Gayle Brandeis


Paperback 2004
ISBN 0-06-052804-4

Hardcover 2003
ISBN 0-06-052803-6

"The Book of Dead Birds has an edgy beauty that enhances perfectly the seriousness of its contents."
"A moving and perceptive novel."
Winner of Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize, an award in support of a literature of social responsibility, The Book of Dead Birds is an intimate portrait of a young woman at a defining moment in her life, who stands at the intersection of two cultures and races.

Ava Sing Lo has been accidentally killing her mother’s birds since she was a little girl. Now, having just finished her graduate work, Ava leaves her native San Diego for the Salton Sea, where she volunteers to help environmental activists save thousands of birds poisoned by agricultural run-off.

Helen, Ava’s mother, has been haunted by her past for decades. As a young girl in Korea, Helen was drawn into prostitution on a segregated American army base. Several brutal years passed before a young white American soldier married her and brought her to California. When she gave birth to a black baby, her new husband quickly abandonned her, and she was left to fend for herself and her daughter in a foreign country.

With great beauty and lyricism, The Book of Dead Birds captures a young woman’s struggle to come to terms with her mother’s terrible past while she searches for her own place in the world. This moving mother-daughter story of migration, survival, and reconciliation resonates across cultures and through generations.
"Lyrical, imaginative, beautifully crafted, and deeply intelligent. Before anything else, its characters take you by the heart."
"The Book of Dead Birds has an edgy beauty that enhances perfectly the seriousness of its contents."
"What a shimmering and accomplished first novel! The landscapes of Korea and southern California, and the territories of a mother’s fierce dreams and her daughter’s tentative flights, are all rendered with graceful language and stark, affecting honesty."
author of Highwire Moon
"The Book of Dead Birds is a story of healing—a skillful, textured weaving of dark and light.."
author of Kissing the Virgin’s Mouth
"A moving and perceptive novel."
"A uniquely inventive novel.…How splendidly the author has balanced art with environmental obligation.…It is exciting in literary circles when a first-time novelist does as well as Brandeis does with The Book of Dead Birds."
"Brandeis has a poet’s ear for the music of language.…(her) characters and their fledgling flights of the heart stay with readers long after the book is closed and set aside."
"Intricate and elegant.…(Brandeis) mines universal human experiences, not the least of which is the need to get beyond the heartbreak of the past to create a livable future."
I happened upon a dead bird when I was in first grade, walking home from school with my friend Sonja Johnson. It was a baby—it didn’t have any feathers yet; its eyes had never opened. It looked so bald, so vulnerable, splayed there on the sidewalk. It was the first time I had seen death up close. I was shaken the whole rest of the way home.

Later, in my room, I pulled a decorative diorama out of my cabinet—I had begged my parents to buy it for me in Chinatown; the glass case featured two yellow-feathered birds perched on a branch, a painting of cherry blossoms in the background. I set in on my desk, then sat next to Sonja on the bed.

“We have to look at this and think about what that bird could have become,” I said in a very solemn voice. I had some desire, some need to ritualize the experience. “It never got to fly. It never got to build a nest.” I went on and on. Then I said, “Now is the time we cry.” Sonja and I sat there on my Holly Hobby comforter and forced ourselves to wail.

In 1996, I started writing a poem about that experience with Sonja and the dead bird. It slowly morphed into a poem about all the dead birds I’ve come across in my life. The poem kept getting longer and longer. At some point, I realized that it didn’t want to be about my own experience any longer; it didn’t even want to be a poem. I wasn’t sure what it wanted to be, so I set it aside and moved on to other projects.

In the meanwhile, articles started to appear in the newspaper about massive bird die-offs at the Salton Sea. I clipped them and pasted them into a notebook (my own Book of Dead Birds), not knowing why I was doing so. I knew it was somehow connected to my dead bird poem, but I wasn’t sure how everything would all come together. Then I happened to see a documentary on PBS called The Women Outside about women who were forced into prostitution on US military bases in Korea. All of a sudden, Ava and Helen, the first glimpse of them at least, rose up in my imagination. I knew I had found my story, but I resisted it for a long time. I didn’t think I had any right to write the story of a Korean woman and her Black-Korean-American daughter. Their experience was so outside my own. The characters were persistent, though. They started to take on more tangible form; I started to write.

I had written three novel-length manuscripts in the previous three years, but I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing with fiction. I had always considered myself a poet, first and foremost. My BA is in “Poetry and Movement: Arts of Expression, Meditation and Healing.” I had written stories as a young girl (including a “novel” I wrote when I was eight that ended up in my school library), but at some point, I had drifted away from the form. For many years, fiction scared me. It seemed so foreign to my process as a writer. After my daughter was born in 1993, however, fiction started to gush out of me. I had no control over it. It was like floodgates had opened. I thought it would be good if I could begin to figure out how to hone the work that was pouring from me, if I could begin to understand the craft of fiction more deeply. I decided to go back to school and get my MFA.

I focused on The Book of Dead Birds during my two year low-residency stint at Antioch University. I struggled with it a lot—not with the writing itself, but, again, with my right to tell Ava’s story. I had nothing but support at Antioch, but I often found myself filled with guilt. At the time, I was working on the novel in third person because I thought it would distance me, as the white writer, from my characters; I thought that way I could observe them with respect and compassion, without claiming them. The story started to feel flat to me, even though I loved the characters deeply. I was ready to throw it away so many times. Then two things happened:

First, a day after I told myself I would dump this story and start from scratch with something completely different, a dead crow appeared on my patio. It was too clear of a sign for me to ignore. I forced myself to return to my manuscript, to keep plugging away. Then, my final semester, I came down with a horrible case of strep throat. I had a high fever—so high, I began to hallucinate. I ended up having a series of fever dreams in which I became my main character, Ava. Through these dreams, it became very clear that Ava wanted to tell her own story, in her own voice. This was very scary to me. It felt too intimate. To actually claim her voice seemed like a huge risk. She was insistent, though. She wanted to narrate the book.

As soon as the fever broke, I started a radical revision of my manuscript. The story suddenly came to life for me. Ava’s voice rang out loud and true, both on the page and under my skin. I felt like I had finally found the form that my poem had been searching for, a form that could give voice to so many who had been voiceless. Even though Ava has a different color skin, a different ethnicity from my own, I feel closer to her than any character I have ever written. I am so grateful for what she has taught me, where she has taken me.