On September 20, North Central College and 30 North were honored to receive author Kimberly Garrett Brown as a speaker, as she shed some light on the
process of writing, editing, and publishing her new book, Cora’s Kitchen. The staff of 30 North interviewed Brown for a half hour, before she was set to read a passage from the just-released novel in Kiekhofer Hall’s Koten Chapel.
We kicked off the interview by asking about her experience with her publisher, Inanna Publications; in particular, we wanted to know if Brown had to make any significant alterations to her manuscript before it could be sent out into the world.
“There were a lot of edits,” Brown said, “I’m not gonna call them ‘changes,’ because I feel like they were more ‘enhancements.’ Think of a draft or a manuscript like a painting; if you think about a painting, it starts out as a sketch. In the sketching process, you’re erasing […] and when you pull your paints out, you’re starting to do different things. The last edit is best described as an enhancement.”
She described a feeling of being overwhelmed after looking at the suggested edits sent back to her draft. “Each time you do a revision, it’s about expanding or growing that scene, or that character, or planting things. […] As you do that, it will ruin you for reading other books, because you’ll start to see it,” she added with a laugh.
We asked Brown what she felt was the most difficult part of the writing and publishing process.
“Rejections,” she answered succinctly. “Stephen King, Annie Lamott, they can tell you they’ve been rejected and you’re like ‘Mmhm. Okay, sure.’ It hurts every time, it really does.”
She spoke candidly about individual accounts of rejection. Some were quick. Some were tedious. Some even dangled some false hope before being unceremoniously crushed. She described the emergence of an inner critic alongside the rejections, a doubt that made her question the strength of her work. Still, Brown stressed more than anything, “You have to keep doing it.”
The bitter taste of rejection, however, did little to sully Brown’s love for the craft. She told us about the piles of journals in her house, piles that touched the ceiling. The process of writing sometimes seemed tedious from the outset, but once she found momentum in her desk, the words flowed.
As the interview went on, Brown covered much ground with the staff of 30 North in matters personal and professional. Discussing the content of her novel, which takes place in the 1920s, she professed her love for the Harlem Renaissance, particularly the work of the poet Langston Hughes, who has a major presence in Cora’s Kitchen. The drafting stage would see her unearth much more of the history behind the period, but from the outset, she knew what she wanted to write. “I knew when I started the novel that I wanted it to be during that time, but I hadn’t done the research to understand it more,” Brown said. “I just loved that time.”
Kimberly Garrett Brown is a published author whose fiction and non-fiction work has appeared in publications such as Anthology Askew, The Rumpus, and Compass Magazine. Her most recent novel, Cora’s Kitchen, is available from Barnes & Noble and Anderson’s Bookshop.
To prospective undergrad writers, poets, or wordsmiths,
We are excited to announce the return of North Central College’s literary journal! The staff will be reviewing pieces for potential publication in our Fall and Spring issues. Any interested parties should visit our Submittable and review our guidelines before writing to us.
Before you decide to quit writing because you got rejected, remind yourself why you write. Remind yourself why writing is your passion. Rejection should not be a motivation to quit; look at it as a motivation to improve as a writer, to create new opportunities for yourself. What is it that makes writers hesitate to publish their work? Well, there are a lot of reasons. One reason may be because they are afraid of not being good enough, thinking that their writing is not the best. Let’s say that you pour your feelings into what you write only to get negative reviews in the end. This makes you feel disappointed and leads you to believing writing is not meant for you.Try not to think this way. Remember that there will be moments in which you won’t succeed at something but that does not mean you need to stop. The reality is that you need to accept rejection when it comes to your writings. If you get rejected by a publishing company, do not start to talk negatively to yourself. Instead remember that being rejected does not mean that it is not worth being a writer. Rejection should not be associated with worth. You do not just write in the beginning and magically become a best-selling novelist the next day. To be passionate about writing means you’re 100% dedicated to growing over time as a writer.
American poet Sylvia Plath once said: “I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.” When your writing gets denied, it is important that you do not let it make you question yourself if you are meant to be a writer. Rejection should only make you realize what you are weak in when it comes to writing and how you can improve. You need to get back into writing by relying on different methods that allow you to concentrate, such as reading more, writing about something you are passionate about, or being in an environment that helps you become energized. Avoiding rejection is not possible; as a writer, being rejected is inevitable. Do not let the negative comments take power over you. Just because someone says to you that your book will not sell because it is science fiction or because it is a fairytale, it does not mean you should start writing about something that pleases people. You need to write for yourself, and through enthusiasm, you will be able to achieve your writing goals.
We’re a creative bunch at 30 North. Some of us are writers. Some are graphic designers or visual artists. We’re sculptors, musicians, painters, and poets. What we all have in common is that we all create, and if given the chance, we’d likely jump at an opportunity to make a living from it. Yet, we are also all painfully aware of just how difficult it is to do just that. Thus, we were beyond excited to be given a chance to interview Chloe Benjamin, a best-selling novelist, and the author of both The Immortalists and The Anatomy of Dreams. Chloelet us in on what it takes to go from merely daydreaming in a library, to seeing your first novel stocked on the shelves at Barnes and Noble.
Our interview with Chloe takes place on a Monday evening. It’s mid-September and it’s Chicago, so it’s warm out – about 80 degrees – though considering that we’re all stuck inside due to the pandemic, it might as well be snowing. Instead, the temperature is the usual universal 70-something degrees of air-conditioning. The sky is neither clear nor cloudy; it’s a lovely shade of ceiling.
The specter of COVID still hangs grim and menacing over our heads, so we’re doing the interview over Zoom – just to be safe.
A few more minutes pass, and Chloe joins the call.
She has blonde hair and is wearing a simple green t-shirt. The room behind her is neat and tidy. It’s almost five-o-clock, but somehow the space seems bright as daylight. It’s the perfect complement to her personality. She’s intelligent, eager to pass on what she knows, and she immediately goes about finding ways to engage with us.
Personally, I’d always imagined that a New York Times best-selling author would be tantamount to any kind of celebrity – the type who demand permission to spit on you before they’d even consider posing for a selfie. Instead, Chloe is the most approachable person in the world. She seems how any one of us might turn out after a couple of years (and a couple of books). Like most of us, she’s wanted to be a writer since she was a kid – in her case, going all the way back to age eight. For her undergraduate, she majored in English, and took several classes in creative writing. Afterwards, at the behest of her senior writing professor, she pursued an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in creative writing. At the time, she claims, this wasn’t the obvious route for young writers that it has since become (even now, she advises that we should only pursue that sort of program if it offers us a full financial ride). For a while she worked a day job as an administrative assistant – a career choice which she recommends to aspiring authors due to how it divides one’s time between “work” and “writing”. However, with two best-selling novels under her belt, Chloe now writes full time.
And yes, she swore while telling us her reaction to learning she’d be on Live with Seth Meyers. We all laugh. She apologizes and asks if it’s okay. Naturally, it is. It cements the image of a “best-selling author” as being a genuine human being, rather than some edifice of unobtainable success. For her, that guest appearance was a genuinely shocking moment. I would imagine that any of us would respond in the exact same way.
It’s hard to imagine Stephen King or J.K. Rowling sitting paralyzed with insecurity before the keys of a typewriter or reacting with genuine shock to the trappings of fame. For most of us, I imagine that the names on the covers and spines of novels are like institutions. They’ve always been there. They’ve always been successful. They always will be. They could doodle out a poem on a cocktail napkin, and watch it become a New York Times Bestseller by next Monday.
Yet, the notion of “permanent success” is one of the first myths that Benjamin disproved to us. In her eyes, it is a delusion that any of us – or by extension, any writer period – will one day reach a point where their work will see universal acceptance from any publisher.
Instead, she says that you will always have pieces that are rejected, at every point in your career. No author has their work judged merely on the level of celebrity attached to their name. At the end of the day, publishers have a business to run. They’re not going to invest in something that will lose them money.
Yet, even if you absolutely love everything you write (which, you won’t, sorry), the decision of what is and isn’t published won’t always rest entirely upon your skill as a writer.
Anyone who’s ever heard of the VIDA Count knows that the lack of representation of women and non-binary writers in publishing is a very real dilemma. It’s a disparity that only worsens at higher levels of literary fame. And if “what’s hot” is a reflection of whatever the biggest names in the business are churning out, and if the majority of those “big names” are men, it isn’t hard to see just how problematic and limiting it can be to navigate the publishing world when one lacks the mantle of institutionalized privilege.
According to Chloe, what’s traditionally seen as “important” is still very much defined by the work of male writers. Thus, “important”, in context of the literary world, rarely refers to content involving relationships, domestic life, or anything else considered traditionally feminine. In the one-hundred-and-fifty years since famed American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne decried the first commercially successful female authors as “damned scribbling women”, little has truly changed. Chloe revealed that, for a while, she was hesitant to use “too much emotion” in her writing, for fear of being labeled a “sentimentalist” writer.
With all of that in mind, it would be easy to see the big names in publishing as some monolithic hindrance in the path of any up-and-coming writer. Yet, Chloe reminds us that the success of these institutional workhorses allows publishing companies to feel more comfortable taking a chance on a risky investment, like a passion project, or an up-and-coming unknown. She also assures us that a legitimate cultural shift has recently begun to occur. Sentimentality and emotion are starting to gain traction in the literary world. Serious works no longer need to be devoid of any heart.
So, having discussed writers big and small – what kind of writer is Chloe Benjamin?
“I want to control every aspect of the world I’m working on” she states as she explains why she would have trouble collaborating on a novel with another writer. Of course, that isn’t to say that Chloe is at all antisocial. The need for control that she expresses is a mood likely every writer is familiar with. Creative writing ultimately becomes a writer’s own, person sandbox. Being forced to share the mantle of godhood while within that space only serves to take away from the fun.
Besides, truth-be-told, Chloe is anything but anti-social. In gathering research for her novels, she’s worked with mathematicians, magicians, theater experts – even an astrophysicist. She needs to. While she acknowledges there is an inherent merit to “writing what you know”, Chloe prescribes that aspiring writers should instead “write what [they] want to know about”. Since no one is an expert on everything, this means being prepared to go out and do research. Sometimes this can simply mean a trip to the library. Other times, it can mean taking a much more “gonzo” approach and getting personally involved. She reveals that getting involved in theatre acting ended up being a great way for her to develop an understanding of speech, which she then translated into finding better ways of employing dialogue in her work. And of course, sometimes there’s no substitute for an in-person interview – hence why we’re all currently in the middle of a zoom call, picking the brain of a best-selling novelist.
While all this research might seem like a lot of extra work, especially for someone who writes fiction, Chloe insists that, as a writer, you owe it to your audience to write with integrity. Get something wrong, and you will end up hearing about it.
So, what about original ideas? According to Chloe, inspiration might certainly feel like a gift from the divine. Yet, at the end of the day, your initial concept will always come from somewhere deep within you. Similarly, she states that to be an artist, you must truly feel internal motivation. You must want to make it. Granted, that seems like an obvious point – but, as Chloe states – to make it, you can’t just write for the sake of self-pleasure. You must do that which is necessary to mold and hone your craft so that it can compete in the publishing world.
Inherent in that effort is accepting that it is a process that will not always be fun. It will – at times, often – be genuine work. It is also difficult. One must run the gauntlet of maintaining both intense self-criticism – enough to keep both yourself and your perception of your work grounded in reality – and absurd faith – enough to feel comfortable submitting your work time and time again for the world to judge and read. That might be easy if you love what you’re working on. But what if you don’t?
“Even when you hate what you’re working on”, Chloe states, “you have to love it.”
If this all seems a bit contradictory, well – it’s because it is. If it’s not entirely apparent yet, being a writer is, like many things in life, something that requires you to find and maintain a balance between seemingly incompatible forces.
It all can very easily become a headache; the key, she says, is to push through the pain.
So how does Chloe recommend reckoning with what ultimately feels like a world of contradiction?
“Nothing shuts creativity down like fear”
The answer, it would seem, is to just “let go”.
Obviously, the road to success as a novelist – or any other sort of writer for that matter – is not a one-and-done achievement. As with any craft that tends to be described with the whole “road-metaphor thing” (honestly, society needs to come up with more options in this department), the journey never really ends. As stated before – you’re never going to reach a point at which everything you do is a “win”.
Chloe herself states that she “came into her own” as a writer only during the writing of her second book. Her first book, “Anatomy of Dreams”, was initially rejected by several publishers. Before then, her portfolio of published works consisted only of some poetry that had been printed in small, local journals, she refused to withhold from self-identifying as a writer. As it turns out – at least, according to Chloe – the barrier between being “someone with a dream of being a writer”, and being “a writer”, is simply believing that you are.
Yes, there’s always a very real chance of your work being rejected – but that doesn’t have to be the end of all the effort you placed into it. Instead, she advises us to never throw anything out – no matter how stupid or embarrassingly immature we may believe our drafts and rejected pieces to be. You can always use parts from these pieces in future works. At the same time, Chloe warns us not to hyper-focus on the audience’s approval. “Give yourself a chance to imagine!” she pleads, “Nothing shuts down creativity like fear.” You don’t have to be afraid of constantly coming up with ideas that will please your audience. While the craft of writing shouldn’t be entirely self-serving, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t trust your gut, either. Nor does it mean that you should never have fun. Sometimes, you need take a break from obsessing over “success” and just let yourself write.
More than anything, I think she wanted us to not be afraid of just sitting down, picking up a pen or pencil, and just writing.
You see, according to Chloe, the worst feeling that a writer can experience isn’t the doldrums of writers’ block, or the frustration of working on an assignment you aren’t inherently thrilled to undertake. Rather, it’s to have nothing at all – no project, no novel, no outlet to release that which lies within you and so desperately wishes to be let out. So just keep going. Pillage and pilfer from your discarded drafts. Dig down to your deepest reaches and seek out original concepts. Don’t discard criticism; but know when to let that negativity go. Regardless of whatever milestones you’ve reached, of how many pieces you’ve published, or of how many times you’ve faced rejection, you will always be a writer – as long as you write.
So, go, get out, and do it.
I would like to give a very special thank you to Chloe Benjamin for taking the time to speak to us here at 30 North, and for helping a new generation of hopefuls feel just a little more secure when it comes to following their dreams.
Hello all you beautiful cardinals! It is wonderful to have you all back. Even with the masks on you’re all still beautiful human beings! Isn’t it wonderful to be back on campus? You get to make connections with other students!
We at 30 North Magazine are aware of the changes happening due to COVID-19, and we want you to be well, but keep in mind that sharing your writing and art can make a difference in these difficult times, please submit to 30 North and put your work out there!
Due to the novel coronavirus COVID-19, large in-person gatherings have been banned indefinitely and college classes at North Central College have been suspended for the remainder of the semester. We plan to send the magazine to print once the Fall 2020 semester begins.
We will continue to update this page about the state of the magazine as news develops. Thank you for your loyalty and patience. We hope you all take care and stay inside as much as possible.
We recently had another successful Underground Event!
The theme this time around was “What’s Love Got to do With It?”
We gathered around the cozy presentation screen fire with our soft pretzels and hot cider as our emcees Merrick Ramza, Josh Bouie, and Rana Hussain guided the open mic for the night. The performances ranged from readings of poems by their favorite author to musical performances based on their first love/heartbreak.
At the end of the event, we continued our tradition of a group poem in which each attendee writes down a line and passes the piece of paper to the next person until it reaches everyone in the room. As Merrick read aloud each line, it was admirable to see how engaged each person in the room was: some lines had us burst into laughter, while others had us pondering the emotion behind them.
Overall, we at 30 North want everyone to know how appreciative we are for everyone who stopped by to listen, perform, or connect in any way they could. Please follow us on our social media for posts from this event and updates for next year’s Underground events.
Lucy Tan is the author of What We Were Promised (Hachette Book Group, 2018), her debut novel which has been lauded by critics, with The Washington Post, Refinery 29 and Amazon all calling it one of the best books of 2018. She has been published in journals such as Asia Literary Review, McSweeney’s and Ploughshares.
She attained an MFA in creative writing from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she also won the August Derleth Prize. We at 30North encourage our readers to seek out her writing, for it is very worthwhile.
30North: This is your debut novel–how did you feel once the book was published? For anyone who is looking to have their work published one day, do you have any advice for them?
Lucy: That’s a good question. It’s funny, because I first published my book July of 2018, which was almost a year ago. I have felt such a range of emotions since then, it’s hard to isolate just one. Overall, I think I feel relief. It’s a weird way to think about it, but if I’m really honest with myself, I have wanted to do this for a very, very long time–I have wanted to get a book out there. And I think about the writer that I was before that publication came out, and after, and I think of myself in some ways as a more anxious person, but as a writer, a little bit more relaxed.
When I was writing the novel I was in my MFA program and I remember waking up earlier and earlier everyday. First, I would wake up at 7:00, then 6: 30, and then 6:00, and once I started waking up at 4:30, I said this can’t be healthy. But it was good for the book, because I was thinking just about that book, and I poured all of my energy into it. I’m in this stage right now where I’m kind of recovering and writing my second novel more slowly than I did the first, which for me creates these questions: am I not doing it the right way? Because I only did it the one way, which was successful. What is it like if I’m not as focused on writing? Because after your book comes out, you stop being just a writer, you’re also an author. So you do fun things like come to colleges and have conversations with students, you’re teaching, you’re traveling–all of that requires energy. Which means you have less energy and focus that you can spend on your writing.
I think the challenge for me right now in my career is finding a way to balance the two. I’m spending time on my writing, and I’m using my focus and best energy there, while also doing what I’ll call the “maintenance work” of being an author; even though, that is not the best way to put it, because I love it. I love being an author. I love getting out there and talking to readers, and I love being involved in the book community and helping other authors. That’s a part of my job I really like–but it also requires a really different set of skills than the writing, which requires you to communicate with the most private version of yourself. The version that is not the person who would be sitting in a room being interviewed. So, that’s probably a very involved way of answering your question.
My advice to writers who are seeking publication would probably be one piece of advice I got that was really valuable to me. Early on when I was writing my novel, I met a playwright by the name of Lydia Davis, and she had been writing for a very long time, since she was in her teens. And she said, “The stuff I was writing then, when I was 18, is very different from what I am writing now. And you could say I’m a much better writer now, and many people say they are embarrassed by what they wrote when they were younger.”
But her view is that she can never write the same story as when she was 18, because she is a different person now. And that 18 year old writer had an audience, who she has moved away from a little bit. As someone who has always kept my writing pretty close to the chest, always wondering is my piece ready, is it mature, this advice made me realize that there is a version of whatever I’m working on that will mean something to someone else. Hopefully. And I owe it to myself to not be dismissive of the work that I was doing then, or am doing now, thinking that the work I will do in the future will matter more. Because I don’t think that’s necessarily true.
So my advice to writers seeking publication is to put your all into every single thing you’re working on. So don’t say “When I one day write a novel, I have this great metaphor I’m gonna use. I’ve described these trees in this spectacular way and I’m going to save it for that novel”. Things don’t work that way, because you change, you mature as a writer. So put everything you have in whatever you’re doing right now. That is the surefire way to get better as a writer.
30North: What inspirations went into the crafting of the novel and characters?
Lucy: What We Were Promised is set in contemporary Shanghai where I spent two years after college living with my parents in this luxury hotel. This became the setting of What We Were Promised. I remember when I was actually living the experience, I didn’t think I would write about it–maybe one day, I thought, but really, I was just absorbing everything, and feeling kind of alienated, because I was an English speaker. My Chinese wasn’t totally fluent, and I didn’t really have a community. So I was struggling there, a little bit, but it turned out to be one of the most important times in my life because I took notes, and then later, when I was in my MFA program and missing China–because I write best when I’m missing a place–I was able to access that passion. I think it was in the process of writing the novel that I was emotionally processing what I had seen in China, and a lot of my viewpoints of the way that people live there, and how it’s changed in the past couple decades, comparing what I saw to the sort of stories my parents told me about their lives when they were living in China in the 70’s and 80’s. It was those two years that really served as inspiration for the novel, and from there on, I was going back to China and more deliberately thinking, “Who can I interview? What can I see that will help this book take shape?”
Writing a novel seems like an insurmountable thing, but you just take it step by step, write a little bit, do a little research, write a bit more, and once you put in those hours, you realize you have something you might not have been able to hold in your head all at once. But, after all those accumulated hours, you have the first draft of a novel. And it’s surprising I think–it felt surprising to me–that the process could go that way.
30North: So, considering your experience there, in China, what obligation do you think writers have in staying true to reality in their writing?
Lucy: As an English speaker, you have the advantage of writing in a language that other languages translate into their own, more often than the other way around. This doesn’t come with rules, per se, but a sense of responsibility. To write falsely about a space where I’m not a native person could be harmful to the way those stories get out into the world. So the rule for me is that I want to get the essence of their truth, and their lives, as well as I can in my writing. Which is not to say I have done or will do it perfectly, but I think that the intention and the work has to be there.
Outside of that, I really think there are very few rules when it comes to what you can and cannot put into fiction. I had a teacher tell me that the only thing that a fiction writer promises to their reader is that the time spent with her or him will be worth it. And I’ve always really loved that idea, because it means that you can go anywhere.
30North: The title introduces us to the concept that the characters were promised better lives and new opportunities, though that doesn’t happen exactly how they anticipated. This microcosm of Chinese life, post-Maoism, and the rivalries of wealthy versus poor, or resident vs. ex-patriates, has a layered history unique to China. What was it about this culture that drove you to write this novel?
Lucy: My parents grew up in China, then they moved to the States for graduate school. They settled here. They had me here. I’m very much American. And though I’ve been to China many times, prior to living there in 2010, I didn’t have a relationship to China I felt wasn’t mediated by my parents. Living there was the first time I was making my own observations about the place. And one thing that made me uncomfortable was that I was living in this serviced apartment occupied mostly by Westerners and people employed by foreign companies, such as my dad, yet the staff were very often locals who could not communicate in the same language. These people would ring your doorbell in the morning to come change your sheets, vacuum your floor, wash your dishes, take out the trash, every single day. And that was a really strange experience for me. To have someone service our lifestyle in that way felt very privileged in a way that I wasn’t quite used to. And also, I was fascinated by the idea that these people could be handling your most intimate things: folding your panties, folding your jeans, and throwing out your trash, and cleaning your toilet, and you don’t really speak to them at all. I thought it was very odd.
And as a fiction writer, when you’re interested by something, you imagine it thoroughly, and I was curious about what it would be like to be a housekeeper in that situation. That’s how the character of Sunny came about. And I also met one of the people who worked in the restaurant in the hotel, and we became friends. I interviewed her, and tried to understand what it was like to work in that type of place. She cleaned homes at the hotel we were in, but she had engagements elsewhere as a housekeeper. That was the entrance point for my thinking about wealthy vs. poor in Shanghai, and the displacement happening to local Shanghai citizens, and also people who moved there as migrant workers to try and make a living in the city. I just think China is a place where so much is happening right now, economically, which of course has implications for the people who live there.
30North: Your novel’s filled with romanized Chinese words or phrases that may be unfamiliar to an English speaker, but develop the characters’ relationships. Why was it important to include these phrases?
Lucy: I had a tough time figuring out how to do this, because the Zhen family, the protagonists in my story, come from a culture where both languages are spoken. I thought of how to manage that: one way to do it is to have the entire thing in English; but then, there are just certain words that don’t translate. And I’ve read writing that is directly translated and it just sounds so strange. Really hyperbolic sometimes, and cartoonish other times, because the way that we speak in the Chinese language involves idioms that won’t make sense if translated directly. One way to get around that is to keep the Romanized pinyin, which is the written language that uses a type of phonetic spelling. So you can do that, and italicize it, but what that means is that you’re sort of making foreign a set of words that are not necessarily foreign to the character that’s thinking or saying it, which is also no good.
So what I settled on was this system of essentially not italicizing things, but putting them in pinyin as just part of characters’ everyday speech–but I would sometimes italicize terms that felt more modern, which the characters themselves would pause over because it was a term that was also new to them. A good example I could give is fuerdai, which means rich second generation. That’s a term that didn’t exist twenty years ago. And it’s referring to the way in that China is changing: how there is now a wealthy class and a privileged class, and how they have a specific stereotype.
30North: Could you have told this story centered around any other place in China than Shanghai?
Lucy: That’s a really great question, and I think probably not. But I can’t say for sure, because I don’t know other parts of China as well as I know Shanghai. Beijing is comparable in some ways, but it has a really different history.
30North: The issue of class is apparent in this novel. Why was it important for you to have characters in different class positions?
Lucy: Because that was so integral to what I was interested in, it’s hard to say why that felt important. When you consider China’s history, in the 1960’s, there was this very mandated and forced equality. That’s why this emergence of different classes is interesting in the context of China’s history. It has also just come about so quickly that it presents really interesting conflicts, especially in terms of social rules. For example, in China, asking someone’s salary is not a weird thing. I could have just met you, and ask “Josh, how much are you making driving this cab?”, or “Josh, how much are you making working at this TV station?”, and that would be a very normal thing to ask. There isn’t the issue of posturing, which is what I think happens when you have a longer history of class division. Part of the motivations behind class separation is to differentiate yourself from people you think are less than you. And we’re starting to see a little bit of that in China now, but of course it works very differently in a place where it hasn’t existed for centuries.
30North: Sunny and Lina are both women who don’t want to get married, wanting the freedom to choose their own paths instead. How do the ideas of sacrifice or compromise for marriage/love control women in Chinese and American culture?
Lucy: For women in certain places in China, the idea of not centering your life around marriage and family is unheard of. Sunny is from a place like this.
It’s weird when you think about how the system now functions, where in the cities women are more highly educated with high power jobs. But there is still a parental pressure to conform to the traditional role. For example, if you are a man or a woman, and you are not married, and you are past what they would call the marrying age or your late 20’s, your aunt or your mother might go to people’s square on a Saturday with a stack of flyers advertising your physical characteristics, maybe with a picture, a job, and other positive attributes that you might have. Mom or auntie might pass them around, try and make some connections for you, and this is considered normal. All of your male relatives are kind of looking around, seeing who’s available, looking forward to that day when you might be settled with your family. So there is an intense pressure for that to happen, not just for women, but for men as well. I think there’s more of a variation in terms of what families and cultures expect in the US when compared with China. I’m from the east coast, and I’m thirty years old, and I have two close friends who are married—that’s it.
30North: Sunny is interesting because she is a silent observer. She quickly learns the power of well-kept secrets in the nouveau riche of Shanghai. What is her character intended to say about the conflict between morality and power?
Lucy: I think all of my characters are at a point in their lives where they’re questioning what their values really are. Sunny starts out in this rural town, and she wants to go on to the city, because she thinks that there will be more opportunity, and opportunities to make money, but also so she doesn’t have that societal pressure to marry.
So one of her moral beliefs is that the individual is just as important as community. And she’s going to try to figure out what it means for her to be an individual. The first time she is surrounded by power is at the hotel, when she’s working for wealthy people. And before she works at Lanson Suites, and becomes an ayi to the Zhens, and sees everything up close and personal, she’s aware of this power, but also that she’s powerless within this power structure. So she doesn’t do very much about it except to think “This isn’t right, the way that we’re treated”. Once she steps into that role of an ayi, she thinks more about social mobility, and what that means for her, and what types of power are and aren’t okay for her—by the rules of her own moral beliefs—to succumb to.
One example I can give is that she never tells her employers her Chinese name. She’s always Sunny. She’s asked to give her name, and she doesn’t. So she’s someone who needs to draw this line between home and work life, because in a job like that, where you spend so many hours of the day with this other family, you can lose track of that line. So she thinks of that name, Sunny, as her uniform. The line can become blurred when your employers are giving you their passed-off clothing. What does that feel like, to wear someone’s passed-off designer clothing? And how much do you actually want that clothing? There’s a danger in wanting a lifestyle that it isn’t in your control to have.
30North: In the novel, Lina mentions how moving to the United States helped satisfy her yearning for independence; however, once moving back to China, Lena feels like she has lost a piece of herself. Do you feel this is a struggle taitais often deal with?
Lucy: I can’t speak for all taitais. I’ve known people who come to Shanghai, who love this new lifestyle. They love being part of the city, they love lunching, they love living in a nice place, and when they get re-assigned, when their company moves them to another country, or they have to go back home, they are very sad about it. But I think it’s also really, really common to feel a great sense of alienation, because you are in a place where you might not speak the local language. In Shanghai, there’s this certain kind of lifestyle that’s catered to ex-pats, and as ex-pats, you think “Great! I’m offered the creature comforts that I’m used to back home”, but also, you feel that there’s a kind of scrim between you and what real life in China is like. I definitely felt that living there. So you might always feel like a stranger, and I’m sure taitais have to deal with that all the time. And I’m sure there are women, and men, who have had lives and careers back in the States who now are in China and don’t feel productive in the way that they used to feel, and they have to find activities to fill their time. They essentially have to re-imagine their identities to fit the environment.
30North: Can you tell us about any new writing projects you’re working on?
Lucy: I’m working on a novel right now. It’s my second novel. It’s set in Wisconsin. It’s about three young women who grow up wanting to be actresses. So it’s very different, but I’m having a lot of fun with it. And I’m hoping–knock on wood–that it becomes…a book. A published book, and not just a book in my head.