It’s been a tough year and although her new book came out in June, Cathy Song has not had the usual opportunities to read and launch All the Love in the World properly. She’s been a real trooper and made several wonderful videos that you can watch on our BR YouTube channel. We’re trying out a lot of new things this fall and are very excited to announce a joint fundraiser and book launch event with Manoa Valley Theatre. Cathy Song will read several selections from her book live on stage. Click here to find out more about it.
In preparation for this exciting in-person and live streaming event, we asked Cathy some questions about her book and the challenges of writing connected stories versus poetry. Here’s what we learned:
Tell us about the title of your book, what inspired it and what does it mean to you?
The title, All the Love in the World, are the last words spoken by the father in the stories, given as a last wish to his family who have gathered around him. The father in the stories has tried to be a good father, and the words express the generosity of a man who despite his limitations, has tried to do his best by his family.
The stories in your book take the reader to many places and settings. Was there any particular time or place that you especially enjoyed writing about or was there a time or place that was especially challenging to write about?
Recreating Tulsa, Oklahoma in the late 1940s and early ‘50s was challenging, especially imagining the segregation laws that existed then and what it must’ve been like for a young Asian man from Hawaiʻi encountering the unspoken rules for the first time. He understands there are color lines but doesn’t quite know where he fits, finding that with personal interactions he is treated decently, even kindly, and yet, he is wary as he maneuvers his way through a foreign land as it were, a little on edge, trying to stay alert and not call attention to himself.
We follow many characters in your book on their physical and spiritual journeys. Is there anything you want to say about what started you on the journey to writing this book? You dedicated the book to Captain Andrew Song and read an excerpt from “Forty-Nine Days” in a YouTube video. Is there anything you want to say about the book’s dedication or the excerpt you read?
I began writing the stories in earnest a year after my father died. As the first memorial approached I felt a deep sense of dread, and began writing myself out of a funk. I have always found writing to be the best antidote to depression, a kind of diving into the wreck rather than avoiding it. And just as in meditation, writing requires you to sit and look at what is prominent, no matter how uncomfortable, no matter how painful. By staying present to what is arising, you can find a way through. Larry Rosenberg says it perfectly: “Where is peace to be found? In the same place as sorrow. How convenient!” I was very fortunate to have had wonderful parents. Many of the poems in Cloud Moving Hands were written for my mother. Writing about them was a way of grieving, and honoring them too.
Which other poets or authors have inspired your writing?
A number of years ago I encountered Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, a series of inter-connected stories where the main character appears in each of them. That was just what I was looking for—short of a novel, how a longer piece of prose was possible.
What was the most challenging part about writing this book?
Once I began to see that the main narrative line of these stories traced the life arc of one character, it was challenging to choose which significant moments in that life to explore, to drop into, situations and events that enhanced various themes and at the same time propelled the narrative forward while maintaining the separate integrity of each story. Knowing from the beginning that I wasn’t writing a novel, that each story wasn’t a chapter in the traditional sense, the connections between the stories depended on their proximity and placement and accumulative effect.
You have written many books of poetry, and this is your first book of prose. What is the hardest thing about writing poetry to you? What is the hardest thing about writing prose?
Poetry teaches you to pay close attention to each word and such close attention can be used in prose. Just because prose generates more words, you don’t want to be a spendthrift, using more than is needed. The difficult thing about poetry is that the main character, speaker or voice of the poem is often the poet herself—and that can be confining. Prose is more liberating in that you have many characters, many voices to enlarge and expand the view. But managing all those voices can also become a juggling act. Poetry also allows you to make leaps of magic and transformation that are not as easily done in prose where you still have to maintain an adherence to realism even if you are writing fantasy and science fiction, realms that have their own specific conditions, laws of physics and biology. But in the end, magic can happen in realistic prose, only slower, in the transformation of a character’s heart and mind.
What do you feel you accomplished through prose that you could not accomplish through a book of poems about the characters in All the Love in the World?
Prose allowed me to develop the main character, Sung Mahn, in a historical context that went beyond the more personal, private space of poetry, to situate the character in a time and place where specific world events and larger forces such as racial prejudices were at work, directly impacting his life. I also wanted to describe various settings and scenes that would show Sung Mahn’s optimism, strong will, stubbornness, devotion and,perhaps most of all, his inimitable sense of humor.
Is there a specific character you want the audience to root for/how do you hope readers will resonate with or respond to the characters?
I would hope that readers will respond to the characters with compassion and empathy, recognizing something of themselves in them. Sung Mahn, I hope, comes across as heroic, as he is to his family, like a true family patriarch, a father who despite his limitations—his stubbornness and strong will—did all that was within his earthly power to do the best he could to carry his family, bound by duty and graced by decency. In the end, it is Catherine who must come to terms with loss.
Why do you think it is important to promote diversity in publishing with dynamic, complex, minority characters of color?
How diminished we would all be without seeing that despite our differences of race, ethnicity, nationality, culture, community, gender and religious affiliations, we are basically the same, part of the human condition, bound by a shared human existence, and in the words of His Holiness the Dalai Lama—we all want the same thing. We all want to be happy.
If you had to categorize this collection, would you call it creative nonfiction, fiction, short stories, or a novel?
All the Love in the World is a collection of short stories, each story able to stand alone, but together as a group are inter-connected and share a larger narrative.
If you based your characters on real people, did you feel any tension between what you wanted to recreate factually and what you wanted to fictionalize more?
The characters are for the most part based on real people. The tension I felt in writing about them was that I maintain their dignity, that I write about them with all the understanding and compassion I was capable of.
Mahalo, Cathy, for giving us insight into how this wonderful book was created and speaking on some of the challenges of writing a collection of short stories that can be read together as a novel. The book is a work of art and obviously a true labor of love. It’s a fitting addition to the Bamboo Ridge Press catalog.
Share your thoughts with us and Cathy in the comments below!