Writers Resist: NYT Bestselling Author Jamie Ford on Compassion Creation in the Era of Identity Politics

01/19/2017 01:00 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2017

This is the third entry in the Power of the Pen series in which writers describe how they are coping with the impending Trump presidency.

Your wonderful novel HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET centers around the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII.

When you wrote it, did you have any idea that a future presidential election would include discussions about ethnic registration and possible roundups?

Like the idea of a Trump presidency, I would have laughed at the notion. In fact, I did several interviews (many on conservative talk radio) where people asked “Could this ever happen again?” And my reply was always “no.”

Sadly, I’ve had to qualify my answer. I doubt something like the Japanese Internment could happen again, but mainly because of logistics, not because our moral compass as a nation is so strong and unwavering. An alarming percentage of Americans would readily look the other way if it ensures them a measure of protection. And the fact that so many people bought into the idea of Hillary Clinton running a child sex-ring out of a pizza joint is disturbing. Especially since we all know it was actually a Chick-fil-A.

Your father wore an "I am Chinese" button in the 1940s to distinguish himself from Japanese community members who were being interned. How do you see this potentially playing out in our new era of racial, ethnic, sexuality/gender and religious division?

If the 2016 election showed us anything, it’s that identity politics have become more divisive than celebratory. I think it’s time to rejoice in our different cultures, rather than use those differences to beat each other up. Don’t get me wrong, I was asked to speak at a resort three years ago that didn’t allow Jewish members—these places still exist. But in contrast, there was an amazing Pride celebration here in Montana, without conflict, without contention—just a giant, radiant hug of human kindness. It could have been an excoriation of politicians who had held gay marriage back, but instead it was constructive. So the takeaway was positive and inclusive and not about blaming people. (Or as the great philosopher, Michelle, once said, “When they go low, we go high.”)

HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET is widely used by schools for cross-curricular teaching about WWII. Does this reality have new meaning for you in 2017? Do you have particular hopes for how its lessons might be taught?

Somehow I grew up and became homework (sorry, kids). I guess my hope is that students realize that each generation has its own cultural baggage, and that they don’t have to carry that baggage. They can befriend who they want, they can date, intermarry, hold each other up for all the cool things each of us bring to our collective, shared experience as Americans. Rather than build walls and retreat into stereotyping one another. Also, for that one kid who keeps emailing, “Hey, what’s the plot of your book?” the plot is: turn off the Xbox and read.

Your latest book, LOVE AND OTHER CONSOLATION PRIZES, will be released in September. It's based on a true story about a boy who is raffled off at the 1909 world's fair. Are there connections with this book to our current political situation?

The main corollary is that we have always had, and always will have, a strange confluence of sex and politics—it’s part of the human condition. So in the West, the states that lead the nation’s earliest suffrage movements, ironically, were also states that tolerated prostitution. And in my new novel, the Mayor of Seattle falls from grace after he builds a 400-room brothel (true story). In our modern world, we have rumors about Trump and his activities with Russian escorts. (I’m not sure if there’s enough eye-bleach in the world if that video surfaces).

How did the election impact you personally?

Well, not much, aside from temporarily losing my faith in mankind. Because my stepdaughter, who is half-Asian, was confronted at a store and told: “You need to pack up and leave the country because Trump is taking over.”

She was in tears and I was furious. But, there were other shoppers who made this douche-bag leave. So I try and focus on the good people, and not the random creep. Most of us are decent, loving, human beings. Though a part of me definitely knows what turns Mr. Hand into Mr. Fist.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a Hollywood story set in the 40s-50s, seen through the eyes of a Chinese extra. My grandfather, who was an extra in 300+ films, inspired the tale. In fact, I have a collection of photos signed to him from Clark Gable, Bette Davis, Gregory Peck, Randolph Scott, and more. Sadly, I had to explain to my teenagers who these people were.

Is the resulting turmoil and fear that many Americans are experiencing feeding or forming your work in any way?

I’ve always been writing multi-cultural stuff, so it feels like the ship I’ve been sailing for a while is just now crossing a stormy sea. But political turmoil is not changing what I do. If anything, it validates what I’ve been doing all along. Fiction creates empathy and the result is more compassion––I’m basically in the compassion creation business. And there’s suddenly a high demand.

What are you doing to try to make a difference?

I’ve been writing a lot of op-eds lately. I wrote one that was sympathetic to the plight of Syrian refugees. The response I got was overwhelmingly positive, but there was one guy who cornered me in a pub so he could tell me that I was wrong and how all Muslim nations should be nuked to oblivion. I asked him if he had any Muslim friends. Surprise––he’d never met a Muslim person. We actually had a decent conversation. I will continue to try and reach the unreachable, with logic from above, rather than arguing in the trenches.

Also, I’ve been a regular volunteer at the Boys & Girls Club. One kid said that if she were president she’d ban clowns. So I’m hopeful for a clown-free future.

What do you hope other authors will do?

I hope authors will always speak their minds, not neuter their opinions because they’re afraid of blowback. And given the opportunity, I hope they back up their words with action. As Harlan Ellison said, “It’s easy for writers to talk the talk, but sometimes you gotta walk the walk.” Harlan spoke out in the LA Free Press, and later marched with Dr. King from Selma to Montgomery. If you can find a better example of a contemporary writer’s social responsibility––I’m all ears.

Any other thoughts?

In trying to be positive, I don’t want it to sound like I’m forgetting the past. It’s important for me to remember that my mom was from Arkansas and that my parents couldn’t get married in her home state because of miscegenation laws, and that my Chinese grandparents lived in a redlined neighborhood. But I also choose to remember that our class president in grade school was Japanese, and that I was voted vice-president.

So despite the horrors of our 24/7 news-cycle, there has actually been progress. It’s just easy to forget that fact, especially when Trump opens his mouth or hate-tweets someone at 3AM.

You can follow Jamie on Facebook and Twitter, or learn more about his books and appearances on his website.

Read more entries in the Writers Resist series here.

Suzanne DeWitt Hall is the author of Rumplepimple, a hilarious illustrated story book featuring a misunderstood doggy hero and his two moms. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter, or check out her website.

Rumplepimple paperback version

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