None of the characters in Vanessa Hua's debut short story collection Deceit and Other Possibilities could be canonized as saints. Most of them can hardly be admired. They are people through and through. They lie, cheat, steal,
but it’s these flaws that make them very relatable.
Fiction teaches us to place ourselves in another's shoes, to understand the world because we understand why a character needs to pretend to have the gift of prophecy, or hold a grudge against her dead husband. Hua's first book of short stories is not only ripe for understanding the world, it places one of the most criticized groups in America right now in a place where you can't help but sympathize with them.
In ten short stories written over just as many years, Hua brings Chinese-American immigrants to life. Some of them are brand new to America, and some of them, like Hua herself, are the children of immigrants. I chatted with Vanessa Hua on the phone yesterday about the immigrant experience, the beauty of fiction, and how it feels to publish her debut collection.
Today is your novel’s publication day. How do you feel?
Good, good. I mean, it’s terrifying knowing that people who don’t know me will be reading my book and judging me on it. But everyone has been so supportive. It makes the word feel a lot more approachable than it sometimes seems.
You were a journalist for a long time. How did you end up making the transition to fiction?
I’ve been writing stories since I was a kid. In the second grade, I remember one time, the teacher read our stories out loud in the class and our classmates had to vote. Mine won. I heard another classmate say after that they only voted for me because mine was the longest. That was my first snarky review, I guess. But I also grew up reading the local paper. I worked for the college newspaper, and I decided to work on journalism for a few years. I worked around the country.
I came back to San Francisco, [and] at that point I’d been away from fiction for so long that I was scared I’d never be able to do it again. I'd read old stories and be scared I could never do it again. But I just kind of tried to return. I started going to community workshops and writing conferences while still working full time as a daily news journalist. I’d get up early to write and work on the weekend, but it didn't feel like enough to work on a book length project. So I went back to grad school to get my MFA.
Is that where you wrote these stories?
I worked on my novel there, but I was also working on stories and submitting them to literary journals. I started submitting them to short story competitions, and I’d get rejected and revise and resubmit. At the same time I was working on my novel. After getting published, I started to think it could be a collection. Eventually I won the Willow Books Fiction contest, and they are a small press in Detroit that focuses on the work of writers of color.
Separately, this spring I landed a two-book deal for novels. So people have been like, "how did you get 3 books all at once?" But it wasn't all at once. I've been working on these books for years.
In the acknowledgements you say you wrote these stories over a 10-year period. Was it difficult to include some of the older ones? What is it that you feel intertwines these stories?
I’d like to think they’ve held up. Actually this collection pretty much represents the sum total of all of the short stories I’ve ever written. There was one story I ended up leaving out but then I ended up regretting it. But that story will live to see another day.
So really these are all the stories I had. Even though I didn’t deliberately set out to write a book about immigration and identity, I kept returning to these scenes. Even though the character's situations are all very different, that’s what compelled me. It wasn’t a matter of picking which stories could appear in the collection. I put much more thought into the arrangement.
You are the daughter of Chinese immigrants. How do you think your own personal experience played into the creation of these characters?
Yeah. I mean, I grew up being an outsider and knowing that I was different and then that my parents were different, and trying to navigate the world and figure out how other people live. That might be through books. Or it would be like when I went over to my friends and saw that the mom had cooked a three course meal from scratch.
Or like baking! Baking is not a Chinese tradition. But I would read about baking in like The Little House on the Prairie series. I remember one time I tried to make bread and it called for warm water and I thought "warm water, well boiling water would be even better." I didn't understand that would kill the yeast.
I feel like it trained me powerfully to observe and try to understand things and close that gap in understanding. And I think that's something I try to do in my writing. There’s so much to write about in the immigrant experience: what the immigrants lost and left before and the way they and their children make a new life in a new land. It's very compelling.
Obviously you thought these stories were important enough to write about. Can you talk a bit about why you think immigrant representation matters in fiction?
This is the reality we live in. This is the world we live in. If we don’t have these stories, that’s when it becomes easier to demonize immigrants. We have a presidential candidate who questions the loyalty of immigrants and the children of immigrants. He doesn’t want to know our stories. He sees them only one way. He doesn’t understand our humanity or our motives or our reasons. Even if the characters in my stories are in no way up for sainthood, they're people. They have families. They are trying to survive. That’s why immigrant stories are now more important than ever I'd say.
This is so interesting to watch everything that’s been unfolding. Because of course the immigrant story is so central to the American identity. That's our origins. We're a country of immigrants, from the pilgrims onward. Even though it’s an old story, it's always as new as the latest immigrant who's arriving today.
It's obviously a book about people and humanity. But coming out right now, a month before the election, it could so easily be taken as a kind of political statement.
It was interesting another friend asked me, "Are you worried about writing about a hot button issue?" And I was like, when is it not a hot button issue? I wrote it over such a long period of time that there's no way i could have predicted what the circumstances would be when it came out.
Are you worried about how people will respond?
I have no control over how people will interpret it. I can only hope that readers understand that for these particular characters why they've come to make their decision. There was that study that came out last year that showed that readers of literary fiction actually have more empathy because they are getting inside someone else's story.
It definitely won’t reach the audience of like a blockbuster movie or a comic book reboot. But I can hope that a reader still might find their story being told or still be able to relate to it regardless of whether they share the same ethnicity or identity as the character.
A book can stay with a reader longer than a column or a newspaper article. There’s that hope that yeah it may not even get as many readers as something that I spent an afternoon on but hopefully it will be longer lasting in impact.
Vanessa's new book Deceit and Other Possibilities is available for purchase on Amazon.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.