Miriam Ching Yoon Louie is a third generation Korean Chinese American writer whose fiction and poetry tickles the bellies of characters until they giggle—or bite. Her non-fiction features the voices of immigrant and women of color leaders and movements. Louie was a founding member of the Women of Color Resource Center and served as media coordinator for the women worker organizations Asian Immigrant Women Advocates and FuerzaUnida. See www.miriamchingyoonlouie.com. While tending ailing family members, Louie met nursing angels who teased miracles from their patients. Not Contagious—Only Cancer is Louie’s first novel and published by Rabbit Roar, an Asian radical womanist indie press she co-launched with her daughter, illustrator and co-conspirator, Nguyen Louie.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?
I am a writer, currently focusing on fiction and poetry. I am also a grandma and a Korean farmers’ music style drummer.
What’s your biggest struggle—work or otherwise?
My biggest challenge is to not get drawn into activities that eat into my writing time—or encroach on the space I need for my chi/ki to regenerate.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
Make time to write a number of times a week, daily, if possible. But to do so you will have to sacrifice time you now spend on other projects, TV, vid-games, etc. Your life, your call.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
As someone who spent the majority of her workforce years as a community activist and organizer, I generally feel good about the work I did and the friendships I made. I also feel thankful for what I learned in more recent years from writing communities of color such as Voices of Our Nations Arts and Kearny Street Workshop.
I am relieved to have finished my first novel, Not Contagious—Only Cancer this year. It features Kyong Ah Choi, a Korean immigrant nursing aide in Oakland who finds out she’s got lung cancer. Her hwado, aka riddle, is to process what she’s learned from feisty patients, immigrant co-workers, and guardian spirits to fight cancer. She must also assess who from among her illin’ family might help. That would be Yumi the hater, Mickey the boozer, and Sally the closeted sex toy store salesclerk.
I feel blessed to have launched Rabbit Roar with Nguyen Louie, my daughter, illustrator and co-publisher. Rabbit Roar is an indie Asian radical feminist press that aids and abets heroines, from girls to grannies, as they wrestle demons and sneak up on scary truths.
And as a granny who came of age when “social networking” meant loud talkin’ with friends around kitchen tables, I am now pleased to post a prompt each week on my Orchid Odes blog.
When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
YouTube videos from Korea of drumming and dance, including fusion pieces combining traditional melodies with modern day rap, hip hop and breakdancing—and Bruce Lee’s Tao and martial arts takes—are great for kicking despair.
Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?
My maternal Korean grandparents Agnes Oh Yoon & Reverend Yoon Pyeong Koo; and my paternal Chinese grandparents Ching Chin Shi and Ching Bak Lee were amazing trailblazers.
The Yoons immigrated to Hawaii with the first wave of Korean immigrant plantation workers, worked as migrant farmers across many states, and organized with other migrants in support of Korean independence from colonialism. My mother Minnie Marguerite was their eleventh and youngest child and could make a mean chicken-fried steak/bistec empanizado, having grown up during her fam’s San Joaquin Valley period with Oakies, Arkies and Mexican Americans.
The Chings immigrated to San Francisco after enactment of the racist 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which means they were hella smart tricksters and shapeshifters—like so many immigrants—fuck you, Donald Trump! But my grandparents passed away early, leaving my aunts and uncles to raise my father Herbert, the youngest and sixth child. But Herbert knew how to make his shoeshine rag pop for that extra 5 cent tip from the OG Chinese and Filipino bachelors in Portsmouth Square before the Depression.
Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?
I can’t remember who I admired when I was 10. What I do remember is that there were no Asian (we used to be called “Orientals”) or People of Color (formerly known as “Coloreds”) hero/ines on TV that didn’t make me feel ashamed for my skin, eyes and hair. Thank Guanyin for the civil rights movement!
Job-wise I wanted to be a scientist of the rock or bug collecting variety. My siblings and I caught butterflies and insects (before pollution killed many off.) We also collected a lovely array of quartz and granite stones from graves at nearby cemeteries.
Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.
I climb a sacred mountain in Korea, China, the Western US, or some other gorgeous place. The mountain contains streams, springs and/or lakes. My pack is light. My partner Belvin and I recall mountains we’ve climbed in the past as we walk along the ridge before sitting down for a picnic.
Would you ever perform a striptease? Describe some of your moves. Feel free to set the mood.
Sadly, those days are over; too many stretch marks. Only works with partner who possesses comparable set of old age tattoos.
How much money do you have in your checking account?
What’s wrong with society today?
War, violence, oppression, greed and corruption—all set to boil via global warming.
Are you using any medications? If so, which ones?
What is your fondest memory?
One of my fondest memories is when the kids were little and we used to play family skits. The fam had to guess which member was being mimicked and satirized by the actor. Great chance to laugh at oneself—and at others who share one’s endearing and irksome traits.
How many times do you fall in love each day?
At least once a day in a good week. See chi/ki restoration.
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
People divided by community, nation, region, world appreciating each other. While recognizing shared beauty, ridiculousness, and spice.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
Is this a trick question? Yes, art is MAGIC organized into different mediums. Art allows us to dream, heal, instigate and communicate with the living and the dead.
When you have sex, what are some of the things you like to do?
Wait until you are crone age and we can talk.
What are you working on right now?
With my daughter Nguyen, I am learning nuts and bolts of running Rabbit Roar press and marketing my first novel, Not Contagious—Only Cancer. I’ve published non-fiction, such as Sweatshop Warriors: Immigrant Women Take On the Global Factory, under the auspices of other indie presses. This is a lot more work. Fortunately, some of the skills learned during earlier periods of organizing and publishing are transferable.
What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?
I’m doing the work I want to do. I’m looking forward to supporting my daughter’s illustration work as her kids grow up and she reclaims more of her artist time. I enjoy fiction and poetry by writers of color as well as works in translation.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
Create more affordable housing and good jobs and limit gentrification. This looks like three things, but they are interconnected.
A night on the town: what does that mean to you?
Music and dance venue with my OG.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?
One of the strangest things I’ve seen is the annual parting of the ocean near Chindo Island in Korea. People go out with pant legs rolled up and harvest shellfish and other creatures for spicy soups from the ocean floor before the water comes back. It’s like Jehovah parting the Red Sea to Moses’ prayers—only non-violent and more tasty.
What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars?
From Orchid Odes blog re “ode to throat” [gil scott-heron obit]
coffin you lay down
book of gil
scripture songs death
sea scrolls scat stomp shout
sorrow’s crystal wings
you couple poetry blues
until hunter finally
be your road
What are some of your favorite smells?
Night blooming jasmine. Ocean salted breeze. Pine needles. Orchids. Steam off a fresh bowl of rice.
If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?
Journey to WWII China-Burma-India Theater locations of my next novel.