Thursday, October 08, 2009

Mother on Fire by Sandra Tsing Loh

Sandra Tsing Loh is a writer, performance artist, and public radio commentator. I don’t hear her much on radio but I do read her pieces in the Atlantic. I’ve also never seen any of her one-woman shows but would sure like to. In 2008 she published Mother on Fire, a memoir about her life in Los Angeles, specifically framed around her search for an appropriate school for her kindergarten-age daughter.

This is a very funny book, filled with raw emotion and angst. Loh takes on issues of class and status, money worries, stalled careers, the mommy wars, and the frantic pace of life in LA. She expertly captures the desperate panic of educated, affluent, urban parents in search of the perfect environment for their precious offspring. Loh herself vacillates between being one of these super-obsessed types, and being a slacker mom, and freely admits her own contradictory impulses. That’s partly what makes the book so entertaining. One day Loh is touring the $22,000-a-year private (pseudonymous) Wonder Canyon School, where “children honor diversity, learn peaceful conflict resolution and are taught music using the Orff-Schulwerk method.” Of course there is no diversity at Wonder Canyon; as Loh points out, the children must honor it because they don’t actually experience it. The next day Loh is letting her daughters watch Disney princess videos for the 82nd time and feeding them Kraft macaroni and cheese. She is consumed with guilt for failing to provide Baby Mozart and organic broccoli all the while railing against the forces that make her feel guilty. But despite how much Loh wants the Wonder Canyon, there is no way that she and her husband can afford it on the combined income of a journalist and a musician.

Thus Loh’s daughter ends up at an LA public magnet school. It’s a better choice than the local elementary school (which Loh dubs Guavatorina for its 89% English Language Learner status) though she is still the only blonde in a sea of Central American and Armenian children. But why is this a bad thing, Loh asks? Her daughter’s school is a warm and loving place where the children thrive. As a result of this revelation Loh becomes a public school activist and runs a Web site for parents of children in LA public schools.

Loh’s writing style takes a little getting used to. Her articles in the Atlantic are straightforward magazine-style journalism but Mother on Fire is filled with exclamation marks! –And interjections! Also lots of $%^#@!!!!! Before writing this book, Loh performed a stage version of Mother on Fire for 7 months in Los Angeles. I imagine the book reflects the style of the show. Was there a lot of ranting and desperate proclaiming? I bet there was.

You can find Sandra Tsing Loh everywhere on the Web. Here are some links to an interview in Salon, her articles in the Atlantic, her NPR pieces, a New York Times review of Mother on Fire, and her personal Web site.

(Book 35, 2009)


Anonymous said...

Loh has been ranting for years. Basically a "one woman show" on the club circuit, she has morphed into writing articles and books.

I find her to be exhausting, stunningly superficial, and definitely not typical of the average Southern Californian. She is typical, however, of the Hollywood "celebrity" culture which gives the rest of us a bad name.

She is also typical of a current crop of mothers - many of them who were racing their biological clocks when they decided on pregnancy (finally) - who are stunned to find out how much work it is. Lovely, satisfying, heartwarming work - but work...

Anonymous said...

The grammarian in me is wincing at my last post. Should have said "many of whom were racing their biological clocks..."

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