Books & Writing

Finding representation in Vanessa Hua’s books

About a year ago, journalist and author Vanessa Hua reached out and asked me to write a review of her two books, the short story collection Deceit and Other Possibilities and then-newly published novel A River of Stars. Now nearly twelve months later, her novel just came out in paperback, my review got turned down by a number of outlets, and here I am. But I enjoyed her books, and after hearing her at a reading in Boston I wanted to make sure some form of a review made it into the world somewhere.

At Hua’s reading in April, she talked about using writing to subvert and fight stereotypes, the ways literature is its own powerful form of representation. Which fits, because most of my original review hinged on Hua’s writing as a deeper exploration of the standard immigrant narrative, Asian and not. In my mind, books fill in the gaps where movies and TV fail, and Hua’s writing is a great example of adding the necessary human context without sacrificing levity and daily life.

Creating better media representation means telling true to life experiences that reflect the lives of people in the community. During a September event at the Asian American Writer’s Workshop in New York, Hua said, “There has to be a leap of empathy; it is something I have been very mindful of when immigrants are so under attack.” She’s an experienced journalist and columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, and her stories of immigrant narratives give insightful observations into the ways people build a life for themselves, the decisions they make and must live with.

In Deceit and Other Possibilities, all of the characters have some significant tie to immigration, but Hua doesn’t make the immigrant experience the defining element of the plot. Instead she focuses on what choices led to a current point and what happens after one big mistake––or lie––changes everything. Hua’s stories focus on regular, flawed people fighting the model minority and the good immigrant myth. The diversity of narratives spread throughout her short stories looks at people and their motives, so overall the collection forms a patchwork of difficult decisions and half truths that asks questions with no easy answers.

More than anything Hua’s style and language has a particular way of showing annoying habits, bad decisions, and stubborn mindsets that make the characters empathetic (I pitied how they wound up in distressing situations), but not totally sympathetic (they did this to themselves). Realistic characters are Hua’s specialty and it proves why she can create more defined examples of representation–– movies don’t have the time to fully explore character motivations, and as a result complex backstories get flattened into basic protagonists versus antagonists. But in Hua’s books, her understanding of people has the space to show the ways people’s choices don’t make them necessarily good, or totally bad either.

Following Hua’s short stories with her novel, A River of Stars, somehow both makes sense and feels like a surprise. It has many of the same themes––and some character names–– from Deceit and Other Possibilities since she was working on both books at the same time. Hua said in an email that originally A River of Stars involved many other viewpoints but when she decided to cut them, the stories became standalone shorts published in different literary magazines. When it came time to put the Deceit and Other Possibilities collection together Hua told me, “I included them in my collection because they fit into the themes of immigration and identity — themes longstanding in my work, whether in fiction or journalism.” Her novel is a focused study on those themes, especially immigration, class, and the privileges that both entail.

In A River of Stars, Scarlett Chen starts off at a halfway house for Chinese mothers-to-be in Southern California. But startling news changes everything and she ends up on the run from her former lover and father of her child. Daisy, a pregnant teenager at the same halfway house, stows away with Scarlett and the two form an unlikely partnership and family. At first glance, it looks easy to summarize Hua’s novel about two immigrant women on the lam as an Asian Thelma and Louise and I wonder if that initial flippancy is intended on her part. Because settling on a tagline like that would dismiss most of the deeper reflections Hua focuses on in the story. But not only is her novel about the adventures of two pregnant Chinese women, but also takes a critical look at the what it takes to achieve the American Dream.

Neither Scarlett nor Daisy could be described as a “model minority” and each one’s goals reflects the privilege one holds versus the other: Daisy wants to be reunited with her son’s father while Scarlett must earn money, get a green card, and keep her baby hidden from the father. The finer details of their lives–– paying rent, crying babies, looking for work–– builds a genuine picture of this weird little family and the daily toils that get taken for granted. The title is inspired by a Chinese legend about a mother who punishes her daughter for falling in love with a mortal man, but in the end Scarlett looks at it in a new way reflecting a mother’s love: “Love lost, then found, again and again.” At the core of the larger themes of immigration, documentation status, class disparity, and so on, sits this question of what would these two mothers not do for their babies.

A River of Stars studies how a mix of privileges and experiences (class, wealth, age, and immigration status) impacts the two mothers and the choices they face going through their lives. Making a decision and living with the consequences is a recurring theme throughout Deceit and Other Possibilities. Not all choices are selfless, not all choices are selfish. It’s the gray area that Hua studies, characters driving things forward more than circumstances. It’s a deeper motivation that makes her books more character-driven than plot-driven, and creates the flawed humanity that Asian American representation needs in stories.

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