Designing a life over decades: Christina Chiu’s novel Beauty
You’re also a shoe designer. Does that creative outlet inform how you think about your writing, or affect it in any way?
Yes, I am a shoe designer. I make one-of-a-kind shoes and boots. I have made boots for people, but right now I’m working on a collection of boots for and about women authors making a difference in the literary landscape. When I’m done, I will have a collection titled “Stand.” Every pair is turning out so unique and different from the others! In some ways, they are a reflection of the women wearing them.
I actually started shoemaking as a way to research my novel, Beauty. I had written some of the chapters already, but felt it was important to learn the process and understand the craft. There are scenes in the book that I would not have been able to write if I hadn’t learned how to shoemake. In fact, there’s a shoemaking scene in the book!
Shoemaking has become an addiction. It’s a beautiful part of my life. Learning the process has made me appreciate fashion — couture, in particular — as an art form; it isn’t just something one wears, it is visual art for the body. Writing is cerebral. It can also be isolating. Shoemaking is something one can do with one’s hands. I’m in a lab at the Jewish Community Center with a group of likeminded creatives. It’s a good balance for me.
Critics have said you capture the Chinese-American Generation X experience. I’m on the tail end of Gen X as a 37 year old white woman who grew up in the suburbs. Clearly you’re just one person and I wouldn’t expect you to speak for all of the Chinese-American experience, but do you think that your own experience of life at that time was different from that of the stereotypical American Gen X experience?
In some ways yes, and in others, no. (How lovely that critics said that. I take that as a compliment.) I’m a generation X-er who grew up as a latch-key kid, watched MTV 24/7, went to concerts, and “slacked” when it came to academics. In my home this meant I didn’t get straight A’s and a perfect SAT. My parents actually considered me to be kind of stupid because I got B’s. I drank and partied, waitressed 3 or 4 nights a week, and wanted to go into fashion or be a writer. I didn’t fit the Asian nerd stereotype at all. At one point, I had a boyfriend, but he was very controlling, so I broke it off with him. I think that was really hard for my ex to take and even harder for his friends to take. They must have thought I would be the submissive Asian women they had in their minds. One morning I walked out to my car to find the windshield broken and the paint keyed. That level of hatred was terrifying. It didn’t make me want to get back together with him, that’s for sure! So, I’m not sure if I had a typical experience, though the #metoo movement made it pretty clear that many women have faced hostility in some shape or form.
Other reviewers have commented on the changing meaning of beauty within your latest book. How do you think your main character’s understanding of the concept changes?
Beauty is about a woman who goes into the fashion industry, but the narrative arc encompasses her life from the time she’s 16 until she’s in her 70s. By doing this, there’s an evolution of what Beauty, family, and power mean to her. Beauty goes from being a concept that comes from outside herself — something that is actually industry driven — to an understanding of it as something internal and emotional.
Was your book inspired or influenced by any other novels about women navigating career and family? What would you say about the concept of ‘leaning in?’
Beauty definitely speaks to the concept of “leaning in.” It’s true that there’s a glass ceiling. There’s also a bamboo ceiling. But as the protagonist learns, a seat at the table won’t just appear and be handed to you. Part of the responsibility for success rests with the individual, and you can never give up if it’s something you truly want. No one is going to make space unless you claim it. Many women or POC don’t think to do so because we have grown up thinking “I’m just — ” It’s ingrained. The protagonist has beliefs about herself she never realized she had. Sandberg makes the points that you need to put yourself at that table where things happen — you have to at least try — and more importantly, you have to acknowledge your successes not as “luck” or “hard work.” It’s you and your ability. You have to own the success. Claim it.
I actually found The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. and Trapped in the Mirror by Elan Golomb, Ph.D. integral to the writing of Beauty. The first gave me a deep understanding about trauma and its repercussions, which to my mind, gets handed from one generation to the next behaviorally but also energetically and karmically. The second helped me to understand what narcissism is and the internal struggle narcissism creates for children of narcissists.
In general, I find work by authors Helen Schulman, Marie Lee, Elissa Schappell, Helen Benedict, Gish Jen, and Toni Morrison (there are many others) very inspiring. For me, if I’m going to take time to read a book, it needs to be more than a love story or thriller. I need to come away feeling like what I read “matters” on a deeper, more resonant level, whatever that might be. While their work doesn’t always speak to motherhood and career, they are all parents, and it helps to know success and balance are possible.
It’s interesting and refreshing for me to see a novel where a female lead battles sexism and gender expectations yet not all males are antagonists. And to see the concept of friendship after divorce. Did you decide to create some ‘okay men’ intentionally, or was that just how the story turned out?
Well, in real life not all men are antagonists, and even the ones who are often have potential to change. That said, I acknowledge not every one can or will. We’re complicated beings. There’s good and bad and an entire spectrum between. What is important to me is developing characters that were multidimensional and human. They’re flawed but beautiful, too.
The characters and the relationships that developed in Beauty evolved on their own. The protagonist has a deep karmic connection with her first husband. Their relationship developed organically as the story progressed. I let the narrative go where it needed to. The end was the cumulative effect of everything that came before it.
How was it different to write a novel versus short stories? Do you prefer either medium, or find one or the other easier?
Originally, I wrote Beauty in a more conventional way in terms of structure. But there was no energy in it. The story was on the page, but there was no magic. Once I realized how Beauty needed to be structured, I re-wrote the whole manuscript. I created chapters that focused on different moments in the protagonist’s life. Most of the chapters have the structure of the short story — beginning, middle, end. So, I suppose I prefer the short story, which is making me laugh because I’m working on another novel (!) and a memoir right now.
Could you tell us more about Pen Parentis and your work to build up the literary community?
I curate and co-host the Pen Parentis Literary Salon. It’s an amazing organization that supports authors who are parents to keep them on creative track. The Founder, M.M. DeVoe and I know each other from Columbia U where we got our Masters in Creative Writing. I was out of the loop for years, but when I moved back to the city, Milda met me for lunch and asked if I’d like to join the team. It has been such a pleasure to see the organization blossom as it has in the past five years. Besides the salon, we have a fellowship, and something new and amazing — writer meetups. These weekly accountability groups have been hugely popular. We are finding that authors have been successfully writing and sending things out. At the moment, Pen Parentis is doing meet-ups via Zoom.
Christina Chiu’s novel Beauty can be ordered here. Please consider supporting indie bookstores during the time of shelter-in-place! Many were already on the edge financially and losing the foot traffic has been rough.