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Writer and art director Jamie Ford was born July 9, 1968, and grew up primarily in Seattle, Washington. He graduated from the Art Institute of Seattle, where he earned an associate's degree in graphic design, and then took a job in advertising, working both on visuals and writing copy. He eventually worked his way up to the position of art director, and over the course of his career has won numerous awards for his advertisements. Always interested in writing fiction, as well, he worked his way through Orson Scott Card's Literary Boot Camp and also spent time as a member of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. In 2006 he won the Clarity of Night Short Fiction Contest, and he has placed well in a number of other writing competitions. Of Chinese decent on his father's side, Ford is the great-grandson of Min Chung, an immigrant from Kaiping, China, who traveled to San Francisco, California, in 1865, eventually settling in Nevada where he worked as a miner. It was Min Chung who took the American name of Ford. Ford is heavily influenced by his personal family history and by stories he heard growing up near the Chinatown neighborhood of Seattle. His father's childhood, in particular, has served as inspiration for Ford's writing, as the senior Ford grew up during World War II, at a time when many Chinese Americans found themselves the victims of discrimination, lumped together with the Japanese with whom the country was at war. Ford's debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, sprang in part from his father's mention of the "I Am Chinese" button that he wore in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Along with other family remembrances and the results of his own copious research into the era and how the times affected the Pacific Northwest, Ford includes a wealth of history and cultural detail in his story.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet takes place in 1940s Seattle, telling the story of Henry Lee, a twelve-year-old Chinese American whose father insists he declares his heritage by wearing a button like the one Ford's father wore. The button does not help Henry, however, who attends an all-white prep school and is bullied mercilessly. His one friend is a new student, a Japanese girl named Keiko, and it is their innocent friendship that forms the backbone of a novel that looks at the meaning of love, race, and prejudice over the course of the next forty years. Interwoven with the past is a more modern tale, as the now-elderly Henry recalls the day the Japanese residents of Seattle were rounded up and put into internment camps, including Keiko and her family. Many of their belongings were stored in the old Panama Hotel, only to be rediscovered decades later. The sight of these items being removed when the hotel is sold--including a very familiar parasol that Henry knows belonged to Keiko--sends his memories reeling. The reader sees the changes between a young boy fascinated by jazz music and willing to risk disinheritance should his parents learn of his friendship with a Japanese girl and the man whose adult relationships--including with his son--are foundering in his old age. A contributor to Kirkus Reviews dubbed the book "a timely debut" which "reminds readers of a shameful episode in American history" and "cautions us to examine the present and take heed we don't repeat those injustices." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly criticized some of the cultural clichés that Ford included in the book but remarked that "the wartime persecution of Japanese immigrants is presented well." In a review for School Library Journal, Angela Carstensen stated that the book's "setting and quietly moving, romantic story are commendable." Library Journal reviewer Joanna M. Burkhardt concluded that Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet "is a vivid picture of a confusing and critical time in American history."
Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2010. Gale Biography
In Context. Web. 8 Feb. 2011
Reproduced by permission
1. Father-son relationships are a crucial theme in the novel. Talk about some of these relationships and how they are shaped by culture and time. For example, how is the relationship between Henry and his father different from that between Henry and Marty? What accounts for the differences?
2. Why doesn't Henry's father want him to speak Cantonese at home? How does this square with his desire to send Henry back to China for school? Isn't he sending his son a mixed message?
3. If you were Henry, would you be able to forgive your father? Does Henry's father deserve forgiveness?
4. From the beginning of the novel, Henry wears the "I am Chinese" button given to him by his father. What is the significance of this button and its message, and how has Henry's understanding of that message changed by the end of the novel?
5. Why does Henry provide an inaccurate translation when he serves as the go-between in the business negotiations between his father and Mr. Preston? Is he wrong to betray his father's trust in this way?
6. The US has been called a nation of immigrants. In what ways do the families of Keiko and Henry illustrate different aspects of the American immigrant experience?
7. What is the bond between Henry and Sheldon, and how is it strengthened by jazz music?
8. If a novel could have a soundtrack, this one would be jazz. What is it about this indigenous form of American music that makes it an especially appropriate choice?
9. Henry's mother comes from a culture in which wives are subservient to their husbands. Given this background, do you think she could have done more to help Henry in his struggles against his father? Is her loyalty to her husband a betrayal of her son?
10. Compare Marty's relationship with Samantha to Henry's relationship with Keiko. What other examples can you find in the novel of love that is forbidden or that crosses boundaries of one kind or another?
11. What struggles did your own ancestors have as immigrants to America, and to what extent did they incorporate aspects of their cultural heritage into their new identities as Americans?
12. Does Henry give up on Keiko too easily? What else could he have done to find her?
13. What about Keiko? Why didn't she make more of an effort to see Henry once she was released from the camp?
14. Do you think Ethel might have known what was happening with Henry's letters?
15. The novel ends with Henry and Keiko meeting again after more than forty years. Jump ahead a year and imagine what has happened to them in that time. Is there any evidence in the novel for this outcome?
16. What sacrifices do the characters in the novel make in pursuit of their dreams for themselves and for others? Do you think any characters sacrifice too much, or for the wrong reasons? Consider the sacrifices Mr. Okabe makes, for example, and those of Mr. Lee. Both fathers are acting for the sake of their children, yet the results are quite different. Why?
17. Was the US government right or wrong to "relocate" Japanese-Americans and other citizens and residents who had emigrated from countries the US was fighting in WWII? Was some kind of action necessary following Pearl Harbor? Could the government have done more to safeguard civil rights while protecting national security?
18. Should the men and women of Japanese ancestry rounded up by the US during the war have protested more actively against the loss of their property and liberty? Remember that most were eager to demonstrate their loyalty to the US. What would you have done in their place? What's to prevent something like this from ever happening again?
Reproduced with permission from Random House