Indiana Review is accepting submissions for the Creative Nonfiction Prize until October 31st. This year, Anna Qu, author of the memoir Made In China: A Memoir of Love and Labor, will be selecting the winner.
Check out what Anna had to say about sentimentality, the memoir-writing process, and much more in this interview with Creative Nonfiction Editor, Tyler Raso. And then don’t forget to send in your work!
Your memoir, Made In China: A Memoir of Love and Labor, examines the complex scars of intergenerational trauma. With a subject as heavy and haunting as that, when writing with/as your childhood self, how did you find the space and language to avoid over-sentimentalizing while still honoring what your childhood self felt?
I find that we often add sentimentality in hopes of clarifying some emotional need of the narrator. The distinction between the narrator “you” and the writer “you” need to be made to gain distance and perspective. It might not be possible for a first draft and that’s okay, but begin to recognize unnecessary emotional exposition on the second or third drafts. The work of the writer is to return to the work and edit those moments of insecurity out. Instead, use setting and scene to convey emotions, almost as an extension of the narrator.
I keep returning to this quote by Leslie Jameson,
“Sentimentality is simply emotion shying away from its own full implications. Behind every sentimental narrative there’s the possibility of another one — more richly realized, more faithful to the fine grain and contradictions of human experience.” I find that to be very true, what is underneath the initial emotion? Remember as a society, our emotions are socialized, for example, anger is more acceptable than tears for men and tears are more acceptable than rage for women. Either way, it’s important to recognize these knee-jerk responses for what they are and reach deeper. If you are able to articulate the complexity of the situation, the emotions will come and they’ll feel more compelling for readers. Trust yourself to convey the emotional arc and trust the reader to pick up what you’re putting down.
I think the best way to honor yourself is by providing the time and space to write the memoir to your heart’s content and then to keep working on it until you’re proud of the result.
Your memoir represents all your family members with an incredible amount of nuance. Would you mind elaborating on the importance of something like “character development” in Creative Nonfiction? How did you make room in your writing process for this kind of nuance?
Yes, thank you for noting that in my work! I do feel strongly about character development, and actually, I’m currently teaching a workshop class on Creating Complex Characters. It’s the writer’s job to empathize with all their characters. That’s a commonly taught craft lesson–remember the craft of creative writing still applies to nonfiction writing. Often that can be difficult when you’re writing about family and trauma, but that’s the job. Life is difficult and people are messy, and that needs to be reflected in our writing. Instead of seeing binaries of good vs bad or right vs wrong, think of each character as good and bad, right and wrong. How can you convey both? Be intentional, find a balance.
Whose work have you read recently that made the impossible seem possible?
What a surprising question! I’ve been thinking about teaching and craft, and how the traditional workshop model needs to evolve to be more inclusive. I keep coming back to Matthew Salesses’ Craft in the Real World. I’m still excited by Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings and the way she was able to articulate a lost history of discrimination and activism for Asian Americans. The reception of the book felt like a win for us all.
What delighted you most about the memoir-writing process? Surprised you the most?
I felt very protective of Made In China when I began writing. I didn’t show it to anyone for years. I wanted to be able to write terribly and not think about the reader. I wanted the freedom to be angry, to make mistakes, to play with structures, and in hindsight, that was a gift. I’m so glad I took the time because it resulted in a better book. The most surprising part of the process was realizing how emotional the publishing process can make you. The final product is a collaboration of many years of failed attempts and rewrites, conversations with my agent, and negotiations with my editor. When the book finally comes out, it’s no longer just your work but the work of the whole team. It takes a whole community to make a book successful.
What advice do you have for hopeful memoirists or essayists?
Remember that this path is a life-long journey so pace yourself; take breaks; celebrate milestones; lean on friends and your writing community. Be compassionate with yourself and keep evolving as a writer.
Anna Qu is a Chinese American writer. Her critically acclaimed debut memoir, Made In China: A Memoir of Love and Labor, was published in August 2021. Her work has appeared in Poets & Writers, Lithub, Threepenny Review, Lumina, Kartika, Kweli, Vol.1 Brooklyn, and Jezebel, among others. She teaches at the low-residency MFA program at New England College, Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop,and Catapult. She holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Sarah Lawrence College. Find her at annaqu.com