Bungee Cord Hair is the winner of the Scholastic Asian Book Award 2012. The award honours the best of Asian writing in English.
Ching Yeung Russell on her book Bungee Cord Hair—
- Why did you decide to become a writer?
When I have done school presentations in the states or overseas, students have often asked me, “Why did you decide to be a writer? I always tell them, “I wanted to be a writer not because I could write very well when I was young; and not because I dreamed of being a writer. It was only because of wanting to eat more bowls of dan lai (sweet egg custard).”
They always question me with wide eyes.
I explain to them, “When I was young, I lived in a very small town in southeastern China. There were rice paddies surrounding the town. I often saw the farmers working very hard, but they were still very poor. So I didn’t want to be a farmer. Instead, I wanted to be a saleslady when I grew up. I was only a fourth grader then. I thought being a saleslady was the only job I could do in that small town. It would be much more comfortable than being a farmer. Then, when I was an eighth grader, one of my schoolmates and I were talking about what we wanted to be when we grew up. I told her I wanted to be a saleslady. She cried, “Oh, no! You can be a writer, because Mr. Lee always praises you and says you write very well.”
That didn’t convince me, because I had never seen a writer before. Writers seemed to be far away, completely out of reach. But then she said, “In fact, if you become a writer, the government will give you a special coupon for a bowl of dan lai.”
My curiosity grew. “Why would I get a special coupon from the government for dan lai?”
She stated, “Because dan lai is made from milk. Milk is good for your brain. When you are a writer, you need to use your brain to think, to make up stories. That’s why you can apply to the government for a coupon for a bowl of dan lai.”
Before China started economic reforms about thirty-five years ago, rice, oil, sugar and other necessary items were rationed by the government. That’s why, even though you had the money, you might not be able to get what you wanted. I loved dan lai and I longed to eat another bowl. That’s why I exclaimed, “I don’t want to be a saleslady. I want to be a writer so I can eat more bowls of dan lai!”
I could never have thought that that childhood conversation would eventually lead to a career.
- What made you decide to write Bungee Cord Hair?
When I left Hong Kong for the states, I missed Hong Kong very much. That’s why I wrote many poems about living in Hong Kong. When I sent this manuscript to Lee and Low Publishers in the states, the editor, Jennifer Fox, suggested that I be more focused because the original work included many subjects. I thought about how readers always asked me why I decided to be a writer. That’s why I decided to focus on my writing from when I was 5 to age 12 for Tofu Quilt.
In fact, Bungee Cord Hair is the sequel to Tofu Quilt. Tofu Quilt received many honours and high praise, and my readers wanted to know more about my writing journey. That’s why I decided to work on Bungee Cord Hair, which is about my writing from ages 12 to 15. (Actually, some poems were already included in the original work about my life in Hong Kong.)
- Your other children’s novels were written in prose. Why did you decide to write Tofu Quilt as free verse poetry?
I loved to write free verse poems in Chinese before I immigrated to the United States. I didn’t intend to write my original piece about my life in Hong Kong as free verse. I have never taken a class in English poetry writing. I don’t know any rules about English poetry, but it just naturally came into my head that way, in small stanzas. Since Tofu Quilt was written this way, I wrote Bungee Cord Hair the same way.
- Was it easy for you to publish your work in English?
No. It took me more than 15 years and I went through many frustrations to get my first book, First Apple, published in English. In order to learn how to write in English, I stopped writing in Chinese for 15 years!
- What made you decide to write in English?
Because my husband couldn’t read my Chinese stories and he couldn’t share his thoughts with me about my Chinese writing. Now I am going back to writing in Chinese, as well. I translated my first four novels about growing up in China into Chinese myself.
- 15 years isn’t a short time. Have you ever thought of quitting publishing in English?
No. There are couple of things that kept me writing. I truly believed in myself – that I could tell a very interesting story. I also wanted to prove myself to my husband, who initially discouraged me by saying that I wouldn’t make it. Ever since I got a Parents’ Choice Gold Award for my first book, he has supported my writing 100%. He is my first editor for my English writing.
- How do you handle writing in both languages? Which language is easier for you?
Before I begin work on a Chinese story, I will read a long Chinese novel to let my brain get used to Chinese thinking. Then I will start writing, because the sentence structure of both languages is very different. Of course Chinese is much easier for me. It is my first language and in college I majored in Chinese Literature in order to prepare myself to be a Chinese writer. To tell you the truth, English is still very hard for me. I spend three times as much time writing in English as I do writing in Chinese, and I still need my husband to smooth out my English. That’s why he is my first editor. Then, of course, my editors give me tremendous help.
- Are you working on a new project now?
Yes. It is about my struggle to learn English and publish in the US.
- How do you get the inspiration for your work?
Mostly, I get my inspiration from things that I know best, like my own stories. I know the sounds, the smells, the colours, the surroundings and how I felt. So I am able to put genuine feelings into the story.
- What is your advice to aspiring authors?
Believe in yourself. Persist – don’t give up if you don’t have your work accepted at first- and work as hard as a water buffalo.
Ching Yeung Russell was born in China and later moved to Hong Kong, where she graduated from Hong Kong Baptist College with a major in Chinese Literature. She emigrated to the United States right after she got married. Her latest book, Tofu Quilt, of which Bungee Cord Hair is the sequel, received many honours in the States and was nominated for the Red Dot Children’s Book Award of 2011 in Singapore and the Sakura Medal of Japan (2011-2012). Besides writing both in Chinese and English, she also visits schools in the States and overseas. Read more about the author at http://chingyeung.homestead.com