An Interview With Vanessa Hua, Author of Forbidden City
The Former Power Journalist Writing Immigrant Stories
Vanessa Hua is no stranger to writing about strong, resilient women. It’s what she did with A River of Stars, her debut novel published in 2019. It became a national bestseller, highly regarded by The Washington Post, NPR, and Real Simple magazine, and elevated her to an award-winning author. Now she’s done it again with Forbidden City, her 2022 novel about a Chinese girl growing up during the 1960s Cultural Revolution in China.
I stumbled upon Forbidden City at my local library one day and knowing I shouldn’t, I judged the book by its cover. It showed a young girl with braids against the backdrop of yellow, orange, and red colors looking up toward the sky. Indeed, the story is about a young girl—a not-yet-sixteen-year-old Mei who comes from a poor village in China looking for a way out of the oppressive world she’s been living in. When she is selected to “serve the Chairman” in the big city as part of a dance troupe, she grasps the opportunity with great fervor because, for her and her family, this is the opportunity of a lifetime. With a desire to make her family proud, Mei leaves home and goes into the Forbidden City itself.
Of course, things aren’t always what they seem. After arriving at the Chairman’s compound, Mei realizes the world she’s been brought into. She dances with other girls her age and pleasures the Chairman (who is old enough to be her grandfather) during the evenings. (Yes, I know. This part was hard for me to read). Soon, the Chairman begins to trust her and gives her the opportunity to become a revolutionary like she’s always dreamed of. Little did she know that it would end in tragedy.
Reading this powerful nuanced story gave me an appreciation for what Hua did to complete this novel. In the afterword, Hua revealed that she spent over a decade researching for the book. She even traveled to China and meticulously pored over information about the real Chairman Mao. As someone with a journalism background (Hua is a former columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle), Hua wanted to ensure that the world she created was as authentic and realistic as possible. This was done so well as I found myself so engrossed in the novel, holding my breath, and wondering what was going to happen next.
Naturally, I wanted to learn about how Hua managed to write one gripping tale after another full of twists and turns while also highlighting important themes such as immigration, politics, power, and belonging. So I reached out to her over email to tell her how much I loved her book and she responded quickly and brightly.
Here’s what she told us:
Tell us a bit about your journey to becoming an author. Was this the career you always knew you wanted?
I’m the American-born daughter of Chinese immigrants. As a girl, because I often felt torn between worlds, I sought answers in books and through observation. There was a lot my parents could not or would not explain, so I had to figure it out on my own.
I’ve been a writer almost as long as I’ve been a reader. When I was in the second grade, we had to write short stories in class. The teacher read them aloud and then the class voted on their favorite by raising their hands. Mine won! Before I had a chance to celebrate this victory, I heard my classmate whisper to her friend “I only voted for hers because it was the longest.” So that was the first public recognition as a writer and my first snarky review.
I kept writing and came to realize that I wanted to tell stories that were shaped by my unique worldview, my experiences, and my interests even if they fell outside the canon. In my journalism and in my fiction, I try to shine a light onto untold stories that might inspire a change in thinking and a change in action
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given with regard to careers and success?
In grad school, my mentor advised that “we should hook each other up.” That is we should care for each other, show up to each other’s readings, share opportunities, and be in fellowship. Writing is a solitary act which makes fostering and participating in community vital providing a chance to celebrate and commiserate.
What books are on your reading list right now?
I just finished reading Javier Zamora’s memoir Solito. It’s devastating and beautiful. I’m also reading Ann Petry’s The Street, a scathing, searing novel.
When you’re writing – where do you write? What is the setting?
At my childhood desk with a view of a towering redwood tree that my parents planted decades ago and the oak-studded hills beyond.
How have you been staying connected to your friends/family/community during COVID-19?
At the start of the pandemic we connected for Zoom cocktails, games, dance parties, karaoke, and more. Then several families met in an empty light rail parking lot to trade cookies and slices of pie while our kids rode around on bikes. We’re still socializing outdoors and are lucky to do so in the San Francisco Bay Area year-round. For Christmas, my husband purchased me a sleeping bag coat, which is ridiculous looking. It keeps me warm during our continued outdoor gatherings.
Do you have exciting projects coming up? If so, please tell us.
My novel-in-progress is about surveillance and suburbia. I’m also working on an essay collection around the theme of resistance and resilience.
What is your dream brunch date? Where and with whom?
Years ago, as a new parent, I joked that “going to bed early is the new sleeping in and brunch is the new dinner.” It was easier to meet friends in the morning to hang out since we’d been up for hours by then.
We haven’t been out to brunch with anyone since the pandemic began but our twin sons love a local diner, where they get pancakes, and I get corned beef hash or huevos rancheros.
I am going to New York next week to appear at the Brooklyn Book Festival and will be child-free. So I’m looking forward to brunch with writer and journalist friends where we’ll gossip and I may even order three drinks, just for myself–tea, mimosa or Bloody Mary, and grapefruit juice.
What is your ideal comfort food?
A soft-boiled egg sprinkled with everything bagel seasoning. A slice of buttered brioche toast. Turkey xi fan (congee/jook) made with the Thanksgiving carcass in the slow cooker.
Which authors inspire your work the most?
Maxine Hong Kingston and Octavio E. Butler are among the many.