Saturday, July 28, 2012

Guest Author: Elaine Russell

I came to writing fiction somewhat late in life after a career in energy and environmental research and analysis. In my early forties, while taking care of my small son and working part time at home, I finally had the chance to pursue creative writing. It began during nap time, but soon I found myself grabbing every spare moment available. I was obsessed and thrilled with the process of writing fiction and wished I had started sooner. I took classes, wrote about every topic I could think of, and spent over a year on what I call my “practice” novel. 

Eventually, I settled down from my experimental frenzy and concentrated on stories that mattered to me. The inspiration for my novel, Across the Mekong River, came through a series of unrelated events. It started with the Hmong children in my son’s elementary school and articles in the Sacramento Bee about the struggles of the Hmong community in my home town. Then my book group read Anne Fadiman’s wonderful non-fiction book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down.  I wanted to learn more the refugees from Laos.

In 2002, I wrote a short story about a Hmong woman, but further research convinced me there was a much larger story to tell. About this time, Lee Yang, a young Hmong woman, came to work in my husband’s office. She shared her story of marrying at the age of twelve and having a child at thirteen, and how she constantly struggled with Hmong cultural expectations. She introduced me to her friends and helped explain Hmong traditions and customs. I traveled down a fascinating path where each new discovery resulted in another, and I felt compelled to write this novel.

Lee, her friends, and other Hmong I met along the way told me of the conflicts they faced trying to live in America while maintaining Hmong traditions. I read every book I could find on the Hmong–their life in Laos, customs, beliefs, and traditions—and studied the civil war in Laos, part of the wider second Indochina War, our American Vietnam War. After the communists took over Laos, close to 300,000 Hmong and other Laotians were forced to flee their homeland. I read accounts of families’ escapes, the years in refugee camps, and experiences on coming to America. I attended Hmong New Year’s celebrations in Sacramento, learning more about Hmong music, traditional dress, and other customs. Hmong associations working in the Sacramento area and nationally provided me with additional materials. Meanwhile, I wrote and rewrote the novel, struggling with point of view and how expansive to make the story. I put it aside for long stretches of time, but always came back determined to get it right.

In 2006, I traveled to Laos to gain a greater sense of place, of what had been left behind. I fell in love with the people and landscape and have returned on four occasions. While there, I learned about the extensive problem of unexploded ordnance (UXO) left over from U.S. bombing campaigns during the war. Nearly fifty years later, there are close to 80 million unexploded cluster bombs, which are still killing and maiming Laotians, many of them children. I joined a U.S.-based non-profit, Legacies of War, which works to get additional funding for UXO clearance. Through my association with Legacies, I met other Hmong and Laotians and learned even more about the war and its aftermath. 

I hope readers will enjoy the story and find a new appreciation for the immigrant experience of Hmong refugees, escaping war and persecution and adjusting to life in the U.S. It has been particularly difficult as most were rural, subsistence farmers high in the mountains of Laos. They could not read or write in their own language, making it even more difficult to learn English and understand their new environment. Families continue to struggle with poverty and prejudice. Across the Mekong River is the story of a Hmong immigrant family, but there are themes true for all new immigrants who come to the U.S., filled with hope, but often facing a harsh reality.   

About the book:

Across The Mekong River tells the adventurous and gripping story of a Hmong family forced to flee Laos after the communist takeover to pursue a dangerous journey across the Mekong River, leading them from Thailand to the United States. Through the eyes of each family member, Elaine Russell spins a moving, deeply personal, and yet universal portrait of the immigrant experience of leaving one's homeland to begin anew in a strange and foreign culture.

Across The Mekong River was praised by Kirkus Reviews as "a multifaceted tale of complex characters finding new lives in their new world," that explores the resilience of the human spirit to overcome tragic circumstances and make impossible choices." 

About the author:

Elaine Russell worked as a Resource Economist and Environmental Consultant for 22 years before beginning to write fiction for adults and children. She became inspired and actively involved with the Hmong immigrant community after meeting Hmong children in her son’s school in Sacramento and reading Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. Since then she has been to Laos many times to research her book and as a member of the non-government organization Legacies of War. For more info, visit


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