A Conversation with C Pam Zhang
BY MAX RADWIN
Born in Beijing but mostly an artifact of the United States, C Pam Zhang has lived in thirteen cities across four countries and is still looking for home. She’s been awarded support from Tin House, Bread Loaf, Aspen Words and elsewhere, and currently lives in San Francisco.
Max Radwin, Interviewer: I was really struck, more than I usually am, by the epigraph of the book (“This land is not your land”) because of how much it ended up framing my understanding of the narrative. Can you talk about the importance of the idea of exclusion in this book? How present was it in your mind while writing?
C Pam Zhang, Author: The epigraph came fairly late in the writing process. It came after I had had a couple of readers on the book. For me it was as much for about solidifying those existing themes of exclusion and loneliness and the characters feeling like they don’t belong, but equally it was an epigraph for the reader. It was a little bit of a warning. This is not the territory that they are familiar with. This is not a fully realistic or historical account. So it had a double meaning.
MR: Despite that the book takes place in the 19th century, many of those larger themes—of racism, of migration—resonate with the present day. Did you go looking for a historical moment that would allow you to explore those themes in a new way, or did they arise naturally from your interest in the time period?
CPZ: I have never written what would be considered historical fiction before, and so I can’t say that I chose to write about this time period. It wasn’t a conscious decision. The book came very organically. I just woke up one day and had these images, this plot line, and these characters in my head and went from there. And I actually had a little bit of an identity crisis writing this book, because previously I had written realistic or semi-realistic contemporary fiction. But I think now, though, when I go back and look at the book, it’s clear to me why this time period and the idea of the gold rush were a perfect container for these themes. I’ve always been fascinated by the myth of the American dream and how it is false and deeply embittering, especially for immigrants who have come here and given up a lot to pursue it, who then discover that in fact the playing field is not level here. In fact, the promise that anyone can have whatever they want so long as they work hard enough is a lie. And the gold rush is a perfect encapsulation of all of that.
MR: Did you have to do a lot of historical research for the book? I imagine you encountered moments when you didn’t know whether something was “accurate.” Or perhaps you weren’t so worried about accuracy?
CPZ: It’s a combination of all of those things. Having spent a good deal of time in the public education system in California, I had a foundational, fuzzy understanding of the role of Chinese immigrants in this part of the world and just living in American culture, everyone learns the language of westerns and cowboy flicks, so I always had those as a starting basis. And I wrote from there, and later on, I fact-checked certain aspects. I wanted to make sure the book, while not truly historical or realistic, intersects with the building of the transcontinental railroad, in which Chinese labor took a great part.
MR: It seems to me that every character deals with the challenges of that historical time period in different ways. Going back to that idea of this land “not” being your land, some characters hold onto hope at all costs, while others are more defeatist. Some withdraw into themselves and others become fighters.
CPZ: I think one thing I wanted to demonstrate was how, yes, the American dream works in different ways. For example, in the case of Sam, you could say that Sam manages to some extent rise above it. Fighting against it allows Sam to come to a sharper realization of self. Whereas there are other characters in the book who are completely eroded and crushed by it.
MR: As the book progressed, I found myself reevaluating my first impressions of many of the characters. The ones I had originally deemed the most “good” sometimes did horrible things near the end, and vice versa. Were you trying to catch the reader off-guard, or is there value for you in complicating how a person handles difficult circumstances, like, say, settling in a new country?
CPZ: I love that you have that response to the book. I think that all of us live a succession of lives, and particularly when you are moving, especially if you are immigrating, crossing not just geographical divides but cultural ones, as well. And also in the book there’s the generational divides between families. There’s so much of your previous life you leave behind when you enter a new life. I was thinking about these concepts at the same time that I was coming into my mid-twenties, thinking about my relationships to my own grandparents and realizing how I could never fully understand them or understand the sacrifices they had made. There were things I learned about my parents’ past in my adulthood that really recapped how I saw different decisions they had made in my childhood.
MR: Did you end up using a lot of those personal experiences in the book?
CPZ: There’s nothing taken directly from life, but I do think there are some emotional currents that run from my personal experience into my book, which is true of most novels. For me, some of those currents were loneliness, displacement, never quite knowing where you belong.
MR: I think one reason that the book so effectively plays with your emotions is that it happens in non-sequential order. Did you write the book in order and then move sections around? Or was this structure always part of your plan?
CPZ: The structure was the same from the beginning, which is to say that it was never chronological. I don’t think I knew consciously that I wanted to have this precise emotional effect. It was just that when I reached a certain plot point in what we can call the “present timeline” of the book, I realized that I needed to spend more time excavating the histories and the emotional stories of the characters in previous versions of their lives before I felt able to go forward. I think part of that is I actually really love plot. I love action-driven novels and that’s where this one began. But I reached this point where if I just kept going on with scene after scene of action, it wouldn’t gather the emotional residence that it required. And so I had to go back in time to do that.
MR: This story is certainly no ordinary “western” although it does have many of the classic characteristics—the violence, the adventure, the wandering through vast, undiscovered territory. Did you have any westerns in mind while writing?
CPZ: I read Little House on the Prairie front to back—every book in the series—many, many times as a child, especially during a period of my life in which my family was moving a lot, so those were definitely formative books for me and probably in some ways the keystone of this book. I also really love Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. And when my family moved to California, I read basically all of John Steinbeck. There are certain scenes from East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath that have stayed with me. That said, as foundational as those books were, and as much as I love them, I became aware at some point that they didn’t represent any people like myself or my family and that they didn’t represent the entirety of American history in that part of the world.
MR: A big part of those westerns, either explicitly or implicitly, is the idea of masculinity. And many other westerns follow a very heteronormative, John Wayne-type figure. But in this case, we’re dealing with two young girls who challenge gender norms. How does that change things?
CPZ: Westerns are traditionally extremely heteronormatively masculine, and there was already a lot of tension alive once I dropped these young siblings—one who is a girl and one who perhaps today would be considered gender non-conforming, or trans—into this landscape. One of the central themes of this book is this friction, this vibration, between simultaneously being invisible and being too seen, or not being seen correctly or accurately. And because these two child protagonists are both non-male identifying to everyone, and because they’re of Chinese dissent, there is something very fraught and off and conflicted about their relationship, because they don’t quite fit, and people are constantly trying to erase them or pay a hyper-focused, violent attention toward them.
MR: Without giving too much away, I think we should talk about the ending. You might expect a migration story to wrap up with a “happy” settling down moment. Obviously things go in a different direction, and yet I don’t see it as a failure. Do you?
CPZ: It’s fascinating that you note that this is the opposite of the traditional migration story arc. I’ve never thought of it that way before, but I suppose I would agree, because the migration story as we’re accustomed to consuming it in American literature is one of triumph. Because it is the ultimately American theme: for someone to succeed. “Oh, look how wonderful America is, what a land of opportunity.” But I always imagined the ending that way. I wrote the first draft very quickly, just setting it down and then revising it much, much more slowly. And in my revisions, I was always open to changing the ending. I think a part of me wanted it to be a different, perhaps more evidently a happy ending. But as you said, it just never felt right for the book. I was really fighting my own desire for the book to be satisfying or simple in some way and a sense of loyalty to the characters and what was realistic for their lives.
MR: Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t ask about the tiger. Or I suppose tigers as an image, which is perhaps the most unique part of this very unique book. What was the inspiration behind it?
CPZ: I have a very tenuous connection to Chinese culture myself. I was born there, but I didn’t spend really any of my childhood there, and so there is a huge gap in my knowledge. But there were a couple of simplistic motifs that carried over through a combination of whatever scraps of culture my parents handed down and my generalized understanding of Chinese culture, and one of those things was tigers. I think when I put them in the west it was almost like the epigraph. It was a little bit of a sign post: “Here there be dragons.” This is not your land. It was also a way to put a little bit of the Chinese culture that was always in the air of my childhood into the air of the book…. I actually don’t know if the tigers in the book are real are not. I think that’s only something that the characters can know.