Women In Art: May-lee Chai on women of colour writers
Submitted by jroselkim on 8 February, 2011 – 11:59.
May-lee Chai is a writer, and an educator, based in California. I had first encountered her through the Angry Reader of the Week series in Angry Asian Man (a great resource for Asian-Americans and Asian-Canadians), and was impressed by her articulateness as well as her impressive bibliography. Her books have been recognized and listed by many awards, as well as translated into other languages. When I contacted her via Twitter about this Q&A, she was gracious enough to provide me with thoughtful answers about working as a woman of colour writer, and the health scare that turned her to book-writing.
I’ve noticed a common theme of migration in your books, as well as your own life. How has your own history and background influenced your writing career? How do you decide to write about the things you do?
I’ve moved a lot and lived in several countries. Both my parents moved a lot in their lives and childhood. My father as a child of WWII had to move multiple times in order to escape the advancing Japanese Army in China. My mother in America didn’t live through war, but her family moved 27 times by the time she was 17. After they married each other, they moved us all as a family to very different kinds of environments. I don’t have a sense of having a hometown or a place I can return to that is, definitively, “Home.” I think perhaps this may be why I’m drawn to stories about migration, war, disruption… but I’ve never tried to analyze myself seriously and figure out why I’m drawn to certain topics.
Your works have been translated into many languages – how involved do you get in the translation process? What kind of communication do you engage in with the translators before and during the process?
Sadly, I’m never involved in the translation process! Foreign publishers either contact my agent or my American publishers. I’d love to be involved, but no one’s ever asked me any questions.
However, I’ve translated a book (from Chinese to English): the 1934 Autobiography of Ba Jin, the famed 20th century Chinese novelist. My publisher worked very closely with Ba Jin’s daughter and a member of the Ba Jin Association in China so that we could have the translation rights as well as family photos. Ba Jin was unfortunately deceased by the time I had found a publisher, but his daughter actually let my publisher go through private family albums. I was able to tell my publisher what kind of photos I’d like for the book and I had a whole CD to choose from by the end of the process.
I can understand why most commercial publishers don’t have the time to deal directly with the author in another country, but I think it’s kind of a shame that authors are usually not involved in the translation process.
You worked as a reporter for the Associated Press before turning to writing books. When and how did you decide that you wanted to switch to fiction (and non-fiction) writing?
I decided to take the plunge into novel writing after I had a cancer scare. I had a fast growing tumor and, suddenly at age 24, I thought I might be facing great illness and even death. Before that moment, I never dared to devote myself to writing a whole novel. It seemed impractical. I didn’t know anyone who wrote novels or short stories. But when faced with the prospect of dying without having at least tried to write a novel, I realized it was time to pursue my dreams. Fortunately, my tumor turned out to be benign and my first novel was published after I wrote it. But if I hadn’t had that wake-up call, who knows if I ever would have dared?
In your opinion, what are some challenges that are unique to women of colour writers?
Stereotypes are still persistent and, alas, they often sell very well. So in addition to having to write really, really well (as all writers should do), we also have to battle stupid notions of what we should be writing about and how we represent ourselves and our characters. It’s really insulting, for example, to be told, “Your English is too good!” I’ve heard that criticism because some people in publishing think Asians need to sound like fortune cookies. Fortunately, I do think the stereotypes are changing. But I’d be lying if I said the stereotypes weren’t a problem.
What are some tips you have for young women of colour writers? What are some resources they could use?
Don’t give up. Read, read, read. Know your field. Read the classics and contemporary authors. Read world literature. Make connections to other writers. If you find a writer’s work you like, write to that person and say so! It’s easier to fight the stereotypes when you have friends helping you, so reach out to others. As for resources, there are some great blogs out there. For example, I love Angry Asian Man and Disgrasian. They have tons of news and make fun of the stereotypes about Asian Americans, which helps. SharifWrites and LargeHeartedBoy have interesting interviews and essays by all kinds of writers. Your blog– www.jroselkim.wordpress.com –is a great resource!
I’m working on a novel about a man who uncovers a terrible crime but can’t reveal it outright because he himself is involved in shady activities. It’s still considered “literary fiction” as opposed to a straightforward detective or crime novel, and it features people who have to leave their home and hide in a faraway city. Somehow I just can’t leave that “migration” theme, can I? For updates, readers can always check my blog.