That Balancing Act: A Conversation with Vanessa Hua
Vanessa Hua’s forthcoming novel, A River of Stars (out August 14 from Ballantine Books) is a story of immigration, survival, and love in its many forms: romantic love between a woman and the father of her child, sisterly love between two women navigating the challenges of first-time motherhood, and the ineffable bond between mother and daughter.
Hua, the author of the short story collection Deceit and Other Possibilities, is an award-winning journalist, having reported about Asia and the diaspora for nearly two decades. Her honors include a Rona Jaffe Award, the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan award, and a Steinbeck Fellowship in Creative Writing.
Recently, I sat down with Hua to discuss writing across continents, how fiction picks up where the official record leaves off, and why her parents save printouts of her emails.
The Rumpus: A River of Stars depicts the many struggles of your protagonist, Scarlett, a first-generation Chinese-American woman who left behind a job in a factory in China for a new life in America with her unborn child. You’re second-generation Chinese-American. What was it like writing a first-generation narrative?
Vanessa Hua: I have been long fascinated by what it takes for someone to move to another country bereft of language, culture, and family. I had a chance to report from China, seeing workers migrate from the countryside to factories in major cities. Life was so completely different than their parents could have imagined. It seemed so powerful to me, that continual urge to seek a life different from the one handed down to you. Scarlett is my character. She’s fictional. But I hope I was able to honor the experiences of people like her that I’ve met and reported on over the years.
Rumpus: I loved the passage where Boss Yeung—the protagonist’s lover—goes back to Scarlett’s rural hometown in China. He manages to track down Scarlett’s mother, a local official who’s been weighed down by the responsibility of enforcing the one-child policy in her region. Boss Yeung discovers that this no-nonsense woman has saved a notebook that has sentimental value; it was important to Scarlett as a child. What ideas or experiences did you draw on?
Hua: Part of Scarlett becoming a mother was coming to terms with her own childhood, too. How do you come to understand who your parents are and why they do what they do?
The other day my mother was cleaning her desk. She was so delighted when she found a printout of an email I had written her in college. It was just an email forward. She was getting something checked out, so I had sent her some background info. It wasn’t even this heartfelt note, but it mattered to her that it came from me.
Similarly, a couple years ago, I found a folder of emails my dad had printed out from me, my sister, and my brother. People used to print out emails, can you imagine? People used to read emails. It was very touching. We were dashing something off in between classes, and they were printing it out and saving it in a folder.
Of course, they came to this country with a suitcase. They didn’t have stacks of mementos going back twenty years. Scarlett’s mother is not a woman with many possessions. So it was one of the few things that she saved that mattered to her.
Rumpus: At one point in the novel, Scarlett realizes she can use her reservoir of stories of difficult events she’s witnessed in China to prove that she deserves asylum. I’m always pondering how we share the dark side of our cultures without falling into tropes, into caricatures of misery. What does this moment mean for Scarlett? And how does it tie into the way Asian or Asian-American writers might feel pressured to depict experiences from the motherland in a certain way?
Hua: I think for her, it’s some recognition, that something that you have actually does have value. As it pertains to writing, you might think, “This doesn’t fit the canon. This doesn’t fit what people expect from China.” But the story still matters. And maybe matters even more because no one’s ever heard it. But you’re right. There’s a line, where the lawyer says to Scarlett, referring to hardships experienced at the hands of the Chinese government: “If it didn’t happen, it doesn’t matter. That’s what they want to hear about China.” There’s always that balancing act. What can you offer that’s true to the character but not pandering?
Rumpus: What’s your sense of your audience?
Hua: Writing for my hometown newspaper, both reporting about Asian-American issues and now as a columnist, I have a very palpable sense from the letters and emails I get. But I’m always so surprised and moved by who I might hear from as an author. I’ll hear from people who say: “This is my experience totally. I feel the shock of recognition.” And then there are people who say “I’m not Asian, I’m not a woman, I’m none of these things, but I am deeply moved by this and can relate to this on a human level.”
I remember getting a really lovely note from a reader who said, “I’m engaged to someone Korean and my brother is engaged to someone Italian. Immigration is part of our family story. Thank you for writing a book that helps illuminate my understanding about it.” I still haven’t gotten over the fact that people I don’t know are reading my fiction. Because at least with journalism, you know, it’s about the news. People need to read it or are supposed to read it. But fiction is totally optional.
Rumpus: And an investment of time.
Hua: Exactly. My sense of a reader is someone who can be moved by it. You just never know. At the time that I’m writing, I’m totally consumed by the characters and the world of the novel. Then it’s done and starts making its way out in the real world, and in some ways it’s a mystery of who it will really touch or how people will react. And you have no control over it.
Rumpus: You were pregnant when you began writing this novel. How did your relationship with the work change over the course of your pregnancy and the birth of your sons?
Hua: When I was pregnant, that’s when I heard about these maternity centers [where Scarlett lives at the start of the novel]. I was living in Southern California at the time. I came across an article where a neighbor said one of the women even escaped and knocked on the door and begged him to take her to McDonald’s. It got me thinking. Pregnancy is the most vulnerable time in your life. A time when you want to be at home or around family if you have a good relationship with them. Or a time when people often say, “Oh why don’t you come to the head of the line?” or “Let me give you my seat.” But what if you’re in a houseful of pregnant women? I was wondering what the dynamic behind that would be like, this sorority of pregnant women. So I wrote something, and that was a short story, actually. And at the time, I didn’t know it was going to be a novel. I was working on other things, then I had my twins. But I felt drawn to finding out what would happen next.
Rumpus: And your relationship with the work?
Hua: As for my relationship to writing overall, you go from having your time being entirely your own to feeling like you’re learning how to walk again. Completing a sentence—let alone a paragraph—can feel hard to pull off. Let alone stringing together those paragraphs to make a chapter! But eventually, I was able to complete a draft.
I’ve had friends who aren’t going to have kids say things like, “Oh I wish I could follow a kid around so I could take down what they’re saying.” And I’m like, “Welcome to my life!” I have less time than I had before. But I have so many things I want to say because they’ve kind of reopened my eyes to the wonder of the world.
There’s a moment in the novel when the kids see rain for the first time. It was inspired by something that happened with the twins. They had just started to learn how to walk and were out on the lawn. They were just staring up at the sky. And I thought: “This is amazing! Water is falling from the sky.”
Or even the way they are with language. When you think about why you speak the way you do. They think kayaks look like missiles, so they call them “rocket ships.” They call Hershey’s Kisses “castle chocolates” because of the little flag on the top. As we grow up, we kind of get caught up with the correct way of composing a sentence. But as a creative writer, I’m trying to find my way back to the freeness we have with language as children.
Rumpus: You describe reading in the news about the maternity centers specifically for Chinese-American women so they can give birth to children in America, thereby giving their kids the advantage of American citizenship. As a former journalist, I’m fascinated by how journalism—both your own deeply reported stories and the pieces others have written that you’ve stumbled across—has served as a jumping off point for your fiction. It’s an unusual process.
Hua: It reflects beyond just what I read in the news or covered as a reporter. It reflects what I was interested in. One of the stories in my collection [Deceit and Other Possibilities] involves a Korean missionary in Africa. I’d long been interested in the concept of non-white folks preaching the gospel abroad. That specific story was inspired by a conversation with a Korean friend who told me about his time in Somalia as a missionary. When I reimagined the conversation in fiction, I wondered, “What if the person trying to convert these people had an agenda?” So in the story it became a Korean-American pastor whose church is on the brink of financial failure and has pinned all his hopes on this trip.
It’s never just one thing that impels me to write. It could be conversations, it could be news, or things like that, or just weird phenomena. When I first heard about it, the concept of Asian Americans going back to Hong Kong or Taiwan to get recording contracts fascinated me. Does that happen in India?
Rumpus: It happens in Bollywood. Either full Indian or half-Indian/half-white women raised in the West will go back and take Bollywood by storm.
Hua: I heard about it, thought it was really interesting, ending up writing a couple news features about it. But eventually I decided to visit it in fiction. I mean, it’s just completely fascinating to be so famous in the very country that your parents left, and then be totally anonymous here.
It’s not just that China is full of opportunity. There are barriers in American society that might keep you from fulfilling your full potential. There’s this notion that immigration is one way when really in some ways it can be circular. And maybe in some ways it’s more circular than it’s ever been before.
Rumpus: You started out as a journalist and have branched into fiction. Do you find the latter more satisfying?
Vanessa: I need both. I wouldn’t choose one over the other. For me, journalism is still a way, if I’m curious about something, I can satisfy it immediately. The deadline is sooner, and it gets published more quickly. It gives me license to be out in the world. With fiction, it’s very satisfying to think deeply about the question “How can I make this character full?”—even if they’re a minor character. Fiction has a certain type of power. When you pick up the newspaper, you think, “Oh, I want to know what’s going on.” With fiction, you’re enjoying yourself. And not only are you enjoying yourself, but also getting a deeper understanding of another person’s experience.
Rumpus: What are you working on now?
Hua: A novel inspired by Chairman Mao. Despite all his rallying against the West, he had a troupe of teenage girls who would do ballroom dancing with him and other high-level officials as a form of relaxation. He also carried on affairs with them. Years ago, I watched some black-and-white footage showing these teenage girls dressed like bobby-soxers giggling around Chairman Mao. I was completely fascinated by that. And I started reading up on it and discovered there wasn’t much about them. There is one memoir by Chairman Mao’s doctor that mentions them. But there’s nothing from their point of view.
So that gave me a certain kind of freedom. Where the record ended, I could kind of jump off. I could even imagine that a teenage revolutionary became Chairman Mao’s lover. Same thing with A River of Stars. The newspaper reports ended. And it was up to me as a fiction writer to imagine the rest.
Photograph of Vanessa Hua by Andria Lo.