A Bay Area native and award-winning writer and journalist, Vanessa Hua has been writing about Asia and the diaspora for nearly two decades, filing stories from China, Burma, Panama, South Korea, Abu Dhabi, and Ecuador. She won the 2015 Rona Jaffe Writers’ Award, her debut short story collection, Deceit and Other Possibilities, won the 2016 Willow Books Grand Prize, and her first novel is forthcoming from Ballantine. Her work has appeared in the Atlantic, ZYZZYVA, Guernica, and elsewhere, and she has received the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan literary award and a Steinbeck Fellowship in Creative Writing at San Jose State University. A graduate of Stanford University and UC Riverside’s MFA program, she teaches at the Writers’ Grotto in San Francisco and will be a Visiting Editor in Creative Nonfiction at Saint Mary’s College this fall.
I spoke with Hua about her obsessions, ranging from immigrant families navigating a new America to the reasons why she is compelled to write. From a Hong Kong movie idol fleeing a sex scandal, to an obedient daughter turned Stanford impostor, from a Chinatown elder summoned to his village, to a Korean-American pastor with a secret agenda, the characters in her riveting collection reflect “[her] preoccupations past and present, illustrating the conflict between self and society, tradition and change.”
The Rumpus: In one of my favorite stories in your collection, a man struggles with telling his parents he is gay. He muses near the end, “Over the years, we shared the responsibility of deceit, the big and little secrets that oiled the machinery of family expectations.” This sentiment moved me: what we keep silent is a collective burden among those we are connected to (something that is pulled throughout each character in the collected stories). What fascinated you about “deceit”?
Vanessa Hua: In my immigrant Chinese family, our deepest emotions weren’t expressed verbally. My parents never told me, “I love you,” never hugged and kissed me, never left affectionate notes in my lunchbox. They weren’t going to take time off work to cheer me on at games and performances—they were too busy working.
We had duties and responsibilities; theirs was to provide for the family, to pay for our clothes, our food, our home, our extracurricular activities, and other fees. The duty of the children was to excel academically, go to a good college and get a good job (and later on, get married and have grandchildren and take care of our parents when the time came). We understood these expectations without explanation. So much was left unsaid. Our collective burden, our inheritance. They’d abandoned everything familiar to make a life for their family here, so why look back, why bring up those struggles when you could look ahead? Yet I knew they cared for me every time they served me the most tender morsels—the plump prawn from their own bowl—or forced a sweater on me.
My collection explores what happens in this environment of sacrifice and duty. My characters are squeezed by those expectations, and struggling with assimilation and cultural, language, and generational gaps. My characters slide into secrets that they justify because they want to protect their families or their partners. Deceit has a negative connotation, while possibility has a positive one, but what about the cases where you believe deceit is necessary to preserve the peace and prosperity of your family? What lengths will you to go to safeguard those secrets? No matter how well-intentioned, such deceits reverberate in their lives, in the form of resentment or isolation or violence.
Rumpus: I’m really attracted to those questions—“What about the cases where you believe it is necessary to preserve the peace and prosperity of their families? What lengths will you go to safeguard those secrets?” I come from such a huge family, and the secrets we carry—like my grandmother’s capture during WWII by Japanese soldiers—we hold till death. How did this cosmopolitan, diverse cast of characters, come to you?
Hua: I didn’t set out to write stories around a particular theme. I wrote it story by story, inspired by anecdotes friends shared, by something I’d witnessed or read, or by what I’d reported as a journalist but seemed ripe for fiction.
The story “Accepted” riffs off of Azia Kim, the Korean American who conned her way into Stanford. After authorities discovered her ruse, she wasn’t forthcoming with her reasons—which gave me license to invent. I also noticed other cases of Asian American frauds, who went to great lengths to conceal their academic failure from their parents. I wrote “Line, Please” because I was fascinated by the phenomenon of Chinese Americans going to Asia to forge singing and acting careers in part because of the lack of opportunities in Hollywood. I’d written news features, but I wanted to go deeper. “What We Have We Have is What We Need” came about after I was twice locked out and had to call upon a locksmith; on one occasion, the locksmith brought along his young son, which got me thinking of everything they must have seen, and how easily they could break in. Our sense of security is an illusion. “The Older the Ginger” drew from my experiences interviewing a Chinatown elder. A young woman, whom I thought was his daughter or his nurse, answered the door to his apartment—it turned out to be his wife, whom he’d married after a trip back to his village in China.
If the cast seems cosmopolitan and diverse, it may be because my curiosity is wide-ranging, and so too the lives and places that I want to explore. Taken as a whole, the stories reflect my interest in immigration and identity, in strangers in a strange land making their way in the world.
Rumpus: Yes—“strangers in a strange land making their way in the world.” I feel as if that is a common obsession—theme, if you will—for writers who live and write from the diaspora. What’s your relationship with your gender and race and identity? How has growing up as a person of color influenced the way you write?
Hua: From early on, I knew I was different, that my family was different than the others in our neighborhood. We were that weird Chinese family. My grandmother cured meat by hanging sides of beef from rafters in the garage and fried up shrimp chips for our afternoon snack. My mother was a scientist and my father an engineer in a neighborhood of lawyer and finance fathers and stay-at-home moms.
When I was in the first grade, the teacher asked what we ate for breakfast. My classmates said, “French toast,” “oatmeal,” “pancakes”—dishes we never ate at home. When it was my turn, I lied. “Cheerios,” I said. I wanted to fit in, and even then, I knew that Campbell’s beef barley soup was not the right answer.
I grew up as an outsider. As the American-born child of immigrants, I sought answers in books, or figured out on my own through observation what my parents could not or would not explain. That desire to understand drives my fiction. I’m always trying to get at the inside of things, of people. In terms of my gender, my mother has been a role model—curious and determined and committed to her career in science. We never questioned the value of her work and my parents never questioned mine, even though I didn’t follow their path of science and engineering, even though I left a staff position and became a freelance writer and editor, with all the uncertainty that comes with it.
In my column at the San Francisco Chronicle, I often write about motherhood, being a working mom, and the dilemmas of parenting. I’m guessing that some readers may automatically pass over my column, dismiss me as a sort of “mommy blogger” when in fact these are issues that reflect that society we live in and will shape our society to come. Likewise, I wonder how my fiction will be received, when I write about immigrants and people of color—if some readers will deem my stories as outside the realm of their interest. “I just can’t relate,” they’d say. Yet I have to write what compels me. I can’t control how my work will be interpreted, right? If you know how, tell me!
Rumpus: Yes! We must write what compels us, regardless of how the reader might interpret the work. I almost feel that the Bay Area, the physical landscape of it, was a compulsion in this book because it was so alive; it was like the Bay and its little pockets were secondary characters throughout.
Hua: I’m so glad to hear that the setting was vivid to you! How the characters view the landscape reflects who they are and their dilemmas. As you pointed out, the definition of home is fraught for my characters, who are often unmoored but in search of belonging.
I grew up in the suburbs east of San Francisco, in a town that wasn’t diverse ethnically or economically. We were one of a handful of Asian American families. Even still, I was aware of the world beyond, whether in the Chinatowns where we dined and shopped, or on the summer trip to Taiwan, where we visited my grandfather’s grave and lit firecrackers. The Bay Area, perched on the Pacific Rim, is both a landing pad for newcomers and a jumping off point for those who want to exchange culture and commerce with the East. Here we find circular migration too—people who travel back and forth with a foot in both worlds.
At the home where I lived as a child and am now raising my twins, deer feed outside our living room window and wild turkeys roam the streets. I also hiked and camped with the Girl Scouts and later on, backpacked with my then-boyfriend, now-husband. I have an abiding awe and affection for the natural world.
Rumpus: I’m always fascinated with how place and memories from one’s childhood molds one into an artist/writer. What compelled you to write? Was something you had since you were a child?
Hua: I started scrawling stories when I was a kid. In the second grade, the teacher read our stories out loud, and the class voted on the best one—I won. I overheard another student tell her friend, “I only picked hers because it was long.” (My first review!) Later on, I kept a journal. At the time, I didn’t know what compelled me to write. I loved to read, and I must have dreamed of writing a book of my own; in one notebook, the top of the pages alternate with the title of the story and with my name, just like in a “real book.”
Me and my brother played war games. We beat back Japanese soldiers, army crawling across the carpet, like we’d seen in grainy black-and-white WWII movies. Somewhere, somehow, we’d heard my grandfather—my father’s father—fought in the war. Because we had no other details, because of the language and cultural barriers, because we’d only met him a couple of times, we invented our own version of his life. As the American-born child of immigrants, I sought out explanations wherever I could, trying to close gaps in understanding. I imagined what I could not find. Likewise, when I’m writing fiction, I’m driven to understand my characters, even at their most despicable, at their most deceitful.
“The Responsibility of Deceit” is the oldest story in the collection. I’d been gathering strings of that story since college, sparked by a conversation with a friend, but never got past writing sketches in the years after graduation, when I was focused on my journalism career.
In 2000, I was getting worried I’d drifted so far away from fiction that I no longer knew how to write it. You know that odd feeling of reading something you’d written and wondering if you could pull it off again? I joined a fiction workshop (afterwards, some of us formed a writing group, which is still going strong despite cross-country moves, having children, and other life changes.)
I admired the work of another writer in the workshop, and I read in her bio that she’d published in the Cream City Review, the literary magazine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I entered a contest, and lo and behold, I won in 2005. I still remember getting the email, standing up in the newsroom, and screaming out loud with joy.
Literary magazines are so vital to the development of writers. So too are reading series, independent bookstores, arts and culture organizations and websites, and writing conferences that make up the literary ecosystem. As a reader/audience member, I was exposed to new and established writers and poets in journals. As a writer, submitting short stories served as a manageable goal—something to attempt that was seemingly less difficult than writing an entire book at once. The rejections toughened me up and each time I was rejected, I read it over, to see how I might revise it. Then I went back to my spreadsheet of submissions and sent out the story again. Thrilling, to get a slightly personal rejection, and sometimes—rarely!—feedback. Going through those rituals—looking up the address, printing it out surreptitiously on the newsroom printer, going to the post office, making a wish as I dropped it into the mail slot—strengthened my commitment. Why else would I put myself through all that? I had to want it above almost all else in my life.
I wrote and submitted for years (and still do)—even as I was starting to attempt a novel and while freelancing as a journalist and an editor. I love the short story form, the intensity of it, the resonance of a single moment. “The Older the Ginger” is the last story I wrote for the collection, which I finished in the fall of 2014—at the time, I thought it was part of my novel, A River of Stars. We haven’t seen the last of Old Wu, a character who survived getting cut from another novel, too. I just can’t seem to quit him.
Rumpus: I’m happy to hear that we aren’t done with Old Wu just yet. Also, I agree: I love how the short story’s form has such intensity because of that “single moment.”
This makes me think of a quote you said in an interview, which resonated with me: “My writing reflects the sum of my experiences and as such, is always evolving.” Could you expound on this? Do you have any advice you’d like to give to other writers?
Hua: By the time I reach the end of a book-length project, I’ve become a different writer, influenced by what I was experiencing or reading at the time. I attempt new workarounds, experiment with characters and conflicts and dialogue in different ways than I did at the beginning.
In the spring of this year, I was fortunate to spend a couple weeks at Hedgebrook, a writer’s retreat for women on Whidbey Island. Each cabin comes with a pot-bellied stove because the founder believes every woman should know how to build a fire. The first day, the kindling and logs were already assembled in the stove and all I had to do was light a match. The next day, I failed. Then I tried again—crumpling paper into balls and fanning it with the door. It worked! Some days were harder than others to get it going—some days I still failed—but it was always exciting when the fire caught and blazed. It didn’t matter if my method was ungainly or less than efficient. That’s how I’ve come to feel about writing books, too. I’ll never build the same fire twice, nor write the same book twice, but I’ll do whatever it takes!
My mentor in grad school, Susan Straight, told us to “Hook each other up.” I’ve never forgotten it and still live by those words today. By that, she meant we had to share opportunities, help each other out, and critique each other’s pieces.
I try to foster literary community, to attend and organize readings, to support literary magazines, to trade work with friends, and hash out dilemmas and offer advice with fellow writers. The effort I put into supporting and encouraging others returns to me multiplied—I feel so blessed by the kindness and generosity that other writers have shown me. We spend hours, days, months alone in our heads, with the characters and worlds of our own making. I’m so fortunate to belong to the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto. It’s important to find and create a community where you can celebrate and commiserate.