10 Questions for Patricia P. Chu
- By Edward Clifford
Photo: Lee B. Ewing
Professor and psychoanalyst Dori Laub, creator of the Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale, has drawn upon his own experiences in interviewing Holocaust survivors to construct a model for the interactive work of the interviewer. According to Laub, the interviewer in this delicate and unique situation must act as an analyst and create a steady , safe, and supportive environment, one in which Holocaust survivors can face their often vivid but fragmented memories and draw them into narrative form.
—from "Truth as Accessible as Looking Out a Window," Volume 60, Issue 4 (Winter 2019)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
In my twenties, I took various creative writing courses, which taught me about character, setting, and voice, but nothing about how to structure a novel. In high school, I had been told that all literary plots came down to one of five conflicts: man vs. man, man vs. himself, man vs. society, man vs. nature, and man v. God. I hope they've stopped teaching that now or at least rephrased it. In my case, I couldn't see how two men fighting for dominance in the jungle, for instance, could relate to any story I'd want to tell. The main conflict in my life as a young person was "daughter v. mother," but in the 1970s and early 80s, I didn't think that was appropriate material for literature. I even met two creative writing professors who told me so. But I also met a very sharp teacher who asked, "Why is there no Asian American literary tradition?" So I entered graduate school with this as a scholarly question. I attended a wonderful program, but I still didn't read my first Asian American literary text until I was almost 29. It was Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior, and the form of it was unlike anything I had read up to then; even now, few people really acknowledge how innovative the form of that book was. It was also the first book I had ever read about Chinese immigrants, let alone an immigrant mother and an American daughter.
The following year, Amy Tan published The Joy Luck Club, which opened many doors for Asian American writers, and also clinched the mother-daughter plot as a staple of Asian American literature. What I know now is that there is a genre called the bildungsroman--the novel of education--and also a plot called the quest plot. This genre and this plot are driven primarily, not by conflict, but by desire--the desire for growth and learning. So I wrote an essay about the conflict between quest and romance in the Chinese legend of Mulan, which Kingston appropriated and re-imagined in The Woman Warrior, and how Kingston used her entire book to critique the marriage plot and the fantasy of martial heroism, and to search for a different kind of achievement and affirmation. It was published as "The Anti-Romantic Plots of Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior" in a then-new journal called Diaspora, and with this article I got my first job as an assistant professor. Then, I wrote a book about the Asian American novel of education, and called it Assimilating Asians: Gendered Strategies of Authorship in Asian America.
What writers or works have influenced the way you write now?
I went through an early phase when I read a lot of George Bernard Shaw, and when I ran out of his plays, I read his prefaces and afterwords, and I internalized a bit of his argumentative style: I'm not as witty or as socialist as he was, but I learned early to think in long sentences. (I also read a lot of Shakespeare then, and it's easy for me to put sentences into iambic pentameter, but I usually refrain.) In college, I read Strunk and White and learned to favor a lucid, concise, direct style. I once took an essay-writing course where we read more florid stylists; I was mystified, but gamely introduced metaphors into a paper I was writing on Aristotle. The philosophy professor gave it a B for imprecise argument. At the end of the term I quit the philosophy course, but kept working on writing lucidly. Naturally, I now admire writers skilled in lyrical, metaphoric writing.
What other professions have you worked in?
I really had only a few jobs and two "careers" before hitting on the plan of getting a Ph.D. As a babysitter and housecleaner, I learned how non-Chinese American families kept house. As a legal typist, I learned not to go into law. As an insurance trainee, I learned that I didn't want to be in business. And as an assistant textbook editor, I learned that I didn't want to be in business, even if it was publishing. So when I got to graduate school I was very, very motivated. Since becoming a professor, the most rewarding "other profession" in my life has been motherhood.
What inspired you to write this piece?
I was invited to contribute to a mini-conference on trauma, historical memory, and Nanjing, and I was reading Ken Liu's collection The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories. Liu's collection has a number of stories addressing questions of history and countermemory--the stories generated by those whose history is being lost or erased--culminating in "The Man Who Ended History." This story is not about Nanjing, but it seemed to address so brilliantly, and with such compassion, so many issues pertaining to the memory and erasure of traumatizing war crimes, that I wanted to write about it. Liu is one of those creative writers who uses speculative fiction very skilfully to talk about complex questions, so it's hard to go any further than his story already does. However, I asked my colleague, Marshall Alcorn, to recommend appropriate theory about trauma and testimony, and thought about how Dori Laub's work on holocaust testimonies this applied to Liu's story.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Yes, much of my writing is about China—both actual cities, such as my parents' hometowns of Hangzhou and Shanghai, and the ideas of China which emerge from Chinese American writing. Beijing, for instance, is the city where my father was born, went to graduate school, and was arrested and released by the Japanese. It's both the site of Tiananmen Square, which many people have written about, and the city where my daughter studied Chinese for a year. It's a place where I met my mother's former schoolmates, and they told me where my mother and father met. And it's a city I know primarily as a visitor and a reader.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
No, I find it hard to write while listening to music, which to me is too much like conversation. This could be because I like musical theater, especially Sondheim and Miranda, and Yo-Yo Ma, whose records are generally conversations with composers and other musicians.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I drink tea, take a walk, have breakfast, take a shower, and then start writing. Another method is to leverage my insomnia by thinking about some writing problem when I wake up in the middle of the night or at dawn, and then write when I wake up. I'm not sure that counts as ritual, but it's how I've thought up these answers.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
When I get stuck early on, I talk to my daughter Sophie, who hears out the whole argument, and then asks smart questions. My husband reads late drafts and tells me when I am either unclear or overly critical of people whose work I admire. And Eleanor Ty, a friend and wonderful scholar, has heard most of my conference papers--de facto drafts--and read most of my late drafts.
What are you working on currently?
My recent book, Where I Have Never Been: Asian American Narratives of Return, examines stories in which Asian Americans return to their ancestral homelands to understand their roots. While researching it, I visited China and got to know my parents' family members. Now that I'm older, I'd like to write about my immigrant parents and their siblings in China, how they were separated when young, how they survived and prospered, and how they raised their children. I'm listening for loss, reconciliation, and the breaking of silence.
What are you reading right now?
I've recently been reading Thi Bui's family memoir in graphic form, The Best We Could Do, a wonderful meditation on migration, family, and countermemory; Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, which is infused with her love of music; The Book of Salt by Monique Truong, which is infused with her love of food; and Shelter by Jung Yun, a novel that seems to be about a home invasion, but turns out to be about anger, remorse, and forgiveness, expressed through real estate metaphors. Right now, it's Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See.
PATRICIA P. CHU is associate professor and deputy chair of English at George Washington University. She recently served as Global Humanities Visiting Scholar at the University of Macau. She is the author of Where I Have Never Been: Migration, Melancholia, and Memory in Asian American Narratives of Return and Assimilating Asians: Gendered Strategies of Authorship in Asian America, a study of the Asian American bildungsroman.Her articles have appeared in Diaspora, Arizona Quarterly, Literary Gestures: The Aesthetic in Asian American Literary Discourse, The Cambridge History of Asian American Literature, The Routledge Companion to Asian American and Asian Pacific Islander Literature, and elsewhere.