Today I’m happy to have talked to Kay Bratt, the author of The Palest Ink. Kay Bratt is a child advocate and author of the series Tales of the Scavenger’s Daughters and the acclaimed memoir of the years she spent working in Chinese orphanages, Silent Tears: A Journey of Hope in a Chinese Orphanage. After living in China for several years, Bratt now resides in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in South Carolina with her husband, daughter, dog, and cat. Learn more about her memoir and works of fiction at www.kaybratt.com.
- For those who may not be familiar with your background, tell me about your experiences in China and how they influenced your writing.
I lived in China for almost five years when my husband’s company relocated us there for business. During my years as an expat, in addition to learning to combat culture shock the bulk of my time and energy was spent on volunteer work for the local orphanage. Not only did I find myself attaching to many of their children, but it was in the midst of the women who worked there that I became captivated by the lives of the working class Chinese people.
- How did this latest book come about? Is it part of a larger narrative?
The idea for The Palest Ink came about a few years after the first book in my best-selling series, The Tales of the Scavenger’s Daughters was published. That book was inspired by a newspaper article I’d read of a scavenger in China who took in abandoned girls and raised them. The main character in the book is elderly, but it started with a prologue of him escaping from a commune when he was but a young man. His experiences during the Cultural Revolution were alluded to and set the foundation for the kind of man he grew into. Readers commented often in reviews and on social networking that they’d love to know more about his time during that period. As I wrote each subsequent book to highlight more about him and his adopted daughters, more ideas came to me about experiences that could’ve shaped his self-sacrificing persona. I began doing more research on the Cultural Revolution and the survivor stories I stumbled onto were captivating yet harrowing. Many of those accounts are woven within the pages of The Palest Ink to bring authenticity to the novel.
- Many of your works focus on your own experiences in China, but this book was set in the Cultural Revolution. Was this book a step outside of your comfort zone as a writer?
I began planning this book almost two years ago and during that time, I told myself I wasn’t yet ready to write it. It took those two years of making notes and gathering research before I felt comfortable enough to tackle such an important story set during a catastrophic time in history for China. It is my goal to use my characters and their heart-wrenching storylines in The Palest Ink to pay tribute to those who survived, and to the memory of those who did not.
- What are you working on now/next?
Currently I’m tackling a story based on the injustices the Chinese experienced upon immigrating to the United States in the late nineteenth century. Two of the main characters were bought and used as domestic servants in Hong Kong and decide to make their break for freedom, but find that Gold Mountain isn’t all it was made out to be in their imaginations. Another child, destined to be abandoned in China, is smuggled out of the country and those bound to protect her will find that she ultimately is the answer to their quest for security.
- Stepping away from the book for a moment, would you like to share anything about your work as an advocate for children in the Chinese welfare system?
Working as an advocate for children in the Chinese welfare system, I came face to face with many myths and misconceptions. I myself came into the orphanage with pre-conceived notions and it took immersing in their culture for several years to become re-educated about their child welfare issues. Most importantly to me, it is untrue that the Chinese do not love their daughters. Many baby girls are relinquished for the reason that the family cannot afford them, especially when they are born with any sort of special need or medical condition. Though hard, mothers often relinquish their children in the hopes that the child will receive the care they need and is not afforded by the mother or her family. The majority of children I knew in the orphanage had some sort of special need or medical condition. Rarely did I meet an absolutely healthy child.
- How can expats in China help China’s orphans?
In addition to supporting reputable non-profit organizations already on the ground in China, if an expat can connect with a volunteer group that does work at their local orphanage, it’s best to work with them to help China’s orphans. A volunteer there can give a list of accurate needs, as well as monitor how any donations are used to confirm it is for the children’s best interest. If there is not a volunteer group already in place, an expat can work with the facility to start one! One can read my memoir, Silent Tears; A Journey of Hope in a Chinese Orphanage, to see how it all worked out for me.
“Bratt brings to life the struggle of two individuals during China’s terrible time that all should know about with an honest, yet compassionate style. She brings us as close as we ever want to be to an evil time, yet shows some found the courage to preserve their dignity. A must-read.”
—Mingmei Yip, author of Skeleton Women and other China-inspired novels
“The Revolution itself is well-documented and the historical significance of Chairman Mao’s Red Guard leaves fear in its wake. The danger and fear that come through the writing create discomfort and unrest, much as it must have been during the times. The danger is palpable, and adds to the chaotic feelings left after the reading of this work. If you enjoy history, revolution, courage, romance and family, then this will make a great work for your library. Kay Bratt has given us a work of intensity.” —Blogcritics.org
“A mesmerizing and moving story of coming of age.” —Fresh Fiction
“The Palest Ink, the story of Benfu’s early years fills in so many gaps in my knowledge of China during the Cultural Revolution, a topic that is practically taboo in China right now. This prequel to the four Scavenger’s Daughters books shows me what the Chinese term ‘eating bitter’ really means. Kay Bratt sure has done her research, and presents the tale of those tumultuous years in a fascinating narrative.” —Sibylla Grottke, WanderlustAndChineseInk.com
THE PALEST INK
by Kay Bratt
Author and child advocate Kay Bratt has captivated readers all over the world with her compelling and vivid books about China and its people. She lived there for almost five years and was drawn to the cause of China’s forgotten and abused orphans. Her experiences working in a local orphanage and fighting against the Chinese bureaucracy as she tried to change the social conditions led her to write a bestselling memoir, Silent Tears, A Journey of Hope in a Chinese Orphanage. She also wrote a series of novels set in modern day, Tales of the Scavenger’s Daughters, based on the true stories of some remarkable Chinese people she’d read about. Over the years, readers have clamored to know the origin story of the series’ beloved character, Benfu.
Now, here is Benfu’s story in THE PALEST INK (Lake Union Publishing; Publication date: October 27, 2015), a beautifully rendered novel about two best friends from different walks of life, set against the backdrop of Chairman Mao’s tumultuous Chinese Revolution.
In 1966, Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution in order to reassert his authority over the Chinese government. All over China he shut down the nation’s schools, calling for a massive youth mobilization to take current party leaders to task for their embrace of bourgeois values and lack of revolutionary spirit. In the months that followed, the movement escalated quickly as the students formed paramilitary groups called the Red Guards and attacked and harassed members of China’s elderly and intellectual population. At the beginning of the Revolution, Benfu is a sheltered son of scholars who is looking forward to a promising career as a violinist. On the other side of town, Pony Boy belongs to a close-knit lower class family who is faced with a perilous opportunity. The upheaval all around them forces Benfu and Pony Boy to grow up quickly, and they must make some hard choices between family, friendship, and loyalty to country while doing their best to survive one of the most chaotic times in history.
Kay Bratt tells a story both intimate and epic, weaving fiction with real-life accounts of innocent people who were persecuted, beaten and imprisoned, with their families torn apart. She discovered through her research that the truth about what really happened during what was informally called “The Ten Years of Chaos” was all but wiped from the history books due to Mao’s efforts to suppress accounts of his abuse of power and hide them from the world.
For readers of Lisa See and Amy Tan, or anyone eager for an engrossing book about friendship, family, loyalty and the fight for truth and justice, THE PALEST INK will inspire you, consume you, and touch your heart.
About the author
Kay Bratt is a child advocate and author. She was born in Kansas and lived all over the U.S. before settling in the Carolinas. Kay’s experiences of growing up as the constant new kid—and usually one of the poorest—ignited a passion to advocate for children in need when she became an adult.
When Kay’s husband’s career took them overseas to live in China, she was drawn to the cause of that country’s forgotten and abused orphans and devoted herself to working in a local orphanage. She found that journaling helped her to bear the emotional impact of the abhorrent conditions she witnessed. Upon her return to the U.S. after five years in China, Kay wrote about her experiences and her fight against the Chinese bureaucracy as she tried to change the social conditions in a bestselling memoir, Silent Tears, A Journey of Hope in a Chinese Orphanage. The book resonated with readers all over the world and became a bestseller. She continued to write, but it was when she came across an article about a scavenger in China who took in abandoned children that she was inspired to write the book that launched her bestselling fiction series, The Tales of the Scavenger’s Daughters.
Her new novel, THE PALEST INK, a prequel of sorts to The Tales of the Scavenger’s Daughters, will be published by Lake Union Publishing on October 27, 2015.
Kay continues to be a voice for children who cannot speak for themselves. In addition to using her writing to gain awareness, she has actively volunteered for several non-profit organizations, including An Orphan’s Wish (AOW), Pearl River Outreach, and the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for abused and neglected children. In China, she was honored with the Pride of the City award for humanitarian work.
Kay lives in South Carolina, at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband, daughter, dog, and cat.