Vanessa Hua is a literary polymath. She is also a seemingly indefatigable award-winning author, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, and the mother of twins. For over 20 years, her journalistic and creative writings about Asia and the diaspora have garnered numerous awards and acclaim. A River of Stars was named to the Washington Post and NPR’s Best Books of 2018 lists. Her short story collection, Deceit and Other Possibilities, received an Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature and was a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection.
Hua has said that “the trajectory to a novel is not an arrow shooting straight,” and her most recent novel exemplifies that circuitousness. Forbidden City, began as a short story and took 14 years to finish as a novel, the writing equivalent of a marathon. Hailed as “magnificent” by Publisher’s Weekly, anointed a “new classic” by the San Francisco Chronicle, and declared “masterful” by the Washington Post, Forbidden City is proving to be a novel worth the wait.
I met Hua at Hedgebrook’s inaugural Radical Craft Retreat in 2020, where her talent as an instructor was matched only by her lovely generosity. She not only kept her word to keep in touch, but also, in the midst of traveling to promote Forbidden City, made time to converse with me via email about the power of peer mentorships, body empathy, publishing barriers, and writing across the “threshold” of motherhood.
Lolita Pierce: Vanessa, I am so grateful to reconnect with you! You definitely embody the generous and nurturing space that Hedgebrook provides to visionary women writers. This goes to the heart of what I’ve heard you say about the importance of peer mentorships. I’ve been grateful for the reciprocity of support and inspiration from my writer friends. What did peer mentorships offer to you? How have they evolved? Finally, what advice would you offer to writers seeking peer mentorships when they aren’t already friends with another writer?
Vanessa Hua: I’m glad we could reconnect, too, and I appreciate your kind words about the retreat. I’m always so happy to hear about the continued fellowship of your wonderful group of women writers.
Peer mentorships have been deeply important in my development as a writer. Simply put, aspiring writers can come up together in their careers. You have each other’s backs, sharing opportunities, trading work, recommending them, serving as accountability buddies and more. So much of the writing world can appear opaque, and by sharing information among each other, peer mentors can demystify the process. With that fellowship, you’ll feel less alone.
Traditional mentorships are important as well, but those who are established in their careers are likely too busy to check in frequently.
For writers who are seeking peer mentorships, I advise putting yourself out there: forming or joining a writing group, attending a writing workshop or conference, volunteering at a magazine or a festival, or helping out or hosting a reading series. These opportunities—whether virtual or in-person—will put you in touch with other community-minded writers, and from there, hopefully you can develop peer mentorships.
LP: Congratulations on the publication of Forbidden City! I’m in admiration of its origin story. While it’s your third published book, it’s the first book that you wrote. Your road to its publication epitomizes the perseverance required of all writers. How did you sustain your faith in this book and cultivate it even after you believed it to be finished?
VH: I started writing Forbidden City in 2007, and finished the final edits last year—14 years, or almost a third of my life! It came close to selling in 2009, but didn’t, which was devastating. I continued writing, working on other projects, including my short story collection, Deceit and Other Possibilities, and my debut novel, A River of Stars. And yet, I couldn’t quit Mei, the protagonist of Forbidden City. I kept returning to the book, convinced of its promise, its premise, its heart, and I was overjoyed when my new agents were able to sell it as part of a two-book deal with A River of Stars.
My writing community helped me sustain my faith. I joined the Writers Grotto, a workspace in San Francisco, and I remember, at one of my first lunches, feeling like a fraud after walking past all the framed book covers in the lobby. Then another member shared that she hadn’t been able to sell her second book. It felt like a revelation—not only that a writer’s life had its ups and downs, but that sharing our failures could help empower others. We could find solidarity in our struggle. I also have to thank my writing groups and critique partners who read draft after draft, helping me find a way through, and, of course, my brilliant agent and editor who helped me write the best version possible of the novel.
LP: Wow. I cherish the revelation that such bolstering support arose from such a vulnerable time in your writing life.
You’ve said that the novel was inspired by a photograph of Chairman Mao Zedong, surrounded by a group of fawning girls and young women. Photographs often inspire my writing as well. What specific aspects of this photo drew you in and galvanized the novel?
VH: I was watching a documentary about China and up pops this photo of Mao, surrounded by giggling teenage girls. I was struck by their clothing—in plaid, like bobby-soxers, and how closely they surrounded him, hands on his arm and his shoulders. I didn’t snap a photo of the screen, though, and as I began writing the novel and for years afterward, I remembered the feeling the photo inspired, rather than, say, picking out one of the young women in the photo to fictionalize. I didn’t print it out and post it on my wall. Though inspired by a photo, Mei is a character born of my imagination.
LP: Mei is indeed fully and imaginatively realized. You portray Mao, members of his inner circle, and the girls in the cultural work troupe with complex empathy. How? What about your process of writing empathetically can you translate here for burgeoning writers?
VH: I considered what experiences I shared with the characters. For example, I took social dancing my freshman year of college; it was and is one of the most popular classes on campus, so I know what it’s like to wait in hushed anticipation before the music starts, the vibrations moving through my body, the sound of heels clicking on a wooden floor that Mei would have experienced. I’m also a swimmer, having taken it up in my 20s after a running injury, so I understand the peace and solace and play it could have provided the Chairman and Mei. Even though empathy is rooted in emotions and feelings, writers can access that through the visceral, through our understanding of a body in motion. That’s especially important for characters who are iconic (as with the Chairman) or flattened and erased (girls like Mei). How do we understand their bodies as much as we might ours?
LP: That’s a writing gem, Vanessa. The body carries both transmissible memory and associated emotions that we can definitely access in writing characters. Speaking of bodily experiences, I want to ask you about my favorite scene in the novel. Mei is 15 years old when she leaves home and joins Mao’s cultural work troupe. In preparation, Mei’s mother bathes her—an act she might not have performed until Mei’s wedding day. This ceremonial yet bittersweet act of love captures the complicated relationship between Mei and her mother. The subtext in this scene is incredible. How do you mother when you lack your own sovereignty? As a mother, how did it feel to write this scene?
VH: Thank you! It’s one of my favorites too, and one of the selections I typically read from at events.
You bring up an interesting point about mothering when you lack sovereignty. The novel explores how those who are greatly constrained by their circumstances, by systems of power and oppression, may nonetheless exercise agency, when and where they can. It may be in their thoughts, in the bath that Ma draws for Mei, or the tiny flowers Ma embroiders on Mei’s tunic—“a notch above necessity,” as Mei puts it.
I wrote the scene before I had children, in the first year of grad school. If anything, I drew from my experience as a daughter of immigrants who understood that even though my parents didn’t leave love notes in my lunchboxes, they loved me through their actions. In the shrimp they plucked from their own bowls and placed into mine. In the sweaters they insisted on pressing on me, long after I became an adult.
LP: Yes. Love is more than expression; it’s the constancy of action. It’s amazing how you empathetically channeled your upbringing for that scene. In your novels, the theme of motherhood and identity are interwoven with a fear of failure. In A River of Stars, Scarlet incessantly worries about failing her daughter as she makes a life in America. In Forbidden City, Mei “viewed children as defeat, life closing in,” yet the ultimate failure of her life is connected to her son. Motherhood changes our identity but doesn’t repress our individuality. We fear failing our children and failing ourselves. The balance between motherhood and selfhood may never be struck. It’s more like a scale that must be consistently weighed. Do you feel this way? Is the balance of motherhood and identity something you’ve struggled with as a journalist and novelist?
VH: Before giving birth, I worried about losing my identity. If I’d ever publish a book. If my time would remain my own (of course it hasn’t!). But after I became pregnant, after I gave birth, after I nursed, I felt as if I’d stepped through a threshold, into another world, of emotion, of ideas, of experience that I hadn’t known and was eager to explore in my writing. Motherhood has expanded my view, opened my heart and my fiction in ways I didn’t foresee. In this time of inspiration and creative ferment, I have joined the sandwich generation, squeezed by the pressures of caring for my twins and for my mother. Each day, I juggle these demands with my work. I struggled during the pandemic, and I was one of the fortunate ones, who could work from home. The specific challenges may change but never go away, a balance I’m constantly assessing and adjusting.
LP: Foraging is a lovely passion of yours. The closest we’ve gotten to foraging is my youngest son discovering mint growing outside of our home when he was little and thinking it was a chewing gum plant. Have either of your children taken to foraging?
VH: They were with me the first time I foraged a plant, miner’s lettuce. It was in April 2020, during the extremely stressful early months of the lockdown, and we were out on a hike. I texted a photo to a naturalist friend to confirm my find, and after I plucked handfuls, the boys and I got into a discussion of the lore that I’d learned as a kid growing up in California: that gold rush miners had eaten the plant, high in vitamin C, to ward off scurvy. The boys thought the leaves looked like satellite dishes, which led to a discussion of the Space Race and Laika, the unfortunate dog the Russians shot into orbit. They now can recognize miner’s lettuce on their own, and have helped me forage for bay nuts and pineapple guavas/feijoas and wild plums.
LP: Having known this about you, I was giddy to see foraging in Forbidden City, where it seemed to also represent agency and the transmission of matrilineal wisdom. Foraging seems like a transcendent, empowering skill. Has that been true of your foraging experience?
VH: As I learned the names of plants and their uses, the scenery rearranged itself in my vision and in my memory. My gaze sharpened, in a process that’s known as “breaking the green wall.” What I could not separate, see as individual, I struggled to remember. What once might have been generic prettiness, lumped in my head as wildflowers, became specific in name and taste. Through this practice, I became more grounded, literally and metaphorically, which helped me navigate the pandemic and shaped me as a writer. Paradoxically, the more I considered the present, the more expansive my vision became: seasonal, cyclical, generational.
LP: Your insight about foraging is a great metaphor for parenting. The more we thoughtfully consider our children, the more expansive our vision of the world.
Without realizing it, however, parents can also convey encoded and gendered messages that can affect their children’s esteem and behavior. In the novel, Mei receives the message that she should’ve been born a son. This message affects her sense of self-worth, how she views women, and the choices she makes throughout the novel. What messages are you intentional about delivering to your sons? Are there any gendered messages you worry that they will receive from the world that may affect their self-worth or behavior?
VH: As I write, they are about to finish fifth grade and are headed off to middle school. I’m so proud of them, how much they’ve matured and progressed, despite the pandemic interrupting their childhood. The lockdown was enormously stressful and challenging, but on our many hikes and walks in the summer of 2020, we often had long conversations about police brutality, about injustice and history. One afternoon, we came across a stand of hemlock six feet tall or more. Its stems were bruised with lurid, telltale purple blotches.
I pointed it out to my sons, and mentioned that Socrates was executed via hemlock tea.
“He was a teacher, who questioned things,” I said, reaching for half-remembered bits of history, trying to explain at a level my twins—who had just finished the third grade—would understand, “who taught his students to ask questions rather than giving them all the answers.”
“Why did he drink the tea if he knew it was poisonous?”
“He had no choice,” I say. “It was a punishment. An unjust punishment.”
“What’s an unjust punishment?”
“Was slavery legal?” I asked.
“But was it unjust?” I asked. “Was it unfair?”
Yes, they agreed.
But they also pay attention and see how the world arranges itself along gender lines. They noticed, for example, all their teachers were women, and the principal was a man—so that meant men were “the boss.” My husband and I quickly pointed out that his boss was a woman, that my mother was a scientist, alternative examples to what they might have encountered in their elementary school. As they move into adolescence and gain independence, I hope that they can continue to communicate openly and honestly with me and my husband.
LP: What a lovely lesson—very Socratic. I hope they continue to pay attention and see through the world’s systematic arrangements. I read your CNN.com opinion piece, “Why It’s So Important to Share ‘Turning Red’ with My Kids Right Now.” It was great. You wrote: “The Asian diaspora is not a monolith, but so often we get portrayed as all look same, all act same, all are same—perceived as perpetual foreigners, perpetual aliens. When you deny us our stories, you deny us our humanity.” I hope there are more movies like “Turning Red”; my children and I loved it. But the success of such movies doesn’t negate that there are industry barriers that still exclude Asian Americans and other racial groups from wider representation in all forms of media. Do you feel this as an issue within the publishing industry? What has been your experience as an Asian American writer in telling the stories you want to see in the world?
VH: No question, the number and kinds of Asian American stories emerging in the world have grown exponentially, what Viet Thanh Nguyen calls “narrative plentitude.” Our stories are appearing in all kinds of genres: historical fiction, autofiction, speculative, YA, thrillers, romance, and more. My agent and editor believe in me and my work, and help me write the best stories I can. But structural and systemic barriers remain, as we see in the Lee & Low Books diversity surveys of the publishing industry, and the discussion around #WhatPublishingPaidMe. The success of writers from various diasporas helps open the way for even more stories.
LP: I really hope so, Vanessa. Ngyuen just became the first Asian American member of the Pulitzer Prize Board. Contrast that with the Lee & Low survey, which reveals that publishing houses and journal staff remain overwhelmingly white. The plentitude doesn’t matter if the stories are shut out because of industry bias. Therefore, I wholeheartedly agree with you that major barriers remain. And we must persist. I’m glad your agent and editor strongly believe in your work, and the stories you tell; you’re phenomenally talented. So, what are you working on now? Any plans to write a foraging cookbook?
VH: I’m working on a novel about the nature of loss, displacement, and encroachment. Of territory, of predators and prey. Of surveillance and security and suburbia. I’m also contemplating an essay collection, with one piece focused on foraging but not a cookbook per se! I just foraged loquats and am excited to bake a summer cake with them, and am looking forward to the summer pleasures of plums, blackberries, and wild mint.
LP: I want to circle back to your feelings after becoming a mother of stepping “through a threshold, into another world.” I became a mother as a child. Talk about threshold. I was traversing a universe. But you captured the heart of even my experience. Motherhood absolutely transformed me as a writer and human being. So, what brings you the greatest joy as a writer? As a mother?
VH: I’m thrilled every time I’ve been writing, figuring out what’s next when my subconscious delivers a narrative solution. It feels like a gift, every time, when you discover what feels unexpected but inevitable. So, too, with being a mother, to be honest. I cherish how my children have taught me to see the world anew. I was with them, the first time they saw rain, the first time they saw snow. How magical it all seemed, to stop and consider what was happening. They lived in the present. And the way they use language has been eye-opening, too. Back when they were in preschool, we were at REI, and walked past kayaks standing on end. The twins called them “rocket ships”—because they did look like rockets! Writers spend all our time trying to get back to that, to that freeness and creativity of children. And when you’re teaching someone something for the first time, you start to think about why you believe what you believe. You consider what shaped you—your biases, implicit and explicit—and how you in turn might shape the next generation and help them build bridges now and in the future.