Tuesday 3 April 2018

Interview: Charlene Chu

How much do you know about China? Beyond the obvious tourist destinations and well-known facts, your answer will probably be the same as mine - very little. In the hope of overcoming this, I am welcoming author Charlene Chu to The Writing Greyhound to share the details of her recently-released book Song of Praise for a Flower.

Would you please introduce yourself?
I was born and raised in the US and am half-Chinese. In my day job, I work as a financial analyst covering the Chinese economy and when I have downtime I write. I split my time between Washington DC and Hong Kong and spend an inordinate amount of time each year on planes and in airports.
How did you first become interested in writing? 
I was very young when writing first piqued my interest. Several times a week our grade school teachers gave us lists of words to make sentences with. Whenever I got stuck, I would ask my mother for help. She would always give me lengthy, intricate sentences that were annoying to write out, but they taught me a lot about writing. It was my first exposure to how the same message can be communicated numerous ways and how words carry tone and rhythm.
song-of-praise-for-a-flower, charlene-chu, book

Tell me about Song of Praise for a Flower. 
Many years ago my now 92-year-old Chinese cousin, Fengxian Chu, wrote her life story for her children and hid it in a bank vault. The manuscript sat there untouched for two decades until I tracked her down several years ago filled with questions about our family.  
Song of Praise for a Flower is the English rendering of Fengxian’s memoir. It is a moving story of resilience through adversity, the historical struggles facing Chinese women, and China’s tumultuous transition into and back out of communism. It is a living history of the past century in China, which has seen more dramatic change than anywhere else on the planet. Fengxian was born into a world where it was common to bind women’s feet, forbid their education, and hide them behind closed doors until marriage. With grit and fortitude, she manages to break these barriers, but later in life, she is confronted with devastating challenges during China’s transition into communism under Mao. That she survived everything she did and at this late age is publishing her story is a triumphant final chapter in a very difficult life.
What’s the best thing about writing non-fiction? 
I’ve always found non-fiction more compelling than fiction. The fact that the stories actually happened make them so much more powerful for me. As a writer, non-fiction gives you boundaries and a core narrative to work with, which in some respects makes it easier than writing fiction. The hard part is feeling the need to do justice to the story and the people involved. There is a sense of duty and obligation that comes with writing non-fiction that adds extra pressure on the writer.
What drew you to writing about the past?
I’m an only child of much older parents, both of whom led very colourful lives before they met each other. I grew up hearing about their stories, which I think is what made me so fascinated with the past.
Why do you think it is important to tell diverse stories?
Because the world is so much bigger than our narrow daily experience. It’s important to be reminded of that, and it helps keep our minds open to the richness and diversity the world has to offer.
How did you get inspiration? 
The fact that this incredible manuscript lay hidden in a bank vault for nearly two decades and that I was the sole person in a position to bring it to light was very motivating for me. Opportunities like this are rare, and we must seize them when they arise, no matter how difficult it may be.
What’s your writing process like? 
I go into total isolation. It’s the only way I can leave this world and enter the world I am writing about. In the case of this book, I had to switch gears from assessing mountains of data China’s economy and banks to writing about life in rural China in the mid-1900s. It wasn’t easy. For several years, I came home from work every Friday night, shut the door, and didn’t open it until Monday morning when I went back to work. Occasionally during vacations, I would do that for a week or more straight.
What’s the hardest thing about writing? 
The fact that I require total isolation to get into my writing zone can make it very hard to keep up with the rest of my life. Writing is all-consuming for me, which is difficult when I have a demanding full-time job in a completely different field.
What are you reading at the moment?
I just finished When Breath Becomes Air, which is about the challenges of a young doctor who gets cancer.
What’s your all-time favourite book? 
Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. It’s a page-turner with memorable characters in a fascinating setting. You can’t ask for more.
What are your interests outside of writing and reading? 
Having grown up in Colorado, I like to be outside – hiking, kayaking, bicycling.
Song of Praise for a Flower is available to buy now.

What do you think? Are you interested in reading the book? Let me know in the comments below!

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