Slut-Shaming, Daughters, And The Next American Revolution



The following conversation is part of our Beyond The Bio series, featuring conversations with authors we love. If you're a teen who'd like to interview an author, please click here to find out how we can connect you with your favorite YA authors. Today's guests include StoryTimeTeen creator James Tilton and Lan Cao. Lan's newest book, Family In Six Tones, came out last month.



James: Hi Lan! Your newest book Family In Six Tones just came out. Can you tell our readers a bit more about what they can expect?


Lan: Hi. I think they can expect an honest, sometimes gut-wrenching account of what it’s like for refugees to “assimilate” into a new country. Assimilation is touted as a desirable objective but it’s not as always smooth and soft-edged as the word makes itself sound. The readers can also expect some very funny scenes from the portions that tell my daughter’s story. She is a funny storyteller even if the subject is serious.


James: You mentioned in the book that your love for America is complicated. Your love for Vietnam seems complicated as well. How would you respond to nationalists whose blind patriotism boils down to a simple "Love it or leave it"?


Lan: If you truly love it, you’d work to make it better. And, I should add, this is more easily done in some countries than others. In a country with an authoritarian one-party system where dissent is deadly, it’s very hard to “make it better.” It says a lot about America that we can nudge and coax and exhort the country to better itself as we know it can.


James: There's this beautiful line where you say, "Although yes, I was grateful to have found sanctuary in this country, gratitude no longer meant servitude or obedience or silence." Can you tell me more about that realization?


Lan: This is similar to the question and answer above. That’s said by Americans TO Americans as well. But this line you’re quoting adds an additional dimension to the “love it or leave it.” It’s that if you’re an alien who found refuge in a new country, all you are allowed to feel is gratitude. It’s like YOU of all people should forever be on your knees in gratitude.


James: This idea of standing up as an act of patriotism reminds me of the moment you refer to the Civil Rights Movement as America's second revolution. I can't shake that thought. Why do you call it the second revolution, and do you think there will be another?


Lan: The American Revolution made the US an independent country and not a British colony. It was based on the notion that “all men are created equal” and basically, if that’s so, how can the colonies – Americans – be subordinate to Britain and the British. It’s clear as day that that statement doesn’t really mean what the words that make up the statement seem to say. Clearly “all men” were not viewed as having been created equal. And even if the statement were factually a reality, “all men” didn’t include women. The first revolution was good, but imperfect. I don’t think we should ever make the good the enemy of the best. So sometimes good is good enough, for the moment. The second revolution ushered in a brand new day for people who weren’t included in the first revolution. Yes, every moment in time gives the new generation an opportunity to upgrade. There are many areas to upgrade still – human relationship to the earth, to resources, to animals so we don’t see everything around us as commodities to be exploited and dominated.


James: You spoke powerfully of your time clerking for Judge Constance Baker Motley, the first female African American judge to be appointed to the federal bench. Your conversation with her about America's unfulfilled promises especially stood out to me. You say that a beautiful promise is still worth more than no promise at all. What do you mean by that?


Lan: I mean that a promise is better than no promise. As President Obama said at the Democratic National Convention in August 2020, although the Constitution wasn’t perfect, embedded within it is a “North Star” that continues to guide us. The promises in the Constitution make up a constellation of North Stars. Sometimes promises and aspirations take time to become a reality. But without a promise, without an aspiration, one would just wander aimlessly, without a goal to guide one’s route.


James: Your first book focused on a fictional mother and daughter. This one focuses on real ones. What is it for you that makes a mother's relationship with her daughter such a compelling one?


Lan: It’s a very challenging relationship. It’s fraught with every single complexity possible. It contains within it the seeds of paradox and contradictions. Dependence vs independence, embeddedness vs autonomy, restraint vs freedom, safety vs risk. The relationship starts out basically with one life being inside another being. Then they become separate. As they separate, both beings struggle to find the right balance. The struggle to help the child separate even as you mourn the separation is very tortuous. And difficult for both. It’s full of built-in misunderstandings and resentment.


James: Your daughter Harlan co-wrote this book with you. What was that writing process like?


Lan: At first we read each other’s chapters, but we quickly relinquished that sort of togetherness when it became too turbulent. We wrote separately, got together towards the end to look over our work before we sent it to our editors. And we reworked based on our editors ’suggestions, not so much based on each other’s reaction.


James: Like far too many teenage girls, Harlan experienced significant slut-shaming in high school. She writes about that experience powerfully. What was it like reading her account of that experience? Was it something you were aware of at the time?


Lan: I wasn’t aware of the full extent of it. I was only aware of the broad brushstrokes. It’s hard to know this and I think she kept the details away from me because she didn’t want me to be reminded of my own high school experience.


James: If you had the chance to go back and talk to Harlan in that moment, what would you tell her? What would tell you those other teenage girls who are victims of slut-shaming?


Lan: I pushed Harlan to go talk to the administration. She thought that was a mistake. I would tell her to do it again even if we didn’t (as we in fact didn’t) get the help we needed. This is because we can only control our own actions, not anyone else’s. It’s the right thing to do, to report the wrong. What someone else will do is not something you can control.


James: You compare writing a book to giving a birth to a child. You've done both; I've done neither. Would you do either of them again?


Lan: I wouldn’t give birth again. I think parenting is just very hard. Giving birth actually was easy comparatively speaking. And I wouldn’t write this kind of book again. I’d write fiction and short stories again.



About The Author: Lan Cao is the author of Family in Six Tones: A Refugee Mother, an American Daughter, a memoir co-written with her teen daughter Harlan Margaret Van Cao. Lan is also the author of Monkey Bridge and The Lotus and the Storm, and most recently of the scholarly work Culture in Law and Development: Nurturing Positive Change. She is a professor of law at the Chapman University Fowler School of Law, and an internationally recognized expert specializing in international business and trade, international law, and development. She has taught at Brooklyn Law School, Duke University School of Law, University of Michigan Law School, and William & Mary Law School. For more information, please visit her website.

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