Hyphen features novelist Deanna Fei’s impressive debut A Thread of Sky in a The Throwback Issue article about return-to-homeland narratives. The book delves into the complexities in the lives of three generations of women who take a two-week packaged tour of China. She talks to Hyphen about her experiences with writing her novel, calling Amy Tan a dirty word and what to do with exoticized stereotypes of Asian women.
Was it difficult to write a novel exploring mother-daughter relationships (a theme very common in Asian American literature)? How did you try to make the subject new?
No subject is truly new: Asian mothers and daughters, Midwestern fathers and sons, love, marriage, infidelity, childbirth, immigration, war, death. As a writer, you try to show the world through a new lens: the eyes of your characters. For the reader, if the characters come to life, if the story sweeps you away on a journey, then the whole world looks a little bit new.
Upon completing your novel, was there anything that surprised you?
When I first started writing, I assumed that the American-born daughters in A Thread of Sky would be the closest to me, since their personal histories are obviously more akin to my own. But over the years, I became so immersed in the stories of their mother and their grandmother that, often, those were the voices that came to me most easily. Overall, I'd say each of the six women are equally me — and equally characters outside of me.
I read that your first attempts at finding a publisher were unsuccessful, and that you had to go back and re-work your novel. How did you know that it was finally complete?
There's a lot of pressure on young writers to prove themselves through publication, and I wasn't immune to it. Years ago, I had a different agent who wanted to submit an early draft of the manuscript, and deep down, I knew it wasn't ready. As a writer, you're the only person who truly knows when the core of your vision is on the page. For me, that sense didn't come until after years of revising. It's not so much a feeling of completion as the sense that it's time to let go. You'll know it as long as you're honest with yourself and with the work.
Did Amy Tan ever find out about your calling her a "dirty word" in a radio show? Did she ever address it after she friended you on Facebook?
[Laughs] No, it hasn’t come up.
Your female characters react virulently to exoticized stereotypes of Asian women. Do you think Asian American women in general still feel and react in the same way? You mention in a Huffington Post article that women should “pick their battles.” What kinds of guidelines would you recommend?
I think it's completely up to the individual. My characters probably react more than most because they've been raised in a family tradition of female activism as was I. Of course, there's no shortage of stimuli to raise the hackles of those of us attuned to how subtle and pernicious the stereotypes can be, and I'm a believer in raising the consciousness of others when we have the chance. But I also think it's important to keep some perspective — and a sense of humor. I think one of my readers said it best. At a reading in Seattle, one woman told me how deeply A Thread of Sky spoke to her because it captures how many of us Asian American women "get so used to fighting for everything that we don't know when to stop." Sometimes you have to fight — but sometimes you have to just be.