CECILY WONG’s debut novel Diamond Head follows four generations of a wealthy shipping family from China at the turn of the 20th century to the Hawaii of the 1960s. Central to the story is a Chinese parable about the red string that binds lovers who are destined by fate to be together. Should the lovers deny fate, the string becomes knotted, affecting the family for generations to come. When patriarch Frank Leong is murdered, the mistakes he and other members of his family have made begin to come to light, leaving his granddaughter Theresa, 18 and pregnant, to decide which stories — and knots — she will pass on to the next generation.
Historically, the scope of Diamond Head is ambitious and sweeping, spanning the anti-imperialist Boxer Rebellion through Pearl Harbor to the beginnings of the sexual revolution. The book raises questions equally as ambitious: Are children doomed to repeat the mistakes of their parents? To what extent does fate steer us, and to what extent can we shape our own lives?
Diamond Head has been praised from its very start — its first pages won the Peter S. Prescott Award, judged by Elizabeth Strout, Caryl Phillips, and Malena Watrous — so it’s no surprise that the novel is already receiving accolades. It was a Summer 2015 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection and has been highlighted as a great read by publications such as Bustle, Elle, and Cosmopolitan. Recently, Cecily and I chatted via email about her novel and her writing process.
CELESTE NG: Diamond Head covers a wide swath of time, including several well-known historical events, such as the Boxer Rebellion and the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Do you consider Diamond Head to be a “historical” novel?
CECILY WONG: It’s always interesting to hear Diamond Head classified as a historical novel, because in no way did I set out to write one. My story was always about a family, about the lineage that came before and behind it, and as I followed the Leongs’ ancestry, I bumped into the history. I think it’s difficult to write a novel without a solid sense of place and time, whether now or a hundred years in the past, because people are so fundamentally linked to the world they live in. I found that many of my characters revealed themselves when placed against their time, so eventually I began to see history as a tool for prying these characters open. Shen, for example, was my radical, impulsive, conflict-seeking younger brother, so I was able to see his vulnerability as a Boxer in the violent rebellion. Amy is a poor local girl in Hawaii, so she experiences Pearl Harbor not on the battlefield but as a civilian, attached to the island but not to the war.
Once it dawned on me that there would be a lot of history in a book that spans 60 years, I embraced it. I started seeking out ways that history could deepen the Leongs and their experiences. I found a Yellow River flood that wiped out a million people, the Japanese siege of Tsingtao, and a volcano steeped in Hawaiian mythology. The internet is an amazing thing, as is the Columbia library.
What drew you to tell a family saga? Is the question of heritage — both cultural and familial — something in which you’ve always been interested?
Families are endlessly fascinating to me when studied as a sprawl. Whether or not we become our parents, whether or not we learn from our family’s mistakes (if we even know what they are) — these are things that take generations to manifest. I like the idea of looking at a family as a growing, evolving thing that runs on a delicate balance of cause and effect, sharing or withholding, staying or leaving. I think that’s what drew me to a family saga, trying to understand that balance.
Do you remember when you first heard the story of the red thread? How did it work its way into the novel?
I was about 50 pages into writing this novel when I started reading Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and I put everything on hold and went looking for my fuku (or family curse) because I knew the Leongs had one too. But I wanted the Leongs’ curse to be reversible, logical in a way, so when I stumbled upon the red string it felt so much like fate, I knew without a doubt that this was the right curse for me. The idea of parents showing their children how love should be, teaching them or derailing them through the example of their own choices, perfectly echoed the themes I was exploring.
In the novel you examine this concept of fate — to what degree we’re in control of what happens to us and to what degree our parents and our pasts determine our lives. Do you believe in fate yourself? Have there ever been times in your life where you felt fate assert itself?
Mostly, I think life is governed by intention, which is a force much stronger than fate, but sometimes there is happenstance that no one can rightfully take credit for, and that’s when I call it fate.
I majored in Italian at Barnard, but in my junior year, I became obsessed with taking Mary Gordon’s fiction workshop. Unfortunately, Mary didn’t accept me that year, so I started thinking of opportunities to practice elsewhere. It was intentional that I went across the street to Columbia, where there was no application process for workshops, with the hope of asking David Plante to put me on his waiting list. But I can only call it fate that David Plante turned out to be an avid Italophile, and that he made space for me based on my passion for two things he loved. A semester later, when Mary let me in with the pages I’d written with David, I learned that she, too, had a love affair with Italy, spending summers in Rome writing The Love of My Youth. Mary became my thesis advisor and eventually my mentor, and so my seemingly arbitrary enthusiasm for Italian became a fateful force that led me to the people who could teach me how to write.
What was your writing process after you finished your undergraduate degree?
After Barnard, I spent five years working on my novel alone, rewriting it three times, cover to cover. I learned about plot and pacing and narrative frames. I threw out countless pages, scrapped characters and story lines, and read a lot. Mostly, I was stubborn and hungry to prove that I had a book that would work, and the idea of an MFA wasn’t really on my radar. I didn’t have a lot of writer friends, so I was kind of outside that sphere of influence.
I’m learning now how vitally important community is in this profession, and finding other writers who are at a similar stage, working through similar things, is a tricky combination that I’m still seeking. I took a long trip last year and am now settling back into New York by taking a workshop at Sackett Street, run by the wonderful Julia Fierro. Getting regular feedback has been such a gift. But I’m still in the market for writer friends, so at the risk of sounding like a personal ad, I’m very much available for coffee and rousing literary conversation.
Tell us a little about your experience growing up Chinese-Hawaiian and how that influenced the novel.
I spent the first seven years of my life on Oahu, surrounded by an enormous Chinese family, before my parents moved us to Oregon where suddenly we were just five Asians in a very white town. But I still had memories and my parents still had stories, so when I started writing Diamond Head and doing my cultural research, it became a deep and unexpected exploration into my own childhood memory. I found an enormous significance in the rituals and the food and the sense of family I remembered in figments and shadows, and more and more, I just wanted to connect with the place I was from. So I started spending more time on Oahu, interviewing family members and getting to know its physicality. Getting this novel down on paper was almost like my own birthright.
What were your favorite books when you were growing up?
Growing up, I was an enthusiastic reader but not a particularly discerning one. I read whatever I was given or whatever I found. I didn’t grow up in a family of readers. My parents ran restaurants, so I joke that for many years, I thought books were only sold at Costco. While my mom shopped for bulk food, I would choose a paperback, and I read whatever was popular enough to be sold at Costco — Amy Tan, Gail Tsukiyama, Wally Lamb, Thrity Umrigar. These books made me fall in love with stories, not with writing but with reading. My first favorite book as an adult was probably Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies. It was a new experience; I was quietly blown away. I realized how many different types of stories were available to me and that’s when I started buying my own books, from Costco and beyond.
I joke (but have also written seriously) about what I call the “Amy Tan effect”: that Asian-American women writers inevitably get compared to other Asian-American women writers — for example, they get dubbed “the next Amy Tan.” As you emerge onto the literary scene, what are your feelings about these kinds of comparisons? Do you think of yourself as an Asian-American writer? As a woman writer? Do these identities shape your work as you write?
I identify with being an Asian American, a woman, and a writer. But it is also important to me that Diamond Head be seen as a Hawaiian novel, and I remember discussing this nuance during the first meeting with my publisher. I didn’t want to be pegged wholly as a Chinese novelist, simply writing in the tradition of the Chinese female authors who came before me. Beyond that, I felt and still feel adamant that this story is about a family first and foremost, and about women who are strongly tied to a place, and while that place happens to be culturally Asian, that has never been the main point of the book.
As for Amy Tan herself, I have a unique relationship with her in my mind because my mother loved her novels, so Amy Tan was almost like a god in my household growing up. She made my mother excited about reading, and so when I get the inevitable comparison to her now, I can only take it as a compliment. Naturally, it should also be said that we’re both Asian women with books featuring Asian characters and settings, but I hope, as I think all authors do, that readers will come to my book primarily because the content is compelling.
What books have you read lately and loved?
I’ve been working through galleys from my lovely editor at Harper, Maya Ziv, and there are two books coming out this year that I couldn’t put down. The first is A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell, which is one of the most darkly hilarious novels I’ve ever read and just whip-smart. The second is Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry, set in 1895 New York City. The world-building is unreal, equal parts filthy and enchanting.
What are you most looking forward to in the publishing process? What are you most afraid of?
Honestly, as a writer you spend so much time alone, reading your own words and wondering if it will just be you and your Word document for the rest of your life. So for me, the largest excitement comes from the idea that strangers will be reading my story, and that, hopefully, they’ll have some kind of emotional reaction to it. There are plenty of things that come with publishing a book that I fear — public speaking, self-promotion, negative reviews — but it’s all trumped by the fact that these terrifying things stem from a dream that’s being realized.
What’s the best thing a reader could tell you after reading this book?
That they can’t wait to read the next one.
Celeste Ng attended Harvard University and earned an MFA from the University of Michigan, where she won the Hopwood Award. Her fiction and essays have appeared in One Story, TriQuarterly, Bellevue Literary Review, and Kenyon Review Online.