On the Lit Mat: Ten Breaths of Inspiration for the Writing Life
Interview with editor Corinna Barsan in The Magazine of Yoga
Q: Who or what was your greatest influence in picking up the pen?
O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a
of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams.
During a time of trauma in my mid-twenties when a lover turned violent stalker, I had no option but to return to the protection and confines of my childhood home.
I could no longer walk my favorite beach or even visit the grocery aisles unless under my father’s protection. But I became a queen of infinite space.
I took my bad dreams and used them to frame the story of my father’s childhood in Manchuria during and after World War II. In the third book of my Manchurian trilogy, I used the graphic novel format to take revenge for my great grandfather against time and forgetting.
After a lifetime of work, rising from an apprentice at a grain brokerage, he had become a wealthy businessman and philanthropist. When the Communists arrived, they evicted him from his estate to wander a beggar.
My nutshell became my best teacher. The external danger forced me to face myself, meet my life’s work head-on. I acquired magic powers to travel back and forth in time, across oceans and continents. The three books would take me twenty years to complete.
Q: In what ways do you make room for the creative process in your day-to-day?
The creative process is my life.
I try to make it my every breath. (I am not saying I am successful at this, but I certainly try.)
Moments ago, it was pouring and I saw the lovely silhouette of my mother against the rain-splattered sliding glass door. So I grabbed my camera. Even when I am hiking in the folds and along the ridges of the Santa Lucia Range, I have my little digital camera with me. Sometimes I take a sketchbook.
Through the lens I concentrate on form, textures, and color of sky and fungi. When I drive from Carmel to San Francisco, I note the permutations of the season: the fog, the emergence of winter grass. The hue of the golden hills now wearing whiskers of green.
I am in love with the topography of my particular habitat and of our Earth.
Q: Which one word, image, sound, feeling, or memory defines the act of writing for you?
The word “persimmon.” It conjures the honey sweetness of the hachiya or the crunch of the fuyu. Shizi in Chinese. (It is native to my ancestral land.) Kaki in Japanese.
When it isn’t quite ripe, it has an astringency (love this word, which can only be applied to this edible). It tastes “furry” when not ripe—just as I think teenagers are “furry.” She is the word for astringency in Chinese. Shibui in Japanese.
Shibui also indicates the elegance of muted colors. Its genus is Diospyros, meaning fruit of the gods. Diospyros is a contender for the lotus mentioned in The Odyssey: it was so luscious that those who ate it forgot about going home.
And the very word “persimmon” conjures the richness of autumn harvest. In 1986, when I fled to China from my stalker, I spent my first week of freedom picking hachiya persimmons and watched them ripen on my windowsill. Far Eastern cultures have incorporated the fruit in its sumi-e paintings.
Q: How do you find inspiration when the well runs dry?
The well has never run dry. I have work to do. My problem is figuring out the order in which I should work on my life projects.
I have wanted to jump into my own graphic memoir before working my mother’s. I am indeed working on Mom’s now, so I tell myself to be patient.
I will bide my time and ripen like the persimmon for a luscious book in my old age.
Q: Is there a tidbit of writing advice that has stayed with you over the years?
Let the blank page teach you to write. This was the best advice from Annie Dillard.
People often come to me asking how they should begin writing their book. I think if you have to ask, you don’t want to write badly enough.
Also, Anton Chekhov recommended we take the first half of a manuscript, divide it in half, and begin the book with the latter half.
Q: What is something you know now about writing that you didn’t know when you were just starting out?
That writing can make you crazy and then it goes on to make you whole.
It can give you backbone. It can make you more courageous in the world, because your words can cause emperors on their thrones to tremble.
Q: Whether you do yoga or another form of physical or spiritual practice, how does it affect your work?
My spiritual practice I consider to be a form of walking meditation.
Our coastal ranges are great full-day hikes (a little beyond three thousand feet). When I climb above the Pacific Coast Highway, I understand why human beings thought the gods existed in the mountains. I leave my greedy carcass at sea-level and attain see-level. I feel the twinge in my lungs and the thud of my heart wanting to beat its way out of my chest.
When I am straining for the altitudes, I am aware that I am fully alive and that my soul occupies my body in just the right way.
Q: What is your most favorite guilty pleasure?
Reading histories on Western civilization. I’ve purchased Will and Ariel Durant’s eleven-volume set The Story of Civilization. It has very little to do with Chinese history, which I should study more fervently. And history does not inspire my prose writing and the making of better plots. But it’s one of my greatest pleasures to tuck myself in bed and read about how we became who we are today.
I have also learned to worry less about politics—not that I don’t care and will remain sitting on my haunches—because I see that the wealthy and the have-nots have been pushing against one another long before history had been formally set down.
I experience “aha” moments when I study history. Connecting the dots is the ultimate reward for my half-century of endurance on Earth.
Reading Group Discussion Questions
- Family traditions play a large role in Xuan’s life. How does her culture compare to yours? Are their traditions that are multicultural?
- How do her father’s stories bring Xuan closer to her Chinese heritage? What does she gain?
- How do Xuan’s struggles to find herself parallel those of her father’s?
- Knowing your self-worth is an important theme throughout the novel. What does it mean to know your worth? Why is this important?
- Both Xuan’s and her father’s family are surrounded by acts of violence. How does the art of storytelling counteract violence? How does violence ultimately bring Xuan’s family together?
- Why do you think the author chose the graphic novel format to tell her story? How does it help the reader enter the author’s culture?
- In Chinese, names are a way to shape a child. How is each of the character’s names reflective of their personality? Do they live up to their parent’s expectations?
- The women in the father’s story are generally in the background: present but uninvolved. How has the role of women changed since the early twentieth century? Compare Xuan’s mother and Xuan to the brother’s wives.
- Xuan’s grandfather says, “We are responsible for what happens to ourselves. We bring bad luck down upon our own heads.” Do you think this is true? Does Xuan’s story conform to this thinking?
- How does remembering the past help Xuan in her present and future? How did her reflection on the past engage your memories of the past?
- The Chinese language is made up of a series of “pictures” called pictographs and ideographs, and horizontal hand scrolls were an artist’s medium to depict a moving landscape. How might these techniques and traditions relate to the way in which Belle has chosen to tell her story?
About Belle Yang
Belle Yang is the author of the popular illustrated books Hannah Is My Name, The Odyssey of a Manchurian, and Baba: A Return to China Upon My Father’s Shoulders. She lives in Carmel, California.
Books by Belle Yang
“A healing portrait drawn in epic ink strokes.”—ElleMore