Anna Qu has a tough story to tell, and she tells it with graceful candor. Her debut book, Made in China: A Memoir of Love and Labor, is a devastating account of abandonment and hardship. In 1985, when Qu was a toddler, her widowed mother left her in Wenzhou, China with her grandparents to start a new life in America. Qu’s mother married the owner of the Queens sweatshop where she worked and had two children; it was not until Qu was seven that her mother returned to China and brought Qu back with her.
Upon arriving in America, Qu’s dreams of a new life are shattered as she suffers abuse at the hands of her mother, whose “fury ran so deep, every word dripped with resentment and venom.” In middle school, Anna reached a breaking point. She reported her mother to child protective services which neutralized the conflict, but the scars of trauma remain. Later, as Anna reflects on the cold, sobering voice that lies beneath the surface, she says, “That voice whispers that I deserve to live in chaos, to be abandoned, I deserve only the life my mother forced me to live, and nothing more.” Yet, in the end, Anna recognizes that her mother’s hunger and anger are in her as well, that she and her mother are the same, and moreover, that her struggle is not hers alone—it is one she shares with generations of Chinese women. In the final chapter, adult Anna is reunited with her grandmother and easily returns to the cocoon of unconditional love she experienced as a child. Made in China isn’t always an easy read, but it will make you examine the intricacies of mother-daughter love and the indelible influence of intergenerational trauma.
Anna Qu’s work has appeared in the Threepenny Review, Lumina, Kartika, Kweli, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn, among others. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Brooklyn. Made in China was published by Catapult yesterday.
I jumped at the opportunity to talk with Anna about how her vision for the book evolved over time, the implicit contradictions and gender roles within immigrant culture, the disclosure of painful truths, and the road she traveled from judgment to empathy.
The Rumpus: Made in China begins with you working after school and weekends in your parents’ factory as a form of punishment. Was this your first instinct about where you wanted to start the book?
Anna Qu: I struggled with how to open the book for years. The beginning has changed four major times; twice in the ten years I worked on the book alone, then with my agent, and then finally, with my editor, eight months out from the publication date. The ending, however, hasn’t changed much since I wrote it.
Rumpus: How did your overall vision for the themes and structure evolve as you wrote? Any surprises?
Qu: Made in China has evolved tremendously over the course of the last decade and my hope is that I’ve taken it from a navel-gazing place to a more complex narrative with a broader cultural, societal understanding of how a childhood in Queens, New York, can still be siloed and silenced. Once I was able to find that greater context, the rest of the book made room for it. I’m reading Melissa Febos’s new book, Girlhood, and what she said resonates as an answer:
It is in part by writing this book that I have corrected the story of my own girlhood and found ways to recover myself. I have found company in the stories of other women, and the revelation of all our ordinariness has itself been curative. Writing has always been a way to reconcile my lived experience with the narratives available to describe it (or lack thereof). My hope is that these essays do some of the work for you, too.
Rumpus: On the subject of memoir-writing, Vivian Gornick says: “What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. For that the power of a writing imagination is required.” Can you speak to the power of a writing imagination?
Qu: I love that quote. The heart of memoir isn’t what happened, but rather the experience—readers come to learn, to find insight, and to be immersed in different cultures, identities, and perspectives. To make that happen, the element of storytelling is vital, and the question becomes how do we best represent this particular story? Where is the entryway, what does the path feel like, what does the landscape look like, what are the conditions, and who is by your side? I could have told my story in hundreds of ways, but it came together in this single, specific way. Memoir is the reinventing of the truth and that requires as much imagination as a book of fiction.
Rumpus: Your book is about Chinese immigrant culture, which you describe as “an impossible number of contradictions.” What are the contradictions in general of being an immigrant versus those that relate specifically to being a Chinese immigrant?
Qu: Contradictions exists in every immigrant’s journey, not just the Chinese. That sentence refers to a perspective on trauma, and the older generation’s outlook that we don’t talk about the past and only focus on the bright future. Of course, most parents want to shield their children from the hardships they went through, but being a child of immigrants, we’re expected to understand that hardship without being told about it. That has to change. For example, my mother wanted us to know her hardships but wouldn’t actually share them with us. It also makes my generation ingrates because “we don’t understand.” The lose-lose situation becomes an unspeakable cycle.
Rumpus: Given that the repetition of this cycle is at the root of intergenerational trauma, how do you break it?
Qu: It takes hard work, which usually includes many years of therapy, a strong desire to break those cycles, and of course, the privilege of both. Processing trauma is a privilege and also, a rite of passage. I started therapy when I began working on Made in China, and I’m still seeing my therapist a decade later. I think one misconception is that there’s a single cycle of intergenerational trauma; there isn’t—it’s braided into our everyday routine, the way we deal with stress and anxiety, and our interactions with ourselves and others. I don’t assume to have broken every cycle, but I do think every cycle can be beat. It’s a type of mental health disorder, and like other mental health conditions, some days are better than others.
Rumpus: You chronicle a childhood of adversity, punishment, segregation, inequality, betrayal, and shame. While writing is often referred to as a “gift”, for those of us who are called to write difficult material, it can feel more like a burden. Where did you find the strength to write about your trauma?
Qu: Made in China has always been a vocation for me, a calling. To be honest, a burden isn’t far from how it felt, but I’ve always been compelled to tell this story, and somehow, from somewhere, I had faith that it’d make it to readers one day. I imagine it began as a need to be heard as a child, to feeling like it was a story worth adding to the world. I joke with my students that I wouldn’t wish being a writer on anyone. Ha. It’s a lonely process and a tough industry to navigate, and hardly any money.
Rumpus: The ghost of your deceased father is a key element in your story. Did you ever imagine what life would have been like had your father lived? How does his legacy live on in you?
Qu: I think every child imagines a life with their deceased parent. I don’t have any memories of him so I don’t miss the times we shared, but as a kid, I would imagine him coming to save me and telling my mother off. I think the more painful relationship has always been with my mother, who was right before me but remained inaccessible and indifferent. That made me feel like an orphan.
Rumpus: You talk a lot about the role of women in Chinese culture. Do you think that your situation would have been different had you been a boy? For example, when your mother went to her in-laws for help after your father died might they have responded differently?
Qu: Thank you for that astute cultural question—yes! My mother once told me that if I had been a boy, she wouldn’t have been able to bring me to America. She wouldn’t have been able to “raise someone else’s son under my stepfather’s roof.” Sexism is a huge adversary in China and much of it still resides in my family. It feels antiquated but even within the language itself, girls are born to be married off, while boys are born to take in a wife. We can debate about how much of that has changed in the last thirty years but culturally the perspective remains intact.
Rumpus: Your mother is cast as the wicked stepmother when you are young but as you grow older you begin to see her abusive behavior as a result of “the generations of cruelty we’ve endured at each other’s hands.” And, you begin to see how alike you are. How has your understanding of yourself and your relationship with your mother changed since writing the book?
Qu: Yes, writing the book has made me more empathetic to my mother’s story; part of that is the research I did for the book, the time I spent with my grandmother, and a recent visit to China, where I physically stood in the places that once held my parents. I finally understood the circumstance my mother’s situation placed her in and it made me realize it’s easier to judge her than to accept the reality of her decisions. Sure, I would have made different calls, but the book gave me an opportunity to take myself out of the picture.
Rumpus: Your last comment about taking yourself out of the picture feels hugely important. Can you explain what this means for you specifically, and also how taking yourself out of the picture is a necessary element for writing memoir in general?
Qu: Thank you for that great question. Most people are not good or evil, and it’s our job to show truth, and most times, the truth is that it’s both. Rich character development isn’t just for fiction; it’s equally important in nonfiction. As a character, it’s my responsibility to represent my story, but as a writer, it’s to be an empathetic human, a storyteller, and an artist.
Rumpus: In reference to the intergenerational trauma of the women in your family, you say, “We swallow parts of ourselves, instinctively neutralizing ourselves to fit the mold society had put us in.” What do you see as the similarities versus the differences in each generation’s struggle?
Qu: Generally speaking, gender roles in the immigrant community are dated. Women have always been expected to do the emotional work for their family, the labor of being a caregiver, a wife, and a provider. That emotional work ensures everyone else is clothed, fed, educated, and taken care of. Some of it is a class issue, but the women in my family have always done the physical and emotional labor that comes with raising a large family with little means. For example, my grandmother praises my partner every time he washes dishes, peels an orange, or does housework, but she never praises the women in our family for doing “their job.” I’m being lazy if I don’t do the housework, but my partner is basically god-sent. The double standard is prevalent in the American culture as well, but it’s more extreme in my culture. And of course, it’s ironic that my grandmother continues to perpetuate a cycle against her own gender, but she’s also a product of her society, like my mother, like me. I point it out to her, but she’s eighty-five now and I don’t get very far.
I’m lucky that I am educated and can support myself. That gives me choices. My generation can refuse to do that emotional work and get away with it. My mother, my aunts, and grandmother aren’t so fortunate. It’s another example of how each generation has a different burden, and what we’re fighting against.
Rumpus: Your grandmother appears to be the one person in your life who loves you without reserve. She provides a safe landing pad and yet, in the final chapter she confesses to having been a harsh disciplinarian when raising your mother. How do you reconcile this?
Qu: One thing I learned in the process of writing this book is to sit with painful truths without needing to make it better or hide it. I think that is what makes me a memoirist. My grandmother’s defense of my mother breaks my heart and it often feels like she condones the behavior. Her perspective is that I need to toughen up, take whatever abuse my mother offers, and make it work as her generation did and the generation before her. That is what a good, obedient, filial daughter would do. And that’s the general opinion of my extended family. I disagree. I think having that disagreement with my grandmother allowed me to understand my mother a bit more. The women in my family are all pretty calculating, and it didn’t start with my mother.
That being said, getting to know my grandmother in my thirties has been an incredible blessing. I get to witness my mother and her mother’s relationship; I get to see how my grandmother treats her children and also who cares for her now. She’s always treated her sons better than her daughters, but in her old age, it’s her daughters that make sure all her essential needs—like furniture, shampoo and conditioner, socks and underwear—are met. It’s the daughters (and granddaughters) who call daily or weekly, not her sons. She is a flawed person in her own right, and I can see how her values (and fears of poverty) are echoed in my mother.
Rumpus: You definitely tackle a number of painful truths in your book. As a child you learned when to disappear; you were erased and silenced. In the final chapter you say, “Sacrifice is in every generation of our family. I am no exception from the hardship, and we are all her children.” Could you compare and contrast the traumas of “Made in China” and “Made in America”?
Qu: One of the reasons I wrote this book is because I don’t fit the model minority myth and I’m writing against that narrative. The title points to a number of things, one of which is how we value and perceive commodities with a “Made in China” label (such as clothing made in sweatshops) and how that’s changed in the last couple of decades. When I was growing up, no one wanted poorly made products from China and that’s changed significantly since then. We don’t find products from China inferior any longer.
I went from being ashamed of my parents’ sweatshop to understanding that the garment industry was really one of the only types of opportunities available to Chinese immigrants without an education, the ability to speak English, and support. In the late 1800s, as the Chinese population grew along the coasts, there were often hiring signs in shop windows that read “No Chinks,” or “No Chinese,” just the way it did with the Irish and Italian immigrants before them. Ostracized and discriminated against, they could only depend on other Chinese immigrants and kin to build businesses in the following three industries: garment work, laundry service, and restaurants. Out of necessity and safety, Chinatowns were formed. In fact, that’s the history of Manhattan’s Chinatown. While this history is available if one looks for it, it’s not common knowledge. Textbooks in school don’t teach this history and many of us (Asians) grow up feeling “other” but not in “danger.” That’s changed in the last two years, after Trump called COVID-19 “the China Virus,” and incited acts of hate against the Asian community around the country. Our history affects us whether we know it or not, but that knowledge matters. That alone is reason enough for immigrant narratives, like mine, to be heard.
Rumpus: Although yours is a particular story, your book addresses the universal human quest for unconditional love. Can you say more about this?
Qu: I learned what love is from my grandmother and I was fortunate or smart enough not to lose sight of it. My years with her taught me I am worthy of love. In the years that we were apart, all I had was the memory of that knowledge and the pursuit. I was afraid of giving up. I knew, instinctively, that if I didn’t fight for that love, then I would lose a part of myself. The part that knew love.
Perhaps the greatest difference between my mother and me is our cause—mine was love and acceptance, and for her it was money and saving face. The tension between us is at the core of this book.
Rumpus: I loved how the book concluded with you back in the cocoon of unconditional love with your grandmother. Can you talk more about the power of that ending for you?
Qu: I wanted to give myself and the readers a happy ending, or what might be a temporary happy ending. Once I found my grandmother and that final scene in the book happened, I began to write toward it. Unlike the beginning of the book which changed four times, once the ending was written, it felt right.
Photograph of Anna Qu by Alex Pedigo.