Hey guys, did you know that Annette LeBox is Canadian? Cuz I didn’t. And more than that, she went to the same university I am attending? How awesome right? Canucks for the win! Anyway, today I have her on the blog to answer some questions about her book: Circle of Cranes.
1. I’m sure this is a question you have been asked many times before but where did you initially hear of the crane folktale? Did you come across it in a book or were you told the tale by a person? What aspect of the crane folktale interest you the most?
I’m not sure exactly when or how I first heard the story of the crane wife but it was one of many stories I used to tell as a storyteller. When I decided to write a novel in the genre of magic realism, I looked up the folktale in a book and adapted it. The crane wife story has many versions in Asia.
What interested me most was the transformation myth. The association of women and cranes runs through many cultures. I had discovered one such myth while doing research on my first novel, Miracle at Willowcreek. In the Ethnographical Notes of Simon Pierre, a Katzie First Nation shaman, there is a myth of the transformer who changed two sisters into Sandhill cranes. To the Katzie, cranes are guardian spirits for girls and those honored by the crane spirit are gifted in handiwork. Cranes and sewing are often associated. I come from a long line of seamstresses so this resonated with me.
2. This next question stems from a class in post-colonial literature that I took but how do you deal with the question of appropriation of culture? Have you had someone bring it up with you? I know your work is backed up by impressive research but what would you advise writers who are tackling cultures and people they do not belong to? What is the one important thing to keep in mind?
Until now, no one has mentioned the issue of appropriation of culture to me. That said, I did struggle long and hard about whether to begin writing a novel ‘outside my culture’. I also understand the desire of cultural groups to protect their stories. Yet as I discovered the facts about migrant ships, human smugglers and sweatshops, I weighed any criticism I might receive against the importance of informing readers about the abuse of children in the garment industry. I am an activist at heart.
The theme of Circle of Cranes is sisterhood and the way women connect cross-culturally. The world family of cranes, fifteen different species, is a metaphor for demonstrating how women from different cultures come together through shared stories and embroidery stitches. As the brolga crane from Australia tells Suyin, “All women in the world are from one family… In the earliest times, our ancestors were nomads. The women traded embroidery stitches like silks and spices. “
The crane sisters from different parts of the world teach Suyin their embroidery stitches and when Suyin masters these stitches, she adapts and combines them to create patterns uniquely her own. For me, this kind of cultural cross-pollination is what brings greater understanding among peoples.
I’m not sure I can give any meaningful advice to other writers on this issue, but two words come to mind – humility and respect. Writing what you know is a heck of a lot easier than writing outside your culture! If you attempt the latter, be prepared to spend a lot of time (it was years for me) doing research and then hope and pray that you mostly get it right. For one year, I watched only Chinese movies, listened to traditional Chinese music, (I love A.Bing’s erhu music) read Chinese literature and researched the ethnic minorities, particularly the Miao people, and that was just the beginning of my journey.
3. What was the best part about writing Circle of Cranes? The most challenging? Now that the book is out, do you wish you had written something differently?
One of the best parts of writing Circle of Cranes was working with two amazing editors, Alisha Niehaus and Heather Alexander at Dial Books for Young Readers. Their insightful suggestions and guidance through the process made a huge difference to the story. The most challenging part of the writing was stitching together the various threads of the story into a coherent whole.
If I had to change one thing it would be to cue the reader in the first few chapters that the story was a contemporary one. Because I wanted to begin the story like a fairytale and establish that the Miao minority people have kept their old ways, some readers assumed that the story took place in the distant past.
4. Let’s talk about influences. I’m always curious to know what books authors love and read over and over again. Are there any childhood favourites? Any recent favourites that you’d recommend to your readers?
My favourite book in elementary school was Anne of Green Gables. In high school I loved Wuthering Heights and Gone with the Wind. My contemporary favourites are Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (a masterpiece), Annabel by Kathleen Winter ( a beautiful heart-breaking read), We Need to Talk About Kevin (gripping and horrific) and The Post-Birthday World (a high-wire act of writing) by Lionel Shriver and most any book by Alice Hoffman.
5. What’s next? Are you working on a new novel? Anything you can tell us about the new project?
Presently, I’m working on a YA novel called Maddie Sparrow, a story of a young girl who runs away and barely survives life on skid row (the Downtown Eastside) only to come up against a stubborn ranch woman and her husband who take her in as a foster parent in the back-country of BC.
6. If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
If I weren’t a writer, I would be a visual artist. I used to paint in my twenties and with a teaching career and raising children, I had no time to pursue it farther. Two years ago, I set up a studio downstairs in my home and started painting again. Now I’m torn between two loves, painting and writing.
Thanks for answering my questions, Annette! Now on to the review!
Hardcover, 256 pages
Published April 12th 2012 by Dial
A lyrical fantasy blending fairy tale elements with contemporary issues
Thirteen-year-old Suyin is a poor orphan who has a strange gift with languages and a mysterious connection to the cranes in her small Chinese village. When a shady human trafficker arrives promising luxury and riches beyond belief in America, the villagers elect Suyin – whom they consider lucky – to go as their benefactress. But instead of luxury, Suyin is forced to work in a sweatshop in New York City’s Chinatown. Suyin’s future seems hopeless, until her beloved cranes arrive and reveal that she is no ordinary girl – instead, she is the daughter of the Crane Queen. Now her mother’s life is in danger, and Suyin must prove herself worthy of her position as the Crane Princess, in order to save her mother and the entire clan of cranes.
If you were to judge this novel by it’s cover, you would perhaps peg it as a light story, involving some retelling of a fairy tale. Something pretty that can be read, put away and out of your mind as you move on to other books. You would be wrong because a Circle of Cranes is definitely more substantial than the majority of its counterparts. It deals with a folktale that is not commonly known in North America – at least I didn’t know it – and the protagonist is not a first world citizen confident about her status in the world she is living. I won’t lie, I thought I would zip through the novel but I found the experience a lot more ponderous than I had expected it to be. While the retelling is a folktale, the issues the novel discusses is most definitely contemporary. The antagonists in the novel smuggle Asian (in this instance, Chinese) children into America and then put them to work in garment factories and other hovel-like places. They are overworked and underpaid. They are imprisoned like sub-humans and treated like animals. They have no rights and their only link to their families and the lives they left behind in their country of origin is through letters and these too are controlled by their bosses.
Circle of Cranes is a story of a sisterhood both the mythical crane sisterhood and the more immediate, more real sisterhood that the smuggled girls along with the protagonists find themselves forming through shared experiences, losses and hopes. The book is sometimes a bit too dry but it is consistent in tone and delivery. It does not waver from its true purpose and that is to seamlessly intersperse the magical with the mundane. There are no enchanting princes on white chargers, there is not even a mysterious boy in a biology class. This book takes the average reader out of her element and places her stock and barrel into a world as alien to her as our world must have seemed to Suyin. I loved the glimpse of the different culture and how unapologetically LeBox narrated the differences in the Miao culture and the North American one. The journey Suyin goes through is gradual and I liked seeing her grow in increments from the child she was to the woman she becomes at the end. The romance, too, is shy and bashful and I liked how delicately LeBox wove it into the narrative thread.
Again, I don’t think this novel is an easy read. It makes you confront the wrongs that are being done and makes you look at a very bleak sort of life. But it also shows that beauty persists no matter the surroundings and that hope is always present. It is just a matter of recognizing it. Do I recommend it? Certainly. It’s very different from everything else I have read so far.