Friday, February 28, 2003

'Marika' describes author's real-life family

By Sara Pearce
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Andrea Cheng was a reluctant novelist.

While the Cincinnati teacher and writer had written numerous picture books, she was afraid to tackle a novel. "I didn't have the confidence," she says.

What she did have was a story. A story about her mother, who grew up in a Jewish household in Budapest during World War II.

She had heard the story many times and had shaped it in her mind, where it floated for years before she put it on paper. When she shared the story at a monthly writing group of fellow children's book authors, the response was "this is a novel, not anything but."

The story became the first chapter of the coming-of-age novel Marika, which was published in 2002. The book was selected as the Young Reader title for Cincinnati's second annual On The Same Page community-wide reading project.

The novel spans a period of 10 years. It is not only about growing up but also about identity, family secrets and intolerance. Marika's parents are separated. The family is of Jewish heritage but are practicing Catholics. Marika faces subtle prejudice from outside that becomes more overt as the war intensifies.

Name: Andrea Cheng
Age: 45
Family: Married to Jim Cheng for 20 years; they have 3 children: Ann, 13; Jane, 15, and Nicholas, 17 - all students at Walnut Hills High School.
Education: Graduated from Walnut Hills High School, Cornell University.
Occupation: Teaches English as a second language at Cincinnati State.
And while the family strains to deny its heritage, by the end of the book, relatives and friends have been sent to concentration camps, some never to return.

Cheng took time out earlier this week to talk about the book:

Question: What led you to write "Marika"?

Answer: That's hard for me to answer. I always listened a lot to stories of my parents, which they told around the dinner table. I heard them all my life. I knew them all my life. But when I write, I don't start by saying "oh, I want to write this or that." I don't think I could do that even if I wanted to. Most of the stories I have written have just been there, they are a combination of my experiences and my family's.

Q: Your other books are picture books, which have less text. Was it always a goal of yours to write a novel?

A: No. I didn't intend to write a novel but my writing group, which I've been going to for eight years, helped me believe I could do it.

Although my earlier books were picture books, I think that all along a lot of editors and other writers felt that they were suited for an older audience. None are really for little kids.

I think my style is more naturally suited to novels, but I was afraid to take the plunge until I found an editor who really believed in me.

Q: What age group is best suited for "Marika"?

A: Probably 12, 13, 14 even older. It is easy to read but not easy to understand. If the reader is too young he or she won't have the background information to understand the book and its issues of identity and assimilation.

Like a lot of children, she is trying to figure out how she fits into the larger picture. First, how she fits into her family; and then into the world, because her family seemed so different from others. Then the horrors of the war impinge on her personal problems.

I have always been interested in the way outside events affect children, because they are relatively self-centered. Things happen to them and they have no idea why and what will happen next, and don't feel like they have much control.

In Marika's case things are made especially hard because of all the things that are hidden - and in her family, that is a whole lot. She doesn't get straight answers to her questions, so a lot of things don't ring true to her.

Q: How much of the story is true?

A: My grandparents did divorce and my grandfather married the woman he was involved with. He lived until he was 96. I didn't live here (Cincinnati) for about 10 years. I lived in Europe for two years and went to see him in Hungary every chance that I could.

My grandmother lived with us in Cincinnati for 14 years. Just like Anja in the book, she was in Auschwitz.

Q: Did you do much factual research for the book?

A: First, I went home and talked to my mom and asked her to tell me again what happened. This is her story, even though it is fictionalized. But I had always read a lot of Holocaust literature, because of both my parents growing up in Hungary at that time. But, mostly, I talked to my mom.

Q: Has your mother read the book?

A: Yes. She's happy - and proud.

Q: How do you think "Marika" fits into the mission of On the Same Page?

A: I think On the Same Page is about reading to foster a sense of community and common humanity - and that's the way I try to live and the way I try to raise my children.

The issues that Marika deals with in the book are issues people still deal with every day.

Even people of the same race struggle with issues of fitting in of how far to go to assimilate.

Q: How did your family end up in Cincinnati?

A: My parents left Hungary in 1949 and went to Switzerland, where my father studied medicine. But when he finished school, he as not allowed to stay ... they told him to leave. So they went to Australia as refugees; my brother was born there. They came to U.S. in 1954 when my father got a job at Jewish Hospital.

Q: What's next for you?

A: I have another novel, The Key Collection, coming out (Henry Holt; June). It's for middle graders and is an immigrant story about a boy's relationship with his grandmother, who is about to move away to California from Cincinnati.

It's not based on any one story. But it does closely match the feelings I had when my grandmother lived with us and behind us, and then moved to Chicago. That doesn't seem traumatic but I would see her every single day. I was sad about it for a long time.

Q: Anything else?

A: Well, it's a big spring. I have two other picture books coming out: Anna the Bookbinder (Walker & Co.; March) and Goldfish and Chrysanthemums (Lee & Low; April).

And I have a contract for two more novels with Front Street.

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