Many of the families in Hunger have attempted to sever themselves from the past in order to build a future. Was this how your parents coped with starting over in America? What parts of Chinese culture did they celebrate? My parents’ disconnection from China was never as deliberate or extreme as Ming and Sansan’s disconnection in “The Unforgetting. ” My mother and father spoke Chinese and ate Chinese food; they were proud of their Chinese background and taught their four daughters (I was the third) to be proud of it as well.
But like the midwestern Hwang family in “The Unforgetting”, we were geographically isolated; months would go by when we did not have contact with Chinese or Chinese Americans outside of our immediate family. This meant that my sisters and I gained most of our knowledge of China and Chinese culture from our parents, and there were many things my parents did not, or would not, talk about. Like many Chinese immigrant parents, my mother and father had to make decisions about which parts of Chinese culture to preserve and which to let go of.
In the case of our particular family, my parents made certain, first and foremost, that all four of their daughters valued family. We’re a close-knit clan, and we feel responsible for each other. On a more practical level, we all learned to cook Chinese food (all of my sisters are very good cooks). We all celebrate Chinese New Year, as well as Christmas; and we usually stuff our holiday turkey with sticky rice and shitake mushrooms. When I went to college I met Chinese American classmates whose parents had made different decisions. Some of them, like the fictional Hwangs, had cut out many aspects of Chinese culture altogether.
They did not speak Chinese or eat Chinese food; they had, in a few cases, fragile or stormy connections with their parents. Meeting them planted the seeds for the short story “The Unforgetting. ” Have you come to accept these gaps in knowledge, or do you want to learn more about the specifics of your family history? How has it affected your writing? Surrounded by corn, cows, and picturesque red barns, my family made biannual trips to Chicago to stock up on powdered tofu mix and canned hoisin sauce. As we loaded and unloaded our precious supplies, I sensed that the very nature of our existence in Appleton, Wisconsin was a puzzle.
I knew my parents had come to the Midwest from far away. I knew they had left China when the Communists had taken over in 1949. But my parents’ explanations, while factually accurate, did little to help me understand why and how they had left their homeland and settled in what must have been to them a very strange place. My parents had been through great trauma—their fears for us and the few stories they told indicated this—but they spoke about the past so seldom that to this day I feel that I am missing some basic facts about their lives.
This silence came, I think, from a desire to protect us as well as a need to let go of the past, to focus on the future. In my novella “Hunger,” the narrator says, “There was a hole in our house, like a great mouth, filled with love words and lost objects. ” For years, our family tiptoed around a great hole of silence from the past. I learned that the past was something to be avoided at all costs. But at the same time, I hungered to know more about it, because it was the only clue to understand my parents, whom I loved deeply.
Of course, my vexed and thwarted curiosity and desire for understanding has been one of the primary reasons I write fiction. In my short story “San” I developed the idea of the child as a detective collecting clues, gathering evidence. Naturally, the narrator’s question—Who are these people I know and love? —remains a mystery. An intense, intergenerational conflict causes great rifts in each of the families in your book, often with tragic results. Were the same forces present in your own family? How were these conflicts resolved?
Well, we’re a passionate family (my mother says it’s my father’s blood) and I remember some serious household arguments going on when I was a child. Most of the fights took place between my father and my two older sisters. My sisters were fighting for permission to do things that typical American teenagers do: to join the soccer team, sleep over at friends’ houses, go on dates. My sisters didn’t get everything they wanted. For example, my parents decided they would be allowed to go to movies with boys, but only matinees. My parents believed that going to movies at night might encourage bad behavior.
I could never understand this; aren’t movie theaters as dark in the afternoon as they are at night? Anyway, I can now also see that the fights were really about my sisters’ desires to be individuals, to act in the world and be responsible for themselves. My parents had not grown up with role models for such independent young women. The conflict was inevitable and necessary; it was part of our family’s gradual movement into American culture. Will you discuss how and why you decided to become a writer? I have wanted to be a writer since before I could read.
As a child, I copied picture books out onto sheets of paper, with the illustrations and all of the letters, before I could even put the letters together to form words. In school, I was one of those children who got into trouble for reading during math, spelling, and science time. While I fantasized about being a writer, my parents dreamed that all of their daughters would become doctors. We were strongly encouraged to study math and science. I loved books and wanted to have my own collection. My parents, on the other hand, grew up in a wartime atmosphere where any extraneous possessions were weeded out.
So my mother didn’t think it was necessary for us children to buy novels. Sometimes I think it was this attitude on the part of my parents that gave rise to my desire to create books: if owning as many books as I wanted was not possible, then perhaps I could literally make my own. I headed to Yale planning to be a dermatologist (I had once had a rash). But a few months later, forced to confront my utter lack of interest in first-year chemistry, I admitted to my mother that I didn’t want to be a doctor; instead I would study pre-law. This was a lie.
I liked to cover my own confusion, as well as a larger and more disturbing discovery: that my interest, and my parents’ desires for me, were at some point headed for a conflict. I majored in East Asian studies. It was during my years of college Chinese classes and other requirements for the major when I slowly began to gain an understanding of my parents’ lives. I thought about them all the time. They were—and still are—the most influential and important people in my life. I wanted to know more about their stories, and their country, where I had never been.
In my second year of graduate school at the Kennedy School of government I announced to my parents that I was going to the University of Iowa to get an M. F. A. To put it mildly, they were very upset at my decision. Things were strained between us during the years when I was enrolled at Iowa. But over time, I haven’t “starved to death” and they’ve slowly gotten used to the idea. Now they’re proud of me. They brag about me to their friends, so I know I’m out of the doghouse. Why did you choose to make “Hunger” a novella rather than a short story or novel?
I love novellas: it’s a length that combines a short story’s purity of narrative line with a chance to explore relationships in depth. When I wrote “Hunger,” I was learning to “write long”—at that point I’d managed to conceive of and complete only works under twenty-five pages. A novella seemed like a good project. While working on “Hunger,” I read novellas over and over, particularly Phillip Roth’s “Goodbye, Columbus” and Jane Smiley’s “The Age of Grief”. I very much enjoyed the whole process and hope to write more novellas in the future.
When you wrote the stories that comprise Hunger, were you aware that they would eventually become part of a cohesive collection? The pieces in Hunger are all written from the same place in my heart. I had written and published other pieces that were different in tone and subject matter, but these six seemed to work best when put together into a book. Is there any one character or story for which you have a special affinity? Why or why not? I’m certain I’ve worked parts of myself into every character in the book.
Years ago I might have identified with Claudia in “The Eve of the Spirit Festival,” but a close friend says she thinks I’m most like Tian. It is true that I’m a bit driven, a bit relentless in my pursuit of writing. I hope my life is luckier than his. You’ve been compared to Amy Tan, Gish Jen, and Bernard Malamud, just to name a few. Do you think that these are valid comparisons? Who are your favorite writers? I’ve found it very interesting to hear people make such comparisons. People find it natural to compare me to other female Chinese-American writers such as Gish Jen and Amy Tan.
I deeply admire Gish Jen’s work, and I’m flattered to be compared with her. Although she and I both write about Chinese-American immigrants, I think our writing differs greatly in voice, as well as tone, or slant, in our approach to that subject matter. Bernard Malamud is another case. When I was learning to write I was very personally affected by his early work: in its deep sorrow, its humanity and ruthlessness, its hints of the fabulous. Overall, I found the post-World War II Jewish writers to be very inspirational. My favorite writers change a lot depending on what I’m reading.
I have always loved stories and sagas that have largeness and dramatic depth: in college I enjoyed my study of the Iliad and the Greek tragedies. I’m a fan of Faulkner; I also love the work of Junichiro Tanizaki, particularly The Makioka Sisters. I am currently reading Barry Unsworth and Andrea Barrett. You were born and raised in Wisconsin and many of the stories in Hunger are set in Middle Western America. How do you think the immigrant experience in the Midwest is different than areas with much larger immigrant populations, such as New York and California?
How has growing up in middle America affected your relationship with your Chinese heritage? Sometimes I wonder if I would have become a writer if I had been raised in a larger, more diverse community such as San Francisco. My childhood in Appleton prepared me for writing—for observing and recording—because I grew up feeling like an outsider. Appleton is a lot more diverse today than it was in the sixties and seventies when my three sisters and I were in school there. At that time, our family was one of three Chinese families in a city of about 50,000.
I cannot remember a time when I was not conscious of being different from the majority of the people around me, who were mostly descendants of German and Scandinavian immigrants. My classmates in public schools had routines and beliefs and meals and expectations very different from mine. I was always trying to figure out their patterns of behavior and the reasons for those patterns. This led naturally to writing. I felt the need to write down my version of things, perhaps because I sensed the importance of somehow validating my observations.
Growing up isolated from other Chinese Americans has also made me very hungry for knowledge about my Chinese heritage—thus my college major in East Asian studies and my explorations of Chinese Americans in my writing. What are you working on now? For more than two years now I’ve been working on a novel set during the Sino-Japanese war and after. It’s been a magical and daunting experience. The primary character, a woman, has taken command of my thoughts and seems to be driving the spirit of the novel; another character, her husband, has become more and more fascinating to me until I decided to include portions in his perspective.
I’m fascinated by the fact that he takes a “second wife. ” I never thought I would want to write from a man’s perspective before. The process of writing the novel is very different from writing short stories. The novel is a part of my life—it feels a little like living in a house or being in a long relationship. The characters press gently on the edge of my brain even when I’m supposed to be doing something else. Once I ran a red light and vowed to banish all thoughts of them while driving.