Today I’m excited to interview Ann Martin Bowler, whose books have received rave reviews from American and Asian press alike. Annie has written multicultural, non-multicultural and non-fiction books, as well as anthologies. In addition, Ann Martin Bowler is a school presenter, songwriter, teacher and editor.
MR: Annie, thank you for joining us! Gecko’s Complaint is set in the Indonesian island of Bali. What inspired that story?
AMB: My oldest son, Jocean, lives in Indonesia. In fact, he’s married to a wonderful Indonesian woman and they have two very amazing children. (Well, I’m their grandma, so what do you expect??….) He first went to Indonesia as an exchange student after high school. He fell in love with the place, the food, the culture but mostly the people. He did his junior year in college in Singapore but spent much of that year in Indonesia. At that point, I had a strong feeling he would move there permanently. So at the end of his college exchange year, I went to visit him. During that first visit, I was struck by how beautiful Indonesian artwork was and by Indonesians’ remarkably rich oral tradition. I knew how little our family knew about the country before Jocean went there. I came home from that trip inspired to share some of the Indonesian culture with Americans: the seed for Gecko’s Complaint was planted. *Note from MR: Gecko’s Complaint was recently released in a bilingual edition as well, English/Indonesian.*
MR: In your biography and regarding your trip to Indonesia, we read that you were “struck by the country’s amazing art and incredible storytelling tradition.” Please, share with us aspects of the Indonesian tradition of storytelling that impressed you.
AMB: I’ve enjoyed the fact that Indonesians tell lots of stories at home, as a regular form of family entertainment. I have also enjoyed Indonesian shadow puppet shows, called “Wayang.” During Wayang shows, puppeteers use beautiful and intricate shadow puppets to tell elaborate stories. These shows sometimes last all night and are very entertaining. Some Wayang shows are shorter but those are religious in nature. Almost all performances are accompanied by lovely gamelan music. If you ever go to Indonesia, you don’t want to miss a Wayang show!
MR: How did you “meet” Balinese illustrator I Gusti Made Sukanada? Did you often interact during the illustration process?
AMB: Thanks for asking! This is honestly one of my favorite experiences as a writer!
Jocean and I went back to Indonesia a year or so after my first visit in hopes of finding an illustrator for Gecko’s Complaint. (I was too new to writing to know that finding your own illustrator was a no-no to American publishers.) Jo and I trooped around Ubud, a very artsy town on Bali, for a number of days looking for “just the right illustrator.” We were sitting in our hotel’s garden cooling off after a long day of looking when our hotel’s porter handed me a piece of artwork. It was just the style I had been looking for!
The next day the porter took us out to see his friend, I Gusti Made Sukanada. We sat on Gusti’s small porch in the middle of a rice field and sipped tea and very soon, Gusti agreed to illustrate Gecko’s Complaint. An expat who lived in Ubud facilitated communication between Gusti and my family.
It was quite a treat for me to go to the post office and open packages filled with illustrations! I was amazed, but within a year, all of the book’s illustrations were in my hands!
Gecko’s Complaint sells very well in Bali, thus illustrating the book has had many positive effects for Gusti. That makes me really happy!
MR: Gecko’s Complaint was your first multicultural book. Did you have any apprehension about writing it, having been raised in a Western culture? 🙂
AMB: No, not at all. My whole life has been filled with multicultural experiences. My parents loved to travel to foreign countries. I got to travel with them sometimes and their friends from a wide range of places stayed with us from time to time. My family hosted a number of exchange students, too.
My adult life has been blessed by many cultures: my husband was born and raised in the Middle East; his father was from in the Philippines. We spent the first summer after we were married in the Middle East, now that was a fascinating experience! As an adult, I’ve traveled to various countries whenever I was able.
Today, our family is very multicultural. Our two youngest children were born in Korea. This experience has broadened all of us so much. As I mentioned, our oldest son and his family live in Indonesia. And now, our second son, Fran, is dating a young woman from Columbia.
Our family is just one example of the many ways that our world is shrinking. I believe that it is more important than ever to understand one another, especially people from cultures different from our own. People from around the world need to work together to solve serious world problems like global warming and chronic hunger. If my books help folks have a bit of insight or enjoy another culture, awesome!
All that said, I am very careful when I write about a culture that isn’t my own. One of my next books is a cultural anthology titled: All about Korean, Stories, Songs, Crafts and More. As much as I know and have experienced the Korean culture, I would never have written the book without lots of help from knowledgeable Koreans! I am very grateful to my Korean friends for their support with this project.
MR: I learned so much about China’s historical expedition when I read your latest book, Adventures of the Treasure Fleet. I was surprised to read about their arrival to Africa as early as the fifteenth century. What inspired you to write it?
AMB: I love to learn; it’s honestly one of my favorite parts about being a writer. I enjoy history, especially learning about interesting individuals from a different time and place. I had just finished writing another history book, The History of the Paso Robles Inn, when Eric Oey, Periplus‘ publisher, asked me to search for some good pieces of Asian history that would appeal to children. He suggested writing about the Treasure Fleet voyages; I thought it was a fabulous idea!
MR: Could you share with us tidbits about the research process?
AMB: I use original sources whenever possible. I used the diaries that were written on board the ships as my main information source when I wrote Adventures of the Treasure Fleet. I used many old documents and books when I wrote The History of the Paso Robles Inn. As I’ve done research for my books, I’ve been amazed at how many historians and reports just copy other people’s writing, rather than doing their homework!
MR: Annie, I recently discovered that in addition to being an author, teacher and editor, you are also a songwriter! Are your songs companions to your books?
AMB: Yes, my songs very much compliment my books. I sing them with kids in schools after reading my books. Sing-alongs are lots of fun! My songs are fairly simple so the whole crowd seems to enjoy them. You can find some of my songs on my website.
MR: You are an ambassador for Room to Read, a non-profit organization that builds schools and libraries in some of the poorest parts of the world. As such, what are your functions?
AMB: I’ve visited some very poor parts of the world. Some places I visited don’t have a school for their children. In other places, kids attend school for just an hour or two a day because there are so few classrooms and in these schools, there are usually just a few books!
I believe an education is an individual’s best chance to rise out of poverty. So you can imagine that visiting these poorly equipped and overcrowded schools disturbed me greatly. I learned about Room to Read about 4 years ago, right after I had traveled through some really poor parts of Indonesia. I’ve been working with Room to Read ever since.
Here’s the deal- whenever I speak, I set aside a part of my speaking fee to help a build a Room to Read school. It took me a few years but I successfully fundraised for my first school. This school is in rural Vietnam; 183 kids are now attending school in a community that had no school last year. I’m fundraising for a second school now, though the exact location has not been decided upon.
I’ve had a very positive response to my project. Schools have done their own fundraising drives to support Room to Read and me. One school held a penny drive! A good friend of mine, Carol vonBorstal, is donating the money she makes when she teaches yoga toward my next school. This kind of support warms my heart!
My youngest son, Jacob, and I visited some Room to Read schools this last summer. You can read about our experiences at http://ambroomtoread.blogspot.com/
MR: How can people who are interested also help build schools and libraries in developing nations
AMB: I would encourage people to check out Room to Read at their website, http://www.roomtoread.org/!
Of course, I would love to have help with my school project. I would encourage people to email me at email@example.com if they would like me to visit a school near to them.
A word or two about Room to Read: It is practical, honest and effective organization. Room to Read doesn’t go in and take over when planning a new school; they listen to the locals to be sure the school will meets the community’s needs. In fact, local communities provide most of the funds for each school, which insures the community will support “their school” for years to come. I call that a good investment!
MR: You’re an environmentalist as well. Do you talk about environmental issues when you visit schools?
AMB: I don’t address environmental issues directly during school visits at this point. But my book, Gecko’s Complaint is set in a rainforest. We have a lot of fun considering rainforests during Gecko story readings; kids play instruments from around the world to make the jungle sounds. Rainforests are noisy places, you know!
I am working on an environment book right now. I hope very much to be talking with students about the environment soon!
Annie, thank you very much for your time and for sharing your experience. I look forward to your next project! 🙂
Annie & Room to Read
To learn more about Room to Read literacy programs and school building projects: http://www.roomtoread.org
To read about Annie’s work with Room to Read: http://ambroomtoread.blogspot.com/
Some of Annie’s Books mentioned during the interview:
Adventures of the Treasure Fleet
Gecko’s Complaint: a Balinese Folktale
Gecko’s Complaint, Bilingual Edition: English & Indonesian Text
The History of the Paso Robles Inn: More than a Centurey of Pride