Yu-Han Chao, author of the story “Don’t Tell Her,” published in the July 2012 issue of r.kv.r.y. is interviewed here by her favorite librarian, Mimi Chong.
Mimi Chong: Since this interview is for r.kv.r.y., what are you recovering from currently?
Yu-Han Chao: Five weeks of false labor. An emergency C-section. The guilt of putting off revising my five-year-old novel manuscript. And this interview, for quite some time.
MC: Hope you’re feeling better. What books are you recovering from?
YC: Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which I enjoyed but felt like I didn’t get, and that really bugged me. Why 42?
Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. I will never recover.
E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey. Why why why why why?
MC: I also want to know why. Do you draw from your Taiwanese background a lot?
YC: Yes, I kind of don’t have a choice, since that’s what I know the most, having spent most of my life there. I know it hurts me commercially because Taiwan isn’t as “sexy” or provocative as China (communism, ooooh!) and I don’t write historical fiction or about wars, and for some reason people in the publishing industry don’t seem to think Asians are a market worth selling to. Maybe they imagine we are too busy buying SAT/GRE/GMAT prep books. Or that we only read Chinese/Korean/Japanese/not-English-at-any-rate.
MC: From reading your stories, I get the feeling that Taiwan is a dingy, grim, materialistic kind of place. Is it really?
YC: It’s hard to generalize what an entire island is like, but the answer for the most part is no. Okay, maybe a little dingy, with open sewers and roaches and bloody betel nut stains, but for the most part people are terribly friendly and all sorts of lovely and delicious things are cheap so the materialism isn’t as bad as it could be. It is crowded, however, and the cost of living has been going up recent years.
MC: The story in r.kv.r.y. is about the death of a beloved son. Do you have personal experience with this?
YC: The Taiwanese woman who owned an Asian grocery store down the street from my apartment in Pennsylvania did. This story was really for her. A lot of things were changed, but her son did die falling during a hike, and I was there when she had just found out; it was heartbreaking. Thankfully, a few years later when I visited her, she was back to her cheerful self. R.kv.ry.
MC: What book is on your night stand now?
YC: My nightstand holds a Kleenex box, lotion, and Tiger Balm. There is a row of books leaning against my nightstand on the floor: Elizabeth Talent’s Time with Children, The Norton Anthology of Contemporary Fiction, Mark Costello’s The Murphy Stories, a Chinese nonfiction book, Gina Ford’s The Contented Little Baby and Sears & Sears’s The Discipline Book.
MC: What’s your favorite literary genre? Any guilty pleasures?
YC: Martial arts novels by Gu Long (Taiwanese writer). He was my first love; his prose is practically poetry. Even though he died an alcoholic suffering from repercussions of a knife wound sustained from a drunken brawl, I still fantasize(d) about being his girlfriend. Incidentally, towards the inebriated end of his career, his books were rumored to be ghostwritten by his girlfriends, and I would have happily done that.
I also really love Bridget Jones’s Diary and its sequel, in spite of what other people say. I wish Helen Fielding had written a series with Bridget as the main character that took up an entire library shelf, like the trashy teen series we all secretly devoured. I even wrote my own version, Bridget Zou’s Diary. It’s set in the Bay Area and my Bridget is Asian with immigrant parents and a Facebook-employed younger brother.
MC: Good luck with that novel. I’d buy it. There should indeed be more mainstream, non-historical-fiction with Asian main characters in American bookstores. Speaking of bookstores, what was the last truly great book you bought and/or read?
YC: Speaking of guilty pleasures, and also in response to this question, I am rereading Lolita on my Kindle for the umpteenth time. I have owned several editions of it in various stages of my life. My first copy had the black and white photograph of a schoolgirl’s inward turned knees on the cover. Reading the book at an impressionable age ruined me a little bit, but Nabokov’s (or Humbert Humbert’s) voice and word play are irresistible despite the awful content/sentiments.
MC: What was the last book that made you cry?
YC: Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. It was actually the sad sex scene (too late, too late!) that made me cry. Ishiguro in general makes me sad in a good way, something about the emotional undercurrent behind his words and the understatement.
MC: The last book that made you laugh?
YC: Breakfast of the Champions by Kurt Vonnegut. I was probably quietly sniggering more than I was laughing. There’s so much in that book, I’m not sure where to begin. The humor in it was so matter-of-fact about terrible things that feelings of guilt followed my feelings of amusement, because it was plain wrong. For instance, “Vietnam was a country where America was trying to make people stop being communists by dropping things on them from airplanes.” And the narrator gave measurements of women and penile girth and width of men when introducing them. I’d love to write a book like that but don’t have the guts. Love the doodles, too.
MC: Which novels contain the best sex?
YC: Not Fifty Shades of Gray. I do not read novels for the sex, and honestly cannot remember anything that could be my answer to this question. In fact, based on my response to the sex scene in Never Let Me Go, it appears I like my literary sex nowhere near “the best,” if any.
MC: If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to know?
YC: Angela Carter, even though I would probably make her feel “as gross as Glumdalclitch” (from Burning Your Boats) because I’d be one of those “young and cute girls” she saw in Japan, and standing beside her I’d look like a munchkin. Regardless, I’d gladly be her personal assistant or maid for free just to be around her brilliance and delightful vocabulary. She seems like so muchfun.
MC: And among authors you’ve met already, who most impressed you?
YC: Junot Diaz. I didn’t actually meet him, but attended his reading at AWP in March 2010. It was a short and sweet reading of one of his racy, prepubescent boy stories and he answered the usual clichéd questions from the audience with patience and grace. He also seems like a lot of fun.
MC: What’s on your to-read list?
YC: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, two Umberto Eco books, a bunch of half-read Margaret Atwood books, and I’m in the middle of Shame by Salman Rushdie. Also, some Norton anthologies to learn craft and maybe help me prep for the GRE subject test so I can apply for Ph.D. programs.
MC: Do you have a website? What do you think about the future of electronic and online publishing?
I love my first generation Kindle, and edit for online literary magazine The Rose and Thorn
Journal. Electronic publishing is the way of the future, and while pretty books are nice, websites can be just as if not more attractive and the interactive and multimedia possibilities are endless. And a lot of the time they are free, which is great.
MC: Like r.kv.r.y.
Mimi Chong is a librarian, researcher and reviewer living in Boston, MA. She enjoys anime, fantasy and literary fiction. She is currently recovering from water retention.