Vanessa Hua on Imaginative Inquiry and Historical Fiction
In this interview, Aditi Malhotra talks with Vanessa Hua about the fourteen-year process of writing and research that went into her new book, ‘Forbidden City.’
Aditi Malhotra: How do you feel about this early onset of spring? How is it situated in your life as a writer?
AM: Thanks for sharing that. Let’s talk about your novel, . How do you define historical fiction as a genre in the context of a standing discussion and the little consensus on what history is and how it can be narrated?
AM: I kind of imagined that too: The present in which you were writing was shifting moment by moment. Tell us more about recapturing the past in these different present moments, and your perception, as you said, guiding this process of recapturing.
This is the best that I was able to do at this point in this time.
AM: In your novel, you’ve reconstructed a lot from the past. Themes and settings reconstructed are of a different nature—they are political, social, they are artistic. I want to know more about how you approached reconstruction. How did you treat historical materials—things you may have pulled out that documented the past from that time?
AM: Thank you for writing and introducing us to Mei’s character. There are many attributes of her character that have stuck with me, and there is one that struck me particularly strongly: the depiction of this young girl’s aspiration for honor, dignity, and respect in an oppressive, limiting patriarchal culture. But what this does, interestingly, is it triggers a certain kind of jealousy. Mei feels and shows envy toward some of the other recruits. At some point, I thought this envy became a guidepost for her calibration of her own self-worth. Can you talk a little bit about this character attribute in the context of the larger human condition and how jealousy is felt and perceived? It might be an unpopular emotion, not largely accepted, but is something that we can all experience.
AM: What would you say about poverty and inequality hurting a young person’s self-worth in this environment, where settling scores becomes the norm? What are some of the sociocultural forces that guide this human condition?
AM: Let’s move on from Mei’s character to Mao’s character. We know Mao’s character even before
AM: Yeah, a handful of a character. Vanessa, the attention to detail in your writing is compelling, especially toward the end of the novel, where there is a sense of cinematic recreation of the sequence of events. Tell us about writing with details based on your decades-long journalistic training and your experience honing your eyes to catch something small, but no less important.
AM: I’m curious about how you managed the notes, materials, and memory during the process of writing this novel, which ran over a decade. There are chapters, parts, sections, dialogues, scenes—you mentioned timelines. These are perhaps only some among the many details you’d have kept track of. Give us a peek into your method for maintenance and tell us how these knots and tangles in the plot found a place in the narrative.
AM: I’ve wondered about words and language used to describe Mei and her relationship with Mao and other male members in his party sleeping with young female teenage recruits throughout the novel. The word
AM: I want readers to be able to take away some of your recommendations on historical fiction novels from China at the same time that your novel is set. Could you share suggestions for readers interested in a deeper dive into this piece of history?
Aditi Malhotra is a writer, freelance journalist, and educator in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is a professional juggler of many editorial hats. Currently, she’s writing a book on epilepsy from a public health perspective at Hesperian Health Guides. Her news writing and narrative nonfiction has appeared in Huffington Post, PBS Newshour, theAtlantic.com, Hechinger Report and Wall Street Journal, among others. She also writes poetry, fictional prose, and performs spoken word. Her work spans intersections of gender and migration, mental health and education, food and identity, and books!
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