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Jane Chu’s own story is extraordinary. Now, she helps refugees share their stories.

Jane Chu will be the keynote at the 15th annual Idaho Conference on Refugees
Idaho Office for Refugees, Jane Chu
Jane Chu will be the keynote at the 15th annual Idaho Conference on Refugees

Jane Chu’s story is all-American, which is to say that her roots are extraordinarily varied.

“I was born in Oklahoma, and I grew up in Arkansas, and at the same time my parents came from China. One might think that would be a contrast of different cultures from 11,000 miles apart. But it was the arts that gave me not only my identity, but allowed me to express things that were heartfelt,” said Chu. “I learned that I could be loving bok choi and a corn dog at the same time, and I did not have to force-fit myself into having one identity at the expense of the other. And it was the arts that let me do that.”

Chu, who would ultimately go on to become the head of the National Endowment of the Arts, will be the keynote at the 15th annual Idaho Conference on Refugees. In anticipation of her return visit to Idaho, Chu visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice.

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition. I'm George Prentice. Good morning. Jane Chu is a New York-based illustrator and artist. Her story is quite extraordinary - Her mother, a refugee from China before Jane was born. Today, Jane Chu uses her talents to creatively feature stories of refugees and immigrants. Next week, Jane Chu travels to Boise to be a keynote at the 15th Annual Idaho Conference on Refugees. I first had the privilege of meeting and interviewing Jane Chu several years ago, when she was then serving as chairperson of the National Endowment for the Arts. So, it is a personal and professional pleasure to welcome Jane Chu to our program. Good morning, Jane.

JANE CHU: Good morning, George. Thanks for letting me join you today.

PRENTICE: Absolutely. For years, you have been talking about the shifting balance of demographics in America, right? This minority to majority balance. Can you talk a bit about how that is redefining our ever-evolving perspectives of our nation, particularly in the arts?

CHU: Well, the demographics have expanded over the past several decades. And if you compare when I think about specifically the arts, there's a new way to celebrate this expansion. There's a new way to make sure that people understand that the arts belong to all of us, each in our own ways. And the two major factors have been the presence of the Internet and then the expansion of the demographics and in the arts. It's such a wonderful way to celebrate our identities and honor our cultures and who we are through the arts, because it gives us another vocabulary besides just our linear use of everyday conversation. So, for me, for example, I was born in Oklahoma and I grew up in Arkansas, and at the same time my parents came from China. And there in some cases one might think that would be a contrast of different cultures from 11,000 miles apart. But it was the arts that gave me not only my identity, but and allowed me to express things that were heartfelt beyond just the use of everyday words, partially because I did not have enough vocabulary in only English, but I did when it came to the arts. So, I think the arts are a wonderful way to celebrate the ways that we express ourselves and in particular a way to help us honor our own identities. Because I learned that I could be loving bok choy and corn dog at the same time, and I did not have to force fit myself into having one identity at the expense of the other. And it was because of the arts that let me do that.

PRENTICE: We are particularly excited that you have a piece that has been published by Smithsonian magazine. What can you tell us about that?

CHU: Well, I've been doing a number of stories all across the nation from people who have immigrated to the United States and through all kinds of conditions, including refugees. And the Smithsonian Folklife Magazine has been wonderful to publish a few. So there online, including one that just got published from an Idaho one, Dr. Palina Louangketh, who, along with her mother and brother, escaped Laos and ended up in Boise. It's a wonderful story. It's already online. It's certainly I certainly learned a lot. I certainly have a lot of respect for Dr. Louangketh. And so what she's doing with those, she has these entrepreneurial qualities which she, along with her family, you know, thinking on your feet, trying to make decisions at the right times, anticipating all due to their escape. Many of those entrepreneurial qualities are helping in the establishment of the Idaho Museum of International Diaspora, which is launching or has launched already in Boise. So it'll be more fun to even hear more.

PRENTICE: What can you tell us about the project? I want to make sure I have this right. The objects of immigrants to America. What can you tell us about that?

CHU: Sure. Well, it's a combination of telling short stories about people who have immigrated to America. But at the heart of it is something that we all have, whether we've immigrated or not or whether we're refugees or not. And that is we all have some kind of keepsake object that brings serves as memorabilia that can open up stores for our own lives or the stories of our families, and in particular, those who have immigrated have objects that sometimes are very special, and they open up stories of their lives. And often their lives have had some type of disruption moving from one place to another, moving from one culture to another. And so I have the opportunity when I tell these stories to also ask them about their keepsake objects, and then they let me draw them. So since I love to draw and I love to illustrate, those drawings tend to be in association and accompany the story. It's a way, a way to open up the door, and it's a way when other people may not have a command of just the beat of English language or a full way to express themselves. Having getting to draw these objects and getting to hear their wonderful stories, it's another vocabulary set.

PRENTICE: If I remember, you are classically trained. You still sit down and play the piano?

CHU: I haven't played in decades, but I started by majoring in music. And yes, I majored in piano, but I also took drawing lessons. Went back in and got enough of a fundamentals of classically trained drawing. But now draw. I've been drawing since I was 15, so that's quite a long time. So this is a lot of fun for me. Time stands still when I get to draw. So being able to tell these stories and also draw keepsake objects of theirs, that's a that's a fun life for me to have.

PRENTICE: And it's all about stories, right? Other people's stories and sharing and just more people understanding and relating to.

CHU: Well, it is. And there's two things going on, really. One is we see and get to honor people's differences and we get to respect them and we learn more about them. And at the same time, we find that we have commonalities. We all have our humanity, our shared humanity and our collective humanity. And when we learn about other people's stories, whether they especially if they are refugees, we see the strength that comes out in them on what they've had to do to leave their original birthplace or their native land and come to another place, another culture and get settled. The strength comes out when you hear those stories.

PRENTICE: When you have the opportunity and I know you've had countless opportunities to t spend some time with young adults who want to express themselves, who whether that's professionally as artists or just, you know, just at a at a personal level. How do you encourage them? How do you continue to to fan that that flame that burns within them? You know, the the artist's soul is is unlike any other. And yet when someone gets to do that for a living such as yourself, that's a pretty special moment. How do you encourage young men and women to follow their their their love, follow their passion in the arts?

CHU: That's such a great question because and I think you said the key words within them. So if if we believe and I do that there is something within each of us that helps us learn about ourselves, that helps us follow our heart, I would say stick with following your heart. And when you feel like you have energy around the arts, find a way to create. Find as many opportunities as possible to create and dive in. You see those opportunities when you're creating, and you and time stand still. That's at least a an indicator for me that I'm in the right place at the right time for myself. And so follow your heart is the key. Try not to put so much stock into what somebody else is doing and follow what you have in your heart. And as you continue to focus on that, the resources will come, the resources will appear, the opportunities will appear. So stick with what you know inside.

PRENTICE: And Jane Chu shares her story and shares others and will be traveling to Boise to be a keynote at our 15th annual Idaho Conference on Refugees. Jane Chu joining us this morning from New York. Safe journey back to Boise. We look forward to that. And for now, thank you so very much for giving us some time this morning.

CHU: Thank you, George. Have a great day.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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