After agreeing to this interview, Hua Hsu sent me a link. The link led to an archive of his freelance writing: articles in The New Yorker, Grantland, New York, The Village Voice, and The Wire. Articles on books, music, and sports. The internet, television, and art. Around 200 articles, total. The archive is called: “a partial accounting.”
In the months Hsu and I went back and forth over email — a period covering the birth of his first son — the articles kept appearing. Having drafted a question on, say, Kendrick Lamar, I would go to send it and find that, since I last checked The New Yorker, Hsu had written something new. On Umberto Eco. In every piece — no matter the subject — Hsu’s writing stands out for its simultaneous ease and control: ideas unfold fluidly, naturally, in sentences sharpened and honed to a point.
Hua Hsu is an associate professor of English at Vassar College, a contributor to The New Yorker, and an executive board member of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. He is currently a Fellow at the New America Foundation.
We discussed The Good Earth, krautrock, the role of the “beef” in artistic creation, and Hsu’s first book, A Floating Chinaman, which will be published by Harvard University Press in summer 2016. He is currently at work on a second book — about ’90s multiculturalism — and a project about immigrants and their things that grew out of talk he gave at the Museum of Chinese in America.
Ben Sandman: I’m struck by the range of your work — you write about books, music, art, politics, and sports (among other things). Jay Z, Jeremy Lin, Larry Wilmore, Umberto Eco, Radiohead. Is this breadth something you think about? Or is it just the result of following your interests?
Hua Hsu: I think this is a product of good fortune more than anything. I’m sure most writers are into way more things than one would think just based on their clips. I’ve either been in graduate school or teaching for the past fifteen years. I’ve never been a full-time freelancer, so, all things considered, I’ve had the privilege of being a little choosier when it comes to writing assignments. Plus I’ve been lucky enough to work with some fantastic editors — Ed Park [The Believer, The Village Voice], David Wallace-Wells [New York], Sean Fennessey [Grantland] and my current editors at the New Yorker — were all really formative influences who’ve allowed me to pursue a range of random curiosities.
I started writing for magazines and alt weeklies around the time when I entered a PhD program. At the time, we weren’t really encouraged to seek out public venues for our scholarship, which was fine by me. I saw academic work as a mandate to pursue stuff in a mellow, deliberate way, chasing down suspicions and mysteries, pretty romantic “life of the mind” stuff. Journalism thrilled me because it was more of a compressed, deadline-oriented, speed-rush kind of thing. So I never felt any temptation to align these two worlds. I’m finishing up my first book and it’s not really something I would have been able to publish in a magazine.
All I know about your upcoming book is its title: A Floating Chinaman. What’s the book about? And even if it’s not the sort of thing that would appear in a magazine, do you think the book has been influenced by your freelance writing?
I’m not sure how my interest in journalism shaped this story, beyond a vague desire to tell it all as a story. And to make it funny! Finding an entertaining through line was very important to me.
Broadly speaking, my book is about how American writers imagined China in the 1930s and 1940s. There was a pretty faddish interest in China during this time, thanks in large part to Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, a best seller which singlehandedly created a market for books about this far-away land and its hard-working people. There was a lot of excitement around China’s role in America’s future, an attitude summed up by the business journalist Carl Crow’s enduring description of China as a land of ‘Four Hundred Million Customers.’ So I look at the history and debates that occurred within this loose community of China watchers: novelists like Buck, Lin Yutang and Alice Tisdale Hobart; the journalist and advertising pioneer Crow; the philosopher John Dewey; the publishers Henry Luce and Richard Walsh.
I was always struck by Buck’s outsized influence on American attitudes toward China. Studies have shown that for a couple decades, whatever impression the average American held toward China had come from The Good Earth. So I started to wonder: if these were the popular figures shaping the conversation, who were the unpopular ones? What perspectives didn’t fit within the post-Good Earth market? Or, to be less scholarly about it: who were Buck’s haters? That’s where people critical of Buck like H.T. Tsiang, the 1930s writer from whom I’ve borrowed my book’s title, come in. So the book has this shadow narrative, where I consider the skepticism of American expats, Chinese students and academics in American college towns and writers like the politically radical Tsiang, who hated Buck so much he would weave harsh references to her personal life into his self-published novels. After nearly getting deported, he would end up in Hollywood where he traded leftist politics for minor fame as an actor, first as proprietor of a wild and fleshy one-man play and later as a go-to Asian extra for TV and the movies (he was in the original Ocean’s 11). It was also in Hollywood that he eventually found a readership, in the form of FBI agents, INS officials and confidential informants, who tracked down, read and analyzed all his published works while keeping him under surveillance..
I could talk about Tsiang and his eccentricities forever. Ultimately Tsiang’s animosities toward Buck and the establishment weren’t that unusual. I realized that there was a lot of in-fighting within that mainstream group of China-watchers as well. Buck wrote an entire novel making fun of the publisher Henry Luce. (In the novel, he has erectile dysfunction.) And so my book, on the one hand, considers these fairly elite, mainstream conversations about China and America’s shared future. But it’s also about the construction of authority, the spirit of competition that underlies all intellectual endeavor, writers writing about other writers.
Sorry for the long-winded reply. I’ve never actually tried to explain the ins and outs of the book to anyone beyond my publisher and my wife!
I read The Good Earth in tenth grade English — and I think I sided with the haters. Do you remember your first encounter with The Good Earth? And, among the alternatives to Buck, are there books that stick out? Books that you wish tenth grade English teachers would assign?
I actually write about this in the book. I was in ninth grade. At the time, our school had just instituted a required course on “Global Issues,” a kind of grab-bag of multicultural stuff. Nobody was actually qualified to teach such a course, so the task fell to a Home Ec teacher. One day, she told the class to pair up, boy-girl, and walk to the bleachers and back, only the boy was to walk ten feet in front of the girl. When we returned to our seats, she simply said, “That’s what it’s like in China” and began handing out paperbacks of The Good Earth.
I’m not sure any of the alternatives would have been better for a kid in high school. My book’s pulse, H.T. Tsiang, wrote some pretty odd stuff. Thinking back, though, it would have been cool if our teachers had demystified “art” to us, or at least had us think a bit more critically about the conditions that produce art. That’s one of the aspects I really enjoyed about researching my book — tracing the degree to which creativity or innovation can proceed from interpersonal beef or envy rather than a spark of genius.
Envy, beefs, competition — it makes me think of music: Rubber Soul inspiring Pet Sounds, hip-hop rivalries, pop stars lashing out at other pop stars on Twitter. Do you think this kind of thing plays more of a role in music than literature, or is it just a matter of perception? You’ve written that beefs bring out the best in rappers. Did this idea influence how you thought about the literary beefs in your book?
Definitely. As with all books, there’s a lot of autobiographical stuff in there that might not register as such to the reader — questions that interest me, quirks that appeal to my sense of humor, situations that remind me of something in my own life, stuff like that. When I started working on the book, its primary focus was Pearl Buck. But, as someone who grew up entranced by pop stars and all the internal hierarchies that organized those worlds, I began idly wondering what it would be like if I started thinking about Buck that way, as the chart-topping star whose success inspired both mimics and rivals. As I was starting my research, there were all these beefs within hip-hop — Jay Z vs. Nas, 50 Cent vs. Ja Rule, these flare-ups where artists seemed interested in advancing by going after the “king,” loosely defined. And so I began looking for those kinds of tensions and conflicts within this world of China observers. And eventually I found a lot of these intriguing little rivalries between Buck, Henry Luce, lesser known Chinese writers.
How would you describe your writing process? Was it different for the book than for your shorter projects?
It depends on the piece. The only constant is that I’m usually writing and rewriting up until the last minute. (I’m not sure if I actually write better at 4 am or if I’ve just managed to rationalize a nocturnal lifestyle as “my process.”) I’ve tried to alter my approach over the years but the only seemingly useful advice I’ve ever gotten about becoming a highly efficient, daytime writer is to have a child.
I’m thinking about writing constantly — testing out sentences, structure, transitions while I’m driving or doing the dishes. Sometimes I’ll just start building pieces out from the middle, just to see some progress on the page, but it can get a little nervy when there are too many stray paragraphs without a clear sense of how I’m going to glue them together. There’s a visual dimension to assembling everything once it’s almost done. I’m not sure how to explain it, other than I want to make sure there are enough entry points for a reader’s eye. Usually, though, I feel better when I can start a piece from the first line. Or maybe the last one, assuming I have a vague sense of how to get there. If I can think of the beginning or the end, I usually feel like I’m almost done. Which is probably why I end up awake at 4 am; having wasted the day basking in the joy of one good sentence, I neglect the other 1350 words until it’s too late.
The book was different, mostly because I didn’t have any firm deadline. But I thought about the structure in similar terms. It was really important to maintain a sense of flow or to frame each chapter with a story. I also wanted to create opportunities for resonance or moments of irony throughout the book — a question or theme that a figure raises in the first chapter gets complicated (or mocked) by someone else a few chapters later, someone who dominates the literary market early on eventually gets knocked off their pedestal, stuff like that.
In the past few months, you’ve written about HEALTH, Rachel Grimes (of Rachel’s), and Jamie xx. What else have you been listening to?
I have this intense attachment to the new albums that happened to be on my iPhone when my wife suddenly went into labor. For five days we listened to nothing but Julia Holter, U.S. Girls, Real Lies and Angel Deradoorian. I really like this kid bbrainz I came across on Bandcamp — he basically makes slowed-down ’90s club music. The new Scarface album.
I’ve been reading David Stubbs’ history of Krautrock and German experimental music, so I’ve been listening to a lot of Can, Cluster and Harmonia. The other night I was watching ‘Rare Groove Revolution,’ this public access TV show where guys sit around and listen to old hip-hop breakbeats, and it got me back into Stark Reality, a short-lived Boston jazz band known for a psychedelic children’s record they cut with Hoagy Carmichael.
What advice would you have for aspiring writers and journalists?
It’s a strange time right now. On the one hand, there are so many amazing outlets publishing great, ambitious writing. On the other hand, it’s nearly impossible nowadays to cover rent via freelancing. I guess, on a general level, one bit of professional advice I try and give my students is to think about what you hope to accomplish. A book? Essays about a specific topic or theme? The more general “life of a writer”? Because you might take a different path depending on what you ultimately want. (The other piece of advice would be to file your copy on time.)
At the risk of sounding 90 years old, I think it’s also important for aspiring writers or journalists to step away from the Internet every now and then. The rhythms of the web are infectious but a bit maddening, especially if you write/think about contemporary culture or politics. It’s easy to get caught up in that feeling of having to stake out a claim or be early on the scene, and sometimes that inspires fantastic work. But it’s also useful to recalibrate or find perspective elsewhere, off the screen.
Ben Sandman, of Delhi, NY, graduated from Vassar College, where he studied English and German. His stories have appeared in Stirring, The Susquehanna Review, and The Allegheny Review, which awarded him its 2014 prize for prose, and in Stone Canoe, which awarded him its emerging writer prize in 2015. He lives in Brooklyn.