China Books

Deanna Fei's A Thread of Sky

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Deanna Fei is the author of the debut novel, A Thread of Sky (Penguin Press, April 2010). A Thread of Sky is the story of a family of six Chinese American women who reunite for a tour of their ancestral home. Fei was born in Flushing, New York, and has lived in Beijing and Shanghai, China. She is a graduate of Amherst College and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. For more information, visit Deanna's website.

See also the Chicago Tribune review and New York Times review.

Below Danwei prints a Q&A with the author.


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Danwei: You have written about feeling out of place in Shanghai and Beijing. Were there any times that you felt like a local as opposed to an American Chinese?
DF: There were plenty of times that I was treated more like a local than a foreigner. Sometimes this had a negative aspect: getting targeted by pickpockets, being told to wait outside an event while Western friends were welcomed in, and so on. But I was also privileged to observe and experience unvarnished, ordinary life in China - chatting with elderly locals in the park, waiting in line at the post office — in a way that most Westerners can't do without becoming a spectacle themselves. This was crucial to my understanding of the place and to my own identity as a Chinese person, even American-born.

Danwei: When you were writing and researching your book, were you especially occupied with your own family history? How much of your own history made it in there?
DF: I became so immersed in the stories of my characters that it's difficult to separate their histories from my own. The outlines are the same: my grandmother and mother were born in China and emigrated to Taiwan, then America; my sisters and I were born in New York. When I first started writing my novel, I knew very little of my family
history, which is common for the children of immigrants; there's a reluctance to revisit the past, and that void was partly what had inspired me to write my book. I learned a lot about my family history in the course of researching my novel: southern village life in the 1920s and 30s, the brutality of the Japanese occupation, the ravages of civil war on ordinary citizens, the nature of living as exiles and immigrants. But I was interested in exploring the deeper truths and the broader themes of this history, not in writing a memoir. None of
my family history is in the book simply because that's what happened in real life; the only details that are interwoven into the novel are those that illuminated my characters' journey.

Danwei: How would you describe your style and narrative voice in A Thread of
Sky
? Why did you choose to use these methods?
DF: A Thread of Sky is narrated by each of the six characters in turn, from each stop on their tour; each chapter is written in the third-person, but entirely from the characters' points of view. I always knew that was the only way I could write it, because through the story of these six women and their experiences of China, the novel also explores the nature of perspective: each character's perspective on herself, on one another, and on China. And it falls to the reader to assemble her own panorama from these pictures. This structure also allowed me to interweave my characters' stories with aspects of contemporary Chinese history, Chinese American history, and the family history in a way that reveals how all of these threads come together during this two-week tour.

Danwei: The story is about three generations of Chinese (and Chinese-American) women. What do you think is the biggest thing they have in common?
DF: All of the women are strong-willed, independent, complicated women who feel a sense of duty to make a difference in the world around them. Until this tour begins to take shape, the American-born daughters of this family have always thought of these traits as being somehow tied to their being Westernized, to feeling the need to prove themselves against the old stereotype of submissive Asian women--but during the course of this novel, they begin to see how, in a sense, it actually can be traced back to their grandmother, who was once a leader of the Chinese feminist movement, and to a historical tradition of female strength in China.

Danwei: You said in this article that "my writing became my home" and that after a while in China "I stopped seeking a sense of belonging." Did you give up on trying to find your Chinese identity? If not, why?
DF: China might never be home to me, but it will always be my ancestral home, and my Chinese identity always has been and always will be part of me. It's in something as basic as the way I eat: always sharing dishes, serving my companions first, saving the best and last bites for others. I think every Chinese American should be free to define their Chinese identity for themselves, but for me, it's not something I have to keep searching for; it's integral to me.

Danwei: If you're able to comment, where is your next novel taking you? Is it still China-related?
DF: Like most novelists, I try not to talk about what I'm writing as I'm writing it. I can say that my new novel feels like quite a departure from A Thread of Sky. It's more plot-driven, it's not China-related, and it's not focused on issues of cultural identity. But my main characters are Chinese American, and to the degree that certain issues are intrinsic to the community, I think they will always figure in the stories I'm driven to tell.

There are currently 5 Comments for Deanna Fei's A Thread of Sky.

Comments on Deanna Fei's A Thread of Sky

Just saw someone's review on Amazon comparing her to Amy Tan. Methinks in a few generations calling someone Amy Tan will be the equivalent to calling someone an Uncle Tom or Aunt Jemima.

shanghaied: The book, with its examination of mother-daughter relationships and the loss of ancestral culture that comes with being a second-generation immigrant, does call to mind The Joy Luck Club, but I've never thought of Amy Tan as particularly controversial in regard to her portrayal of the Asian-American experience. Care to explain the hostility?

It's common in Asian American academic circles to criticize Amy Tan for exoticizing China and playing to common stereotypes of China. Also, a lot of Asian American men resent the overwhelmingly negative portrayal of Asian males in the Joy Luck Club. However, part of the anger comes from the movie version of the Joy Luck Club, which portrayed Asian males even more negatively than the book. For example, in the book the asshole accountant husband is a white man, but in the movie he is Asian.

Ah, the Amy Tan debate. I'm actually in the middle of writing about this complicated subject for the HuffPost. For now, I'll just say that all of your comments are smart and valid, and that book reviews sometimes say more about the reviewers than about the book itself. In an ideal world, each novel would be read on its own terms.

One can hardly expect people to *not* bring their own baggage when they read a novel.

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