An Abandoned Immigrant Finds Her Voice: An Interview with Allison Hong Merrill

Megan Vered | April 2022

Allison Hong Merrill
Allison Hong Merrill

Allison Hong Merrill was born and raised in Taiwan and arrived in the US at twenty-two as a university student. That’s when she realized her school English wasn’t much help when asking for directions on the street or opening a bank account. By recording each of the classes she took—including physical education—and reviewing the tape every night for a year, she eventually learned English well enough to earn an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. But please excuse her if she misuses the verb tenses or mixes up the genders in third-person pronouns when she speaks. It’s no secret—English is a hard language to learn.

Allison is an editor at Dialogue Journal. She writes both fiction and creative nonfiction, in Chinese and English, which means she spends a lot of time looking up words on She’s a Pushcart Prize nominee, and her work has won national and international awards, including National Championship in the 2010 Life Story Writing Competition in Taipei, Taiwan and the Grand Prize in the 2019 MAST People of Earth writing contest. She’s the inaugural winner of the Sandra Carpenter Prize for Creative Nonfiction. Her recently released debut memoir, Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops, was ranked #1 New Release on Amazon in two categories, and it has won the 2021 Literary Titan Book Awards Gold Medal, the 2021 International Impact Book Awards, the 2021 Firebird Book Award, and the 2021 Readers’ Favorite Book Awards Gold Medal in the category of Memoir.

Here, she talks about, among other things, the immigrant experience, faith, cultural attitudes towards women, intergenerational trauma, being heard, her writing process, and her literary heroes.

Megan Vered: You divided your memoir into eleven very specific thematically focused parts, each with mostly one-word titles: Virtue, Loyalty, Faith, Filial Piety, Humiliation, Peace, Harmony, Charity, Ritual, Justice, Righteousness, and Love. Did you start with this framework, or did it evolve as you wrote the book?

Allison Hong Merrill: I didn’t structure the manuscript this way at first. The idea of doing so came to me during my query process. By then I’d received more than 100 rejections from agents and publishers, and was anxious to find a way to improve the manuscript. I was in the shower one day when I saw, in my mind’s eye, the sections of my manuscript divided into what you see in the finished book today, with Eight Virtues and Four Principles as headings, based on traditional Chinese social bonds.

Vered: You use these themes so effectively to trace your life story from the devastation of being an abandoned immigrant starter wife in your early twenties to becoming a woman warrior standing in your own power. After being left homeless and penniless in a foreign culture by your first husband, you learn to speak English, graduate from college, suffer the disgrace of a divorce, and ultimately find the love you are seeking. Did you receive a positive response to this new structure?

Hong Merrill: Thank you so much, Megan. The new structure works really well. I did receive a positive response. In fact, I won the 2021 Zibby Awards for Best Structure, and am grateful for the high honor.

There were other vivid scenes scattered in my mind for the middle of the narrative. In a sense, those unorganized images were the sand I shoveled into a box—the first draft. After numerous edits, I was able to build a presentable sandcastle.

Vered: In the beginning of the book, you describe the crippling fear you experienced when trying to speak English. You have written a memoir in a language that is not your native tongue with a voice that has been described as “incandescent” and “uniquely charming.” Can you talk about your path from performance anxiety to proficiency?

Hong Merrill: To understand my fear, it may be helpful to look at these facts:

  1. At the beginning of life, a child is exposed to spoken language before he approaches written language.
  2. Spoken language is easier to master than written language. My husband, Drake, lived in Japan for years. He was fluent in Japanese but couldn’t read Kanji.
  3. Some people don’t have the opportunity to receive a formal education. My grandmother lived a long life of ninety-three years as an illiterate polyglot, able to communicate verbally in four languages but unable to read or write in any.

When I first arrived in the US, my ex-husband, Cameron, introduced me to his family and friends. Almost immediately he started a habit of taking over conversations and interpreting for me. I didn’t need to learn to speak English.

Meanwhile, I was a university student in Texas. Written English was easier for me to master than spoken English. I became the opposite of Drake and my grandmother: I was literate in a language I was unable to speak—until Cameron abandoned me.

Looking back, I understand that Cameron’s leaving was the driving force for me to finally take responsibility for myself. Immediately after his abandonment, every English word I spoke had the specific purpose to propel me toward survival. I learned to communicate with Americans in street conversations, not school English.

It’s been twenty-five years since then; I still struggle with spoken English. When I’m waiting in line at the post office or in a bank, I practice what to say when it’s my turn at the counter. I compose sentences in my head, and then revise them until they “look” grammatically correct. Although, there’s nothing I can do with my accent. I can’t edit it out of my speech. So, to me, written English is easier to master than spoken English. That’s why, instead of participating in The Moth, I choose to tell my story through memoir writing.

Vered: Yes, the written word is powerful. Mary Karr says that every writer needs two selves: the generative self and the editor self. She says that not one page she has every published looks anything like her first draft. You?

Hong Merrill: I agree with Mary Karr. Shannon Hale—a fellow Utah writer and #1 New York Times Best-Selling author of The Goose Girl—says, “I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.” I wish I’d said that.

I approached the drafting process of Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops with a clear image for the beginning and the end of the story. There were other vivid scenes scattered in my mind for the middle of the narrative. In a sense, those unorganized images were the sand I shoveled into a box—the first draft. After numerous edits, I was able to build a presentable sandcastle.

Vered: I love that image of sandcastles. I’m going to use that in the future. You parse the belief in God from a unique perspective, stitching your life story with spiritual tenets from different cultures. One of the things that enriches your book are the references not only to biblical passages, but to Rumi and Chinese proverbs. I’d love to hear more about the impact of these three spiritual traditions—Christian, Islam, and Chinese—on both your past and current life.

Hong Merrill: Chinese proverbs, poems, idioms are part of the pop culture. They’re in songs, TV shows, people’s casual conversations, on stationery, snack packages, and home decors. Little kids memorize Chinese poems for school assignments and exams. As a middle-aged writer, I continue to benefit from my early childhood learning of Chinese literature.

There were two prominent philosophers in China: Laozi (also known as Lao-tzu, cir. 571 BC) and Kongzi (also known as Confucius, 551 BC–479 BC). Their profound wisdom and teachings still influence modern-day Chinese people. One of the things they taught was that “under the heavens there is but one family.” This resonates with me. I’ve learned the same truth in the church: all human beings are children of God. We’re siblings. We’re family.

Another thing I’ve learned in church is found in the Article of Faith #13. It reads, “…If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.”

So, it doesn’t matter to me where the virtuous, lovely, and praiseworthy things come from—Christian, Islam, or Chinese. They’re from the goodness of my brothers and sisters under the heavens, and I seek them all.

Vered: You speak about the cultural expectations of women in China and also of women in the Mormon church. Can you talk about the similarities vs dissimilarities of the two cultures in relationship to the role of women?

Hong Merrill: In relationship to the role of women, there’s a major dissimilarity between the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Chinese culture. Specifically, the Church teaches that “All human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents.” (The Family, A Proclamation to the World) The functions and practices in the church indeed reflect the truth that God doesn’t favor one gender over the other. This instills in me the confidence and assurance that I’m a beloved daughter (of God). Unfortunately, I don’t get those feelings in Chinese culture.

There’s a Chinese saying that perfectly depicts their idea of gender placements: “ñìÑûÌîÒ³”—literally translated as “heavy male, light female.” On the societal scale of the worth of a soul, a man weighs more than his female counterpart. This simple four-word statement summarizes thousands of years collective tears and heartbreaks of Chinese women. Is “ñìÑûÌîÒ³” an archaic saying? I wish it was. But I also believe people can change. One can hope.

In the Chinese language, nine and a long time are homophones. Ninety-Nine sounds like double the long time, which means never-ending. A fire hoop is a metaphor for an obstacle. Ninety-nine fire hoops is a metaphor for never-ending challenges.

Vered: Can you say a little more about the effect of the Chinese patriarchy on your identity as a woman, and your struggles with obedience, disgrace, and self-worth?

Hong Merrill: I was born into the Chinese patriarchy and viewed it as part of life, much like rice and stir fry. I was used to accepting certain expectations I needed to meet, because that was what a good child should do—be obedient, be silent, keep her head down, and be diligent in satisfying men’s demands. I knew it was an unjust social phenomenon but didn’t know how or when or why it started. When my parents fought, my father would accuse my mother of failing him, of being a disgrace, of not giving him a son. And he claimed that, to keep face, he was justified in having a son with someone else (However, after spending time with other women, he remained sonless).

When I was about five, for the Chinese New Year, my family went to my paternal grandmother’s to celebrate. My two uncles were there with their families. Altogether, there were six boy cousins in the house, sitting with the men at the dinner table and enjoying the feast my aunt prepared. The women and girls scattered around the kitchen, squatting and chatting and waiting for the men and boys to finish eating so they could have the leftovers.

After dinner, my grandmother took all six boy cousins to a general store for candies before going to a street puppet show. Girls weren’t allowed to go because Grandma said we “don’t have that extra piece of flesh between our legs.” You see, my boy cousins would someday “carry on our family name with that gift they were born with,” and we girls were “nothing but money-losing goods.”

When I was seven, one day my father took me to visit his mother in a hospital. She was weak and pale and looked miserable. She wasn’t happy to see me. I reminded her of my mother, she said. “Tell your mama that after I die, my ghost will come back and haunt her!” (Oh yeah, all this is in my next memoir.) That’s right. My mother bore no sons; she was a disgrace to the family. She deserved no love, peace, nor joy; she deserved to be haunted. Those were my paternal grandmother’s dying words.

I learned in church that “save a girl, save generations.” Looking back, I see that my grandmother wasn’t saved from the crippling concept of “heavy male, light female.” She passed down the poison of female-hate for generations to me, and I was convinced I was worthless. But the thing about a cultural belief is that if people choose to believe it, surely they can choose to disbelieve it. Just to think there was a time when people believed the earth was flat…

Vered: In the book you talk about meeting an Asian girl at BYU, someone you hoped you might connect with, only to discover you were an outcast because she was ABC, one of the lucky Chinese. Can you talk about the experience of being an Asian immigrant and about anti-Asian sentiment overall?

Hong Merrill: I was in the middle of traumatic events and wasn’t in the right mindset when I met that Asian girl. I approached her with expectations that she didn’t know existed. It was wrong of me to make the quick judgment that “She’s not my people,” as if she intentionally offended me. She was born and raised in the US, so of course she identified as American. She was just being herself!

As a first-generation immigrant, her father could possibly be a dishwasher in a restaurant, working sixty hours a week and having no health insurance. Her mother could possibly be a nanny, tending three kids and doing her employer’s family’s laundry. You probably have seen her on the street before. She was walking back to her employer’s house with heavy bags from a grocery store because her employer gave her a shopping list.

Since the beginning of the current global pandemic, Asian Americans have faced an increase in racist violence at a much higher rate. Some believe the pervasiveness of the “model minority” myth—the false idea that Asian Americans are more successful than other ethnic minorities because of hard work, education, and inherently law-abiding natures—is a contributing factor. This myth has created a false narrative that Asian Americans don’t struggle or face racial discrimination. You know that’s absolutely untrue if you read Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops.

Here are my thoughts on Asian Hate:

  1. Caucasians, Blacks, Jews, Asians… all human beings are our brothers and sisters.
  2. Life is a universe of God’s love.
  3. You and I, we all have the power of choice.
  4. Choose to be obsessed with love and kindness.
  5. Apply #4 above to ALL humankind: Caucasians, Blacks, Jews, Asians… every child of God.

No matter what voice you use to tell your story, as long as it’s genuine, your reader will trust it as the authority to lead the narration.

Vered: I’m with you on being obsessed with love and kindness. We can all do more in that department. The link between generations is a predominant theme in your book. When talking about your relationship with your neglectful mother, you claim half of the responsibility for the weak link. Why do you see yourself as partially responsible, and what do you wish you had done differently given your circumstances?

Hong Merrill: The words recorded on my birth certificate made it official that the woman who birthed me was my mother, but there were hardly any interactions between us; I wouldn’t say we had a meaningful mother-daughter relationship.

On page five of Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops I write, “… there are always two people in a relationship…” So, it would be unfair to say my mother was solely responsible for the weak link in a chain of generational love. I also chose not to nurture our relationship. I let my pride get in the way and became ashamed of my association with her. I wasn’t kind, or polite, or respectful to her. Secretly I wished I had had someone better as my mother.

She moved out of our house when I was fourteen. Given my circumstances, there’s not much I could’ve done differently. I didn’t know my attitude was problematic at the time because I was a dumb kid. I didn’t know that the reason our mother-daughter relationship wasn’t working out was because I was an arrogant, narcissistic teenager, full of myself, blaming my mother for the kind of person she was. I needed to learn to be humble before I could do my part to improve our relationship. Life has a way of compelling the arrogant to be humble, beating them down to their knees. It did me with the light-switch incident. But by then it was too late to repair my relationship with my mother. She passed away three months after the light-switch incident, and I was left to imagine all the possibilities of a healthier relationship with her.

Vered: Anna Qu, in her recently published memoir, Made in China, writes about her mother’s cruelty. As she grew older, she came to realize that her mother’s abusive behavior was a result of “the generations of cruelty we’ve endured at each other’s hands.” How do you break the cycle of intergenerational trauma?

Hong Merrill: Many writers say that writing their memoirs is therapeutic and cathartic. I’m glad it works out for them that way. For me, memoir writing is a legacy project. I preserve personal memories and family history to share with my children and my children’s children. Instead of creating pedigree charts, I tell life stories.

I see breaking the cycle of intergenerational trauma as a spiritual matter. It’s inner work that happens outside of writing.

Each of my sons is a beloved child of God. Knowing that God has entrusted HIS precious children in my care, how could I ever think to abuse these noble souls in any way?

As you know, my family had a destructive lineage. My sisters and I suffered innocently as victims of violence, neglect, and hatred. But through the grace of God, I’ve developed the strength to metabolize the toxins within me and refused to pass it on to my descendants.

Because I understood and appreciated the atonement of Jesus Christ, I made a choice to emulate Him. I chose to be a sponge that absorbs generations of destructive pain before me, so that the line will flow clear and pure after me.

It’s worked out well for me and my family.

Vered: You speak about losing and finding your voice. I got the impression that you had a strong voice at a very young age. In the book you say you were “born a ferocious warrior.” Can you say more about finding and losing your voice both in a literal and metaphorical sense?

Hong Merrill: At a young age I knew the life I wanted to live, the person I wanted to be, and the things I wanted to accomplish. I was unwilling to let cultural expectations or patriarchal authority stop me. If I don’t get what I want, it’s not because I never tried. I wonder if that’s what gives you the impression that I “had a strong voice at a very young age.” Which could possibly be another way to describe my defiance, stubbornness, and determination.

In the process of pursuing what I wanted, there was opposition. My father disowned me for disobeying his will—I dropped out of university to serve a mission for the church. Cameron abandoned me for not complying with his and his father’s demands—I refused to hand over the money in my bank account. Through these experiences I learned to stand up for myself and to speak up for myself.

Recently, Cameron’s attorneys threatened to take legal actions against me if I dared publish Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops. Twenty-five years after having abandoned me, that man is still trying to silence my voice, not allowing me to tell my truth. How much longer do women have to continue to live in terror, fearing the punishment, torture, and suffering from men if they dare tell the world they have been abused?

Being bullied by egoistic males and then silently sulking in a dark corner doesn’t work for me. I refuse to submit to this man’s ungodly will. Women are not a vacuum cleaner that men can push around and then shove into a closet when they’re finished!

Many writers say that writing their memoirs is therapeutic and cathartic. I’m glad it works out for them that way. For me, memoir writing is a legacy project. I preserve personal memories and family history to share with my children and my children’s children. Instead of creating pedigree charts, I tell life stories.

Vered: And, on the topic of voice, I found the voice in the book to be fresh, open-hearted, self-recriminating, and at times ironic. Can you talk more about how you found the voice for this book?

Hong Merrill: I love that you use all these wonderful adjectives to describe the voice in the book. Thanks so much! I’ve gotten feedback from close friends who referred to random things in the book and said, “I can totally hear you say this!” So, the voice in the book is actually just me talking on the page, with lots of polishing and revision.

Vered: Ah yes, always so much revision. Like the sandcastles. Your book is a deeply spiritual one about bravery in the face of unimaginable odds, about self-determination and faith. You began asking questions about faith at a very young age. If faith were a character in your book, can you talk more about when and how you first made its acquaintance?

Hong Merrill: When I was four, I attended my great-grandmother’s funeral. That’s when I heard the word death for the first time. On the interment, I witnessed what the living do to a corpse: placing it in a wooden box, leaving it alone forever at the bottom of a deep, dark hole in the ground with earth worms and other creepy crawlies. I was terrified of death, of being disposed of, forgotten, and abandoned.

Around the same time, I was left home alone with my two-year-old sister, Dee, on an almost-daily basis. There were no toys, books, or food in the house, and Dee was a full-time crier. Can you see where this is going?

I assumed the responsibility of raising Dee. I thought it was my job to create an environment of safety, security, and love for her. She needed food to stay alive. I had to figure out where to get food for her so she didn’t end up in a wooden box, left alone forever at the bottom of a deep, dark hole in the ground with earth worms and other creepy crawlies. But what if I couldn’t provide for her and she died? What if I died?

I started contemplating the concept of life and death at around age four, although I didn’t intentionally set out on a spiritual journey then. But that was the foundation of my spiritual inquiry, wanting to know the purpose and meaning of my existence. It sounds absurd that a four-year-old child wonders about this kind of thing. All I can say is that my circumstances made me that way. I became a four-year-old insomniac, believe it or not, because I was obsessed with the life-and-death concept, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Vered: If it makes you feel better, I too was obsessed with death from a very young age. Maybe that is why we became writers! And speaking of writing, did the process of writing this book alter your interpretations or point of view about people or events in your life?

Hong Merrill: Yes, it did. I wrote Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops when I was in my forties. By then I was more mature than the twenty-something me, and I had developed more compassion for others. During the writing process, I imagined doing an interview with each of the characters in my story, like we are doing right now, and it opened my eyes!

I don’t know why people did what they did. Why did my father tell me and my sister he hated daughters? Why did my mother leave me and my sister home alone when we needed her? Why did my ex-stepmother try to sell my sister’s organs on the black market?

I imagined what their answers would’ve been had we had an interview, and it dawned on me that everyone struggles with something, everyone has his/her own cross to carry. It’s not my job to judge. The only way for me to find inner peace is to believe everyone is doing his/her best. After all, we’re imperfect humans living in a fallen world. We make mistakes and fall short. We could all use loving mercy and second chances.

Vered: Throughout the book, you interweave present and past trauma to tell a story of hope vs. despair, good vs. evil, truth vs. error, and power vs. powerlessness. A suicide attempt leads to gratitude, and despite your despair, faith persists. How did you hold on?

Hong Merrill: Everything I know about holding on, I learned in these powerful scriptures:

1. “In the world ye shall have tribulation but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” John 16:33 2. “…all these things shall give thee experience and shall be for thy good… Thy days are known, and thy years shall not be numbered less; therefore, fear not what man can do, for God shall be with you forever and ever.” (Doctrine and Covenants 122: 7, 9)

Vered: Of course, not everyone has this sense of faith. At one point, you make a list describing your friend Ethan’s lack of faith that you call the Anatomy of Unbelief. What does unbelief feel like to you?

Hong Merrill: It feels like agency—the right and freedom we have to choose for ourselves. Ethan chooses not to believe in God, because atheism works for him. I respect his choice. As I write in Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops, section 72, “But ultimately, I’d rather live my life believing there’s a God and die to find out there isn’t than live my life believing there isn’t a God and die to find out there is.” That’s what works for me, and I appreciate it when others respect my choice to believe in God.

Vered: The book unfolds in ninety-nine sections, but we don’t even hear about the fire hoops you have to jump through until the end of the book after you’ve met Drake, the man you end up marrying. You beautifully sum up everything you’ve endured with this:

We live in the narrative of gravity; life has a way of bringing us down to our knees, to the level of dust. People age. People fall ill. People become weak. People divorce. All my childhood heartaches, desperate cries, and seemingly endless trials and tribulations felt like God’s test to try my faith, resilience, and tenacity. It was as though He’d asked me to jump through ninety-nine fire hoops to receive the promised reward, gift, and blessing.

What is the significance of a fire hoop? What is the significance of the number 99? How did this become the title?

Hong Merrill: In the Chinese language, nine and a long time are homophones. Ninety-Nine sounds like double the long time, which means never-ending.

A fire hoop is a metaphor for an obstacle. Ninety-nine fire hoops is a metaphor for never-ending challenges. I used it to reflect the fact that life gave me a series of trials and tribulations to overcome, the way a circus lion was made to jump through a series of fire hoops.

Now, please excuse me for using a cliché, but hindsight is always 20/20. I couldn’t see the whole picture of those early years of my life while I was in the middle of living it. It wasn’t until I’d gotten out of those challenges and met Drake that I understood what he meant to me. By then I was able to look back and see that he was a blessing to me, a true testimony of “You receive no witness until after the trial of your faith.” That’s why the revelation of my understanding of having jumped through metaphoric ninety-nine fire hoops comes at the end of the book.

I thought it was fitting to title the book Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops because it not only serves as a structure for the narrative (99 sections), but it also maps out a version of the hero’s journey.

Vered: I love the way you pull things together in the final chapters of the book. When I asked Anna Qu about her book Made in China, she told me that, though she struggled with the structure of the book for years, she always knew where it would end, and never wavered. I’m wondering, is this the same for you?

Hong Merrill: Yes, that’s my case too. I always knew the beginning and the end of my story.

I don’t know if it has anything to do with my reading disorder, but when I was drafting the manuscript, I could see the middle part of my story in my brain as unorganized segments of scenes. My job was to describe those scenes with written English, add the voice of experience wherever it was needed, and then organize the scenes into a fluid sequence. I promised myself that when I was done with the manuscript, the reading experience would feel like watching a movie, and that this would be my humble offering to my readers.

Vered: What do you mean by your reading disorder?

Hong Merrill: When I was in first grade, my teacher made our class of sixty-five students read aloud together stories from our Chinese textbook. That’s when I discovered I read differently.

I couldn’t follow my classmates’ unified chanting voice. My eyes couldn’t follow the words, sentences, and paragraphs in the order that made up a story. I glanced at the first couple of words in the opening paragraph and then jumped to the end of the page to read a sentence, and then wandered back to the middle of the page to read a few words, and then flipped the page to read some random words, and then came back to re-read the opening sentence on the first page. I did it on every single page. I still do it. I can’t help it. It’s how my brain works. Nowadays, when I start reading a book, my brain urges me to read the last paragraph of the last page before I even finish reading the first page… Yeah, I’m that kind of reader.

Years ago, I shared my struggle with this reading disorder on social media. A stranger commented that I ranked #3 on a list of historical villains, trailing behind Hitler and Stalin. According to him, people who read the ending of a book first are unpardonable sinners.

But there are those with reading disorders who also possess extraordinary abilities to do amazing things. One of my writer friends—a New York Times and international bestselling author with dyslexia—can see the structure of a story like a DNA double helix. We all know Einstein’s mind was supercharged with creativity. This genius was also dyslexic, and he believed he could ride an atom like a horse. Talk about imagination! I like to think that, perhaps, a reading disorder is a superpower in disguise.

Vered: Speaking of magical things like superpowers, can you talk about the special love you had with your grandparents? It seemed that they “got” you in a way your parents didn’t, that somehow the love skipped a generation.

Hong Merrill: My maternal grandparents lived about three miles away from my first childhood home, where my family lived till I was seven. Before I started first grade, my mother occasionally dropped us off at our maternal grandparents’ house and then woke us up in the middle of the night to take us home.

Those days at my grandparents’ house were magical, simply because I felt wanted. My grandfather was only fifty-five years old then, but he’d already retired. So, he and my grandmother took Dee and me on day trips, on visits to clan relatives, and to shop in a street market. They showed us how to garden, oil machines, and prepare a meal.

Lots of people’s grandmothers gave them the gift of literature. My grandmother was illiterate and couldn’t read me stories. But she gave me the gift of attention. My grandfather gave me the gift of time. Time and attention are different forms of love. I assume they offered the same gifts to my mother when she was little, but why she grew up to become a negligent mother will, unfortunately, remain a mystery.

Vered: When writing, I often feel I am channeling the words of an insistent voice that will not be quieted. Stephen King says people assume that the writer controls the material rather than the other way around. How do you see this? Do you believe, to quote science fiction writer Alfred Bester that, “The book is the boss?” Did your book write you?

Hong Merrill: Yes, I do have the same experience you describe, “channeling the words of an insistent voice that will not be quieted.” That voice is especially loud when I work on a novel. It’s as if the characters are guiding me in correctly telling their individual stories.

An example: Sarnai is a sacrificial-lamb kind of character in my current work in progress. I wanted her to die but didn’t know how to plot her death. This was on my mind for several days, and I was getting impatient. How hard is it to just kill off a character, right?

But Sarnai is a healthy happy young woman in her early twenties; I didn’t want her to die by suicide, I didn’t want her to die of cancer, I didn’t want anyone to push her in front of a speeding train, so an accident seemed to be a perfect cause of death. I quickly realized there were countless accidents Sarnai could die from, and I was promptly whirled back to the beginning of brainstorming.

Then, one day as I was cleaning my kitchen, I saw—in my mind’s eye—Sarnai and her husband horseback riding in the woods. Her horse tripped over gnarly tree roots, flinging Sarnai into the air. She landed on a heap of jagged rocks, the impact fracturing her skull. With her dying breath, she said, “This is how I want to die…” And right there I got the answer.

So back to your question, yes, I agree with Alfred Bester: The book is the boss.

Vered: Isn’t it fascinating how when we engage in another activity the ideas surface? Can you name some memoirists who have influenced you and why?

Hong Merrill: The marvelous Frank McCourt, the wonderful Jeanette Winterson, and the terrific Abigail Thomas are some memoirists who have influenced me. All of them experienced shocking, tragic circumstances, but were able to write about them with grace and humor.

McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes is my all-time favorite book. His is an unforgettable story of resilience, perseverance, and bravery. In fact, Angela’s Ashes was the book that inspired me to write a memoir. Even though I’m not Irish, or Catholic, nor was I born in the 1930s America during the Great Depression and Prohibition, I felt that McCourt was telling my story because I identified deeply with the themes of his book: the will to overcome, determination to defy unjust authority, and love. I also appreciate his honesty in revealing his weaknesses in the book. He was a flawed person, just like every one of us. It takes tremendous courage to be truthful to his readers by showing his shortcomings on the page. Thanks to McCourt’s example, I reminded myself to do the same while writing my book.

To me, Jeanette Winterson is a hidden gem. I didn’t discover her work until four years ago, and I was enthralled by her storytelling skills. This is my experience with Winterson’s work (I’m a visual person, so please bear with me): With her words, she creates a cozy room in a log cabin deep in the snowy mountains. She invites me to sink into a comfy chair by a glowing fireplace, then she hands me a wool blanket to drape over my legs. She also hands me a mug of steamy cocoa and a plate of chocolate cookies, as if it were Christmas Eve and I were Santa. Then she tells me her story in her deeply moving voice. I never want to leave that moment, nor that space. Someday I want to be able to offer my readers a similar gift.

As for Thomas, I have to use two Hollywood comedy actors as an example: Jim Carrey and Ryan Reynolds.

To me, in the memoir world, Elizabeth Gilbert is Jim Carrey while Abigail Thomas is Ryan Reynolds. Both are great in their own unique ways; both have their own strengths. As a thought leader and social justice warrior, Gilbert’s work sets out to initiate civil conversations. Her her writing style is extravagant—decorated with metaphors, famous quotes, research data, and all. She reminds me of Jim Carrey, who acts with exaggerated facial expressions and dramatic body language.

On the other hand, Thomas’s work reflects a clean, simple, and, yet, profound style. She writes about mundane things—the good and the not-so-good aspects of life—without an agenda or an intention to change the world.

As a foreigner with a reading disorder, I find it much easier to follow Thomas’s narratives. She reminds me of Ryan Reynolds who acts with subtle and yet, powerful facial expressions that have the ability to evoke emotions in me. Someday, I want to be able to deliver meaningful work through simple prose like Thomas does.

Vered: And back to the subject of voice; author Amitava Kumar in his piece On Voice refers to “…that unstable place, where earnestness gives way to exploration, and you have found a voice that is unsettling and maybe even disturbing and exhausting,” as a place he wants to visit again. Do you relate to this?

Hong Merrill: On Voice is an interesting piece. I love and relate to the sentence you quote here. As I switch from memoir writing to fiction writing, Kumar’s words feel even more relevant.

The keyword here is exploration. Kumar wants to visit that unstable place again to explore the possibility of finding his other voice. That’s a brilliant concept. Isn’t that what living a creative life means?

If you’ve been writing in a poetic voice, I imagine it would be refreshing for your audience to read your work in a sing-song voice, or an indignant voice, or an authoritative voice. It’s like, what if Stephen King decides to write a rom com next? Wouldn’t that be something worth exploring?

No matter what voice you use to tell your story, as long as it’s genuine, your reader will trust it as the authority to lead the narration.

Vered: And speaking of authentic and trustworthy voices, I want to thank you for yours. It has been a pleasure to speak with you, Allison!

Hong Merrill: Thank you so much Megan. What a tremendous honor!

Megan Vered s an essayist and literary hostess with numerous published essays and interviews. She has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She holds local and international writing workshops, and she serves on the board of Heyday Books and the UC Berkeley Library. Her memoir, A Dance to Remember, Confessions of a Medical Maid of Honor, is seeking publication.


from Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops: A Memoir

I had seen plastic skulls at Walmart during Halloween season in America, but never a real one. Now I was looking at Mama’s skull, perfectly intact and pure white. Hollowed eye sockets. Upside-down heart-shaped hole for the nose. High cheekbones. This was her head, where her brain and mind were shielded. Where her lifelong thoughts and memories were stored. It was in a stranger’s hand now. He held it like a volleyball. Was he going to hammer Mama’s skull? Once, twice, thrice, like me knocking my forehead on the marble floor repeatedly, each time with belated gratitude for each thing Mama had done for me. Changed my diapers, breastfed me, bathed me.
    The undertaker hammered away, bashing and smashing. It reminded me of the times when Baba     pummeled that same head the same way.
    Once, twice, thrice, Baba was drunk and mercilessly out of control.
    Once, twice, thrice, Mama stormed out of the house, gone for weeks.
    Once, twice, thrice, I tiptoed to look out the bedroom window at Mama’s leaving.
    Finally, the undertaker scooped out a handful of ash from the metal box to fill the urn and dumped the leftovers into the sandbox, dust to dust.
   Your ma was a beauty.
   The fire devoured Mama whole, ate everything: her compass-drawn round face, her willow-leaf-shaped brows, her double crease eyelids, her heart-shaped smiling lips, her elephant-leg-like arms,her flooded lungs. Gone.
   All gone.
   She was the ash in the urn, in the tray, in the air, no longer the woman who lived with a packed suitcase, always ready to leave Baba.
   What a way to have lived fifty years of a turbulent life, to receive the least dignified burial of all—no obituary, no eulogy, no embalmment! After two years of not being able to lie down to sleep, she could finally, finally rest.
   I blinked and caught my reflection in the stainless-steel furnace door.

Excerpted from Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops: A Memoir. Copyright © 2021 by Allison Hong Merrill.
Used with permission of the publisher, Seven Stories Press. All rights reserved.

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