Jacqueline Pardo and W. Michael Blumenthal were among the many people whose stories, books and lives helped shape your research and writing. How did the two of them inform your work?
I met Jacqueline Pardo by almost miraculous coincidence on campus. I went to her house in 2014 and was stunned to discover that she has a world-class archive of objects, documents and photographs that belonged to her mother in Shanghai during World War II.The objects, documents, and photos of Karin’s girlhood gave me the sweep and scope of a lived girlhood in Shanghai during the war: her school bag; notebooks and diaries; a thank you note she and her fellow Girl Guides wrote to American soldiers who had given them chocolate; and her exemplary report card, tarnished only by her music teacher’s hilarious note, “Can’t sing.”
I also talked with and read the books of the supremely generous Michael Blumenthal, a former Treasury secretary under President Jimmy Carter. Michael is a Shanghai Jew who grew up in the neighborhood of Hongkou, which in 1943 became a ghetto—all Jewish refugees were forced to move there. He gave me a view of China and humanity both profound and intricately detailed. He remembered the boys walking in circles around Hongkou, like teenage boys anywhere, hoping for the notice of their crushes.
He also described what it felt like to come to understand as a child that some adults rally in the face of hardship, while others disintegrate. While working in the White House, he asked himself of each powerful person he met: “How would he or she do in 1940s Shanghai, dressed in flour sacks?” His wonder and empathy informed and continue to inform mine.
Why did you also want to build an exhibit out of Jacqueline Pardo’s family possessions?
Whenever I find something astonishing or profound in the world, I want to show it to my students. This is why the Program in Creative Writing works so hard to bring our favorite writers and their brilliant work to campus, and why I was determined to have Blumenthal come and talk with us. When I saw Jacqueline’s mother’s belongings, and percolated how instrumental they had been to me in writing Someday We Will Fly, I wanted to show them to my students. I also assigned my writers to bring in objects, documents, and photographs that were parts of or necessary to their novels-in-progress.
Writers are doing research all the time. It’s not always formal, but all of our looking, asking, and listening—it counts. I wanted to say to my students how much their work in the world matters, that they’re creating a record so they can convey meaning or ask questions. We gain emotional and intellectual knowledge by looking at pictures or objects and asking: “How did this come to be?” Or looking at somebody’s mother’s book bag, report card, or paper dolls, and being transported by those objects into 1940s Shanghai.
Seeing one family’s record of wartime daily life gives us a way to wonder about how to help people who are now at risk, who are now separated, who are now fleeing violence and danger. I hope our exhibit elicits both empathy and activism.