Q and A with Yang Huang

March 6, 2018 | By | Reply More

YANG HUANG grew up in China’s Jiangsu province and participated in the 1989 student uprisings. Her debut novel, Living Treasures, won the Nautilus Book Award silver medal in fiction, and her essays and short stories have appeared in The Margins, Eleven Eleven, Asian Pacific American Journal, the Evansville Review, Futures, Porcupine Literary Arts Magazine, and Nuvein. She lives in the Bay Area and works for the University of California, Berkeley.


“My Old Faithful establishes Yang Huang as one of our most provocative writers on contemporary China. Imagine Ferrante telling a family’s story from prismatic perspectives and you come close to Huang’s triumph. Here you find a debut writer adept at sidestepping the timeworn: she gives us a story so real it bursts the bounds of the form, becoming an autofiction which, in its humanity, quickly becomes yours as well.” —Edie Meidav, Juniper Prize for Fiction judge and author of Kingdom of the Young

Yang Huang’s collection of linked stories peels back the layers of a culture too often rendered exotic and opaque to reveal what is intimate and familiar. Sexual awakenings, sibling rivalries, the pain and joy of raising children, aging, the constraints of love and loyalty are all dealt here with a gentle and incisive hand. My Old Faithful is a deeply moving portrait of a family and a society. —Hasanthika Sirisena, author of The Other One

MY OLD FAITHFUL tells a wide-ranging story of the life of a Chinese family over time. For this non-Chinese-American American, the stories feel at once very relatable and also like a window into a different culture. Did you write the world you knew? Who did you write this collection for?

I wrote the collection for myself, dissecting a character from every angle in a way that I couldn’t do to a real person. I was especially interested in moments of weakness, when an outwardly decent person makes a bad decision, at times consciously and other times against their better judgment.

I modeled the stories on my family and other families I knew during my teen years. We used to live in a community of six apartment buildings that housed the teachers’ and staff’s families at Yangzhou Teachers’ College. My parents, like all Chinese parents, compared my brother and me to our schoolmates who excelled in studies or had special talents. It was normal for us to have anxiety and feel inadequate.

In what ways did you choose to push or not push against stereotypes or tropes with which an American audience might be picking up your book?

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. I had rich material to work with because 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.

China has 1.35 billion people and a civilization of more than 5000 years. Over the centuries people have survived wars, natural disasters, and political upheavals. Family is an integral part of their survival in a harsh, crowded, and indifferent society. There are a lot of rules, some written in stone and others unspoken. Parenting is a person’s ultimate responsibility and crowning achievement. It’s also an arms race, for which you exhaust all your resources.

China is changing, too, now with smaller families and a rising middle class. I don’t mind stereotypes, because some have a bit of truth in them. The problem with stereotypes is that they are backwards—they’re based on history from which we have evolved. Today middle-class Chinese families share a lot of values and aspirations with their American counterparts. I think of my stories as an antidote to stereotypes in that they reveal human intentions and emotions rather than categorize them.

Why was it important to tell the story from the point of view of the different family members? What did that allow you to do that a single narrator would not have?

I suspect every culture has a similar proverb to this one: “Even a wise judge cannot settle a family dispute.” Some family disagreements cannot be resolved by arbitration: who is right, who is wrong. That is irrelevant. Sometimes people need to express their emotions, while they grow up, grow old, or just discover themselves.

I constructed a fictional family with a father, mother, two daughters, and a son. Each person tells two stories, and they are peripheral characters in other people’s stories. The characters are honest with themselves when they are away from others’ watchful eyes. This authenticity is something that other family members don’t see in their interactions.

By juxtaposing these different perspectives, readers see how skewed the characters’ perspectives are. For example, the father doesn’t know how insightful his wayward son is. Just when you think you get the last word, other people will trump you with their fresh perspectives. There is an element of surprise that leads to insight and humility.

As the #MeToo movement gains momentum, it struck me that a couple of the stories have moments that resonate with it. Can you speak to that?

The #MeToo movement is heartening because it brings to light an age-old problem. Sexual harassment has been pervasive throughout human history. This is nothing new. What is new is our awareness about how harmful it is. Unfortunately a person may first encounter sexual harassment in the family. The story “If You Were My Legend” details a transgression by a love-crazed brother, but his victim pushes back and stands her ground. She recounts the incident in her story “The Match,” devastated by the broken trust. The perpetrator and the victim interpret their confrontation differently, which is something we’ve been seeing a lot of in the news.

The family is supposed to be a safe haven. The father in the story “The Umbrella” takes a strong ethical stand on a teacher’s role as an educator and a parental figure. He seizes a teachable moment to establish the no-excuse rule for sexual harassment. Of course, his teenage daughter has already learned the lesson and fought back once before. These issues have always been with us. I’m glad to see them getting the attention they deserve now.

You participated in the 1989 student uprisings in Tiananmen Square. How did that time and experience color your view of life in China? How did it impact you as a writer?


My parents were educated on the Soviet model and survived the Cultural Revolution. When my brother and I questioned the authorities, they used to warn us, “If you are unruly, you’ll be sent to Siberia.” That was their way of protecting us, because speaking against the government could have dire consequences. But, we grew up in the 1980s, when China was relatively liberal and hungry for western philosophy and democracy. We read Freud, Jung, and Nietzsche, rather than Maoism and Marxism. We admired the university students who held debates in “Democracy Salons.”

In 1989 I joined the marches for democracy as a freshman. I didn’t forget my parents’ warnings, but the times seemed to have changed. I marched with millions of people, not only students but also teachers and workers and people from all walks of life. Even thieves stopped pickpocketing to pay homage to the democratic cause. For a short while there seemed to be real possibility that political reform and democracy could come to China.

This hope was dashed by the Tiananmen Square massacre. Then came the crackdown. Anything remotely 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.

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. That’s why I choose to write about ordinary people with indomitable spirits who live with hope and quiet dignity.

You’ve said in the past that you’re inspired by the persistence of the grass people. Who are the grass people? Why do you take them as your subject?

China has 1.35 billion people, roughly 20 percent of the world’s population. Of this great mass of humanity, more than 99 percent people have no political power, their voting rights a mere sham, as they can only vote for preselected candidates. They are essentially subjects to be ruled. They live like the prairie grass, with freedom, grace, and short splendor. An increasing number of “grass people” are middle-class and have good jobs. Among them are successful entrepreneurs, real estate moguls, doctors, teachers, entertainers, with more opportunities than their parents’ generation.

I write about grass people because they are not only the majority but also can have a conscience. Grass people of all social and economic classes share a certain equality and egalitarianism. They have a collective voice, one that is neglected but never silent. Many Chinese officials succumb to system-side corruption and become puppets of the state. The powerful few, subject to political purges, can become enemies of the state overnight. Grass people, without the privilege, have relative freedom and can choose their career paths.

Today activists are doing important and dangerous work on all fronts, from environmental protection to human rights advocacy. The seed of independence is sown by the family and one’s upbringing. You can strive to live with dignity and honor in an unjust society. Some may choose to emigrate to a foreign country and become grass people in their host country. After all, grass people are everywhere, even in the most advanced democracy.

Follow Yang on Twitter @yangwrites

Find out more about her on her Website http://www.yanghuang.com/

(Harvard Square Editions, 2014)

Silver Medal: Nautilus Book Award

Gold Medal: Next Generation Indie Book Award

Bronze Medal: Living Now Book Award

Finalist: Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction

Finalist: INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award

Finalist: National Indie Excellence Award

Shortlist: The International Rubery Book Award

“The personal and the political merge in Yang Huang’s debut novel about a college student in post-Cultural Revolution China. Gu Bao negotiates the shifting landscape of a country still struggling toward modernity, as China’s education system, family planning policies and the deaths of her fellow students in Tiananmen Square sometimes push her to desperate measures. The story moves from city life to the rural home of Bao’s grandparents, acquiring an epic feel in a compact length.”—San Jose Mercury News

“Living Treasures is a book that breaks your heart, and then mends it with hope. Best book I’ve read this year.”—Jiayu Jeng, KTSF Talk Tonight host

“This skillfully written work embodies a young woman’s journey toward independence and maturity at a time when her country’s politics dictate conformity and oppression. The characters are thoughtfully well rounded, the plot lines are true to life, and the narrative focuses refreshingly on the human spirit rather than political issues. Reminiscent of Yu Hua’s To Live but with a lot less tragedy and heartbreak.”—Library Journal

“Huang’s measured yet evocative novel heightens Bao’s journey from timid student to defiant adversary in the midst of personal and political upheaval. . . . This title has been recommended for young adult/mature readers: Older teens and new adults will likely identify with Bao’s coming-of-age, despite its unique circumstances.”—Sarah Hunter, Booklist

“Huang does an admirable job balancing Bao’s individual story against the canvas of China’s evolution using crisply drawn characters who reveal their layers as the story progresses. . . . A knotty, engaging novel of China’s recent history.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Like a young Alice Munro, Yang Huang—authoritative, compassionate, and witty—has a gift for creating characters whose actions, for good or evil, can take even themselves by surprise. Living Treasures is a suspenseful, soul-satisfying novel by an impeccable storyteller. I eagerly await her next book.”—Elizabeth Evans, author of Carter Clay



Category: Contemporary Women Writers, Interviews

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