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Minfong Ho: Living in Three Languages

When Minfong Ho was a small girl, she listened. She listened to her parents who taught her all those necessary things that parents do. Their words were Chinese, and their words went straight into her heart, giving her wisdom and strength.

When Minfong became a little older, she played in the streets, marketplaces, and temple fairs of Bangkok. All around her, she heard life being experienced: the shouting, the playing, the prayer, the love, and the daily work. It was time to grow, a time to learn how to do the practical things. Minfong came to think of Bangkok’s Thai language as the language of doing; the language of her hands.

In time the young girl grew into a brilliant woman whose educational dreams lay on a continent an ocean away. Minfong came to Cornell University in New York to study, ultimately majoring in economics. Of course all of the classes were taught in English, and she came to think English as the language of the head.

Upstate New York winters can be bitterly cold. Homesick Minfong did find one place where she could return, at least in her heart, to her tropical childhood days. In the college's greenhouse, there was one banana tree. Seated near it, she could bring to mind those things she knew in her heart and through her hands. She scribbled her inspirations in notebooks which she later turned into her first novel for young people, Sing to the Dawn.

In Sing to the Dawn, a Thai village girl wins a scholarship to a good school in another town. The family should be happy, yes? No. They are not. Dawan has beat out her brother for the award, and “everyone knows” such an education would be wasted on a female. Dawan’s family sees her future tied to the traditional farming life. They fear change and losing their daughter to another world, so they do what they can to keep her close.

Minfong’s quiet yet vivid depictions of Thai country life coupled with Dawan’s yearning to escape received a lot of critical attention and several awards.

Dangerous Interlude

It would be another ten years before Minfong would write a new story. During that decade, mid-1970s to mid-1980s, she lived a very rich life. Returning to Asia as a journalist and aid worker, she observed firsthand the Thai military coup of October 6, 1976.

Minfong worked in "prisons and plywood factories," as she once explained. "I have transplanted rice seedlings and helped a peasant woman give birth; I have attended trade union meetings in stuffy attics and international conferences in plush hotels. There is so much, so much beauty and so much pain in the world around me which I want to write about--because I want to share it." She was also a lecturer at the University of Chiangmai, Thailand, and served as the first Writer-in-Residence, University of Singapore in 1984.

Back to the U.S.A.

Before she set out for Asia, Minfong married a fellow Cornell student who was an environmental consultant. Upon returning to the States, she finished a M.F.A. in creative writing while working as a teaching assistant. While she settled in to raise their family of three children, she started writing again.

The Clay Marble was set on Thai-Cambodian border after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. This work, intended for slightly younger readers, shows her familiarity with the evils of war and dictatorship, gained during her ten years abroad.

In recent years, Minfong has become best known for her children’s picture books. Hush! A Thai Lullaby was winner of the Caldecott Honor. Other picture books include The Two Brothers, Peek! A Thai Hide and Seek, and Brother Rabbit. A project close to her heart was her translation of Chinese T'ang Dynasty poems for children, Maples in the Mist. After Hush!, she wrote The Stone Goddess for older students. This story is told by Nakri, a Cambodian refugee whose family is almost destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. With her mother and brothers, she comes to America. In the new land, she is able to reconcile her memories by developing her gifts as a dancer.

Minfong Ho had this to say on her blending of life she knows and her storytelling art:

"I have grown up in Thailand and Singapore, and lived in Taiwan, Laos and the United States--and yes, sometimes it's been a bit of a stretch, to try to absorb and adapt to the different cultures, but it's been very enriching as well," Ho stated. "If my writing has helped other children become more `elastic' in their appreciation of Southeast Asian cultures, then my stretching would have been truly worthwhile!"

Learn about this author on the Web:

Minfong Ho: Biography
members2.authorsguild.net/minfong/bio.htm
Her page with the Authors’ Guild has complete contact information, awards, and commentary on her works. She lists her email address as minfong@aol.com.

Minfong Ho’s Homepage
members.authorsguild.net/minfong/
Includes reviews and summaries of her books and a biography.

The National Book Development Council of Singapore: Ho Minfong
www.bookcouncil.sg/_writers/writers_h.php
A short listing of the author’s accomplishments, with an emphasis on those awards won in Asia. Note: in Asia, the last name is often listed first.

You can also find biographical and critical information on Minfong's works through the the Central Rappahannock Regional Library's databases. You will need a card to access these online. If you live out of our region, check with your local library for what online resources they may have available to you.