How did you come to the U.S.?
In the mid-nineties, after graduating from Sun Yat-Sun University in Guangzhou with a bachelor’s degree in Chinese Language and Literature, I went to work in Shenzhen, the first special economic zone in China. The job was highly paid, but uninspiring. I quit and did some other jobs for a while, then returned to Guangzhou to find work. One evening, I visited a good friend of mine, a PhD candidate in Chemistry. She mentioned that she was preparing for TOFEL and GRE, and encouraged me to take the tests too. Growing up reading foreign literature, I’d been always wanting to travel abroad, so I took the tests one year later and started to apply for American universities while I was working at a software company in Guangzhou.

In 1997, the year Hong Kong returned to China, I came to the U.S. with a scholarship from Stanford University.
Was it difficult to get a visa to the U.S. at that time?
Yes, it was. Only a very small percentage of the people who were applying for a visa succeeded. I had to wait outside the American consulate in Guangzhou for two days straight, spending the night there. The embassy only let in 40-60 people each day but applicants were in hundreds.

In my second novel, “Beautiful as Yesterday,” there’s a passage of people waiting outside the American embassy for a visa.
You grew up on a state-run farm. What was your childhood like?
During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), my parents were exiled to a state-run farm in Jiangxi Province, where they spent more than twenty years before they were allowed to return to the city. My four older brothers and I were all born on the farm.

Despite poverty and isolation, I had a happy childhood. With little parental guidance, my friends and I roamed around the farm after school every day, fishing, climbing trees, picking wild fruit, playing games......I was a tomboy growing up, surrounded by nature, friends and my father’s literature collection which I loved.

Here I wrote about watching a movie on the farm in the 80s.
Where did you get your inspiration for February Flowers? Does the title have a special meaning in the Chinese culture?
It was 2012 when I began to write FEBRUARY FLOWERS. I was very homesick and missed my family and friends back in China, meanwhile I was frustrated that I hadn’t made a big progress in English. One night I decided to write a story about lost friendship, and to write it in English as a way to learn the language.

FEBRUARY FLOWERS is my first attempt at fiction of any kind. I had no idea when I started that it would expand into a novel, and eventually found its way to publication.

The title is from a classical poem called “Journey to a Mountain,” written by Du Mu (803 - 852).

Far into the cold mountain a stone trail winds aslant
Where white clouds rise a house appears
Stopping my carriage, I sit to admire the late maple forest
The frosted leaves are redder than February flowers

The book is about a new post-Cultural Revolution generation in China, who, to me, are like flowers ready to bloom after having survived a long, harsh winter. It’s also about China, my homeland, its eagerness to take on a new look after all the sufferings and tumults.
As a writer, what topics interest you the most at the moment?
I’d like to write a variety of topics, but something very dear to my heart is stories of ordinary people in China. How have they been affected by the changes in China in the past few decades? How do they deal with the past that still torments them? How do they reconcile, how do they move on, how do they live with the new generations who are oblivious of what they have gone through?

I want to write about their love and loss, their ambition and passion, their dilemmas and conflicts, their happiness and despair, their deep sense of who they are.
What’s your writing routine?
I’ve been struggling with building a writing routine. Being a mother to two highly energetic small children, I often find myself not being able to stick to my plan. When the kids get sick ( for several years, my son was sick a lot), it’s really hard for me to get any writing done.

But when things are going well, I make sure that I write at least 1000 words a day Monday to Friday. I spend weekends with family, also catching up with reading and emails.

I’m starting a new novel, and plan to write every day. Hopefully I will have the first draft done in a year.
What’s your thought on inspiration?
Jack London’s advice is very wise: “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

Even when I don’t feel like writing, I still make yourself sit in front of my computer. There’re days when I end the day empty-handed and frustrated, but there’re also days when I am rewarded with an unexpected harvest.
Why do you write in both English and Chinese? Which language are you more comfortable with?
Writing in both languages is the only way for me to keep up with them. Chinese is a profound language that demands high-level intimacy, and even though I grew up in China, I feel that I’m losing the language when I don’t write it for a while.

I didn’t begin to write in English until I was in my twenties. When I first came to the U.S., I could barely speak the language. Writing in English has opened a new door for me and it allows me to express my creativity another way.

Since the day I began to write in English, I have been torn between my mother tongue and my adopted language. Sometimes, they fight, they clash, and other times, they work together to create something exciting. It would certainly be easier if I picked one language, be it English or Chinese, and stick to it. But for now, I have to, and must, live with both.

Here is a piece about my experience of writing bilingually:
"Write bilingually, English (My Adoptive Language) and Chinese (My Mother Tongue)"
Have you translated your own writing?

I wrote my first book, FEBRUARY FLOWERS, in English, then translated it into Chinese for its publication in China. As for my second book, “Beautiful as Yesterday,” the first draft was in Chinese. As I was translating it into English, I revised and rewrote it at the same time. When the English version came out, it was quite different from the original Chinese draft.

My favorite quote about translation is from Nabokov’s “Speak, Memory.” In the book, he says, “For the present, final, edition of Speak, Memory, I have not only introduced basic changes and copious additions into the initial English text, but have availed myself of the corrections I made while turning it into Russian. This re-English of a Russian re-version of what had been an English re-telling of Russian memories in the first place, proved to be a diabolical task, but some consolation was given me by the thought that such multiple metamorphosis, familiar to butterflies, had not been tried by any human before.”

I’ve done what he did, and the process was inspiring and exhausting at the same time, and certainly “diabolical.”
Your second novel, BEAUTIFUL AS YESTERDAY, is a mother-daughter story set up in the present-day SF bay area. How did you come up with the story?
When my children were still babies, my parents visited me from China every year to help me take care of them. They would regularly meet other Chinese grandparents from the neighborhood at a park close to my house. A lot of times, I was there with them, too. The seed of the book was first sowed when I had a conversation with a Chinese grandma, who told me about her two daughters, both living in the States, and her own life.

The final product of the book is very different from this grandma’s story, but still she got me thinking about writing a story about sisterhood and mother-daughter relationships.
What are you working on right now?
I recently completed a new novel, SONG of the DAISIES (working title). It’s a story of a young Chinese-American woman living in the SF bay area. Called back to her native China by the arrival of a mysterious letter, she must deal with her estranged father’s illness, investigate her brother’s death, and ultimately confront the demons of her past.

I’m also completing a short story collection, tentatively entitled, NOBODY’S TALKING ABOUT FALLING IN LOVE. It contains 9 stories.

Another book I’m writing is a nonfiction book.
Your first novel FEBRUARY FLOWERS is a story about coming-of-age and female friendship, and your second novel BEAUTIFUL AS YESTERDAY centers around a mother and her two daughters. The main character in your latest unpublished novel, SONG of the DAISIES, is also a female. Would you say that you like writing about women?
I do like writing about women, though I have many male characters in my books, too. Growing up in China, I always feel that women’s voices tend to be marginalized in the male-dominated Chinese culture. It was not until the early 20th century did Chinese female writers first break into the public view as a group and make their mark.

Writing about women doesn’t mean that the writing is always about romance and centers on triviality and sentimentality as viewed by some people. Women’s world is as big, as rich, as powerful, and as important as men’s.

Friendship, family, love, and self-discovery are universal topics. You’ll find them in my books, along with a deep reflection of the Chinese history and culture.