#KollabSFGetsLit with Lucy Tan, Author of What We Were Promised

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When I first read the title of Lucy Tan’s book, What We Were Promised, as just a stand alone phrase, it reminded me when my history teacher taught me the legal term “de jure de facto.” "De jure" refers to something that exists as a result of law whereas "de facto" refers practices that exist in reality, even if not legally recognized by official laws. This phrase was commonly used after WWII explaining communism as a economic ideology that should works in theory but didn’t in practice. I sometimes feel “what we were promised” for Americans in the US of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" doesn’t apply evenly for everyone, especially being a second generation Asian-American. Lucy Tan’s book explores the heavy theme of home and belonging, a common topic popular in American Literature but rarely explored in the viewpoint of an Asian-American. As US Today‘s states in their review of her book: “Themes that focus on the terrifyingly complex facets of what it means to be Chinese-American, an immigrant, and an expat. But Tan certainly has enough bandwidth to handle these heavy topics, sifting them through a single family with forlorn honesty and compassion.” I got the privilege to interview Lucy and ask how she was able to explore and weave these themes into her writing.

The fruition of the book came when she was in Madison, Wisconsin in 2014 where she went to University of Wisconsin–Madison. In the early stages of What We Were Promised, it started as a short story of a servant working for a Chinese couple in the U.S who was raising a daughter. At some point, they move back to Shanghai, which had changed drastically from when they first left.

In 2015, she won Emerging Writer's Contest for her work “Safety of Numbers,” a short story about a mother trying to guide her daughter towards a better future through rigorous academics, which is common in immigrant households. Though both the mother and daughter come from two different upbringings, they find a similar bond that helps bridge their stories together. Tan wrote, “When I began writing this story, I was interested in exploring the ways rebellion (whether familial, political, or cultural) shapes the people we become. Somewhere along the way, I discovered that I was also writing about inheritance—about how illuminating it can be to consider who we are in the context of what has come before us.” The way she crafted this simple yet compelling story was something I wish existed when I was in high school to help mend the feeling that I didn’t belong.

Now that her book is out in the world for reading, Tan will join the UW faculty as the 2018-2019 James C. McCreight Fellow in Fiction when she moves back to Madison from New York. Our phone interview was right in the middle of her packing for the big move. I had just finished reading her essay, “On Falling in Love with the Language I’ve Spoken My Entire Life,” the night before and the lingering effects of how heartwarming the essay was still sat with me. In our discussion, I was privileged to hear about her life before Madison, her influences and her Chinese Identity, and her candid experience as an Asian American woman that I will now share with you all.


Can you tell me about your upbringing and where have you lived? I know you’ve have lived in many areas before.

Lucy Tan: I was born in America, but I’ve been traveling to China since I was very young. My parents were born there and moved back to Shanghai for work in 2005. I began visiting them more frequently, sometimes twice a year, and finally moved in with them after graduating college. Prior to living in Shanghai, my view of China was mostly derived from stories my parents and grandparents told me as a child. It wasn’t until I actually lived there myself that I was finally able to form my own relationship with the country. I live in the U.S. now, but Shanghai is still one of the places I consider home.

In your essay “On Falling in Love With the Language I’ve Spoken My Entire Life,” you wrote: “My parents did not like emotional conversations. They did not say l love you. On parents’ visiting day at school, other kids’ parents left them notes that said “We’re proud of you!” My note said, “We hope you will continue to improve this year. Please read books other than the series, The Baby-Sitters Club.”

How did this relationship affect your development as a writer?

LT: In this essay, I was trying to address the inherent limitations of language; much of the love my parents showed me as a child was not spoken aloud. As a young person falling in love with language for the first time, I was drawn to English because it was the language in which I learned to speak about matters of the heart. As I got older, I began to understand that it’s usually what people don’t say to one another that’s more interesting and revealing than the things they do say. And besides, when people do attempt to speak about love, it’s usually imperfect. We use the word “love” so much in English that it’s begun to lose its power. “Love you!” we say to friends when we leave them at the door. And yet it’s the same word we use when we are so sick with missing a person that we can’t get out of bed. It’s hard to speak about love with subtlety in both fiction and real life. It’s more effective to use a character’s actions to show it.

So it must have been tough to be in a bilingual home?

LT: The disadvantage to being brought up in a bilingual home is that your exposure to your family’s non-dominant language is often limited. But the advantage is that it makes you think more directly, and from more than one point of view, about words. I think it can make you more intentional as a writer.

Since Kollaboration is about empowering through entertainment, we wanted to know how Eileen Chang, titled simply, “Love,” impacted you.

LT: “Love” was the first short story I read that spoke about love in the language that my parents used--one that places more importance on what is unsaid rather than what is said, and reading it made me feel as though my two worlds were colliding--the one occupied by literature, which had made a home in my heart at a very young age, and the one within my literal home. It made me appreciate, too, the immense power of storytelling. When I encountered Eileen Chang, I thought: Here is a woman who has written fiction so powerful that it has been passed down through generations to reach a young reader like me, on the opposite side of the world, in a completely different language. It was inspiring.

Have any other Asian American or Asian writers helped influence your writing?

LT: I don’t know that any single book has been a direct influences, but I can tell you what I’ve been obsessed with lately. Weike Wang wrote a novel called Chemistry, a very voice-driven narrative that features a main character caught between two cultures: her parents’ traditional Chinese one and her own more American one. As someone who often writes about bridging two cultures, I'm always thinking about how to present the strangeness of these experiences in ways that feel relatable. In general, I love main characters who feel out of place in the world and writers who are able to make readers see the world through new perspectives.

I’m in the middle of reading Xiaolu Guo’s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, and it’s impressing the hell out of me. The first interesting thing about this book is that it’s told in broken English. In the beginning, this might strike a reader as comical because “Chinglish” is what we normally associate with disempowerment, with being the butt of a joke. But when you read Dictionary it’s immediately clear that this narrator is not one who can be reduced or dismissed. You really feel for this person. You understand that as disempowered as she is, she's also way smarter than a lot of us Westerners are. Through an examination of language, she calls out the the things that don’t make sense in Western culture. As she picks apart English words, she also dismantles the power of normative English.

Before becoming a writer, you were a working actress. Some of our Kollaboration alumni are actors and actresses. Can you share how your experience was as an Asian American woman as they can learn from your experience?

LT: I was dabbling in acting in the early 2000s and the climate back then was very different from the what it is now. There weren't many interesting roles for people like me. I remember getting the sides to an audition for this bit role in a pilot. The character was Asian American and her name was “Mia Ho” [me-a-ho]. The brief scene that I was supposed to do involved this character trying to sleep with a popular (white, male), high school jock. It’s really degrading, right? As an actor, you're always trying to give yourself over to a character, wholly. You hope that the writers and the producers have the generosity to imagine that character as humanly as possible. Then you look at the opportunities they hand you, and they're just caricatures. It can make a person feel worthless.

Part of the problem was that there was a lack of Asian-Americans in Hollywood. Now that's changing very quickly, although still not quickly enough, I think. I hope that the number of Asian-Americans in TV and film will grow. We need them in the drivers’ seats working on projects like Crazy Rich Asians or To All the Boys I've Loved Before. I'm glad we're in this cultural moment where it’s possible for these stories to be told, and I hope a rising generation of Asian-American creatives will help raise the standard even more, bringing even more complex, compelling roles and rich stories starring Asians and Asian-Americans to the screen.

Did this experience in acting influence your writing?

LT: I think the two art forms—writing and acting—are actually very similar, and practicing one helps me get better at the other. At the center of both is the desire to understand people and to bring them to life as clearly as possible. Both also require intuition, specificity, and narrative focus.


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It's great that you have a positive and introspective outlook on your past of acting. Moving into the present and your current work, can you give a brief summary about your book?

LT: Set in modern day Shanghai, WHAT WE WERE PROMISED introduces several generations of the Zhen family. Wei, Lina, and their twelve-year-old daughter, Karen, are Chinese-Americans who have moved back to China to find the country radically changed from the modest landscape they once knew. The Zhens’ lives are further upended when Wei's estranged brother, Qiang, shows up after years on the run with a local gang. His arrival marks the unraveling of long-held family secrets, witnessed closely by their housekeeper, Sunny. It’s a book about modern China, lost love, and the immigrant experience.

Now that your book is out, how do you feel about it?

LT: I’ve been working on this book for so long, and now that it’s finally out in the world, I feel a great sense gratitude and relief. People have been sending pictures to me of my book in their homes and offices and local bookstores, and receiving those often makes me feel like I’m living in an alternate universe. Mostly, I feel a deep sense of awe that the story now exists not just in my head, but as a physical object publicly accessible to the rest of the world. It’s both strange and wonderful.