49 Writers Volunteer Interview: Leslie Hsu Oh

Continuing our series of interviews with the great volunteers on whom we depend, meet our Interview Coordinator, Leslie Hsu Oh.  Of course we can always use more help, including writers for the interview team and volunteers to help with our Alaska Book Week Oct. 15-22.  If you’d like to be part of the 49 Writers energy, fill our volunteer form.

Tell us a little about yourself, including your day job and what you do as a volunteer for 49 Writers.

When I was twenty, my eighteen-year-old brother died of liver cancer.  A week later, my mother was diagnosed with the same disease.  She died a year after that.  Their deaths drive the choices I make in my life, where I feel I must make a difference in other people’s lives.  Currently, I contribute to the award-winning Love+eMotion weekly blog on Kids These Days! (first place in AK Professional Communicators’ “Best Talk Radio Show” and “Best Website” award and Alaska Press Club’s “Best Ongoing Public Affairs Radio Program”), teach creative writing and business communications at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and freelance.

My short stories and essays have appeared in Cirque, Rosebud Magazine and Under the Sun.  “Between the Lines” was listed as a Notable Essay in The Best American Essays of 2010.  I am also co-author of The Strategic Application of Information Technology in Health Care Organizations (McGraw-Hill 1999).

I am honored to serve as 49 Writers’ Interview Coordinator.  Stephanie Jaeger, Andromeda Romano-Lax, Lizbeth Meredith, Mariah Oxford, Kathleen Tarr, Deb Vanasse, Rose Winters, and I interview authors who write about Alaska and Alaskan-based organizations.

Our blog receives over 10,000 hits per month, offering both interviewer and interviewee publicity.  So if interviewing authors sounds interesting to you, contact me at lhsu@post.harvard.edu.

Why did you decide to volunteer at the 49 Alaska Writing Center?

I am passionate about building a writing community and fostering mentorships in a career that can be isolating and self-centered.  My friend, Mary Sears, a traditional healer from Point Hope, explained it best.  When you give freely, it always comes back.  Maybe not in the ways that you expect, but it always comes back.

What’s a highlight of your involvement so far?

As the Interview Blog Coordinator, I enjoy seeing both author and interviewer grow from their collaboration.  My hope is that mentorships can germinate from these connections.

Tell us something about your literary interests or activities.

I come from a long line of artists.  My grandmother was a famous oil painter and portrait artist in China. While seven siblings dabbled in the arts, my mother was the only one to make art a profession, receiving a master’s in journalism with a minor in advertising.  Beneath my mother’s metal art table, I was exposed to art at an early age, experimenting with colored pencils, cameras, paints, charcoal, and oils.

Every Saturday morning, my brother and I groaned through Chinese classes until it was time for the elective period where my mother taught art.  Our sketches morphed from two dimensions to three.  Pencils worked their magic on the page, transforming fruits into a state of permanence, forever ripe and ready to burst.  Our mother patiently showed us the power of art, how it could safeguard, sustain, and mean something different to each beholder.  I try to always keep that in mind when I’m writing.

In the summers, my family took two-week road trips through national parks, where my mother would take us horseback riding, white water rafting, or cave spelunking.  Together, we explored all the national parks in the United States and Canada except the ones in Alaska.

My mother’s photographs captured the girl I always hope to be: toes naked against the wind, eyes closed, lips pursed ready to blow apart a dandelion clock.

What’s the last great book you read?

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.  I’ve recently learned that I’m a Yatesian (apparently a “cultural-literary handshake” fraternity including Nick Hornby, Kate Atkinson, David Hare, Raymond Carver, Kurt Vonnegut, Joan Didion and Richard Ford).  If I ever have writer’s block or am depressed from a rejection, I flip to any page of this book and read one of the passages I highlighted and remember why I write.  “Anxious, round-eyed, two by two, they looked and moved as if a calm and orderly escape from this place had become the one great necessity of their lives; as if, in fact, they wouldn’t be able to begin to live at all until they were out beyond the rumbling pink billows of exhaust and the crunching gravel of this parking lot, out where the black sky went up and up forever and there were hundreds of stars.”

When you picture our writing center ten years from now, what do you imagine?

The thrill of watering an idea and seeing it bear fruit and then multiple throughout the country is an addictive ride. 

I’ve raced down that road with The Hepatitis B Initiative, a nonprofit I founded in 1997.  The most profound lesson I learned from that ride was when to eject from the driver seat. It was the hardest thing I had to do, probably akin to watching my kids grow up and eventually leave my home.

So in ten years, my hope for this writing center is that it achieves flight across the nation, out of the hands of those who created it.

For more information about Leslie Hsu Oh, visit www.lesliehsuoh.com.
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