Author and journalist Vanessa Hua, along with two other authors, will be coming to Seattle to participate in Hugo House’s Literary Series in its new location in Capitol Hill (1634 11th Ave.) on March 15 at 7:30. She is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, and her work has also been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic and Newsweek. Her area of focus in her reporting is on the Asian diaspora, which has allowed her to report stories from China, Burma, Panama, South Korea and even Ecuador. Her first novel, A River of Stars, came out last summer and was listed as one of the best books of the year by NPR, The Washington Post and Real Simple magazine.
A River of Stars is about a young, ambitious woman named Scarlett Chen who is from a small Chinese village. She gets sent by Boss Yeung, her lover, to Perfume Bay, a special maternity ward in Los Angeles that caters to rich Chinese women whose sole purpose is to obtain U.S. citizenship for their babies once they are born. Already a father of three grown daughters, Boss Yeung was overjoyed to find out that Scarlett carried a boy, a possible heir to his name and business.
Headed by a Chinese woman who calls herself Mama Fang, Perfume Bay stretches across three townhouses with the walls separating each unit ripped out. Scarlett, despised by the other women since she is a mistress, soon tires of being surrounded by the spoiled and rich. She comes to realize after a business proposition from Mama Fang that Boss Yeung wanted to take sole custody of their unborn child, leaving her feeling betrayed and scorned. After an ultrasound scan during her eighth month revealed she was actually having a girl, Scarlett refrains from telling the news to Boss Yeung and escapes the strict confines of Perfume Bay by stealing the business’ van.
She is joined in her adventures by Daisy, another occupant of Perfume Bay, who had snuck into the van. Her mission is to get back in touch with the father of her baby, a university student in San Francisco. As it becomes clear that finding him will not be as easy as they had thought, Scarlett and Daisy are forced to eke out a living in Chinatown by relying on the connections they make with other Chinese immigrants. As preoccupied as Scarlett is with daily life, she always has Boss Yeung to worry about in the back of her head since she knows he will chase after her for his son and heir.
The IE caught up with Hua through to discuss her life, career and her novel. Hua, along with authors Benjamin Percy and Keetje Kuipers, will read newly written material based on Kafka’s The Metamorphosis for the Hugo Literary Series. Hua will also hold a three-hour class at Hugo House the following day at 10:00 AM on “How to Fund Your Writing Habit.”
International Examiner: How did you get the idea for Perfume Bay? Have you heard of or come across these sorts of places while you were reporting? If so, how common are these types of businesses and where do you see them often?
Vanessa Hua: In 2011, back when I was pregnant with my twins and living in Southern California, I began hearing about maternity homes east of downtown Los Angeles. The neighbors were baffled: Why were so many pregnant Chinese women coming and going, why were the trash cans overflowing with diapers, why did the street smell like stir fry? It turned out that women were coming here so that their children would receive American citizenship. Being pregnant is one of the most vulnerable times in a woman’s life, and I wondered what it was like to be so far from friends and family.
I never visited such centers in person, but in my research, I looked up websites advertising such services—which featured photos of the accommodations—and I read news reports that also provided detailed descriptions. There were dozens of homes in places with Asian American populations, such as Irvine, San Gabriel Valley, Chino Hills, and eastward. That’s not counting women who decide to come on their own, who may rent an apartment for a couple months before giving birth, which I’ve heard happens, too. It’s not just Chinese, either; I’ve heard of Russians, South Korean, Indians, and more, those with the time and economic means to come here.
IE: You are second-generation Chinese American. Can you talk about your family background a bit and where you grew up? Were some of your experiences growing up integrated into the story?
VH: My parents arrived in this country in the 1960s to study science and engineering in the Midwest before moving to California where I was born. I lived in a predominantly white suburb, east of San Francisco, and from an early age, I was aware that the world inside my home was different than the world outside of it: different foods, different living arrangements, different ways of living. As an outsider, I observed and read books to figure out what my parents couldn’t explain about the culture at large. Nothing directly about my experiences growing up are in the novel—I’m a suburban Chinese-American—but the novel reflects what I’ve long pondered on issues of nationality, identity, immigration and more.
IE: Did you always know you were going to be a writer? What was the pivotal moment that made you decide to become a journalist?
VH: I’ve wanted to be a writer almost as long as I’ve been a reader. In the second grade, we had to write short stories and the teacher asked the class to vote on their favorite by raising their hands. Mine won, but before I could savor this victory, I overhead my classmate whisper to her friend, “I only voted for hers because it was the longest.” It was my first public recognition for my fiction and my first snarky review. I continued writing throughout high school and college. In college, I began working on the school newspaper and loved being able to follow my curiosity out into the world. It’s an honor and privilege when people share their stories with me.
IE: Prior to writing this book, you had written a collection of short stories called Deceit and Other Possibilities, which won the Asian/Pacific American Award in Literature. What made you decide it was time to write a novel instead of more short stories?
VH: I’d always wanted to write a novel but feared I didn’t know how. On a journalism fellowship in South Korea, I mentioned my dream to another participant. “Then write one!” she said. She was simply making small talk, but it made me realize the only thing that stood in the way of writing a novel was me. I had to commit to trying, to making fiction the center of my life. I still love writing short stories. Much of my collection and my novels were written over the same time period when I was taking a break from one project or another.
IE: What inspired you to write a story about this immigrant woman’s struggles as she fought for her and her baby’s survival in a completely foreign land? Was immigration a topic you naturally wanted to delve into considering your focus on your reporting on Asian diaspora?
VH: As the daughter of Chinese immigrants and as a journalist, I’ve long been interested in writing about immigrants and identity, about those who straddle two worlds but belong to none. The novel reflects my reporting on diaspora, from factories in China’s Pearl River Delta to San Francisco’s Chinatowns to the Silicon Valley suburbs where Chinese have also settled.
In a news story about a maternity center, a neighbor had reported that a pregnant Chinese woman showed up at his doorstep, telling him that she was hungry. He took her to McDonald’s. And rather than ask to go home or ask to call her family, she went back to the center. I was struck by that moment—how miserable she must have felt, yet how she had been compelled to return. What did U.S. citizenship mean to her? What was the source of her ambivalence? Her character, her story was born out of those circumstances.
IE: Scarlett’s story is not just the story of an immigrant’s struggles; it is also the story of a strong, beautiful and dedicated friendship forged between two very different women from very different social and educational backgrounds who initially despise and distrust each other. What message were you trying to give to your readers by setting this dichotomy between these two characters and having them overcome these differences through the shared joy and suffering of motherhood?
VH: I’ve joked that if you raise children together in the early months, it’s like living through a natural disaster: You’re bonded for life. The trials of sleep deprivation, the repetitive labors of feeding, soothing and changing diapers are seared upon Scarlett and Daisy both. Despite their differences, they grow to rely on each other. The dichotomy in their characters and all the other characters reflects my desire to show that the community is not a monolith. Chinese have many different histories, dialects, socio-economic and educational backgrounds, and we can’t be reduced to stereotypes and statistics.
IE: Scarlett and her mother’s complicated relationship slowly comes to a resolution as she raises her own child and starts to understand her mother’s decisions better. Is this understanding gained from reaching parenthood somewhat drawn from your own personal experience?
VH: When I became a mother, I reflected upon my own upbringing, and how I wanted to raise my own sons. I also thought about my mother as a person – who she was before she had children, and what her life could have been like. My relationship with her isn’t complicated in the same way that Scarlett is with her mother; it’s complicated in our own way!
IE: One of the things that interested me about the book was the many different entanglements and connections the main characters had with each other, particularly behind Boss Yeung’s family and the connection to Mama Fang, the proprietor of Perfume Bay. Way to ramp up the drama! What was your thought process, and how did you go about coming up with this maze of varied connections?
VH: When I begin a novel, the blank page feels as big as the world. But the further I get into a draft—after many wrong turns and dead-ends along the way—the possibilities begin to narrow. I understand who the characters are, their motivations and their stakes. I’m not the sort of writer who outlines beforehand, but I will in revision. The connections that have been bubbling up in my subconscious often arise then—that ah-ha moment, that might come when I’m away from my desk, going for a swim or a walk.
IE: You will be talking at Seattle’s Hugo House about how writers can get funding for their writing projects. Can you explain your background and the experience you’ve gained to make you knowledgeable about this topic? Can you give some highlights or some pointers as well?
VH: Over the years, I’ve received funding that underwrote my trips abroad as a journalist, as well as fellowships and scholarships to literary conferences, and funding that provided time and resources to help me complete my novel’s manuscript.
Take part in the literary community. Share opportunities, trade work to critique, support and attend each other’s events—and you’ll be rewarded a thousand times over. Also, consider how you can amplify the funder’s aims, not only at a residency, but in the months and years to come. For more, please sign up for the class!
IE: What is your next project?
VH: I’m working on my next novel, The Sea Palaces. Years ago, a teasing glimpse of documentary footage inspired me: the jowly Chairman Mao Zedong surrounded by giggling teenage dancers who were dressed in circle skirts and fitted sweaters. The Chairman adored ballroom dancing and had a troupe of young, patriotic women with whom he partnered. Intrigued, I imagined how one of his lovers might have influenced the course of the Cultural Revolution. At sixteen, my protagonist is recruited for the dance troupe at the Sea Palaces—the former garden and palace complex adjacent to the Forbidden City and now the opulent home of the Chairman. She becomes his lover and confidante. Despite plots against her by romantic rivals and scheming aides, she emerges from his tutelage as a model revolutionary too clever for her master.