Thu Interviews Vanessa Hua, Author of A RIVER OF STARS

Vanessa Hua is a mother, journalist, and author based in San Francisco. Her debut novel, A RIVER OF STARS, was just published (8/14). I had the opportunity to interview her and talk to her about her amazing book which covers topics like motherhood, immigration, and identity through the story of two intelligent and resilient women Scarlett and Daisy. Read the interview to learn more about A RIVER OF STARS and then order a copy!

Thu Doan: So I’m excited to talk about A RIVER OF STARS and learn more about you as a writer. I’ve heard that you’re also a journalist for the San Francisco Chronicle; tell us about that.

Vanessa Hua: I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I would write stories and make books. There would be a title page and an illustration. I was very interested from an early age... I dreamt of writing.

In the second grade, we had to write short stories in class, then the teacher would read them aloud and the class had to vote on which one was their favorite. Mine won (haha) and before I could savor the victory, I saw a classmate lean over and tell a friend, “I only voted for hers because it was the longest.”

TD: What a jerk.

VH: *Laughs* So it was my first writing validation and my first snarky review.

I continued writing fiction throughout high school and in college, where I majored in English with an emphasis on creative writing.

That’s when I started working for the school paper. I loved this opportunity because it satisfied my curiosity. I loved having the chance to talk to people and to be able to share their story through journalism. I think curiosity about others, their thoughts, what makes them tick, and their reactions drive my fiction and my journalism.

For the first couple of years after graduating college, I focused on journalism. I worked at the LA Times and the Harper Current, then I came back to the Bay Area to cover the first tech boom, digital culture, and I went to Burning Man. Later on, I decided to cover Asian-American issues and I found ways to report from abroad in China, South Korea, Burma, Panama, and Ecuador.

All the while, I kept thinking, I am a fiction writer. I remember reading stories in college and thinking, oh, these are pretty good, but I don’t remember how to do this because I fell out of practice. I began taking writing workshops and joining writing groups. I joined a writing group that I found from one of those flyers off the wall. I even joined one that I found off of Craigslist. I was open to trying any sort of community. Eventually, I started getting up early in the morning before work and on weekends to write fiction. I wrote short stories, but I always thought, ah, I want to write a book someday. At a journalism fellowship in South Korea, I remember talking to someone and telling them about my dream to write a book and they said, “well, why don’t you?” I know he was just trying to make conversation, but it resonated with me. I wanted to write a book, but I needed to find a way to make that the center of my life.

I know some people, for instance another author I talk to, she didn’t go out for a year and a half. Never socialized. That’s how she finished her book. For me, I wanted the time, structure, and guidance of an MFA program so I ended up going to UC Riverside.

Going back to your question about my journalism, I think my training as a journalist helped me with my fiction in terms of discipline to write everyday, to work with deadlines, and be open to editing. I’m used to collaborating and hearing other perspectives, understanding that stuff can get cut and being able to live with that.

I think my fiction has also helped my journalism, not that I’ve started making up things in my stories, haha, but that it kind of made me more mindful of having a scene or fleshing out a character. My earliest attempts at journalism were transcripts of interviews like quote, quote, quote, quote, instead of having a sense of set, scene, or movement, which I now incorporate into my features and essays. Does that answer your question?

TD: Yes, it does. The reason I started out that way is because at our bookstore in Houston, as a community, our readers are interested in knowing about the author, but as a debut novelist, it’s harder to place. I’ve read a couple of your articles and I do encourage others to find them too or your collection of short stories (DECEIT AND OTHER POSSIBILITIES). But we’re always interested to learn about where the stories come from, whether there’s a history or it’s from your imagination. I was so intrigued by your novel, I loved it, so thank you for writing it.

VH: Thank you! I think I describe my first book (DECEIT AND OTHER POSSIBILITIES) as model minorities behaving badly and my novel in the same vein as a pregnant Thelma and Louise, haha!

But for me, I think I’m going to return again and again to the topic of migration, immigration, and identity, and in this book, motherhood. Having spent two decades writing about Asia, diaspora, and being a child of Chinese immigrants myself, I’ve always been interested in writing about what it means for someone to leave behind their culture, their family, their language, etc. How do they see this country with new eyes? What are the ways people navigate their ancestral and adoptive homeland?

TD: First, about this new novel of yours, A RIVER OF STARS; it’s powerful debut novel of motherhood, immigration and identity about a mother who makes her way to California to give her baby U.S. citizenship. Her harrowing and heartwarming journey redefines what it means to be an American.

So my first question is about the secret maternity centers. How did you find out about them and what kind of research did you do to learn about them?

VH: While I was living in Southern California and pregnant with my twins, I began hearing news reports about neighbors complaining and wondering why all these pregnant women were coming and going out of these suburban houses. Chinese pregnant women, mountains of diapers and empty cans of formula in the trash. It seemed like a brothel in reverse. As it turns out, these women were coming here because they wanted their children to have U.S. citizenship, so by coming here a month before and staying another month afterwards, they could make sure their kids would have American citizenship.

Giving birth here is not illegal, but the authorities would bust them because they were cramming 12 people into a condo.

I found those stories as part of my research and I also came across one of the websites for potential customers. You can choose a VIP class, B class, C class, for example, and these websites are still active and operating. I got a hold of some court documents that explained what was happening. I also met a nurse in a maternity ward.

It made me question, what drove people to come here during the most vulnerable time of their life and what it’s like for 12 pregnant women to live there. Otherwise, when I was pregnant, it was like, “oh, when are you due,” “congratulations,” and everyone treated me generously and kindly, but what kind of tensions might arise when you get 12 pregnant women together? It seemed like potential for drama and comedy.

TD: Haha, yeah. I think it shows a range of attitudes regarding pregnancy, childbirth, and child rearing. In that situation, I feels like a fast-forward to determining this unborn person’s life.

VH: Right, exactly. I think maybe that’s reflected even in any sort of modern-day parenting. It begins in pregnancy.

So I would say, I did the research that I could, but after that my fiction writing flourishes where the official record ends. The funny thing is, I even found some articles more recently that confirmed what I made up in my head.

TD: Do you think America is still one of those places where it’s common to let children grow in their own way, or is childhood, and parenting, becoming more regimented?

For one character, Mama Fang, her businesses and basically her sales pitches set up the latter.

VH: It wasn’t on the top of my mind, but there will always be an ongoing debate about free range parenting which is how my brother and I were raised. I sometimes joke that we’re so free range that we were practically feral, haha. Today, it’s the age of helicopter parenting and parents overseeing everything up to the first job. I think from what I’ve read and experienced, parents are much more involved with their kids. There’s a pressure that might seem ridiculous, but it becomes adopted into our society too.

TD: So thinking about privilege (and predetermination) versus raw perseverance… For someone like Scarlett, is life going to be a lot harder?

VH: Yeah, I think giving privilege to your kid relies heavily on whether or not you have that privilege to give. I think that’s what Scarlett is pushing against in the novel. She has always had to drive to exist or have freedom, whether it’s being a teenager and leaving her home to work in the factory or whether it’s meeting the demands of her lover, Boss Yeung. I find the most compelling characters are always trying to push against being predetermined.

TD: I thought Scarlett’s first experience of being in America was so interesting. It sets such a tone to be put in an artificial place, with all the women in matching tracksuits. It’s hilarious when you think about it, but it reminds me of the range of first experiences immigrants have, and what someone sees when they’re first here.

Do you think your books open up stories about the range of first experiences immigrants have? In Texas, sometimes it’s just an umbrella narrative that when we think about immigrants, we imagine the border and a desert.

VH: That’s a great question. I do want to add that my research to these maternity centers happens to South Koreans, Turks, and even Russians in Miami. It happens formally and informally. The debate over immigration and the rhetoric like “anchor babies” and people finding a way to “sneak into the country” as if it were some sort of scam; this is just a drop in the ocean of ways people immigrate, and it should not unseat the 14th Amendment, which to me is like the foundation of our country.

If the 14th Amendment was abolished, then I would never be a U.S. citizen. You can see this in other countries where there’s no birthright citizenship. It creates second class citizens and all sorts of problems. There’s no opportunity to be accepted into a broader society.

What’s so interesting is that there’s talk about building a wall to prevent people from crossing the desert. I’ve read that 40-60% (of illegal immigration) is actually visa overstays. So people come here legally. They come in by plane! I think my novel shows how incorrect rhetoric (“oh, she came in illegally”) is actually not the case. People come in all different ways and that’s why to call someone illegal or to say “an illegal” or turn it into a noun, the nuances matter.

There is no monolithic immigration story. My novel shows one facet of it and hopefully it broadens what people think or imagine what it means to immigrate. It also takes someone like Daisy, who is American-born, but grew up abroad in Taiwan and attended an international school. I knew people like that. It plays around with the notion of identity and nationality.

People used to ask you, “what are you” and “where are you from,” and it wasn’t just where you were born, but where your grandfather was from because your family never moved. But now there’s a greater movement of people and it calls all these things into question. Your nationality isn’t necessarily a question of your loyalty or identity. People have different reasons for citizenship. I think it’s just a larger question about what does it mean to be American. Is it based on your birthright, experiences, nationality, or history? I hope my novel complicates that idea.

TD: I totally agree. I feel like your book could initially draw readers into thinking that immigration is a straightforward issue, but then it complicates that narrative.

Without spoiling any of the book, Scarlett takes Old Wu to the hospital while he’s unconscious. She needs money and he has money. Scarlett is desperate because her visa is on the verge of expiring. There’s a lot of things going on in her head and money could solve a lot of her problems. It’s a slippery slope and a great scene altogether. It’s a situation where Scarlett has to navigate her moral compass, and the reader must flesh out her thought process.

What do you think people need to look at, and read, to form their own moral compasses?

VH: I think being exposed to other stories and perspectives outside of our own through conversations, books, etc., will inform our thinking. It’s a measure of how Scarlett is moving from being someone who is solitary and independent her entire life to realizing what she owes and what she wants to expect from her relationship with Old Wu.

In terms of forming a moral compass, I believe in the power of stories to expand our own abilities and empathize with someone else even if we don’t agree. For instance, I would take Mama Fang and Boss Yeung as villains initially, but you get to learn their histories and what drove them. They shift. They aren’t flat or static characters and in effect, no one in real life is flat.

TD: Scarlett weighs her own personal characteristics off of other people like her mother or Mama Fang. I think it really distracts her from defining herself. There’s a comparison in the book between Scarlett and Mama Fang where she notes that Scarlett is just like her, but Scarlett disagrees. I think there are characteristics that we can identify and choose to reject if we don’t like it. Scarlett is always reminded of how she’s stubborn like her mother and she sometimes accepts or rejects that depending on how convenient it is for her.

It begs the question of self evaluation and definition. Why do you think we cling to certain descriptions of other people to figure out who we are?

VH: I think when you become a mother your whole world gets shaken up. You leave one identity for another. For me, I thought about the person I wanted to be and I was looking forward to having kids. I knew we had an intimate bond, that no one else would have anything like it even when they were in utero. I also examined the practical side. My time wouldn’t be like it used to be. The physical change, it’s like shapeshifting –– you’re a witch! *Laughs* In 9 months, you’re waxing and waning like the moon and things happen –– crazy things.

I think Scarlett just wasn’t quite sure. She wasn’t expecting to be pregnant. She was unsure about what was going to happen to her relationship and what life would be like for her dependents. Naturally, she would think about what her life would be like… It’s hard not to think about your own childhood and your own mother and what she faced. Even in the book their relationship is distant, but she can’t help but think about the ways her own mother formed her and also the ways in which she can understand her own mother from a mom-to-mom level.

TD: In the beginning of the book, she wants to leave that life behind, but it always comes back and I loved that!

Another part I loved about the book was about Chinatown. There are two women coming to live there, but the greater space is comprised of lots of different people. There’s Old Wu, who’s always willing to give in abundance. There are other neighbors who approach them with a bit of consternation. There are even people who betray them. How did you create such a complex community?

VH: For years, I have been writing about Chinatowns and their politics, living conditions, and community. SF’s Chinatown is so special. It’s the oldest in the U.S. and it’s very densely packed. I think it’s the most dense part of the city. It has a history for as long as Chinese people have been in the country, but it’s also new to the latest immigrants arriving in the country, and it’s a tourist attraction.

I’ve always been fascinated by the street level stories that have tacky tourist items, but then when you look up, there are grandma panties hanging in the windows because people live there. I had the opportunity to interview and meet people and go in the spaces upstairs. Also, it’s a place that I visited since I was a kid.

San Francisco’s Chinatown is famed among Chinese and non, and I strive to reflect just how complicated the place is.

TD: It’s wonderful. Now I have a question for you as an author: how do you feel about your novel being labeled as a certain theme, or genre?

VH: It’s interesting because people always ask what a book is about, at which point it’s out of your hands (whether it’s a bookseller or a librarian or whoever). But I understand that the book is part of a conversation. I think it’s interesting to see how a novel resonates. I’ve heard people gravitate towards depictions of the hustle or motherhood, and others are really into a modern immigration story. I’d like to think that this novel, or others that I love, has the ability to resonate with different readers in different ways.

TD: As a bookseller, I don’t want to sell a book that’s one dimensional –– I want the reader to be engaged and ask questions –– but I also don’t want the book to be over complicated, so sometimes it is nice to pin a feeling when there is a reader who is asking for a “happy” or “hopeful” book. This book is perfect for that. Is that weird?

VH: *laughs* Right. That’s why I’ve been kind of calling it the pregnant Thelma and Louise. It’s got the female friendship aspect, the road trip aspect, and it’s funny and dramatic. It is hard because people want to know what your book is about in a sentence, yet I’ve also found that people gravitate to books for different reasons. I was in a book club and someone said, I just loved All The Light We Cannot See because I love books set in France.

I do not pick up a book based on its setting, but I remember being at a writing conference, and being asked what I was working on, and they said, “oh, I love Chinese books! What type of Chinese book is yours?”

TD: That’s a really odd question.

VH: Yeah, it is! Then they named a bunch of Chinese authors. I wanted to say, “it’s like a Vanessa Hua book,” but that was before I had any books out.

TD: *laughs*

VH: It’s inescapable because you’ve got your Hollywood pitch where it’s like, if X meets Y, or your 30-second elevator pitch.

TD: Thank you so much for doing this interview. Yes, so just to set the record straight, there are Asian characters and its set in a Chinatown, but I wanted to discuss the subject matter and how you beautifully rendered these themes. It’s a happy and hopeful book that is engaging. I hope lots of people pick it up and love it.

VH: I hope so too!

A River of Stars: A Novel Cover Image
ISBN: 9780399178788
Availability: Unlikely to Be Available
Published: Ballantine Books - August 14th, 2018

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