AC Common Reader author Jamie Ford on immigration, mining family history and becoming homework
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By Chip Chandler — Digital Content Producer
Jamie Ford would like to make a bit of a retraction.
For a reader's guide for his 2006 bestselling novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, this year's Common Reader for Amarillo College, Ford was asked if he saw parallels between the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and calls for similar treatment of Muslim-Americans in the post-9/11 American society.
"Let's hope that we learned our lesson 65 years ago," Ford said then.
Now, he said he's not so sure that lesson has been learned, particularly after the uproar over admitting Syrian refugees into the country.
"Political events have been dramatic and often heightened for effect — whether it's immigrants or terrorists — so there are people who are making some statements (to that effect)," Ford said. "Things like that are being thrown about by (Donald) Trump and other people. So what I stated in 2006 — 'No, this wouldn't happen again' — now I have to pause and say, 'Maybe?'"
That's a bitter realization for Ford, the great-grandson of a Chinese immigrant.
"If the mechanism to do it was easier, I think people would be calling for (internment) more vociferously," Ford said. "It was easier to round up Japanese-Americans because, by and large, they lived in segregated communities."
That's one lesson he hopes readers draw from the book, which details a sweet romance between a Chinese-American boy and a Japanese-American girl in 1940s Seattle, and one he'll probably make note of when he speaks about the novel at 7 p.m. Tuesday in Ordway Auditorium on AC's Washington Street campus. The event is free.
The novel not only allowed Ford to explore the "morally complex landscape" around the internment of Japanese-Americans; it also let him explore the history of his own family, a similarly rocky terrain.
His relationship with his late father "was complicated," Ford said.
"My dad was a pretty sensitive guy. He told me he loved me every day. He was a very warm person," Ford said. "But he was also a scary person. He was not terribly abusive to me because I joined the family late in (his) life, but he was definitely — I describe it like going to the Hallmark store on Father's Day and trying to find a card that says, 'Well, you tried.' I think he tried the best he could with the knowledge and upbringing he had, but it was pretty hard. There were a number of years that I didn't speak to my dad, which was tragic.
"He was incredibly hard working, had a great work ethic and was an honest guy. He was just kind of scary — violent, really. I'm dancing around it."
But Ford's father, who his son described as "kind of a failed artist," ran a Chinese restaurant in Seattle, but encouraged Ford to pursue an artistic career, which led him to do advertising design work.
He had a passion for writing, though, which first expressed itself in science fiction and poetry, but he found a calling in historical fiction, particularly as a way to explore his family's legacy.
"It sounds like a Dr. Phil moment, but it was realy after my folks passed away — I lost them pretty close together in the early '80s — but after that, my storytelling tended to go back in time, to their earlier years. ... Now, I do it with enthusiasm, but I didn't know what I was doing then. It was a landscape I hadn't really considered.
"It's terrible, but there are all these questions we should be asking our parents about their childhoods, their early life, but we don't do that as teenagers or as often as we should as adults," Ford said. "Once they're gone, those doors are closed."
It was Ford's father's occasional mentioning of having to wear a button that said "I Am Chinese" — to differentiate himself from the hated Japanese in his classmates' and neighbors' eyes — that inspired Hotel; the central character, Henry Lee, wears such a button himself.
"That was the gateway. That made me start thinking of other things my father had said that I might have been a little dismissive of as a child," Ford said.
So, too, was his second novel, Songs of Willow Frost, inspired by his ancestors, in this case his Chinese grandmother, a "hurricane in high heels," Ford said.
"It's about a Chinese woman who gets pregnant in her teens, has the deck stacked against her during the Depression," Ford said. "That was kind of my grandmother. She had my dad out of wedlock. ... I knew here personal history a little bit, and it was hard to reconcile that with the grandmother I knew, who was so strong."
A future book might examine the early life of Ford's mother, who was white. Her family moved West from the Ozarks: "My mom's family were fruit pickers before minorities were picking fruit."
Ford said he hopes his books, and particularly Hotel among its AC readers, "inspires them to have an appreciation for their own family history" — though, he said, "you never expect to grow up and become homework."
"I think we all have that family story of coming to this country, no matter if you go back six generations or one generation," Ford said. "It's a nice anchor, I think, to know where you come from. It helps you find your place in the world a little bit.
"Required reading is sometimes a chore, and I want to be the required reading that is not that," he said. "For a lot of us, there are a couple of books that are our gateway drugs to reading. ... If I can be that gateway book for a few people, that's pretty cool. That's pretty satisfying."