“When I sit down at the writing desk, I imagine that I enter a cave to spend time with my fictional characters.”
My Old Faithful (University of Massachusetts Press, 2018)
In My Old Faithful, the father and the younger sister both have experiences of losing face. How would you explain the concept of miànzi to an American audience? Is there an American equivalent? How does this concept affect your characters’ actions and views of the world?
The concept of miànzi in Chinese culture is comparable to one’s ego or social grace here in the U.S. China is a patriarchal society, where a powerful person is more at risk of losing his miànzi during the time of conflict. For example, when a naughty son gives a father trouble, his headache may lie more in his losing face than the son’s psychological well-being. This could be different for a woman. When the younger sister faces abuse from her brother, she is hurt by his betrayal and loses trust in him rather than experience it as a personal defeat. Because a woman is less invested in protecting her miànzi, she focuses more on solving the problem. In this sense, she tends to have more agency when confronted with a difficult problem, unlike her male counterpart who is burdened by miànzi.
In interviews with DIY MFA and Writer’s Bone, you beautifully assert the need for authenticity to oneself in writing, for writing dangerously. How do you navigate the concept of face when writing? Is face ever in conflict with vulnerability or authenticity for you?
Miànzi is analogous to a mask that a person wears. When I sit down at the writing desk, I imagine that I enter a cave to spend time with my fictional characters. I feel safe to tear off the mask of politeness and hypocrisy that I wear in my daily life. By listening to the characters and watching them play, I forget about my own worries and even the passing of time. There is a sense of freedom to live outside my small life, as I delve deep to create characters who are unlike me and then strive to understand them. A writer should take the road less travelled, walk all the way, and don’t expect a safety net to catch the inevitable fall. Write dangerously.
Each story seems to have two titles. For example, the first story’s titles are “What the Son Did…” and “Pining Yellow.” Can you explain how the story titles are working in the book?
Each of the five family members tells two stories about the defining moments of their lives. I want to distinguish who is the protagonist and give a clue about what happens. For example, the subtitle “What the Son Did…” shows the son is the protagonist and his action has consequences. The main title, “Pining Yellow,” is a metaphor about the character and his journey. Together they frame the story and set expectations before you meet the protagonist.
In “The Birthday Girls,” the younger daughter and the mother show their generational differences when talking about religion. The daughter says, “School taught us there aren’t fairies or spirits, ghosts or gods. Guanyin, the so-called goddess of mercy and giver of offspring, is folk, not fact” (42). This seems to address the changing attitudes toward religion after the establishment of the PRC government and the Cultural Revolution. In what ways are the characters shaped by their cultural moments? In what ways do they transcend them?
Each person is inevitably shaped by their cultural moment. The mother holds onto the folklore that gives her comfort. The younger daughter is affected by the consumerism that has only begun to rear its head. This generational gap causes a tussle of wills over the birthday present. The mother begrudgingly buys the expensive Nikes. Unbeknownst to the mother, Lian is able to curb her vanity and makes a sensible choice.
This story shows that every person has her own agency. The mother places her daughter’s happiness as her priority. In doing so, she adapts to the changing time and connects with her daughter, who in turn meets her halfway and shows her understanding about the mother’s values. For a brief moment they transcend the barrier between a mother and daughter and connect as one woman to another. A small act of generosity goes a long way and can leave a lasting impact.
You give each character in the family a story for telling things from their point of view. What interests you about revisiting the same events from multiple perspectives? Is giving multiple voices a way of distributing power?
Every person has a public life as well as a private side. Family is where a person’s public life intersects her private life. In each of my stories, the character shows that public side to the family members and only discloses their private side to the readers through first person narrative.
Along with a person’s public and private sides, he possesses both explicit and covert powers. The father is a powerful figure in the family, but he doesn’t know how insightful his son is. Readers know it from the son’s stories, but the father doesn’t see his son’s covert power.
In the story “Chimney” the father misuses his power by spanking his son. This rash action sets off ripple effects. The son goes on to prey upon his younger sister by taking sexual advantage of her. But the sister is not powerless. She fights back successfully and becomes a precocious teenager.
You are right that the brother and sister revisit the same incident in their stories but give different interpretations. The brother is merely “curious” and doesn’t think much of it. But the sister is heartbroken by his betrayal. She learns her lesson and goes on to form a friendship outside home in her story “The Match.”
The explicit power structure father->son->daughter is modified by the covert power that we see in the character’s story. This keeps the stories from going down the well-worn path. There is a certain balance of power. No one controls the outcome, because people have free wills.
What are you working on now? How do you balance that with your job and family life? You have mentioned that you allow yourself to be a writer in a room in your home with the door locked. Is there pushback towards your taking time to write? What do you do when you sit down to start writing?
I am rewriting Oasis, a novel I have worked on for years. The love story has haunted and evolved with me. A boy, Lou, saves a girl, Kaier, from being drowned in a flash flood. They grow up in Minqin, an oasis sandwiched between two deserts in northwestern China. Kaier leaves her hometown to study and become a radiologist. Lou stays behind to fight the dust storms and raise a family in the oasis, which slowly dries up and becomes a desert. It is a story about unrequited love, economic development at the cost of environmental degradation, and one’s lifelong obsession with her birthplace. Although Kaier leaves her village, the village has never left her.
One of the difficulties in finishing a novel, as opposed to a short story, is that it can take years, and the story evolves with you. What started out important may become a distraction, and the emotional focus changes. I work full time and have a busy family life. When I sit down to write, I empty my mind of the myriad obligations. By closing my door, I go into a writing cave and enter a mental space where imaginary characters can come out and play. I try to make myself disappear and observe them like a fly on the wall. The undercurrent of my life will inevitably contextualize the story but should not overtake it. This makes the story more interesting and true to life than a mere release of my passion.
Yang Huang grew up in China and came to the U.S. to study computer science. While working as an engineer, she studied literature and pursued writing. Her collection of linked family stories My Old Faithful won the Juniper Prize for Fiction. Her debut novel Living Treasures won the Nautilus Book Award silver medal in fiction. Her essays and stories have appeared in Poets & Writers, TASTE, Literary Hub, The Margins, Asian Pacific American Journal, and others. Yang lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and works for the University of California at Berkeley.