Li Miao Lovett is a writer, educator, and communications director in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her debut novel, In the Lap of the Gods, is a tale of love and loss set in China amidst the rising waters of the Three Gorges dam. She judges the Intercultural Essay for the Soulmaking Contest. Her work is included in several anthologies including The Chalk Circle. Li has contributed to the San Francisco Chronicle, New America Media, National Radio Project’s Making Contact, and KQED. In both fiction and nonfiction, Li’s work has won awards or finalist standing from Glimmer Train, Writer’s Digest, Stanford Magazine, A Room of Her Own Foundation, and the James Jones First Novel Fellowship. As a freelance journalist, she recently documented the health effects of pesticides on farmworking communities with a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism. More about Li’s novel at: limiaolovett.com.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?
It’s a bit boring to answer with my standard, middle-age-ripe-for-midlife-crisis reply, “I’m an educator and writer.” I’ll tell the truth: I’m a chameleon. I work during the day as a community college counselor, and it’s usually sexier to say that I work with students learning Biotech research skills than with people who are working in preschools wiping snot off kids’ faces. Through our faculty union, I’ve gotten pulled into advocacy work and communications. That pays the bills. And it feeds the soul, but not all the time. I miss those years when I worked on my novel in cafes 4 mornings or afternoons a week, drinking lots of decaf coffee.
Now there’s the cognitive dissonance that I feel at times about living in this expensive corner of the planet. If someone paid me a living wage to fight climate change and keep the Koch brothers of the world in check, I would. If someone paid me more than two quarters for each copy of my book sold in print, I’d change my chameleon skin again and add more writer stripes. I’ve written a novel (it’s called In the Lap of the Gods, SHAMELESS PROMOTION). I’m a closet poet who doesn’t mind if my nature-based verse is never published. I’ve done long-form radio pieces and articles about pesticides, food safety, energy policy during the Dubya years. Dubya who? You know, the brother of Jeb Bush. Let’s face it, a handful of writers get to make a living solely at creative writing, unless you count grading papers about Martians wearing bikinis and feather boas. Or strip teasers, but I’m not going to go there.
Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.
I once spent 10 days hiking with a group of teenagers from an alternative high school in Daly City. For these kids, mainstream school wasn’t the answer. For those ten days, I was part of a tribe, and their language consisted mostly of four-letter words. We camped in the Los Padres National Forest. I learned what it meant for these kids to have a tribe behind you when you don’t think you have it in you to get up in the middle of the night and climb to the top of a mountain. This young woman who must have weighed 200 pounds and sported lime green hair did not care to hike. She would rather have eaten banana slugs than do that slog up the snowy slopes to Serra Peak. I was assisting with our group of ten students, and the troop leader was this awesome, down-to-earth woman named Sue Chavez who knew what these inner city kids needed. She said we were in this together, and no one would be left behind. At each bend in the switchbacks, the girl with green hair sat down and refused to go on. Every frickin’ 50 yards. One of her classmates stayed a step behind her, giving her encouragement in this fast-talking, sing-song radio ad voice, “That’s right Justine you can do it just one more step it’s not so bad yeah that foot hurts we’ll take care of it and then you’ll be at the top just like that no problem I’ll bet you a joint you can do it.” Because of Justine, it took us twice the time, something like 8 hours, to get to the top. None of the other troops made it. I learned what solidarity meant from this Latina woman who led our band singing Mick Jagger songs, who believed we could do it, and we had to do it together leaving no one behind.
What’s wrong with society today?
Tremendous inequality. We see it in places like San Francisco, and we don’t. We tune out the homeless people and the poverty. But we keep reading and hearing about the nouveau riche and the techies. I mean, techie wear and hoodies are fashionable. (I saw that in the Style pages…okay, nobody else reads the newspaper.) What grounds my work as a writer is that I actually spend a good deal of my productive time serving folks who come from working class backgrounds just trying to get a leg up – or get farther than their parents did – by going to school. My mom was a seamstress making two bucks an hour back in the seventies. And my dad was a computer technician, well before technology was an appendage and a fashion statement. They scrimped and saved, bought their first house for $90,000. You can’t do that very easily now, even the techies.
I think we’re too fond of our technology. Some people go to bed with their cell phones. We’ve evolved over tens of thousands of years into these beings with a great capacity for imagination, and for sublimation of our primal desires into all these constructs: money, art, material things from the crass to the sublime. And while the Internet allows us to connect with others all over the world, often we’d rather spend time with this plastic gadget than with the people in our lives. Now I’m only talking about societies that can afford such devices. Such technology gives us the ability to be voyeurs into societies where people are surviving off the land, fleeing war, or trapped in poverty. But that kind of exposure at a distance doesn’t necessarily build empathy. I’d say, get out into the world more. Make eye contact. Put away the phone for a while.
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
A bit more peace in strife-ridden places. Greater willpower among the nations to slow down carbon emissions and the warming of the planet. Fewer chemicals that disrupt our endocrine systems, contribute to cancer, or mess with our brains. A planet that is still as lush and habitable for my son as it has been for our grandparents and ancestors.
Personally, I’d just like to experience gratitude for the present, for what we have. The other day, my son was flying his paper airplanes in the backyard, on a sunny afternoon with the ocean breeze rustling the laurel trees. It doesn’t get better than that. When they’re not glued to the iPad (free babysitter) kids know where it’s at.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
The traffic. Plans like Google’s to build this megaplex in Redwood City without considering where ten thousand more people will live or how clogged the streets are already. Or maybe they think driverless cars will solve our problems. Yeah, right.
What are some of your favorite smells?
I love the smell of bay leaves. It reminds me of childhood. Sometimes when you hike on trails in the Bay Area, you’ll suddenly come upon it, this nose wrinkling, cloying smell, kind of like cloves. Crush the leaf in your fingers. It’s wonderful.