When I was little, two when-I-grow-up-I-want-to-be dreams lit my fire: one was becoming a writer and the other was becoming a lawyer. Sure, lawyers aren't everyone's cup of tea, but I was -- and am-- a nerd. Learning the ins and outs of law appealed to my inner dweeb. Yet, I was (and am!) also practical. Recognizing the path to writing as a career was financially more uncertain, and having grown up in a family beset by money worries, I decided the more economically stable path of law was the way to go.
Like many lawyers however, I continued to nurse aspirations of becoming a writer. I comforted myself that lawyers are in a sense professional writers -- it's just our subject matter tends to be more prosaic than a novel filled with audacious plot-lines or compelling characters. I threw myself into lawyering, wedding those skills with my passion for China, and the combination turned out to be extremely satisfying. I worked on fascinating projects, applying my insights on China in ways that my clients found critical to their efforts, lived in one of the most dynamic cities in the world at a time of hope and optimism, and indulged in my hobby of learning more about pre-WWll Shanghai.
The day came however, when it was time to leave China. Things were changing. People I knew personally had been touched by these developments in ways that were ominous, and I could see that it was no longer the place of optimistic hopes that had drawn me decades earlier. A little over a year after repatriating back to the States, I retired from the practice of law and set myself to the task of completing the novel that like so many lawyers had been in my proverbial 'drawer' receiving intermittent attention as I was able to snatch time.
In pursuing this long-desired path, I took classes at the Seattle writing community treasure chest, Hugo House, something I had wanted to do decades earlier, but with small children and a demanding job, had never had time for. I studied under inspiring teachers like Nancy Rawles and Waverly Fitzgerald; despaired I would ever succeed in completing my novel; joined a weekly writing group with fellow pilgrims who aided me on my path; sent dozens upon dozens of queries to agents and editors; and in 2019 - FINALLY secured an offer to publish my book.
When the editing was complete and the cover designed, it felt very fitting that my novel, set in pre-WWll Shanghai was going to be launched in early March at the 2020 Shanghai Literary Festival.
Cue swelling heart strings and sighs over a lifelong dream about to be realized.
But of course, the horror show that turned out to be the Year 2020 had a different outcome in store for my author aspirations. By February, the spiraling pandemic led to cancellation of the Literary Festival and suspension of my book's launch. No problem. It would go live on August 1. With the pandemic still raging, I wouldn't be able to travel to literary festivals and book readings as the publisher and I had been planning, but who cared - it would be published!
Memorial Day weekend came and with it, that sickening image of a white police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, squeezing the life out of him. America recoiled in horror and disgust. Millions who had been sheltering in place during the pandemic, poured out onto the streets to stand witness against the cruelties directed at our Black sisters and brothers. As I joined them, the potential for positive change and the dedication of those seeking it, particularly young people, touched me deeply.
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, I had begun working on the story that would become Rumors From Shanghai, intending an allegory of sorts about the dangers America endures by virtue of prejudices about what we fear and who we are willing to believe. Rumors from Shanghai tells the story of an African American in 1940 who accepts a challenging job at an American company in Shanghai when he cannot get work as a lawyer in the States. When he learns Japan is developing a secret plan to attack the U.S. navy at Pearl Harbor, he eventually concludes he must sound the alarm. The plot centers on the question of whether America will believe a warning from a Black man of impending peril.
The premise of a Black lawyer flourishing in pre-WWll Asia might sound fantastical, yet in the pre-WWll period, there really were Black men and women who lived, worked and thrived in Asia. People like Earl Whaley Nora Holt, and William McDonald Austin. One of the joys of working on Rumors from Shanghai was learning about the real Black people who pursued opportunities abroad that were denied them in their own country. When few Americans, White or Black, traveled abroad, the extent to which Black people did is impressive and their stories often enthralling.
My protagonist is entirely fictional, but I learned so much about real Black adventurers who aren't widely known and should be. A production company could devote itself to producing streaming series of people like Buck Clayton, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Sue Bailey Thurman, and Eugene Bullard, etc. and never run short of content. But I digress...
The launch of a book involves a demand for attention that rivals the intensity of a five year old shouting 'me, me, me' when asked who wants the biggest piece of birthday cake. With the bandwidth of both conventional media and social media full to bursting, a new book by a debut author requires nothing less than such a full-throated roar.
Yet, as the Black Lives Matter protests spread in June, and people's awareness of the seriousness of the challenges faced by Black Americans grew, deep in my gut a question began to squirm. If the bandwidth for attention in America is full to bursting, and real live Black people are warning of actual harm experienced now, who am I to distract from that message? What right do I have to claim a share of the limited commodity that is public attention for the fictional Black hero of my story, when so many real African American people are engaged in herculean efforts to save America from its worst tendencies?
In a year with the potential for turning America towards justice and equity for Black Americans, I concluded I couldn't be the five year old demanding the biggest slice of cake. For now, I needed to let go of my dream, in favor of allowing space for the bigger dream: of a justice system that treats all participants equitably, that protects people's rights regardless of which racial or economic class they hail from, embedded in a social system that benefits from the contributions of Black creators and Black culture while rewarding the Black talent that generates such contributions.
So, I set aside my dream and suspended the publication of my novel.
On August 1, the erstwhile publication date, I wrote about that decision here. A month plus on, I am glad I made the choice I did. The continued efforts of young people like those behind @Black.Collective.Voice, of lawmakers like those supporting the Justice in Policing Act, and the presence of Kamala Harris, a candidate with a decades-long history of commitment to justice reform, on the Democratic presidential ticket, give me hope. As I wrote in my essay "Trading Fictional Heroes for Real Life Heroics," maybe some good can come out of this really bad year.