BEHIND THE BOOK Q&A
(Spoiler alert for some of these answers!)
How did the idea for your book originate?
My husband and I have three daughters, and I’m very interested in the lives of young women, in particular how a young woman forms an identity and comes into a life of her own while keeping family ties. My parents are immigrants from China, and issues of displacement, exile, and assimilation have been part of my life story. Those issues came into focus in a new way for me when I traveled to China in 1999 and 2001 to tour the country and visit relatives.
While I was aware that Chinese girls were being adopted by western families, I was struck by the number of adoption groups I saw in my travels. At home in the U.S., Chinese girls with western parents seemed to be everywhere, including among my own circle of extended family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers. I knew a number of adoptive parents with children from China, Vietnam, Central America, Russia, and other countries. International adoption has been embraced by countries welcoming new citizens, and by countries giving up their children. American parents have brought home over 70,000 Chinese orphans—most of them girls—accounting for more than one-third of all international adoptions to the U.S.
That so many orphans have found homes is joyful. Adoption has brought together children and parents who have formed new, happy families. But, as a mother, I wondered about the hidden emotional cost. Amidst the joy, there had to be sorrow and longing. For the adopted child, there would be questions about where she had come from, whom she belonged to, and who she would become. Those questions related beautifully to my themes of identity and family.
While mulling over these ideas, I saw an exhibition of new work from Chinese artists at the Asia Society, a museum I love and always visit when I’m in New York City. The exhibit included a riveting photograph by the Chinese artist Sheng Qi, of a hand missing a little finger. The absent finger spoke volumes about pain, loss, healing, and recovery. I knew immediately that a hand with a missing finger would be part of my novel.
How is international adoption captured in the novel?
Adoption is of course a blessing. The adopted children I know are leading very happy lives, and their parents have navigated the adoption waters with love and grace. In this book, I’ve attempted to portray the complexities that might arise from adoption, especially as related to self-discovery. Some of the characters have adjusted easily to their new lives, settling in without conflict. Others, like the main character, Ari, are struggling to find their way.
Through the course of the novel, Ari learns to accept the pain and celebrate the blessings, bonding with her adoptive family in a new and profound way. There is struggle and then release. By the end of the book, she has begun to form a positive identity for herself and to see the possibilities of a fulfilling family life.
What other themes are intertwined in the story?
My novel also explores what it’s like to be a strong-minded, independent woman. I’m a lawyer who has worked in the high pressure world of law firms and the courts, where men long dominated until courageous women elbowed their way in. Many of my friends are amazing women who have worked incredibly hard to build careers and raise families. Yet when I read novels that depicted American lives, I didn’t see characters like the women I know. There were wives and mothers, but not many women competing in the larger realm. I wanted to write those characters and show them in all their determined, complicated, stressed-out glory. And so I drew on my law background and interviewed women about their jobs to create the characters of Charlie and Les, both lawyers who have to forge their own identities in a sometimes hostile world.
On top of it all sits Gran, the matriarch of the family and a peerless commentator on the state of other people’s lives. In telling a multi-generational story, I wanted to explore the power of family legacy, the burden of family myths, and the impact of secrets. The experiences of the older generation shape and shadow the lives of their descendants. As a daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter, I grew up with ancestors at my back, sometimes beckoning, sometimes pointing the way. All my stories, at some level, begin before my characters are born and end in my imagination, long after their presence on the page comes to a close.
In what other ways did your own life influence this work?
In writing the book, I drew on my travels to China, my experiences living in Southeast Alaska, and my law background. My own family history darts at the edges of the story. For example, the poem I attribute to Gran’s father was written by my grandfather in wartime China, and the koi in the hospital courtyard were described to me by my mother, who had seen them as a young girl living in Shanghai. I made writing and research notes for several years before starting. It took about three years to write the book.
What makes your novel relevant today?
April 1, 2014, is the twenty-second anniversary of the effective date of The Adoption Law of the People’s Republic of China, which provided for international adoption of Chinese orphans. As I write this, the oldest of the many thousands of abandoned and adopted Chinese babies are in their late teens and early twenties. This is a unique generation of children who are just now coming into their own lives. At the same time, the Chinese immigrants who came to the U.S. in the late 1940s, when World War II ended and revolution was sweeping across China, are reaching the close of their remarkable lives. They’ve seen the country of their birth go through enormous upheaval, and, for those still living, they are in their final years of being able to make peace with the choices they faced and the decisions they made. My novel explores the experiences of both the young and the old, their relationship to a civilization both ancient and modern, and the invention of the self.
Copyright 2019 Kathryn Ma. All rights reserved.