
Her first novel, The Borrower, was a Booklist Top Ten Debut, an Indie Next pick, and an O Magazine selection.
Her second novel, The Hundred-Year House, is the story of a haunted house and a haunted family, told in reverse; Library Journal called it “stunning, ambitious, readable and intriguing.” It was chosen as the Chicago Writers Association’s novel of the year, and received raves in The New York Times Book Review and elsewhere.
Her short story collection, Music for Wartime, appeared in July, 2015.