Music Credit: “NY” written and performed by Kosta, from the album Soul Sand. Used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.
Vanessa Hua: "A River of Stars" is about Scarlett and her journey, but I also was really interested in portraying all the different aspects of the Chinese American diaspora. Whether it's in Chinatown or in, say, Cupertino, there is no one Chinese American experience. I think sometimes communities are viewed as monoliths with the same history, the same language or culture coming in, and although there are shared aspects, I think my novel reflects those differences.
Jo Reed: That is novelist, short story writer and 2020 NEA Literature Fellow Vanessa Hua, and this is "Art Works," the weekly podcast produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed. Vanessa Hua is an award-winning writer whose novel, "A River of Stars," was named by the Washington Post and NPR as one of 2018's best books. Her short story collection, "Deceit and Other Possibilities," received an Asian Pacific American Award in literature, was a finalist for the California Book Award and has just been reissued as a paperback. She has received a number of other awards, including a 2020 NEA Literature Fellowship, and it's little wonder. Her stories center on living on both sides of the hyphenate and asks "What's Chinese? What's American?" and she allows for a multiplicity of answers to both questions. And because of that complexity the characters she creates, whether in her novel or short stories, are alive with the contradiction of humanity as they struggle with what immigration has wrought, the repercussions felt down through the generations. She writes as well as anyone I've read about working women and the way people come together to create made families in a strange and sometimes hostile land. It's not a surprise that she began her writing career as a journalist and was a long-time columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. She understands the streets and the struggles of everyday people, and she knows how to give them voice. I spoke to Vanessa Hua earlier this week. Here's our conversation. Well, Vanessa Hua, thank you for joining us.
Vanessa Hua: Thanks for having me on.
Jo Reed: You're welcome. You began your writing career as a journalist, and I'm curious what drew you to journalism.
Vanessa Hua: This sounds cliché, but I remember seeing "All the President's Men" for a history class in middle school, and I remember being really inspired, and then when I was in college I had an opportunity to work on the school paper to write a column for the paper, which had always been somewhat of a lifelong dream, and just the fact that I could enter people's lives, just go up to them and start asking questions or wonder-- anytime I had a question of like "Why is that?" I could go find the answer for it, and I think curiosity really drives my fiction and my journalism.
Jo Reed: And what was your beat? Did you have one?
Vanessa Hua: Everything from writing about technology during the first boom in the Bay Area-- I think I was even able to convince my editors at the time to send me to Burning Man because...
Jo Reed: Whoa.
Vanessa Hua: ...yeah, because of the huge nexus between the tech world and the desert art festival. I also covered minority business affairs, Asian American affairs, and I had an opportunity to report from abroad as well. I did reporting trips to China, South Korea, Burma, Ecuador.
Jo Reed: Well, why the move into fiction? What did you want to say that you couldn't via journalism?
Vanessa Hua: Well, actually I think I always thought of myself as a fiction writer. Long before I was a journalist I was writing short stories, even when I was a kid, and, well, I think that was tied into the fact I was a big writer, and why was I a big reader? I'm the American-born daughter of Chinese immigrants, and from early on I realized the world inside my home was very different than the world outside of it in terms of culture, food, ways of living. Our grandmother lived with us to help raise us, but I remember she cured meat that hung in the garage rafters, which wasn't happening in my neighbors' houses down the street in the suburbs. I knew there were questions that I had that my parents couldn't or wouldn't be able to answer, and so I sought that answer through books, and then by that same token that drove me to start writing fiction about trying to understand where the official documentation or the official record ended, and for me that's where fiction can really flourish. There will be a limit to what can be reported out, and so fiction has allowed me to kind of go into the spaces and places in people's minds and hearts that I couldn't necessarily do with journalism.
Jo Reed: Well, your fiction-- I mean, this is really reductive, but it does center on family, it centers on duty, and it does center on navigating dual cultures and identity that manages to be both fluid and unchanging at the same time.
Vanessa Hua: Yeah, I mean, I think if someone were to read the body of my work, whether it's fiction or non-fiction, they would see that I have the same interests and preoccupations and that I figure out ways to explore, and sometimes, say, a topic might show up in different ways in different forms over the years. For example, "A River of Stars," which I've called a pregnant Chinese "Thelma and Louise," about two...
Jo Reed: <laughs> That is too... <laughs>
Vanessa Hua: ...yeah, about two very pregnant Chinese women on the lam from one of these maternity centers. There's a practice of sort of sheltering-in the first month after giving birth with special foods. As a journalist I did a science story about the science behind that, but then I was able to incorporate some of that research into my novel. Certainly you don't ever want your novel to sound like you dropped in a encyclopedia entry or a newspaper article. I think for me sometimes people ask like "How are you a journalist, and how are you a fiction writer, and how are you raising kids?" And I think it's not siloed-off. What I might do in one arena seeps its way or makes its way into other forms. Sometimes it's deliberate, sometimes it's not.
Jo Reed: Well, let's talk about your novel, "River of Stars," which, as you say, is like a Chinese pregnant "Thelma and Louise." What inspired it?
Vanessa Hua: So I was pregnant myself with twins living in Southern California, and I began hearing about these maternity centers in the suburbs east of downtown LA. The neighbors were baffled. Every week pregnant Chinese women were showing up and going on evening walk. The garbage cans were piled high with diapers, the whole street smelled like stir fry, and it turned out that the women were coming a month or two before giving birth so that when they delivered their children would get US citizenship. And what fascinated me being pregnant myself was that I knew being pregnant is one of the most vulnerable times in a woman's life, and what was it like to be so far from home, and what did US citizenship mean for their children? What did that mean to them that they'd be willing to put themselves through that? And I was also struck by a news account I read where a neighbor said one of these women showed up on his doorstep, and she said "I'm hungry," so he took her to McDonald's, and afterwards rather than take her to the airport or help her call her family she said "Can you take me back?" So, again, they were willing to go back to what must have seemed like a prison of their own making, and the other aspect of it was when you're pregnant like I was with twins you're hugely pregnant, so people treat you with some consideration, like "Come to the head of the line," but I wondered what would happen if you got together like a dozen pregnant women. Who would get to be the queen bee? And so that in itself also seemed like a situation ripe for drama but also comedy, so it was in that ambivalence of that woman who ended up going to McDonald's and in just the group dynamics that really inspired me.
Jo Reed: Okay, why don't you give us a thumbnail sketch of the plot of the book.
Vanessa Hua: Oh sure. In my novel the two characters, Scarlett Chen, who is sent to the US by her married lover to give birth to what he thinks will be his heir, but she's deeply unhappy-- she steals the van, finds out she has a stowaway, a pregnant teen, Daisy, who also doesn't fit into the maternity center, and they make their way to San Francisco's Chinatown and make their way into motherhood and into life in this country.
Jo Reed: That is a good thumbnail.
Vanessa Hua: <laughs>
Jo Reed: I mean, that book, it's about immigration and it's about love between friends but between mothers and children, and it's also about legacy. I really would like you to tell me about the character of Scarlett. How would you describe her?
Vanessa Hua: Scarlett Chen is from a peasant background. She grew up in the villages, and this is influenced by the reporting I did back in '04 in China. I had an opportunity to go to villages and factories in the Pearl River Delta, which is west of Hong Kong. This was happening all over China, that teenagers were leaving home and going to work in factories. The work was incredibly hard but also a measure of freedom that was unimaginable to their parents, and so she's scrappy, she's kind of had to take care of herself from a very early age, and she has a complicated relationship with her mother, who is a family planning official in the village, and so when she's 36 she unexpectedly falls in love with the factory owner, and when she gets pregnant he ships her off to the US to one of these maternity centers. And I think as part of a protective measure she's really built-up walls in her life against other people, but then, I mean, something I learned as a mother-- your defenses start to crumble. Maybe it's the sleep deprivation or just the realization it's very difficult to go it alone, and so she and Daisy, they're found family, right, but another form of found family are their neighbors in their Chinatown apartment building, Old Wu, their neighbor, other neighbors who they initially quarrel with, but gradually it becomes their home.
Jo Reed: That apartment building and the interaction of all the residents I thought was so finely drawn, and I loved reading about them.
Vanessa Hua: That was also inspired by my reporting as a journalist. A lot of these residences in Chinatown are known as single-residency occupancy buildings, SROs. That's what they were initially intended for, for sort of bachelor workers, but over time now whole families have moved in, and there's a communal kitchen, a communal bathroom. When I've walked through as a reporter to interview people you'll see that the door is open. You peek in. Kids are doing homework, other people are watching TV, and so in one sense there is a small-town feel, but on the other hand the living environment is tough. I remember interviewing a woman who said "To be honest, my apartment in China was nicer. <laughs> It was bigger, it was nicer, it was newer, but I came to this country for the opportunity." So "A River of Stars" is about Scarlett and her journey, but I also was really interested in portraying all the different aspects of the Chinese American diaspora, whether it's in Chinatown or in, say, Cupertino or in those suburbs east of LA I was mentioning, Monterey Park. There is no one Chinese American experience. I think sometimes communities are viewed as monoliths with the same history, the same language or culture coming in, and although there are shared aspects, I think my novel reflects those differences.
Jo Reed: Scarlett is so fierce and so resourceful. I actually could picture the way she walked.
Vanessa Hua: <laughs> She cuts through the crowd.
Jo Reed: Completely cuts through the crowd, and I thought one of the strongest parts in the book for me was Daisy and Scarlett and that hardly perfect, often contentious but very real friendship and their struggle to survive in Chinatown and the strategies they use-- well, mostly Scarlett uses to get by and that family that they create, again very imperfect but palpable.
Vanessa Hua: Oh, thank you, yeah. I mean, I think family is what you make of it, and you have what you have, and so Scarlett and Daisy both give birth within a few weeks of each other, and I've often said that getting through that infancy together with someone is like surviving a natural disaster. <laughs> You will be bonded for life or forever shaped and changed by it if you don't end up parting ways, but they've seen each other at their worst and at their most exhausted, and having each other's back is how they manage to survive in this county.
Jo Reed: Motherhood and the way you really show the extraordinary challenges for women who have to work and the limitations that it places on them, but, as Scarlett says, it also opened the world for her. It's almost as though she was seeing the world through her daughter's eyes.
Vanessa Hua: Yeah, and not that the novel is autobiographical, but that thinking, it is completely drawn from my own experience of seeing the world anew with my twin sons. They're now eight, but there's something special in being with someone the first time they're experiencing something. I remember the first time it was raining, and they gazed up like "What is coming out of the sky? How is this even possible?" For me as a writer, even though having children means I'm busier than ever, especially now with the pandemic and having to home-school, but at the same time even though I have less time than ever to write I feel like I have more I want to write about, that whole new parts of the world have opened up to me.
Jo Reed: And Scarlett is also constantly worrying about not being there for her daughter because she's basically the one who's out making money, and that is something that certainly many, many women can identify with, but for somebody who is literally physically working most of the time and then having immigration worries on top of it it just cut even more deeply.
Vanessa Hua: I think no matter your socioeconomic status that is that eternal worry, like "I'm providing food and shelter for my child, but is it enough?" And even her own mother, with whom she has a complicated relationship-- even her own mother could strap her onto her back working the fields, and she wishes she could just do that, and there is that ache you have for your child, especially when they're small. I think they even call the first three months after giving birth "the fourth trimester," which is why they just want to be attached to you all the time, but, I mean, it's the very real sacrifices that a lot of working-class immigrant women face, that they're back to work maybe after a couple weeks and just having to face those hard choices, and maybe the fact of motherhood is just feeling guilty <laughs> no matter what you're doing.
Jo Reed: All the time.
Vanessa Hua: All the time, yeah.
Jo Reed: Two other characters are Boss Yeung and Mama Fang, and Boss Yeung is the father of Scarlett's child, and Mama Fang ran Perfume Bay, the house for Chinese women who wanted to give birth in the US. And what I found interesting about both of them was the way they evolved during the course of the book, and the way I felt about them when I started the book actually was quite different than the way I thought about them at the end of the book.
Vanessa Hua: Yes, thank you. Both those characters I think initially come off as villains...
Jo Reed: They easily could've been one-dimensional, and they were not.
Vanessa Hua: Yeah, yeah, and I think for me I was really interested in that idea of "Are people capable of change, and do we actually understand people until we understand what shaped them and what they're secretly going through or what their secret history is?" Then we just begin to interpret what they're doing in different ways. We still might not agree with what they've done or attempted to do, but at least we see the fullness of their humanity, and that was something important to me I think even with characters who are more minor, let's say, to the narrative. I still wanted everyone-- whether they were drawn in a few brushstrokes or whether they had a chapter or two devoted to their point of view, I just wanted that ability to get deeper into who they were and how they acted as they did, and the inspiration for both-- I can talk a bit about that. Mama Fang-- there's a tradition in Chinese literature of a matchmaker character, usually an older woman who knows everyone's business in town, who has a finger in every pot, who's cutting a deal, and I really thought of also sort of these modern female entrepreneurs in China. I remember reading about this cardboard queen who realized that all the cardboard used to ship our products still had several more uses, seeing opportunity where other people see garbage. That was really interesting to me, whether it was Scarlett or Mama Fang. And Boss Yeung-- I've been interested in the self-made billionaires and their murky histories, and I remember reading in a non-fiction book about a billionaire who had 12 acknowledged children, and that line made me laugh, because I thought "Well, how many unacknowledged children has he had?" <laughs> So just that world and Boss Yeung-- he is a factory owner-- factory owners from Hong Kong or Taiwan who went onto the mainland and found opportunity there but lived separately from their families for months, sometimes years, and just kind of trying to understand that dynamic, so that's where both of those characters grew from.
Jo Reed: Well, Scarlett's immigration status and her fear of losing her daughter because of it is a major plot point, and while it's certainly relevant now, it also has a particular resonance for Chinese Americans.
Vanessa Hua: Yes. I mean, there's such a long history of the US's ambivalent feelings toward the Chinese in this country, and it's alluded to in fact in the character of Old Wu, his family history. The Chinese Exclusion Act, which went from 1882 and wasn't repealed until the middle of World War II in the 1940s, basically barred most Chinese immigration to this country because they were seen as dirty, contaminated, stealing jobs. All of these things are the kind of terms that are bandied about in the contemporary discussion of US-China relations. The same things keep coming back around, so I think in terms of immigration or thinking about being caught between two countries what is the fallout on immigrants here or even the American-born children of immigrants? How are they perceived? Are they always going to be perceived as foreigners or not to be trusted or not fully American?
Jo Reed: When did you know this novel was going to be a novel and not a short story?
Vanessa Hua: That is an interesting question, because this began as a short story, and the draft that I showed my writing group-- I sent it to them about nine months after giving birth, so it took me sort of nine months to grow a baby and then sort of nine months to start getting my thoughts back together. I was writing in the interim but sort of line-by-line slowly or working on different things, so it took nine months to sort of birth a full-fledged draft of a short story. And so I worked on revisions, and then it ended up getting published as a short story in Zyzzyva magazine, which is based in San Francisco. It's a wonderful magazine. They really support their writers in so many ways, but not every one of my short stories becomes novels, but there was something about this short story that I kept wondering "What happens next?" because the short story had ended with Scarlett fleeing the hospital in the van, which is basically the first chapter or so of the novel, but then I just felt tugged back, but it was one of those scared feelings of like "What am I doing? Is this a novel?" And actually in a parallel universe there is a version of the novel in which there's many more points of view, rotating narrators. In the final version it's mostly Scarlett. Sometimes we'll get points of view from Mama Fang and Boss Yeung, so that was like another year of sort of streamlining the points of view, and in fact some of the chapters which were standalone ended up in my short story collection, in "Deceit and Other Possibilities," but yet some other material ended up nowhere except on my hard drive. <laughs>
Jo Reed: Well, I found it interesting in a couple of your short stories in "Deceits and Other Possibilities" we find a young Chinese American who makes a name for himself in the pop world of Hong Kong, unknown in the United States but a very big deal there, and we see kind of an echo of this in "A River of Stars." What's the attraction for you here?
Vanessa Hua: Well, in fact, you found the Easter egg. That was originally in that first version of "A River of Stars," but I can definitely talk about my attraction to it. So I've long been fascinated by this concept of Asian Americans or Asian Canadians who for one reason or another haven't had the opportunities in the past in Hollywood. They didn't have the right look, or they were only cast in certain roles as like martial arts instructors or delivery man number three, but yet they go back to their ancestral homelands, the places that their parents left, to go find opportunity abroad, and they are welcomed and lauded in the music industry and in movies, and I had heard about this. My husband's fraternity brother from college, Allan Wu, he became this big star in Singapore, became the host of "The Fear Factor" in Singapore, so I ended up writing some news features about this phenomena, and then it sort of ended up in my novel as well, because I think a lot of times immigration is positioned as like you leave and you never look back, and you're in this new country, but this idea of sort of circular migration or the ways that you continue to go back and forth I think is actually more reflective of what the situation is and that it's more complicated to be sure than sort of a neat narrative of like a one-way exit, but it's also just endlessly fascinating.
Jo Reed: Your book of short stories, "Deceits and Other Possibilities," was recently released as a paperback, and you added three more stories to it, and I'm curious what was it like revisiting the collection and how the stories got added. Did you write new stories? Were there ones that you wanted to be in the collection originally? How did that come together?
Vanessa Hua: So it was originally published in 2016 with 10 stories that I'd written over 10 years that all sort of reflected my interests in immigrants and the children of immigrants, or when people have asked "What's it about?" I say "Model minorities behaving badly." <laughs> So when the rights became available again my agent was able to send it out, and Counterpoint Press, which is this wonderful press based in Berkeley, California, was interested, and we'd also included that collection but also some stories that had been previously uncollected, another story that I had written in-between and then another story that was totally brand-new. They all sort of again relate to that theme of model minorities behaving badly, and I think they help round-out the collection really nicely.
Jo Reed: Well, let me ask you this. Did you rework any of the previous stories for this paperback edition?
Vanessa Hua: So for me what I was able to do with the existing stories was-- for example, there were some stories dealing with sort of a imposter at Stanford, and even though the Varsity Blues admissions scandal happened after I wrote it I was able to allude to it in the story even though I didn't name it. It just was an opportunity for me to reconsider those stories in the context of what a reader now might be thinking about. Or, for example, another story that deals with a mixed-status family in terms of immigration alluding to some of the stuff that was happening or is happening on the border, but it's interesting. One of the reviews that was otherwise quite positive said "Well, I don't know why that story that's partially set in Hong Kong didn't mention the student protests." And, well, it's like, number one, very little of the story is in Hong Kong. Number two, it was set far before the student protests, and there's going to be a limit how much you can update a story. Are books coming out now-- are people having to write-in a COVID-19 subplot? I don't know. <laughs>
Jo Reed: <laughs> Oh yeah, I hear that. Well, listen, you have won many awards, and congratulations on that, including an NEA Literature Fellowship, and I'm curious what the lit fellowship is allowing you to do.
Vanessa Hua: I'm so grateful to the National Endowment of the Arts. I have applied for this fellowship numerous times, and I think it was always a way for me to take stock at what I'd done, because you have to sort of put together a portfolio of what you've been doing and then put together your proposal for what you will be doing, and I think it was such a invaluable way for me to just know that I would keep reaching for something, and even if I didn't get it it was still worth it to put my thinking around that, to dream big. And so what the fellowship has helped me to do is to work on finishing my next book, "Forbidden City," which is-- it's set on the eve of the Cultural Revolution, and you may or may not know that Chairman Mao was both a fan of ballroom dancing and of young women, and so-- yeah. <laughs> And so my novel "Forbidden City" is told through the eyes of one of these young women who is recruited from the village and how their relationship influences the course of the Cultural Revolution. And with the help of the grant I've been able to get research materials. Yeah, I've traveled to China before. I was hoping to go back, but we kind of have to see how-- travel plans are a little bit up in the air right now, but I am just so grateful for the support and encouragement of the NEA, and it's just been wonderful.
Jo Reed: Well, Vanessa, I can't wait to read "Forbidden City," and I am so glad I had a chance to talk to you.
Vanessa Hua: Well, thank you so much for your insightful questions and your good cheer and humor.
Jo Reed: Well, thank you, Vanessa. It really was my pleasure. That's author and NEA Literature Fellow Vanessa Hua. Her novel is "A River of Stars," and her recently released book of short stories is "Deceit and Other Possibilities." You've been listening to "Art Works," produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Subscribe to "Art Works" wherever you get your podcasts and then leave us a rating on Apple, because it helps people to find us. I'm Josephine Reed. Stay safe, stay kind, and thanks for listening.
Author and 2020 NEA Literature Fellow Vanessa Hua has a sense of humor and a feel for an apt turn of phrase. She describes her novel A River of Stars as “a pregnant Chinese Thelma and Louise.” She’s just as wry in her description of her book of short stories, Deceit and Other Possibilities, whose theme she says is “model minorities behaving badly.” And while both descriptions are spot-on, they only hint at the complexity of the lives she explores in fiction. She vividly explores the lives of immigrants in San Francisco’s Chinatown, single mothers hustling to support themselves and their children while agonizing over the daily separation, and first-generation parents and second-generation children facing a divide as wide as the Yangtze River or San Francisco Bay. Hua began her career as a journalist, and she has a keen ear for the struggles of people on the streets and has the ability to give them voice. In this podcast, she talks about her experiences as a journalist, as a writer of fiction, as a mother, and as a second-generation Chinese American. She is clear these experiences don’t exist in silos but are always informing one another.