Sunday, August 7, 2011

Guamology Interview for World Peace, a Blind Wife, and Gecko Tails

I was interviewed about my book back in 2009 by Kel Muna, a film-maker, and host of the website. Since then, Guamaology has gone off-line, as Kel has become busy planning the Guam International Film Festival. I enjoyed the interview, and thought I'd post it here since Guamology is no longer around.

World Peace, A Blind Wife and Gecko Tails. It's such a great title. How did you come up with it? Did you have any alternate titles before settling on your final choice?

As I was having friends review the book, I'd ask them, "What is this book about?" and the typical answer was that because the pieces covered a potpourri of subjects, the title would have to be reflective of that. I also wanted the title to be a bit intriguing and memorable. Someone suggested that many of the pieces were about world peace, so that became the opening of the title. The blind wife and gecko tails are references to specific pieces in the book. I also wanted to give reference to our tropical location, and that's why I chose "Gecko Tails" as part of the title. My first thought for a title was simply, "Thoughts from an Island".

How does it feel to know that Blind Wife is required reading for sociology students at the University of Guam, where before Blind Wife it had been Mitch Albom's "Tuesdays With Morrie"?

Honestly, I'm a bit stunned. I'm always surprised when someone tells me that something I've written is meaningful to them. I receive the reflection papers that the students write after reading the book, and it's both rewarding and humbling to know that something I've written has in some way touched someone's life. "Tuesdays with Morrie" is such a powerful book. I can't really get my head around the fact that Blind Wife has displaced it from the reading list.

I understand that Blind Wife is a compilation of all of your most popular columns from the Saipan Tribune. When and how did you come to write for the paper?

I started writing for the Tribune as a columnist in 2004. I had wanted to be more disciplined in my writing, and I felt like having a weekly deadline would help. I also am a curious person by nature, and like to pull ideas from various places, so the column provided me a place to share the things I was learning or thinking about.

When did you get the idea and interest of turning your columns into a book? How long did the process take to put the book together?

The book came about as a result of panic. About a year before it was published, I decided to take more time off from work and write a book I had been thinking about for some time. I had given a series of talks on the subject of establishing unity in communities. People told me that I should turn that into a book -- "7 Habits of Unity" or something like that. So I took time off to write this book, but really didn't have a clear idea of where I was going with it -- the tone, the audience, the purpose. And because of this uncertainty I began to have all kinds of personal doubts and misgivings while trying to write it. I spent a lot of time just staring into past my computer screen into space. After nine months, I realized that the year was coming to a close, and I had nothing to show for it, and that I'd feel like a total loser if the year ended and I hadn't published a book. So, I realized I could pull together my columns, which were already written and which had been well-received in the community, and publish them. So this book came about because I wimped out at writing the other one.

Your writing style is very easy to relate to as well as reflective. Did you have a formal education in writing?

I got the same training that we all get by virtue of going to school. I didn't take any special writing courses or workshops. But I did have some terrific teachers who taught me the value of re-writing, and the need to read your own writing out load to make sure it makes sense and that it flows. One of my comparative religion professors had a journalism degree, and he emphasized the need to write clearly for a broad audience, even in a term paper. So, I think that's where the conversational tone of my writing comes from. I also believe in being authentic. Even though at times I write about some lofty principles (like being truthful 100% of the time, or not dwelling on the faults of others, or eating well and exercising daily) I know it's difficult, because I fail with the same struggles. I try to make sure I'm conveying that I know I'm on the same human level as my reader.

How did you decide on the number of entries to include in the book? Did an editor choose for you?

I wanted to have about 50 pieces, just because it was a nice round number. I went with 52, because that's the number of weeks in a year, so it's like a year of columns.

Your writing style and reflection of topics are uplifting and the overall tone reminds me of one of my inspirations, Seth Godin, a blogger who totally thinks outside the box. What is your source for inspiration when it comes to writing your entries?

I've never really thought about this before. I think my writing is just a reflection of me, my thoughts, my surroundings and my responses to them. So, in some way, the answer to the question of what inspires my writing is the same as what inspires my life. The biggest sense of inspiration for me is a conviction that the world is moving inexorably toward a fully integrated global society, and that the social structures of old are crumbling, making way for new paradigms, and ultimately for a spiritually rooted civilization. That's what I see when I see the current economic collapse -- the collapse of a system that was not based on sound spiritual principles, and so, it's collapse provides the opportunity for a new, more holistic one, to emerge. The source of this mindset and this perspective -- this overall optimism -- is my exposure the the writings of the Baha'i Faith. Check them out. They are revolutionary both in terms of social organization and human relations, and in terms of the individuals relationship to his or her own existence.

Do you get writer's block? If so, what do you do to get over it?

I do have difficulty writing at times, but I don't like to call it "writer's block" because that phrase formalizes the simple fact that at times, everything is difficult. It turns it into a monster. I mean, there are some days I don't want to go to work, but I don't call it "worker's block". That's just an excuse to stay home. "Sorry, can't come in today. I've got worker's block." The best way to get over difficulty writing is to write. It's that simple. As one writer has succinctly phrased the remedy, "ass to chair".

If you had to choose only one favorite entry from your book which one would it be and why?

That's a little like being asked, "of all your children, which is your favorite?" Because the pieces are so diverse, can I pick a favorite from a few categories? Of the serious pieces, my favorite is "Thoughts of a Father" which is what I wrote down while awaiting a diagnosis of cancer in my six-year old son. It was a very personal piece and a very raw reflection of the horrors and doubts of such an experience. Of the humorous pieces, the one that is my, and most people's favorite is "The Relationship Between Moral Health and a Blind Wife," which depicts a Saipan scene of the pitfalls of multicultural communication. Of the medical stories, I like "Sweet Sight" which depicts the drama of a blind man regaining his sight.

Tell us about your writing process. How do you find the time to write with a busy schedule/family life?

Most of the time, I'll write about something that has been on my mind for a while. It takes time for ideas to percolate. I start the writing process inside my head. I have a loose idea of what I want to say, but it really evolves as I'm writing. The act of writing is a sort of unveiling. I'm not sure at the start how it will turn out. The interaction between the writer and the page determines the end result. The page is an active participant, molding the writer's words as they emerge. At least that's how it happens for me. When do I find the time to write? When everyone is asleep. I also write on Thursday mornings. It's my operating room day, and in the 20 or so minutes between surgical cases, I'll pause and write.

You are a very respected ophthalmologist. I'm sure you could have your choice to practice anywhere in the world, so why Saipan?

Are you kidding? Because Saipan is the greatest place in the world! I'm living on a beautiful tropical island, serving people who need and appreciate my services. I live in a community that values human relationships, where my kids are growing up without fear. What more could a person want? One of my professional goals was to work in an under-served area, which is why I left the US after I completed my training. Sometimes I think back on the life I could have had -- working in an academic medical center, teaching, publishing scientific papers -- and all the prestige that comes from that. It can be seductive, but I truly believe that I'm in the setting that gives me happiness, which is much more important, ultimately than prestige.

How big of a role does Saipan play in your writing? 

How has your experience growing up as an Iranian boy in Kentucky contributed to your unique views on life? 

I think more than anything else (and I think this is common among many immigrants), it gave me the perspective of an outsider -- of someone who had to work to fit in, to be accepted. Immigrants were rare in Appalachia when we moved there in the 60's. People didn't know how to categorize us. It was still a time of racial tension, and here was this brown family -- neither black nor white, with strange accents, strange foods, strange religion, strange names, strange strange strange. I carried that sense or having to work to just fit in around with me through my 20's. But once I left the United States, I lost that sense of being an outsider. I think the ethnic diversity of Saipan, where there is no clear majority, is unifying. People are used to people of various colors, with funny names. Here, I'm no more a stranger than anyone else, and ultimately, I imagine many parts of the world will be like Saipan -- a true mix of cultures and peoples. Growing up in rural Kentucky also gave me a sense of appreciation for small towns and tight communities, which is one of the reasons Saipan resonates with me.

What future projects of yours can we look forward to?

I'm not sure. I've been on pause in terms of writing for almost a year. I'm trying to create more space and quite time in my life, and I'm very careful about the things I undertake. I'm contemplating writing some columns again, but not with the same weekly frenzy as before. I'd also like to get back to the "7 Habits of Unity" book, but I'm in no hurry.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

This is my first interview by a famous film-maker!

Our version of James Lipton’s/Bernard Pivo Questions (one word, or short answers please):
What does the Chamorro culture mean to you?

Who’s your favorite local artist?
Greg Elliott

Do you speak Chamorro?

As a person, what turns you on?

As a person, what turns you off?

What’s your favorite curse word?
Booger (my kids might read this).

What sound or noise do you love?

What sound or noise do you hate?
The sound of surgical scissors removing an eye.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
Stand-up comic

What profession would you not like to attempt?
Hitman -- boss is too demanding.

If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?