Annie’s Book Stop of Worcester is happy to shine our Friday spotlight on fiction author Vanessa Hua.
Hello, Vanessa, can you please tell us briefly a little about yourself?
I’m a journalist and novelist who’s been writing about Asian and the diaspora for more than two decades. I’m also the American born daughter of Chinese immigrants who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with my family.
Where can people find your work? (Besides Annie’s Book Stop of Worcester–though they should totally check here first!)
How can we follow your work and share your awesomeness?
For readers unfamiliar with your work, how would you describe what you write? What can readers expect from Forbidden City?
I’m the author of three books, a short story collection, Deceit and Other Possibilities, about model minorities behaving badly, A River of Stars, a pregnant, Chinese Thelma and Louise, and Forbidden City, about Chairman Mao’s protegee and lover who becomes a poster child for the Cultural Revolution.
I often write about survivors, strivers, trying to find a way through.
What kind of research went into writing this book? What is your favorite research story? What cool facts and findings didn’t make it into the book, but you loved discovering?
In 2004, on a reporting trip for the San Francisco Chronicle in the southern reaches of China, in villages and factory towns, I met teenagers who dreamed of a bigger life, and whose strength, smarts, and courage inspired me. On another visit in 2008, I conducted interviews for my novel in villages outside of Beijing, as well as explored the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and the Great Hall of the People, the high red walls of Zhongnanhai, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, tracing the path that would become Mei’s.
Perched on a tiny wooden stool, I interviewed grannies who’d lived through the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. One stared at me in disbelief when I explained that I’d come all the way from the United States. “I’m from America, but have Chinese parents,” I said.
She squinted at me. “But you don’t look American.” I wasn’t sandy haired and hazel eyed like my husband, who sat beside us.
In the lull that followed, he cheerfully volunteered in Mandarin, “Wo bu dong,” “I don’t know,” one of the few phrases he can say. he couldn’t stop talking about his language prowess, but when I asked her about Mao, she grew reticent. “I don’t know anything. I never learned how to read,” she muttered.
I found the same evasiveness at a market where I browsed porcelain figurines depicting the Cultural Revolution. One statuette portrayed a man on his hands and knees, signboard around his neck—“Down with capitalist roaders!” His tormentor brandished a sword, his foot on his victim’s back.
Sensing my curiosity, the shopkeeper blurted, “It’s not to hurt him. It’s just to show people.” It could have been what he’d been taught, or perhaps he wanted to smooth over the ugliness to a foreigner.
I believe that fiction flourishes where the official record ends, and that research should serve as the floor—and not the ceiling—to the imagination. For the first time, I grappled with the challenges of writing a historical novel. By taking a leap of empathy, I wanted to approach not only the contours, but the truth of my protagonist—a truth that was emblematic of the millions of impoverished women who have shaped China in their own ways, yet remain absent from the country’s official narrative.
What was the inspiration for Forbidden City? What were the steps you took to bring it from initial inspiration to the finished book?
A decade and a half ago, a teasing glimpse of black-and-white documentary footage intrigued me: Chairman Mao surrounded by giggling young women. In plaid, they looked like Bobby Soxers. As I would learn, the peasant-turned-revolutionary was a fan of ballroom dancing—and young women, who partnered with him on the dance floor and in the bedroom.
When I looked for more information about them, I couldn’t find much. In his memoir, Mao’s doctor said “To have been rescued by the Party was already sufficient good luck for such women. To be called to the Chairman was the greatest experience of their lives. For most Chinese, a mere glimpse of Mao standing atop Tiananmen was a coveted opportunity, the most uplifting, exciting, exhilarating experience they would know…Imagine, then, what it meant for a young girl to be called in a Mao’s chambers to serve his pleasure!”
I suspected—I knew— the relationships had to be more complicated—especially for those who he kept on as his “confidential clerks.” Zhang Yufeng was eighteen years old when she met the Chairman at a dance party— in the liminal years between girl and woman, and so young by comparison to Mao, then in his late sixties. In time, she would handle and read aloud the reams of documents that the Chairman commented upon daily. Toward the end of his life, as his speech became garbled by illness, she served an important role, interpreting what he said.
And so, I began to write about how one of these teenagers could have influenced the course of the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s decade-long campaign that plunged the country into chaos. What was it like for a peasant girl to get swept into the patriotism of those times and to meet a man she’d been raised to worship as a god?
What was the biggest challenge in writing and putting out Forbidden City? How did you overcome that challenge?
I began writing this novel in 2007 and finished edits last year—14 years, nearly a third of my life! It first went on submission 2009, and though it came close to selling, it didn’t, which was devastating. I continued writing, working on different projects and in between Deceit and other Possibilities and A River of Stars, I kept returning the project. I couldn’t quit Mei! When A River of Stars sold in 2016, my new agents strategized for a two-deal that included Forbidden City.
Thanks, Vanessa, for taking the time to answer our questions!