Fae Myenne Ng and I spent six hours spread over two days girl-talking—sharing immigrant stories we inherited as first generation born Americans. Her brilliant, stark novel, Bone reveals worlds: Inside San Francisco’s Chinatown, in between Chinatown, and beyond. Ng’s pristinely chosen words depict close-up images of lives: a Chinese immigrant working class family with three daughters all born here and a community of elderly bachelors who are strangely familiar. Fae Myenne Ng invites reflexive intimacy into dilemmas of migration, assimilation, acceptance, and passage … story-telling as if she ate away at the flesh of these issues to get to the bone: Bittersweet.
Angel Shaw In Bone, The narrator’s stepfather, Leon, tells us, “Sorrow moves through the heart, the way a ship moves through the ocean. Ships are massive but the ocean has simple superiority.” Leon described the power, “One mile forward and then eight miles back. Forward and forward and then back.” I saw your writing style, the way you weave the stories together, in that motion. A motion of a traveler on a ship. Many Chinese immigrant men worked in the shipping industry. And the similarities between that and the motion of the sewing machine—the women’s sweatshops. I wanted to know how conscious that was when you were writing?
Fae Myenne Ng I wanted the writing of the book to echo the rhythm of work, how hard it is to make a living. The image of a ship moving through the sea seemed to be the best way to talk about that. The image comes from life, Leon crosses the ocean to come to this country. I wanted to remember that crossing and to think about what he held onto, this ideal of coming to a better place, making a better life for future generations. I think of Mah and Leon, immigrants, as sacrifice characters. Once they set sail, their personal lives were essentially over. I wondered what they thought about, what they hoped for on that three month voyage?
I hoped the momentum would come close to charting the way one faces one’s true feeling. One of the emotions that all characters in this book share is the desire to escape, which is one way of talking about change.
AS Part of the book’s beauty is the way you use contradiction. It has this feeling of repetition and yet you’re not repeating.
FMN I wanted to write about what it felt like to live in worlds of contrasts. Speaking Chinese but needing English. Mah and Leon came to this country for a better life, but they are shut inside a ghetto. What it felt like for their daughters to live in a glass globe, looking out at the world and sensing all the possibilities but not being able to leave. What it felt like for Lei to find the courage to marry for love when her own mother married for convenience. I also wanted to look at the old Chinese bachelor society and ask, what of that is our inheritance, what of that tension still separates men and women? It’s reflected in Mah and Leon’s complicated love and resentment in marriage, how they find a way to love. Mah works in the sweatshops, Leon at sea. I wanted to know, in what space does their marriage exist? Mah and Leon both start out with high hopes and dreams, but along the way they have to face that success won’t come the way they imagined and they learn to endure what is given to them, and to find some satisfaction with the idea that their children might enjoy a better life. It’s not simple. I wanted to write about what it is like for the children to inherit a better place, the gratefulness and the great guilt that comes with it.
AS All of the characters have a relationship not only to the family but also to Chinatown and to this distant home or what may have been home: China.
FMN The moving backwards structure comes from life. I grew up among the Chinese bachelor society, a generation of old timers who, because of a whole series of conditions—exclusion and miscegenation laws, revolutions in China—came to this country to work and ended up not being able to return home. I kept hearing these phrases: “When we go back home,” and, “Things were better back there.” I wanted to know, what was back there and I wanted to know where home was.
AS There is this sense that if you break tradition or don’t stay in your order, your life is going to be bad luck. The book raises the questions. The reader answers.
FMN It was very important for me to ask questions but not dictate the answers. It was very important to respect the reader. I wanted the narrator’s trueness to invite the reader into this world, and I allow the unfolding of the story itself to sustain this intimacy between the narrator and the reader. Reading is a very private experience and the reader brings their own worlds of insights and possibilities to the book. For example, Ona, the middle daughter’s suicide. Why did Ona do it? I wanted, in the book, to honor Ona’s decision, to talk about the possibility of understanding that her death is a private moment, a very intimate moment. It’s hard to honor a decision like that. But it’s very important to suggest that there is a way of doing so.
AS Suicide as a metaphor is a point of departure. It’s a rebirth or a moving on.
FMN The book is about the desire to escape and the dangers of doing so. Every leave-taking has its consequences. Immigration is a king of leave-taking: Leaving one’s country, one’s family, leaving a position that is no longer nurturing, or just wanting to change. Ona’s suicide might be seen as a kind of immigration. Everybody she leaves behind has to find their own way to go on. I wanted to ask the question, how to honor Ona’s decision to go? Maybe everyone in the Leong family does so by leaving it alone. I wanted to write about how each family member has to learn how to live with not knowing why Ona did it.
AS When the younger sister, Nina, leaves she’s trying to find a way to assimilate. A way to be.
FMN She also exiles herself. It’s a form of banishment. Self-exile. She leaves a place no longer nurturing, much like how Leon and Mah left China. All the sisters deal with it differently. Lei finds a way to straddle the worlds. She’s been able to embrace her parents and at the same time, live. Live with Ona’s suicide, with Nina’s departure. Live because she made a decision to love. In some ways, her recollection of these stories is her understanding that she’s going to do more than survive. I wanted to speak to the difficulties of any child who has to witness the parent’s pains and difficulties. The tremendous burden on the child who wants to make things better for the parents. It’s difficult emotionally. Leon and Mah don’t have time to learn English, and they want their children to speak for them. And the children, because they love their parents and want to see their parents have a life will take on this job. Lei is a woman who feels very badly for having more opportunities than her mother. For having an opportunity of love. It’s a great moment of courage when she can marry for love. In love and marriage, she has better than her mother and she suffers for this.
AS Although Lei becomes the story teller, the writing style is so stark, it enabled you to let all the characters speak, even Chinatown itself.
FMN The place, Chinatown, is a character too. When you’re living in overcrowded conditions and your lives are stacked one on top of another, when you depend so closely on other members of the community, there is an intermingling of personalities and goals. It’s hard to carve out private space. I wanted to write about that kind of connected space. Just like the bones of old timers which were all eventually intermingled in the ground, no longer separate and contained within their own gravesites. It speaks to the conditions of working class life here. Eventually, we all blend into the earth, we all are of this earth.
AS Can you talk about the Bone metaphor, where the title comes from?
FMN Among the pioneer generation of Chinese immigrants, the worlds of work and family were separate. America was work and China was home. The ritual of sending our ancestors’ bones back home to China was one that moved me. I included bone among the five chinese elements: fire, water, metal, earth, and wood. I thought bone was the best metaphor to speak about the enduring quality of the immigrant spirit. The book is called Bone to revere the old timers’ tradition of sending their bones back to China. Yet, it’s interesting what happens within the book. Ona jumps from a place called the Nam, a name with significance. That when Ona dies, she jumps, it is toward Chinatown, not facing the outside world, and that she breaks all her bones.
AS The old timers pass their dreams along and it transforms into hope. What would you call that transformation? What do you see in that for future generations?
FMN The book comes from witnessing how hard the immigrant generation worked. I would also say that the witness of the oldtimers’ passing inspired me. They had a generosity in their passing. I felt that they gave us the whole world. And I was grateful for this and I tried to give that sense of appreciation to Lei.
AS Bone was very successful in addressing issues of identity in terms of race and class and gender without reducing their complexity in our everyday lives. Did taking 10 years to write this novel have anything to do with your process of understanding these issues?
FMN My life has informed the writing of this book. The book needed that time. In this book, I wanted to chart time through relationships. I wanted to look at how people loved, how people choose their family. Mason allows his wife, Lei, to lean on him, but not to the point of damage. He gives her the space and the courage to face her fears. In Mah and Leon’s relationship, I wanted to look into another kind of love, a slow-building, difficult loving. There’s a phrase in the book, “You fight at one end of the marriage bed and make up at the other,” which is to speak about how contained their lives are.
Further on in the book, there’s a companion phrase in the moment before intimacy: “I say the fist. Two hands praying. Two fists sparring.”
AS Yesterday, we were talking about language and dialogue, your dialogue is very minimal.
FMN I wanted the language of the book to reflect the frugality of the hard working class. I wanted the language to have a certain leanness. These people don’t talk unless it’s absolutely necessary. Then what’s absolutely necessary is just the absolute truth. I wanted to write as hard as they worked. No fat. The immigrant coolie generation didn’t eat any more than they needed to. They didn’t speak any more than they needed to. That was inspiring. There was a beauty about their ability to exist in a very clean space. So I wanted to capture that spatial quality in the book. The image I had was of a woman in her chair, sewing, a man on a park bench, sitting. I didn’t want the book to take on more space than necessary.
AS What are some of the responses to your novel?
FMN A group of mechanics, friends of my brother, came to my reading in San Francisco. One guy came up to me after the reading and told me that this was his first reading, his first book signing. He looked like he couldn’t believe he was there. I liked the loyalty he showed my brother, and who knows, maybe a tolerance for me, and a curiosity about books. Maybe he’s read the book by now and maybe he gets a kick out of recognizing a bit of his world on the page. Maybe he had a moment where he felt like he would have an authoritative opinion about whether or not this book was true. That’s my hope, that my book can be an invitation.
AS You mentioned in your New York Times review that your parents don’t speak English. It must be difficult to try to share this novel with them.
FMN It’s been a learning experience. I do it in small steps. I told them that the title reveres the tradition of sending the ancestor’s bones back to China. They love that. From that they can understand the heart of the book. I learned from them. They’ve suffered, they had hard lives. That was their gift to me. They offered their suffering. It’s a generosity and courage that is unique to immigrants and their children. They give in an absolute way. I lived a life that was given to me through their courageous example. I felt like an immigrant writing this book. I took one step off land and pushed off into the unknown. I had no guarantee. There was no sure route. But I had witnessed my parents suffering. What could go wrong, what could be harder?