In our column Bookworm Beat, read about some of our favorite books written by women and non-binary authors...
"When you get a dozen pregnant women together, who gets the good wishes, who gets to be the Queen Bee? It seemed like a situation ripe from drama, and ripe for comedy."
Immigration and motherhood take center stage in Vanessa Hua's debut novel, A River of Stars, which tells the story of a pregnant Chinese woman, Scarlett, who travels to California in order to have a better life for her child. She finds residence in a secret maternity home for immigrants and has a complicated relationship with the baby's father—an all-powerful factory owner in China with a wife and three other children. Her new life in America is meant to assure this new child (a son) has the best opportunities possible, but lands Scarlett in a slew of difficult situations.
Vanessa shares her insights into how journalism and fiction relate for her, plus some of her favorite books by women this year and a whole lot more. You will also find out about her next novel!
How did you become interested in writing?
I’ve been a writer ever since I was a child, almost as long as I’ve been a reader. For me, both come from the same place—a curiosity about the world and people whose lives are different than mine. My childhood heroes—Anne of Green Gables, Laura Ingalls of Little House, Jo March from Little Women—were all feisty and ambitious girls who wanted to become writers, and their dreams made mine seem possible, too. I wrote fiction up through college, but after graduating, I focused on journalism for several years before again returning to fiction and centering it in my life again.
A River of Stars is your debut novel. What was the process like of getting it published? Did you feel a lot of pressure because it was your first book?
When I was pregnant and living in Southern California, I began hearing about maternity hotels. In the suburbs east of Los Angeles, neighbors were baffled. Why were diapers piled high in the garbage cans? Why did the whole street smell like stir fry? Why were so many pregnant Chinese women coming and going to these houses? It sounded like a brothel in reverse! It turned out the mothers-to-be were arriving a month or two before their due date so that their children would obtain U.S. citizenship at birth.
What was it like for these women to live so far from friends and family, at the most vulnerable time in their life? What drove them to come here, what did US citizenship mean to them? When I was pregnant, I was treated very generously…but when you get a dozen pregnant women together, who gets the good wishes, who gets to be the Queen Bee? It seemed like a situation ripe from drama, and ripe for comedy.
I began writing my novel about nine months after giving birth to my twin sons. In a parallel universe, though, there’s a version of my novel with rotating narrators. Scarlett’s storyline has always appeared most often, but I also had chapters from Daisy’s perspective, Old Wu, and more. I was taking a risk by approaching the novel that way and after much reflection and feedback, I decided to rewrite it mostly from Scarlett’s perspective. A couple of those chapters ended up in my short story collection, so all was not lost. And I don’t consider those early versions a waste of time; I didn’t know what direction to go in until I tried out different opinions, even though the process was time consuming.
A few years ago, a friend and I both working on our novels said we didn’t need a life coach—we needed a psychic! Someone who could tell us that all these wrong turns and stops and starts would lead to a book. Of course, no one can give you that assurance, and as writers, you persist, best as you can.
A River of Stars is my debut novel, but I also have a short story collection, Deceit and Other Possibilities, that was published in 2016, with Willow Books, a small press that specializes in publishing writers of color. I gained valuable experience in promoting my book, and taking part deeply in the literary community, and with my novel, it’s been a wonderful opportunity to reach an even broader readership. I am grateful to everyone—my agents, my editor, my publicists and more—who have worked so hard on behalf of my novel to help me share it with the world.
Your background is primarily in journalism. Why were you compelled to write fiction and how did the process of working on this book differ from your work as a columnist?
As a weekly columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle, I write about social justice issues, immigration and identity, navigating life as a woman and a mother—many of the themes I develop in my fiction, too. The relationship I have with my readers is intimate, because the newspaper arrives regularly, and read at their kitchen table.
For me, fiction allows me to go beyond where the official record ends and you can take an imaginative leap of empathy to fill in the blanks.
I love the mix of deadlines, the sprint of newspapers and the marathon of a book project. My fiction builds upon my years as a journalist, as I write daily and on deadline, am open to editing, and follow my curiosity. But it’s a very solitary, and mostly in my head, and I appreciate how journalism gets me out into the world, when I conduct interviews and do on the ground reporting.
My creative writing has also enhanced my journalism, leading me to consider narrative movement, character, setting, and language more closely. Working in both genres nourishes my creative practice.
United States immigration plays a huge role in this book. Why were you compelled to write explore the subject?
I’m the American-born daughter of Chinese immigrants who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and all my life I’ve been aware of the complicated relationships that immigrant families have with their ancestral and adopted homelands. As a journalist, I’ve been writing about Asia and the diaspora for two decades, and my novel reflects my longstanding interest in these communities and issues of the tradition and change, identity and ethnicity, and more.
The role of being a mother and gender politics/stereotypes broadly are also at the core of the plot. What do you think the circumstances these characters find themselves in says about how we handle these things in society?
My fiction often begins with a premise: what is the situation a character is in, how did she get there, and how will she find her way through it? If you know their stakes, you know their character—what matters most to them and what they will urgently strive for. As a reporter, even when I interviewed people in the direst economic and political circumstances, I found they always hoped for more, if not for themselves, then their children. Even still, we must acknowledge as writers and as a society that systemic structures continue to oppress, to cause to social injustice and economic inequality. An individual—fictional or not—may be an exception, but a single story alone shouldn’t determine policy. Rather, we need to consider collective experiences, if we are to fight against sexism and racism and prejudice against the marginalized.
How do you feel about the future for women writers?
This year, it’s been thrilling to read so many wonderful debuts by women writers—Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know, R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries, Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State, Ingrid Rojas Contreras’ Fruit of the Drunken Tree, Crystal Hana Kim’s If You Leave Me, Aja Gabel’s The Ensemble, Lucy Tan’s What We Were Promised, Lillian Li's Number One Chinese Restaurant, Xhenet Aliu’s Brass, Rachel Lyon’s Self Portrait With Boy, Danielle Lazarin’s Back Talk, Rita Bullwinkel’s Belly Up—I could go on and on. I’m excited for what they’re working on next, and for the debuts to come, and with the success of these books, it paves the way for more narratives, more voices. I’m thankful to the women writers who came before us, who taught and mentored us, and who wrote the books that inspired us to write our own.
What is coming up next for you?
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.