Kathryn Ma on Portraying Asian-Americans Positively and the “Messiness That is Life in Any Community”
In Conversation with Mitzi Rapkin on the First Draft Podcast
First Draft: A Dialogue of Writing is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with fiction, nonfiction, essay writers, and poets, highlighting the voices of writers as they discuss their work, their craft, and the literary arts. Hosted by Mitzi Rapkin, First Draft celebrates creative writing and the individuals who are dedicated to bringing their carefully chosen words to print as well as the impact writers have on the world we live in.
In this episode, Mitzi talks to Kathryn Ma about her new novel, The Chinese Groove.
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From the episode:
Mitzi Rapkin: You said it felt risky to write about a Chinese character who was behaving badly.
Kathryn Ma: In some ways, there’s a challenge, I think for any writer of color or writer from a community that has been underrepresented in literature and in the arts, you feel somewhat responsible to the community. And you feel like, if I tell a story will it be taken as somehow a pronouncement on the state of affairs in my community or as some sort of truth? No, it’s fiction. It’s a novel, it’s a made up story and it has to have all of the messiness that is life in any community, or any situation has.
And that’s one of the pleasures of writing a novel, you can make it as messy as you want. My idea of an interesting book is you start with the mess, and then you find some way to shape it through theme, through characterization, through motifs, and language into something that helps us understand some part of our humanity. So that’s what I tried to do with this book. But I did not allow myself to be silenced by this sense of responsibility to only depict the Chinese-American community in the best possible light. Where’s the fun in that? That’s not really the job of the novelist.
Mitzi Rapkin: I really understand that though, when you’re dealing with so many barriers and moments of hate and systemic racism from the outside world, I could see how that would cause you to wrestle.
Kathryn Ma: You know, you asked about the title earlier, and I had a working title in my head for a long time, which I knew was not ultimately going to be the title, it was just sort of my guiding light, my north star was writing toward that title. And then when it came time to title the book, I did think of the Chinese groove because it’s this made up Shelleyism. It’s a kind of fun phrase, and ties the book together thematically. But I did hesitate, I thought, well, maybe I shouldn’t put the word Chinese in the title.
I mean, this was during a time of anti-Asian, feeling, I felt like, Oh, this may not serve the book well, and then I decided, no, I’m going to own it. I’m going to just put it out there. This is an important concept behind the book. It’s very fun. And just go for it. So, I did and I’m glad I did. But I’m sorry to say I did have that conversation with myself of asking, Is this a good idea to use the word Chinese right on the cover of the book? But heck, anybody who meets me or sees the last name Ma on the cover of the book knows that I come from a Chinese background, so I just decided to go for it.
Kathryn Ma is the author of the widely praised novel The Year She Left Us, which was named a New York Times Editors’ Choice and an NPR “Great Read” of the year. Her short story collection, All That Work and Still No Boys, won the Iowa Short Fiction Award and was named a San Francisco Chronicle “Notable Book” and a Los Angeles Times “Discoveries Book.” She is also a recipient of the David Nathan Meyerson Prize for Fiction and has twice been named a San Francisco Public Library Laureate. Her new book is called The Chinese Groove.