I write about immigrant families navigating a new America, straddling cultures and continents. From a Hong Kong movie idol fleeing a sex scandal, to an obedient daughter turned Stanford pretender, from a Chinatown elder summoned to his village, to a Korean-American pastor with a secret agenda, the characters in the collection illustrate the conflict between self and society, tradition and change.
Sounds serious. But Gary Shteyngart also called the collection “smart and fun.” Is it funny? Say something funny!
When I was a kid, I read joke books aloud in the back-seat of the car on family road trips. I loved the set-up and wordplay of the jokes, the attention from my family, and the power to entertain and make people laugh. Jokes are funny because of the element of discovery, the reversal, the surprise that also feels inevitable – which of course is essential to stories, whether comic or tragic. Humor – in an exaggerated character flaw or extreme situation – can get at the truth, too, sometimes more effectively than a straightforward take.
Can you talk about the book’s relationship to California and the Pacific Rim?
As the daughter of Chinese immigrants, I know first-hand how California and the Bay Area has been a landing pad for newcomers from Asia and elsewhere. My stories reflect how immigrants and their American-born children lead a transnational existence, economically, politically, and culturally tied to both their ancestral and adopted homelands, in ways unavailable to generations past.
What are your inspirations?
My fiction builds upon my years as a journalist, when I entered people’s lives and to shine a light on untold stories. I’ve rolled dice with factory girls in China, dined with a teenage prostitute in Burma , and scrambled through cornfields with peasants. Yet much falls outside the official record, and much about an individual character may remain hidden to journalists and historians. Writing fiction gives me an opportunity to fill that gap.
Which story in the collection is your favorite?
That’s like asking me which child is my favorite! They’re all my favorite. At the time I was writing a particular story, that one was my favorite, for why else would I be compelled to finish it?
The searches I made on Google while writing the book would surely vex investigators: how toilet clogs can force planes to make an emergency landing, how to make a Molotov cocktail out of a soda bottle; and where to find leaked porn photos from a Hong Kong sex scandal.
Sounds like I’m up to no good, right? Or that I have a deranged imagination? To find out, you’ll have to read the book.
Which character is most like you?
I’m not telling! At the risk of sounding narcissistic, there are elements of me in every character, even if nothing in their biography or circumstances resemble mine. They reflect my preoccupations, the conversations I was having, and what I was going through while I was writing and revising the stories. In my critique group, a friend once noted that the character under discussion was loathsome and conniving. I burst out laughing, because I’d come to think of the character as an extension of me – an extreme version of me, if I’d been in the same situation and had come from his circumstances. Many of my characters are strivers – immigrants and the children of immigrants – to whom I can relate, though they may end up going down paths darker than the ones I have personally ventured. Writing and reading fiction lets you try on another life other than the one handed down to you.
VANESSA HUA is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. She received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award for Fiction, and a Steinbeck Fellowship in Creative Writing. For nearly two decades, she has covered Asia and the diaspora, filing stories from China, South Korea, Panama, Burma and Ecuador. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, FRONTLINE/World, Guernica, ZYZZYVA, and elsewhere. Her novel is forthcoming from Ballantine. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family.