When Christina Chiu’s novel Beauty received the 2040’s James Alan McPherson Award in 2019, judge Gish Jen had the following to say: “I loved the way how naturally the many small moments accumulated into a life, and how fashion—and especially shoes—came to seem integral to the protagonist’s past, ambitions, and love.” Set against the backdrop of the fashion world, Beauty engages with necessary and complex themes of narcissism, sexuality, and the contemporary juggling act of balancing art and motherhood. Although the novel offers occasional sartorial depictions of clothing ensembles and the architecture of shoes and other fine objects throughout, Beauty is invested in more than just the artifice of what envelopes a body, instead looking to uncover what is behind an identity formed by trauma, and how one navigates staying present to one’s body and the moment at hand when so many other impulses advocate for the contrary.
Originally from Edgemont, New York, Chiu currently lives on the Upper West Side in NYC. When she’s not tending to her two sons, she writes at home or at the New York Public Library, where she’s currently a Wertheim Fellow. Chiu also curates and co-hosts the Pen Parentis Literary Salon, and teaches writing with Prison Writes. Beauty is forthcoming from 2040 Books/The Santa Fe Writers Project in May 2020.
Chiu and I conversed over email about her new novel, her love for fashion design, and the ambivalence of beauty.
The Rumpus: What made you choose the title Beauty?
Christina Chiu: In my first book, Troublemaker and Other Saints, I explored a range of characters. One of those characters, from the story “Beauty,” continued to haunt me after that book was finished. “Beauty” was right for the short story. Exploring the complexities of beauty in the novel didn’t change that. I remained fascinated by the protagonist. Physical beauty was a kind of currency, but what is the flip side of that? When does beauty cause suffering? What happens when someone who identifies as beautiful gets stripped of it? Who decides who is beautiful? The more I sat with her, the more questions I had. “What is it, really?” I wondered. Maybe it’s not an ideal at all, but a state of being.
Rumpus: Fashion is certainly a thread woven throughout Beauty; we first encounter the protagonist Amy Wong as a fashion student (and the daughter of a mother with an interest in design) and accompany her as she navigates the fashion world as an emerging designer. Beauty also includes marvelous descriptions of clothing and shoes, largely through Amy’s perspective. I’m dying to know if you share anything in common with Amy in terms of a background or interest in fashion design.
Chiu: I’ve always been a very creative person. For college, I considered applying to FIT. My parents were against it. They valued academics, not creativity. So I went to a liberal arts college and then became a writer. That didn’t make them so happy, either. I did a lot of research for Beauty. I read a lot. I frequented boutiques. I looked—really looked—at things. I also took a shoemaking class. It awoke my love for design and fashion. Shoemaking is now a passion of mine.
My mother had an eye for beautifully made things, so we have that in common. One of my mother’s favorite places was Henri Bendel’s. She didn’t believe in buying a lot. Instead, she would buy things she loved that were timeless and she knew would last.
To the outsider, couture and fashion can seem superficial and silly, possibly even elitist. But if you understand the culture, you realize it isn’t true. The most interesting kind of fashion is a form of visual art. Instead of hanging a work on a wall, however, it’s on a body. It’s a visual statement we wear. The personal is political for any artist, and that includes designers like Rei Kawakubo, creator of Comme des Garçons (“like some boys”), which fuses art and fashion. At a time when fashion was synonymous with “elegant” and “pretty,” and emphasized the woman’s figure, Kawakubo was creating unsized pieces that deemphasized femininity as we knew it. Instead of how a woman looked in her pieces, she focused instead on how the pieces felt. Her collections have upended notions of style and gender, and in this way, she was way ahead of society when it came to gender-bending rules. She has described her pieces as “koans,” which can be absurd, paradoxical, illogical—and profound. What’s even more interesting about her is that, like Alexander McQueen, she didn’t have any formal fashion training, and yet, possibly because of this, she is an icon of modernity.
Rumpus: The novel covers a lot of temporal ground with forward jumps, and we end up witnessing Amy’s entire adult life. What was your intention with this structure? Did you focus on a smaller span of time in earlier drafts?
Chiu: Initially, I wrote this novel in a more conventional fashion. But then I realized life isn’t about everything that happens. It’s about moments. Karmic ones. Something happens and then something else happens as a result. I’m Buddhist and I studied Buddhism during college. I see stories and characters through a Buddhist lens. That is to say, my writer’s understanding of arc is not so different from the Buddhists, and as the story unfolds, I find the “lessons” the characters need to face and conquer, whatever that means. The protagonist in Beauty gets towed along by life. Part of it is she’s passive about her life; she’s not aware she is actively making choices, if not consciously, then by default.
Rumpus: I’m interested in how Amy explores (and sometimes struggles against) sexuality throughout the novel, especially as it may or may not emerge from the dynamics of attachment she experiences with her parents. Can you talk more about these dynamics?
Chiu: The protagonist experiences trauma during adolescence and as a consequence lives under that shadow, searching for love and connection, and power, within the experience of sex itself. It’s important to note Amy doesn’t live by the puritanical ideals of sex. There is a reason why sexual freedom, especially for women and the LGBTQ+ community, is so threatening. If people find power in themselves or outside the “standard” paternalistic framework, the power dynamic starts to shift. There’s the double standard where young women are subject to ridicule if they explore their sexuality whereas young men are not. Older women are called “cougars” if they get involved with younger men. Meanwhile, older men connect with younger women—sometimes the age of their own daughters—all the time. In terms of name-calling, is there one for that?
Rumpus: Narcissism is certainly a word we’re hearing a lot of these days, particularly in this political moment, and there are moments in which Amy refers to other characters in the book as narcissistic. How would you define narcissism as Amy perceives it in the men she encounters throughout her life?
Chiu: An individual who is self-centered to the point in which everything is filtered through the lens of themselves. Everything is about him or her. Other people don’t exist except for the purposes of obtaining what they need, which is why they lack empathy and basic consideration for others. Those close to them often get demolished because the narcissist insists he is the “best” and will manipulate and destroy anything in his or her path that threatens that.
Rumpus: What was it like to work with Allen Gee in comparison to past experiences with other editors?
Chiu: Working with Allen Gee has been an incredible experience. One of my frustrations as a writer in writing workshops, at least here in NYC, has been that they tend to be attended and taught by mostly white writers. Technically, it shouldn’t make a difference, right? But in fact, it does. The point of view of an Asian American, just like any other person of color, is different.
I’ll give you an example. When I was getting my MFA, I submitted for workshop a story called “Gentleman,” set in Hong Kong during the Handover. The instructor missed the political importance of the story, saying I needed to explain the significance. To him, the Handover wasn’t much more than a headline from the newspaper. If I had workshopped that story at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, with a group of Asian American peers, I doubt that would have happened. Everyone would have known what the Handover was, and if not, would have looked it up. The instructor who had asked me to explain wasn’t being spiteful or mean. He just didn’t realize the significance of the event, and from his perspective, this meant I was supposed to spell it out for him. That would have destroyed the story.
I had studied with Michael Cunningham the semester before and he had drilled into me the importance of never condescending to my reader; I can trust my reader is intelligent. In the end, I did a lot of editing on that story, but left that aspect of the story as is. Allen “got” what I was trying to do. With his help, I was able to make Beauty even better.
Rumpus: Beauty explores, among other things, the struggle for women who are both mothers and artists. What was it that drew you to depict this push and pull? How do you think this question regarding women as artists and mothers has changed over time?
Chiu: My sense is women grapple with career and motherhood regardless of what they do. Generally speaking, men today are more involved with their children and childcare than a generation ago, but the fact remains that the inequity in salaries puts women in a vulnerable position. From a practical standpoint, if one of the parents needs to put their career on hold to be the caretaker, it’s the one who makes less—which tends to be the wife.
I chose to focus on the artist because it’s a situation that resonated with my own experience. Before children, I’d figured being a mother would be like a job. I would have two, which I had had before, so I figured I could manage. What I hadn’t realized before having children was that children take up creative energy. I’m the kind of person who always has a lot of ideas. I couldn’t just wrap a gift with paper. I’d say, “What if we use a satin ribbon?” My mother was like, “Just shut up with the crazy ideas; there’s enough to do around here.” When my children were little, the ideas pretty much dried up. In its place were concerns about the children—he won’t sleep, why won’t he sleep? He didn’t eat dinner, is he sick? When I did have time to write, I’d sit in front of the computer and it was like facing the great abyss.
Rumpus: Without offering any spoilers, abuse occurs throughout Beauty in different forms. How early in your conception of this book did you know abuse would be a thematic concern in the novel? Were those scenes difficult to write?
Chiu: Trauma often creates more trauma. The abuser often abuses again, and the abused often get abused again, even if there is a different partner. There are patterns we learn, consciously or unconsciously, when we are young. We cultivate beliefs from our experiences, especially the early ones. After the first two chapters, the rest followed, and at a certain point, I recognized the narrative arc of the story.
I think the kind of abuse that shows up in Beauty is not uncommon, especially toward women. We learned a lot from the #MeToo movement. Now it’s time to figure out how to break down false narratives so we can work together as a society. I grew up in a very conservative household. I remember a time my father remarked on an incident in the news. A husband had raped his wife. My father felt this was ridiculous. They were man and wife, right? So, how was it possible to rape one’s wife? I didn’t argue with my father. He didn’t listen; he wasn’t going to change. But I wanted to set things straight. Rape is about power. As we already know, many individuals are raped by those they know.
Yes, it was difficult to write certain scenes, especially because the novel is written in first person and in the present tense. I had to be right there in the moment with the protagonist. I felt the physical and emotional pain, the rage, fear and helplessness. But what I found rewarding from doing this work were moments of reclaimed power. It’s like breaking the silence. People suffer alone, fearful and ashamed. The #MeToo movement surfaced how prevalent abuse actually was. Once it’s out there, the community can work together to make change.
Rumpus: Who is Beauty’s main audience?
Chiu: When I was doing my MFA, there was the notion that to write politically about things, as I do, was to be less of a serious literary writer. But I think that’s an old school, patriarchal falsehood. Everything an author writes about is political. If a writer refuses to write about it, that’s political, too. High art and academia have been so busy trying to distinguish themselves from the rest of the world that people actually don’t think it’s relevant. People don’t go to museums. People don’t read. And we don’t feel it’s our responsibility to make our work readable or relevant. We should stop and ask ourselves how we got ourselves here in the current political environment. We are all responsible, and the sooner we acknowledge and change, the sooner we can set things right. So I’ve consciously written Beauty in prose I feel isn’t affected and highfalutin. I wrote it so an immigrant like my mother would be able to read it and understand different points of view outside her own.
Rumpus: I want to jump into some fashion questions. If you could do anything you wanted, what would a shoe you design look like?
Chiu: Alexander McQueen’s signature Armadillo shoes made a huge splash, especially after Lady Gaga bought three pairs. But my first reaction was, “Wow, those have the shape of Chinese foot binding shoes.” Whether McQueen meant it or not, I was surprised that no one mentioned it. It rankles me that in schools, young people are taught about the oppressive nature of Chinese foot binding when there is little to no parallels made to Western corsets, and worse, the invisible corsets and the crippling nature of some women’s shoes today. If I had all the money in the world, I would create a series of modern shoes for women.
For starters, I would create the modern version of the Chinese shoe. It would have the former shape and style, but be sized as shoes are currently. There would be beautiful embroidery and beadwork, but they would be comfortable and have a really cool, grounding heel. The boot would come in a specially made box which would include the history of the Chinese shoe.
I would do the same with all kinds of shoes—Italian, French, Moroccan, Indian, Russian, Indonesian, and so on. Again, the boxes would include the history of that particular shoe.
Rumpus: What does shoe designing (and making) offer you that writing doesn’t? How does shoemaking extend beyond your writing practice?
Chiu: I would say shoe designing is an external creation. You conceive of an idea, but then you create it outside of your head. It becomes more than a cerebral and intellectual endeavor. It’s physical and the organic process requires a constant assessment of how it is developing practically. There is some of that with writing, too, of course, but most of the manipulation is on the page (in the computer). There is something very rewarding about making something with one’s hands that one doesn’t get from writing, especially when you can wear it once it’s finished!
Photograph by Christina Chiu by Aslan Chalom.