Author Feature: Casey Cui


Darin Buenaluz, Staff Writer

For Maritza Roño Refuerzo, who goes by the pen name of Casey Cui, life has been quite the rollercoaster. Moving around California at a young age and later being diagnosed with colon cancer, her life experiences have helped shape her new book, titled Groovy Girl. This is her story.

Cui was born at the Santa Monica Hospital in Los Angeles, the city where her Filipino parents met. Her childhood was full of movement, with her family moving several times throughout Southern California. Cui would initially live in the city of San Gabriel to be closer to her mother’s parents but later moved to a tract neighborhood in Montebello. 

Regardless of where they lived, Cui, her parents, and her younger brother Jimmy regularly visited the city of Arcadia, where some of her notable childhood memories were made. The city has been a significant part of her life and even appears in part of her book. 

“We visited Arcadia often because of Santa Anita Mall, one of the first enclosed shopping centers in LA County, and also Santa Anita Park, where my grandmother loved to gamble on her favorite horses and jockeys. We frequented the Arboretum too, which I always thought was the most beautiful place on earth,” recalled Cui.

Then, less than three weeks after Cui turned 27, her life was changed forever. She began to experience severe stomach pain, though these symptoms were determined to be a “stomach bug” at first, and she was only given stomach medicine to help ease her aching. When it resurfaced a month later while Cui was with her mother-in-law and future sister-in-law, they suggested she see a gastroenterologist, a doctor who specializes in treating digestive system issues. 

“Within a week, after a blood test that confirmed my extremely low red blood count, a rectal exam showing microscopic blood, and a colonoscopy that revealed ‘ulcerations with large edges,’ my world was turned upside-down with these words ringing in my ears: ‘I’m sorry, it’s cancer,’” said Cui. This cancer would be colon cancer, the second deadliest cancer in the United States after lung cancer.

Without a doubt, the sudden announcement of a serious illness took a massive mental toll on Cui, who had recently moved to the Bay Area to be with her boyfriend who had recently proposed to her.

“I cried. I wanted sympathy from everyone I knew, even the concierge in our building. I was told by my colorectal surgeon that I was ‘brave, so calm for a young woman,’ as I drifted off to sleep during my 2-hour surgery. But I was afraid of dying before the age of 30, which was when I thought it would be an opportune time for me to bear a child,” recalled Cui. 

Cui’s struggle with colon cancer, combined with all her other life experiences, would become the basis for her book. 

“I was a graduate student in Mill’s College’s MFA program (English literature and creative writing); my dream, since I was maybe seven—which is when I kept my first ‘diary’—was to write a book, but my father had once told me, ‘Writing will not put food on the table.’ I was studying for the GMAT [Graduate Management Admission Test] when I received my colon cancer diagnosis, which then prompted me to pursue my dream,” said Cui.

Later, Cui would take a writing class taught by the Japanese-American novelist Julie Shigekuni. During this class, Cui would write about her different life experiences, from her experience of undergoing a year of chemotherapy following the surgery that would remove her colon cancer, to the guilt that she felt for being alive as she looked over the casket of her 10-year old cousin who had died of bone cancer. Shigekumi recognized Cui’s prose and convinced her to begin writing a book of her own. Groovy Girl began to take shape. 

As for the book itself, there are many different messages that Cui wants to share with her audience, but to share them publicly would spoil her book. However, there are some things that she can share.

“Without giving away too much, I’d say that it takes a while to find your place under the sun, like with my eight-year-old main character, Isa. Through stories, people we meet, places we visit, through our experiences both wondrous and arduous, we might never find that place—but while we’re finding it, we should try to find our gift to the world, all while practicing kindness,” stated Cui. 

Casey Cui has lived a life of constant trials, and the coronavirus pandemic has not been so merciful to give her a break. She has spent the past 18 months living by the words “life never waits,” a quote from her father. In the face of the ever-increasing stress that comes with living during a pandemic, Cui has soldiered on in life, even after contracting Covid herself. (She happened to be in quarantine during her interview.)  She also has some advice to share with her audience who aspire to reach their own dreams:

“Chase and tackle that dream, then throw it into the endzone to receivers who will spike it with glee and pride and gratitude, those who will celebrate your touchdown with you.”


Photographic Courtesy of Casey Cui