Evoking both the drama of familial intimacy and the ups and downs of the everyday, My Old Faithful introduces readers to a close-knit Chinese family. These ten interconnected short stories, which take place in China and the United States over a thirty-year period, merge to paint a nuanced portrait of family life, full of pain, surprises, and subtle acts of courage. Richly textured narratives from the mother, the father, the son, and the daughters play out against the backdrop of China's social and economic change.
With quiet humor and sharp insight into the ordinary, Yang Huang writes of a father who spanks his son out of love, a brother who betrays his sister, and a young woman who dares bring a brown man home to her conservative parents. She writes of an aging wife and the kindness she shows a young prostitute caught soliciting her husband; of a woman returning to China after many years to find her country changed in ways both expected and startling. This collection, by a writer who grew up in Jiangsu province and participated in the 1989 student uprisings, is remarkable in its sense of place and fidelity to lived human experience.
"Yang Huang has another winner in her second book, My Old Faithful....a rich contemporary narrative of family dynamics and social upheaval."
"My Old Faithful zooms readers straight into the minds and hearts of each member of a middle-class family in a struggling, censored, restricted China....Customary want, state-imposed strictures and impetuous generosity play out against beautifully painted landscapes and seasons....we feel ourselves becoming each protagonist in the course of each story."
"17 Books That Should Be On Your Radar: March 2018": "I marveled at what Yang Huang was able to pack into her slim short story collection My Old Faithful. Huang's exploration of a close-knit Chinese family through everyday experiences (both in China and the United States) is expertly wrought, and her themes are as timely as they are timeless. The author employs an earthy, subtle humor that suggests an older soul at work."
"Yang Huang's collection of linked stories traversing 30 years of time between China and America makes a bold statement with sparse yet subtly beautiful prose and contemporary Chinese characters.... It's the author's strong narrative voice that propels this tightly crafted array of quotidian sorrows and joys―and what makes this book feel in some ways like a novel-in-stories rather than a more traditional collection."
"8 BOOKS ABOUT IMMIGRANTS TO LOOK FORWARD TO IN 2018": "Huang aims to tell each story with a deft hand, capturing the immigrant experience alongside the ways family shapes our view of the world around us."
"46 Books By Women of Color to Read in 2018": "[My Old Faithful] spans thirty years and a rich variety of stories."
"10 Great Reasons to Read Fiction in March 2018": "Oakland author Yang Huang (Living Treasures, 2014) won the Juniper Prize for Fiction for this collection of ten linked stories that depict the lives of one family over thirty years in China and the United States."
―Oakland Public Library Blogs, Advice for Readers
"This is one to savor for its rich flavor and heartfelt message that is timeless and enlightening. This is a story about families, love, coming of age and letting go of the unnecessary pieces of the past while weaving the good that remains into the future."
―Dianne Bylo, Tome Tender
"My Old Faithful establishes Yang Huang as one of our most provocative writers on contemporary China. Imagine Ferrante telling a family's story from prismatic perspectives and you come close to Huang's triumph. Here you find a debut writer adept at sidestepping the timeworn: she gives us a story so real it bursts the bounds of the form, becoming an autofiction which, in its humanity, quickly becomes yours as well."
―Edie Meidav, Juniper Prize for Fiction judge and author of Kingdom of the Young
"Charming, funny, and deeply moving, Yang Huang's My Old Faithful chronicles a family over time, in all their struggles and joys."
―Vanessa Hua, author of Deceit and Other Possibilities
"Fans of Huang's powerful debut novel, Living Treasures, will welcome the author's return in My Old Faithful. With its rare views of family life in contemporary China, My Old Faithful's intersecting tales of the vibrant―sometimes explosive―Chen family demonstrate once again Huang's big-hearted gift for penetrating both our vices and virtues."
―Elizabeth Evans, author of As Good as Dead
"Yang Huang's collection of linked stories peels back the layers of a culture too often rendered exotic and opaque to reveal what is intimate and familiar. Sexual awakenings, sibling rivalries, the pain and joy of raising children, aging, the constraints of love and loyalty are all dealt here with a gentle and incisive hand. My Old Faithful is a deeply moving portrait of a family and a society."
―Hasanthika Sirisena, author of The Other One
"In My Old Faithful, Yang Huang explores with humor, tenderness and fierce precision the ties that bind and separate a family across time and space. Filled with unexpected turns and a painterly attention to detail, this is a wise and beautiful book."
―Elizabeth Graver, author of The End of the Point
A Q&A WITH YANG HUANG ABOUT MY OLD FAITHFUL
MY OLD FAITHFUL tells a wide-ranging story of the life of a Chinese family over time. For this non-Chinese-American American, the stories feel at once very relatable and also like a window into a different culture. Did you write the world you knew? Who did you write this collection for?
I wrote the collection for myself, dissecting a character from every angle in a way that I couldn’t do to a real person. I was especially interested in moments of weakness, when an outwardly decent person makes a bad decision, at times consciously and other times against their better judgment.
I modeled the stories on my family and other families I knew during my teen years. We used to live in a community of six apartment buildings that housed the teachers’ and staff’s families at Yangzhou Teachers’ College. My parents, like all Chinese parents, compared my brother and me to our schoolmates who excelled in studies or had special talents. It was normal for us to have anxiety and feel inadequate.
American audiences often have a limited awareness of other cultures. Did this have any influence on the writing of these stories?
This limited awareness can be used as an advantage. I wrote personal essays in a memoir writing class. The professor commented on how awful the parents seemed, how cruel and insensitive they were. I thought: really? They seemed perfectly normal to me. I realized how “civilized” middle-class American families seemed in comparison: parents try to be fair, reason with their children, and give them space to grow. Chinese parents are not so polite, don’t pretend to be fair or politically correct, but their love for their children is intense, smothering, almost a primal instinct. This gives me rich material to work with, because flawed characters make interesting fiction.
Looking back I was also influenced by Sherwood Anderson’s collection Winesburg, Ohio and Louise Erdrich’s beautiful book, Love Medicine. The cultural details are not a hindrance but a veil you lift to show the human face that we recognize. When I read Winesburg, Ohio, I thought the characters were my neighbors in Yangzhou. People are more similar than different, if you describe them precisely.
Why was it important to tell the story from the point of view of the different family members? What did that allow you to do that a single narrator would not have?
I suspect every culture has a similar proverb to this one: “Even a wise judge cannot settle a family dispute.” Some family disagreements cannot be resolved by arbitration: who is right, who is wrong. That is irrelevant. Sometimes people need to express their emotions, while they grow up, grow old, or just discover themselves.
I constructed a fictional family with a father, mother, two daughters, and a son. Each person tells two stories, and they are peripheral characters in other people’s stories. The characters are honest with themselves when they are away from others’ watchful eyes. This authenticity is something that other family members don’t see in their interactions.
By juxtaposing these different perspectives, readers see how skewed the characters’ perspectives are. For example, the father doesn’t know how insightful his wayward son is. Just when you think you get the last word, other people will trump you with their fresh perspectives. There is an element of surprise that leads to insight and humility.
As the #MeToo movement gains momentum, it struck me that a couple of the stories have moments that resonate with it. Can you speak to that?
The #MeToo movement is heartening because it brings to light an age-old problem. Sexual harassment has been pervasive throughout human history. This is nothing new. What is new is our awareness about how harmful it is. Unfortunately a person may first encounter sexual harassment in the family. The story “If You Were My Legend” details a transgression by a love-crazed brother, but his victim pushes back and stands her ground. She recounts the incident in her story “The Match,” devastated by the broken trust. The perpetrator and the victim interpret their confrontation differently, which is something we’ve been seeing a lot of in the news.
The family is supposed to be a safe haven. The father in the story “The Umbrella” takes a strong ethical stand on a teacher’s role as an educator and a parental figure. He seizes a teachable moment to establish the no-excuse rule for sexual harassment. Of course, his teenage daughter has already learned the lesson and fought back once before. These issues have always been with us. I’m glad to see them getting the attention they deserve now.
You participated in the 1989 Tiananmen Square student uprisings in China. Many of our readers were born after those events. What should people know about that experience? Do you see any connections with the current volatile political climate in the U.S.?
The Tiananmen Square protest defined us as a generation. In 1989 I marched for democracy with millions of people, not only students but also teachers and workers and people from all walks of life. For a short while there seemed to be real possibility that political reform and democracy could come to China. Our hope was dashed by the Tiananmen Square massacre. Then came the crackdown. Anything politically sensitive was censored. There were the labor camps. Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese Nobel Peace Prize laureate, recently died, basically in prison. I came to the U.S. shortly after the crackdown.
Having lived through that fight, I believe that Chinese people want democracy and are ready for it, regardless what the government says. I don’t believe the mere pursuit of material wealth, which has been front and center in Chinese life since 1989, can satiate the spiritual hunger for personal freedom. I became an immigrant writer. Since I couldn’t publish realistic fiction in China under the censorship, I chose English as my first language to write fiction.
We made our home in the Bay Area, and my children were born in Berkeley. Now they are teenagers, and Trump is the president. This beautiful country that once infused me with hope and dreams now fills me with trepidation for an uncertain future. Intellectually I can understand that some Americans take democracy for granted, but it doesn’t soften the blow. Trump’s blatant denial of press freedom and his rhetoric of dictatorship remind me of the previous life from which I escaped.
We have come to a crossroad. For some, it represents golden opportunities, and others, a gruesome fight for survival. We are being tested, both as a nation and as a people. I came from an ancient civilization, where people have endured wars, famines, natural disasters, and political upheavals for many centuries. It is sobering that our generation is not exempt from the test, and neither is the U.S.
The Tiananmen Square protest is a cautionary tale. I am grateful for America’s peaceful transition of power, which could not have happened in China. Yet the new erosion of principles, morality, and decency takes a toll on the public life as well as the private life. Resistance is for survival, because if we are not careful, soon, before we know it, our children will be left with nothing to squander. As we come to a precipice, there will be no safety net—grace, honor, or compassion—to catch our falling.
So I beseech each and everyone: never give up. We are bigger and more resilient than our problems. Every one of us is unique, flawed, fragile, yet powerfully human. Please reach out and touch one another with your courage, compassion, and humility, before it is too late.
Finally, there is no shortage of ways to spend one’s time. Why do you choose to write fiction?
In hindsight I can see that my temperament is suited to be a writer: I’m an observer, endlessly curious, and sympathetic toward people. Being a compulsive storyteller, I love words and books. I have a spiritual bent that makes me look down on material things. I want to be free and use my imagination. The crowd makes me nervous. I feel safe and alive in my solitude.
Because I came to writing late, I wrote my first story when I was 26, I don’t think being a writer is a title but a responsibility. I would only call myself a writer, if I’m producing good work, good not in the sense that I compare myself to other writers, but to myself, how hard I have worked, and if I have had a breakthrough. So you could say that I became a fiction writer, because I craved the hard work. I can never be satisfied with my writing; what satisfies me is the process—I am a lifelong student of the writing craft and human nature.