BookLife Talks with Walter James Burns
A sponsored Q&A with the author of 'Autobiography of an American Orphan'
What made you choose to write this book when you did?
When acquaintances of mine realized I’d been raised in a New York City orphanage, they told me to write a book. My remaining brothers and sisters had been scattered across the United States and abroad since leaving the orphanage, where we’d been separated by sex and age since 1949. One day, I returned to show off my first master’s degree, and to my dismay, there was nobody there I knew. As I tried to remember what happened during my time there, a burst of broken scenes flooded my senses. In shock, I pulled out of it, shutting the memories down. Ten years would pass before I tried to remember again.
One day as an English teacher in South Korea, the idea of remembrance came to me. Suddenly, a series of images again shot across my mind’s eye. The scene of a young boy being forced into an improvised locking device on a wooden chair, while screaming and struggling, shocked me. I knew then where the killing rage of temper had been instilled in me. My temper had been described as “watching the hair on a dog’s back go up.” I had to begin a psychological self-study and confront my demons. After almost ten years, my memories became this book, the story of the orphanage I grew up in and the effect it had on my family and my life.
Since you’re writing about things that happened decades ago, how do you make sure you are telling “the truth,” or how do you refresh your memories when writing?
Most of the people mentioned in my book have been scattered or are long since gone. However, some survived by escaping New York City. My best friend in the orphanage, “Chicky,” lives in Albany. When the book came out, his friend “Dino,” also mentioned in my book, was living in Pennsylvania. They will testify to the accuracy of my story. Moreover, although we’ve been separated most of my life, my surviving siblings—Richard, the oldest and now a retired New York policeman; his brother-in-law, also a retired policeman, who was in the orphanage with me; and my older sister June, a psychologist—can testify to the veracity of this story.Why or how do you think this book is particularly relevant now?
This book is relevant today as a comparison between the state of minorities before the civil rights movement and their situation today. It is also a depiction of working-class conditions that led to alcoholism, drug addiction, and the breakup of family life. It is my belief that society has advanced greatly in some areas, but its inherent rewarding of the wealthy and the politically well-connected is not one of them.
What is the one thing you most want to tell readers about you or your book?
I want people to know that an orphan in America is considered independent and given no special privileges – no grants, no scholarships, no priorities whatsoever, unlike in European countries. I’m ruptured twice on both sides from doing heavy labor in my youth. I’ll pay on my student loans until I’m 85 years old, and yet I was never able to get a full-time job even with two master’s degrees.
Are you working on anything new?
I have a second book out titled The People’s Poet. It’s a collection of poetry about scenes from street life. I'm continuing to work on my life’s story.