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The Defining Moments of Their Lives: An Interview with Yang Huang

MY OLD FAITHFUL book cover

My Old Faithful, by Yang Huang, is a collection of ten interconnected stories about a Chinese family set in China and the U.S. during a period of tumultuous social change. Yang’s stories capture family life in all of its everyday pain and beauty. Using shifting points of view, Yang gets inside each family member, creating complex yet sympathetic portraits of parents and children doing their best to honor the family while being true to their own desires.

Winner of the 2017 Juniper Prize, My Old Faithful offers readers a heartfelt and entertaining glimpse of Chinese family life. Purchase a copy here.

Huang shared her thoughts with Cease, Cows.

Chuck Augello: If you came across someone in a bookstore holding a copy of My Old Faithful, what might you say to entice him or her to read it?

Yang Huang: My Old Faithful is a collection of ten linked stories about a Chinese family. A father, mother, two daughters, and son each tell two stories about the defining moments of their lives: sexual awakenings, sibling rivalries, the pain and joy of raising children, aging. On the surface it is a loving and supportive family. Underneath there are secret strivings, jealousy, betrayal, and pain, as well as joy and the constraints of love and loyalty that bind and separate a family across time and space.

CA: The collection is organized into three sections: The Selfish Youngsters, The Willful Teenagers, and The Women in Love. Was it your intention to write around these themes, or did they become apparent after you had completed the stories?

YH: Definitely the latter. I wrote the stories as stand-alone pieces. First I wrote “The Homely Girl” and “Dream Lover,” from the elder daughter’s POV. Then I wrote “Chimney,” from the father’s perspective, about spanking his son to teach him a lesson. This led me to the son’s story, where he sexually takes advantage of his younger sister. Several stories show this ripple effect, as a character’s rash action causes serious consequences. The other type shows a different side of the character. In “The Umbrella,” the father is protective of his younger daughter, which contrasts his being a stern disciplinarian to his son in “Chimney.”

After I had ten stories, I arranged them chronologically and grouped them into three sections. As their stories intersect, the recurring themes emerged as The Selfish Youngsters, The Willful Teenagers, and The Women in Love.

CA: The stories are told from the points of view of the different family members rather than from a single narrator. Was it challenging deciding which character’s perspective to use for a particular story?

YH: The structure of this book was predetermined. I used a first-person perspective to explore a character’s defining moments. Every character tells two stories, while they are peripheral characters in other people’s stories. I started out with four: a father, mother, daughter, and son. Somewhere along the way, I conceived a third story for the sister. So I created a younger daughter and gave her a different role from the elder sister. She is more assertive and independent. Unfortunately as the youngest member of the family, she is picked on by the brother, but she doesn’t act like a victim. She stands her ground and fights back.

CA: American audiences often have a limited awareness of other cultures. Did this have any influence on the writing of these stories?

YH: This limited awareness can be used as an advantage. I wrote personal essays in a memoir writing class. The professor commented on how awful the parents seemed, how cruel and insensitive they were. I thought: really? They seemed perfectly normal to me. I realized how “civilized” middle-class American families seemed in comparison: parents try to be fair, reason with their children, and give them space to grow. Chinese parents are not so polite, don’t pretend to be fair or politically correct, but their love for their children is intense, smothering, almost a primal instinct. This gives me rich material to work with, because flawed characters make interesting fiction.

Looking back I was also influenced by Sherwood Anderson’s collection Winesburg, Ohio and Louise Erdrich’s beautiful book, Love Medicine. The cultural details are not a hindrance but a veil you lift to show the human face that we recognize. When I read Winesburg, Ohio, I thought the characters were my neighbors in Yangzhou. People are more similar than different, if you describe them precisely.

CA: One of my favorite characters is Lian, a girl moving toward womanhood. Tell us about her.

YH: Lian is the youngest of three children, spirited and competitive, since she wants to catch up with her elder siblings. She used to be fond of her brother, but she grows out of her dependence on him, makes friends outside home, and becomes rather precocious in the way she views romantic relationships. She has a crush on her female high jumper coach, until she meets the coach’s daughter and learns that everyone has a private life, even her idol. As she moves toward maturity, the book jumps from the past into the present tense, like a black and white film bursting into full colors. That’s the halfway point in the book. The children begin to have a real awareness of sexual attraction. To me, that is a point of no return.

CA: The story “The Birthday Girls” shows the conflict between traditional values and the temptations of global capitalism as a pair of Nike sneakers becomes a point of contention between a mother and daughter. What were you hoping to show in this story?

YH: Nikes were a status symbol when they flooded the high-end Chinese market in the 1980s. Along with Western philosophy and Western literature these thoughts and way of life attracted teenagers like Lian, who eventually emigrates to the U.S.

But this is an average family with limited means. It doesn’t make sense to spend the mother’s monthly salary on a pair of shoes that Lian will outgrow in six months. From a logical standpoint, Lian cannot contest commonsense. The point of contention is more between traditions–folklore, even superstition–versus rational thinking, Western values and consumerism included. So the mother’s success in luring her daughter, born in the Year of Dragon and on Guanyin’s birthday, to understand the cultural support for women in a patriarchal society is to equip her with more resources. She’s saying, “Be the feminist that you are, but also use the support from your mother, aunties, other village women, even the Goddess of Mercy. We are here for you.”

CA: Growing up in China, did you have access to fiction by Western writers? Who were some of the writers who had an influence on you when you came to the United States?

YH: Growing up in China, I had limited access to Western literature. The Russian novels I read were second-rate communist epics. I didn’t find Tolstoy, but I read Victor Hugo and Balzac, whose work I adored, internalized, and longed to imitate.

After I came to the U.S. I fell in love with British literature and especially the Victorian novels. I couldn’t get enough of George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, E.M. Foster, and Thomas Hardy. I found the Victorian society familiar in the way it impinges on individuals, and it was delicious to work out a dignified life within these constraints. For me Jane Austen’s heroines are badass feminists wearing corsets. Out of necessity they see the glass as half-full and have to pursue a fulfilling life with supreme wit, tact, and courage. That’s how I view real life, even in the U.S. today.

Of course my taste evolves. I also admired works by Alice Munro, Barbara Kingsolver, Ha Jin, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, and many other contemporary writers.

CA: You participated in the 1989 Tiananmen Square student uprisings in China. Many of our readers were born after those events. What should people know about that experience? Do you see any connections with the current volatile political climate in the U.S.?

YH: The Tiananmen Square protest defined us as a generation. In 1989, I marched for democracy with millions of people, not only students but also teachers and workers and people from all walks of life. For a short while there seemed to be real possibility that political reform and democracy could come to China. Our hope was dashed by the Tiananmen Square massacre. Then came the crackdown. Anything politically sensitive was censored. There were the labor camps. Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese Nobel Peace Prize laureate, recently died, basically in prison. I came to the U.S. shortly after the crackdown.

Having lived through that fight, I believe that Chinese people want democracy and are ready for it, regardless what the government says. I don’t believe the mere pursuit of material wealth, which has been front and center in Chinese life since 1989, can satiate the spiritual hunger for personal freedom. I became an immigrant writer. Since I couldn’t publish realistic fiction in China under the censorship, I chose English as my first language to write fiction.

We made our home in the Bay Area, and my children were born in Berkeley. Now they are teenagers, and Trump is the president. This beautiful country that once infused me with hope and dreams now fills me with trepidation for an uncertain future. Intellectually I can understand that some Americans take democracy for granted, but it doesn’t soften the blow. Trump’s blatant denial of press freedom and his rhetoric of dictatorship remind me of the previous life from which I escaped.

We have come to a crossroad. For some, it represents golden opportunities, and others, a gruesome fight for survival. We are being tested, both as a nation and as a people. I came from an ancient civilization, where people have endured wars, famines, natural disasters, and political upheavals for many centuries. It is sobering that our generation is not exempt from the test, and neither is the U.S.

The Tiananmen Square protest is a cautionary tale. I am grateful for America’s peaceful transition of power, which could not have happened in China. Yet the new erosion of principles, morality, and decency takes a toll on the public life as well as the private life. Resistance is for survival, because if we are not careful, soon, before we know it, our children will be left with nothing to squander. As we come to a precipice, there will be no safety net—grace, honor, or compassion—to catch our falling.

So I beseech each and everyone: never give up. We are bigger and more resilient than our problems. Every one of us is unique, flawed, fragile, yet powerfully human. Please reach out and touch one another with your courage, compassion, and humility, before it is too late.

CA: Finally, there is no shortage of ways to spend one’s time. Why do you choose to write fiction?

YH: In hindsight, I can see that my temperament is suited to be a writer: I’m an observer, endlessly curious, and sympathetic toward people. Being a compulsive storyteller, I love words and books. I have a spiritual bent that makes me look down on material things. I want to be free and use my imagination. The crowd makes me nervous. I feel safe and alive in my solitude.

Because I came to writing late, I wrote my first story when I was 26, I don’t think being a writer is a title but a responsibility. I would only call myself a writer if I’m producing good work, good not in the sense that I compare myself to other writers, but to myself, how hard I have worked, and if I have had a breakthrough. So you could say that I became a fiction writer because I craved the hard work. I can never be satisfied with my writing; what satisfies me is the process—I am a lifelong student of the writing craft and human nature.

Chuck Augello (Contributing Editor) lives in New Jersey with his wife, dog, two cats, and several cows that refuse to cease. His work has appeared in One Story, Juked, Hobart, SmokeLong Quarterly, and other fine places. He publishes The Daily Vonnegut and contributes interviews to The Review Review. He’s currently at work on a novel.