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Interview with author and illustrator, Amelia Lau Carling
by Aline Pereira*

Amelia Lau Carling was born in Guatemala to Chinese parents. Her family had a store in Guatemala City and for most of her childhood she lived behind it, using it as a playground, along with the rooftop terrace open to the sky and the views of purple volcanos.

She attended the American School, where she learned English early on. After graduating from high school, she went on to study art at Occidental College in California, from where she eventually found her way to New York City, where she currently lives and works.

She has written and illustrated two highly praised books, both based on memories of her extraordinary childhood in Guatemala: Mama and Papa Have a Store/LaTienda de Mamá y Papá and Sawdust Carpets / Alfombras de Asserín.

Your Chinese heritage, coupled with the experience of having been born and raised in Guatemala, must have given you a rich and unique cultural perspective. How did you navigate life then, between Chinese, Guatemalan and Mayan traditions?

I feel fortunate to have the background I have, even though living in three cultures also meant belonging and not belonging at the same time. My parents spoke a Cantonese dialect — it was loud and brash, so much so that I sometimes thought they were fighting, but then they'd burst into laughter and that's when I knew it was normal speech.  My first language is Spanish. Neither of my parents spoke it well. Sometimes they would speak to me in Cantonese and sometimes in bad Spanish, and I would always answer in Spanish. Spanish quickly became the language among my siblings and between siblings and parents. I don't speak Cantonese and can only understand some words, all related to food. 

I spent a lot of time behind the counters of my parents' store. The store was near the market, and many of the clients were from outlying towns and often of humble means. They spoke Spanish and indigenous dialects. In the store the air was always filled with Spanish, Cantonese and indigenous languages. Very likely half the time I didn't understand what was being said! But those sounds are like blood running in my veins.

Often I would go to the market with my mom. She would go looking for vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, flowers. There we would discover local foods and bring back tortillas and plantain snacks to serve side by side with her Chinese dishes. She would make Chinese tamales with sticky rice and ginko nuts and learned to make Guatemalan tamales with annatto and green tomatoes. We would have both kinds for Christmas. 

My parents worked very long hours, so we hardly ever went anywhere; but when we did, the trips were spectacular.  In Guatemala nature is drama. It's everywhere and it's experienced day to day. There are volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, deep ravines, misty forests, steamy mangroves, black sand beaches, caverns, magical lakes and rivers. The natural landscape strongly flavors the Hispanic and Mayan views of the world. The Catholic Church has been influential since the time of the Conquest, of course, and my mother quickly adapted her Buddhist practice to that of the church.  Ironically, her kids grew up Catholic because of her. Today I'm not particularly religious but consider myself deeply spiritual largely due to the sense of tolerance that I got from her.

Both of your award-winning books, Mama and Papa Have a Store and Sawdust Carpets, capture children's innocence and enthusiasm so perfectly... Do you find yourself reliving all the details of your childhood in Guatemala while writing your stories?

Yes, definitely.  I've lived in New York for over twenty years now, but I still feel the strong sense of place from my childhood luring me back. There are customs that have not died off yet, that have somewhat evolved, but are still there. And the breathtaking landscape is still there.

Recently I was hosted by the Universidad Francisco Marroquín in Guatemala to present my books, especially Alfombras de Asserín (Sawdust Carpets),  to an audience of a thousand third and fourth graders. It was marvelous to revisit the custom of making sawdust carpets that I had witnessed as a child, and that lives on. The children were eager and proud to see a book about a custom they knew and in which some of them had participated themselves. After my talk, they made their own sawdust carpets under the guidance of don Pedro Sandoval, a master carpetmaker. That was a significant and unforgettable event for me, as I think it was for many of them.

Are all your characters and settings created from real people and places you've known, or do biography and creativity mingle to create unique ones? 

In the end, my mother is my main source of inspiration. She was the center of our family life. Fleeing war, she came to Guatemala as a young woman following her husband to restart a life in a country itself devastated by poverty. That one fact alone opens the door to floods of memory.

I like to choose settings that are real places I've known, but I need to fictionalize to make a coherent story, so I glean from people in my life traits that allow me to make up other characters.

Writer Ann Cameron, who has been living in Guatemala for over 20 years, says she writes "to capture the positive energy of life". How about you? Why do you write?

I write to explore what is given from the old to the young. When we are children, our parents and elders pass on to us much that is unsaid, in layers that only become clear in time. Family stories mingle with historical events, and in my case the voice of a child surfaces.  I like to use accurate events, but sometimes I get too factual and lose my way. Then I have to step back and bring back a child's perspective into it.

Do your stories originate in Spanish or English? What language(s) do you speak at home nowadays? 

I wrote Mama and Papa Have a Store in English. Several years later Groundwood had it translated into Spanish. But in hindsight I think I could have done the translation myself; I just did not have the confidence to do it at the time. Because I had been away from using Spanish for so many years, I was afraid I had forgotten it. Years later, I wrote Alfombras de Asserín in Spanish first, then I wrote Sawdust Carpets, or its translation, in English.

Recently I've been writing in Spanish. I love the language, and it takes me very close to the source of my imagination. I've actually discovered that I enjoy writing in both languages.

My husband is from New York City and has a keen interest in Asian cultures. We speak English at home, and I speak a smattering of Spanish with my younger daughter.  I've studied standard Chinese but I'm not proficient enough to speak it fluently. My older daughter loves French. Someday the two girls may decide to learn Chinese!

Your books show Chinese and Guatemalan traditions coexisting peacefully: we read in Sawdust Carpets,
"There stood the Virgin of Guadalupe next to Kuan Yin,
our Chinese goddess. I thought they looked like friends". That's a lovely image. Can you think of some other images that highlight the confluence of those two worlds?

The two worlds came together every day, but that encounter was especially keen on holidays.  Because my parents had left their homeland so far away, they adapted some holidays to coincide with those in Guatemala. For the New Year, they celebrated it as if it was Chinese New Year, which in reality fell in January or February, according to the lunar calendar.  The Chinese families in Guatemala City lit firecrackers and had dragon dances on the streets, to bless their stores, and the locals would be completely drawn to it, since it was a festive street celebration that welcomed spectators.  On November 2, the local Day of the Dead, we would go to the cemetery to visit dead relatives, just like the local people did, instead of waiting for the traditional Chinese holiday of Ching Ming in the spring, when families go and sweep the graves of ancestors.

Your parents became Doña Graciela e Don Rodolfo upon arriving in Guatemala from China. How did your parents adapt to their new names, new life? Have you always been "Amelia," or were you given a Chinese name as well, when you were born? 

Like the Chinese who came to the States and adopted Americanized names, so did the Chinese who came to Latin America take on Spanish names, in an attempt to fit in better. After all, who could pronounce Lau Chak Fun with the right Cantonese tones? Among the paisanos, their countrymen, the Chinese names were used, but outside of that community, they used their Spanish names.  It was extremely hard to adapt to a new life and leave so much behind, but in time they could not separate themselves from where they raised their family.

My parents gave me and my siblings a Chinese name along with a Spanish name. We were three girls and three boys.  All the girls are Pearls — Gloria is 'Virtuous Pearl', Esperanza is 'Fragrant Pearl' and Amelia is 'Beautiful Pearl'.  All the boys' Chinese names have 'Beginning' in common. Adolfo is 'Beginning of the Best'; Armando, 'Beginning of Prominence' and Alberto, 'Beginning of Magnificence'. Notice that the boys' Spanish names all start with the first letter of the alphabet!  Unlike the boys', I think my name starts with an A just by accident, not by design on my parents' part!

As the illustrator of your own books, how do you approach a project? Is the response to the written story what inspires the illustrations, or do you paint a visual story first?

I think in images first. They don't make a story, but point me in the direction of a story.

When I write, I revise over and over, and it takes me a while to get to something. Even after that, I need to revise endlessly. Images come easier, or so it seems. I can sketch out many ideas and make a decision about them fairly quickly. Afterwards I spend a lot of time working out the details. For both books I visualized first and wrote the stories later.

Writing and illustrating children's books isn't the full extent of your involvement with children's literature, so can you please tell us a little bit about your work?

My first job in publishing was as junior designer at Harper & Row, at a time when books were prepared by the artist and when New York had small printing presses on Varick Street. I worked at several publishing houses as a designer and art director of children's trade books. I handled original archived artwork by artists ranging from the greats like Garth Williams to that of contemporaries like Earl B. Lewis. Working closely with editors and having the experience of seeing first-rate artwork at the source has been invaluable in my learning about illustration and storytelling.

Can you think of a children's book that has changed your life — as a child, or even as an adult ?

My first exposure to "kids' books" was through the comics, in Spanish.  With a nickel I could buy Supermán, Dick Tracy, El Pato Donald and many others at the entrance of a little hotel down the street from our store. We had stacks of them! Once a month my dad would buy Life magazine en español, for its pictures, and we would have stacks of those too. I think my love for words and images put together comes from those two sources.

It was not until I was an adult, in New York, roaming libraries and bookstores, that I truly discovered the vast world of children's literature. As an adult, I was struck by Dawn, illustrated by Uri Shulevitz (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1988), who was my teacher at the New School and in workshops he ran on West 4th Street.  It illustrates a Chinese poem in a simple and profound way. Picture books have since become my favorite medium. They are brief, beautiful and powerful.

What are you working on at the moment?

I'm always fiddling around with story ideas based on my family, but right now I'm working on illustrations for a book of poems by the Mayan poet Humberto Ak'abal. Some of my illustrations were just published in Guatemala, in a volume of his Nature poems (Otras Veces Soy Jaguar, Piedra Santa 2006), and Groundwood is planning a different book by Ak'abal, with these same illustrations. 

Posted September 2006

*Aline Pereira is Managing Editor/Producer

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interviwee- Amelia Lau Carling

Amelia Lau Carling photo

By Amelia Lau Carling:

Mama and Papa Have a Store (Dial Books, 1998) / La Tienda de Mamá y Papá (Groundwood Books, 2003)

Sawdust Carpets (Groundwood, 2005) /
Alfombras de Asserín (Groundwood, 2005).

Mama and Papa Have a Store is a 1998 Américas Award winner, and Sawdust Carpets, a 2005 América's Award Commended Tittle.

More on Papertigers:

Read a review of
Sawdust Carpets


Interested in fiction and nonfiction for grown-ups from the Pacific Rim and South Asia? Make sure to take a look at our online literary journal, just a click away: WaterBridge Review



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