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Deer Hunting in Paris: A Memoir of God, Guns, and Game Meat by Paula Young Lee + Author Interview [in Bookslut]

Deer Hunting in ParisThe title of Paula Young Lee’s latest book (her fifth) is Deer Hunting in Paris. The subtitle, which announces it’s a memoir (her first), includes two very loaded words, “God” and “Guns.” The sub-subtitle explains further: “How a preacher’s daughter refuses to get married, travels the world, and learns to shoot.” Oh my.

This is surely one book that’s definitely been judged by its cover. With “God” and “Guns” providing the first impression, getting the book into stores has not been easy: “Indie bookstores won’t carry it,” Lee says. Even convincing her local bookstore in Wellesley, Massachusetts – where she lives part time (the other part, she spends in Maine) – to stock their shelves took “five tries and multiple visits,” she explains.

“The prevailing wisdom says that liberal white women won’t buy a book about rural culture, especially one written by an Asian woman. Fair enough. But neither will bookstores that specialize in Asian American authors, including Eastwind [Books of Berkeley] and the AsiaStore at Asia Society [in New York City]. Apparently I am not an Asian American author according to their criteria.” Ouch. “Not the easiest thing to sell books,” she concludes.

For those who get beyond the cover, Deer Hunting turns out to be quite winning. Literally. Earlier this year, Lee became the first Korean American woman and only the third minority author in 30 years to win “Best Travel Book Gold” in the 2014 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Competition from the Society of American Travel Writers. In spite of certain bookstores’ inability to neatly categorize her title, Lee surely won for her memorable combination of snarky humor, self-deprecating candor, and wacky recipes of dubious origin (15th-century “rbbys of Venysoon” and “Ham Supper for 227”). She also throws in the occasional untranslated Korean (in hangul, no less), just to keep you guessing. That’s a certain, unique brand of “insane!” that every Korean is used to hearing regularly on page 251, by the way.

Stuck in the middle of her “genius” older brother and her “pretty” younger sister, Lee grew up in remote towns in rural Maine where she stood out for being one, the preacher’s daughter, and two, not white. Her father was a medical miracle, having nearly lost his life – and legs – in a car accident that severed his spinal cord, but he defied the doctors’ predictions and learned to walk again. He took a year to recover. Her mother was the “problematically beautiful” daughter of a Korean doctor who shepherded the family from town to town, only to be the first in the family to pass away, claimed by cancer. Her body took a year to give up.

Eventually, Lee left rural Maine for prep school, followed by many more years of institutional education that would eventually earn her a doctorate. Grant money gave her the opportunity to live in Paris where, immersed in doctoral research, she couldn’t afford shopping at the Bon Marché, but she still ran daily constitutional circles in the Jardin des Plantes, sang “Do-Re-Mi” with a group of local schoolgirls, and took belly-dancing classes. But even though she was “as happy as a clam can be,” the City of Lights couldn’t hold her and she returned Stateside to be with a man she met online whom she, almost a decade later, still refuses to marry. The two have virtually nothing in common and argue almost always. She’s a liberal Asian American who holds little back; he’s a white conservative Republican with a gun collection. Opposites attract, right? Because Deer Hunting is ultimately a funny, culturally challenging, expectation-skewering love story, the homophonic “Dear Hunting” could certainly work here, too.

Here’s one of your quotations I found on the web: “[I] started out as an academic historian, migrated into the cultural history of meat via a study of slaughterhouses… and am now mostly a food writer focusing on wild meat.” That’s quite the journey. Care to elaborate?
As a non-linear thinker, I have learned to accept this instead of trying to fit inside boxes. I’m also dyslexic, colorblind, and allergic to everything. Basically, I’m built to nonstandard measures, which includes the fact that I can’t buy off-the-rack clothing. Luckily, I’m really good at being stubborn, and I’ve also learned to trust my gut. When I get curious about a subject, I go spelunking through history, and I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty. My process may make no sense to other people, but it keeps me from getting bored.

You’re also an Asian American woman with a gun — not your everyday stereotype, TV’s Nikita notwithstanding. Dispel the myths, oh please.
Guns weigh more than you think. They are also not “one size fits all.” I happen to be five feet tall with small hands, and most shotguns are sized for a person around five-foot-six or taller. So I shoot a “youth model,” which is not ideal because, still, it’s not proportioned correctly. But the industry hasn’t caught up yet to the rise of female hunters and the fact that many women are petite.

Contrary to popular belief, gun culture is not about being an asshole running around trying to intimidate others by carrying an Uzi, and it is not fundamentally about fetishizing firearms. I say this as a liberal who does not naturally gravitate towards guns, though I do think that women should learn how to handle them. I will also say that a trip to the shooting range does not make me feel badass. But I suspect that is just my personality. My head just doesn’t tend to badassery.

If not for your white, Republican, game-hunting partner, John (as well as the rest of his gun-savvy family), would you have become a hunter?
I would have still wanted to become a hunter. I don’t know if I would have been able to acquire the necessary skills on my own. At first, I’d gravitated towards a bow, thinking it was “nicer” and more “authentic.” I was wrong. Bottom line: you can’t just pop into the woods and expect to stumble across your quarry. And even if you do, by the time you get into position and ready to take aim, your motions will have scared it off. It’s all about patience and commitment. It’s not like the movies. Mostly what it takes is a lot of time. And somebody has to be willing to show you.

And about that white, Republican, hunting family: The relationship depicted in Deer Hunting is mostly amiable, and certainly infused with much humor. Did you ever go through that “look who’s coming for dinner” surprise or discomfort on either side?
Uh… yup. But I can be annoying. However, their issues with me were mostly about my political views. Not because I’m Korean. If John’s conservative parents scowl when liberals talk about “diversity,” it’s because they’d rather people just go ahead and do it instead of having endless committee meetings and ultimately doing nothing except writing op-eds. John is a generational Yankee, but he’s got a bunch of siblings and cousins who’ve turned the family rainbow. The memoir doesn’t get into this because that’s their story, not mine. But there are stereotypes to shatter on that count as well. [… click here for more]

Author interview: Feature: “An Interview with Paula Lee Young,” Bookslut.com, November 2014

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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