Monday, March 25, 2013

Author Spotlight: Ira Sukrungruang

In this lively, entertaining, and often hilarious memoir, Ira Sukrungruang relates the early life of a first-generation Thai-American and his constant, often bumbling attempts to reconcile cultural and familial expectations with the trials of growing up in 1980s America. Young Ira may have lived in Oak Lawn, Illinois, but inside the family's bi-level home was "Thailand with American conveniences" and the feeling of not belonging in either of these two worlds. Talk Thai provides generous portions of a rich and ancient culture while telling the story of a modern American boyhood with humor, playfulness, and uncompromising honesty.

Q: What is the significance of the title Talk Thai?

My mother, when I was younger, used to post The Rules on the refrigerator door. These rules kept me in line, reminded me that I was supposed to be a proper Thai boy and nothing else. Her intentions were to bring me up Thai, even though we lived in a bi-level in Chicago, even though I attended an American elementary school and watched American TV. Her biggest fear was that America would sweep me away, and I would lose all sense of where our family came from, lose all sense of familial and cultural loyalty. Because of this, she created The Rules. Talk Thai was one of those rules. In the house, with my three parents—my mother, father, and Aunty Sue—I was to communicate in no other language but Thai.  

Q: How does the setting of the south side of Chicago affect this story? Does the immigrant experience in Chicago differ from the immigrant experience elsewhere?

Chicago was the place of my parents’ greatest joy—the birth of their only son—and the place they felt most exposed. My mother and aunt arrived in Chicago in 1968 and my father a couple of years later. Their lives began again here. It’s like that for many immigrants. You move to a place so unlike home, a place where you do not know the language, a place with different foods and weather. The rhythm of the city doesn’t quite match your internal rhythms. You have to relearn everything; you have to relearn how to survive. For my parents, Chicago was the place with buildings that cast long shadows, where the lake roared like the ocean, and the winter wind whipped fiercely. My parents had to learn how to drive…in snow. They bought an entirely different wardrobe because they realized the clothes they brought with them from their tropical country would not do well here. They had to overcome language barriers, and racism, since their arrival came on the coattails of the Vietnam War.

Still, Chicago wasn’t all that isolated. A great many other Thai immigrants were coming to the city. They formed a community, built a temple, and began marrying and having children, and suddenly, the community began to grow. The Thai Buddhist Temple of Chicago was the key to my parents’ happiness. Even though they were far from their families, far from their native homes, only twenty minutes away were people who were in the same position, who missed and understood the same things. Chicago is one of only a handful of cities with a Thai temple and a large Thai community. That made it a bit easier.   

Q: How would you say being a Buddhist affected the way you saw the world you grew up in? How do you think America felt about Buddhism when you were growing up?

Buddhism played such a large role in my life that I really didn’t notice it. I know that sounds strange, but growing up in a Buddhist family, I was saturated in religion. Our language, our threats were Buddhist. My mother told me if I lied, I would be reincarnated as an ant with a tiny mouth. A statue of Buddha was in almost every room. A Buddha pendant hung around my neck. I attended Sunday school at temple every Sunday, where monks taught Buddhism, or as I like to call it, Suffering 101. I knew Buddhist prayers as soon as I could talk. Buddhism was folded into our family culture.

My classmates in elementary school didn’t know what to make of the weird Buddhist boy in class. To them, Buddha was the fat bald guy they saw in Chinese restaurants. I always had to inform them that my Buddha worked out; he was in good shape and wore a pointy hat. I must admit, however, I was jealous of them because of God. Because most of them were Christian, and because most of my younger years I tried so hard to fit in, I wanted what they had. In one of the chapters of the book, I describe Jesus as a Mattel toy everybody had but me.   

Q: What does your mother think about the book?

She thinks I make her too funny. Other than that, she says the right things: she’s proud of me and yada, yada, yada. She ordered 10 copies already and promises to give them to her sisters and brothers, who don’t read English.

Seriously, it’s hard to tell what she thinks. She’s quick to communicate about some things, but complex emotions aren’t included in that. In fact, I’m working on another book that tries to examine where some of that reticence comes from: is it Thai? Buddhist? Her family’s culture? Or just one of the ways she survived so long in a country she never quite trusted?


Monday, March 18, 2013

Author Spotlight: Mark Osteen

One of Us: A Family's Life with Autism by Mark Osteen
In a powerful, deeply personal narrative, Mark Osteen chronicles the experience of raising his autistic son, Cameron, and recounts the struggles he and his wife endured in diagnosing, treating, and understanding Cam’s disability. One of Us is not a book about a child who overcomes autism. Instead, it’s the story of a different but equally rare sort of victory—the triumph of love over tremendous adversity.

Q: Your son, Cameron, has severe autism, and you’ve said you wrote this book to give him and others with the condition a voice.  What do you want readers [listeners] to know about autism, and what do you think Cameron might want them to know? 
            There are two popular conceptions of autism, and they conflict: on one hand, it’s seen as an unmitigated curse that heroic parents must cure; for higher-functioning people, on the other hand, it’s represented as a set of charming quirks coupled with some outlandish savant skill. Both views ignore the day-to-day struggles and triumphs of the majority of autistic people and their families. I want people to know about these struggles and these triumphs, as well as the fact that autism is usually a lifelong condition.
            Cameron might want people to know that although he may act differently and perceive the world differently from most, he is a feeling, thinking human being who, like all people with disabilities, deserves acceptance and respect.
Q: What do you think the world is like for someone with autism?  What were the challenges of capturing that as a writer?
            As I note in the book, for years I tortured myself with wondering how Cam perceived the world. I used to think that if I could just live inside his head for a couple of days, I could solve many of his problems. Reading the works of autistic adults gave me some sense of how he thinks, but these authors are able to read, write and speak for themselves, so in many ways they aren’t like him. I’m sure he must often be frustrated by his inability to communicate effectively, and is anxious to be understood and to have his needs and desires honored. But he’s like the rest of us in his love of music and other simple pleasures. We can learn from his ability to live completely in the moment.
            We need empathy to understand any other person, and that was the primary instrument I used to get inside of Cam’s head. Watching him, listening to him, and living with him day to day helped me to figure him out. But neither I nor Leslie always succeeded in doing that, and that’s one of the book’s main themes—that Cam remains to some degree a mystery.

Q: Did your approach to the book change as you considered getting started or during the writing process?  Did you wind up with the book you expected to write?
            The first drafts were much rawer, much angrier.  In fact, the process of writing the book helped me come to terms with our experiences and quell some of that rage. As I wrote and rewrote I learned to accept not only Cam—the book is all about that process of acceptance—but also my own mistakes and flaws. The finished book is a more balanced treatment of Cam’s autism than it was when, fueled by rage and sadness, I began it.

Q: How did your work as an English professor and literary scholar affect your approach? Is your book different from what a researcher or physician in your position would have written?  
            There’s no doubt that I’ve taken a “humanist” approach, rather than a scientific or clinical one. For example, in the chapter epigraphs I salute great writers who expressed thoughts and feelings that resonated with mine and Leslie’s. Their art helped me to place our experiences in more universal terms. Had I not been a literary scholar, I may not have appreciated the capacity for literature to help us feel what others feel and express those feelings beautifully.

Q: You write that autism is not just an individual disorder but also a family condition. What do you mean by that? What advice do you have for parents of autistic children or children with any kind of disability?
            Autism creates a powerful set of family dynamics: you are required to think with and feel with the person with autism. Because the autistic person needs so much attention and care, family members may become obsessed with the disorder and isolated from others. In those senses, whole family “becomes” autistic. More than that, living with Cam has opened my eyes to my own autistic characteristics, shown me that, in fact, autism is part of a spectrum not just of “disability” but of all human abilities and types.
            My advice? Educate yourself about autism and assess all treatments with a skeptical eye; look for real evidence that a treatment is suitable (and not dangerous) before trying it. But be flexible: don’t give up if one treatment doesn’t work. Listen to the autistic loved one and don’t mistake his or her needs and desires for your own. Separate the person from the disorder. Maintain some “autism-free” zone so that it doesn’t consume your life.

Q: A high percentage of couples with children with autism end up divorcing. What was the impact of Cameron’s autism on your marriage and family life?
            The book chronicles those effects in detail. Autism poses great challenges for daily living; those challenges, and the isolation it may bring, cause enormous stress. Small tensions or disagreements get magnified. It becomes tempting to look for someone to blame, so couples must be very careful not to scapegoat each other.

Q: Your book is powerful not just for its emotional account of life with Cameron but also for its sense of humor. How important has humor been to all of you? Do you think that will surprise readers? Tell us about one or two of those lighter moments from the book.
            Sometimes you laugh in order not to cry. But Cam has a great sense of humor: he makes fun of his mom, for example, by imitating her voice when she scolds him. And often he gives a little laugh—“ha ha ha”—to get you to laugh back at him.
            Cam’s lack of inhibitions can create funny situations. He used to take great joy in bouncing on his little trampoline. The tramp sat in front of our picture window, and from there Cam could watch TV or listen to music as he leaped. He liked to jump stark naked, which offered a potentially intriguing spectacle for passersby. But nobody seemed to notice.
            Once while out for a walk Leslie met a woman she knew from work. The lady asked where we lived. When Les described our house, the woman’s eyebrows went up: “Oh, where the naked boy lives!”
            He isn’t constrained by social rules. Once, while standing in line at the supermarket, he approached a stranger, looked directly at her, and began loudly singing “Knees Up, Mother Brown!”
            Beyond the embarrassment factor, Cam’s freedom from social norms can be liberating. He reminds us that many of these rules are artificial and constricting.

Q: I understand that you also do research on autism. Can you tell us about some of your previous or current work in that area?
            I organized a conference on autism and the humanities in 2005, and then edited a volume of essays taken from the conference. That book, Autism and Representation, was published in 2008. My comprehensive introduction to the book places autism within the field of disability studies and surveys a wide range of recent books and films that purport to represent autism. The other chapters—most written by scholars with autistic family members or by persons on the autism spectrum—cover topics such as the autistic imagination, and representations of autism in popular literature and cinema. I recently contributed an essay to a forthcoming book about fathers in academia, and to a special autism issue of Disability Studies Quarterly.

Q: Where is the research and treatment of autism headed?  What advances are likely and when might they happen? 
            The alleged connection between autism and vaccines has not been supported by scientific studies. Even so, a lot of dubious claims and treatments still circulate; many of the purveyors of these ideas and “cures” exploit autistic people and their parents financially and emotionally, while also drawing resources and attention away from more plausible treatments.
            A consensus has begun to emerge that autism is caused by some combination of genetic abnormalities and an undetermined environmental cause. Unlike with, say, Down syndrome, the genetic abnormalities seem to be complex and varied, and the attempt to pin down any specific environmental cause has been difficult (and sidetracked by the kinds of claims mentioned above). Seeking the cause of autism is important, but I think it’s more important for the autism community to focus on helping people who are already autistic to achieve a better quality of life and to pursue valid treatments and methods to obtain that, rather than chasing after some illusory panacea. We should balance the need to respect autistic people for themselves with the necessity to help them mitigate their communication and sensory problems and behavioral difficulties.

Q: There seem to be a variety of resources available for children with high functioning autism. Is that true for children with more severe form? What recommendations do you have for parents of children like Cameron?
            There are certainly more resources available now than when Cameron was a child. But people on the higher end of the spectrum get more attention from clinicians and from the media. Those with more severe autism are ignored, even though they need more help, perhaps because clinicians are more likely to publish articles about successful treatments.
            Every autistic person is different, so a treatment that works for one may not have any effect on another person who seems similar. I’d tell parents to get their child treated as early as possible with a reputable method, and be flexible in their approach. Don’t let your observations be clouded by wishful thinking. Instead of looking for a miracle, celebrate small successes and build on them. Don’t expect your child to be something he or she can’t be.
            To my mind, the most severe autism crisis today and in the future is the appalling and shameful inadequacy of adult services. Most of the autistic children being diagnosed today will be autistic adults, and unless our society and governmental institutions get their act together, these young adults will graduate from school into a world without adequate services. Autism advocacy organizations should shift some of their emphasis from cure and childhood to adult services and employment opportunities.

Q: You talk about the painful decision to send 12-year-old Cameron to a full-time residential school? How did Cameron benefit from that experience? What is his life like now?
            Cam has made significant progress in controlling his moods and learned some functional skills. But at age 21, he’s still significantly disabled and will need a lot of support for the rest of his life. Just this year he moved from his school to a residential placement and day program. He resides in a town about an hour and a half from us in a home with two other adults and three full-time staffers, and attends a day/work program five days per week. He’s still adjusting to the new environment, but we’re cautiously optimistic. We’ve learned, though, that our job as parents will continue; we still have to speak and fight for him.

Q: Why did you choose One of Us as the title of the book?
            The title suggests how we learned to accept Cam as a person like the rest of us. Oddly, it was only after we felt we’d “lost” him that we began to see him for who he was, rather than as a product of our expectations and needs.  Above all, the title means that autistic people are members not only of their own family, but of the human family.

Q: One of Us is a very honest, real account of life with an autistic child. What do you hope to accomplish by telling this story?
            I want to dispel some misconceptions about autism—that, for example, autistic people are all high-functioning; that they are valuable only if they have some savant skill; that recovery is the only story worth telling—and share other, more down-to-earth truths about people like Cam. I wanted to transform what was often a traumatic and frustrating experience into something that might help others. Above all, though, I wanted to give Cam—who can’t speak for himself—a voice, and to honor his presence in the world and make it meaningful.

Monday, March 11, 2013

From the Director

If you are a Patron of the University of Missouri Press, you probably already know that we're in the midst of our Annual Fund drive. Although we had a one-week matching-fund drive this past November, thanks to the generosity of an anonymous donor, it has been more than two years since the Press has made a mailing to the full Patron membership asking for your continued support.

Following its temporary closure this past summer, the Press is poised for growth and expansion. We are excited about the books we have lined up for our Fall 2013 list, and we are excited as well about making more of our backlist titles available as ebooks while simultaneously making all of our ebooks available through more venues. We are also hoping to strengthen the financial status of the Press so that no future University administration will consider closing the Press to be a viable option.

The strong and vocal support of our Patrons played an integral role in convincing the University administration to reverse its decision to close the Press. Knowing how much you appreciate the work we do has also reinvigorated our commitment to our publishing program. We hope that, with your ongoing support, the Press will be able not just to survive but to prosper, continuing to publish important books while taking on the challenges posed by new technologies and the changing face of book publishing.

As a university press, we are mindful of our mission to publish significant works of scholarship, especially those unlikely to turn a profit for commercial publishers. Your steadfast support for this work has brought the Press to an exciting juncture. We invite you now to invest in the future of the Press by making a tax-deductible contribution to the Press’s endowment fund. Your donation will make a substantial difference in our ability to continue to publish and market important works of scholarship.

If you received a letter from me, I hope that you will take a few minutes to respond. If you are not already a Patron of the Press or did not receive the recent mailing, you can contribute by completing and mailing the form on the Patrons pages of our website.  Or, if you would rather pay online with a credit card, go to MU Online Giving, click Other, and type in “University of Missouri Press Endowment Fund.”

Thank you for your consideration and your support.

Jane Lago
Consulting Director

Monday, March 4, 2013

Women's History

As we celebrate Women’s History this month, with this post on our blog and a special sale on our website, I can’t help marveling at the courage and determination it took to make that history.

The year 2013 is a special anniversary in women’s history. One hundred years ago, 5,000 women marched on Washington demanding the right to vote.  The women were jeered by crowds that had gathered in the capital awaiting Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration the next day. Some were attacked while policemen looked on.  Some were arrested. But they persisted.

Such persistence is a hallmark of the women on whom we turn a spotlight this month. Pioneer women, whose previously unknown stories are recounted in books by Janet Floyd, Carla Waal, and Barbara Oliver Korner, forged new lives for themselves and their families, overcoming the often hostile environment through a combination of resourcefulness, resilience, and optimism. And the story of one especially famous pioneer woman is told in John Miller’s Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman behind the Legend.

Sarah Winchester, heiress to the rifle fortune, left behind a legend of her own, as well as a labyrinth of a house that continues to fascinate tourists and ghost-hunters alike. Mary Jo Ignoffo separates fact from fiction in Captive of the Labyrinth.

Isabella Gardner, a now largely forgotten poet, liked a little fiction mixed with her fact. Supported by family money if not by her family members, she remade her life, and herself, repeatedly, always expecting the next adventure, or the next husband, to bring her the happiness she sought.  Author Marian Janssen chronicles the twists and turns. Alex Beam, of the Boston Globe, calls Gardner “an addictively interesting black sheep.”

Find out more about all these fascinating and determined women and discover others by visiting the press’s website and checking out our special Women’s History Month book sale.

Sara Davis
Managing Editor