True confession moment: I admit I was a wee bit intimidated as the land lines connected us between DC and Cleveland – just what sort of person takes on the most canonical text in Chinese literary history (The Dream of the Red Chamber) and makes it her own (The Red Chamber)? I actually expected a Glenn Close/Cruella de Vil sort of megalomaniacal voice to pick up. Lucky for me, I could put that overactive imagination away, because really, as gutsy as her literary move has been, she’s not at all the hardened character I had dreamt up. Always good to start an interview with a sigh of relief.
Let’s begin with the basics: I understand you spoke rudimentary Chinese as a child because your parents didn’t want their native language to impede their children’s English proficiency. So when and how did you learn Chinese? Which dialect? And are you fluent now?
I took beginning Mandarin in college [Harvard], but the Chinese language program was just getting started at the time, so the classes were not terribly challenging. After I graduated, I spent a year in Taiwan teaching English and that’s when my proficiency really improved, just because I was living in a Chinese-speaking environment. One of my English students in Taiwan introduced me to 9th-century Tang poetry, which I fell in love with – until then I had never imagined that such a developed and sophisticated literary tradition even existed in China.
I came back to the U.S. and went straight to law school, but on the side, I took classes in classical Chinese language and literature. By the time I finished law school, I had realized working over the summers at law firms that I did not want to be an attorney. I went straight into a PhD program in East Asian Studies, and that’s when I began to study Chinese literature in earnest.
I’m pretty fluent in Mandarin, but my training in graduate school focused on reading pre-modern texts – mostly poetry from the fourth century to the ninth century – so I would say I’m stronger in classical Chinese. I can understand quite a bit of Taiwanese, but my attempts to speak it are usually treated with frank derision by native speakers.
You were so certain going into college that you wanted to be a writer. Where did that determination come from?
For as long as I can remember, I liked to write; I had an impulse to make up stories. And reading always gave me such tremendous pleasure. But really, I had no idea what it meant to be writer. Growing up, I never revised anything I wrote, or asked another person for feedback. I just had this dream as a child, but had no comprehension that this was something I had to work towards.
And then during your four years at college, your writerly ambitions just disappeared. How? Why?
The first reason was that at Harvard, students have to apply to get into creative writing courses, and I got into poetry, not fiction. I struggled in the poetry because then, as now, I was fascinated by poetry in other languages – I studied Latin poetry back then – but really didn’t know the English poetic tradition very well. The deeper reason was that I just didn’t know how or what to write. As a teenager I had loved Jane Austen, but at college I started to realize that emulating her style and subject matter would have been faintly ridiculous, and that I needed to find a way to incorporate my own perspective and experience into what I wrote. Years later, when I read V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival, I understood that this was what he had experienced when he tried to write like a worldly, Evelyn Waugh-like sophisticate, while trying to suppress his own experience in a peasant family on colonial Trinidad. I also was too undeveloped, too uncomfortable with my own background to use it as a platform from which to write.[... click here for more]
Author interview: “Q&A with Pauline A. Chen,” Bloom, February 20, 2013
Readers: Middle Grade, Adult