Interview with Kirsten Chen

Why There Are Words Literary Reading Series presents:

An Interview with Kirstin Chen

By: Nancy Au

Kirstin Chen

Kirstin Chen is a 2011-2012 Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University. She has won awards from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and Emerson College. Her stories have appeared in Hobart, Pank, Juked, The Good Men Project, and others, and have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Best New American Voices anthology. She holds a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from Emerson College. She currently lives in San Francisco, where she is completing her first novel, Soy Sauce for Beginners, set in her homeland of Singapore. Her fabulous short story, I’ll Get Back To You, can be found here.

1.)  Was I’ll Get Back to You based on true events in your life?

Kirsten Chen (KC): A lot of my fiction begins with a true event, but not this particular story. I actually got the idea for I’ll Get Back to You after discovering that website, (People mail in their secrets anonymously on homemade postcards, and the website displays them.) Someone wrote in confessing that his grandmother had recently passed away, but that he continued to call her cellphone in order to hear her voice on the voicemail recording. I just couldn’t get that idea out of my head.

2.) Were you raised in Singapore? And how did this impact your views on the ABC characters that you wrote about in I’ll Get Back to You?

KC: I was indeed raised in Singapore, but I left home at the age of 15 to attend boarding school in New Hampshire, so right now I’ve spent exactly half of my life in America. One of the things that strikes me, though, from having spent time with many Asian American friends is that they often have very fraught or complex relationships with their parents’ homelands. Obviously, it’s tricky to generalize, but I’m going to do it anyway. Whether they ultimately embrace or distance themselves from their parent’s homelands, the decision is purposeful and sometimes guilt-inducing. This is a bit of what I tried to capture in the character of Lucky: she struggles with how to deal with the Chinese ritual of Qing Ming Jie, and what she can do on her own to honor her dead sister in San Francisco where she lives.

In contrast, I think my relationship with Singapore is much less fraught. I view Singapore in the way an American might view his or her somewhat-cosmopolitan hometown. I was happy to leave to experience other countries, and while I have no plans to go back (mostly for mundane reasons, my husband’s job, the fact that San Francisco is awesome), under different circumstances, I could easily return. I feel the same way about “holding on” to my Chinese / Singaporean culture: my culture never seems to be in danger of slipping away from me. It’s right there in Singapore, with my parents and grandmother and uncles and cousins. I can go back to it whenever I want.

3.) I recently read an interview with the author and teacher Don Lee in the October/November issue of Writer’s Chronicle. In it, he discusses the transition “of trying to get away from being labeled merely as an Asian American writer and breaking through as [a writer] who happens to be Asian American.” What are your thoughts on the label, Asian American writer?

KC: I love Don Lee’s writing. He was at Emerson (where I got my MFA) the first year I was there, but he left to teach in the Midwest before I could take a class with him. I totally understand where he’s coming from when he talks about the challenges of being an Asian American writer, but I’m not actually sure the term applies to me. In many ways I feel like a Singaporean writer who happens to live in America, as opposed to an Asian American writer. How this actually plays out in my work, I’m not entirely sure, aside from the fact that much of my fiction is set in Singapore and in other parts of Asia, as opposed to in America.

That being said, readers probably assume I’m Asian American, and that doesn’t really bother me. Building on what I said earlier, my relationship with the term, Asian American, may also be somewhat less fraught. The best way I can attempt to explain it is this: I grew up in a country where everyone looked like me and talked like me. I never experienced being a minority until I moved to America, and then I experienced, and still in many ways continue to experience, America like an expatriate, as a long-term or maybe permanent visitor.

4.)  Your forthcoming novel, Soy Sauce for Beginners, is set in Singapore.  Can you tell us a little about it?

KC: The novel is centered around a family business, an artisanal soy sauce factory that has preserved the traditional art of slow brewing, and is the last of its kind in a rapidly commercializing industry. (Much like wine, real soy sauce is aged in barrels for months and months, but in a lot of the sauces we see on supermarket shelves, the aging process has been sped up through the use of chemicals). The protagonist is a young woman who returns to Singapore from America because of a series of unhappy events: her American husband has just left her for another woman, her mother has developed kidney failure. Once she’s back in Singapore, she begins for the first time to become immersed in the work she’s tried all her life to escape, and must eventually decide whether to forge ahead with her new life, or return to the one she built abroad.

5.) Are you bilingual? If so, how does this affect your writing?

KC: I would say I was once bilingual, but am no longer bilingual. In particular, I’ve lost a lot of my reading and writing capabilities in Chinese (as you probably know, there’s no alphabet in Chinese, so everything is based on memorization.) If anything, right now, I’m more fluent in French than I am in Chinese. (I studied it in college and lived in Paris for a brief period).

That being said, speaking multiple languages, and spending time in many different parts of the world has definitely affected my writing. In Soy Sauce for Beginners, I’ve worked very hard to capture the way Singaporeans speak Singlish — an amalgamation of English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil. I also recently started a new project, set on a tiny island in Southern China at the time of Chairman Mao. All the characters speak in English translation (i.e. the dialogue is in English, but the reader understands that the characters are speaking Chinese to each other, and that they are reading a translation). Knowing how the characters would sound in Chinese has definitely influenced decisions I’ve made about tone and voice.