THIS BLOG CONTAINS SPOILERS. JUST SAYIN’…
What triggers the mind is fascinating. Yesterday while chopping vegetables for a pot of homemade soup I found myself thinking about two main characters in my novels, “GOOD FORTUNE” and “VANILLA GRASS, A novel of redemption.” My two protagonists are vastly different, yet I realized they share the same virtue. Chow Lee Tong, an aged Chinese immigrant, scholar and bookkeeper, and John Carrows, a Vietnam veteran with PTSD, couldn’t be more opposite. At least that’s what I thought when I created them.
Tong is an immigrant from a small village in China who came to the U.S. as a young man with his wife and young son, full of hopeful plans for their future. Soon his hopes are dashed. John was born in the United States and grew up on a farm in the Pacific Northwest. When he turned eighteen he was deployed to Vietnam and is badly injured. What could an immigrant scholar and a wounded veteran with PTSD possibly have in common?
As I sliced a head of cauliflower into small chunks my mind came up with an answer: Each man had suffered greatly, felt like he’d lost everything, and as a result of years of emotional suffering had developed a compassionate heart.
“GOOD FORTUNE” Page 51 – “The much-anticipated journey to the United States ought to have been the beginning of a shared dream for Tong and Mei-li. But as fate would have it, Mei-li's tragic death so soon after their arrival was to be only one of the painful losses Tong would have to endure. Like his wife, he too felt despondent to leave behind the village of his birth, members of his family whom he knew he would never see again, and his life's work from which he derived so much pleasure.”
“VANILLA GRASS” Page 151 – “After my family died I felt like I had no reason to live. All my plans to go to college—gone. No family, no career, no wife and kids. I got drafted and sure, I served my country, but for what? To breathe poison chemicals that fucked up my lungs and get blasted up so bad I’ve got a metal plate in my head?” He clenched his fist and raised it at the sky. “Can you tell me why the hell I had to lose everything?”
I dropped in the chunks of cauliflower and stirred the vegetables sautéing in the pot, added garlic, ginger and a sprinkle of curry. Then I poured in homemade chicken broth and began peeling carrots while my mind continued thinking about the similarities between Tong and John that I’d never before considered.
The opening sentence of “GOOD FORTUNE” reads: “Tong’s arduous journey through life prepared him to help others. He discovered that kindness outlasts suffering, and finding skillful ways through challenges mattered more than any indignity.” Tong’s suffering and endless sorrow over losing Mei-li—the love of his life—made him a compassionate man who dedicated his life to helping others.
In “VANILLA GRASS,” John’s suffering from the loss of his family and the hell of having PTSD turned him into a total recluse—that is, until his life gets invaded by the town’s delinquent teenagers. He finds himself the target of false accusations that could ruin his reputation yet instead of reacting with anger, he tells the mother of a girl responsible for starting the false rumor something she never expected. “VANILLA GRASS” Page 221 – John stared at his glass and watched a drop of water zig zag down the side like a tear. “I’ve suffered too much and seen and done too many awful things to want to inflict pain on anyone unless my life is threatened.” Like Tong, John’s years of suffering made him a kind and compassionate human being.
While mulling this over, I added chopped carrots and celery to the 12-vegetable soup, lowered the flame, put on the lid, and started cleaning the kitchen. I rinsed out the sink and thought about how interesting it was that I’d unconsciously given both men in my novels—who I’d thought were complete opposites—the shared quality of compassion. A Chinese immigrant scholar and an American veteran with PTSD were both men of honor. Each had to overcome painful obstacles and were survivors who overcame personal pain to help others in need.
“GOOD FORTUNE” Page 331 – “Yet, until he grew to adulthood and experienced his own pain after losing his father, Wu had no way of measuring or understanding the depth of the wounds inflicted upon his father when he was robbed of his cultural roots, his profession, and even his wife. In the face of such terrible losses, Tong stoically accepted all the changes life thrust at him with what Wu now realized was the strength and courage of a warrior. Reflecting on that early time of his life, he was finally able to grasp that his father relied on his Herculean inner strength and courage to forge ahead, despite the enormous intensity of his personal grief. For the first time he comprehended the unselfishness of his father's motive to hide his pain and sorrow from him, and the love that made him believe this was the right thing to do.”
“VANILLA GRASS” Page 308 & 309 – “For some unknown reason after I did you wrong more than once, you didn’t give up on me. Anyone else would have cast me aside as a lost cause, but not you, John Carrows. You had a big heart and opened up a world of opportunities for me I never thought possible…You were a man of few words. Your actions spoke for you. You were a human being with a compassionate heart who understood the pain of others because of your own painful experiences.”
Until I got busy yesterday chopping soup vegetables it hadn’t occurred to me how I wrote characters I admired. In my own life, being compassionate towards humans and animals is of paramount importance. Like everyone, I’ve had my own share of challenges to face, bitter disappointments to overcome, and pain to suffer through. Writing has been a way for me to express myself creatively and say what I believe is important.
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