Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Interview with Author Sarah Conover

Sarah Conover is the founder and editor of the This Little Light of Mine series, a series published by Eastern Washington University Press. The inaugural volume, Kindness: A Treasury of Buddhist Wisdom for Children and Parents, a collection of Buddhist tales, was recommended by Booklist as one of the five best spiritual books for children of 2001, while the second, Ayat Jamilah: Beautiful Signs: A Treasury of Islamic Wisdom for Children and Parents, was cited by Newsweek as one of the best multicultural books of 2004, and was also the winner of the 2004 Aesop Prize, presented by the American Folklore Society. Ms. Conover was a contributing co-editor of the third book in the series, At Work in Life’s Garden: Writers on the Spiritual Adventure of Parenting, a collection of literary essays on that subject by a wide range of well-known and not-so-well-known writers. Harmony: A Treasury of Chinese Wisdom for Children and Parents is the fourth book in the series. It has just been released.
Ms. Conover is also the coauthor of Daughters of the Desert: Remarkable Women from the Christian, Jewish and Muslim Traditions, published by SkylightPaths Press in 2003. Her poetry has appeared in Rock and Sling, the Santa Clara Review, Pontoon 10, Floating Bridge Review, and the book, Family Pictures, published by Capital BookFest.
Ms. Conover holds a Bachelor of Arts in religious studies from the University of Colorado, a degree in education from Gonzaga University, and a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Eastern Washington University. She lives in Spokane, Washington, where she teaches English and radio production.

Sarah Conover’s recently released Harmony: A Treasury of Chinese Wisdom for Children and Parents, is a handsome well-designed (by Rich Hendel) book that has its place on the shelf, or better yet, on the lap, of anyone set on gaining and/or conveying a better understanding of Chinese culture and philosophy. Part of the This Little Light of Mine series founded and edited by Ms. Conover, Harmony is a collection of 24 brief stories adapted by Ms. Conover and her co-author Chen Hui. The stories are based on Chinese idioms, or chengyu, and provide a glimpse (there are some 5000 chengyu) of Chinese wisdom and spirituality. Each story is written in original classical Chinese characters placed side-by-side with its English translation, then retold in an expanded form to clarify its meaning. The book also provides a map of China and an historical timeline, a remarkably concise review of China’s philosophical and religious influences, and even a pronunciation guide for some of the Chinese phrases that occur in the stories. Beautifully illustrated by the award winning Chinese artist, Ji Ruoxioa, Harmony appeals to the eye, as well as the intellect and the heart.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with Sarah about her latest book.
R: Your recently released book, Harmony: A Treasury of Chinese Wisdom for Children and Parents, is part of a series that you founded and edit called This Little Light of Mine. What’s the series all about – what’s its unifying theme?

S: The series seeks to broaden our knowledge of and perspective on world traditions of wisdom and spirituality. By gathering and adapting material from primary texts, poetry, proverbs and stories, many of them quite ancient, we aim to open windows onto wisdom as it was, and continues to be, conceived and lived in cultures around the globe.

R: And where does Harmony fit in?

S: The first two books in the series, Ayat Jimilah, and Kindness, dealt with Islamic and Buddhist wisdom, respectively. Harmony continues the journey, by exploring Chinese wisdom.

R: What do you hope to achieve in writing these books?

S:: My goal from the start has been to help make non-Christian religions seem less foreign to Western audiences. It has struck me that, especially in books aimed at children, often the point-of-view places a chasm between reader and subject. We hear that “Muslims believe this or that, Buddhists practice this or that ritual,” I feel those kinds of presentations don’t give a human face to a lived tradition. So I’ve always sought the stories, poems, proverbs that convey the values that animate a lived wisdom tradition.

R: You chose to base the stories in Harmony on something the Chinese call chengyu. Explain what that means, and how you selected the particular chengyu associated with the stories in your book.

S: Harmony presented its special challenge in its attempt to convey a sense of Chinese “wisdom.” Considering that it may be the world’s oldest continuous civilization, China humbles all attempts at generalities. I spent a few years debating with my co-author [Chen Hui] on how to approach “Chinese wisdom.” We didn’t want to divide the book up into sections on Legalism, Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, myths and fables. We chose to use chengyu, fused literary idioms, because…

R: Fused…?

S: In classical Chinese the idioms are represented by four characters that always appear together in a fixed order.

R: Interesting.

S: Most have been in use for over 2,000 years. They are known by all Chinese—rich or poor, educated or not. And they can usually be traced back to a school of religious or philosophical thought and therefore are representative of it. Finally, as chengyu have been in use for so very long they seem like a fair representation of community values. The idioms we chose had to pass all the above criteria, and, last but not least, they had to be intriguing and entertaining to both Chinese and Westerners.

R: What are some of our common English sayings that actually derive from chengyu?

S: I can’t say that any English sayings derive, originally from chengyu. They might, but I have my doubts. Some of the stories in my Buddhist book [Kindness] ended up as Aesop’s’ Fables, but I don’t know any stories similar to the chengyu stories. That’s one of the things that make them interesting. Westerners have some similar sayings nonetheless, which probably come from collective human wisdom. In Harmony, the most notable is “practice makes perfect.” But there are at least 5,000 chengyu, and I’m sure we’d find some others.

R: Tell us something about your co-author, Chen Hui.

S: I met Chen while researching this book early on. She was teaching Chinese at a private school, St. George’s, in Spokane. The Chinese government began an initiative several years ago making available a number of Chinese teachers to teach Chinese at private schools. They saw the need for much more Chinese language instruction in the US, and have been proactive about it. It turns out Chen’s life’s work has been building bridges between English and Chinese speakers, and she was thrilled to consult with me about aspects of Chinese culture she thought Americans should know and understand.

R: How did she come to be a co-author on Harmony?

S: Once we landed upon the idea of using chengyu, it became obvious to me that she should be my co-author. Among other things, she has been a middle school teacher, got her masters in education in the US, and is an ancient Chinese literature buff. She seemed perfect for the job.

R: You were lucky to find her.

S: It’s actually difficult to find people in the PRC [People’s Republic of China] who have taken the time to study their ancient roots and literature. Ironically, the Taiwanese have been much more rigorous about it in their schools. People in the PRC have had such a difficult last century that, for survival, they needed to focus on their present and future. I felt very fortunate to be able to work with Chen who has a sense of the idioms people use daily, as well as the importance of the ancient literature from which the idioms sprang.

R: Harmony is beautifully illustrated, as are all the books in the series. Tell us something about the illustrator, Ji Ruoxiao.

S: Ji is something of a national treasure in China, and perhaps someday here, too. Her grandfather was quite a famous calligrapher; she was one of two women to represent Chinese artists from the PRC for the UN’s Year of the Women. She is quite well known as a traditional master brush painter in China—she’s had one-woman shows at the Beijing museum, and goes back to China and teaches at a university for half the year. The other half of her time is spent in the US with her American husband in Seattle.

R: How did you find her?

S: I found her through the magic of social networking on the web. I sent an e-letter out to friends saying that I was looking for a traditional Chinese illustrator. Friends forwarded that letter on, and pretty soon I found Chen through a teacher at Washington State University who had taught with her. What’s really fun about working with Ji is that she is so versatile. You can ask her to make something a little more traditional, or a little more modern and abstract, and she has complete versatility in both realms.

R: Why do you feel so passionately about educating children in world wisdom traditions? Has this been an important part of your own children's upbringing?

S: Like many good things, my journey began in personal suffering. Having lost both parents and grandparents in one fell swoop at an early age, I saw the multitude of ripples tragedy can have upon family systems. Our family religion at the time was not up to the task. It just wasn’t lived as a source of true solace or refuge for anyone in my family. So, early on I became a seeker, looking to make sense of the world—both the agony and the ecstasy. I traveled to Asia, and I studied comparative religions at a good program at the University of Colorado. Call me a slow learner, but I am still astounded by the fact that people negotiate their worlds in so many varied ways.

R: And you find that children are interested in questions about the meaning of life early in their development?

S: I believe that children ask huge, deep ontological questions as soon as they can speak. I talk about that a lot in the essay I wrote in my book, At Work in Life’s Garden: Writers on the Spiritual Adventure of Parenting. It was a central issue for my husband -- a philosophy major -- and me in parenting. I’ve also found as a teacher that the depth and passion of the questioning does not diminish as children age, but grows more acute. Teens want to talk about what’s meaningful, but are given little opportunity for it. They are very hungry to talk about sweeping philosophical ideas, and to learn how other cultures address the biggest of topics—God, and love, and justice, and suffering. And with the media’s spotlight on fundamentalist terrorism, our youth suffer from a terrible dearth of curiosity about other religions and wisdom traditions. We are all global citizens now, and we must help our children understand the motivating values of other cultures. I’ve always thought “tolerance” was not a strong enough term in diversity education.

R: Why is that?

S: To tolerate someone doesn’t mean you understand someone. We need our children to have the background knowledge in multicultural religious education to truly understand each other, not just tolerate each other. In the UK, multicultural religious education is mandatory. I think our education system is lagging in one of its primary functions—that of creating global citizens.

R: Do you have another book planned for the series?

S: Of course! Two more planned, but bringing them to fruition depends somewhat on the future of our university’s budget and, in turn the press budget. Next book is on India—soon to overtake China as the world’s most populous country.

R: Will the book draw from the Hindu religion?

S: Whether the book will be on Hinduism specifically, or on a broader look at Indian wisdom traditions—including Jainism and Sikhism—is yet to be determined. In certain ways, India has been host to more wisdom traditions and religions than any other geographical area -- the first Jewish and Christian pilgrims went to India before Western Europe-- and the way it has incorporated heterogeneity into its culture is fascinating. Amartya Sen [Bengali Indian economist and philosopher] has written very cogently about this in his book, The Argumentative Indian. On the other hand, Hinduism is so vastly different from the Abrahamic traditions that I think solely focusing on it would be useful to the series. It’s a great dilemma to be working my way through as I research it!
Thanks again to Sarah Conover for appearing, courtesy of Provato Marketing. For other stops on the tour please check

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