After a wrenching bestseller, an author takes up her dream project

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Monday, June 17, 2024

After a wrenching bestseller, an author takes up her dream project
Chanel Miller outside ABC Laundromat in New York, April 23, 2024. An assault led to Miller’s book, “Know My Name,” but she has wanted to write children’s books since she was a child — she’s done that now with “Magnolia Wu Unfolds It All.” (Lanna Apisukh/The New York Times)

by Elizabeth A. Harris

NEW YORK, NY.- Chanel Miller has wanted to be a children’s book author and illustrator since the second grade, when she started writing stories that her teacher, Mrs. Thomas, would laminate.

But her first published book, despite being a bestseller and a winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, was not at all what she’d wished for. It was a memoir about surviving sexual assault and its aftermath called “Know My Name.”

Brock Turner, who had been a Stanford University swimmer, was found guilty of sexually assaulting Miller while she was unconscious after a party on campus in 2015. His sentence, six months in jail, was widely criticized as lenient, and a letter she read to the court at the sentencing hearing was published online and read in Congress.

Now, after years trying to raise awareness about sexual assault and trauma, Miller has returned to her original dream with a second book, “Magnolia Wu Unfolds It All.” It’s a work of middle-grade fiction about a girl who plays detective in her family’s laundromat, reuniting misplaced socks with their owners. The “gentle chaos” of her book tour has been a balm, she said, as has been the creation of something that came from herself and not as a reaction to something that happened to her.

“April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, so I talked to the American Bar Association; I did fundraising events in Iowa, San Diego, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire,” Miller said. And then, she said, she went right into a book tour for “Magnolia Wu,” speaking at events where some audience members were dressed as characters from Dr. Seuss books.

“There was a kid standing up at a microphone to ask a question wearing a Thing One shirt with a blue wig on, little blue hairs blowing in the wind,” she said. She looked at her new friend and wondered: “How did I get here?’”

For all her somber public appearances, Miller is easy to laugh and quick to crack a joke, and she sees the world in vivid visual metaphors, which appear in conversation as unexpected bursts of light. As a guest on the “CBS Mornings” show last month, perched at a round glass table with the CBS eye logo in the middle, she said she was “honored to be sitting at this giant contact lens of a table.” These playful images appear in her writing as well.

Magnolia Wu, the protagonist in her new book, is an almost-10-year-old girl who lives in New York City with her parents. (“She was eager to turn 10,” Miller wrote, “because the number 9 looked like a sprout coming out of the ground, small and easily stomped.”)

Magnolia’s parents, originally from China, work at Bing Qi Ling Bubbles Laundromat, where Magnolia expects to spend her summer hanging out with Mister Pants, the family dog, while her mom folds piles of laundry, and her dad makes deliveries.

Miller’s mother, who was a writer in China, moved to the United States in her 20s with very limited English proficiency and worked at a dry cleaner and a flower shop, as well as a real estate agent and as an aerobics instructor at a YMCA. Miller’s father is a retired therapist who grew up in Kentucky. They raised Miller and her sister, to whom the book is dedicated, in California.

One day, Magnolia’s mother introduces her to a new kid in town named Iris who has just moved from Santa Cruz, California. When Magnolia asks Iris how she likes New York, Iris frowns and says that she saw a dead rat floating in a puddle. In response, Magnolia thinks: “She’s a grass person.”

But the girls become friends, spending their time trying to reunite lost socks with their owners, each sock a small mystery: Who would have a sock covered in neon-pink flamingos? Whose socks would be dotted with ice cream cones?

Miller had the idea for “Magnolia” in 2020, shortly after she moved to New York City, where her local laundromat had a bulletin board dotted with abandoned socks. Every January, the board was cleared, and the process would start again.

“New Yorkers are like little squirrels; you have to seek out so much,” she said. “I’d go get my mail or go get my laundry, all these errands on an endless loop.” Her mood, she said, would be punctuated by the small interactions she’d have along the way, and she’d always come home feeling better than when she left.

“Magnolia Wu” is also about getting out into the world, Miller said, even though life is unpredictable.

“That’s what my dad would say when I was super depressed,” Miller said. “‘Stay in circulation.’”

While the book is mostly filled with lighthearted humor and delight, it also tackles serious subjects, including anti-Asian racism. The words “go home” are scrawled on the front window of the exercise studio where Iris’ mother teaches.

Miller said that at a recent event for “Magnolia Wu,” an Asian American woman approached with tears in her eyes, and Miller assumed that she wanted to talk about “Know My Name,” Miller’s memoir. But the woman had been moved by “Magnolia Wu” and the words “go home.”

“In her memoir, which is of course a serious topic, she also manages to inject moments of levity,” said Jill Santopolo, Miller’s editor and publisher of the imprint Philomel. “In this book that is really funny and fun, she manages to beautifully inject moments of depth and really profound thoughts and ideas. In that sense, I think it’s clear to me that it’s the same person who wrote both of these books. It’s someone who is able to write about the darkness and the light in life.”

Her two books are indeed different, and that, Miller said, is her perhaps greatest achievement: showing that her painful memoir and this delightful story for children emerged from the same person.

“I keep hearing the word ‘departure,’” Miller said. “But the word ‘departure’ indicates leaving, and I cannot leave something that’s still inside me,” she continued. “I actually think I’m most proud of embodying both stories, whereas before, I thought the goal was to eagerly leave all that behind.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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