Ada Zhang on the Complexity of Capturing Immigrants’ Lives in Fiction
Belinda Huijuan Tang Speaks to the Author of The Sorrows of Others
Encountering the characters in The Sorrows of Others, Ada Zhang’s debut short story collection, was like running into a cast of the kinds of people who have populated my upbringing and adult life: a young Chinese American artist searching the stories of her elders for inspiration. A lonely Chinese widower and his distant city-dwelling daughter. An unsure teenager entering her first love affair. Readers—especially fellow Asian Americans—will surely feel the chord of recognition in reading these rich stories.
But like the most gifted short story writers, Zhang takes the material of the familiar and hands it to us anew. When the old widower accepts his daughter’s matchmaking, we question what companionship is. The artist isn’t the only one using another for their own gain, and we wonder to what extent we all exist as subjects in others’ lives.
These characters make unexpected decisions and surprise us on the page. And thus, through their eyes, the world is remade, feeling both strange—we marvel at how such depths can exist in the ordinariness around us—and more luminous, the human spirit acting as the raw material for revelation.
Through this all, Zhang’s prose is crafted with the most precise of brushstrokes. I was Zhang’s classmate at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and am lucky to call her one of my closest friends. Talking with her about The Sorrow of Others was an extension of how I know her in real life—empathetic, considered, and wise. This conversation underscores why she is one of the most skilled short story writers of our time.
Belinda Huijuan Tang: Reading The Sorrows of Others, I was struck by the masterful sense that each of the characters had rich and layered pasts, something you accomplished lightly and without much literal reference using back story. You write mostly in the short story form, but the implied histories of each character feel almost novelistic in scope. Do you have stories for the entire lives of your characters?
Ada Zhang: I do, or at least I try to. I may not know every single detail of my characters’ lives, but I make an effort to know the important parts, even if those parts don’t make it onto the page. I tend to believe that those parts are still there, in the atmosphere of the story, and that the attuned reader will feel it, even if they don’t know exactly what it is, it being the essence of a lived life.
The very concept of an “entire life” or a life that holds together is complicated for immigrants and their children, I think, because of the way immigration can cleave a life in two. Suddenly, starkly, there is a before and an after, a future and a past. Once you pass through that door, you can never really go back. But you can look back, and my characters certainly do a lot of that.
BHT: I love the way you put that, in terms of a cleaving. That was often how I’d feel whenever I heard my parents speak about their lives back in China. It felt so completely different from our lives in America that it could be impossible to think of them as a single story. I imagine that you might have felt the same.The very concept of an “entire life” or a life that holds together is complicated for immigrants and their children, I think, because of the way immigration can cleave a life in two.
When I first started writing fiction, I often felt lucky to have the stories of my family to draw from—they’d lived such interesting lives because of the tumultuous twentieth century in China. But as I wrote, I felt also an enormous sense of responsibility in my portrayals. I felt the keen presence of distance between my own life and the ones I was trying to write about. Could you talk a little about your own experience writing about Chinese characters as the child of immigrants, and what feelings that brought up?
AZ: I have felt that responsibility, yes, and have had to write in spite of it toward an even greater responsibility that I feel to the characters. It was important to me that they have their own ambitions and desires, their own unique flaws, that lie beyond and have nothing to do with their circumstances. Only then could I allow for circumstance (time and place!) to come in and mess things up, creating challenges, diversions, wayward paths.
What’s often obliterated by history is one person’s story. Luckily one person’s story is what fiction does best. As long as I reminded myself that I was telling just one story, I felt okay writing about Chinese people, because at the end of the day, I was just writing about people.
At the same time, I know representation is a hot topic of art discourse, and I know there are people who might read the book—with good will, too—and assume that what I’m doing is presenting a snapshot of China or Chinese America, which was never what I set out to do, and which would be impossible to do anyway. Representation, authenticity, who gets to tell what story—these are tricky questions worth asking.
The best advice on this that I ever received was from our teacher at Iowa, Charles D’Ambrosio, who told me to give those questions to my characters. Let the story do the asking. That’s how the first story in my collection, “The Subject,” came to be, and why it’s first in the collection.
In A Map for the Missing, you capture beautifully the disorientation your main character [a Chinese immigrant] feels when he returns home. Was that something you felt pressure to get right?
BHT: Your answer reminds me of a quote from The Song of Everlasting Sorrow that I love: “They don’t want to create a place for themselves in history, they want to create themselves.” (Actually, I loved this so much that I used it as an epigraph in my book).
To answer your question, I didn’t feel pressure per se in writing that disorientation—or at least I felt less pressure around it than writing other parts of the book—because it’s something that I’ve experienced to a degree myself. One of the opening scenes of my book takes place when the protagonist, Tang Yitian, returns to his village after fifteen years away and finds it utterly changed.
I grew up hearing a lot of stories of my dad’s upbringing in the village, but every time I went back, the reality of the place denied me the fantasy of the past. And that was something that only grew as time continued on, and the arms of modernity stretched their reach wider into the village. So I knew what it felt like to be disoriented by change, even if that change hadn’t happened in the place I’d once called home.
AZ: That makes sense, and explains why the writing felt imbued with such longing. It’s something I’ve felt too, going back to my father’s village where his childhood home remains at the base of a hill overgrown with wildflowers. It occurred to me the last time I visited that one day, the growth will overtake the abandoned plot completely, choking the entrance and blocking us from ever going back.
We’ve talked some about our intentions for writing, but I’m curious, now that you’re on the other side of publication, how those intentions have been received by readers, and how you’ve managed being an author in the public-facing sense, as someone who is now subject to others’ perceptions not just of your work but of you as a person. Right now, I get to operate from the safety of my pre-publication bubble, but soon that will change. I’m terrified, frankly.
BHT: That’s a difficult question, and one that I still feel I’m managing. Before the book came out, all I could think about was that I wanted it to be held by a lot of readers. I wasn’t prepared enough for the fact that readers create their own interpretations, of both author and book, and oftentimes this differs from my own intentions.
For example, I deliberately wanted to write a book that challenged the portrayals of the Cultural Revolution. Those stories, of political upheaval and tumult, were certainly part of the picture, but not the entire one. There were still a lot of ordinary people trying their best to live ordinary lives. However, as I’ve done publicity for my book, I’ve found that many readers will still say things like, “Thank you for writing about this awful time in China,” which was completely not my point.
My book is also very personal. It’s about a family that struggles to speak to one another and–surprise, surprise!—my own family struggles with that. I’ve found that because my characters go on a journey, many readers want to believe that I’ve gone on a similar journey of triumph.I want the book to have its own life, that publication should be a parting of ways between the artist and the work. I’m willing to risk misinterpretation if it means these stories can find homes in other people.
But in fact—as you know—my relationship with my family has been more strained than ever around the time of this book, for various reasons. It’s really hard to let people down and tell them—no, your story of me isn’t correct. They want to believe that writing a book fixes everything.
What are you doing pre-pub to prepare yourself? What lessons or mantras are you holding?
AZ: That sounds hard and frustrating and just as confusing as I feared. But thank you for such an honest response. If it’s any solace, from my vantage point as your reader, friend, and fellow writer who is also interested in China during that time, the book is a necessary and wonderful addition to the canon of global American literature.
I feel lucky pre-pub because I have friends like you who have done it before me and whom I can turn to for advice or comfort. You’ve given me both. Having a book come out is an experience unlike any other. It’s hard to capture for anyone who hasn’t gone through it. So I’m immensely grateful to friends like you for understanding, and I’m equally grateful in a totally different way to my friends who don’t read much, the ones who proudly claim not to be “book people.” Those friends take my mind off publication completely! And remind me that the book is only part of my life, not my whole life.
Maybe this relates to what you say about people making assumptions about you based on your book, but it’s been helpful (calming) for me to remember that ultimately, I want the book to have its own life, that publication should be a parting of ways between the artist and the work. I’m willing to risk misinterpretation if it means these stories can find homes in other people.
Sometimes I miss the old days when we were still finishing our MFAs, when I would walk to your house and you would do my makeup or we’d cook together. We were both still working on our books then, and all of this seemed so far away. Do you ever think about that?
BHT: Not you making me emotional!
I miss those times a lot. There’s a lot of talk about what gives MFAs their value—and I think the answer is “a lot of things”—but one of the under-discussed aspects is the feeling of being in a creative community. As social beings, we all need that, but it really does change the work, in a way that I didn’t quite realize until I was out of it.
When people ask me to recall my time at Iowa, I think about how we were talking about books and writing all the time, debating about what we liked and didn’t. Even when we weren’t talking about our work per se, all the conversations refracted back upon our work. Something you’d say off hand to me about empathy, for instance, would make me reconsider a scene from my book—things like that.
Now that I’m off on my own, I find myself getting stuck way more often and not quite knowing how to proceed. If this was in the MFA, I’d probably call someone up and have a discussion about the craft/character problem and leave with an idea.
I’m grateful to have this conversation with you like the old times. And I’m grateful for all the conversations your book is going to inspire.
AZ: Our friendship is one of the greatest gifts the MFA gave me. And it moves me to know that you and I will continue to grow, as writers and as people, together.
I love you. Call me any time.
The Sorrows of Others by Ada Zhang is available via A Public Space.