(Episode 7: Soaring Lows is available now on ibooks, kobo and kindle!)
The first characters I “had” for Redwoods were Helen and Joe. Helen took me a while to get to know. She was tricky to write: smart, modern, scarred by her upbringing… someone wanting to believe in prohibition and seeing the evidence of the law’s failure in her own home…she’s complicated.
Joe was easier to write than I would have gathered since I have not previously written from a male point of view. I’ve tried it a few times and get bored (hahaha…)
Anyway, Shaw and Mei Xing (pronounced My-Shing) came very quickly. There was no way to portray the area and the era without immigrants. The atrocious laws, cultural prejudice, and dependence on immigrants to make California what it is today is a book in and of itself. And there are a few.
But for Redwoods, Shaw and Mei Xing are part of the story. Not the story. I grew up in a diverse family and schools and neighborhoods. Race, religion, culture, language were things we accepted, enjoyed, and laughed about. There’s a story about me trying to wash my baby sister’s brown skin. And another of when a Korean friend came over delighted to find “white people eat rice.” But these are not THE story of race in my life, just a part of it.
So I wanted and Shaw and Mei Xing’s experiences to be part of the story without dominating.
I thought the idea that Shaw has more rights as a “fresh off the boat” Scot versus Mei Xing who was born in California was astounding to consider. Of the two, I found Shaw harder to write. I often wrote his dialogue and then went back to add expressions or change word order to try for his syntax.
Being a white girl myself, it would probably seem Mei Xing should have given me the harder time but there was so much about her family situation and desire to go against the grain in virtually every area of her life that I could identify with easily. Originally, I had her using more Chinese expressions, but edited them out for two reasons: I wanted Mei Xing to come across more American than Chinese; Chinese characters are very difficult to punctuate in the programs I use to write and publish and I didn’t want to have poor Chinese grammar in my work.
But what about just writing a different race? I mean, what do I know about being Chinese?
Not a thing.
I mean, I know some things that are culturally accurate about eye contact and demeanor and first generation kids and their parents and the syntax wasn’t too hard… But really know? Not a thing.
But I do know what it feels like to have a right to belong and be excluded anyway. I know what it feels like to be in charge and have no one have faith in your ability based on nothing whatsoever. I know what it’s like to be trapped and need escape. I know what it’s like to be in love and yet that love feels impossible because of differences inside and outside the relationship.
And, like Shaw, I have been in a job that others loved and I felt like my skin was crawling with the itch to leave. And like him, I’ve had big plans for a future that didn’t work out like I thought they would.
So, I may only a bit of Scot and not a bit Chinese, but for these characters I didn’t need to in order to understand their lives. I just needed to be human.