Here for a fantastic interview is the lovely Cara Chow, author of Bitter Melon, a novel selected for the YALSA 2012 Best Fiction List. This book features an Asian teenager struggling with her restrictive and controlling mother, who has mapped out her life against her will.
In high school, I had a crush on my sophomore English teacher. (Anyone from my high school who may be reading this will probably recognize who this is—oh well.) I admired him a lot because he was so erudite and gentlemanly. He was also a feminist. Our Norton Anthology featured only male writers, so he made us read a long list of books written by women. Whenever we made eye contact, I thought, “Can he see my feelings on my face? Don’t be so obvious. Don’t smile so big. Don’t blush!” Of course, thinking that only made it worse. Everyday, English class was this strange mix of bliss and torture.
About twenty years later, I reconnected with him. I was doing some research for Bitter Melon and needed to track down my speech coach to ask her some questions. I knew that the two would be in touch and hoped that he could get me in touch with her. I was nervous at first about calling him, but I’m so glad I did because now we’re good friends. He attended the reading I did for the sisters that taught at my high school, and I always try to visit with him whenever I’m in town. Our relationship is very different now than when I was his student, but the love and respect I feel for him remain the same.
Actually, it was not a conscious choice. When I was writing Bitter Melon, I did not have a specific kind of audience in mind. I just had a story I wanted to tell. When it came time to look for agents, I decided to target the young adult market because I had heard that it was doing better than the adult fiction market, and my book happened to feature a teenage protagonist. Though I did not plan on writing for a teen audience initially, now I feel so blessed that it turned out this way because teen readers—and the teachers and librarians who support them--are such a candid, passionate, and supportive group.
For non-narrative nonfiction, I look for good organization and clear and accessible prose. I also look for books that feature information that can either improve my life or add to or alter my understanding of the world.
When it comes to fiction or narrative non-fiction, I look for four things: good characters, good prose, good plot, and meaning. It is hard to find all four in one book. Some books have beautiful prose, but there is no suspense and the scenes are episodic, causing me to wonder where the story is going and to lose patience with the book. Some books have a pretty good plot, but the characters are not three-dimensional, and I’m not taken on an emotional journey that makes me see life in a new way. It is very rare for me to find a book that has all four elements, but when it does, I find myself stealing time to read that book. When I finish it, I’m sad that the journey had ended, and I’m still thinking about that book for days, even weeks, afterwards. I even have a hard time beginning the next book because I haven’t gotten over the previous book. (Sounds like I’m breaking up with someone instead of finishing a book, doesn’t it?)
I have a tendency to run the little heater in my office even when it is 75 degrees and sunny outside. That’s because I have chronically cold hands and feet. Strangely, this problem correlates not only with temperature but also humidity—the problem is a lot worse when the humidity is low. Unfortunately, I live in Southern California, which has a very dry, and sometimes windy, climate. To make matters worse, my house tends to run on the cold side. When my fingers get cold, I can’t move them nimbly across the keyboard, and I like to type fast. Ironically, it’s 60 degrees right now, but the heater is off because it is overcast and humid, so my hands feel warm.
Another way I keep my hands warm is by drinking hot tea while I write. I use a glass or ceramic mug, so I can warm my hands against the hot cup. I also drink tea as a substitute for coffee. For over a decade, I couldn’t sit down in front of the computer without a cup of coffee. When the writing got tough, when I was sleepy and couldn’t think straight, when I was scared that I would never finish Bitter Melon, my coffee was my little cup of courage. Unfortunately, coffee irritates my digestive system. It also makes my hands shake. But I couldn’t quit cold turkey (I tried—those attempts lasted about ten seconds). So I had to switch to a good English tea, which I doused with sugar and cream. Several months later, I downgraded again to a Chinese tea with no sugar and cream. Now I fill one tall mug with Chinese tea, and every time the cup is half empty, I add hot water, so I trick my brain into thinking that I’m drinking eight cups of tea. As virtuous as that sounds, I still fall off the wagon and drink coffee when I’m feeling exhausted or stressed. Then I end up with stomach problems, and then I go through the weaning process all over again.
When I first read this question, I was thinking about all fictional characters, and I got stumped. Days later, I thought of this question in terms of characters in my book, and then I had answers. The number one question I get asked is, “Is Bitter Melon autobiographical?” To some degree, yes. Like Frances, I grew up in San Francisco in the 80’s. (I actually have a video montage on my website that features places in San Francisco where scenes from Bitter Melon took place.) Like Frances, I also went to Catholic school, competed in speech, and had an inspiring speech coach. I also had a difficult relationship with my mother at the time. I wrote what I knew, so by definition, Frances is probably the character I relate to best.
Now that I’m a mother, I’m learning that I can also relate to Gracie too. Those who’ve read the book may gasp because Gracie is Frances’s controlling, manipulative, and abusive mother: the ultimate Tiger Mother. I’m not raising my son the way Gracie raised Frances (at least we hope not!), but I now understand the frustrations that drove Gracie’s behavior. Strangely, I had been working on Bitter Melon almost a decade before my son was born, so on a subliminal level, I must have understood Gracie long before I became a mother.
If you could have any supernatural power, what would it be?
When I first read this question, I started imagining all these different kinds of super-powers to decide which one I would like best. Should I fly? Should I become invisible? Should I read people’s minds? Should I have miraculous healing powers? Then I started to think about what my life would be like if I had these powers. If I wasn’t bound by the rules that limited other mortals, would I ever be tempted to use my powers in a bad way? Would I be disturbed and burned out by the ethical issues associated with having these powers? How would it change how others related to me and how I related to them? Ultimately, the gift would become a burden, even a curse. So in the end, I’d be better off putting those imaginary powers right back in the Pandora’s Box, locking it, and throwing away the key.
Asian-Americans are slowly becoming more visible in young adult fiction, and that is a good thing. What is really telling is that characters of Asian descent are starting to be depicted in ways that are not specifically Asian. A good example of that is the character of Cho in the Harry Potter series.
That said, I would like to see more diversity, not just for authors and characters of Asian descent but also for authors and characters from different ethnicities, geographical areas, spiritual backgrounds, and sexual orientations.
Not as close as I should be. I am a first generation Chinese-American, or more specifically, I am part of the 1.5, or knee-high generation, because I came to the US when I was three. You would think that I should still retain a lot of my ancestral culture. However, my circumstances have really taken me away from that. As a grade school kid, I was already speaking English and not Cantonese because I wanted to fit into the mainstream culture. Nonetheless, I lived in the
Richmond District of San Francisco amongst a large extended family, so I was still surrounded by the language and cultural customs.
This changed when I moved to the Los Angeles area for college. I tried to “get back to my roots” by attending a Hong Kong Students Association meeting on campus, but no one wanted to talk to me because I was too American, so I ended up not joining. My roommates were Vietnamese-American, so I ate Vietnamese food and learned Vietnamese ballroom dancing. I joined a Korean martial arts club and became friends with a few Korean-Americans. After college, I worked for the Japanese American National Museum and learned a lot about Japanese-
American history and culture. I eventually married a Japanese-American and moved to a neighborhood that is mixed and has few if any Cantonese people.
The bottom line is, since moving away from my family, I’ve become more multicultural but less Chinese. I have no one with whom to converse in Cantonese or to celebrate Chinese traditions like Chinese New Year. I can’t even cook Cantonese food because my dad never taught my sister and me how to cook his special dishes. You couldn’t even guess by looking at my house that Asian people live here. When people encourage me to teach my son a second language so he can retain his heritage, I point out that neither my husband nor I are fluent enough in our respective languages of origin to be good teachers. All Chinese that culture, wiped out in just one generation. Pretty sad, huh?
Anything my dad makes. But I also love sushi and sashimi.
Absolutely. If it weren’t for my Chinese-American heritage, there would be no Bitter Melon. It is the cultural gap between Frances and her mother that informs the conflict between them. Frances is torn between the her American values, which tell her to find herself and reach for her dreams, versus her Chinese values, which tell her to obey her mother at all costs. Also, there is so much Chinese and Chinese-American culture sprinkled throughout the book. It is in the
characters’ language, their food, how they decorate their homes, and even how they dress.
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