Q&A with Angela Tung
When did you first begin writing?
I first began writing when I was twelve. Before then I didn’t know what I wanted to be, not that many kids do, but while in elementary school I assumed I’d be some sort of scientist – because my father’s one – in junior high I was suddenly bad at math and bored to tears by science. In one of my favorite books at the time, Meet the Austins by Madeleine L’Engle, the main character, Vicky Austin, also doesn’t like science or math and thinks she’ll be a “beachcomber type,” while her brother and sister pursue astrophysics and molecular biology. I didn’t know what a beachcomber type was, but one day I announced to my mother and brother that that was what I would probably be, and my brother laughed and said, “That’s a bum. You’ll be a bum.”
But along with pre-algebra and earth science, I was also taking Mrs. Williams’ composition class. I don’t remember exactly when I realized this, but suddenly here was something that was easy, fun, and that I was apparently good at. Mrs. Williams was very encouraging, offering both praise and suggestions for improvement. Then I read A Ring of Endless Light, the sequel to Meet the Austins, in which Vicky discovers her calling: poetry. It all fell into place. In my diary I wrote, “I think I know what I want to be when I grow up. A novelist or something like that.”
Needless to say my parents weren’t very encouraging. My father, who had also wanted to be a writer when he was a teenager, had nothing against writing as a hobby but thought it too unstable as a career. My mother put it in harsher terms, joking that I’d be dirt poor and would have to borrow money from my younger brother who, no doubt, would be a doctor or engineer (today he’s pursuing screenwriting and web design) and emphasizing how difficult a writing career would be, that one had to be “good” to succeed. My parents’ feelings against my writing career remained unchanged even as I won contests in both high school and college, as well as a full scholarship to Boston University’s creative writing program in 1995. It has only been recently with the publication of Song of the Stranger that they have accepted my writing as a real career and have admitted to mistakes in the past.
This is not to say that my parents were completely unsupportive. They did pay for my liberal arts education with a major in English and creative writing when they could have easily pulled their funds if I didn’t become pre-med or take business courses. Then again, however, they were hoping I’d go to law school.
Were any authors particularly influential on your writing? Whose work are you currently reading?
I think the books I read at 12, 13, 14 have influenced me more than any writer since: Judy Blume, Paula Danzinger, Katherine Paterson, and Madeleine L’Engle, as I’ve mentioned. In all of these books the main characters didn’t fit in, something almost all kids feel at one point or another, and something I – as one of a handful of Asians in an Italian/Jewish town and as a short, shy kid in a circle of tall, beautiful, outgoing friends – definitely identified with.
When I was fourteen or fifteen, Seventeen magazine excerpted The Joy Luck Club and I was thrown for a loop. It was the first time I encountered characters in a story that were like me and my family. Before then I never thought I could write about myself as a Chinese girl in America; the characters in all of my stories until then were sort of “race-less.” Then in the ninth grade I wrote a story called “Japanese Leaves” about a Chinese American girl and her mother on moving day, and how the girl doesn’t want to leave her favorite tree, a Japanese maple. The piece was a real breakthrough because that was the first time I had written about myself with race attached. Although race wasn’t an issue in the story, the characters were definitely Chinese.
More recent influences have been Annie Dillard, Margaret Atwood, and Alice Munro. I love what Annie Dillard does with language; her autobiography, An American Childhood, is sort of tome of mine. I love Margaret Atwood’s spare writing, and Alice Munro is just amazing. Right now I’m reading Andrea Barrett’s short story collection, Ship Fever.
How did the idea for SONG OF THE STRANGER first come to you? Did you originally envision it as a novel for young adults?
Song of the Stranger began as a freelance project with Roxbury Park Books, Lowell House. After college I worked in children’s publishing for a year and made a contact with Michael Artenstein, my present editor. He told me that after I graduated from writing school to give him a call as they always needed writers. So he had this basic idea of a Japanese American girl going to Japan to live with relatives. At first the reason she went was that both her parents get killed. I thought, Does it have to be that morbid? and nixed that idea. Also, she was supposed to experience sort of reverse racism in Japan, which Karen does but it became far less central to the novel. So basically I had a lot of leeway in actually writing the book.
The rest of the plot come through slowly and with a lot of effort. In an early draft Obasan comes to New Jersey for no other reason than just to visit, and that seemed to be too large a hole to leave, so I thought that was a good opportunity to write about the internment camps, something that has always interested me and which I think people don’t know enough about.
Karen’s Obasan (grandmother) is a complex character, a woman struggling with her past. What relevance does her character hold for young readers?
It may be cliche, and I didn’t think of this while I was writing, but I hope that Obasan gives young readers the idea that there’s a lot more to that older, “weird” person in their lives. That person may have had a long, difficult history, something to really learn from, something to offer like an heirloom. I think family history is so important, that it makes up who you are and is something to live up to, even if just through remembering and telling the story to the next generation. “Never forget.” I think that’s very important.
There’s a reason why people are the way they are. A lot of my writing deals with that: digging into the psyche and personal history of people to explain their present behavior. It helps in understanding people and perhaps forgiving them for whatever mistakes they’ve made.
As you wrote SONG OF THE STRANGER, how much did you draw upon your own life in creating the novel?
When people ask me if the book is autobiographical, I automatically say no. But I think it is, at least on a subconscious level. All my life I’ve had to contend with very strong, willful women: my mother and maternal grandmother, especially. I’ve also grown up with the story of my father’s parents shrouded in mystery. My paternal grandmother was very quiet and I never knew my paternal grandfather, who stayed in China while my grandmother, father, and aunt fled to Taiwan in 1949. So maybe Stranger came out as a combination of these two ideas that sort of obsess me: strong, stubborn women and missing pieces of the family past. I’m sure I’ll write about it again and again.
Also, writing the book may have been a sort of wish fulfillment. I never really got to know my paternal grandmother, and in Stranger Karen gets to know Obasan and her story, and in the end they come together, something I never go to do.
What projects are you currently working on?
I have another YA novel in the works – probably my last – which will come out sometime late 2000, as well as an adult novel, which I hope to finish in the next six or seven months, and then will peddle to agents and publishing houses.
The second YA novel is another freelance project with the same publishing house and is from the point of view of a 13-year old African American boy whose mother dies suddenly. It’ll be very different from Song of the Stranger, more subdued and sadder. The adult novel is a sort of landscape of Asian America, chronicling the lives of a group of Asian American friends as they come of age in the late 1960s.
Why do you write?
On a lofty level, because I believe there are stories out there that need to be told, some for semi-political reasons, others as a sort of tribute to family or history. But on a completely basic level, because I enjoy it.