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The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee: Observations on Not Fitting In by Paisley Rekdal + Author Interview [in aOnline]

Night My Mother Met Bruce LeeInternational Quest: Paisley Rekdal’s Search for Identity

Born to a Chinese mother and a Norwegian father, Paisley Rekdal has traversed the world, in search of her identity, gathering bits and pieces of her self along the way. Now settled in Laramie, Wyoming where she teaches poetry at the University of Wyoming, Rekdal brings together much of her international, cross-cultural odyssey in her new memoir, The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee: Observations on Not Fitting In.

The Village Voice Literary Supplement says Rekdal is one of eight writers this year “on the verge,” … with work which “signals an artistic breakthrough.” They’re undoubtedly correct: filled with sharp insights, probing truths, delightful melodrama, and just enough inevitable tragedy, Observations should put Rekdal smack in the spotlight of the literary stage.

Here’s the basic question: how did you decide to become a writer? And when did you know you finally were one?
I still don’t know that I am one. It’s one of the great mysteries of publishing: you get one book after another published, but that doesn’t necessarily solve your problems, in most cases, it opens up new ones. So there isn’t an answer to that question for me. As for wanting to be a writer, I knew since I was 9. I recently found some short stories and poems I didn’t even know I had written. One of the pieces was a novella, “Herbie and Lewis Escape to Canada.” This was written during the salmonella scare when hermit crabs were thought to carry the germs, and my parents repossessed them, so I imagined that they escaped to safety. I also wrote a lot of haiku, too, which wasn’t surprising because that’s the form that was being taught in schools at the time. I wrote about Twinkies, the seasons, more Twinkies. I even have one about Ronald Reagan which is really disturbing.

Why Laramie, Wyoming? Are you there for a while?
Everyone asks me that. I think they might be worried. When I was applying for creative writing tenure-track positions, I did a nationwide search because I knew it was going to be very competitive. When I looked at job descriptions, I don’t know why, but Wyoming just struck me. And I’m not one of these cosmic people. When I came to visit, I got off the Vomit Comet, which is what they call the small airplanes here, and it was like walking on to the moon – there were long open fields of sage green grass, antelope roaming, snow on the ground, rolling hills, and nearby surrounding mountains. The state motto is “there’s no place like this” – and it’s definitely true. I think the Norwegian side of me was rising up – suddenly I wanted to own land. I do think that I will stay awhile – my students here are so different from students I had in Michigan and Atlanta. I have a genuine cowboy in my class. And when I was teaching Ted Hughes’ “Dehorning,” more than half the class had either dehorned cattle, or had seen it being done.

Overall, I’m really attracted to how diverse the students are out here, not so much ethnically obviously, but economically, by experience, by age. Now I feel like a brochure: “Come to Laramie …” I’m surrounded by empty trails where I can go hiking and later, cross-country skiing. At the experimental college here, you can take a class on making wild game sausage – if you can hunt it, they’ll teach you to stuff it.

Where is “home” for you?
Home is definitely Seattle. The most important reason is that Seattle is one place I didn’t have to think about ethnic identity because the city is so diverse. I actually didn’t start thinking about this book until I got to graduate school in Michigan, until I was away from an Asian American community. For the first time, people around me were hyperaware of minorities. I understood some of the pressure minority students felt about being in an otherwise all-white program – and they felt pretty ostracized. Race became very important. I had to decide whether or not I would ally myself with these people because I’m half-Chinese. I felt tremendous pressure to be friends with them merely on the basis of race – it was overwhelming. I felt really angry about that pressure and I started to ask myself why I felt the anger. That’s about when I took the trip to Taipei with my mother [which is the topic of the second piece, “We Do Not Live Here, We Are Only Visitors,”] and that’s when the book started rolling. …[click here for more]

Author interview“International Quest: Paisley Rekdal’s Search for Identity,” aOnline website, November 18, 2000

Readers: Adult

Published: 2000

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