Last night, April 24th, 2017, the Oregon Book Awards took place in Portland. Eve of a Hundred Midnights was nominated for the Frances Fuller Victor award for general nonfiction. While the book didn't win, it was such an honor to be chosen a finalist. Moreover, being asked to write some remarks in case I did win proved to be a wonderful opportunity to reflect on all of the people I appreciated for making this book possible. Here's what I would have said, because it's all still true.
So, most of the journalists who worked in Chongqing during the war lived in the city's government-run "Press Hostel." When I was in Chongqing this spring I spent a great deal of time looking for the site of the hostel, and for years I have been researching everything I can about the place as I work on my book. Only just now -- as I make the last revisions on my book about Melville and Annalee Jacoby, who lived in the hostel -- did I think to type "Press Hotel" into google instead of “Press Hostel.” Oy...
If you're just starting out as a freelance writer -- hell, if you're well-established as a freelancer -- I strongly urge you to read this piece by Scott Carney, a Colorado-based investigative journalist and anthropologist. In the piece Carney suggests freelancers abandon the long-held practice of "silo" pitching, wherein writers pitch articles to one outlet at a time and rather take their publications out to multiple editors simultaneously.
Chongqing was hot. It was loud. It was squalid. It was crowded.
It was home. Chongqing was home.
"You get to like it,” Mel wrote.
Will I like it? Five weeks from today I will wake to my first morning in Beijing on the first leg of a trip through China and the Philippines. In the weeks to follow I hope to visit Guangzhou and Manila, to see Shanghai and Cebu, to ride trains through Guangxi, and to sail through the Visayas. Most importantly, perhaps, I hope to climb from the Yangtze through the exploding megalopolis of Chongqing and, I hope, to find this place Mel and Annalee and so many others once called home.
A new year looms. As it has since I began unfurling this story, New Year's Eve carries a special meaning. As much as I'm thinking about Mel and Annalee, I'm also thinking about the people who left similar impressions upon them, and upon whom they left their own impressions. They are on my mind as I consider how, 73 years ago tonight, Mel and Annalee made the heartbreaking decision to leave their friends at a Manila hotel, run to the city's burning docks and leap aboard the last boat sailing into a dark, mine-strewn harbor before the Japanese entered the Philippines' capital. It was not an easy decision; the people they left behind were their colleagues, their friends, their fellow "soldiers of the press." They were, as I've addressed before, their tribe.
Around the corner from my house, inside the streetside window of a fancy spa, a slogan painted on an interior wall reads "Allow sufficient time." As the spa's clients emerge from their massages and saunas and wraps, the sign reminds them not to rush back into the world. It also reminds passersby like me not to rush through the world. I'm still trying to learn that lesson.
I've been reading a lot of letters. It seems all I do these days is read letters.
But here's a letter for you. I wish I could send it to you on the onion-skin I so often find myself reading, the translucent sheets etched with the black ink of a an old Hermes's or Corona Portable's hammer-strikes, the sheet carefully folded into an envelope covered with bright stamps and decorated with a picture of a DC-3 and bold capitals reading "VIA AIR MAIL."
Of course, I can't, but I still want to say hello, because it's been a while (probably) and I miss you (certainly) and connecting beyond the superficial digital zones where we encounter one another. You may know where I've been, but perhaps something will settle on this screen. Letters, whatever their substrate, allow thoughts to steep better than ever-flowing streams of information we feel we must address and process now. Right now. Always now.
So feel free to read this and whatever letters follow at your leisure.
By the time I had the confidential State Department documents in my hands, I was five days into my research trip to Washington, D.C., I'd flipped through hundreds, maybe thousands of pages of dusty, sometimes crumbling government documents, private letters from publishing luminaries, and even water-stained diaries from hungry, stranded soldiers unaware of a coming death march through mosquito-infested, sweltering jungles.
Now I need your help to keep looking.
This morning marks one of the most exciting moments for me as I continue to pick up where Mel was silenced. In a few hours I'll be in an apartment in Alhambra, California, meeting with George T.M. Ching, his wife, and their daughter. George was one of Mel's dear friends during his time as an exchange student at Lingnan University. At ninety-seven-years-old, it's uncertain how able George will be to really deeply reflect on Mel's life, but I'm hopeful that just the chance to share some time with someone who Mel cared strongly about, and who cared strongly about him will be valuable.