Deanna Fei's first novel, A Thread of Sky
, follows six women from three generations of a Chinese American family as they take a tour of both China and their own complex relationships. A New York Times Editors' Choice and an Indie Next Notable Book, Deanna's story is chock full of complex characters who face intertwining national and personal histories. We were lucky enough to catch up with the lovely and delightful author for the following interview. Pour a cup of tea, sit back...
You went on a package tour of China with three generations of women in your family. Did your novel come out of that experience, and if so, how did the novel depart from reality? Is that something you consciously forced or did it happen naturally on its own?
A Thread of Sky
was inspired by my China experiences and my own family, but it departed from reality the moment I started writing it. I think that in writing any story, you have to cede control to your characters, to let them surprise you with the twists that their lives take—and this may be doubly true in writing any story with an autobiographical origin. For me, this mostly happened naturally, but particularly in revising, I tried to be vigilant in making sure that nothing remained in the novel simply because it had happened in real life. Everything had to be organic to these characters and their stories; otherwise, it simply didn’t belong.
You tell the stories of all six women in your novel, but if there's a main character, it's the mother, Irene, who gave up a scientific career to raise her daughters. How did you choose her as the protagonist, and what is it about her story in particular that grabbed you?
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 center 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.
One theme of the book is what it means to be Chinese American -- how nobody in America or China is satisfied by the answer to the question "Where are you from?" Did you get any closer to understanding why that question is so hard for everybody during the course of writing the novel?
During the writing of the novel, I did some extensive research into Chinese American history because it was the focus of one of my characters, Kay. For me, it crystallized the ways in which Asian Americans are often still treated as essentially foreign and the patterns of bias that have repeated themselves over two centuries. This surprises many people who don’t experience it, who think of Asians as “honorary whites,” which in itself is a demeaning category.
But I don’t think this question of “Where are you from?” is difficult for every Chinese American. In the novel, only Kay has been preoccupied with it, as a Chinese American activist and as a student of Chinese in Beijing. It’s only when Irene conceives of this tour of their ancestral home that the question is brought to the surface for all six women.
You went to Shanghai on a Fulbright grant to work on A Thread of Sky. What was that like?
It was a shock to land there without family or friends or work or school—basically, with nothing but a few (bad) chapters of my novel. There were plenty of days that I felt isolated and lost. But that’s partly what made it an ideal training ground for a writer. In a way, I had no choice but to immerse myself in my work. It was the only thing that gave structure to my life. Looking back, I’m not sure how else I could have written this book.
How did the publication of the book go? Was it hard to find an agent or publisher?
Publication was something of a saga. I found an agent right out of Iowa, and during my time in Shanghai, she often seemed like the only person who had any stake at all in my writing. Once I completed a draft, she wanted to submit it. I knew in my gut that it wasn’t ready—and I was right. After more rejections than I care to remember, we pulled it back. For months, I couldn’t look at the novel. I felt sick just thinking about it. Eventually, I realized that whether or not I ever published it, I wasn’t finished with it. For a year, I pulled it apart, tossed out hundreds of pages, revised it from beginning to end. When I was finally happy with it—as happy as a writer gets—I sent the revision to my agent, at which point she said she “just didn’t feel it anymore.” So we had a traumatic breakup, and I felt about ready to give up. But after a few months of sending out queries, I found another agent, who sold my novel in about a week.
Do you ever worry about pigeonholing? Like, do you feel as a Chinese American writer that the expectation will be that you'll always write about characters grappling with their cultural identity, for example?
Well, I’m Chinese American, and I’m a writer, so there’s nothing wrong with the label, per se. Sometimes it can be productive, in bringing more attention to underrepresented stories, and sometimes it serves to further ghettoize. I guess I’d argue that any Chinese American story should also be seen as American—and universal. I can only write what moves me, and I think Asian Americans will always be my subject, but I don’t think our stories must be defined by the struggle with cultural identity any more than any American story must be so defined.
Your writing is, I would say, smooth and beautiful and unflinching. Who are some writers who have influenced you?
I love your use of the word “unflinching.” It brings to mind a number of writers: Jean Rhys, Mary Gaitskill, Junot Diaz, Louise Erdrich. Word by word, I’m awed by the prose of Shirley Hazzard, Marilynne Robinson, Alice Munro, and John Cheever, among many others.
You're at work on your second novel. Can you tell us anything about it? Do you feel more confident this time, or is it like starting over, with square one insecurities and all that?
I can say, somewhat vaguely, that my second novel feels like a big departure from the first. It’s more plot-driven and it has nothing to do with China. In some ways, I feel more confident in that when I have those days of looking at the work and feeling like it’s total crap, I also know that that’s all part of the process. But 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.
What was Iowa like for you? What would you say you gained from the program there, if anything?
I would never call Iowa a nurturing environment, but I’m deeply grateful for having undergone the experience. The people who surrounded me there are the smartest bunch that ever surrounded me, and the closest friends I made there will be my ideal readers for life. And though I’ve heard of Iowa described as a competitive place in terms of publication and book deals and whatnot, I actually think there was a purity there that I haven’t found elsewhere—a love of literature for its own sake, a belief in writing as a calling, even the conviction that every single word must count.
You teach at a public school in Brooklyn. How rewarding do you find that, and do you see yourself teaching long term? Should we be worried about "kids these days" or do you think that generation is going to turn out well?
I think certain kids in certain schools are getting an excellent education, and I think we’re grossly failing the huge majority of this generation. And those we’re failing include, of course, a disproportionate number of children of lesser means and children of color—particularly boys. Even setting aside questions of morality and inequality and the legitimacy of this system, I often wonder why us literary types—or those who practice real journalism or fine arts or music or dance—don’t seem to connect this problem to the one we’re always lamenting: the shrinking audience for our art. Where is the next generation of audiences supposed to come from?
So many cultures have held dominance for long periods. Conventional wisdom says the 20th century was the American century, and now the 21st will be the Chinese century. Do you agree? How do you imagine that might play out? Should we all be learning Chinese (and if so, Mandarin or Cantonese)?
I don’t consider myself an expert on China, let alone the global stage, but there’s no question that in this century, China will play a larger role in every area—from foreign policy to business to the environment to art and design—than it did in the last. To the extent that one can make any overarching statement about such a vast entity, China certainly aspires to superpower status and Chinese people take pride in being citizens of a country whose very name translates as the central nation. It wouldn’t hurt anyone to learn Chinese (Mandarin is the dominant dialect, and only becoming more so) or to learn more about China. At the same time, it’s important to note that China is, like any country, complex and multifaceted and contradictory. I think we have a tendency to impose false dichotomies on it—China versus America, traditional versus modern, well-meaning or evil, weak or strong—that become barriers to true understanding.
Check out Deanna's Web site for lots more info: www.deannafei.com