EIGHT YEARS AGO, Huan Hsu sat behind me at my first newspaper internship at the Seattle Weekly. He was the kind of reporter who always seemed to be chasing an exciting story, could write a beautiful sentence about just about anything, and who never bristled at a question from a rookie reporting intern. At the end of the summer, as I left the newsroom to go back to college, Hsu left his job and Seattle altogether to move to China and chase a different kind of story — no less exciting, but personal — he wanted to find his great-great-grandfather’s porcelain collection, buried in 1938, during the Japanese invasion of the Second Sino-Japanese War.
There, instead of a straightforward treasure hunt, Hsu found a family as broken apart by war and complex Chinese history as the porcelain shards he discovered scattered throughout the booming country’s many construction sites. The Porcelain Thief, the result of putting these pieces back together, is a mystery that keeps the reader constantly wondering what will happen next, and deftly connects Hsu’s personal experiences as an American-born Chinese (or ABC) in China, with his family member’s far-reaching memories, the history of porcelain itself, and a portrait of modern China that is lively, multifaceted, and enlightening.
This conversation took place in May over Skype, while Hsu’s day in Amsterdam (where he now lives) was winding down, and I was still finishing my morning coffee in Seattle.
MAGGIE MERTENS: When you moved to China, you said you wanted to write a book about your family. But did you know that it was going to be a book about so much more; that you were going to be telling this huge story about China as well?
HUAN HSU: At the time I left Seattle, all I knew were the broad strokes of the family story. You know how they always tell you when you’re researching a story you should be composing also? You should be thinking about where will this information go, and how will it be packaged? Well, I wasn’t at that point yet. I just thought my family story was worth pursuing, and everyone I talked to whose opinion I respected said I should go and do it — that it might be a viable foundation for a book.
So when did you realize, oh, I need to explain hundreds, even thousands, of years of history here?
I was extremely naive at first. I thought the project would be linear and very easy and take one year. But part of me purposely wanted to go after it in a very naive way. Because I wanted to see where that would take me. I did have kind of this idea in my head that it would be like going into the woods. There’s a line in Walden, after Thoreau writes about wanting to live more deeply, that “if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it.” That was true for me, too: I wanted to experience whatever meanness there would be in China, [laughing] and I expected there would be a lot.
But then things took three times longer than I thought they would take. By the time I was writing the proposal, that’s when I finally thought, how much of what needs to be in here? And my proposal and my first draft were similar in that I, for some reason, didn’t trust my own story enough. I had no sense of how interesting my family story or my personal story was to a reader, and so I tried to pad it with a lot of Chinese history. I guess that was kind of a crutch. I just thought, okay, well I need to fill up 90 pages of a proposal and I need to fill up 120,000 words of a first draft, so let’s make sure I get a really good start by getting a ton of Chinese history in there!
And of course once you start writing about Chinese history, it’s just this rabbit hole: any single event can be contextualized with 1,000 years of history. But this is the fun part of being a writer! You can become an expert on something. And because I’d been there long enough and had talked to enough people, I could comprehend the history. Of course compared to an actual Sinologist, I’m still clueless.
So first you worried that you needed to pad your story to make it interesting — I get that — but did you also worry about whether or not you had the authority to write an account of modern Chinese history? Did you ever think, why should I be the person to write this?
No, actually. I had many moments of doubt, of course, wondering, can I write this? Is it within my abilities to pull this off? But I guess there’s inherent narcissism in deciding you want to try to write a book. This might sound arrogant, but I really thought I was the right person to do this. There aren’t a lot of Chinese people writing about China. Particularly not Chinese or Chinese-American men. What you have is a lot of white guys doing the work; and then, while I was there, Leslie T. Chang published Factory Girls; and there’s Amy Tan, of course, before her, and Jung Chang’s Wild Swans. So there were a lot of women writing, too — but there was a gap to be filled. As a very clueless Chinese person who didn’t know that much about his Chinese-ness, and in fact rejected Chinese-ness most of his life — I felt kind of like this was my privilege. Everything I was doing or perceiving in China I was filtering through my American culture and worldview — since I was doing that for myself, I felt I could do that for this theoretical audience for this theoretical book, too.
In your first draft, it sounds like you were wearing that journalist hat. How did you convince yourself to take it off sometimes and put yourself in the story?
It was probably desperation. As a deadline approaches, with someone telling you, “this isn’t working, you have to change something,” you get motivated. It doesn’t escape me that I went into an MFA program writing personal essay and memoir because that’s all I knew in terms of nonfiction, and, in my program anyway, that pretty much gets hammered out of you. They tell you, “You have nothing to say,” and, “Use yourself as the prism and write these New Yorker–style first person but thoroughly reported stories.” Then at City Paper and in Seattle, it was the same kind of thing. You get trained to write like that. I don’t know if I felt I didn’t have a right to put myself in, or if I just didn’t think I was interesting. Probably both. But it was more that I thought this was how you were supposed to write long pieces: you have a presence, but it’s not about you. I think it was both Howard Yoon, my agent, and Vanessa Mobley, my editor, who read the first draft of the book and said, “you need to reverse the ratio here. Now it’s 30 percent you and 70 percent history.” They agreed I should make it my story and then contextualize as necessary.
You include a lot of tense moments with your extended family that occurred as you were reporting. Did you worry about offending anyone?
I didn’t. As a writer, and as a journalist, your loyalty is to the story and to the truth. So I was only thinking, how can I write the best story? And for me, that’s a true story. Also as a journalist, I value transparency; so I thought I should be completely open about myself, my thoughts, and my feelings. If I seem flawed, all the better.
So I didn’t think about how my family would read it until after a couple of drafts. Then I showed it to my cousin Andrew, who is a great character in the book. He’s also a sophisticated reader and has always been really supportive of my writing. But there are some scenes where he acts like a real dick. When I showed him the draft, he didn’t say anything about his portrayal. He totally understood that this was a construction and that he was a character, just like I was a character, just like Uncle Lewis was a character. “I wish I hadn’t said some of those things,” he said. But he understood.
I asked him what he thought other family members might think. He reminded me to be loyal to the story, but he pointed out that there was no reason to unnecessarily antagonize anyone. Just because someone was rude to me, or said something outlandish, or potentially sensational, didn’t mean it needed to go in the book. So a lot of stuff went out in the editing process because it wasn’t germane.
Slate did a memoir week a few years ago, with a bunch of different writers. Sean Wilsey’s piece was called “Publish, Then Flee.” Maybe that was in my head. It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.
Have your relatives in China read the book?
I don’t think so. I don’t know if they will. I think reading it in English is going to be pretty difficult for them, so I doubt it. My relatives who are readers don’t read English, and the ones who do read English aren’t really readers. Maybe someday there will be a Chinese edition and then they’ll read it.
As you said, though, you turn the microscope on yourself as much as on anyone else. You did such a good job of that, I didn’t recognize you in those first chapters in China when you’re so angry. When I read the scene where you knock the mirror off of the truck, I wanted to write you a note and ask if it was true.
It is! Looking back, I’m surprised at how angry I was there a lot of the time. Most people perceive me as a laid-back person, and I think I am. There’s something about being a Chinese-American in China, though. Because part of your identity is your culture and you don’t want to accept certain behavior in that culture as okay or normal. Now I see the anger as a waste of energy. But as I was working on the draft I was aware that if I occasionally looked stupid in the book, I’d be able to write about other people doing somewhat stupid things.
Your emotional outburst turned out to be important to the narrative. By the end, it becomes a beautiful explanation for this identity crisis you’re going through.
That narrative arc about coming to terms with my identity — which is so trite — wasn’t that apparent to me at first, but it’s definitely a part of the story. When I first sat down to write the proposal, I said something about “understanding this hyphenated identity,” but I was still too close to the experience to really be able to write about it. Even the first draft, two years after I left China, was still a little too close. The book was originally scheduled to be published in July 2014, and then I found out it was going to be pushed back to 2015. That was crushing at the time. But, as is true with a lot of writing, short and long, often you don’t really crack it until the very end. In hindsight, those extra eight months were really helpful in giving me the distance I needed.
When you realized you were writing about identity, and telling a story of being an ABC, did you think about how the book might be grouped in with other Chinese-American stories or expected to tell the story of other ABCs?
Back when I was getting my MFA, I really avoided writing about the Chinese-American experience, because I felt like it had been done so much — and done pretty well. But as I said earlier, it didn’t take me very long to realize that there was a gap — and that there actually weren’t that many stories about Chinese-Americans going back to China. I felt like that angle was going to be fairly new.
But it was kind of weird to be writing about a whole group of people. I couldn’t help but notice that a lot of my Chinese-American friends in China had had very similar experiences. We talked a lot about the same things that annoyed us that didn’t annoy other people. We had the same difficulties that other people had not encountered. There were things we really liked about China that seemed unique to us. So I couldn’t help but be aware that people could extrapolate from my story. Although I don’t think of myself as speaking for anybody other than me…
There are so many different threads in this book. How many stories did you feel like you were writing at once? And did you look at it as one through line with offshoots or did you feel like you were bringing all these things together?
Structure is the biggest challenge for anyone who’s writing anything. The idea was to use my search as the backbone to tell these other stories, but that turned out to be easier said than done. But from the beginning, I had the idea that my search would include porcelain history, Chinese history, family history, some amateur ethnography, and some elements of travelogue. Plus, there is nothing not interesting about China, everything is amazing and new.
Did you read anyone or anything in particular while you were writing?
I actively avoided every book on China. I wanted to make sure that any observations that I made, I arrived at by myself. Peter Hessler’s books, I avoided. Factory Girls, I avoided. Tom Scocca’s book, I avoided. James Fallows was another. Sometimes I’d read something in The New Yorker or The Atlantic and think, now I have to cross off another story.
I have a list of favorite narrative nonfiction that I rely on in terms of structure, or inspiration, or just to remind me that sentences all start with one word, and you put another word after that, and another after that, and then you have a sentence. And then you write a couple sentences and then you have a paragraph. And a few paragraphs are a page — and next thing, you have a chapter. Eat, Pray, Love is actually a pretty good book, and Elizabeth Gilbert wrote another one, The Last American Man, which I love. Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz. Anything by Ted Conover. Everything by John McPhee. Everything by Ian Frazier. Those are the books that I’d read before I went to China and I kept them nearby and referred to them a lot.
Then there were two books I read after China: Moby-Duck, which is one of those ideas I wish I’d come up with. And The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. That was my bible. I read it with my hands over my eyes because it was just too good. It was such a perfectly structured book. So clean, and so clear, and the way Rebecca Skloot handles the information is so perfect. When I felt stuck and overwhelmed, I outlined that book. I cut out all these slips of paper, one for every narrative thread. I labeled them: Skloot 1, Henrietta 1, Debra 1, Debra 2, etc. I outlined what I had for my book, too. The entire floor of my office was covered in little strips of paper. I was hoping it would help, and maybe it did, subconsciously. Before that book, the writer I admired most was John McPhee. I think Skloot was a disciple of his as well, so it’s not surprising that I looked to her.
It seems like a good idea to look to contemporary books as models: the older ones can sometimes feel like they’re on too much of a pedestal to ever get near.
And the audience is into different stuff these days. I couldn’t help but be aware of the market. I don’t think I wrote to a specific market, but people were always talking about it.
The other book I thought was really great was The Lost City of Z, by David Grann — also a quest book, but one that’s ultimately unsuccessful.
Did you see your quest as unsuccessful?
No, of course not. It’s cliché to say I went to China to discover buried porcelain, but I discovered a greater treasure: a buried heritage. But it’s true! It would have been great if I’d been allowed to retrieve the real porcelain and it was worth millions of dollars, but it would have been such a headache to try to claim it. Instead, I had an amazing experience. I learned Chinese, I learned about Chinese history, I learned about my family. I still talk to my Chinese relatives a couple of times a year. I call them on Chinese New Year.
Anyway, I think I’ve always valued information more than I valued things. Even in high school, I wouldn’t let my mom throw out my papers, because it was information. I felt the same way about these stories and the family history and the things I learned about China: they were inherently important. There’s a passage in the book, about the ephemerality of objects, and how it’s stories that really keep a culture alive, more than things. Some reviewers feel let down by this book. They probably feel like my quest was unsuccessful. I feel bad for those people, but I didn’t feel let down.
And the story actually ends with me holding imperial porcelains that may have belonged to my family. In the scene, it was very rushed and very uncomfortable. But there was that moment when I was standing there and thinking that I might be holding my great-great-grandfather’s vases. At that moment there was some sense, maybe not of closure, but of reconciliation.