THE WRITING LIFE ... Deanna FEI
INTERVIEW BY ERIC FORBES
PHOTOGRAPHS BY DEANNA FEI
Tell me a bit about yourself and your family history.
I’m the middle of three daughters born in Flushing, New York, to parents who emigrated from Taiwan in the 1970s. My family has always been extremely tight-knit, perhaps partly because we grew up separated from extended family by long distances. To this day, my parents and my sisters keep me grounded and inspired; they are my backbone.
You were born in New York. Have you always lived in America?
I lived in China for four years—a year in Beijing, three in Shanghai. I also lived in Auckland, New Zealand, during my junior year of college. These experiences of living abroad have been some of the most eye-opening of my life, in terms of exploring my own ancestral home, discovering a country that had been entirely foreign to me, and, perhaps most importantly, teaching me to view my own society from new and critical perspectives.
What’s it like to live in New York?
It’s true that New York is a big, exciting, fast-paced city, but compared to a city like Shanghai, it can feel pretty calm. For me, it’s simply home; it’s where I grew up and where my family and friends are. The truth is, I’m probably not the best person to ask, since I’m usually locked away writing or reading.
I can’t remember a time when literature wasn’t my primary passion. When I was three, I was so shy that my teachers told my mother that they feared I had a mental handicap. My mother marched home and recorded me reading aloud my favorite book at the time: Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat. My teachers became newly attentive, and I gained the conviction that books could transform a life.
A few years later, I wrote my first short story, about a mouse who has no friends because no one can hear her when she tries to talk—until she gets on a rollercoaster, starts screaming, and finds her voice. Writing, to me, is still wrapped up in that: the struggle, the terror, the thrill, and the power of making yourself heard.
What does it mean to be a writer?
Being a writer is simply about writing: the work, day after day, of crafting precise and honest sentences, bringing original characters to life, striving to tell stories that matter. I think one of the best things about writing is that it forces you to resist complacency. That also means that it never gets easy.
Tell me a bit about A Thread of Sky. What was the seed of the novel? How did you go about creating the characters in your fictional universe? Did you know where you were going with the novel as you were writing it or did it evolve on its own? What are some of the themes you dealt with in it? Were you conscious of these when you first set out to write the story? Was there much research to do?
A Thread of Sky is the story of a family of six women who reunite for a tour of mainland China, seeking to reconnect with their ancestral home and with one another. The novel was inspired by an event in my own life. About ten years ago, I toured China with my mother, my sisters, my aunt, and my grandmother—six strong-willed, complicated Asian American women in all. I was struck by how seldom I have seen characters like these honestly and fully portrayed in American literature—and by the dramatic possibilities of this setup: the conflicts and secrets among six women, the generational and cultural divides in one family, the paradoxes inherent in seeing the country where one is supposed to be “from” on a guided package tour.
A few years later, I hadn’t stopped thinking about that tour. I started scribbling some notes and the characters began taking on lives of their own, completely apart from their real-life counterparts, and soon I was writing a novel. I knew that in order to write from the points of view of the older generations, particularly the grandmother, I needed a much deeper understanding of China. So I moved back there on a Fulbright Grant, intending to stay for another year.
I immersed myself in researching contemporary Chinese history and soaking up modern life in Shanghai, while making periodic trips to the cities on my characters’ itinerary. This time, I viewed the sights through their eyes, carrying their histories and personalities everywhere I went. I also researched southern village life in the 1920s and ’30s, the brutality of the Japanese occupation, the ravages of civil war on ordinary citizens, the nature of living as exiles and immigrants, and the history of Chinese feminism. But even my daily life became my daily inspiration, whether I was riding the bus, ordering breakfast, hanging my laundry out on bamboo poles, or going to a gallery opening. My novel continually evolved during my time in China—so much so that it’s difficult for me to recall that real-life tour. It transpired over just two weeks, whereas the writing of A Thread of Sky became a six-year odyssey.
The emotional weight of the novel seems to rest on Irene, the mother. You seem to give more weight to her as opposed to the grandmother, the aunt or the three grandchildren. Was that deliberate?
I was about a year into the writing when I realized that the story had to begin and end with Irene. My original intention was to give equal weight to all six women, but I came to see that Irene’s emotional journey was, in many ways, the heart of all of their journeys. She is the centre of this family, in bridging the generations between her mother and her daughters and in providing the impetus for this reunion. While the other characters are, each for her own reasons, deeply ambivalent about embarking on this tour, Irene desperately wants to reconnect with her family and her ancestral home. Her hopes, her sense of deep disillusionment, and her eventual coming to terms helped form the overall arc of the novel.
What are some of the common threads that bind the three generations of Chinese women?
All of the women are strong-willed, ambitious women who feel a sense of duty to make a difference in the world around them. Until this tour begins to take shape, the American-born daughters of this family have always thought of these traits as being somehow tied to their being Westernized, to feeling the need to prove themselves against the old stereotype of submissive Asian women—but during the course of this novel, they begin to see how, in a sense, it actually can be traced back to their grandmother, who was once a leader of the Chinese feminist movement, and to a historical tradition of female heroism in China.
What does it mean to be Chinese American? Do you think Chinese Americans are still seen as foreigners in America even with the passage of time? Why so?
Being Chinese American means something different for everyone, and it’s difficult to generalize across regions and families and generations. Having said that, I think it’s still the case that many Chinese Americans are still often treated as more “Chinese” than “American”—in other words, as foreign. There are still many simplistic images of Asia that are deeply rooted in the Western imagination: the exotic, the repressive, the mystical, the submissive, the monolithic, and so on. Still, it’s important to note how much great work is being done by Asian Americans in literature, art, politics, social justice—in every realm of American society. And I think that we will continue to gain more recognition.
Is there always a conflict between American and Chinese ways?
The conflicts between American and Chinese cultures are well-documented for good reason—but there’s one commonality that is often overlooked: citizens of both nations have a deep-rooted sense of being at the centre of the world. This has wide and profound implications in how the two nations view themselves, each other, and the rest of the world.
What is it like to be American Chinese in America? What is like to be American Chinese in China?
One central aspect of both experiences is often being confronted by the question, “Where are you from?” In America, no matter if you’re American-born, the expected answer is usually “China,” or someplace equally foreign. In China, the answer is more complicated, but whatever it is, it usually leads to more questions: Why don’t you look American? Why don’t you speak Chinese? Where’s your ancestral home? All of which might be perfectly legitimate questions, but to the person on the receiving end, they can induce considerable confusion and frustration about one’s identity and home and sense of belonging.
How do you know when a manuscript is completed? Do deadlines determine this or do you feel a sense of confidence that there is no way you can improve on the text any further?
After years of revising, I did arrive at a sense of confidence that the core of my vision for A Thread of Sky was on the page. But even now, it’s difficult for me to reread it without continuing to fuss with it in my head. I’ve heard it said that your work as a novelist is never finished; at a certain point, you just have to stop. That certainly rings true to me.
I am always interested in the kinds of books writers read during their formative years. What kinds of books did you read when you were growing up? Were there any books that had a significant impact on you at that early age? Have they in any way contributed to the making of who you are as a writer today?
Growing up, I read almost any book that caught my eye: Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts to Sweet Valley High, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Hans Christian Andersen to Louisa May Alcott. My mother always made sure there were lots of books around me, whatever the genre or age level. I almost never quit on a book, and I read the books that I loved again and again. I’m sure lots of material went over my head, but I think that expansive approach to reading—and, by extension, to the world—was in itself more formative than anything else.
In your opinion, what are the essentials of good fiction? What do you think distinguishes the great novels from the merely good?
Good fiction is precise and honest; the prose, characters, and plot are all of a piece, a marriage between form and content; and it takes us on a journey, showing us complexity and humanity in places we hadn’t known. To me, what distinguishes great fiction is an elevation of the craft itself, a rediscovery of language; and a feeling of transcendence, of the human condition laid bare. It’s the kind of thing that you just feel.
Tell me a bit about some of the contemporary authors and books you enjoy reading.
Some of my favorite novels are Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides, Graham Greene’s The Comedians, Louise Erdrich’s The Master Butchers Singing Club, Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, and Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence.
Suggest a couple of good reads that you think haven’t got as much attention as they should.
Frances de Pontes Peebles’s The Seamstress is an epic novel of two sisters in 1930s Brazil, one who becomes a notorious outlaw while the other becomes a coddled socialite. It’s a great page-turner as well as a lyrical meditation on desire, survival, and the landscape and history of Brazil.
What are you reading at the moment?
Lately, I’ve been reading books that are quite a departure for me: true crime novels. The best of them are Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Joe McGinniss’s Fatal Vision is also very good, and I’m on the lookout for more. My new novel is more plot-driven, and I’m interested in exploring how ordinary lives get overtaken by terrible events.
Do you think more creative writing programs are imperative in increasing the number of good writers and/or improve the quality of writing?
I think creative writing programs are wonderful opportunities for many reasons, the primary one being that they provide the most precious commodity of all: time (and often money) to write. But I also think that if we value a vibrant, diverse literary culture, it has to start much earlier than that. One of the effects of American social stratification is that those who consider entering creative writing programs are a very limited and relatively privileged pool. Having worked in public schools for most of my adult life, I’ve seen so many voices get lost that we would do well to nurture.
Do you think there are differences between writing short stories and full-length novels? Which form do you prefer working on?
I think short stories and novels are actually very different art forms. Short stories must be utterly distilled, while novels need a sense of expansion. This filters through every aspect of the craft. I used to write short stories, primarily, but I’ve come to love the sense of total immersion in writing a novel, and the way it gathers momentum and pushes toward big questions.
Do you have a favourite short story or short-story collection?
I have a number of favorite short-story collections: Junot Diaz’s Drown, Lorrie Moore’s Like Life, Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior, Eileen Chang’s Love in a Fallen City, and just about any story by Alice Munro or Anton Chekhov.
For better or worse, we are now in the age of the e-book. What are your thoughts on the future of books, particularly on e-books and e-book readers? Do you think they will replace physical books one day?
I’ve never even held an e-reader, and it’s hard for me to imagine giving up the tactile sensations of curling up with a book. Also, now that I’ve seen how much care went into the hardcover design of A Thread of Sky—the book jacket, the typeface, the paper stock—it saddens me a bit to think of all of that getting lost in digitization. Ultimately, though, anything that helps make books more accessible to our increasingly harried readers is a good thing.