Author Debbie Chinn’s Memoir Uncovers Stories of Immigration

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(Courtesy of Ginna and David Gordon | Lucky Valley Press)
Orinda book author Debbie Chinn completed her first book, Dancing in Their Light: A Daughter’s Unfinished Memoir, after 10 years of research. Her book is about her family’s immigration from China, their cultural acclimation and Polynesian nightclub they ran in New York.

    After nearly 10 years of research, the pandemic provided the reflection Debbie Chinn needed to finish her first book, Dancing in Their Light: A Daughter’s Unfinished Memoir.
    Chinn, the former managing director for Orinda’s California Shakespeare Theater (Cal Shakes), self-published in March through Strange Fate Publishing. She was compelled by pandemic-driven anti-Asian hate to tell the story of her own family.
    Chinn writes about her family’s immigration from China and subsequent assimilation to the U.S. as well as the Polynesian nightclub they ran in New York. These stories unlocked her father’s memories about the restaurant, family photos from the ‘60s and ‘70s, stories from customers who remember exactly what they ate and trials of identity in a predominantly white town.
    “I wanted to capture some stories [of my elders]. In this era of writing and texting, we don’t really hear the human voice, so capturing that on a recorder was important,” Chinn said about the origins of her book.
    Chinn calls herself an accidental author, who had no intentions of writing a book.
    In an act of independence, Chinn moved from Long Island, NY to California to ensure she couldn’t go home on a whim.
    “I just decided that if I couldn’t make it, I’d come back in two years, but that I would try to establish a home. And I did,” said Chinn.
    A theater major at the University of Southern California, she began working in the industry straight out of college. In addition to managing Cal Shakes from 2001 to 2008, Chinn also helped rebuild the theater in partnership with Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone during that time.
    Working at Cal Shakes directly impacted the way she thought about her memoir.
    “I remembered the lesson that I learned from Shakespeare, which is all of Shakespeare’s greatest life lessons are found in his life works,” said Chinn. “And I thought, well, how can I be Shakespearean about my story [so] that [it can] be more universal?”
    The story then unfolded with the help of her editor, Ginna BB Gordon, from Lucky Valley Press, and Dancing in Their Light went from a research project about Chinese immigrants and the Chinn family restaurant, to a memoir brought to life by personal anecdotes.
    “The power of the arts – as I’ve learned in my career – can center and heal, can lift [community], and that’s what I tried to thread in the book,” she said.
    While at Cal Shakes, Chinn spent May through September in Orinda and says, “Orinda has been my spiritual home.”
    She has fond memories of ice cream from Loard’s and dinner at Casa Orinda over the years, as well as a close relationship with Pat Rudebusch, owner of Orinda Books where Chinn had an event in September. Though her only scheduled book event was in Orinda, Chinn hopes to be invited to more talks and maybe some book clubs.
    Chinn currently works at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, where she continues to pursue storytelling and theatre, and though she doesn’t know what her next book will be, she’s leaning towards fiction.
    “It’s important to remember that the contribution of immigrants to this country is profoundly rich,” said Chinn. “Hopefully, that will inspire people to write about their stories.”
    Visit Chinn at www.debbiechinn.com.

Addissyn House can be reached at addissyn.house@gmail.com.

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