In his first novel, the surprise best-seller “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” (2009), Jamie Ford told the story of a Chinese-American boy and his romance with a Japanese-American girl while her people were interned during World War II. In his heartwarming new novel, “Songs of Willow Frost,” Ford — a Seattle native who is half-Chinese — returns to the geography, literally and figuratively.
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It's the tale of William Eng, a 12-year-old boy left at Seattle's Sacred Heart Orphanage during the Great Depression by his mother, a dancer at the Wah Mee Club, a Chinatown hangout. When William sees a movie featuring the glamorous actress Willow Frost, he becomes convinced that she's his long-lost mother, and sets out to find her. Printers Row Journal caught up with Ford, 45, at his home in Montana. Here's an edited transcript of our chat.
Q: You say in the acknowledgments that you drew on the stories of your mother and grandmother for the book. How so?
A: Well, abandonment is a big theme in the book. My mom met my dad in the late '60s, but she was married previously and had four children. It was like a classic broken-hearted Bruce Springsteen song: Her husband went out for a carton of milk and never came back. The kids were quite small, which left her in a quite serious predicament. She managed to work her way through it, but back then, there were still some social conventions that led people to look at women in that situation with an eye of sympathy, and some with an eye of shame.
Q: Was there a feeling that your mother must have done something to bring the misfortune on herself?
A: Divorce was certainly seen as a sign of failure. There was still that 1950s ethos that you were supposed to suffer through these things, even if it was a terrible marriage. Anything was better than being single with child. Of course, it was even worse in my Chinese grandmother's time. My dad was born in 1929, and she was divorced shortly after that, at about age 20. There were almost no social safety nets for a woman in that situation in Seattle, and I think my dad was kind of haunted by that time period. But both my mother and grandmother were alpha females, very resilient.
Q: Alpha females?
A: They were very capable women, with a screw-society, take-no-prisoners kind of attitude. My grandmother was the matriarch, and actually renamed several people in my family, including me. My given name is James and my middle name is Mark, and my parents wanted to call me Mark. But my grandmother said I was going to be Jamie. She made me bibs for every day of the week that had "Jamie" on them. She sewed clothes with "Jamie" on them. She made a baby blanket with "Jamie" all over it. (Laughs.) Sometimes she was subtle, other times not so much. That's just who she was.
Q: Your book takes up the issue of children being abandoned by their families and left in orphanages during the Depression, which wasn't particular to the Chinese-American community, was it?
A: No, it was very common. Before the New Deal, there were fewer social safety nets for people, so a lot of them consigned their children to places like the Sacred Heart Orphanage, where they knew they'd be cared for. They hoped they'd come back and collect their children at some point down the road, but sometimes they didn't. It seems sad, maybe even cruel, but it was far better than starving.
Q: Your portrait of the orphanage is mixed. On the one hand, one of the first things we learn is that the boys were tied down because the nuns believed it would keep them from wetting their beds, and if you wet the bed you were whipped. On the other hand, the nuns protected the children from certain things. For example, when they take the kids to the movies, they tell the Asian boys, "Don't have eye contact with the ushers," which would keep the ushers from realizing the boys were Asian and maybe throw them out.
A: Seen through a modern lens, nuns of that era are often treated unfavorably, but I don't think it's fair. Certain aspects of the orphanages then would seem cruel by today's standards, but I think they were doing the best they could under the circumstances and the rules of society as they were at the time. I didn't want it to be a typical nuns-are-mean story. I think life was mean back then.
Q: The book also deals with the early years of the movies, when film studios popped up around the country — in places like Seattle and Chicago — before the consolidation of the industry in Hollywood.
A: Yes, and that's something that's been forgotten — that before people figured out fake snow, or that you could shoot everything inside a soundstage, or that Hollywood just had better weather, there were film studios not just in Seattle or Chicago but also towns in Wisconsin and Idaho, some pretty obscure places. It was a bit of a free-for-all, and it didn't last very long, but it was very interesting for a while.
Q: We talked about how the abandoning of children was not specific to Chinese-American culture, but there were other things that were, especially in relation to women, including women performers like Willow.
A: In traditional Chinese culture, women were often banned from the theater, and then later, when they were associated with the theater, they were often regarded as immoral somehow, tawdry. Willow is an American, of course, so there's a fascination with the theater, and a certain freedom to be independent, to explore possibilities. But at the same time she feels ostracized or condemned by her own culture. And then she has a child out of wedlock in a culture that views her as incapable of raising that child in a moral household. It's a compounding of calamities from Chinese society and Western society — an event horizon of shame.
Q: In your first two novels, you've written about the Chinese-American experience, and I understand you're doing so again in the novel you're working on now. To what extent do you see yourself as a chronicler of the Chinese-American experience? Is that your mission?
A: Boy, the word "mission" sounds like I have more of an orchestrated plan than I actually do. (Laughs.) I like exploring those themes, because I'm half-Chinese, and I guess it's a bit of personal self-discovery. I like turning over rocks and seeing what's underneath. Which is good, because as a society, we bury a lot of stuff. The neighborhoods we've paved over, there are stories there, stories that are really important. And I enjoy the research process, but I don't go about it with a mission like I'm going to be a reporter of the past — even though I'm aware that's what's occurring.
Q: You have a personal connection to at least one location in this story: the Wah Mee Club, where your grandparents met.