Something from nothing

Something from nothing

Award-winning novelist Minfong Ho tells how refugee children inspired her to 'see the light'

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Minfong Ho
Minfong Ho
Photo: YRF
Ever since she was a child, Burmese-born American writer Minfong Ho has understood the uncertainties of life. She heard stories from her parents and relatives about how families were separated during the second world war. Her late mother, Li Lienfung, a chemist and bilingual writer, experienced this first-hand.

"In 1937, my mother went on a school trip to Shanghai. [While she was there], the Japanese occupied the city and she never made it home," says Ho, 62, who lives in Ithaca, in the United States, with her own family. "She would never have imagined going out one day and never coming home. Luckily, she reunited with her family later."

Ho believes that her mother's story led to her interest in the fate of refugees, and humanity's strong will in the face of adversity. These beliefs have been reflected in her award-winning novels, including The Stone Goddess and The Clay Marble. Both books are about the hardships of people living under the Khmer Rouge, which ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. The party, led by Communist dictator Pol Pot, launched "social reforms" that led to thousands of deaths from disease and starvation.

In The Clay Marble, 12-year-old Dara escapes to the border near the end of the Khmer Rouge regime, when Vietnam invaded Cambodia. She receives a clay marble from her best friend, Jantu, who encourages her to create her own magical marble.

"The Clay Marble was inspired by my interactions with refugees when I worked at the Nong Chan Refugee Camp at the Thai-Cambodian border in 1980," Ho says. "As a nutritionist, my job was to cook for the children. Every morning, I went to the local market to get cheap vegetables. Then, along with the other workers, I made a big pot of vegetable stew. I saw thousands and thousands of small children, each holding a mug in their hands, lining up for the soup we made. Every day, I saw an ocean of children with nothing."

Ho met boys around 10 years old with amputated legs.

"Their legs had been blown off by mines," she says. "And I saw babies whose skin was peeling off and whose hair was falling out due to malnutrition."

Amid the sadness, something magical happened. "One day, I was kneeling on the floor, tired and breathless, when a girl came over and sat beside me," Ho says. "She was about eight. She looked at the rubber band on my wrist that I used to tie my hair sometimes. She twanged it and laughed. Soon, other children gathered around us. They all wanted to twang my rubber band."

Ho was amazed to notice how the children created toys with anything they had.

"They cut out the used drip bags into long strips and wove them into all kinds of animals," she says. "They used the mud on the ground to make marbles. A little boy used the mud to make a doll pounding rice with a stick, [mimicking what the children did in real life]."

The children's playfulness and strong spirit led Ho to see light in even the darkest moments. "I could look at them and feel depressed, or I could look at them and admire them," Ho says.

"And I admired them. They could sit on the muddy ground and cry. But, instead, they made something out of the mud.

"For Dara in The Clay Marble, [making marbles is] what she can control in her chaotic and confusing life [as a refugee]. [Without the marbles], her life would be meaningless and hopeless.

"There are many unexpected things in our lives. We can't control them. But we can all make something with our hands - it's very human; it's our nature."

Minfong Ho was in Hong Kong last month for the Hong Kong International Young Readers Festival 2013


Minfong Ho, right with her husband, at the Nong Chan Refugee Camp in 1980. Photo: Minfong Ho

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