Whacking Moles with 'Buddha Baby' Kim Wong Keltner

Posted by Ben Fong-Torres on Tuesday, 01 November 2005.

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She loves Hello Kitty, karaoke, and a white guy. What more could you want in a novelist?

You get an idea of what Kim Wong Keltner is all about with the first sen- tence of her bio on the back cover of her first novel, The Dim Sum of All Things , published last year: In the fourth grade, Kim Wong Keltner won a cutthroat spelling bee, which encouraged her aspirations as a writer.

With Dim Sum under her belt (after a stop on the San Francisco Chronicles best-sellers list), shes published her second novel, Buddha Baby. And shes had a baby, Lucy. So, now, the authors note in the new book speaks not of an aspiring, but an established and matured author: When Kim Keltner isnt writing, she collects Chinese porcelain and plays Whack-a-Mole. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and daughter, whose first words were capybara and museum quality.

We met the other evening at Yet Wah restaurant in San Francisco, where she tried the Bens Special, consisting of fried rice with a side of almond pressed duck (and, yes, named after me. The dish, that is, not the duck). I go to Yet Wah regularly for meals and karaoke; she had her Buddha Baby book party there, and signed my copy of her book with a reference to my having sung El Paso. She mustve requested it at the party. Only thing is, I didnt do that song and, in fact, never have before. I figured I owed her one. Thus, Yet Wah.

With The Dim Sum of All Things, Kim, who is 36, made her mark as a refreshing new writer with a younger POV on the whole growing-up-Asian-American experience. She introduced Hoarders of all things Asian (meaning white men who fetishize young Asian women as, in the words of heroine Lindsey Owyang, lily-footed celestials, geishas, fan-tan dancers and sing-song girlies); she wrote about Lindseys passion for The Brady Bunch and Hello Kitty, and she took readers on journeys of Chinatown, of San Francisco, and of China, as well as of her own identity.

In Buddha Baby , Lindsey, whos in love with a white man, Michael, is smitten by, of all things, an Asian American, a sexy former schoolmate named Dustin. And, by way of a part-time job, she returns to her Catholic school and makes some startling discoveries, not only about her own past, but also about her parents and grandparents.

Although Kim succumbs, early on, to a penchant for wordplays, puns, and cute pop-culture references, she also produces, by books end, some of the most gorgeous, heartfelt and poetic writing youll ever read. She has an eye for the beautiful as well as the absurd. Buddha Baby makes it two in a row for this inventive writer.

Heres some of our chat.

What were the most interesting criticisms you got for The Dim Sum of All Things ?

There was this one that said it delivered a left hook to knee-jerk political leftism or something like that, and that was interesting, because Lindsey works at a magazine that purports to be very liberal, but the same old shit goes on; all the females end up doing all the grunt work, and as one of the only minorities, I wanted to write about how absurd that was.

Did you feel that readers began to understand phenomena like Hoarders of All Things Asian?

Well, tons of people said, I know exactly what youre talking about. My friend is a hoarder, or I get approached on the bus all the time. Across the board, Asian women knew exactly what I was talking about.

Did you get a sense that youd made a breakthrough as a younger Asian American writer?

Theres not a lot of Asian writers, and I think people felt compelled to tell me who they liked and didnt like. Theyd say I read such and such, and I liked your book better. And that made me feel kind of weird because I really, really like Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston s work. People felt like they needed to set up this us and them thing, but I didnt necessarily feel that way. But a lot of people my age felt that there hadnt been a character under 25 and they liked that, and theres a huge readership in that age range.

Have you met fellow Asian American authors?

Actually, I dont talk to that many people. At first it was because I was home doing my own thing. But actually, I met Gus Lee (author of China Boy , at a recent literary event) and he came up and he was totally friendly and told me I was funny and that my writing was terrific. That was cool.

Was it different writing Buddha Baby ? Was it harder?

Yes, because you use all your good jokes in your first book. Also, I had a shorter turnaround time, and I had an infant. I still do, by the way.

Were there issues that you didnt get into in the first novel that you wanted to explore in Buddha Baby ?

Well, in The Dim Sum of All Things, shes attracted to this guy who she thinks is just this run-of-the-mill white guy. I was concentrating on that Asian-white thing. Here, I really wanted to talk more about the Asian-Asian thing with an Asian girl and an Asian guy, and how that can be sticky. Specifically with Lindsey and Dustin, neither of them had dated anybody Asian before. Theyre wondering if Im liking this person because I like them or because Im so hooked into this I-have-to-date-an-Asian person thing. Its an unspoken pressure. Shes getting married to this white guy and shes wondering if Im doing the right thing, because even if nobody is saying this specifically to youits like this scene where theyre getting ice cream and this Asian lady drives by and looks at them approvingly. Its a quick glance she gets, which is opposite of the quick glances she gets with Michael, which are of disapproval, from any random persona mail man, a guy driving by in a car

Is it a glance youve seen yourself?

Yeah. We have walked through Chinatown and gotten dirty looks. It sucks!

Did you worry about including sexual references and scenes and having your Mom, for example, reading about, say, self-gratification?

Hello Kitty! Well, thats a good thing, and all young people should know thats a good thing.

* * *
Speaking of self-gratification, we finally got around to some karaoke at the Yet Wah. I did, anyway. Although Kims family, including husband Rolf and brothers Mark and Rick Wong , along with their lovely spouses, Angie and Letitia , love to sing, the author says shes still shy about performing in front of people.

So I hit the stage and did El Paso for Kim, subjecting her and the crowd to a wretched country song in which the singer dies of a gunshot woundbut not before 12 verses in which the same musical line seems to get repeated over and over again.

But never again. Im sticking to Elvis from now on.

* * *
SPEAKING OF WHICH: Congratulations to Dale Minami , the celebrated civil rights attorney, and fellow lawyer Ai Mori , on their wedding earlier this year. The couple kept their nuptials earlier this year on the down-low, but then threw one of the biggest wedding parties Ive ever witnessed in late October, inviting about 550 of their closest friends to the Radisson Miyako. (Actually, said Ai, I only have about 30 friends.) And, said Dale, their original guest list was about 300but it just kept growing. The party had to be split into two rooms, with video screens everywhere. The program, MCd by KRON-TV anchor Wendy Tokuda and attorney Steve Ngo , included songs from four friends, including Kyle Tatsumoto, Maeley Tom, Diane Gunderson and me. Maeley, a well-known political figure in Sacramento, is a longtime singer, and delivered Ive Got You Under My Skin Diana Krall -style. I did Cant Help Falling in Love ala Elvis. And Kyle and Diane, whove never sung in front of a band before, did beautifully, backed by Steve Nakano s jazz band, with Aint That a Kick in the Head and At Last, respectively.

Kyle, Maeley and I also performed at a political fundraiser a couple nights before at the Far East Caf in Chinatown. Kyle and I also sang there a few months before, at a birthday party for Congressman Mike Honda , with Maeley doing her song via video.

A Tom, Tatsumoto & Fong-Torres tour has got to be next. Where can I order up some satin jackets?

* * *
BEN & JERRY: The Minami-Mori party made up the second half of one of those two-event days. Earlier, I spoke at a dedication of the newly renamed Jerry Garcia Ampitheatre in McLaren Park here in S.F. It's a gorgeous park--second in size after Golden Gate, I learned--and a bunch of Sixties types, including Wavy Gravy and plenty of musicians, played all day. I followed Assemblyman Leland Yee to the stage (he was armed with several pot jokes and a proclamation), and, later, Mayor Gavin Newsom showed up to declare himself to be a fan of the Grateful Dead. Far out, man! ... Nov. 5th was another double-duty day, beginning with the Alameda Literati Faire, where I got interviewed by fellow journalist Charlie Thompson . Then it was back across the Bay Bridge to a Casino Night fundraiser for The Magic Theater, hosted by Missy Kirchner in her casino-sized home. I served as a "celebrity dealer," relieving guests of numerous chips at the blackjack table. Guest gamblers included city treasurer Jose Cisneros and Supervisor Bevan Dufty . Despite his title, Cisneros did not place among the top winners for the evening. However, Julie Lawton, fresh in town from New York City, did. Not sure how she did that, but what happens in Missy's house, stays in Missy's house. Dealers at other tables included Kirchner's son Tim and man-about-town Jeremy Austin ...

It's no gamble when you visit Ben's home page. It's loaded with celeb photos, articles and goodies, all at www.benfongtorres.com.