Hisam wanted to interview me about my work, so we did an email interview. It's always interesting to me what questions or things people want to know about me or my work, so I thought I'd share our interview here:
H: Is this the first biography that you've ever worked on?
F: Yes, the biography of Su Beng is the first biography I have ever worked on.
H: Why did you decide to write the biography of Su Beng?
F: Actually, I when I first heard about Su Beng, many of the stories I heard about him sounded like tall tales. I wondered what would motivate a man like this and decided that I wanted to meet him. I knew that there was a story to be told and immediately recognized that Su Beng’s personal story was also the story of Taiwan.
The first time I met Su Beng, I simply asked him if I could interview him to get some ideas to write a story. I had no intention of writing his biography. I will always remember his answer to me that first day. He said, “Yes if it’s for the good of Taiwan.” And I think that sentence pretty much summarizes the motivation behind much of what he does.
We began meeting once every couple of months so that I could interview him about his life. I soon learned that his life is quite fascinating and complex, without having to fictionalize any of it.
After a few months of meeting with him, some of my close friends and relatives asked if I had thought about writing his biography. Initially I resisted the idea. I thought, I’m no historian, I’m not an expert on Taiwan; I didn’t feel qualified to do the job. But at the time I was reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X. When I read what the author had written about his relationship with Malcolm X, and how it had evolved over time, I realized that I had somehow already taken on the responsibility of documenting Su Beng’s life. I had already taken on the role of being his biographer. So after about six months of interviewing Su Beng, I formally asked him if I could write his English biography.
H: In the past what fundraising projects have you been involved with?
F: I have worked on fundraisers for nonprofit organizations such as Her Justice (formerly known as In Motion) and the American Cancer Society. For several years I’ve volunteered at the annual photography auction and benefit for Her Justice, which raises millions of dollars annually for the organization. Her Justice (http://www.herjustice.org) is an organization that serves women who face poverty and abuse every day.
H: What advice do you have for people who want to fundraise for their projects?
F: My advice to anyone who is planning to do fundraising is that you first need to start with your tribe. Your tribe is the group who you know will be your staunchest supporters. They already identify with your cause. Do you know who they are? Do you know how to reach them? Once you have reached them, engage and involve them in your fundraising campaign. You will also need to know how to mobilize them to be your advocates and to spread the word about your cause. They will be the key to helping you get more support.
After that, in order to broaden your reach outside of your tribe, you will need to know how to make your cause compelling. In other words, why would someone who doesn’t already identify with or understand your cause want to make a donation to your project or cause? You need to think about how you can make your cause relatable to them. What are some universal things about your cause or campaign that they could relate to?
And finally you should have a very clearly stated outcome. In other words, you should be clear about what you are going to be doing with the funds raised. You need to offer a tangible result or plan of action.
H: Other than the time you've spent interviewing Su Beng and writing, what else is involved with the biography and project to document the life of Su Beng?
F: The most time consuming and challenging part of this project has undoubtedly been the translation. I didn’t have the money to pay a translator, so I took on the role of translator myself with the help of many people along the way. I saw the translation process as a part of my writing process, to really understand and accurately express what Su Beng has said in our interviews and conversations. Translating my interviews with Su Beng are also a unique challenge because he speaks a mix of Taiwanese, Japanese and Mandarin Chinese.
As a writer I am already quite nit picky and particular about the words I use in my own writing and I definitely don’t want anything to be lost in translation. Consequently, I have become very aware of the nuances with translation. In fact when my crowdfunding pitch video was translated into Chinese, and I realized that the term Taiwanese American community had been translated as"華僑美國社區", I wanted to change that immediately! In the end it was translated as "台美人社區."
The next most time consuming and costly part of this project is the transferring of the video footage into a digital storage format. I have been shooting video footage of Su Beng since 2004. I had started to transfer some of the footage, but stopped doing that since it is an extremely time consuming process. One hour of video footage takes one real time hour to transfer. Up to this point I have collected hundreds of hours of video footage shot on mini-DV tapes, so I will have to pay for someone to convert the footage into a storable digital format. There is really no way around this.
In the very early stage of this project I had considered learning how to do video editing, but I realized that while I could probably learn these technical skills, this is not where my strengths and talents lie. I decided that I should really be focusing on the writing of the biography of Su Beng and that everything else being collected like the audio and video recordings were secondary and will serve to support the biography of Su Beng.
Fortunately, I met Robin Adams, an experienced cameraman, video editor and producer last year. When Robin heard about my crowdfunding campaign, he offered to shoot the pitch video. Little did he know what he was getting involved with because I have managed to convince him to work with me in creating a short documentary about Su Beng using much of the footage that I have already shot over the years.
H: Would you encourage other Taiwanese Americans to write a biography?
F: I think that biographies and personal stories are great ways to make history accessible, relatable and understandable. Of course I’d like to see more of this kind of work done to preserve our stories, and to increase awareness. However, writing a biography can be an involved process. I would only recommend doing it if you are extremely passionate or fascinated by your subject. Writing takes time and there may be some further research required too.
H: Do you plan to write other biographies or to be a professional biographer?
F: What I am really interested in writing is a historical fiction novel. I do enjoy doing historical research and I like the idea of writing something based on a factual event or set in a particular era. In the case of writing fiction, I wouldn’t have to worry about being factually correct or accurate and I could take some creative license.
I think that I will probably not take on another project like this again, especially one that requires translation like this one did. The reason is because I don’t want to get stuck doing the translation. For me translation is a difficult, painful process and perhaps that’s because my Taiwanese and Chinese language skills are really just not strong enough. For the biography of Su Beng I have personally interviewed and talked to Su Beng and also personally done the translation with the help of close trusted people as my translators. Perhaps I am a bit of a control freak in this respect because I am a bit worried about what gets lost in the translation. That’s why I have been so hands on and personally involved in all aspects of the translation of my interviews with Su Beng. So if I were to do another project that required translation, I probably wouldn’t feel comfortable just handing over the translation to a paid translator. And that would be even more of a problem if I had to deal with a language that I had no familiarity with like Russian, for example.
As for whether or not I’d ever consider writing another biography, I suppose that I should never say never. But right now I’d like to try other genres of writing. For the right person or subject I might consider writing another biography, but it was never my intention to make a career of being a biographer. I would definitely like to make a career of being an author and to go on to write more books.
Special Thanks to: Hisam for your interest in my work and your steadfast support of the MAKING HISTORY: The Story of Su Beng crowdfunding campaign and my project to document the life of Su Beng.