Sunday, October 16, 2011

Lessons from a refugee camp

In 1984 I left the United States for the Philippines. My destination? The Philippine Refugee Processing Center (PRPC) in Bataan, a refugee camp for Indochinese refugees, the majority waiting to relocate in the USA.

I was twenty-three. My job? I was an English-as-a-second-language teacher and also taught cultural orientation. I was at the camp seventeen months. I lived with and worked with an organization called World Relief.

What did I learn as I taught and lived among the Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians? That, in spite of turmoil, death, and political unrest, in spite of war, devastation, and loss, courage and hope prevail. The refugees opened their hearts and homes (scanty billets made of wood) to me. They gave freely. They taught me that although life is unfair, there is beauty to be seen. And most of all, no one---no one---can steal your joy and hope.

My newest novel, A Wedding Invitation, captures some of my experiences. A Wedding Invitation is a work of fiction, but I used many of the things I saw and did during my time in the camp.

This first picture is of the market place in Phase II of the camp. My classroom is in the building behind it. The other photos are of my students, many of them Amerasians, as my character Lien is in my novel.

Friday, October 14, 2011

All Things Southern: Moonshine

Sugar, water, malt, cornmeal and yeast. These are the key ingredients for moonshine. No, I'm not planning on making a batch today, but I am interested in the subject, especially since it fits in with my novel A Wedding Invitation, and making moonshine has been quite profitable in my state of North Carolina.

What's the history of moonshine? Well, one thing is for sure, it came about before NASCAR (National Associate of Stock Car Auto Racing). In fact, making a moonshine run in a fast car was how NASCAR got her beginnings. During the Prohibition years of 1920 through 1933, running from the law in order to make a moonshine delivery at night in a souped-up car was common in the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee. Once Prohibition ended, the question of what to do with these racing cars was raised. That's when car races became popular entertainment in the rural South. Wilkes County, North Carolina was the hot spot to see the races. Vance Packard called Wilkes County the bootleg capital of America.

Who invented moonshine? We can thank the Scots and the Scotch-Irish, who settled in the Appalachian Mountains 300 years ago and made moonshine like they did back in Scotland. In their Scottish farmlands, these farmers used leftover grains to ferment into liquor. The farmers, weary of over taxation on their properties and the absence of religious freedom, immigrated to America for better lives. They brought their hopes, families, and distillery ingenuity with them.

Today, folks are curbing the 180 proof moonshine of days gone by and giving the whiskey a smoother, gentler taste. Liquor stores sell moonshine flavored with fruit which is easier on the palate. And moonshine is legal to produce as long as you have a license like the makers of Catdaddy, a distillery in Madison, North Carolina.

In A Wedding Invitation, there is much talk of Uncle Charlie, a notorious relative, who had his share of moonshine tales. Here's some about him on page 53.

I nod, recalling having previously heard the name of this particular cemetery. Uncle Charlie is buried there, with a headstone that has a motorcycle engraved in it. My great-uncle liked to ride fast, and my relatives tell me that his Harley out-sped any police car on the Forsyth County squad. He also made moonshine, borrowing a recipe from Scottish immigrants who settled in the Appalachian Mountains.

Anyway, I saw a program on how moonshine was made in our mountains (and am sure it still is), and ever since then knew I had to incorporate my new knowledge into one of my novels.

Moonshine, truly a Southern tale of adventure, secrecy, and the birth of NASCAR.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

All Things Southern: Aunt Dovie's Oatmeal Bread

In celebration of my newest novel, A WEDDING INVITATION, I'll be posting some columns under the heading All Things Southern. These posts will be about topics related to my novel and to the South.

My first entry contains a recipe which can be found at the back of my novel.

Dovie’s Oatmeal Bread

Aunt Dovie is known by some family members to pick up boarders quicker than a dog picks up fleas. Dovie's old house in Winston- Salem, NC (home to Krispy Kreme donuts) is always open to those in need of some good nutrition and love. Women move in for as long as they need a place to stay, enjoying her company and care. Two of my favorite boarders are Beanie and Pearl. Beanie has a bottle of cure-all for aches and pains and Pearl makes strawberry-rhubarb pies, using a pinch of tapioca.

Along with raising butterflies and hens, Dovie bakes oatmeal bread. She serves it at meals with a mound of fresh butter. At each meal her prayers end with "Amen and Amen!" Then she's been known to dance around the kitchen with a tea towel. The fact that she can't dance to the music's beat never stops her. Dovie believes in being jovial. Her bread recipe is full of warmth, and will make your mouth and tummy smile.

Dovie’s Oatmeal Bread
1 cup of old fashioned oats (not instant)
1½ cups of boiling water
¾ cup of molasses
3 tablespoons of vegetable oil
2 teaspoons of salt
2 cups of warm water
1 tablespoon of active dry yeast
4 cups of bread flour
4 cups of whole-wheat flour

Combine the oats and boiling in a large mixing bowl and let sit for at least thirty minutes. Add the molasses, oil and salt to the oatmeal mixture, combining well. In a separate bowl, dissolve the yeast in the warm water. Add to the oatmeal mixture. Stir in the flour, one cup at a time. Once the dough starts to pull from the sides of the bowl, turn onto a floured surface and knead in the rest of the flour until smooth. Continue to knead for about eight minutes. Place the dough in a greased bowl, turning it so that all sides are coated. Cover with a damp cloth. Let rise until doubled in size, about an hour. Punch down and divide dough in half. Shape into two loaves and place dough in two greased loaf pans. Cover and let rise for 45 minutes to an hour. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Place loaf pans in oven for five minutes, then reduce heat to 350 degrees F. and bake for an additional 40 minutes. Loaves should brown and will be ready to take out of oven when they sound hollow when lightly tapped.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A Carolina Journey

A Carolina journey – for the author and characters

The Herald Sun


AUTHOR READING:WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday
WHERE: The Regulator Bookshop
720 Ninth St., Durham
“A Wedding Invitation” (Bethany House)
By Alice Wisler


DURHAM – Four years ago, Durham author Alice J. Wisler realized her aspirations with a book deal and her first novel, “Rain Song,” set in Mount Olive, N.C. Three more novels have followed, once a year – “How Sweet It Is,” set in the North Carolina mountains, “Hatteras Girl,” set on the coast, and now “A Wedding Invitation,” set partially in Winston-Salem. Wisler said she likes writing about North Carolina towns.

While working on “A Wedding Invitation,” she even held a contest for her fans to suggest character names. Lien’s and Carson’s names were both chosen by a Durham resident.With the first book, Wisler said, she was just so excited to be published. “Then as time goes on, there’s so much more to it. It’s not as though you’ve arrived,” she said. “You begin to see the long road ahead. You see others who’ve been continually published and learn from them. It’s not like you can rest – unless you’ve written ‘The Help.’ ”

Wisler has devoted fans, but even so, being an author isn’t quite the piece of cake one might assume.

Speaking of food, gathering at the table or in a kitchen is integral to building relationships in Wisler’s novels – and in most of our lives, too. The characters in “A Wedding Invitation” do much of their gathering in Aunt Dovie’s kitchen or in a Vietnamese restaurant.

At the center is Samantha, who lives in Northern Virginia and works at her mom’s ladies’ clothing store, but goes to Winston-Salem for a wedding it turns out she wasn’t actually invited to. She stays with her aunt, who takes in those who need some TLC. Samantha also reconnects with a man from her past. Seven years prior, in the mid-1980s, Samantha worked in a refugee camp in the Philippines for Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian people displaced from the Vietnam War. Carson was the young man she longed for, but he had a girlfriend back home so kept her at a distance. Samantha never got over him. In Winston, she also reconnects with a teenage girl, Lien, from the refugee camp. Samantha gains a new perspective of Lien and herself.

Like a true North Carolinian would know, after first reference, Winston-Salem is just referred to as “Winston.” Samples of Wisler’s own experiences are used in the book, like teaching in a refugee camp. In one scene, Dovie brings butterflies to a cemetery for a Compassionate Friends butterfly release, and Wisler leaned on Compassionate Friends after the death of her young son.

The book’s title, “A Wedding Invitation,” came also to Wisler, meant for the previous person who lived there. Unlike Samantha, Wisler didn’t go to the wedding. But she kept the fancy invitation and always wondered about it. It was the seed for this story.

Wisler’s four novels have been classified as in the “inspirational” genre, and published by Bethany House. The characters’ spiritual life is part of their daily lives, too. They go to church. They pray. They talk about God to each other. They don’t try to drive home a specific religious message or guarantee a happy ending. “A Wedding Invitation” is about second chances. It’s also about accepting flaws and moving on.

She wrote her first novel without aiming at particular genre, but Bethany House picked it up right away as inspirational fiction. She thinks there are more authors now in that genre that write more realistic stories.“I try to put relationships with God in their lives, but not in your face,” Wisler said. “It’s not like a sermon or prayer meeting. Certainly I want Christian characters to be flawed.”

The books Wisler is working on now may or may not be deemed inspirational, and she wants to reach a broader readership – both those who already read her novels, plus those who have yet to discover her. She’ll begin to veer away from 20-something protagonists in contemporary romances. Future books will feature an Amish man who fled the life to the North Carolina mountains, and another about a bereaved mother traveling the country in an RV, who also makes memory quilts.

“I’m looking to see where my writing is leading me,” Wisler said.

Copyright 2011 The Herald-Sun. All rights reserved. © 2011