By Michael Obel-Omia
Last Monday morning, campers settled into their seats in Amherst College’s “Red Room” to enjoy pearls of wisdom from the scintillating author, Da Chen. Having grown up in the deep south of China, running barefoot in muddy fields and riding the backs of water buffaloes, Mr. Chen shared jewels from his treasure trove of knowledge concerning his humble beginnings and his present efforts to stay humble and to connect meaningfully with people.
Mr. Chen lived in a tiny, remote Fujian village that featured ancient wells swimming with snakes and kerosene lanterns hissing with dim light. In spite of these challenges, his grandfather’s disgraced status during the communist political persecution, his family being beaten, and his father’s internment in a reform camp, Mr. Chen chose hope over despair, chose life over death.
A chance encounter with a Baptist professor, who taught him English and helped him imagine a world of possibilities, encouraged his excelling in college at Beijing Languages and Culture University. His stellar work there enabled him to stay on as a professor of English after graduating top in his class. He determined to reach America, arriving at age 23 with $30 in his pocket, a bamboo flute, and a steely determination to find his path and realize his dreams. He attended Columbia University School of Law on a full scholarship, and upon graduating, worked for the Wall Street investment banking firm of Rothschilds, Inc. After several successful years there, he left to pursue his dream of writing.
With us, this supremely talented man opened by reminding us that we are “all just words,” before sharing the gift of song: he played a tune that his father taught him on his bamboo flute. He remarked that it is our responsibility as humans to share a gift wherever we go. His desire to play for us stemmed from his desire not only to share one of his manifold gifts, but also to connect to his father and “give him immortality through the music.” He then told humorous stories about camels and their ability to be, always, ironic, before sharing the secret of good essay writing: “An essay is not a chronicle of one’s life, but an emotional plea.
The elements of a good essay: the essayist must have and express his voice, and the voice must make an emotional pleas by both expressing one’s highest dreams and one’s worst nightmares.” Doing so, expressing both the ecstasy and the agony, we show how complete a human we are, how capable and how vulnerable we truly are: that is what readers what to know, and that is what draws in readers–knowing and sharing in one’s humanity.
Da Chen focused mainly on college essay writing for the students, sharing the structure of a good essay–I want to do this, this is how I’ll do it, and when this happens, greatness–but also, and more important, he reminded the students to share their pain and their losses: “You will say to the reader, despite these losses and pains, I still dream these impossibly big dreams–and I will succeed.”
“We are,” according to Da Chen, “all just stories, and every story is the story of love, every journey is toward love.” As we write, we learn our purpose in life, which is to fulfill our talent. When queried as to how to share a talent when we don’t yet know how gifts, he told the rapt audience, “Then share the gift of good intentions.”
Da Chen spent the lion’s share of the afternoon conducting master classes on creative writing before joining the assembled group again for an evening lecture by Jan Constantine, General Counsel of the Authors Guild. He concluded his visit at dinner sharing his intense love of and respect for Great Books, marveling at the talent of the students and the care of the adults.