Since 1988, Whitworth College's annual Redmond Reading program has been bringing talented writers to Spokane. Familiar names such as William Stafford, Tess Gallagher, Sherman Alexie and Joy Harjo have been among the authors brought to campus through this reading series. This year, author Gus Lee is visiting to share his wealth of knowledge in a variety of areas.
"Redmond Readers was set up in memory of Professor Redmond's mother Ada Redmond, who loved literature," explains Doug Sugano, an English professor at Whitworth. "Our goal is to bring in the best of regional writers and have them visit classes and do readings for the Whitworth community, and the larger Spokane community, free of charge."
One of the college's particular goals is to bring writers of diverse backgrounds and experiences. "It's important to have writers of color in particular," Sugano says. "In part because I think it reflects literature in America on the whole. I think as with all of our writers, I just want the community simply to see there are all kinds of writers doing all kinds of things with their writing."
Gus Lee definitely brings a unique taste of American life to Spokane. Born in San Francisco in 1946, Lee was the son of Chinese immigrants. After the death of his mother when he was seven, he endured mistreatment from a stepmother. These early days are chronicled in the novel China Boy, which was published in 1991 and was a bestseller for six months. Sugano speculates that China Boy resonated with people because it was one of the first books that got any recognition for really speaking honestly about the Chinese-American experience. "I think China Boy is an important book," Sugano says. "The first Chinese-American book to get any attention was Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior, which is a coming-of-age story about a Chinese-American girl growing up. What we have in China Boy is what happens on the other side, with a boy."
After the events described in China Boy, Lee fulfilled his father's wishes by attending West Point. He wrote about his time there in another novel called Honor and Duty. After three years at West Point, he decided to withdraw and went on to get his law degree from UC Davis. Since then, Lee has spent time in the Army, working as an attorney, a legal educator, a business ethics and diversity consultant and an author.
Lee's work in the business world seems especially relevant in view of recent corporate scandals. "He not only talks about business ethics, but about diversity in business." explains Sugano. "I think it's really important because I'm not sure it's a lesson any of us hear very often. We don't usually associate the corporate mindset with ethics or with diversity. I think it's incredibly timely."
One of the unique aspects of Lee's visit to Whitworth is that he will be addressing students not just on writing, but on many areas of his expertise. "He's being really generous with his time," Sugano explains. "He's going to be here five or six days." The fact that Lee's daughter, Jenna, is a Whitworth student right now could account for some of Lee's extended visit, but his schedule at the college is definitely packed. In addition to a reading Friday night, Lee will be doing a lecture on business ethics and diversity Thursday, as well as working with classes all week. He'll work with writing classes, of course, but also speak to a history class about the Chinese Civil War, a political science class on justice issues and a business ethics class on diversity and ethics. He'll also probably speak some about his upcoming memoir, Chasing Hepburn, which tells of his mother's childhood in China, her rescue from the traditional Chinese practice of foot-binding and his parents' young adulthood before they came to America.
"It's very unusual to have that kind of spread, and he's really comfortable on all the topics," Sugano says. "Gus is going to be a really engaging speaker and reader. He is so versatile."
You would be hard-pressed to find a library in town that doesn't carry Jan Brett's books, or a kid who hasn't encountered at least one along the way. The Mitten, Brett's most ubiquitous title, is a staple in schools and reading programs a