Q&A With C Fong Hsiung May 3, 2019 – Posted in: Interviews – Tags: , , , ,

Our publishing intern, Crystal, recently had a chat with C Fong Hsiung about New Land Same Sky, a touching novel that gives us a look inside modern exile and what it takes to uproot a family. Check out what Fong has to say about identity, and the Asian writers she wants to shout out for Asian Heritage Month.

CRYSTAL: How do you feel your writing life has evolved since your last book?

FONG: When I wrote my first novel, I snatched snippets of time from my daily commute to the office, lunch hour, evenings and weekends. By the time I started my second book, I had arranged to work four days a week and so had an extra day to write. Since April 2017 I stopped being an employee and now do contracts that allow me a lot of flexibility in establishing my work hours. These days I have a set routine and write every morning for up to three hours. My writing process is something I try to protect all the time. I take my writing seriously, giving it top priority over just about all other tasks.

C: In New Land Same Sky, Wen-Lung arrives in Canada on a tourist visa and marries a white Canadian woman in order to obtain his legal papers. Visa marriages have captured the popular imagination and gained more mainstream interest, as seen in the recent rise of the  show 90 Day Fiancé. What specifically is it about this phenomenon that intrigues us (especially at this particular moment in history)?

F: Visa marriages have been a reality in the Indian Hakka community since the seventies. Discussions about these events were confined within each community. With the advent of the internet and social media, the chatter is now spreading globally. A lot of people are becoming aware of this type of immigration and the accompanying stories. These are stories of human interest. Some are heart-wrenching and touch our imagination. I can see why people are intrigued as we hear more and more from these immigrants.

C: Your books, while exploring the themes of marriage and domestic life, also open up questions about the societies we live in and carry political overtones. What are some issues you feel close to, and how do your novels help you in thinking through those issues?

F: I didn’t consciously bring in the political overtones into my books. They were some of my realities growing up Chinese in Kolkata. It is a strange phenomenon that the Chinese have been in India for over a hundred years and rarely ventured outside the community to look for our life partners. Perhaps we were treated as foreigners because we secluded ourselves, or maybe it was the other way around. Either way, as a group we didn’t assimilate well into the local culture. We became much more politically conscious especially after the Sino-Indian Border War of 1962. With all kinds of travel restrictions imposed on the Chinese to go outside the boundaries of what we now call Chinatown, how could we not notice that we were different? And yet, none of these entered into my consciousness because much of my early social interactions were confined to my community. By the time I was in my early teens in the seventies, we were allowed to travel freely. So, although I had to report in at the foreign office every time I went to my boarding school outside of Kolkata, these restrictions didn’t affect me in the same way as they did, say, my dad. He needed a travel permit to go outside the Chinese area to do business with his customers. I write about those times because those were our realities back then. In doing so, I can’t help but touch on these social and political fabrics that were woven into our lives.

C: Tell us something about your Indian identity.

F: Despite being born and raised in India, I didn’t start playing with Indian children until I joined an English medium school at the age of eight. Prior to that, the Indians we interacted with daily were mainly our servants or my father’s customers. Our neighbours were all Chinese. Despite that, once I met other Indian children, some of them became my life-long friends. Although the government discriminated against us, our friends did not. Some street urchins and uneducated youths taunted us sometimes, but we felt superior to them and therefore we ignored them. I believe that I assimilated better than many Chinese because I stayed in boarding schools for many years, living under the same roof with other Indian students, eating, playing and studying with them. That’s not to say that other Chinese shunned everything Indian. These days in most Indian Hakka homes, you’ll find Chinese cooking ingredients alongside Indian spices, and the Bollywood culture has deep rooted tentacles.

C: Since we are celebrating Asian Heritage Month, we wanted to ask you to name a few of your favourite fellow Asian writers. Why and how do their works speak to you?

F: The first time I read an Asian writer’s work about our Chinese culture in Kolkata was that of author and now friend, Kwai Yun Li. I enjoyed her book immensely and was thrilled to be introduced to her. At that time, I was already writing my first novel. She told me about her publisher, TSAR now re-branded as Mawenzi House. That’s the short version about how my novels got published by TSAR/Mawenzi. Two other writers whose work I admire are Amy Tan and Lisa See. They’re Chinese Americans and they locate their settings in the United States and China. Their characters speak to my own Chinese identity, the part that connects with my ancestors from Guang Dong province in China.

C: What are some non-writing projects that you have an active interest in or draw inspiration from?

F: I am a meditator and have been for a number of years. The first thing I do every morning when I wake up is meditate for about twenty minutes. Then I write in my journal before I sit down at my computer and work on my novel. I feel this routine is important to keep me focused on my writing. The meditation puts me in a good head space and then I’m ready to get creative after that. Nothing gets in the way that early in the day. I don’t read any emails or text messages during that time. The inspiration is not external. It is from the way I have set up my routine and from putting myself in front of my computer every morning at that time.

Photo of C Fong Hsiung

The eldest of five children, C Fong Hsiung was born to Hakka Chinese parents in Kolkata, India. At the age of 18 she immigrated to Canada where she married and raised three sons. Her first novel, Picture Bride (Mawenzi House), was published in 2014. She lives in Markham, Ontario.

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