Across a Green Ocean deals with family secrets and the harm that silence can bring to a family. How much of this is based on your own family?
Some superficial details of the Tang family are similar to that of my own. My parents did meet in New York City and moved to suburban New Jersey after getting married. I have a sister who is five years older than me, which I guess makes me the gay son. The character of Liao Weishu, Han Tang’s friend who is sent to a labor camp in Qinghai Province during the Cultural Revolution, is based on my mother’s uncle. He was exiled in the 1950s, so an earlier time period, but for the similar reason of intellectual persecution. He was married to a Russian woman, and they were forced to get a divorce.
What research did you do about northwestern China and Beijing in the 1960s and ’70s, around the time of the Cultural Revolution?
There were two items in particular that contributed to how I chose to write about that time period. The first is the memoir In Search of My Homeland by Er Tai Gao, an intellectual who was sent to a labor camp in Gansu Province, which neighbors Qinghai Province, in the 1950s. Although the book describes incredible hardships in an even, matter-of-fact way, there are also moments of surprising humor.
The other is the film In the Heat of the Sun directed by Jiang Wen, which is partly based on his own youth as a Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution. The unusual thing about his depiction is that he doesn’t focus on the terrible acts that the Red Guards committed or the terror they invoked. Instead, the tone is very nostalgic, and it shows just how much fun these kids had, as would any who suddenly didn’t have to go to school, while they navigated the usual teenage territory of first love and newfound freedom.
The case that Emily Tang works on involves an immigrant who dies in detention under questionable circumstances. Where did you get the idea for that story?
That is actually based on a real case involving a man named Hiu Lui Ng, who died in a Rhode Island detention facility in 2008. Ng had lived in the United States for almost twenty years, was married to a naturalized citizen, and had two young children, but was arrested on an old deportation order. During his year in detention, he complained of excruciating back pain, but no one believed him. When he was finally allowed to be treated by a doctor, it was discovered that he had a broken back and suffered from liver cancer, which he died from soon after. I remember thinking when I read the story that this could happen to so many people that I know. Even if you’ve lived in this country for many years as a productive citizen—you own property, pay taxes, and have a family—you have no rights. Your entire life could be taken away from you in an instant, just because of your immigrant status. You will never feel safe or that you belong. That, to me, is shocking.
This book and your first book, Happy Family (which is about an immigrant woman from China who becomes the nanny to a New York City couple with an adopted Chinese daughter), deal with the notion of what makes a family. Why is this an important theme for you?
I’m fascinated by the idea that immigrants leave their families to come, often alone, to a new country, where they have to create their own families. How does that affect the rest of their lives? What is the fallout for their children? Even if your parents were immigrants, but you were born in the States, as I was, there is still this thought that your family is not quite normal. Then, on another level, there are those young people who choose to leave their families to strike out on their own or pursue a dream, which I think is true for a lot of people who come to New York. There’s this continual push and pull of the familiar and the unfamiliar, the wish to be independent and also interdependent, and out of that can come some amazing stories.
China features prominently in your work. How do you incorporate it into your novels and why?
I lived in China for three years after college, and it’s had an immeasurable impact on the way I see the world. For one thing, I think it’s made me appreciate just what my parents gave up to come to this country and create a fairly comfortable life for themselves here. The places where I lived were quite diverse—Xining, in the northwest; Fuzhou, in the southwest; and Beijing—so I’ve tried to convey just how many different kinds of locations, cultures, and peoples make up the country. I think the typical Western reader probably imagines China as a landscape of mist-shrouded mountains bisected by the Great Wall, populated by millions of identical-looking people who work in factories. Whereas it’s a very complex, ever-changing country that deserves to be better understood.
What do you think the future holds for Asian American literature?
When I worked in trade publishing, I noticed that a lot of successful Asian American novels were set in the past, sort of the “Lisa See” effect. There didn’t seem to be as many that had a contemporary setting, even if part of the book was set overseas. And, of course, they were mostly by women, about women. This made me wonder if this is how a mainstream audience prefers to see Asian Americans, as an exotic people from the past as opposed to contemporaries who are undergoing the same issues as them. In the future I’d like to see more Asian American literature that deals with the issues of my (second) generation, not necessarily about immigrants but how to cope with an immigrant legacy; what happens after the American Dream has or hasn’t been achieved, or its definition has changed.
What is the most memorable piece of writing advice someone has given you? That you would give someone?
When I was getting an MFA in fiction at New York University, my advisor told me to “work hard.” I know that sounds like a simple piece of advice, but a lot of people around you won’t assume that you’re working hard if you’re a writer. You’re expected to sit down and the words will magically flow from your fingertips. But sometimes even the act of sitting down in a chair for more than an hour will be difficult. And, if you want to get published and your book to be read, the hard work doesn’t end after you finish writing the book.

My personal advice, also very common, is not to quit your day job. A lot of writers assume that their lives will change once they get published, mostly having to do with fame and money. Usually, that doesn’t happen. Also, having more time to write isn’t necessarily conducive to the quality or quantity of your writing. That said, it’s good to have a job in which you have some creative energy left over at the end of the day, and where people are sympathetic to your writing endeavors.

What is your writing process like?

I wish I were one of those people who wrote every day, but it comes in dribs and drabs for me. For many years, because I had a full-time job in publishing, I would rely on going away to writing residencies for a month or so to get huge chunks of work done. While these were wonderful experiences, they also became a crutch in that I didn’t know—and still don’t—how to maintain a regular writing regimen. Every time I start something new, there is a moment of terror when I feel like I don’t know how to enter the story. But somehow I do.