Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Q&A with Lan Cao and Harlan Margaret Van Cao

Lan Cao
Lan Cao and Harlan Margaret Van Cao are the authors of the new book Family in Six Tones: A Refugee Mother, an American Daughter. Lan Cao’s books include Monkey Bridge and The Lotus and the Storm. She is a professor of law at the Chapman University School of Law. Harlan Margaret Van Cao, her daughter, graduated from high school in June 2020 and will be attending UCLA. She was born in Williamsburg, Virginia, and moved to Southern California when she was 10.

Q: How did the two of you end up writing this book together, and what was the writing process like? Did you share drafts of your chapters with each other?

Harlan: We barely shared drafts. I think in the beginning when my mother would comb over all my chapters, I became defensive and a lot of the disagreements that would arise would become personal. We trusted each other over time to do our jobs separately.

What makes the writing special is how the reader will clearly be able to see different perspectives--as if they are listening into separate therapy sessions.

If we had collaborated more, we wouldn’t have only fought, but the point of the book would have been wrongfully altered: we would have been more aware of what the other was writing and we may have changed things from our own sections accordingly.

Lan: Harlan had no interest in reading my sections but I had great interest in reading hers. Since I can’t insist on unilateral rights to her writing, I had to let go.

It’s one of the many lessons in life about letting go. Letting go about what she chose to write; how she wrote; how she saw me; her Rashomonesque version of something that didn’t match with mine.

Harlan Margaret Van Cao
After a few explosive disagreements, we more or less wrote our own drafts. I had to let go of being in control. And I had to understand that she was doing what writers do the world over. Write. Whatever and however they want to write. That is the freedom of writing.

I was allowed to read her parts after she was done but only to make minor corrections, like grammar and punctuation and spelling. I found that the process turned out to be quite organic and that we had, without prior consultation with each other, picked similar anecdotes or events in our lives and that we were in essence responding to each other without deliberately planning to.

Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, "What makes this memoir especially compelling is the way these two separate but linked perspectives illuminate silences or gaps in the stories each woman tells." What do you think of that description?

Harlan: It makes me happy because the two of us hadn’t planned to do any of that. It wasn’t intentional and it speaks to the intensity of our relationship that our writing styles filled in for one another. If readers have questions from one of our chapters, they may end up having them answered in another.

I also think it’s good for readers to have questions in general. I would rather imply than state things explicitly, and if it means underexplaining instead of overexplaining, I’m okay with it because I know my mother will probably end up making up for it in a gentler way.

Lan: It’s almost like alchemy, in which the separate parts gravitate towards each other without a top-down directive (from either Harlan or me) and coalesce and mix in the way that the parts themselves wanted to.

Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

Harlan: I believe the creative team at Penguin came up with it. There were a couple of other options but Family in Six Tones encapsulated the idea of the mother-daughter relationship being wrapped up by the soul of Vietnam. Vietnam’s alphabet is directed by six markings that often change the entire meaning of a word. I think the title is a subtle allusion to Vietnam’s influence on my upraising.

Lan: Terezia Cicel, one of our editors, came up with it. I love the “Six Tones” reference because the Vietnamese language has six tones. Some are very subtle and nuanced and hard for even the Vietnamese to tell apart and to vocalize. Others are more obvious. But it’s a very Vietnamese thing. The language sounds like music and the speaker is like a singer.

The book is about family so Family in Six Tones reflects the complexity of family relationships, sometimes soft like a feather, sometimes hard like a stick, sometimes harmonious, other times cacophonous when the notes don’t mix well.

There’s so much you can impart with notes, with tones. In Vietnamese, you have not just the tone of the voice, but the six tones embedded inside language itself.

I think of Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet, with its famous three discrete notes. Through those three notes, we are left with: What did the composer mean to convey? Three gunshots? Three knocks in the middle of the night when the KGB visits your house? There’s a lot that is inside the Vietnamese language because it’s full of notes.

Q: How would you describe your relationship, and did it change at all in the course of writing the book?

Harlan: I have always told my close friends that being raised by a woman like Lan means that all of my feelings toward the relationship are as extreme as possible.

Throughout my life and throughout all other external relationships, I can keep a calm mind and remain level headed. However, with my mother, when she upsets me, I’m so angry and frustrated I cannot breathe but when I hear stories about racists in high school bullying her, I cry. And this says a lot because I don’t even cry when someone hurts me.

Lan: We have a close relationship. Close relationships are likely to be messy, unruly, and real, with ups and downs resulting from being up-close with each other.

We wrote the book during Harlan’s adolescence which is generally already a tempestuous time. Disagreements about the book can lead to ruptures quickly. So, we wrote separately, and the separation and autonomy helped. I don’t think writing the book changed our relationship but it did magnify whatever was already there.

Q: What are you working on now?

Harlan: I’m trying to piece together a novel based on my experiences in high school with not being able to comfortably fit in, my relationships with boys and with my mother, etc; but the goal is to write it with a different twist, from the point of view of a teenage girl who is somewhat off, meaning it is implied she may be on the sociopathic spectrum.

The biggest challenge is to do this subtly and to not present it in a tacky or cliche way and to still be relatable. It will also give a glimpse into how the human mind is more impressionable than one would think.

Lan: I’m writing a law article the hegemony of the U.S. dollar and whether the dollar-based system is under attack. I’m also returning to a collection of short stories that I started a few years ago.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Lan Cao.

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