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How to Dismantle an American Myth: An Interview with C Pam Zhang

“This book is labeled historical, but it is a reimagining. It is surreal.”

May 27, 2020

Set during the Gold Rush in a reimagined American West, C Pam Zhang’s debut novel How Much of These Hills is Gold follows a pair of Chinese siblings, Lucy and Sam, as they roam the hills after their father’s death and their mother’s disappearance. It is a book about home, identity, ambition, and loss. It is also a demonstration of how to dismantle an American myth, through elegantly decentering the dominative narratives that anchor it, along with narrative subversions ranging from the subtle to the showstopping. Zhang’s storytelling craft is so imbued with emotional and historical authority that the novel resembles more long-buried, lived fact newly excavated rather than a work of fiction. There is an argument to be made that every American classroom with Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States on its syllabus should also consider How Much of These Hills is Gold for inclusion.

In this interview, we discussed Zhang’s journey writing the novel, the liberating pleasures of distance, what it takes to make a myth, reclamation, and the sonic rhythms of language.

—Mimi Lok

Mimi Lok: Can you talk about your journey writing How Much of These Hills is Gold? How did the story first come to you, and how did it evolve over time?

C Pam Zhang: The story came very quickly, and then much more slowly. The first line and scene arrived fully formed one morning, and I wrote the first draft of the novel in a burst of consecutive days. The poet Jenny Xie speaks about writing “in a more fluid state, closer to the waters of dream-life.” The initial draft of my novel felt like a channeling, as if I followed the story as much as I directed it. I let the completed first draft sit for several months. When I came back to the manuscript, I had forgotten most of what I’d set down and rather than rewriting, I more or less started from scratch. The editing was a years-long process of shaping and deepening the themes—but the major points of the book, and the ending, have always been the same. 

ML: Garth Greenwell has said that your book “unweaves the myths about the American West.” I think it’s important to acknowledge that you do this not only by decentering the dominant narrative around this aspect of American history and showing it through the lens of a Chinese family’s experience, but also by insisting on deep, often difficult complexity within that portrayal—and usually there is no place for complexity in mythmaking. With that in mind, what were some of the greatest challenges and pleasures in writing this book? 

CPZ: To decenter the dominant narrative, I had to forget some of what I’d been taught. I had to forget the reality of the American West that I lived during part of my childhood, and I had to forget the oversimplified, white, rugged, shoot-em-up myth of historical narratives. I was able to write this book only because I was living in another country at the time—Thailand—and exposed to the rhythm of a different culture. From that distance America felt dreamlike, and I was freed from the need to be precise or conventional. That was probably the greatest pleasure. There were moments in the writing process—like adding tigers to my version of the West—that made me feel giddy, like a kid getting away with something.

The greatest challenge was the complexity that you note. I had to allow my characters emotions and opinions that I disagree with. There are characters that are full of self-hatred, characters shamed by their backgrounds, characters trying to cling to whiteness—all uncomfortable, but true to the circumstances of their lives. It was maddening and displeasing and unnecessary all at once. Have you read Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings? I felt a strange kinship with her book, which is a series of essays on the messiness and shame and confusion of being Asian American in contemporary America. On paper it has nothing to do with my novel, and yet they’re getting at similar messes.

ML: I thought of Minor Feelings a lot when I was re-reading your book! Yes, they are quite different books on the surface, but I think are great companion titles—each articulating Asian American realities in ways that seem to speak to each other.

And on identity—although the novel takes place in a recognizable setting, you noticeably refrain from naming place, race, ethnicity, etc via typical markers. The words “China”, “Chinese”, “Caucasian” and “California” do not appear anywhere in the book. This feels like such a wonderfully nonchalant subversion of expectations for 1) a historical novel and 2) a novel that centers Chinese-American experience. For me, this removal of conventional identifiers had the effect of heightening two aspects of the protagonists’ experience: the surreal, callous absurdity of racism, and the sense of the siblings’ resistance against societal constraints imposed upon them. Can you talk about your decision to approach the novel in this way?

CPZ: I was after a mythic quality, and myths function in part because they occur in a non-location where proper names aren’t necessary—a place where everything is the ur-version of itself. I wanted to achieve that quality in the book. The setting is one of extremes: extreme temperature, extreme weather, extreme animals, the extremity of a family that is not one of the first but the very first family of its kind. My refusal to use proper nouns was also an act of defiance, a stake in the ground: this book is labeled historical, but it is a reimagining. It is surreal.

I realize I’ve talked about defiance twice now. I want to note that there is an element of tenderness in that defiance. I’ve always resisted labeling the ethnicity of my characters from the first page; I much prefer that characters are permitted to announce their personalities before the flattening label of ethnicity is applied. I want to protect my characters’ rights to be seen as fully human first, and whatever group identity second.   

ML: The idea of “claiming” echoes throughout the novel, across various meanings and contexts—gold, land, bodies, freedom, education—and I think, above all, in the attempt to lay claim to individual desire, and the costs involved in that, for Ba, Ma, Lucy, and Sam. Can you share something of your process in realizing the desires (and fears) of these individual characters?

CPZ: The first characters in the novel arrived as a pair: Lucy and Sam, siblings who are opposites in many ways, as much rivals as they are companions. One never existed without the other. I’ve always been drawn to foils, and to the way that desires and fears manifest when rubbed up against an opposing force. A family is a natural playing field. But while each character has their goals and desires, I see them as all fundamentally confronting the same obstacle: the pernicious myth of the American Dream. Each character pursues a mirage of success, and each eventually comes to see that no matter how hard they work, the system is set up to deny them at every turn. To me, that’s the true tragedy at the heart of the novel: secretly, none of the characters are at odds with one another. It’s their circumstances that break them apart. 

ML: We see the story unfold mainly from Lucy’s perspective, and, briefly but crucially, from Ba’s. How did you approach perspective when writing the novel?

CPZ: The perspective was always from Lucy’s eyes. I wanted the reader to feel as raw in the world as this child is; I wanted her deep feelings of yearning and grief and fear and isolation and awe to suffuse every word. As adults we learn to abstract or intellectualize our feelings, and see the world through a cool layer of pragmatism. I wanted, in this book, to break that protective glass. That’s part of what makes the book both thrilling and terrifying; that’s the recipe for adventure. 

ML: From the very first page, I was struck by the language—it has a uniquely no-nonsense, lyrical descriptiveness, and feels simultaneously apt for the time in which it’s set and unmistakably contemporary. The sparseness within the language, particularly when Lucy and Sam are roaming, has this wonderfully plaintive, percussive kind of musicality, and for me echoed the loneliness and yearning that runs through their journey, as well as their physical solitude within this vast landscape. How did you arrive at the right tone and voice for this book, and how did you sustain it? 

CPZ: The book announced its rhythm from the outset. I was put in the strange grammatical position of wanting to avoid pronouns, thanks to the presence of a gender non-conforming character whose identity I wanted to protect for the first portion of the book. That constraint required a certain boldness and also slyness from the sentences—an invented grammar of the book’s own, as the landscape and myths are invented for and by the book. It was easy to follow that rhythm once I’d gotten into the writing, and harder to find it again when I took breaks. At the start of each writing session, I usually reread a portion of the first chapter in the way that a vocalist runs through scales. At the very end of the editing process, I recorded myself reading the entire book from beginning to end. I made final edits by listening, obsessively, to the sonic quality of the sentences.

ML: What are your hopes for the book?

CPZ: Oh, the usual things: that it will move someone, that it will help a lonely or sad or conflicted person out there feel seen. The scope of my hopes has grown with time; or rather, the scope of what I’ve permitted myself to hope has grown. I was too timid, at the outset, to say I was trying to write an epic story, a timeless story, a great American novel for some of the rest of us. I’m not too timid now. My most unapologetic hope is that this book will find a place in the canon, and that in doing so it will reshape the American West as it exists in our cultural imagination. The myth of the West can be capacious enough to hold non-white people, queer people, immigrants, Native people, and many others; I hope this book will be one wedge that holds the door open, and that more stories come pouring in through the gap.