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Family Perils: A Conversation with Yang Huang and Kirstin Chen

Writers Yang Huang and Kirstin Chen talk histories of the Cultural revolution, betrayal, and the importance of craft

By Yang Huang

Kirstin Chen’s novel Bury What We Cannot Take kept me on the edge of my seat, as I followed a harrowing journey that I had once envisioned for myself. In her novel, nine-year-old San San and her twelve-year-old brother Ah Liam discover their grandmother taking a hammer to a framed portrait of Chairman Mao. To prove his loyalty to the party, Ah Liam reports his grandmother to the authorities. This sets in motion a terrible chain of events, as an ordinary family is thrust into the maddening political movement in early Maoist China.

I grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution. Once I smeared a Mao portrait by accident and then tried desperately to fix the little smudge on his chin. At age six I was terrified by the possibility of my entire family being sent to the labor camp for my careless act. As a teenager I had recurring fantasies about escaping from the oppressive regime, so San San’s adventure speaks to me personally. The family in my story collection My Old Faithful is from a later era, but there are obvious similarities in the ways we portrayed family dynamics: love, betrayal, pain, and forbearance.

—Yang Huang

Yang Huang: I was intrigued why you set the story in 1957 during the Anti-Rightist Movement. How did you research this time period?

Kirstin Chen: I’m so glad the story resonated with you—particularly because researching Bury What We Cannot Take was one of the most challenging tasks I’ve ever undertaken. I read a lot of books—novels, memoirs, history and economic texts. I watched films. I visited Drum Wave Islet (more commonly known by its Chinese name Gulangyu), Xiamen, and Hong Kong, where the novel is set. Most importantly, however, I interviewed my aunt who had lived in that exact region of China during that time period.

My aunt’s story is fascinating in and of itself. As a child, she migrated with her family from Gulangyu to the Philippines. When she reached the age of 15 or 16, she ran away from home and returned to China to rebuild the Fatherland. (In the early 1950’s, a wave of overseas Chinese students—many still in high school—left their homes in Southeast Asia and returned to China.) My aunt wouldn’t see her parents again until the 1970’s.

She shared so many anecdotes and details that, even if they didn’t make it into the book, brought this world to life. For example, she told me how her cousin had taught her to roast sweet potatoes atop a cow-dung-fueled fire on the beaches of Gulangyu. Other stories were darker, especially those that took place during the famine: how she cut her own hair to use as fertilizer for the leeks she planted in her office plot; how as a young, pregnant reporter, she was sent to report on some of the country’s rural areas, and would get so exhausted and hungry that she’d simply lie down by the side of the road and sleep until she found the energy to keep going.

You made good use of your aunt’s life story. Many people who returned to China were later persecuted in the political movements. It was heartbreaking. There are so many unexpected twists and turns in your story that I felt it must have been real. Was it inspired by real people and events? What drove you to tell this story? Has San San’s development surprised you?

The premise of my novel was inspired by real events. A dear friend of mine told me a story over dinner many years ago: his father was the boy who had caught his grandmother hammering the portrait of Chairman Mao. His aunt was the little girl who was left behind when the family had to flee. Everything else, I had to imagine. And yes, throughout the time that I worked on this book, San San’s resilience and courage surprised me over and over again. When I first realized that she had to be the main character of the novel, I was initially filled with dread—the story felt too large for a nine-year-old child to carry. But once I’d worked through a couple of drafts, I saw how much I’d underestimated her, and now when I think of her, I even feel a bit of awe.

Even though by now I’ve written fiction for more than a couple of years, it still feels magical whenever I reach the point where the work starts to reveal itself to me, and I no longer feel like I’m forcing things to happen. Do you feel the same way? Your book My Old Faithful is a collection of ten interconnected stories that follow a Chinese family from China to the U.S. over a thirty-year period. Your collection exemplifies everything I love about the genre of linked stories: you gave me access to each family member’s most intimate thoughts, while simultaneously painting a full and expansive portrait of their lives. Given that you also write novels, can you talk about how you found the form/structure of this book? Did you always know this would be a collection of stories and not a novel?

I began My Old Faithful as a story collection. Each person tells two stories from the first person point-of-view, and they are peripheral characters in other people’s stories. The first two stories I wrote are of the elder daughter, “The Homely Girl” and “Dream Lover,” which more or less stand alone. Next I wrote “Chimney,” a story about the father spanking his wayward son to teach him a lesson. This is followed by the son’s story, where he takes advantage of his younger sister in a sinister way. I sensed a pattern: a person’s rash act brings serious consequences. The younger daughter is devastated by her brother’s betrayal. She goes on to form a friendship outside home in “The Match.”

Several stories show this ripple effect. For example, despite his good intentions, the father’s spanking of his son creates a rift that leaves nasty consequences. That’s one type of story. The other type shows a different side of the character. In “The Umbrella,” the father is protective of his younger daughter, which contrasts his being a stern disciplinarian to his son in “Chimney.” After writing ten stories, I added some interactions of the peripheral characters to keep them present throughout the collection. I wrote the stories as standalone pieces with the family in the background, so it became an extensive practice on the novel writing.

Bury What We Cannot Take also incorporates multiple points-of-view and explores the ways in which family members betray each other and probe the limits of familial love. The story is told in five points-of-view: San San (the daughter), Ah Liam (the son), Bee Kim (the grandma), Seok Koon (the mother), and Ah Zhai (the father). I admired how evenhanded the narrative is, as each of the five people reveals what is at stake for them. The reader can put together the picture and feel the collective weight upon San San’s young shoulders. The narrative has richness in tone, emotion, and intricate motivation that San San cannot carry off with her nine-year-old perspective.

How do you shift from one person to the next and advance the story so smoothly yet urgently?

Maintaining the story’s urgency was something I thought about a lot. I love novels that are told from multiple points-of-view, especially when the characters have secrets to keep from one another. That being said, I’ve also had the experience of reading a novel and falling in love with one of several point-of-view characters, and then impatiently speed-reading through the chapters told from other perspectives to get back to the character that I most care about. So, I knew that if I was going to rotate through different characters’ points-of-view, each of them had to be compelling enough to earn the right to tell their side of the story. I tried to make sure that each character had strong, meaningful desires that were often at odds with at least one member of the family, and I think that helped to create momentum and suspense.

You said it so succinctly in your last sentence. I realize I aimed for the same goal in My Old Faithful, but subconsciously.

I loved the wonderful essay you published in The Margins about why you write in English, your second language. In the essay you say, “Writing in English, I could tell the stories of destitute people and social injustices, a subject matter I was not able to fully explore in Chinese.”

Can you talk about how writing in English opened up the world of My Old Faithful? On a related note, do your friends and family in China read your English work? If not, do you wish they could?

To me the Chinese language is bound by intricate, historical, and deeply ingrained censorship. You have portrayed this censorship beautifully in your book! I immigrated to the U.S. to free myself from this censorship, which had inevitably shaped me as a young person. Writing in English allowed me to lose this bondage of the language. Since my parents couldn’t read these stories in English, I did not have to seek their approval. I only had to be truthful.

Later I learned all my writer friends are worried about their parents peering over their shoulders at the words on the page. I solved that problem by writing in English!

On a related note, as I read My Old Faithful, I was repeatedly struck by the pitch-perfect dialogue, which truly brought your characters to life. How do you approach dialogue in fiction? Are you always cognizant of the fact that your characters are speaking to each other in Chinese? At times, the son and daughters speak in typical teenage slang (“I’m totally psyched,” “He’s the slacker in my family”). How did you capture their voices?

In a short story I’m mindful that dialogue rarely conveys information. When the narrative is in the first person, I question why a character speaks at all. The character is about to divulge a motive that makes his words and inner thoughts at odds with each other. Rather than telling the truth, he uses words as a smokescreen to attract attention, deflect tension, make excuses, even deride his sibling. You made an interesting point about the characters speaking to each other in Chinese. At times I slip into the typical teen slang, as I heard the Chinese equivalent of teenage angst in my head. Even in the 1980s, Chinese teenagers mixed English words in their speeches, but in a work of fiction, the dialogue needs to be clean-cut to feel “authentic.”

Kirstin, you are such a natural storyteller, which shows in your rhythmic prose, meticulous plotting, and psychological depth. I found your characters refreshingly unsentimental yet pulsing with life. At what point did you decide to pursue fiction writing?

I majored in comparative literature and minored in creative writing, but upon graduating, I took a very practical corporate job as a merchandise planner at Banana Republic. I stayed for almost three years, my dissatisfaction growing with each passing month. And finally, when I’d had enough, I decided to go to graduate school—simply because I’d always loved school, and I didn’t know what else I wanted to do. I was considering business school when it dawned on me that I could study creative writing. I applied to just three MFA programs, telling myself that if I didn’t get in, I would pursue the MBA route in earnest. I joined Emerson College’s MFA program in 2006, and, at the end of my first semester, wrote the short story that would grow into my debut novel, Soy Sauce for Beginners. And because a family business—an artisanal soy sauce factory—is at the heart of that book, my previous work experience ended up helping after all!

You were meant to be a writer, not a business executive.

You, too, have a very practical day job. You work as a computer engineer at UC Berkeley. I can imagine all the ways in which your day job may complicate your writing life, but are there ways in which your day job complements or inspires your writing?

My professional life, which is safe and sterile, makes boring fiction. I long to escape into a lush, rural, and unjust world in my fiction. I have, however, acquired the skill of problem solving as an engineer.

As a writer I have a rather optimistic worldview. I like to tackle social problems in my fiction, put my characters to the test, let them endure, and in their darkest and most despairing hours, let them use their ingenuity (much like an engineer), and find some sort of relief or solution, not a cure-all, but a way out, so that they can move forward to rebuild their lives.

What are you working on now, Yang?

I am rewriting Oasis, a novel I have worked on for years. A boy, Lou, saves a girl, Kaier, from being drowned in a flash flood. They grow up in Minqin, an oasis sandwiched between two deserts in northwestern China. Kaier leaves her hometown to study and become a radiologist. Lou stays behind to fight the dust storms and raise a family in the oasis, which slowly dries up and becomes a desert. It is a story about unrequited love, economic development at the cost of environmental degradation, and one’s lifelong obsession with her birthplace. Although Kaier has left her village, the village has never left her.

That sounds fascinating! Again, I see the parallels in our work. I’m in the very early stages of a new novel about the counterfeit handbag industry, set in San Francisco and Guangzhou (the fake bag capital of the world). The main characters are former college roommates, both Chinese American: a lawyer who was born and raised in the U.S. and a teacher who moved to the U.S. from China as an adult. The novel is also about immigration, doppelgängers, and the pursuit of the American Dream.

Years ago I bought a counterfeit Versace handbag from the night market in Shanghai. It has been sitting in my closet, since my fashion sense improved with time. Remind me to wear my fake Versace bag to your next book launch!