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Author Gail Tsukiyama Talks About What Books Mean to Her and About Writers for WaterBridge Outreach 


by Corinne Robson, Projects Manager, WaterBridge Outreach: Books + Water



WaterBridge Outreach team member author Gail Tsukiyama conceived and heads up our Writers for WaterBridge Outreach program: a group of writers united in their belief that funding books, clean water, and sanitation projects in areas of need is a vital source in continuing efforts to promote literacy, education and development. In this interview Gail talks about the importance of books in her life and shares her thoughts about the inspiration behind the Writers for WaterBridge Outreach program as well as recent highlights and future goals. Gail is the author of seven novels.  She has been the recipient of the Academy of American Poets Award and the PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence.  A resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, she has taught at San Francisco State University, University of California, Berkeley, and Mills College. 


Books and writing have been of central importance in your life. Can you recall any books that had an impact on you while you were at school?


For as long as I can remember I’ve loved to read, something instilled in me through my mother who was a voracious reader.  When I was in elementary school, I was a big fan of Charlotte’s Web, A Winkle in Time, and the Encyclopedia Brown Series.  As I progressed to junior high and high school, I read all of Jane Austen’s works, Willa Cather’s My Antonia, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, all of which left a great impression on me.  And I still remember vividly the first Asian-American writer I read in high school was Maxine Hong Kingston and her wonderful book, The Woman Warrior.  It really opened my eyes culturally in terms of the Chinese myths she’d brought to life for me.  All through my formative years, books were a constant part of my “life” education, providing inspiration as well as revelation.  A trip to the library was always full of joy.  I wanted to read everything, eager to experience other lives, other worlds.  


What do books mean to you now as a reader and writer?


I still read with the same kind of awe – of discovering new worlds.  I do also read as a writer now, so I’m attuned to certain aspects of language and structure.  I’m constantly intrigued when I read a sentence or a paragraph that’s so wonderful it makes me stop and literally takes my breath away.  I still feel that I’m constantly learning—about human nature, about other worlds, about the writing process in itself.  Books still continue to educate me as both a reader and a writer.    


What books have you read recently that have really moved or impressed you?


Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, a beautifully written book that opened my eyes to the Chechen conflict in the late 1990’s.  The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss, a simple and moving story depicting one corner of the American landscape, and I just reread The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, which was written as a young adult novel, but I believe it’s a story that transcends age.  It’s truly inventive and remarkable.  


What does WaterBridge Outreach: Books + Water mean to you?


Being involved in WaterBridge Outreach allows me to complete the circle which began when I was young and had read my very first book.  Through WBO, I’m now given the chance to extend my love of books to others who might not have had the same opportunities I’ve had.  Books and water are two of the greatest gifts we can pass on to our future generations.  Books provide children with a powerful education; opening up their hearts and minds to different lives and cultures.  Books also allow us to understand human nature, which in turn helps us to reflect and choose.  The water aspect of our work balances the intellectual and cultural with the practical and essential side of life.  Without clean water and proper sanitation in many of the schools and villages we send books to, the children run the risk of disease and illness.  In some areas, young girls walk miles every day to carry water back to their families, missing an education entirely. Through our work, my hope is that we continue to nourish both the minds and the bodies of children and communities in areas of need.  


Share a bit about Writers for WaterBridge Outreach - how did this project get started, who is involved, what do they do. Are you looking for more writers to share their time? Will children’s writers be added to the list?


I began Writers for WaterBridge Outreach because it was such a natural fit to have writers involved in books + water projects.  I’ve also been very fortunate these wonderful writers didn’t hesitate to come aboard and be part of Writers for WBO.  Right now, we have a wide variety of fiction and nonfiction writers such as  Mary RoachGregory Maguire, Elizabeth George, Ann Patchett, Lisa See, and Junot Diaz.  You can see all the rest of the writers here along with their photos and quotes about what books have meant to them.  With their presence on the site, and their future involvement through social media, fundraising events, workshops, Q&A conversations, interviews, and future books and water projects, we hope to bring more awareness to WBO and our commitment to give children in developing communities hope for the future.  We’ve begun with a core group of writers and will certainly build more writers and illustrators in more genres such as children’s and young adult books as we continue to grow.       


Among WaterBridge Outreach's projects, there are several in collaboration with Save Int'l in Tamil Nadu, India, which involve the donations of books.  On the site we have photos of you reading together with author Mary Roach to children at a tuition school in Ellandoppu, and there is also one of you reading with children at the Sembakkam Mobile Library project that WaterBridge Outreach has sponsored. Can you share with us what that experience meant to you. What was it like to read with the children? What were the reactions of the children to the books sent by WBO? What effect do you hope these WBO books will have on the children?


It was certainly a life altering experience for me!  We were very fortunate that Mary was also in India at the time researching two magazine articles she was writing.  We arranged to meet, so she was along with us in Tamil Nadu visiting water projects and tuition schools where WBO had sent books.  We took turns reading to the children from one of the books, Biblioburro: A True Story from Colombia, which had become a real favorite among the children.  After Mary and I finished reading to them, the children read the book back to us in English.  It was simply amazing to see them not only understand the story, but want to read the book aloud.  Their teachers watched proudly as they waved their hands in the air anxious to read.  In both of my experiences, I felt the purest sense of accomplishment, not just for WBO and the books chosen to be sent to these tuition schools, but for the wonderful effect the books had on the children.  Here we were in India with a group of Tamil speaking children who were reading a book about Columbia in English.  It obviously made a huge impact on the children.  My hope is that the books we send to them will make the same lasting impression as books have made on me, and that they’ll continue to inspire, illuminate, and educate through the years.  My time with the children also brought home everything WaterBridge Outreach: Books + Water stands for—nourishing the mind and the body. It nourished me to be with them and will remain an unforgettable experience.  It’s something I hope to share with some of the other WBO writers who might be interested in traveling with us in the future.  It’s really a gift to see firsthand the impact our books and water projects are having with the children and their communities.  


What do you hope WBO will be able to achieve in the future?


I hope WaterBridge Outreach will continue to grow and provide books + water projects to areas of need in bigger and better ways.  It takes so little to do so much in many other countries.  It would be wonderful to increase some of our successful projects in other communities, providing clean drinking water, or increasing the number of mobile libraries first started in Sembakku to other parts of India, and in other parts of the world.  But my greatest hope would be if WBO could continue to help provide some of the opportunities we often take for granted:  a library in each school, clean drinking water in each village, and a lavatory in schools that are without.  As we look toward the future that sounds like a very good starting point to me.     


Published Summer 2014


To access our archive of Up Close and Personal Articles click here.

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