Shawna Yang Ryan

An Essay by Shawna Yang Ryan

One of my most precious childhood memories—perhaps because it was so unusual in its occurrence—is an afternoon when my father sat down and read to me. Struggling to pull us up into the middle class, my parents were simply too busy to read to my sister and me regularly. After years as a stay-at-home mom who sometimes waitressed, and a brief stint as an Avon lady, my mother had just recently returned to the workforce, and my father often had the swing shift at the local air base. My sister and I became latchkey kids—but on the day of this memory, it is the afternoon and my father is home.

It is raining. My parents have not bothered to redecorate the house we have recently moved into, so my room still has pistachio walls and curtains printed with animals that look like they were drawn with crayons. I lie on the floor and stare at the gray sky between those curtains as my father reads Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.”

 I felt that I must scream or die! and now –again! –hark!





He reads with such drama and enthusiasm that I find myself sitting with the narrator over the old man’s hidden body, hearing the old man’s heart—a low, dull, quick sound –much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton.

“A watch enveloped in cotton”—I can feel the contrasting textures—the solid watch, the soft cotton and the muffled yet insistent tick tock—in the palm of my hand. The story, like the old man’s heart, beats toward life.

I glance over at my father and see that he is enjoying the story as much as I am. I realize that he has chosen this story to read to me because he loves it and he wants to share a pleasure of his childhood with me in a way that only words can do.

Even though he did not have much time to read with me, my father passed on to me a love for books. He not only gave me Poe, but Jack London, Mark Twain and J.R.R. Tolkien too. We didn’t have much money, but my parents always made sure to buy books for me. I became so obsessed with reading that my parents once punished me by grounding me from going to the library for a week, knowing nothing else would make as strong an impression (!). They made sure I knew that reading was not a skill, but an imperative. With their encouragement, it’s no wonder that I found a way to make a relationship with books a daily part of my life—not only as a reader, but as a writer too.




Meet Shawna at Books Inc.  in Berkeley on February 25 discussing her new book Green Island!