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My father grew up in Soochow, China; my mother came from Columbus, Kansas. Improbable as it seems even to me, they married and became my parents in Chicago in 1946. I grew up in St. Louis amidst the full hypocrisy of the 50’s, without air conditioning or TV, but with the radio on. The Cardinals game was going, it seemed, all summer; Chuck Berry was the real King of rock ‘n’ roll. Ray Charles played Kiel Auditorium once a year and for that evening racism was suspended, inside the hall. A milkman drove up the alley with the milk on ice in his truck; fathers burned trash in ashpits; a man towing a wagon appeared on our block, in season, and called out “StrawBERRIES, red raspBERRIES!” I remember having a “colored school” pointed out to me. I seldom saw a Chinese, or Asian, person except my father, thought of myself as white (though I was teased for looking Chinese), and didn’t realize that I was acquiring an upbringing other Americans didn’t have. It was easy not to notice: besides bacon and eggs, what my father cooked was fried chicken.
I had two retarded brothers whose existence rendered our family life still more peculiar than it would have been anyway.
I went to Harvard because my father, whose attitude toward education was as Chinese as it gets, wouldn’t hear of my applying anywhere else. I was an English major, a fan of jazz, Motown, and the Beatles. I tried to write poetry for a number of years before I figured out I couldn't. I was a conscientious objector during Vietnam, worked in a lab putting tubes inside rats and bats, and got a Ph.D. in English, but instead of becoming a straight-up English prof I became a writing teacher, and have been one ever since. In 1978 I got an unaccountable urge to write a novel, perhaps imagining it would do something for a broken heart. I had no idea how to write one, which reveals a lot about my education, but learned by failing for a number of years. Since then, I have written seven novels and published one: Family Resemblances (Random House, 1986). The published one was the first of the seven, which tells you how much I like writing these things. I had a story (“The Cold Room”) in Best American Short Stories 1984, edited by John Updike, and one in The American Story: The Best of StoryQuarterly (“Naked Women”). I’ve published half a dozen stories, some nonfiction (essay, memoir, criticism, articles on teaching), and some book reviews. I have recently been published in Post Road (2006) and Ecotone (2007).
I've taught mostly non-fiction writing, especially memoir, and I've been lucky enough to work with some very talented people. In essence what I teach is the writing of narratives, which, when you dig deep enough into it, becomes a way of life. My first teaching job was one year at the University of Missouri, before I had a Ph.D., which convinced me I wanted to be a writing teacher. Since then I've taught at UC San Diego (four years), Harvard's Expository Writing Program (seven years), and since 1985, at Simmons College.
I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts; my wife, Vaughn Sills, is a photographer who teaches where I do (Simmons College). Between us we have three sons, one daughter-in-law, two prior marriages, two houses (the other in Prince Edward Island), one garden, and too much to do. But I keep trying to make art and find readers.
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