Speaking Publicly

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Public speaking, it is said, is everyone’s number one fear. The second is death.

I can’t say I was actually ever afraid of standing up in front of people and talking, but I would often find myself getting nervous in anticipation. Sometimes it happened right beforehand other times only after I actually stood behind the podium or in front of the camera. I would start speaking rapidly, my throat would get dry, and I’d forget important pieces of my speech, even if I had notes.

Not that I was any kind of celebrity or frequent speaker, only that I was often called up on to make presentations, moderate and/or participate on panels, appear on radio or television, or otherwise make what my mother would have referred to as a “spectacle of myself.”

“Picture the audience in their underwear,” was her advice, an image I did not find helpful in the least. I tried other tricks, but to no avail. My father had taken a course at Toastmasters, something I seriously considered but never got around to. I thought I’d become more at ease if I just kept accepting speaking opportunities. It didn’t quite work out that way, or if it did, my improvement was all but imperceptible.

Then some years ago I decided to take singing lessons. I wasn’t all that interested in actually singing, but I was working on a memoir about my grandmother, who had been an opera singer in France in the 1920s and ‘30s, and I needed – I told myself – to know what it physically felt like to sing. I had chanted in yoga class, sung along in synagogue, and reviewed cabaret performances, but I had never sung solo in front of people. 

“You can’t carry a tune in a bucket,” my usually supportive boyfriend counseled. That’s all it took to motivate me to sign up for an adult singing class.

I missed the first session, so when I showed up the second week I was especially anxious about what I would be expected to do. We were supposed to have brought in sheet music for the song we planned to sing. Since I didn’t know, I hadn’t. That should get me off the hook, I thought, as I watched my classmates one by one hand their music to the teacher before moving onto the stage to perform their number.

No such luck. When my turn came I was instructed to sing anything I might know by heart, even if it was only “Happy Birthday.” I quickly chose my favorite song, “Moon River” by Henry Mancini, from the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s. When the teacher starting playing the familiar chords, I opened my mouth and nothing came out. I tried again but my throat had tightened so much I could barely croak out a word or two. The teacher patiently invited the entire class to sing along with me. This I could do. The second time the class dropped out and it was just the teacher and I. The third time he stopped singing and I managed to make it through the entire song on my own. 

“You can tell your boyfriend he’s crazy,” said the teacher. “You just sang every note.”

“I did?” I was incredulous, until the entire class confirmed his assessment. I slowly started to enjoy the 8-week class and even the final recital at which I was proud of myself for having the chutzpah to get onstage and sing “La Vie en Rose.” I figured I’d distract the audience from my singing by impressing them with my French. I remembered how my classically trained grandmother had disparaged Edith Piaf as not “really a singer.”  I was not really a singer too.

When I watched the video of the class recital I couldn’t stop laughing: I was absolutely terrible. I may have hit the notes but I had absolutely no stage presence. A proverbial deer in the headlights didn’t begin to describe my unease. I immediately signed up for the class again.

I took the class several times, performing solo, duets, and in the group finale, but my singing didn’t much ameliorate, nor did my stage presence. Except, maybe, for the time I really got into my favorite Joni Mitchell song, “Both Sides Now.”

But slowly my public speaking no longer presented a problem. Unconsciously I’d realized that if I could stand up in front of people and make a fool of myself by singing, then addressing an audience was nothing to worry about. I learned to breathe and/or pause to take a sip of water if I started to seize up. And it was, almost, fun.

This week I conducted an onstage interview in front of fifty people, spoke to media about an exhibit I helped curate, and soon I’ll be presenting public program at San Francisco Public Library branches. And not once do I imagine my audience in their underwear.

 

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Novelists’ responsibility to history?

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I recently picked up Sue Monk Kidd’s popular new novel, The Invention of Wings, on the recommendation of a friend, having loved her award-winning The Secret Life of Bees. I was having trouble with it anyway, already uncomfortable with a white writer’s attempt to write in the voice of a black slave, and then I came to the author’s note in which Kidd describes the many liberties she had taken in recreating the stories of Sarah and Angela Grimke and of their slave girl, Hetty, also known as “Handful”. Changing dates, relationship statuses and geographies, seemingly at the author’s whim, seemed an odd strategy. Why even reference the historical figure in the first place?

According to Molly Driscoll’s Christian Science Monitor profile: “As depicted in the novel, Sarah teaches Hetty to read when the two are young and both Sarah and Hetty are punished. In real life, Hetty was given a severe beating and then died of “an unspecified disease” shortly thereafter, according to Kidd. But Kidd says she knew she had to keep Hetty in her story.”

When using a historical figure as the basis for fiction, what is the author’s responsibility to accurately portray the known facts?

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Another classic example is Count Ladislaus de Almásy, the protagonist of Michael Ondatje’s bestselling 1992 novel The English Patient, played by Ralph Fiennes in the acclaimed film adaption. Correspondence discovered after the novel’s publication indicates the Hungarian-born adventurer did not die of a morphine overdose after suffering terrible burns and dreaming of the woman he loved. Instead Almásy succumbed to amoebic dysentery in 1951 never having once slept with a woman.

The Daily Mail reported that letters written by Almásy indicate he was in fact homosexual and that according to the staff, “Egyptian princes were among Almasy’s lovers.”

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I guess it happens all the time. Does that mean I must accept it?

In George Clooney’s recent film Monuments Men, adapted from Robert M. Edsel’s nonfiction book, the character played by Cate Blanchett is based on Rose Valland, who played an instrumental role in the protection and recovery of some of France’s great works of art when Nazis plundered museums and galleries of Paris during World War II. She was also, in fact, an out lesbian, a fact apparently not evident in the film. (I haven’t seen it yet.)

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Valland was depicted as heterosexual, or at least the object of a male character’s passion, in Sarah Houghteling’s 2009 novel Pictures at an Exhibition. When I contacted Houghteling after a presentation at the Jewish Community Library calling her attention to the ease with which I validated Valland’s lesbian identity, she responded with an unconvincing excuse about how she’d run out of time conducting her research.

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I don’t get it. If one is taking inspiration from a historical figure, it seems incumbent on the author to respect the known information about their life. Connect the dots with creative interpretation, sure, but don’t alter the facts. It seems to me that such misrepresentation is irresponsible and revisionist. Especially when it occurs among marginalized figures, such as women of color and gay men and lesbians. Are we such easy marks or attractive targets? Am I missing something?

Leave our lives alone unless you’re going to take the responsibility to do the research. I realize it seems I’m conflating novelists with filmmakers, but having given up on Hollywood I’m really more interested in the responsibility of writers to get it right.

“Flower Drum Song” and “Forbidden City”

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The first LP (remember those?) I ever bought was the newly released soundtrack album of Flower Drum Song. After seeing the movie adaptation of Rogers and Hammerstein’s Broadway musical, I developed a huge crush on Nancy Kwan as the sassy, seductive, coquettish showgirl Linda Low. I read the novel by C.Y. Lee and later even met Dong Kingman, the artist whose watercolors were used in the opening credits. Much later I became friends with the niece of Pat Suzuki, the Japanese American singer and dancer who originated the role of Linda Low on Broadway. I’ve written about my fascination with the movie’s San Francisco locations in the introduction to Celluloid San Francisco: The Movie Lover’s Guide to Bay Area Film Locations.

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If I had forgotten that Forbidden City was the model for the “Celestial Garden,” where Linda performed her salacious “Fan Tan Fannie” number, I had never known that San Francisco’s Forbidden City was only the most famous of several nightclubs featuring Chinese American performers. In nearby Chinatown were Chinese Sky Room, Lion’s Den, Kubla Khan, Club Shanghai and Club Mandalay. In Oakland there was Club Oakland, New Shanghai Café, and New Shanghai Terrace Bowl. And across the country in New York was China Doll.

I recently attended the opening reception for “Forbidden City, USA: The Golden Age of Chinese Nightclubs, 1936-1970” at the San Francisco Public Library. Though I had seen and/or been involved with several exhibits in the Jewett Gallery, I was unprepared for the installation. This is one of their finest. The materials, from the collection of Arthur Dong, are varied and accessible, and beautifully presented.

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Having enjoyed Chop Suey on Wax: the Flower Drum Song Album, a modest 2006 exhibit at the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum, I knew Arthur was an avid collector but I didn’t know that he had been collecting memorabilia from Chinese nightclubs since making his wonderful 1989 documentary Forbidden City, USA about the this long forgotten aspect of Chinese American experience.

The library program included personal reminiscences by Arthur, followed by appearances by some of the original performers, either introduced in the audience or performing as part of the Grant Avenue Follies. It was wonderfully moving to see Jadin Wong recreate versions of her “erotic” dances all these decades later and to see the high stepping showgirls tapping and strutting their way into the hearts of the enthusiastic audience. The Grant Avenue Follies, a troupe of Chinese American senior citizen performers, was to celebrate their eleventh anniversary that very evening. Jimmy Borges (whose Portuguese, Hawaiian and Chinese background necessitated the stage name “Jimmy Jay” at Forbidden City) came from Hawaii to recreate his past performance as the “Chinese Tony Bennett.”

Many performers had been billed as the exotic equivalents of Caucasian stars. For example Noel Toy was the “Chinese Gypsy Rose Lee”, Toy Yat Mar was the “Chinese Sophie Tucker,” and Paul Wing and Dorothy Toy were the “Chinese Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.” Jackie Mei Ling was billed as “The World’s Greatest Female Impersonator” and a glamour shot makes him unrecognizable as anything but a gorgeous gal. I noted that Forbidden City, at 336 Sutter, had been right around the corner from Finocchio’s original location at 406 Stockton Street.

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The book is a handsome companion to the exhibition as well as a valuable stand-alone volume. Lisa See has written an evocative foreword, making me look forward to her new novel, China Dolls, in which three young Chinese American women meet at Forbidden City in 1938. In addition to Arthur and his sister Lorraine Dong’s fascinating description and contextualization of the clubs, the book’s 216 pages are filled with beautiful reproductions of posters, publicity stills, newspaper articles, and other advertisements. Interviews with fifteen of the performers and profiles of ten venues combine to tell the rich, brief history of this entertainment phenomenon. An index and bibliography add to make this most accessible resource.

Perhaps my favorite section of both book and exhibition was the vintage artifacts. The reproductions of the menus, matchbook covers, cocktail napkins, and photo folder covers, really take one back in time. Because Forbidden City and the other venues are long the next best thing is to view the exhibit — until July 6 — enjoy the book, and watch the documentary. Like Arthur, I believe that physical objects hold the energy of the past. I’m planning to make a pilgrimage to the sites of the clubs, at the addresses listed in the book, to see if any ghosts remain.

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“Stuck in Lodi again”

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“Oh Lord! Stuck in Lodi again.”

I hadn’t remembered John Fogerty’s song, “Lodi,” sung by Creedence Clearwater Revival, until a friend reminded me. I had been polling people about anything to see or do in the agricultural town in central California. “Wineries” was all anyone could come up with, even after I said I didn’t drink.

I ended up wandering around the downtown area finding a spectacularly pentimentoed ghost sign.

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What no one mentioned was that A & W originated in Lodi. When I read that in one of the tourist brochures I’d picked up,  and discovered I was only a few blocks away from the A&W stand, I braved the morning sun.

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According to their website: “In 1919, at a parade honoring returning World War I veterans in Lodi, California, Roy Allen set up a roadside drink stand to offer a new thick and creamy drink, root beer. His creation was such a success, he decided to take on a partner, Frank Wright. In 1922, Allen and Wright combined their initials to name the beverage A&W Root Beer.

Allen wasted no time opening his first permanent root beer stand in Lodi, followed by a second one in Sacramento. It featured the first “drive-in” concept with “tray-boys” for curbside service. Then, in 1924 Allen bought out Wright to pursue a franchising program, which became America’s first franchised restaurant chain. He sold A&W Root Beer concentrate exclusively to these franchises to ensure quality. By 1933, more than 170 outlets were franchised.”

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Who knew? Of course, after admiring the mini-museum of memorabilia, I joined the celebration of A&W’s 95 years in business by enjoying a root beer float in a frosted glass mug, just like I had throughout my childhood. Now, if you ever find yourself stuck in Lodi…

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