A story of heartache, reconciliation and history brought hundreds of people to Schenectady County Community College’s Carl B. Taylor Community Auditorium Saturday afternoon to hear author Jamie Ford give insight into his work, New York Times bestseller “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.”
For Gazette book writer Jack Rightmyer’s review of Ford’s book “Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” click here.
The novel was chosen as the book people across the county have read and will read as part of the 2010 “One County, One Book” initiative by the Schenectady County Public Library.
Ford, 41, said the book fuses the “not talked about but easily forgotten” parts of American history, such as when the American government rounded up 110,000 Japanese Americans in the 1940s, placing them into internment camps for four years as a result of the attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
Ford’s book chronicles how Henry Lee, a Chinese man in Seattle, reconciles the past with the present while revisiting lost love from childhood with a Japanese girl named Keiko he befriended.
“At its core, there is important history. Fiction is a great way to teach history. Fiction is a great way to pass on information, knowledge and truth,” Ford said.
Ford, who describes his writing style as minimalist, said the novel was born out of a short story he wrote at a writers workshop in Virginia in 2006.
He said that America has so much history that the Japanese internment of the 1940s can be minimized in the greater scope of everything American schoolchildren are educated on, becoming two paragraphs on a page in a typical 600-page history book for eighth graders.
“Anything I can do to shed some light is just a bonus,” he said.
Ford is a fourth-generation Chinese American and is the great-grandson of Min Chung, a Chinese immigrant from Kaiping, China, who came to San Francisco and became a miner in Nevada. Chung later adopted the Western last name of Ford.
Ford spoke to classes at Schenectady High School Friday, administering “think out loud” and “hands-on” writing exercises designed to get students focused on reading and writing for entertainment, not as a chore.
“It was awesome. I love high school students,” he said.
Ford said he even got the students to be honest about the books they hate. His own love-to-hate picks are “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck and “The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, books he sees as impenetrable and dense for adults and repellent for high school students.
“Because we have a social inertia from 80 years ago that said this was good literature, we push it on kids and it makes them grow up wanting to not read or equating reading with work and treachery.
“Our jobs as authors are to torture protagonists and think of the worst things and think of the best things that can happen to characters. Boring lives make really boring books. Kids have so much stuff going on in their lives they probably have some juicy things to write about.”
Ford will continue his book tour with appearances in Montana, the Midwest and West Coast through the summer.
Ford said he had heard of Schenectady first through one of his favorite authors, Harlan Ellison, but said the city carries a reputation for its heritage with General Electric as well as the area’s old architecture, buildings and charm.
“When I come here, I see Jumpin’ Jack’s, I see people who have traditions and people who come here and are an enthusiastic reading community. It’s a 21st century city with culture and diversity. It will be interesting to look back at a city like Schenectady 100 years from now,” Ford said.
Simon Weinstein is chairman of the “One County, One Book” committee. He says that the book brings the area more awareness of diversity issues and that “Chinese and Japanese community are just real people with the same emotions they get.”
Weinstein said the book selection was appropriate given the area’s growing diversity. The book received 40 percent of the votes last year that decided which book would be read.
For people wanting to understand more about the Japanese internment, Union College professor and historian Andrew Morris will present a lecture at the McChesney Room of the Schenectady County main library branch on April 6 at 7 p.m., Weinstein announced Saturday. The title of the lecture is “The Causes and Consequences of the Incarceration of Japanese Americans.”
“I didn’t know that much about the time period or that area. … It had a lot of depth,” said Donna Grossman, of Niskayuna, who read the book.
Business owner Linda Smith said growing up as a Jewish American she learned about the histories of those who survived concentration camps, but the collective mistreatment of the Japanese who braved internment camps resonated with her in a similar way.
“We’re not the only culture out there that’s been persecuted,” said Smith, who passed out tea made by her business, Divinitea, at the event.
The “I am Chinese” buttons worn by Chinese people to distinguish themselves from Japanese people, which were described in “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” reminded her of the yellow badges Jews wore in internment camps, she said.
As part of the Schenectady County Public Library’s “One County, One Book” service project, literacy survival kits are being collected and distributed to adult immigrant and refugee students taking English as a second language classes at the Washington Irving Educational Center in Schenectady.
The kits are backpacks filled with pens, pencils, spiral notebooks, bus tokens, and class workbooks and dictionaries.
Between 1,300 and 1,400 students take part in the center’s English as a second language and General Educational Development programs every year, according to Washington Irving Educational Center director Jesse Roylance.
For more information about the service project, contact the library at 388-4500.