Interview with author and publisher Icy Smith
by Marjorie Coughlan*
Icy Smith is an award-winning author and the founder of East West Discovery Press, which specializes in publishing and distributing multicultural and bilingual books in more than 30 different languages. Her acclaimed first book, The Lonely Queue: The forgotten history of the courageous Chinese Americans in Los Angeles, was described by the Los Angeles Times as “a bilingual book that celebrates the Chinese American community of Southern California… with the intimacy of a family album and the authority of a historical monograph.” The Lonely Queue also won the 2002 Clarion Award for best nonfiction book.
Her most recent publication, and first children’s book, is Mei Ling in China City, which was recently selected as a semi-finalist for the 2008 Independent Publisher Book Awards, in the multicultural children’s book category.
Icy lives in Manhattan Beach, California, with her husband, who is also her business partner in East West Discovery Press, and their two daughters. She enjoys traveling and hiking with her family, and their favorite destination in California is the Yosemite National Park.
Can you tell us a bit about the background of how you came to set up East West Discovery Press?
It was somewhat a case of serendipity. My background was in marketing and journalism, and my husband's was in engineering. Since we both liked to write, we self-published our first books in 2001. Mine, The Lonely Queue, documents the 150 years history of Chinese Americans in Southern California. In addition to having been honored with many good reviews nationwide, it won an award and was nominated for a few others. My husband’s first book, World Trivia, won the Dr. Toy Best Vacation Children’s Products award, and two major educational publishers in Japan and China published it in Chinese and Japanese editions. These recognitions gave us confidence to keep writing and to start our own publishing business.
What are the company’s ethos and your goals for the future?
We are an independent publisher specializing in multicultural and bilingual children’s books with a mission of promoting history, culture and social justice. We are very proud to do what we do. It’s good to be working in something that is all about doing good for society. We help children enjoy reading while promoting understanding among people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.
Over the years, teachers and librarians have come to us looking for bilingual children’s books in Asian languages for their ESL and immigrant students. It’s generally hard to find these materials in bookstores and/or from mainstream publishers. So we decided to develop our own line of bilingual books with historical significance, to meet these educators’ needs.
People have shared with us their success stories of using our publications. Recently one elementary school teacher emailed me the following:
“My little girl from Russia was thrilled with the bilingual Russian fairytales and she could read them beautifully. She read the story to the class, and had every student mesmerized. My girl from Korea then decided she would outdo my other student and read "her" fairytale to the class, in both Korean and English! The students and other teachers have also loved the books.”
In a family setting, bilingual books can help promote family literacy. A grandmother who doesn’t know much English can read to her grandchild in her native language; and even if the child does not know much of the heritage language, he or she can read the English version. Bilingual books bring families together. Our books have done very well in California, New York and other states with large immigrant populations.
How do you juggle your own writing with your work as a business owner and editorial director?
That’s a good question! We are mostly working flat out 7 days a week, chasing around like the proverbial headless chickens! I work on my own writing after my family goes to sleep; and when I’m a passenger on a long road trip, I get a lot of writing done as well. Finding a good place to write, away from the telephone, is a challange.
Your first book, The Lonely Queue, illustrates the Chinese experience in America and takes as its starting point the California Gold Rush of the 1850s. How far do you think perceptions have evolved since then in terms of understanding and appreciating the contribution of Chinese and Chinese-Americans to American society as a whole?
For almost a century, Chinese Americans were the scapegoats for perceived economic problems. For 61 years they were subjected to institutionalized racism by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. They were denied basic privileges, including the right to testify in court against Caucasians, to own land, to perform many occupations, and to become citizens.
Luckily, we have seen dramatic changes since then. Today Chinese Americans are making great strides in the arts and humanities, in science and technology, and in the sports and entertainment industries. Countless success stories are testament to this. Expressing one’s cultural identity is not only accepted, but something to be celebrated. But while we have come a long way, remembering the early history of discrimination and racism against Chinese Americans is critically important. We all know the adage “Those not remembering the past are condemned to repeat it”.
You have just had your first children’s book published, Mei Ling in China City, which can be considered a very ambitious project in that it brings together two different experiences (Japanese-American and Chinese-American) at a time, the Second World War, which was very difficult for both. What prompted you to write the story and what sources were you drawing on?
One of the most interesting aspects of my original research for The Lonely Queue was interviewing seniors who had lived through much of the history. I made many wonderful friends who had compelling stories to tell about their lives. One of those people was Mei Ling.
I am fascinated with the history of China City. China City was a remarkable part of California history for 11 years, during the World War II era. It was called "Chinese Movie Land," with a marketplace, rickshaws and replicas of life in China for tourists and the burgeoning Hollywood movie industry. Unfortunately, it was destroyed by a disastrous fire in 1949, and never rebuilt. I was surprised that no one had written much about it, so I decided to try to tell the history through the experiences of two young girls. I am very pleased with how it turned out.
As well as China City itself, I also wanted to focus my book on the hardships and cross-cultural experiences of Americans of Chinese and Japanese ancestry during the war years. The lives of many Chinese and Japanese Americans during that time are resonated in the friendship of Mei Ling and Yayeko. Most Chinese and Japanese Americans were all-American boys and girls in the 1940s, just like they are today. About two-thirds of Japanese Americans were U.S. citizens by birth. And without any proof of wrongdoing, close to 120,000 Japanese Americans were forced to leave their homes and were interned in ten War Relocation Centers in the U.S. during World War II. It was very difficult and painful for friends to be separated, regardless of their races.
Did you have a particular audience in mind when you wrote it? Was it clear from the start that it would be a children’s book?
Yes, I wanted to provide a resource for teachers and school librarians. They love to use historical fiction with their students, and there are not many children’s books on Asian American history out there. It was my plan to write about this topic for all ages in a children’s book format, and I think I have succeeded. The historical notes and photographs following the story are designed for educators and adults who are interested to learn more about China City and the Japanese internment.
Have you focused on Mei Ling in China City during any of your school visits – if so, what reactions have you had from young readers? In general, what sorts of reactions and comments do you get from children/ young adults when you visit schools? Do they express any particular concerns related to the themes you raise in your books?
I have given talks on The Lonely Queue and Mei Ling in China City in schools and public libraries. Both kids and adults have given me very positive feedback. Seniors who remember China City have shown the most emotion, as many thought that this unique part of American history was just going to be forgotten. They want their children and grandchildren to have a connection with the past.
As for Japanese internment, today there are still many children and adults who are not aware of this sad and shameful part of American history. Some people were shocked as they learned about the events in the book.
Many students have also asked if Mei Ling and Yayeko have been reunited. Well, just a couple of months ago, the two girls in the book were in fact remarkably reunited, as a result of the release of the book. That is after 66 years of separation!! In their 80s now, they both still live in Los Angeles and have picked up their friendship again, right from where it was left off.
As well as your own books, can you recommend other titles to help young people better understand the history of Asian-Americans in the United States?
Many good books are listed on our website. Below are some of my favorites:
Bridging the Centuries, edited by Susie Ling and published by the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California,
Baseball Saved Us, by Ken Mochizuki,
Brothers, by Yin,
Coolies, by Yin,
Farewell to Manzanar, by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston,
Kai’s Journey to Gold Mountain, by Katrina Saltonstall Currier,
Landed, by Milly Lee,
Remembering Manzanar, by Michael Cooper,
Name Jar, by Yangsook Choi.
Are you taking part in any special events in connection with Asian Pacific American Heritage Month this year?
Yes, I’ll be a speaker at the County of Los Angeles Multicultural Conference, presenting the history of Chinese Americans in California. This conference is one of the largest government-sponsored multicultural conferences in the US. It is designed to enhance the participants’ ability to provide culturally relevant services to the diverse population of Los Angeles County.
Any upcoming projects that you’d like to share with us?
My next children’s book should be coming out by the end of this year. It's a story set in Cambodia, during the genocidal Khmer Rouge reign in the 1970s. The story is about the experiences of an eight-year-old boy and is inspired by a friend of mine, who survived the four-year horror of the Cambodian killing fields.
*Marjorie Coughlan is PaperTigers Associate Editor.
Posted May 2008
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