Author, Elaine Russell
After graduating with a BA in History at University of California, Davis, and an MA in Economics at California State University Sacramento, I worked as a Resource Economist/Environmental Consultant for many years. In 1991, I began writing fiction for adults and children.
My recently published novel, Across the Mekong River, was a finalist in the Carolina Wren Press 2010 Doris Bakwin Award for adult novels, the Maui Writer's Conference 2003 Rupert Hughes Prose Writing Competition, and the Focus on Writers 2001 Friends of the Sacramento Library Awards.
My short story "Sky King," about a Hmong-American family was published in the literary magazines Red Wheelbarrow, Summer 2004, and The Armchair Aesthete, Fall 2004, and won First Place for a Short Story in the WIN-WIN Conference 2003 Persie Writing Contest. Other published works include several short stories and a children's middle-grade adventure series: Martin McMillan and the Lost Inca City and Martin McMillan and the Secret of the Ruby Elephant.
I am married with three grown children. I currently reside with my husband in Sacramento, CA. and part time on the island of Kauai.
Elaine Russell authentically captures the experience of a family caught up in the horrors of war, forced to leave their own country to try to make a life in an often un-accepting foreign world. Her thorough research serves as a solid foundation for her story but also provides the reader with the opportunity to newly appreciate the obstacles that many immigrants must overcome and also the indignities that they must endure.
DR: You had a very successful and full career before you started writing. What was it about writing that grabbed you and had you shift course and, what was it about the subject of Across the Mekong River, in particular, that also grabbed you?
ER: I started writing, not until I was a lot older, but I had always wanted to write. I sort of dabbled in it as I was working. I did have another career and it was demanding. I had to earn an income. Then, as I got older and I had my son and I was just working part-time, I had the opportunity to do some creative writing and once I got going in it, I loved it so much. I wish I started sooner, but that's the way life goes.
I had been writing for a number of years. At first it was kind of a learning curve. I was taking classes and learning different techniques, and the craft. And then I started having some successes and getting some things published. Along that time my son was in elementary school and there were some Hmong children in his class. I got very interested in learning more about where the families had come from. One thing just sort of seemed to lead to another. There were some articles in the Sacramento Bee about the community and their struggles and then my book group read Ann Fadiman's book The Spirit Catches You and you Fall Down, which was a very good book, and I decided that I would like try writing something fictional that would reach a different audience because it was such a compelling story of what happened in Laos and the Secret War and all of the people that had to leave after the Communists took over. One thing led to another and I met a woman who came to work in my husband's office who was Hmong. Each thing seemed to lead to another opening.
I worked on this novel for quite a long time. It was a very interesting journey.
DR: It sounds like one of those things where you are just being carried by a strong current.
ER: Exactly. I felt like somehow I was supposed to be doing this.
DR: Most people would agree that one of the reasons we read books is because we want to be transported somewhere different. Your book deals with a family's journey to America but also the journey of transitioning from one culture to another. Can you talk about those two journeys?
ER: I did quite a bit of research, learning about what happened in Laos during the war and the whole situation for the Hmong in particular who chose to side with the United States and fight.
The United States was not supposed to be there. They were illegally providing arms and had created this special force that basically was a surrogate army for the United States. It was primarily the Hmong and some other hill tribes that lived there and they were fighting on the side of the current Royal Lao government.
When it was over there was a lot of retribution and the people that had fought on the government side were really punished. There was a mass exodus because people were very afraid. I read many accounts of different families and what had happened to them on their way out. They were quite harrowing. That was one phase of it...
DR: Can you give me an example of one story that you thought was particularly harrowing?
ER: For example, there was one family that was talking about eating these berries and not knowing they were poisonous until four of their family members died and being shot at by the Communist Government soldiers, especially going across the river. When they got to The Mekong and tried to cross there were patrols looking for them. They would have to go at night and often they couldn't find a boat and so they would just make these makeshift rafts. So many people drowned in the process. People were shot and killed. It was quite awful.
DR: I can't imagine. My family and I lived across the street from The World Trade Center when 911 happened. I am very self-conscious even bringing this up because the magnitude does not compare at all, but I remember thinking as the buildings were shaking and we were under that dark cloud of dust, and debris was falling from the sky, “My God. We are in the middle of a bombing”. I remember thinking that this is what it's like, all of those stories that I'd read about – people being bombed while they were at home drinking coffee or eating or getting ready for school. We were three months without a place to live and I remember thinking that I would never be casual about the struggles of refugees ever again. That experience gave me a greater appreciation for the courage that it must take for people who have been living a peaceful life in a beautiful place to be fired upon and bombed. It's unimaginable what that must have been like and then to get here to The United States and have to deal with the transition...Can you talk about that?
Across the Mekong River
In a California courtroom, seventeen-year-old Nou Lee reels with what she is about to do. What she must do to survive. She reflects on the splintered path that led to this moment, beginning twelve years ago in 1978, when her Hmong family escaped from Laos after the Communist takeover.
The story follows the Lees from a squalid refugee camp in Thailand to a new life in Minnesota and eventually California. Family members struggle to survive in a strange foreign land, haunted by the scars of war and loss of family. Across the Mekong River paints a vivid picture of the Hmong immigrant experience, exploring family love, sacrifice, and the resiliency of the human spirit to overcome tragic circumstances
ER: The trauma stays with you forever. It's very hard to adjust and go on...
DR: What did you discover about the human spirit as they dealt with the trauma of getting out and then getting to The United States and having to deal with the issues they faced here as immigrants?
ER: It was particularly difficult for this particular group of people because they did not have an education back at home even though there was a written language developed for them in the 1950s. Most people didn't have an education. They couldn't read and write in their own language and for them to be plunked down in the middle of The United States in very strange environments that were absolutely nothing like their lives at home – it was particularly difficult to learn English and to try and adjust plus, living with all of the terrible things that had happened to them. I think that it's a real testament to how people can go on and adapt and with each generation they are having more people go to college and they are doing really well.
They have very strong and loving families and communities and they have managed to get through all of the difficulties – prejudice and poverty - and they are doing better all the time.
DR: I know that you went back and forth to Laos several times. Was there anything that you discovered that surprised you?
ER: It did strike me how incredibly beautiful it is. When I got to this area called Jinghong, where my fictional families came from and where a lot of Hmong refugee families came from because it was bombed so heavily, it was just this absolutely beautiful country side with the mountains and the trees and the misty, almost mystical atmosphere sometimes, and so quiet and peaceful and beautiful. It's hard to imagine what it was like living there during the war when they were being so heavily bombed.
Then you see all of this beauty and you look at fields of rice patties and in there may be twenty or twenty-five unexploded bombs still there. That's what's so disturbing for me. I didn't realize that there was still all of this unexploded ordnance there. That was the biggest surprise to me. That was still there, from the war, all those years ago and that The United States had done so much bombing.
That got me off on another path of getting involved in the effort to try and get more funding for clearing that ordnance. Legacies of War is this group that is based in The United States. That to me was the biggest surprise going there...
DR: And what is the status now of them clearing all of that out? Have they been able to recover these land mines?
ER: Well they are not land mines. They are similar in nature. They are bombs that were actually dropped from a plane inside of a casing with all of these little bombs in it that fall down all over the place. They are about the size of an orange and they are very deadly. We dropped so many. One third of the country is contaminated with these cluster bombs and other ordnance to. They have been clearing for many, many years now since the mid 90s but there is still a tremendous amount.
The United States is starting to increase the funding. Hilary Clinton went there, this July 11th. This was the first time in 57 years that a US sitting Secretary of State visited Laos and I think there will be more support and that the funding will continue to be a little stronger.
It's such a massive project. They will never ever be able to clear everything. They are trying to clear the areas where people live. The magnitude is really stunning.
DR: How would you say that writing Across the Mekong River has shaped the way that you view immigration and the current climate surrounding immigration?
ER: I feel very strongly that there are so many people that are in violent environments at home and they seek refuge here and we certainly need to be sympathetic to that. It's been a very slow process for all of the Hmong and other groups that fought on the Royal Lao Government side, it was very hard to finally get acceptance to immigrate here and you would think that we wouldn't have abandoned those...
ER: I looked at many other situations like in Africa where it's just horrible at home and we are so harsh about who we accept for refuge in The United States and I think that we have to have more empathy.
DR: I remember being in Junior high school and my school had taken in Vietnamese refugee children and I remember that they were treated harshly. They were teased and tormented and as I look back on that I can see that it was a missing that there were no conversations with the kids in my school about the Vietnamese culture or what these kids and their families had gone through. There were no conversations to prepare the community. There is room in this country to have conversations that would pave the way for people to come here and be treated with more compassion.
ER: I agree. It's unfortunate that there isn't more discussion with the kids, because that's where it starts...
DR: And, with the adults, too, for that matter.
Beyond it just being a good read, what is it that you want people to consider as they read Across the Mekong River?
ER: Basically the universal story of immigrants and how difficult it is. I hope that people will see what it's like and have a greater understanding of how hard it can be and the obstacles that people face and have to get past – having trouble speaking the language and criticism about being on welfare. I mean, how do you even get a job to start with when you can't speak the language. So, I hope the book does create some empathy and understanding.
DR: A hundred years from now, what do you want to be remembered for?
ER: I hope for being a good person, for one, and then for my family and for being a good person. I hope I have more books and more things that will be useful to people.
Thank you, Elaine!
Legacies of War
The mission of Legacies of War is to raise awareness about the history of the Vietnam War-era bombing in Laos and advocate for the clearance of unexploded bombs, to provide space for healing the wounds of war, and to create greater hope for a future of peace.
The organization uses art, culture, education, community organizing and dialogue to bring people together and create healing and transformation out of the wreckage of war.
You can make a difference to end this deadly legacy. Your donation to Legacies of War can help change this terrible reality.