The plot of Vanessa Hua’s new novel, A River of Stars, (Ballantine Books) is almost too absurd for summary. Scarlett, a pregnant Chinese woman, is sent by her wealthy, married lover to a gestation clinic in California, where she lives with other pregnant Chinese women planning to give birth on US soil so their children will acquire American citizenship. A conspiracy, a high-risk escape, a detective hunt, and a food cart business drama ensue. Dramatic as it sounds, hyperbole is often the foundation of the immigrant experience, filled with ventures equally comedic and perilous. As a journalist and columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, Hua has been documenting the Asian American community for years. Her fictional prose is as unembellished and informative as her journalistic work. She describes a stack of bills to be “damp as tofu skin,” and compares a mother frantically comforting a crying baby to “a soldier on Chairman Mao’s Long March,” stylistic choices that result in scrambling characters that are both comfortingly stereotypical yet distinctly singular.
Mary WangHow did you conceive of this novel?
Vanessa HuaI was pregnant with my twin sons and living in Southern California. I kept hearing about these maternity tourism homes that were getting busted. Wealthy Chinese women would arrive to give birth so their babies could get US citizenship. They were in the suburbs, and the neighbors were very confused as to why there were all these pregnant women coming and going. Mountains of diapers were piled in garbage cans, and the whole thing sounded like a brothel in reverse. It had me wondering what it was like to be that far away from home at the most vulnerable time in a woman’s life. What drove them to come here, and what did US citizenship for their children mean to them? I was hugely pregnant, and people were very kind to me and offered me seats. But I started to wonder about what happens when you get a dozen of pregnant women together? Who gets sympathy then?
MW As a journalist, what attracted you to writing fiction?
VHFiction can take off where the official record ends. You can make that imaginative leap of empathy.
MWDo you formulate your sentences differently across genres?
VHWhen it’s a weekly column, which I just filed, it’s the best I can do within that time frame. It’s the first draft of history, and by its nature, it’s tied to the news. I’m not sloppy or careless, but I can’t go over it in the same way as something that’s going to be printed, bound, and shipped over the country. Also, as a columnist I have an ongoing relationship with my readers, so there’s an intimacy that’s struck, as I’m a regular presence. With a novel, it invites the opportunity for the reader to sink deeply and sit with these characters for a hundred pages, but it’s not going to be a regular visit with me. Clarity is important to me, whether it’s fiction or not, but in journalism, every sentence has to be an arrow, pointing to what you’re trying to argue or show. Every sentence has to earn its place in fiction too, but there’s more time to get there.
MWWhat stirs your imagination, and what blocks it? Some might say that the imagination—and this is probably true of empathy too—is a muscle. Do you do anything to train that muscle?
VHMy imagination might be inborn, but it might also be that I was born to a Chinese family in America, and that, from a young age on, I was trained to understand difference. The foods I saw, the family arrangements, it was different than what I saw at home. My stories often come from wondering about a premise. If someone has found themselves in a situation, who’s the kind of person who would find themselves in that situation, and how are they going to get themselves out of there? Building up that muscle is about trying to set aside your assumptions and trying to understand someone else. When you’re an outsider, you’re trying to understand what that inside is, but you’re also trying to understand other outsiders.
MWYour characters have no paper trail or official record. They invent their own backstories and arrive as very different people than how they set out.
VHThat’s right. How else would their histories get documented if not through fiction? I’m fascinated by people and their desire to reinvent themselves and the stories they use to get ahead in life.
MWYou paint a wide canvas and capture different corners of the Chinese community with an almost anthropological quality. Other stories of yours, like “VIP Tutoring,” have a similar sensibility. They resist white American expectations and present characters who come from very different socioeconomic backgrounds with different immigration histories.
VHI have been writing about the Asian American community for so long, and no community is a monolith. San Francisco’s Chinatown is one of the densest neighborhoods in the city and the oldest Chinatown in the US. It has history, but, at the same time, it’s also as new as the latest immigrant that arrives.
MWSocial classes in modern China are more complex than they’ve ever ever been, in part because of the country’s recent uptick in wealth and political upheaval. Someone with cultural privilege, for instance, might not have much economic privilege, and the other way around.
VHIt’s the unspoken thing in America. The more privilege you have, the more likely you’re going to show up in sweatpants to class—everyone is supposed to be equal, but some markers are always present. When I went to visit China, I saw an incredible amount of stratification. Shanghai is filled with skyscrapers, but drive a few hours and you’ll see peasants farming with an ox. I had this exchange with a taxi driver who asked about my family history. I explained that my family had lived in China, but moved to Taiwan after the war. She said, “So your grandparents were rich?” I tried to explain it wasn’t like that. I told her that my parents came to the US for grad school, and she said, “So your parents are rich?” That, too made me uncomfortable. She asked if I rented my home and had a car, and I replied that I had my own place and had a car, so, then, of course, she said, “So you’re rich!” Was my Chinese up to snuff to be able to tease out those nuances of class, or did it really matter? To her, we were all rich. She was right. Asian Americans are considered the model minority, but that also masks the deep discrepancies that exist within the community.
MWYour characters also pose the question of what an immigrant is in the first place. A lot of them don’t quite fit the definition.
VHRight. Didi, for example, was born with US citizenship, but grew up in Taiwan. Identity, ethnicity, and nationality are not synonymous anymore. Even nations aren’t consistent, and borders change. What does citizenship really mean if you can change your nationality for tax purposes? What does loyalty mean? What does nationality or identity mean when you have the ability to move around globally?
MWYour short story collection, Deceit and Other Possibilities, focused on deceit in the same way that the characters in your novel are focused on the hustle. Yiyun Li once said that when she first came to the US, she noticed people loved talking about the weather. In China, she said, people don’t talk about the weather like they can do something about it, but it’s just a backdrop for life. She said that politics works the same way there. I could say the same for how both hustle and deceit play out in this book. It’s not negative or positive—it’s like the weather.
VHYes, it’s how life has to operate. Whether it’s the political system or dealing with racism and sexism in the society where they come from or have ended up in, my characters, even under the worst circumstances, are going to want to try and eek out possibility for themselves. Their actions could be downright criminal, or they could land in a grey area. Scarlett is shaped by her childhood and what it meant to survive in post-Cultural Revolution China. As a mother now, she understands what drove her mother then. Sometimes you have to choose options for your survival.
MWShe’s used to taking care of only herself, but then she ends up in San Francisco’s Chinatown, in a communal living set-up where kitchens and meals are shared, where the door never seems to close.
VHSingle Residency Occupancy (SRO) housing is prevalent in San Francisco. Because of racist immigration laws, these communities were isolated into bachelor societies for a long time and consisted only of single working men. But as immigration laws changed and families came through reunification policies, these places that were intended for one person now house entire generations of families. I’ve visited these communities as a reporter, and on the ground level you see the tourist shops and tea houses, but you go up and you see panties hanging in the window. Sixty percent of Chinatown’s housing stock are comprised of these SRO units. People told me that the places they lived in when they lived in China were bigger and nicer, but they came because, who turns down a chance to come to America?
MWThese structures were initially put in out of necessity, as protection against racism and marginalization, but you get the sense that they’re now starting to work in their favor, like the Chinatown benevolent associations. For New York’s Chinatown, these community structures are one of the small protections against gentrification, which looms as a big threat.
VHThat did keep it that way for a long time, together with zoning laws and the small size of the lots, which meant that a developer would have to buy a big number of lots and then knock it all down. But there are signs of gentrification. It’s everywhere in San Francisco. I’ve talked to community housing advocates who are very concerned about SRO’s that are gussied up and being marketed to people as an environmental home, like a “tiny home” or a capsule hotel.
MWThe act of choosing an English name seems important to this conversation. Scarlett chose a new name for her daughter, but when she was a little girl, she also chose an English name for herself, which she wrote down in her notebook. Her mother didn’t understand why she did that.
VHFor Scarlett, it’s about the act of choosing, whether it’s her own or her daughter’s English name. Sometimes when I do interviews with Chinese subjects, they’d give their English name because it’s safer for them to use that. You’re different people with different names. When you’re using your Chinese name—the name you grew up with—you feel your parents looking over your shoulders. For someone like Yiyun Li or other immigrant writers who write in English, the language they chose for themselves might be the language with which they feel the most freedom to write. In that same way, choosing a different name in English means you aren’t as weighted down by the expectations that came with your birth name. Having another name gives them another way to determine who they are in this other culture.