Vanessa Hua is the author of the new novel A River of Stars. She also has written the story collection Deceit and Other Possibilities. She is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Atlantic and Guernica. She lives in San Francisco.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for A River of Stars, and for your character Scarlett?
A: While living in Southern California and pregnant with my twin sons, I began reading news stories about mysterious maternity hotels.
Neighbors were asking why there were so many pregnant Chinese women coming and going from suburban homes. The trash cans outside were piled high with diapers and empty cans of formula. It sounded like a brothel in reverse!
It turns out that there’s underground industry to house these women who were coming to the U.S. to give birth, so that their children would have American citizenship. What was it like, I wondered, to be so far from home and family at one of the most vulnerable times in your life?
When I was pregnant, I found that people treated me very kindly, very generously, offering me a place at the front of the line, or giving up their seat.
But when you have a dozen pregnant women under one roof, who gets the good wishes, who gets the sympathy—who is the Queen Bee? It seemed like a situation ripe for drama and comedy.
As for Scarlett, she’s one of many immigrant strivers that you’ll find in my fiction and in my journalism. I’ve long been fascinated by the journeys they undertake, leaving behind everything to build a life in a new country.
Q: During the course of the book, the main character and the young woman she meets both give birth. What do you think the book says about motherhood, and also about friendship?
A: The transition to motherhood is difficult—even if you aren’t on the run, even if you have the support of your partner and your parents. Scarlett and Daisy spar and snipe with each other, with tensions sparked by differences in class, in age, but come to rely on each other, forming a ragtag family all their own.
Q: How was the novel's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: In Chinese myth, the cow-herder and fairy weaver fall in love. The fairy’s mother, the Goddess of Heaven, parts the lovers, but once a year, a bridge of magpies allows them to reunite. For me, the story signifies the longing and loss not only between the couples in the novel, but also of immigrants, and of mothers and daughters.
Q: Scarlett, who is from China, is living in the U.S. on a temporary visa. What do you hope readers take away from her story when it comes to immigration issues?
A: I’m deeply troubled by the rising xenophobic anti-immigrant rhetoric that casts newcomers as criminals, as leeches, that doesn’t reflect the complexity of an individual’s history and circumstances and motivations.
When you deny someone their story, you deny their humanity, and in Scarlett’s story, I hope that readers may aspects they can identify and relate to, and that they’ll enter a vibrant new world, that they will want to share with others.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A teasing glimpse of documentary footage inspired my current project: the jowly Chairman Mao surrounded by giggling teenage dancers. Intrigued, I imagined how one of his lovers might have influenced the course of the country’s youth revolution.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Vanessa Hua.