Vanessa Hua, a columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle, is the author of Deceit and Other Possibilities (Willow Publishing, 2016). She received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, a Steinbeck Fellowship in Creative Writing, and the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award for fiction. She has received fellowships and support from Bread Loaf, Aspen Summer Words, Voices of Our Nation, Community of Writers at Squaw, and Napa Valley writing conferences. Her work has appeared in New York Times, FRONTLINE/World, PRI’s The World, The Atlantic, ZYZZYVA, Guernica, and elsewhere. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and twins.
Although Vanessa Hua and I have yet to meet in person, we both published our debut story collections within days of one another this fall, which seemed indicative of a literary kinship. Hua’s stories expose the complicated realities faced by immigrants in America, deftly blending heartbreak and hope. She was kind enough to speak with me over Skype about her work in fiction, as well as nonfiction, on a Tuesday morning in December.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
AH: Deceit and Other Possibilities is, as the title suggests, a collection about what is kept hidden. For instance, in “What We Have is What We Need,” you offer us an image of a seemingly united family: a father slips his arm around a mother’s waist, while their son, Lalo, watches. “From behind, they looked happy,” Lalo tells us. “But you can never see all angles at once.” Does fiction offer a unique opportunity to explore otherwise invisible “angles” of the human experience?
VH: Yes, definitely. In my fiction and my nonfiction, I’ve always been driven by this idea of the untold story, of really trying to understand a person’s motivations, the circumstances behind his or her actions. Deceit goes both ways: everything could look sunny from the outside, but there’s something darker within. Or, conversely, someone may have committed a heinous act—like bringing down an airplane by stuffing his socks in the toilet—but he has his reasons too. I don’t know that you should give someone a free pass once you know their story, but at least you have a more complex understanding of what brought them to that moment.
AH: Does this exploration work differently in your nonfiction than in your fiction? Or are you trying to accomplish the same goals ultimately?
VH: I get to make things up in fiction! Sometimes I approach a story as a journalist and then the story ends—for reasons of deadline or length or the source clamming up—but that’s where in fiction I can go deeper and make the character my own.
AH: There has been a lot of buzz about “fake news” lately, with accusations of false reporting coming from both sides of the political spectrum. As a journalist and a short story writer—working in the realm of fact and fiction, respectively—what does it mean to you to write truthfully in an era of “post-truth”? How does your work as a journalist inform your fiction?
VH: Being a journalist gets me out in the world. If I’m curious about something, I can call someone up and say “I’m a journalist,” or walk around a neighbourhood and start asking questions. Journalism gave me the discipline of writing on deadline and being open to being edited. Being a fiction writer has also helped my journalism. I’m not just a recording machine. Yes, I get accurate quotes but I also look up, look around, take in details and think about the arc of the story. Or, I think about character description in a way that comes from writing fiction.
In terms of fake news, the thing that is most distressing is that people are not considering sources. I can see it when I’ve taught. Whether in high school or college—or even with adults—it’s endemic. You ask “Where did you hear that?” and they say “the internet.” They don’t even say Wikipedia! It’s just so depressing. Stories come from credible institutions like The New York Times or The Washington Post—the gold standard of journalism—does that matter more or less to people? Or are they just hearing what they want to hear? That’s where I think fiction can be stealthy in its power to bring you closer to a perspective different from your own. It’s not “fake news.” From the outset you know it’s fake, and yet fiction can still create an emotional response and foster understanding in the reader. We’ve all seen those studies about how reading literary fiction can make you more empathetic. I do think that’s true; it opens up your perspective, your world. The best journalism will take you there, too, but maybe people are more willing to go read fiction by the pool.
AH: I like your point about how some people, when they’re approaching journalism, are just looking to hear what they want to hear, but that fiction might be a more surreptitious way to reveal another perspective and maybe ultimately make someone more open to hearing another side. That said, we certainly still need journalism. I was wondering if you could talk about what kinds of conversations are happening right now among American journalists, given the combative and threatening stance Donald Trump has taken against many media outlets.
VH: I don’t go in the newsroom anymore, but I do still have friends who are full-time journalists. I think they are more determined than ever. They are ready to continue putting up the good fight. Investigative journalism is becoming more and more important. There’s a renewed sense of urgency. You know, there was a time when the journalism industry was like a burning house sliding off a cliff. But in places where they can, newspapers have rebuilt their investigative teams, or tried to team up with nonprofit journalism organizations. It’s more important than ever to have watchdogs out there.
AH: In The Huffington Post’s piece, “What It Means to Be a Writer in the Time of Trump,” you talk about the necessity of stories that detail the lives of the marginalized and underrepresented. Could you speak to that more?
VH: If certain classes of people are seen as not human, are villainized or demonized—such as Muslims or Mexican immigrants—by telling their stories, telling their circumstances, their dreams and their hopes and their fears, then in a way that subverts the stereotypes. As a columnist, anytime I have an opportunity to enter a life, if only for an afternoon, I try to show this. For instance, over the summer, I wrote about an Iraqi asylum family living in a community in the Bay Area. I wanted people to understand that these are our neighbours. They volunteer in the schools. They aren’t fearsome. They are among us; they are us.
Consider the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. You would think it’s been settled—the government apologized, paid reparations, everyone knows it was a huge historical injustice—and yet there was recently a big blow up in the Los Angeles Times, which ran letters saying the internment was just part of the war effort. A number of Japanese-American activists have teamed up with Muslim leaders, because it is all reminiscent of how easily justifications can be made if you see certain groups as less human. I wrote a column about Native Americans and how they are often seen as historical figures. Or that’s how they are taught in schools: as this distant thing. One of my sons had asked me: “What does a Native American look like?” And then another mom told me she had heard a third grader ask, “Do Native Americans exist anymore?” This is all a long way of saying why the North Dakota pipeline victory was so huge. For a long time, no one was paying attention to their protests. Part of the reason was because in our imaginations, they are not present. This goes back to the power of writing about peoples’ lives. If you don’t report on something, write about it in a column, it may never be in someone’s frame of reference. It’s important for journalists—or fiction writers—to present these lives. You may not yet be aware of how those lives touch your own.
AH: Your story collection, Deceit and Other Possibilities, certainly delves into a variety of lives. One of the things I found interesting was the way in which your stories about the experiences of immigrants, or the children of immigrants, often featured bad behaviour. Fires are lit, guns shot, lies told. I am curious if this thematic bent is a response to the way in which immigrants in the United States are often held to higher standards of morality and law-abidance. Could you talk about your decision to push characters in these directions?
VH: I joke that the short description of my book is: “model minorities behaving badly.” But I don’t know that I set out to write in response to the model minority myth. Unhappy people are more interesting to fiction writers than happy people. I’ve been asked at readings if I’m worried that people will think poorly of minorities if I don’t present them perfectly every time. I’m not. I felt this way even when I was covering the Asian American community as a journalist. I don’t think all happy stories all the time does the community any justice. When I worked on investigative projects that put an Asian American leader in jail, people were thankful because they knew it exposed a wrongdoing.
Going back to the idea of writing complex characters versus flat characters: the flip side of being demonized is being turned into a saint. My hope with writing these complex characters, who get caught up in lies and bad decisions, was again to humanize them. Even my story about the Stanford impostor was based, or at least inspired, by a real life case. A Korean American woman told everyone she’d gotten into Stanford, then had some story that allowed her to crash with people throughout the year, and she didn’t get caught until the spring. Then when she got caught she wasn’t talking. I just really wanted to understand. Even though I never spoke with her, I sensed that this was one small lie that cascaded. I felt compelled to get on the inside of how someone might get into that situation and why she might continue to feed that lie. From the news story, you might have thought she was crazy or a weirdo. Talking to readers for whom that story resonated—though no one said “oh, I’d do that, too”—they understood that character a bit more, instead of just writing her off as insane.
AH: “Accepted” was actually my favorite story in the collection. As outlandish as the premise is, I found myself rooting for your fictionalized Stanford impostor. You do a wonderful job ushering us into her world. “Accepted” also speaks to a conflict between generations, another theme throughout Deceit and Other Possibilities. You have this high school graduate struggling with the weight of expectations placed upon her by her immigrant parents. “I was supposed to become a doctor,” she says, “and buy my parents a sedan and a house in a gated community.” While intergenerational tension is a fairly universal experience, do you think it is particularly pronounced in immigrant families?
VH: There’s an intergenerational conflict, but it’s also cultural. I had an opportunity to guest lecture at Stanford and one of the students brought up something that no one ever brings up: social class. Part of the immigrant experience—for some immigrants at least—is that you might wind up in a new cultural class where you are the hope of the family. “What’s a Chinese 401K?” I sometimes joke. “Your kids.” Of course, it’s different in the case of my family. My parents are both PhDs with good jobs. But so much in Asian culture is also unspoken. My parents were never that involved—it’s not like they hovered over me like the parents in the Stanford story. I wasn’t getting drilled on vocabulary words. Their job was going to work and my job was getting good grades. They never baldly stated: “You must get As.” It was just this unspoken understanding. We didn’t have an ancestor altar in our house—I know some families that did that—but we were still cognizant of what our parents had done for us. We had that sense of wanting to pay that unpayable debt.
I will say this: I wrote most of the book before I had kids. In the case of the hiking story, the protagonist is ambivalent about having kids. And then in the case of the other stories, it’s kids thinking about their parents. So the book isn’t yet about a parent’s duty to her kids. It’s not going in that direction yet. My novel will.
AH: Speaking of dreaming of a better life for your children: I’m a writer and a reader who is interested in conceptions of utopia, particularly in the United States. Your collection speaks to various manifestations of the American Dream, including a really moving take at the end of “The Older the Ginger,” in which the protagonist, Old Wu muses: “Who didn’t want a rich American uncle, who filled you with a sense of possibility, prosperity close enough to touch? In your dreams, you escaped the prison of your circumstances and danced on the streets paved with gold.” Though Old Wu is willing to maintain the illusion of American possibility for others, he himself has grown cynical. Do you think notions of the American Dream are shifting? Can we—and should we—still see the country as a land of possibility?
VH: If we become a people with no sense of possibility, then we’re dead. But at the same time, things are never so clear cut as work hard and you will succeed. There are structural factors in place such as that the top 1% are gaining all the wealth, or racism embedded in the schools and in the neighbourhoods and in the water we drink, or sexism and misogyny. I think the American Dream is rooted in this idea of the individual being able to progress and have possibilities in their life, but I think we are arriving at a time when we realize there are other things that are beyond an individual’s control. That’s not to say there aren’t things we can’t try and collectively change.
The American Dream still exists. That’s the only thing that can get you out of bed: believing things might get better. But you also know that it’s not guaranteed. If you think it’s only an individual process, then you start blaming people who haven’t progressed—as if it’s some character flaw. It’s really about having to understand someone’s history and circumstances. The desire to achieve a better life for your children is always going to be present in this country. But it is a struggle.
AH: I am interested in hearing a little more about your process. You mentioned being inspired by a real life story for the Stanford story. Do a lot of your stories come from real life incidents?
VH: They come from conversations or images I might have seen. For example, with the snowstorm story, my husband and I used to backpack quite a bit before we had kids. We were sort of a team out on the trail. And then I saw this older women hiking solo and I was just haunted by that image. Or, the Hong Kong pop star story was inspired by Edison Chen. He was originally from Canada, but he became this big star in Asia. Then he got caught up in a huge sex scandal that involved every starlet in Hong Kong, basically. So he hid out in America where no one knew him. Of course, the events that happen in my story are entirely of my own making. It was just the premise.
With the Old Wu story, when I was reporting in southern China, I would see how the villages were hollowed out. The very old were taking care of the very young because everyone was off working in the cities or in factories or trying to get to America. Then one day I was in Chinatown and I went to interview this elderly gentleman in his studio apartment. The woman who answered the door was very young, hair to her waist. I was confused, and I wondered if it was his nurse, or his daughter. It turned out to be his wife. He’d gone on a relatively recent trip to the old country and married her. It was part of that same desire to do whatever it takes to escape your circumstances. So in my story I imagined what his trip back to find a bride must have been like.
AH: It’s fascinating to hear how you take these glimpses or snapshots and imagine beyond them. You mentioned a forthcoming novel. Did you approach it in the same way?
VH: It started off as a short story—my novel projects always start as stories because I can’t really commit to thinking this is a novel until later. A River of Stars is about a Chinese factory clerk who is sent by her boss/lover to give birth in America. At maternity tourism centres, women from Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, will give birth in the US so that their kids will get citizenship. Her lover betrays her and she takes off with a pregnant teenage stowaway in the back of a stolen van. It’s sort of a pregnant Thelma and Louise (without the suicide at the end!) It’s looking at immigration, identity, motherhood. I was fascinated by this whole concept of the maternity centre. I remember reading about one in Southern California. They interviewed a neighbour who was confused about why all these pregnant women were always coming and going, and that this one client had somehow escaped and he’d taken her to McDonalds to get French fries. That always stuck with me—that it must have been almost like a prison. You have to eat all these special foods while you’re pregnant and in the month after, and you’re around all these other pregnant women. No one gets to be queen, the way you usually get to be if you’re pregnant because everyone else around you is pregnant, too. It just seemed like a rich setting—first for first a story and then for the opening of my novel. The main character is fierce and funny and makes bad decisions, and I’m excited to share her with the world.
Allegra Hyde is the author of Of This New World(University of Iowa Press, 2016), which won the John Simmons Short Fiction Award. Her stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Missouri Review, New England Review, Gettysburg Review, The Threepenny Review, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, as well as support from the Virginia G. Piper Center, the Jentel Artist Residency Program, The Island School, and the U.S. Fulbright Commission. For more about Allegra, visit:www.allegrahyde.com.