C Pam Zhang on the Psychic Idea of Home
This Week from the Thresholds Podcast with Jordan Kisner
This is Thresholds, a series of conversations with writers about experiences that completely turned them upside down, disoriented them in their lives, changed them, and changed how and why they wanted to write. Hosted by Jordan Kisner, author of the new essay collection, Thin Places, and brought to you by Lit Hub Radio.
On this episode, Jordan talks to C Pam Zhang, the author of How Much of These Hills Is Gold, about how the book came about—a journey that began with an acid trip.
From the episode:
Jordan Kisner: Something I noticed about the book was the way that these characters—especially Lucy, but it really seems like all the characters—are kind of questing after home or belonging as this destination, as if they could just get to the right place there will be some relief from what they’re experiencing. I wanted to hear you talk a little bit about that idea of home or belonging or rest or safety as this horizon that continually vanishes in front of them.
C Pam Zhang: Oh, I love the way you put that. It’s so sad. You know, I was born in Beijing, and I actually did not become an American citizen until I was 15 or 16, because my mom had finally been in the States long enough that she could be naturalized, and as her child, I was automatically naturalized along with her. And for a fairly significant chunk of my childhood, I identified with the Chinese part more than the American part. Because one, that’s what was said on my passport, but also you’re constantly labeled as Chinese in America, no matter whether you were born here, how many generations your family has been here; it’s just the assumption people make of you.
After I gained citizenship, it was just this constant vibrational confusion that I held within me about, what do I claim as my culture? Who do I claim affinity to? How can I ever reconcile these questions? And in some ways, I still don’t fully know the answer. I think I am still looking for that sense of home. Because it was wonderful to be in Thailand and to feel visible and to be held, but also I didn’t speak the language, and I knew that I was a foreigner. I didn’t understand Thai culture. That wasn’t my place. And I certainly have no grasp of modern Chinese culture. But I’m always going to get called out for looking Chinese in America, so I don’t really know where that physical place is.
I think that more and more, especially since putting out this novel, I’ve come to terms with the fact that this idea of home is going to be more of an emotional and a psychic idea for me. I may never have the luxury of claiming an entire country or even an entire city as the place where I feel completely at home. I think that home is, as sappy as it sounds, it is people. It’s individual living rooms of friends. It’s communities, maybe internet communities; the people who just get what I get and have had similar lived experiences.
Especially zooming out a little bit in our increasingly globalized, multiracial world, I think it’s a question that more and more people grapple with. There is also the sense that the world itself is just changing faster. It feels like every couple of years the world sheds its skin and is like, the things you thought were true five years ago and that you thought would be true for 25 years, sorry! That’s not the case anymore.
Born in Beijing, C Pam Zhang is mostly an artifact of the United States. She is the author of How Much of These Hills Is Gold, which won the Academy of Arts and Letters Rosenthal Award and the Asian/Pacific Award for Literature, was nominated for the Booker Prize, and was one of Barack Obama’s favorite books of the year. Zhang’s writing appears in Best American Short Stories, The Cut, McSweeney’s Quarterly, The New Yorker, and The New York Times. She is a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 Honoree.