My Favorite Interviews

Writing is a solitary journey, until the book is published. It is at once terrifying and exciting to meet the readers. Being interviewed is a true privilege. I especially treasured these interchanges when the interviewer discovered something I didn’t know about my stories and characters. For this reason I listed these interviews to be my favorite. I will add to this list!

Kaitlin Solimine is an accomplished fiction author and East Asian studies scholar. In this interview, she asked me about the role family plays within wider sociocultural forces. My fictional family lived during a time of momentous changes in China and the U.S. I reverse engineered the stories to piece together the world and social mores: some of it (materialism) became reality, while others (feminism) are still a work-in-progress. Most importantly, there are dreams (democracy) deferred.   

Showing the Human Face - Fiction Writers Review

Mitzi Rapkin is an insightful and generous reader. She asked me whether the elder sister in “Dream Lover” might have an affair if Xu tried. I hadn’t thought about this scenario until she mentioned it. So Xu does an honorable deed by rejecting her, although he looks down on her as being undesirable, even as a mistress. The double standard can work in the woman’s favor and keeps her from making a big mistake!

Aspen Public Radio First Draft

I have learned much from Scott Kent Jones’s podcast Give and Take, which helps me make sense of the current volatile political environment. When it was my turn, I had an “unbridled” conversation with my host and forwent my motto “Don’t air dirty linen in public” about the Chinese people and culture. I usually don’t tell the whole truth about people’s shortcomings and instead satirize them in fiction. I surprised myself in that interview, which was truly “Give and Take.” Have a listen.

Give and Take

Writer’s Bone is a wonderful podcast featuring a diverse group of writers. Hosts Daniel Ford and Sean Tuohy are writers and staunch supporters of their peers. Daniel called me “an old soul,” which is a high compliment. I answered with my mission statement and vision, because seriously, few people would have cared. Readers want the words on the page. In a way the author’s intention doesn’t matter. Still, that is the reason those words are on the page. Thank you, Daniel, for letting me say it!

Writer's Bone

Lastly, my TV interview with Jiayu Jeng at KTSF Channel 26. Okay, I spent more time getting dolled up. Jiayu is a beautiful, caring, and witty journalist. I translated my English interviews into Mandarin and practiced speaking them fluently. I also worried about my mother hearing me say things she doesn’t like. But when it aired, I realized I spoke appropriately. This proves that my internal censorship is alive and well, despite that I have lived in the U.S. for 28 years, much longer than I had lived in China. I chose to write in English to lose my internal censorship.

This blog is an ode to the literary community that supports writers in their lonely endeavors. Thank you, everyone, for reading, empathizing, and challenging the writers!

Why I Write in English

I wrote an essay “Why I Write in English” several years ago. At the time I gave all my reasons, with an old family photo. Since then, my grandma passed away at the age of 93.

 I was four years old, and my brother was three. The back row from left to right: my auntie, my parents, my younger uncle, my older uncle and his newlywed wife. My grandparents sat in the front row. My brother wanted to run away, so my grandma put him on her lap and held his hand. I was the good girl, furtively playing with my coat and exploring my pocket. 

I was four years old, and my brother was three. The back row from left to right: my auntie, my parents, my younger uncle, my older uncle and his newlywed wife.
My grandparents sat in the front row. My brother wanted to run away, so my grandma put him on her lap and held his hand. I was the good girl, furtively playing with my coat and exploring my pocket. 

I realize there is more to that narrative. I was born in Jiangsu province with ancestral roots at a seaside village in Zhejiang province. My name was recorded in the Huang family tree book. Ironically, my children and spouse aren’t recorded, because I am a woman. My children don’t bear my last name, so I am no longer part of the Huang family, despite that I kept my maiden name.

 2005

2005

 2018

2018

Here is my family: the first photo of our family of four alongside the latest. My elder son was pegged to be an engineer at the age of three. As a baby he loved to play with toy trucks, trains, and grew up playing baseball and soccer. Unlike me, he’s a good athlete. I rarely saw him do homework until the 5th grade. Now in the 9th grade, he’s bound to the books, laptop, and even has a new ambition: studying to become a lawyer.

Call it the teenage whim. We were puzzled. Both my husband and I are computer engineers. We can help him, if he wants to become an engineer. But no, he has to choose a profession that we know nothing.

This reminds me of someone I know: his mother! Two decades ago I decided to write in English, an impulsive decision that bewildered my parents and friends: What? Why?!

I gave my reasons in the essay, but that’s only the logical answer. There is also an emotional side of the story. I have to begin with my ancestors. The couple who started the family tree were originally from Fujian province. The woman was the young daughter in a wealthy family. The man was a hired hand working for her father. She fell in love with the tall, handsome, and penniless young man. Her parents disapproved of him, so they eloped to Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, and settled at the secluded seaside village surrounded by green mountains. Her family set out to look for her (only a wealthy family could afford to conduct an extensive search) but failed to find them, who were determined to elude her family. I have often wondered: did the brave woman miss her parents? Did she reach for her mother’s hand when she cried out with birth pang?

For more stories see my Chinese blog 《温州家乡的奇事》

Now the Huang clan has more than 2000 families, and the family tree is a thick book. My brother's son, born in Canada with last name Huang, is included, but my Berkeley-born children are not in the book. No matter, all of us descended from the hot-blooded ancestors who ventured out for a new life, their hearts brimming over with love and hope.

That is why I write in English.

My Story Hour

I was star struck by many authors who have spoken during The Story Hour over the years: Maxine Hong Kingston, Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Chabon, ZZ Packer, just to name a few. When it was my turn, I was excited and apprehensive. Little did I know I would wind up on the cover of The Story Hour. Thank you, Vikram, Melanie, and readers, for supporting a debut author. 

 Here I was a bit starry-eyed in this sacred room.

Here I was a bit starry-eyed in this sacred room.

Vikram Chandra, one of my favorite authors and brilliant mentors, inspired me with his exhortations:

Gu Bao must make irrevocable choices about motherhood, negotiate the treacherous waters of politics, and struggle against the official corruption and brutality. The novel is emotionally vivid and intensely personal, and yet it involves us in an epic moment of cultural and political change . . . It signals the beginning of an exciting career. I look forward to reading Yang’s next book and the book after that, which I hope she started working on. 

Thank you, Vikram! I’m working hard on my new novels.

I am sad to learn this year marks the last season of The Story Hour. For a decade it has brought us inspiration and touched us with the magic of storytelling. Huddling around an author in front of the fireplace assures us time and again that we are in good company. There is a vibrant community not only for writers but also for all story lovers. 

So profoundly grateful to Vikram Chandra and Melanie Abrams for the generous gift of The Story Hour. We look forward to their new books and reading series from UC Berkeley.

Living Treasures Won the Living Now Book Awards Bronze Medal

At first glance, Living Now Book Awards has a formidable goal:

We’ve all heard the expressions, “This book changed my life!” and “Changing the world, one book at a time.” The Living Now Book Awards are designed to honor those kinds of life-changing books.

Yet the goal is relevant and even fundamental:

We all seek healthier, more fulfilling lives for ourselves and for the planet. . . . The purpose of the Living Now Book Awards is to celebrate the innovation and creativity of books that enhance the quality of life.

I submitted my novel Living Treasures to the Inspirational Fiction category. Can fiction be inspirational and remain honest? I want to believe so. I work as a computer engineer at UC Berkeley. When I help people on a daily basis, I know that a person can make a difference in the society.

As a writer I have a rather optimistic worldview. I like to tackle big social problems in my fiction, put my characters under the test, let them endure, and in their darkest and most despairing hours, let them use their ingenuity—much like an engineer—and find some sort of relief or solution, not a cure-all, but a way out, so that they can move forward to rebuild their lives. 

Many social problems don’t have solutions. That doesn’t mean we need to remain stagnant. The perilous quest for a fulfilling life is in itself a profound spiritual journey. Accompanied by good books, we don’t travel alone on our personal journeys. “Good books are a weapon against ignorance,” Jim Barnes said.

LivingTreasuresMedal

I entered the contest with deep appreciation for which the award stands. I am grateful to have won the bronze medal along with many outstanding books.

May we remember the reason why we write, whom we write for, and strive to change the world, one book at a time.

Book Trailer: Censored, with Jane Shlensky's Erasure

My book trailer for Living Treasures tells a striking story. But it is censored on all the social media sites in mainland China: Youku, Tudou, and Sina. It is an officially banned book trailer. Have a look, you may see why the gentle story raises fears on the anniversary of Tiananmen Square massacre. 

Several readers shared with me their poems about the Tiananmen Square massacre. Here is an eloquent protest by a wonderful poet Jane Shlensky. She was a teacher in China during the student movement. 

Tian’an’men 1989

the Square is
a Great Wall
a ship breaking waves
victims’ bodies in drawers
mourned as martyrs
the Goddess
beacon of hope toppled
as Mao at the Gate
stares

a moth heaved dusty wings
to bang against light

loud music
flame’s yellow glare
wings secured
with wooden clips
outcries replaced with
silence, memory shifting
into surrender
the wound sprouting
new leaves

(erasure of Living Treasures by Yang Huang)

Her poem brings back a tide of emotions: crushed hope, despair, and isolation after losing a historical opportunity 26 years ago.  

My novel Living Treasures didn’t criticize the Chinese government. Instead I took a more radical political stand by disregarding the impact of their brutal suppression. We can and should move on from the tragedy, by not giving up, by not giving in, by becoming free despite the government’s suppression and censorship. There is a new life after death, for Bao personally, and for grassroots activists who believe in the future.

In the old days, a daring rebellious convict said on his way to the scaffold for decapitation: "I will be a brave man again in 18 years!" He meant: I am a heroic outlaw right now, and I will be a heroic outlaw again in 18 years after my reincarnation. So 26 years later, the heroes and victims fallen on June 4, 1989 have risen again and joined us to walk toward a better future.

Sex Is a Lesson about Life

I was worried when my nine-year-old son began to read Living Treasures. “It’s inappropriate.” I tried to tear it out of his hands, but he held fast to the book.

“I don’t have other books to read.”

It was an excuse. He read at least three fantasy novels a week. I had asked him to try classics or non-fiction books. He showed little interest, until he laid his hands on my novel. It was both flattering and frightening.

During the next two days, he read Living Treasures in the after-school program. It was surreal to see him flip the pages while eating slices of apple, oblivious of the other children who played and chattered around him.

Several people commented on my book cover and said it looked like a children’s book. It was an adult story infused with a passionate quest for justice and romance. I enjoyed tackling difficult social issues with the energy and conviction of young reformers. A Chinese idiom says, “Newborn calves are not afraid of tigers.” My protagonists experience setbacks but are unfazed about the obstacles. Their optimism and can-do spirit sometimes make them martyrs in an indifferent society.  

My young reader didn’t know the deep-rooted social injustices in China throughout her four thousand years of history. He was engaged by Bao’s perilous journey toward maturity. As a mother, I worried about the sex scene in chapter 3. A friend asked why I had gone into such details. If I had glossed over the lovemaking scene, the book would be squeaky clean and perfect even for middle school students. School Library Journal reviewed Living Treasures and recommended it for girls aged ten and above. However, some parents might want to read chapter 3 before letting their children, especially young daughters, read the book.

I hadn’t thought about its “marketability” during the ten drafts while I wrote the novel. Every time I came to the sex scene, I knew it was central for the plot for several reasons.

  • Bao becomes pregnant. Since their lovemaking bears the fruit, it is significant. For them, sex is not gratuitous but a life-changing event. To hide this act or vaguely hint at it does disservice for the protagonists and misleads the readers.
  • Bao is ignorant about the consequence. Her parents want to keep her heart “pure,” which ironically results in her downfall. By not giving their daughter a sex education, the parents risk having her seduced by her peers. This is the trap of a polite society, as overprotection makes a teenager naïve, vulnerable, and prone to uninformed decisions. Consequently for Bao, the error of a moment becomes the regret of a lifetime.
  • Tong is ignorant about the consequence. A man and woman often blame each other for an unwanted pregnancy. It does not help anyone, least of all the woman, to play the unwitting victim and turn a love affair into a blame game. She robs her lover of the opportunity to support her during a difficult time. In a way, Tong’s failure is associated with Bao’s passivity.
  • Bao begins to grow as she faces reality and gazes at her own body. She learns from Orchid the glory and perils of womanhood. By making a heroic sacrifice, she rises up from her victim role, takes control, and becomes a savior of the downtrodden.
  • Tong no longer “desires” Bao after the abortion. He practices abstinence as self-discipline to demonstrate his true love for her. This brings their relationship to a new level of mutual respect. They both go through the soul searching journey to face their grief and failures. They almost break up, when Childless Du intrudes into their world. The crisis makes or breaks a couple. Love triumphs in the end, as they join forces to fight the injustice, heal and grow as a couple and as individuals.

I wrote the lovemaking scenes because they are functional and educational. Their love for each other is the driving force. Sex is the beginning of their journey into the real life—messy and fertile ground for growth, courage, kindness, and self-sacrifice.

Those were my designs. The real world reader experience trumps my concerns. My nine-year-old was at first surprised by the sex scene and giggled a few times. Soon he was drawn into the deeper family conflicts. He was mesmerized by the beekeeping scenes and asked me how I knew those details. He even looked forward to raising bees himself.

Parents often underestimate children’s ability to learn and discern. We fail to support them despite our best intentions. Like many of my schoolmates I had lived a sheltered life. I had learned about the mechanics of lovemaking from reading the bathroom graffiti as a college sophomore. Suddenly the sterile scientific terms took on the frightening human form. This brought shame and confusion to a young mind that cannot reconcile modesty and honor with romantic passion.

Yesterday I met a father during the author signing session. He bought Living Treasures for his thirteen-year-old daughter. I suggested that he should read chapter 3 and decide if he wanted to give it to his daughter now or a bit later. He thought for a moment and then answered me with a smile.

“It’s okay, just part of growing up.”

I saw a father’s confidence in his teenage daughter that is pure love. Too moved to speak, I nodded my thanks.

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