Motherhood and Migration: An Interview with Vanessa Hua on “A River of Stars”

It’s our origin myth. While I was reading it, my son started daycare, and I’ve grappled with wanting to be with him but also needing and wanting to work. What will my life have meant? With Scarlett, her journey is not just about survival, but also expansion. Why was telling this story important to you? When I was growing up, I often didn’t have access to or didn’t know about books that had characters who were Chinese-American or Chinese. In the villages, the very old care for the very young; anyone of working age lives in the cities. I never really thought about the ways in which my life would become richer and the world might open up to me, from starting or deepening relationships to seeing the world differently. But now she’s facing her greatest challenge — and she’s not alone anymore. ¤
Melody Schreiber is a freelance journalist based in Washington, DC. You can only be isolated for so long; this is her way of coming into her own as a person, by finding a community. She has never quite found friendship or community or lasting love; but in having a child, she opens herself up to possibilities that she didn’t before. All of these characters came from my imagination. When, in fact, there are all sorts of ways you engage with the world as a parent, and it helps you understand a greater range of the human experience. When she was a teen, Scarlett migrated within China from her rural village to a factory city, and she had to learn how to survive on her own. And you’ll then be in charge of taking care of them once they’re born. A big question in the book is, What is my legacy? Even your minor characters have unusual depth. I hope people reading this book would either be exposed to something new to them, or — also importantly — would feel recognized, like they’re seeing something familiar to them. Follow her on Twitter: @m_scribe. That’s something that often happens in motherhood. What does she discard and what does she keep as she searches for a place to belong? All the reporting I’ve done or conversations I’ve had or articles and books I’ve read — they’re seeding the cloud until finally it gets heavy enough to start raining. I try to depict many of these close connections, the back-and-forth of migrants to ancestral and adopted homelands, in the book. Boss Yeung and Mama Fang are similar, then you get to know them and see where their vulnerabilities and softnesses lay. I spoke to Hua about the duality of motherhood and migration, and the meaning of legacy — what we leave behind and what carries on long after we’re gone. She wants to form deep roots and longer-lasting relationships. How will you raise them in a vulnerable situation like this? It really resonated with me, how much of motherhood is a balance — not just balancing your time, which is a huge undertaking in itself, but also balancing yourself, your identity. They look exactly like rocket ships!”
Kids are natural poets. What do you want readers to get from the story, if nothing else? ¤
MELODY SCHREIBER: Thank you for writing this book. How has your own background informed this story, and to what degree? I’ve seen what the changes in China’s economy have done to families. I hope that readers either feel seen or feel like their eyes are opened in some way. America prides itself on being a nation of immigrants. It’s interesting how blind you can be to what is around you, until it becomes relevant to you. — you begin to think about what and how you were taught, how you were raised. From practical aspects, like where the nearest playground is, to the more profound, like how language is formed and developed. I’ve likened it to dust forming up in the clouds, and finally it gets heavy enough for a raindrop to fall down. Particularly with Mama Fang and Boss Yeung, from the outset they come off as villainous or at the very least questionable. Because I didn’t know what being a parent was like, I thought about all the things that would be closed off to me. I remember when my short story collection came out, people asked, “What character is most like you?” They all are. How do I hold on to my essential self, and how much will I change? In my story, both Scarlett and Daisy are in incredibly vulnerable situations. I really enjoyed the characters in your story. Both physically and emotionally, Scarlett lives between two worlds, caught between China and the United States, between tradition and modernity, between vulnerability and evolution. And just trying to explain things like racism and inequality, or Thanksgiving, or Martin Luther King Jr. Your book grapples with these deep emotional and psychological themes, but it is also very much concerned with the physical — from Scarlett’s pregnancy and postpartum time, to other characters’ very serious illnesses. The circumstances in which my main character, Scarlett, finds herself couldn’t be more different from mine. It also brings up issues around reproductive choice, which can be defined not only by the decision to have a child or not, but what will happen to that child if you do have one. To start writing. Now, she’s making her way in an entirely new country. So much shape-shifting happens, starting with your own body. When Scarlett’s plane touches down in Los Angeles, she embarks on a perilous journey into motherhood — here, in an entirely new country, far from everyone and everything she has ever known. It is, unfortunately, a very timely issue. Scarlett is a migrant mother facing the very real possibility of being deported and being separated from her daughter. How will you keep yourself and your child together? Two-thirds of people who are undocumented in the United States actually came in legally and then continued living here on visa overstays. In one part of the story, your main character, Scarlett, starts working after having a child. I strive, in my journalism and my fiction, to make characters as complex and complicated as they are in real life. I started writing this novel in the months after giving birth, and a lot of that is reflected in Scarlett. How will a baby change me and the way I live my life? And the relationships we form, the families we make that are not passed down by genetics but formed by us. The immigration system is broken, but it’s much more complex — and the solutions are far more complex — than simply, for instance, building a wall. It’s false. But this is also something that has been going on for a long time. But on another level, you’re going through so many changes. Hopefully the novel broadens people’s understanding of immigration to this country: how people get in, how they live, what they’re striving for. It speaks to how our bodies bind us to this earth for a certain time, but our bloodlines continue after we’re gone. Having kids made me see the world in different ways. Fiction fosters empathy among readers by putting them in a position to consider deeply someone’s history, hopes, and ambitions. When I thought about having kids, I often focused on everything I wouldn’t be able to do — stay out late or travel as easily or make decisions as spontaneously. She comes to a point where she realizes she can’t always just leave and start a new life. Who will I be? There is an enormous pain and trauma around that separation. They might be secondary or tertiary characters, but they have a story. I explore questions of legacy, the afterlife, and mortality. Now it’s all about finding her footing. SEPTEMBER 13, 2018

SCARLETT CHEN LEARNED long ago how to survive on her own. But I was thinking about the transformations mothers go through, our identities, the work we do and how that work is valued. He was able to meet the twins, but he passed away when they were only 10 months old. I said, “They are! She was only a teenager when she left her rural village for the huge factory cities in China; over the years, she relied on her wits and determination to climb up the factory leadership. Scarlett is coming to terms with the kind of life she will build for herself and her child. She has left behind the only life she’s ever known; add to that the transition of becoming a mother. They were calling them rocket ships. That’s reflected in the book. She feels so useful, so like her old self, when she’s working, but she also worries constantly that she’s failing her daughter. She forms the family she’s never had before. I’ve reported from the Pearl River Delta, from which many Chinatown residents migrate. That’s when you run into problems with stereotypes. No person should be a device to move the plot along. A River of Stars, Vanessa Hua’s first novel, is a stirring exploration of identity: what it means to be a parent, a lover, a friend. You’re growing someone else inside you. I was aware, as I’d never been before, of mortality. On a practical level, you are responsible for keeping another human alive every day. Scarlett finds it difficult to connect with people, especially women, but she’s super savvy and very shrewd. And it touches across the Pacific. Nothing that’s one-to-one, nothing that happened in my life happening in hers. They have this freedom and facility with language that we as creative writers are trying to find our way back to. Characters, even though they’re minor, shouldn’t be a device. Yes! You still might not agree with what they’ve done, but at least they’re not defined by one action. There’s a narrative that immigrants only come by foot over our southern border. Scarlett has, by necessity, led a very solitary life. But at the same time, any woman who becomes a mother is faced with very similar decisions. But even though it’s our history, there’s been controversy for as long as there’s been immigration — certainly around Chinese immigrants, with the Chinese Exclusion Act that began in 1882 and didn’t end until well into the 20th century, in 1943. Once we visited REI and my kids saw kayaks standing upright. Their children could be taken away from them. But then, like anything, it comes down to understanding their history, their circumstances, and their motivations. As I was writing the book, it was the start of my twins’ life, but my father was ailing; he had Parkinson’s. VANESSA HUA: I always knew I wanted kids, but I also always wondered what’s going to happen? Throughout modern Chinese history, families have been separated; both within China, as parents work in factories and send their children to villages to be raised by grandparents, and also through migration to and from the United States. I really appreciate the way books have helped expand my understanding of the world. I’ve been covering Asia and the diaspora for two decades.