Qin Sun Stubis is an author and poet based in Bethesda, Maryland. Growing up in a shantytown in Shanghai, she sought refuge in reading to shut out the Great Chinese Famine on the other side of her door. Inspired by the stories her mother passed down, she put pen to paper and was offered a monthly column in the The Santa Monica Star. Now, her work includes publication in USA Today, GRAND Magazine, The Other Side Of Hope, a variety of short stories, essays, poems, and traditional Chinese Tall Tales – and most recently, released Once Our Lives, a historical saga recounting the the lives of “four generations of Chinese women who struggle to survive war, revolution, and the seemingly unshakeable power of an ancient Chinese superstition that affected their lives for nearly 100 years.” – a project 20 years in the making. When she’s not creating, Stubis advocates for her community through organizations such as American Humane, KidsPeace, The National Center for Kids Overcoming Crisis, WIllow’s Wish, and The United Negro College Fund. Her advice to young artists? “ If you develop your craft and believe in yourself and your passion, you will succeed.” Read on to learn more about Qin Sun Stubis and what makes her an Amazing Asian in the Arts!
Name: Qin Sun Stubis
Hometown: Born in Shanghai, China
Current City: Bethesda, Maryland
Current project: Historical memoir, Once Our Lives
What are some of your favorite credits/projects:
My biggest project, which has been 20 years in the making, is the publication this month of my historical saga, Once Our Lives, the real-life story of four generations of Chinese women who struggle to survive war, revolution, and the seemingly unshakeable power of an ancient Chinese superstition that affected their lives for nearly 100 years. For me, this book is the fulfillment of the dream of a lifetime because it documents not only a wealth of colorful Chinese history, but brings back to life so many of the remarkable characters in my family – ordinary people living during extraordinary times – whose stories would otherwise have disappeared with their lives. I have also gotten immeasurable joy out of being a newspaper and magazine columnist. Over the past 15 years, I’ve written nearly 200 columns, essays and op-eds for such media as USA Today, GRAND Magazine, The Other Side Of Hope, and The Santa Monica Star. Most of my work is focused on exploring both the fascinating similarities and differences between Eastern and Western cultures and helping people understand our common hopes, dreams, struggles, and humanity. I also write poems, short stories, essays, and original Chinese Tall Tales inspired by traditional Asian themes.
Any advice for young people getting into the arts?
The arts are all about passion and technique. If you develop your craft and believe in yourself and your passion, you will succeed. It took me 20 years to write my book, find an agent, find a publisher, edit the manuscript and see it printed and become an Amazon #1 New Release. I am finally realizing my literary dreams at the age of 62 so just never give up!
How did you get your start?
As with most writers, I got my start by reading. Since I was a child, I have always loved books. They gave me an escape when life became too hard, which was almost every day when I was growing up poor and hungry in a Shanghai shantytown. But I never imagined myself writing a book, let alone one in English, which, after all, is not my mother tongue. After my parents passed away some 20 years ago, I missed them so much that I often spent long hours thinking about them and remembering the lives they had lived. The old stories my mother had told me over the years came flooding back to me, bequeathing to me a wealth of fantastical tales. I couldn’t believe how much my parents had lived through. I realized that if I didn’t write their stories down, an important part of history would be lost – along with a last chance for justice for my family, which suffered terribly during the Cultural Revolution. It was then that I decided to become the chronicler as well as defender of their lives. On the professional front, I was fortunate enough to be offered a monthly column by the publisher of The Santa Monica Star newspaper in Los Angeles, a lovely woman named Diane Margolin who took a chance on an unknown writer and allowed me to hone my writing skills over nearly two decades, writing about everything from Eastern philosophy to Western economics, parenting, and cooking. I owe her a lot for giving me that break.
Do you have any favorite moments in your career that you’d like to share?
Many. Aside from the heartwarming responses I received from my newspaper readers, the most significant to me personally were: Signing a contract to have my book published after 20 years of labor of love; Watching Once Our Lives climb to become an Amazon #1 New Release in historical Chinese biographies; and receiving endorsements from my literary idols, Gish Jen and Helen Zia, the acclaimed authors of Thank You, Mr. Nixon and Last Boat out of Shanghai respectively. I have to say I was also thrilled when Kirkus Reviews wrote that Once Our Lives has an almost “folkloric quality” and called my book “…a sweeping story, rich with detail” and “a wide-ranging story that keeps the reader engaged throughout.” I felt that all of it was validation of 20 years of hard work.
What have you found is the biggest challenge in your career?
Getting rejection letters, reading them, and then having to move on with a brave smile during the long searches for a literary agent and a publisher. It is very depressing when you receive a rejection letter that is full of grammatical errors, or get an offer from an editor to rewrite your book in “your own voice.” (!)
What are some interesting facts about yourself?
I was born in a wooden shack in a Shanghai shantytown during the Great Chinese Famine, which killed nearly 50 million people. For the first two years of my life, I was left alone in an old bamboo crib in the middle of our small wooden hut. Both of my parents had to work just so we would not starve. At the age of two, I was thought to be paraplegic because I could not sit or stand, let alone walk. My family was dirt poor, but we were rich beyond imagination in two things: love and stories. Each night, when she tucked me and my sisters into bed, my mother, who was an aspiring actress in the early days of Asian cinema, helped us forget our empty bellies by filling our ears with the stories of our family’s glorious – and often dramatic – past. She told us true stories of pirates and prophecies, babies sold in opium dens, lost jewels and found fortunes, and glamorous lives and gruesome deaths – all stories that I later wove into my historical memoir, Once Our Lives. Her gift for storytelling rubbed off on me and despite our poverty and the Cultural Revolution’s severe restrictions on what we were allowed to read, I developed a love for books and literature and became the first person from my family to attend college. After obtaining a degree in English literature from the Shanghai Institute of Foreign Languages, I came to the United States with two suitcases and little more. I went to the University of Arizona, received my Master’s Degree in Communications and eventually settled down in Great Neck, New York to raise a family and begin my writing career.
Do you have any organizations or nonprofits you work with you’d like to highlight?
Yes, my family and I have a number of special charities whose missions speak to our hearts and that we have supported for many years through donations and by working with them. The most important to us have been: American Humane, the country’s first national humane organization, which helps protect more than one billion animals each year. KidsPeace, the National Center for Kids Overcoming Crisis, which helps children who have suffered through abuse, neglect, and emotional struggles. The United Negro College Fund, because “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste.” Willow’s Wish, a not-for-profit working to end the international dog and cat meat trade. I urge everyone to support these worthy causes, which make a tremendous difference for children, animals, and our world.
Who do you admire?
The seven people I admire most are: My parents, An Chu Sun and Gu Yan, who struggled to protect me and my sisters during the Great Chinese Famine and the Cultural Revolution; My sister Min Sun Bamfield, who lived her entire life always giving to others; My children, Keaton and Halley, who have done more in their young lives than I could ever have imagined at their age; Abraham Lincoln, whose words inspired my heart with thoughts of freedom from 12,000 miles and a century away; and Madame Curie, who broke barriers and showed that women can change the world. Each of them in his or her own way has been a true role model for me.
Is where you are now where you thought you’d be?
When you grow up in a shantytown where your first toys are sticks and stones and your first companions are chickens roaming in the rubble, living in America with a warm home, plenty of food, and the freedom to follow your dreams is more than I could have hoped for. Of course, I wish my book could have been picked up more quickly, but then I might not have been lucky enough to have worked with Guernica Editions, a small traditional publisher with a tremendously talented and caring team that helped me make Once Our Lives everything it is today. So, on balance, I am more than happy to be where I am right here and right now. I have plenty of time for more adventures!
Did you have any interesting “odd jobs” you worked at between gigs to pay the bills?
Coming from poverty, no work, no matter how far from a career in writing, seemed to be an “odd job” for me. In China, thanks to my language skills, the government assigned me to be a tour guide for American visitors. When I arrived in the United States, I took whatever work I could get to help establish myself and pay for my college courses. I worked in a frozen yogurt shop where the fringe benefits included brain freeze, a photocopy shop where the greatest daily danger was paper cuts, and I was even hired as a security guard for a big building in New York City. Fortunately, for potential evil-doers, I never had to unleash my 5’1” and 90 pounds of deterrence power on any of them. Later in life, I freelanced, doing Chinese-English translations, proof-reading, copy-editing and supervising voice-over productions. I even taught a night class on Chinese Language and Culture at The Learning Annex in Manhattan.
Do you have any other “special skills?”
When I am not writing, I can be surprisingly domestic and love to cook, sew, and tend my garden. I’m not sure that it can be counted as a special skill but I can estimate the cost of a whole shopping cart of groceries within a dollar. And in the category of a “non-skill,” I cannot count or do math in English to this day. I have to calculate everything in Chinese.
Do you have any side projects you’d like to highlight?
I am working on a book of original Chinese Tall Tales that I think will be quite lovely and introduce young people to the power and delicacy of our story-telling traditions. One is about a genie named Oolong who lives in the wisp of vapor rising from a teacup. Another is about two orphans on New Year’s Eve who have nothing to eat but conjure up an entire feast using only words and memories.
How do you deal with writer’s block?
You know, I’ve never actually had writer’s block. Of course, there are days when nothing particularly worthwhile pours out of me. On those occasions, I just do something else and when an idea hits, I return to work.
Since so many of us spent a lot of time isolated during the pandemic, how has that experience specifically changed your creative or preparation process or your outlook on life?
The pandemic was so devastating and created so much heartache and despair for so many people that one day I decided I’d had enough and was determined to put the pandemic to work for me. I wrote a defiant and light-hearted poem called “The World Within the Word Pandemic,” consisting almost entirely of words made up of the letters in “pandemic.” It was my own small contribution, since I’m not an immunologist, to breaking down the disease – at least in a literary sense – and lifting people’s spirits, rallying them to fight against the bleakness of those years. Although it was not a “serious” poem, I felt that I scored a small victory since poetry was my first love and this became the first poem of mine ever to be published!
Who is your favorite writer, and what do you find interesting about their work?
I love great storytellers and have many literary idols, from Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and Louisa May Alcott earlier on in my life to Pearl Buck, Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, Helen Zia, and Gish Jen later on. But the writer I adore above all is Frank McCourt. His “Angela’s Ashes” opened my eyes to the power and beauty of memoir-writing. When I read his book, I felt as if I were stepping into his characters’ shoes and living their lives.
How do you think your creative process has changed over time?
English is not my first language, which affected my writing ability and writing habits. When I first started to write Once Our Lives some twenty years ago, I couldn’t think and type in English at the same time, so I carried a small notebook and a pen everywhere I went. I hand wrote everything that came to my mind when I had the time and accumulated quite a few notebooks filled with stories before I finally sat in front of a computer and really started to write the book. Writing for me was about opening up all my memory drawers, retrieving their contents, and then deciding what to put into the book and what not to put into it. They say that when you write a memoir, it is like experiencing your life three times: Once when you live it, once when you write it, and once when you read it. Reliving a great part of my life for a second time was often an emotional struggle. Sometimes, I found it to be very overwhelming and painful to go down my personal memory lane, relive my childhood, and recall our family’s lives in the shantytown and the Cultural Revolution all over again. But in order to do justice to the many remarkable, long-gone characters in my book, I forced myself to do it and found the experience both enriching and personally strengthening. After many years of writing my book, newspaper columns, essays, short stories, poems, and Chinese tall tales, I am finally able to think and type at the same time. I no longer write my first drafts in notebooks, although I sometimes miss my old habits.
What inspires you?
Little things in life often inspire me. One morning, I woke up in bed staring at the ceiling fan above me just as the first ray of sunlight hit it. I marveled how its shadow was perfectly shaped like a starfish, so I jumped out of bed and wrote a poem about it. The little things I have written about include sunken fire hydrants, cherry trees, somewhat lost-looking stalks of wheat growing by a suburban roadside, and a strange little animal called a coati that I saw, improbably enough, eating a doughnut in Mexico. When people around me inspire me, I weave them into my stories. I like to make friends everywhere, from the dentist office to the grocery store. One day, I saw a cashier attending to a young woman in front of me. She wanted to take money out of a debit card and was rejected. Looking at her disappointed face, he took out a five-dollar bill from his own wallet and gave it to her. “It’s not much, but I hope it’ll help,” he said. “You can give it back to me whenever you want to. You know where to find me.” I was moved. Cashiers work very hard and don’t typically make much, and yet, without a second thought, he helped a young woman who may have been financially more well-off than himself. Two weeks later, I met him at the checkout again. “Did that young lady give you the money back?” I asked. “No,” he answered casually. It is people like him who have inspired me to write a short story titled “Abe’s Garden.” I want to open readers’ eyes to see all the “not-so-obvious” people around them in their everyday lives: cashiers, cab drivers, delivery men, or the ladies who wash their hair in the salon. They do so much more to make the world run properly than we often realize.
Is there anything else you would like to share about yourself?
Maybe just that as you grow older, you become more aware of the value of kindness and helping others. If you can use your skills, whether as a cashier, a tradesman, or a writer, to help people or help them better understand others, no matter how different, you are doing something worthwhile and I consider that success.
To find out more on Qin Sun Stubis, please visit her at:
Facebook: Once Our Lives by Qin Sun Stubis
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