February 21, 2001: Class Notes


1991-2000 & Graduate School

Class Notes Features:

A voice for social justice: Helen Zia '73 tells the stories that have galvanized Asian Americans

Caroline Sharp '83 helps would-be writers sharpen their pencils

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Zia authored Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People.


A voice for social justice
Helen Zia '73 tells the stories that have galvanized Asian Americans

elen Zia '73 has become a voice for Americans of Asian descent. A writer and social-justice activist, she has brought light to issues and stories that profoundly impact the Asian-American community. Her recent book, Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000), chronicles the transformation of Asian Americans from disparate ethnic groups into a self-identified community with influence in American society. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Zia details pivotal events that galvanized Asian Americans during the past 20 years such as the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American, by two white autoworkers who thought he was Japanese and the 1992 Los Angeles riots that devastated many Korean-American shop owners.

Named Chinese-American Journalist of the Year by the Organization of Chinese Americans in 1998 and one of the most influential Asian Americans of the decade by A. Magazine in 1999, Zia was inspired to write Asian American Dreams during the 1996 presidential campaign, "which spotlighted Asian Americans as the sole cause of [campaign finance] corruption in the American political system." In 1997, she helped author a complaint to the Democratic and Republican National Committees on racially discriminatory treatment of Americans of Asian descent.

Zia grew up in a "sheltered Confucian home" in New Jersey and first became involved in political causes at Princeton. She protested racism and the Vietnam War, and became active in the Third World Center and a nascent Asian-American movement, which, she says, "transformed me. . . . Through it, I began to find my voice."

After graduation and two years of medical school, she headed to Detroit "to discover how life was lived in the American heartland" while working as a large press operator for Chrysler. When the auto industry collapsed, she began writing on labor issues and "the rise of the new poor." Then came five years in New York City as executive editor of Ms., and, in 1992, a move to San Francisco, where she now lives.

Zia's next project is "writing the story of Dr. Wen Ho Lee," the Los Alamos scientist accused by the U.S. Government of security breaches. "His side," says Zia, "has never been told."

By Caroline Moseley

Princeton writer Caroline Moseley is a frequent contributor to PAW.

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Sharp is working on a novel and three children's books.

Caroline Sharp '83 helps would-be writers sharpen their pencils

Composing fiction is hard work. Caroline Sharp '83 would even say that it's downright painful. "If you feel that you're doing it wrong because it's so damn difficult, then you are doing it right," says Sharp, the author of A Writer's Workbook (St. Martin's Press), which provides daily writing exercises and loads of encouragement for wanna-be fiction writers. "There's no magic to writing," says Sharp, who developed the exercises largely for herself. Rusty after a year-long hiatus spent rearing her two young children, she needed help getting her writing back in shape.

The exercises work on character, plot, and description. One exercise asks the reader to hang out in a public place and record dialogue. Another has the reader develop an "idea book" for recording everyday experiences, ideas for stories, and notes on books and movies.

All life experiences, she says, "can be brought to bear on your writing." Sharp, who majored in psychology at Princeton and earned an M.F.A. in film from Columbia, has taught piano, scooped ice cream, and been a secretary and a stockbroker. She's been churning out stories on a regular basis since the age of 10 -- most of which "were completely awful for the first 15 years," says Sharp, who lives in New York City.
With her first book published and a novel and three children's books in the making, Sharp says, "I am really just now coming into my voice in a very conscious way. I know who I am now," says Sharp, who splits her time between fountain pens and a computer. "And from that point I'm able to write characters who aren't all me."
Sharp encourages even those people who will never be published to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). "I don't believe the book can make someone into the next Hemingway or Virginia Woolf, but I do believe with all my heart that it can make you the best writer you can be." Everybody has a story to tell. And writing, she says, is "beneficial to the soul."

By K. F. G.

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