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Minfong Ho (1951-) - Sidelights

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In award-winning novels such as Sing to the Dawn, Rice without Rain, and The Clay Marble, Minfong Ho presents realistic depictions of her native Southeast Asia. Characteristically focusing on strong female protagonists who interact with their families and friends against the backdrop of real events, Ho is often recognized for the sensitivity and understanding with which she treats the feelings of her characters as well as for her depiction of Asian life and locale. Her books include stories for young adult readers and middle graders as well as picture books for younger children. In all of these works, Ho does not avoid the harsher elements such as poverty and violent death, but she also weaves the theme of the stabilizing influence of family throughout her work. A contributor in St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers explained that Ho "creates a world of great beauty and gentleness, with loving family relationships and ancient customs. But she also creates a world of poverty, drought, dreadful injustice, starvation, and death. Her protagonists are set between these two visions, but in that situation they discover their pride, integrity, and determination to love the land and overcome injustice."

Ho's own life reflects an ability to interpret the East to the West, to adapt to new and sometimes confusing and troubling circumstances. Born in Burma in what might be called privileged circumstances, Ho grew up in both Singapore and Thailand. She also did most of her studying in English, making her fluent in three languages. She has said that each language rules a separate part of her. Chinese, Ho's first language, is the language of her heart, while Thai, her workaday language, is that of her hands. English, the language of study, is the language of her head. The resulting fragmentation, or "linguistic schizophrenia" as she has termed it, has never been resolved for Ho. Though she writes in English, she feels that she has never been able to bridge the languages of her life; having lived in the United States for two decades, she has noted that "even now, when I cry, I cry in Chinese."

In part, it is this very fragmentation—linguistic as well as cultural—that led Ho into writing stories. Educated at Bangkok's Patana School and the International School as well as at Taiwan's Tunghai University, Ho came to the U.S. to complete her undergraduate degree at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. At Cornell, she began a short story that later became her first novel, Sing to the Dawn. "When I wrote Sing to the Dawn, it was in moments of homesickness during the thick of winter in upstate New York, when Thailand seemed incredibly far away," Ho once commented. "Writing about the dappled sunlight and school children of home brought them closer to me; it aired on paper that part of me which couldn't find any place in America. That story was not meant to be read—it was only one hand clapping." But Ho found another hand, a reader, in the Council for Interracial Books for Children, to whom she submitted "Sing to the Dawn" for their annual short story contest. The original story describes how Dawan, a schoolgirl from a rural Thai village, encounters resistance from her father and brother when she wins a scholarship to the city high school. Ho won the award for the Asian-American Division of unpublished Third World Authors and was encouraged to enlarge the story into a novel. "The manuscript was later published (through no effort of mine)," Ho once recalled. "Suddenly a whole new dimension of writing opened to me: it became a communicative rather than a cathartic activity. I had always written, but now I would have readers!"

Ho also began to see the writing process as one that was inherently "a political expression," as she once wrote in Interracial Books for Children Bulletin. "I had never enjoyed reading stories of Asia in my own childhood.… Children's books about Thailand, China, Burma, etc. were invariably about princes and emperors and/or their elephants, peacocks and tigers. The few about village life portrayed it as idyllic and easy-going, full of kites and candles and festivals at the temples. This was not the Asia I knew, and I had resented the writers—usually white—who out of condescension and ignorance misrepresented these countries." With Sing to the Dawn, Ho attempted to avoid these pitfalls and create a realistic story of one girl's struggle to get an education. Dawan achieves first place on a government exam for a high school scholarship, an exam in which her younger brother comes in second. But her real fight comes after the test: now she must convince her father and her brother that she—the girl of the family—should be allowed to go to the city and study. She enlists the aid of her timid mother, of a Buddhist monk, and of a cousin who has lived in the city. Support also comes from her grandmother and from a flower girl named Bao. Dawan learns an important lesson along the way—that she must struggle to become free. Finally, she convinces her brother to give his blessing and leaves for school, though her father is still resistant. "The author's love of her native countryside is evident in her vivid descriptions," commented Cynthia T. Seybolt in a School Library Journal review. Seybolt also noted that Dawan's story "provides a perspective on women's liberation far removed and much more important than breaking into the local Little League." Though many reviewers noted that this first novel was slow in parts because of frequent descriptive passages, a Kirkus Reviews critic maintained that, "underneath the delicate lotus imagery, this small, understated story is infused with passion and determination," such that Dawan confronts her battle for freedom and equality with a "rage so powerful" that it makes "this otherwise modest narrative vibrate." The book was illustrated by Ho's younger brother, Kwoncjan, and proceeds from its sales were used to help set up a nursing scholarship for village girls in Thailand.

Meanwhile, Ho graduated from Cornell and returned to Asia, working as a journalist on the Singapore Straits Times and then as a lecturer at Chiengmai University in Thailand. While in Thailand, she observed firsthand the military coup of October 6, 1976. During these post-college years, Ho worked in "prisons and plywood factories," as she once explained. "I have transplanted rice seedlings and helped a peasant woman give birth; I have attended trade union meetings in stuffy attics and international conferences in plush hotels. There is so much, so much beauty and so much pain in the world around me which I want to write about—because I want to share it." But it would be another decade before she wrote her second book, using much of the material accumulated during her years in Thailand. Married in 1976 to a soil scientist she met during her Cornell years, Ho returned to the United States and settled in Ithaca, New York. She finished an M.F.A. in creative writing at Cornell while working as a teaching assistant. She also spent some time in relief work along the Thai-Cambodian border in 1980, gaining experience that would inform a later novel, The Clay Marble.

In 1986, after starting a family, Ho returned to writing fiction, publishing Rice without Rain, a book which retells the experiences of another village girl in Thailand. This time, however, the stakes are higher than in Sing to the Dawn. Jinda is seventeen the summer when young intellectuals from Bangkok arrive in her remote village. Two years of drought have brought deprivations to the village: Jinda's sister has no milk and her baby starves to death. Still, the villagers greet these outsiders with suspicion, especially when they encourage the men to form a rent resistance movement. Slowly the villagers, including Jinda's father, the headman, take up the rallying cry, and slowly too does Jinda fall in love with Ned, the leader of the student radicals. When Jinda's father is arrested, she follows Ned to Bangkok, where he organizes a demonstration that might help free Jinda's father. However, the military puts down the demonstrators in a bloody massacre. Returning to her village, Jinda discovers that her father has died in prison. She and Ned part ways, he to join communist guerrillas fighting the government, and she to "grow things and be happy" in her village. The title, taken from a Thai folk ballad, points to the fundamental importance of rice—of agriculture—in the life of the common people. Caught up in the larger ideologies of the college students, the villagers have become pawns. Jinda chooses the simpler path in life, the eternal way. Hazel Rochman, writing in Booklist, noted that though the book has violent and sometimes gritty passages, "the violence is quietly told, never exploited." School Library Journal contributor John Philbrook, despite finding some of the characters too "predictable," felt on the whole that Ho's novel "gives an interesting and at times absorbing glimpse of class struggle in the Thailand of the 1970s.… Not a masterpiece, but a novel from an author to watch." A Kirkus Reviews commentator called Rice without Rain "a valuable, memorable portrait of a little-known country."

Ho stayed with the land of her childhood for her third novel, incorporating experiences she had gleaned while serving as a relief worker along the Thai-Cambodia border. But with The Clay Marble, Ho created a book for middle-grade readers rather than strictly young adults. Twelve-year-old Dara, with her mother and older brother Sarun, journeys to the Thai border in search of food after the fall of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge. At a refugee camp, Dara meets another Cambodian family and becomes fast friends with Jantu, while Jantu's sister falls in love with Sarun. Jantu gives Dara a clay marble which Dara believes has magical properties. When fighting breaks out between rival guerrilla factions, Dara and Jantu are cut off from their families. Surviving several adventures, the two are finally reunited with their families, but Jantu is mistakenly shot and killed by Sarun—overly zealous on watch duty. Dara, in the end, convinces Sarun not to go off with the army but to return home with his family. Once again, Ho presents a strong female protagonist and employs the theme of family unity in the face of adversity. Some reviewers felt that Ho's characters lacked depth and that her language was at times too sophisticated for a twelve-year-old protagonist. However, other critics found, as did Maeve Visser Knoth in Horn Book, that Ho's story was "moving." Knoth noted that the book depicted a "people who have rarely had a voice in children's literature." A Kirkus Reviews critic commented that Ho "shapes her story to dramatize political and humanitarian issues" and concluded that the book was "touching, authentic," and "carefully wrought."

A change of pace for Ho came with her third child and next few books. The Two Brothers, a picture book for young readers, was cowritten with Saphan Ros. The orphaned brothers Kem and Sem have grown up in a monastery. Leaving the monastery for the big world, Kem takes the abbot's parting words of advice to heart and prospers, while Sem at first ignores the words of advice and leads the life of a peasant. Only after Sem remembers the abbot's words does his life turn around; he eventually becomes the king of Cambodia. "This entertaining picture book provides its own lively interpretation of one dramatic folktale from Cambodia," wrote Carolyn Phelan in a Booklist review of The Two Brothers. Margaret A. Chang, writing in School Library Journal, concluded that it was a book "to value for its authentic setting, engaging story, and portrayal of one culture's take on the balance between choice and destiny."

Ho again teamed up with Ros on 1997's Brother Rabbit: A Cambodian Tale, a story about a crocodile, two elephants, and an old woman who prove to be no match for a mischievous rabbit. Commenting on Brother Rabbit, Horn Book reviewer Nancy Vasilakis asserted that "the back and forth between deceiver and deceived invests the tale with an unpredictability and kinetic edge that suits its theme well." Other picture books by Ho include Maples in the Mist: Children's Poems from the Tang Dynasty, her translations of sixteen short Tang Dynasty unrhymed poems, and Hush!: A Thai Lullaby, a bedtime tale that requests various animals, including a lizard and monkey, to be quiet and not disturb a sleeping baby. Kirkus Reviews dubbed Hush! a "charming, repetitive rhyme," and in School Library Journal, John Philbrook called it a "delightful, reassuring bedtime book with a unique setting." Reviewing Maples in the Mist, a writer in Five Owls noted that Ho's "translations are as clear and bright as the paintings" in a book that is "a successful example of contemporary picture book design." Karen L. MacDonald, writing in School Library Journal, called the book a "beautiful anthology."

With The Stone Goddess, Ho returned to books geared toward older readers. The novel, part of Orchard Books' "First Person Fiction" series to which many children's writers have contributed, focuses on twelve-year-old Nakri and her older sister Teeda, two Cambodian girls learning traditional dance. Teeda's desire is to dance the part of Mekhala, a goddess of the sea, who won a crystal ball by filling a glass with dew. But when the Khmer Rouge take over Cambodia, their father is killed, and the two girls are separated from their family and sent to a labor camp. While there, Teeda dies of malaria, and it is only after the Vietnamese win control that Nakri manages to find the remaining members of her family. With her mother and brothers, Nakri travels to America, but she struggles to adjust without the support of her sister. Through Nakri's love of classical dance, however, she manages to connect to her sister and overcome her grief. In her Horn Book review, Susan P. Bloom thought that Ho writes the story "heartbreakingly," and Linda Perkins of Booklist called The Stone Goddess "a compassionate portrait of a young Cambodian refugee." A critic for Kirkus Reviews noted that Ho "never strays from the intimacy of Nakri's strong, but vulnerable, voice." In School Library Journal, Kathleen Isaacs claimed, "This moving, first-person account rings true, both to Cambodian history and to the immigrant experience."

Ho continues to write novels for young people. Informing all of her work is her emphasis on sharing her cross-cultural experiences with others, sometimes in the guise of fiction, sometimes in retellings of folktales or poems. "I have grown up in Thailand and Singapore, and lived in Taiwan, Laos, and the United States—and yes, sometimes it's been a bit of a stretch, to try to absorb and adapt to the different cultures, but it's been very enriching as well," Ho once stated. "If my writing has helped other children become more 'elastic' in their appreciation of Southeast Asian cultures, then my stretching would have been truly worthwhile!"

Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 29, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1999.

Children's Literature Review, Volume 28, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.

Karolides, Nicholas J., editor, Censored Books II: Critical Viewpoints, 1985-2000, Scarecrow Press (Lanham, MD), 2002.

St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, 2nd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.

Twentieth-Century Young Adult Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1994.

PERIODICALS

Booklist, July, 1990, Hazel Rochman, review of Rice without Rain, p. 2083; March 1, 1995, Carolyn Phelan, review of The Two Brothers, p. 1244; April 15, 1996, Janice Del Negro, review of Hush!: A Thai Lullaby, p. 1443; May 1, 1997, Karen Morgan, review of Brother Rabbit: A Cambodian Tale, p. 1499; March 1, 2003, Linda Perkins, review of The Stone Goddess, p. 1206.

Five Owls, January-February, 1997, review of Maples in the Mist: Children's Poems from the Tang Dynasty, p. 57.

Horn Book, November-December, 1990, Ann A. Flowers, review of Rice without Rain, p. 749; January-February, 1992, Maeve Visser Knoth, review of The Clay Marble, p. 71; July-August, 1995, Ellen Fader, review of The Two Brothers, p. 471; November-December, 1996, Hanna B. Zeiger, review of Hush!, p. 725; May-June, 1997, Nancy Vasilakis, review of Brother Rabbit, pp. 333-334; May-June, 2003, Susan P. Bloom, review of The Stone Goddess, p. 348.

Interracial Books for Children Bulletin, Volume 8, number 7, 1977, Minfong Ho, "Writing the Sound of One Hand Clapping," pp. 5, 21.

Kirkus Reviews, June 1, 1975, review of Sing to the Dawn, p. 604; May 1, 1991, review of Rice without Rain, p. 649; October 1, 1991, review of The Clay Marble, p. 1287; February 1, 1996, review of Hush!, p. 227; February 1, 2003, review of The Stone Goddess, p. 231; March 1, 2003, review of In My Grandmother's House, p. 380.

New York Times Book Review, October 7, 1990, Linda Wertheimer, review of Rice without Rain, p. 30; April 26, 1992, p. 25; August 13, 1995, p. 23.

Publishers Weekly, March 25, 1996, p. 82; April 14, 1997, review of Brother Rabbit, p. 75; January 6, 2003, "Series Set in the Past," p. 61; March 3, 2003, "Family Affair," p. 78.

School Library Journal, March, 1976, Cynthia T. Seybolt, review of Sing to the Dawn, p. 104; September, 1990, John Philbrook, review of Rice without Rain, p. 250; October, 1991, John Philbrook, review of The Clay Marble, p. 122; June, 1995, Margaret A. Chang, review of The Two Brothers, p. 102; March, 1996, John Philbrook, review of Hush!, p. 175; September, 1996, Karen L. MacDonald, review of Maples in the Mist; May, 1997, Ellen Fader, review of Brother Rabbit, p. 120; March, 2003, Kathleen Isaacs, review of The Stone Goddess, p. 233.

Straits Times, September 26, 1996, p. 4.

Times Educational Supplement, February 13, 1987, p. 44; September 22, 1989, p. 30.

Voice of Youth Advocates, December, 1995, p. 302.

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