When Gui-Jie Zhang came to the United States from China going on 17 years ago, she wanted to retain something of her native culture for her young son. When her child was about 7, she started to write down some of the imaginative stories she had weaved for him, eventually collecting about 15 of them while living in Storm Lake.
As her son grew older, and the things of childhood were set aside, the stories were stored away in boxes and eventually forgotten.
Recently when an old friend came to visit, they talked about literature and she recalled one of the characters she had created for her son. As she re-told the story, the enthralled friend urged her to consider making it into a children's book. Digging in boxes, she re-discovered remnants of the long-lost tales.
"As a single mom, I had tried to pass on lessons through stories, and we had lots of them. My son is 16 now, and the times have gone so fast that it made me forget to open my story box for many years. I had forgotten they ever existed," said Gui-Jie, a gentle and creative spirit who is best known internationally for her painting in a style she calls "peasant art," a whimsical art form based on the traditional Chinese forms of watercolor that she had grown up with.
She used these talents to illustrate her own book, which is her first effort at writing for children.
"I love this form of writing, and I plan to do many children's books," she said.
"The Basket," published by PublishingAmerica, tells the story of Miao, a young Chinese healer. Miao learned his skills from his grandfather, who was revered as an Herbal medicine master. When Miao's Grandfather was sick, he healed him with his abilities, However Miao's father was a bad man who drank too much and abused his family. His patients say that his medicine can heal their bodies, but that his words of wisdom can light the darkness in their hearts. Are Miao's abilities enough to heal his father?
The book will come out next month.
She also plans to complete her first novel, using her background in the ministry to bring an element of spirituality to her book.
Gui-Ji grew up in a small Chinese city bordering North Korea, and in 1989, she won the top prize for short-story fiction literature for China.
But it was her art that was getting her noticed. Her work was being shown from Scandinavia to Australia to New York, and while coming to visit for an exhibition, she found the freedom of expression and religion of the United States exhilarating, and decided to stay and enroll in a seminary university program.
In 1999 she came to Storm Lake, finding roles as a minister, educator and artist, working often with the Witter Gallery. She has now relocated to Nebraska, where she leads an international studies program at the University of Nebraska-Kearey, which unites the efforts of the Chinese Education Association for International Exchange and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
"I love what I do, but I really love Storm Lake too, and I would love to send my best wishes to all the people there," she says.
She is currently studying in a Doctor of Ministry program at the University of Dubuque, staging art shows, working full time to coordinate international students' experiences, and pursuing her writing career with vigor.
"I'm having to pick up some old habits again, but it is very good to be busy and I am enjoying it all," she says. "There is a lot of wisdom in the world, and if I can help to pass a little of it on in new directions, I will be very happy."
She also tries to travel back to China each year, and to make her son aware of his roots.
"Sometimes I feel like I don't completely belong there any more, and sometimes I don't feel like I completely belong in America, yet," she says, laughing. "I am finding my place somewhere in between."