The PEN Ten: An Interview with Jessamine Chan
1. How does your writing navigate truth? What is the relationship between truth and fiction?
My writing contains a great deal of emotional truth, though I’m much more interested in making things up, and getting to emotional insight that way, than sticking with what happened in real life. In The School for Good Mothers, there are kernels of truth in most elements of the book, and the inciting incident was loosely inspired by a real-life story. Government-mandated parenting classes and cases that end in termination of parental rights do exist, but my version is more extreme (and concise) for the purposes of the story I wanted to tell. I think most fiction is rooted in truth of some kind but the way that lived experiences get reshaped by one’s imagination can be tough to pinpoint, at least for me.
2. What is a moment of frustration that you’ve encountered in the writing process and how did you overcome it?
I hope it’s OK to admit that the entire process is frustrating and requires daily, hourly pep-talks to self. One frustration that comes up all the time is simply concentrating. My concentration was no better than anyone else’s during the last few years. I overcame my immense distraction during lockdown by having really great books on hand to fill my mind with gorgeous prose (The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, Orange World and Other Stories by Karen Russell) and trying not to participate in social media too much.
“My writing contains a great deal of emotional truth, though I’m much more interested in making things up, and getting to emotional insight that way, than sticking with what happened in real life. In The School for Good Mothers, there are kernels of truth in most elements of the book, and the inciting incident was loosely inspired by a real-life story. . . .I think most fiction is rooted in truth of some kind but the way that lived experiences get reshaped by one’s imagination can be tough to pinpoint, at least for me.”
3. How does your identity shape your writing?
My identity as a cisgender woman has always shaped my writing and the subjects I write about, as has my class background, but it’s taken some time to get comfortable writing about my Chinese American identity. Perhaps I just had to grow up a little more, perhaps it helps that there are now many more Asian American writers, compared to when I started writing in the late 1990s. I now feel free to center my story on an Asian American experience and to write whatever I want. I no longer feel like I have to write for white readers or accommodate the white gaze, but I felt that way when I was younger.
4. The School for Good Mothers takes readers into the life of Frida Liu, a struggling mother who inadvertently leaves her baby at home unattended for some hours, after having a “very bad day.” Due to this quick lapse in judgment and a dystopian system of state surveillance in place, Frida gets sent to a government reform program for “bad mothers,” and faces the possibility of losing custody of her daughter Harriet indefinitely. What inspired you to come up with the set-up for this story?
The book began on one really good writing day in February 2014 when I was trying out new short story ideas. I definitely didn’t sit down that day thinking “and now I’m going to start a novel.” Unlike any of my previous work, this project came to me fully formed, and that day’s scribbling created a foundation for the book I eventually wrote: Frida’s whole arc from start to finish, her story with Harriet, Gust and Susanna, the women in pink lab coats, the dolls, the school, and most importantly, the book’s voice. It’s been challenging to put my intentions into words, since I don’t think about theme or intention at all when I write. At that point in my life, I was wrestling with the decision of whether or not to have a baby. I’d also read an article in The New Yorker several months earlier (“Where is Your Mother?” by Rachel Aviv), about a single mom who leaves her toddler son at home and her nightmarish experience with the family court system. I didn’t have that article nearby and didn’t necessarily think about it more until that day, but something about that mother’s story had lodged in my memory. After I started reading more about these issues, I learned that her story is one of many. The injustice I felt on that mother’s behalf, as well as my own intense ruminating on motherhood, fueled the development of Frida’s story.
“Frida is an outsider in most ways. Her yearning to belong, and to feel comfortable in her own skin, to be loved, is quite universal. More than anything, I wanted to write the Chinese American heroine I’ve always wanted to read: messy, thorny, flawed, desirous, vulnerable, yet loving.”
5. As a character, Frida exists at multiple crossroads that render her a sort of invisibility. As an East Asian mother, she is not as favored by the state as white mothers, but knows she is not seen with as much disdain as Black and brown mothers. She has a good job at an Ivy League University—and her life is so much cushier than that of her ancestors who endured the Cultural Revolution in China—but she is still struggling so much as a single mother. She is lonely and is not proficient enough in Mandarin to speak to some of her family members. Feelings of guilt and shame overwhelm her daily. In writing Frida’s character, what are some things you were hoping readers would take away about the experiences of second-generation Asian Americans?
I’m not sure I want readers to take away anything about the Asian American experience generally, since the range of experiences is too broad for any one novel to represent, but I’d love for readers to have experienced this one Asian American perspective. Diving into Frida’s family background and conflicting cultural identities was a way for me to process personal experiences, such as growing up in a majority white community, feeling guilt for my class privilege, feeling shame about not being a good Chinese daughter. Frida is an outsider in most ways. Her yearning to belong, and to feel comfortable in her own skin, to be loved, is quite universal. More than anything, I wanted to write the Chinese American heroine I’ve always wanted to read: messy, thorny, flawed, desirous, vulnerable, yet loving.
6. In the government reform program that Frida enrolls in, the mothers must recite a refrain over and over again: “I am a bad mother, but I am learning to be good.” In the world of The School for Good Mothers—one that is very much like ours—there’s little nuance between who can be considered “good” versus “bad,” from the panoptic point of view of the state. Just like in our world, punishment is not equal and is factored along lines of race, gender, and class. What made you want to explore the notion of the subjectivity of morality when it comes to mothers and motherhood in particular?
I’ve always been interested in writing about moral grey areas. What struck me in The New Yorker article mentioned was the problematic idea that there’s supposed to be a set of universal standards for something as subjective as parenting and the fact that decisions of individual judges and social workers can determine a person and a family’s whole life. It doesn’t seem possible that those decisions can be truly objective, because completely unbiased people don’t exist. In terms of American parenting culture as a whole, moral judgments of whether a mother is good or bad are inherent in pretty much everything. For example, my husband and I used the “cry-it-out” method to sleep train our daughter when she was an infant, but you only have to google this term to see that it’s controversial and many parents think this type of sleep training is very cruel. Every decision you make as a parent (whether to give your baby formula, how soon to introduce solids, and so forth) is fraught and open to intense scrutiny, most of all from other parents.
7. It was recently announced that The School for Good Mothers will be adapted into a television series by Freckle Films. How are you preparing for that? What aspects of the story are you most excited to see in the television series?
I’m preparing by cheering on the creative team, on which I’m serving as an executive producer. My main role right now is watching, learning, and occasionally chiming in with suggestions. I’m most excited to see a one-hour drama that tells a story about American society through an Asian American perspective, with an Asian American lead. In 2022, that is still so rare. The team also has tons of exciting ideas about how to build out the world of the book.
8. What is something that you feel your readers would find surprising about you?
Given the technology in my book, I think readers would find it surprising that I’m quite tech-averse in real life. I spend too much time on my phone, but I’ve never used Siri, barely know how to record a voice memo, and participating in Instagram Live sends me into a panic. I am forever nervous about touching the wrong button! Just yesterday, I did an IG Live where my kind host explained that we were done and I could leave by hitting the X at the top-right corner of my screen.
“In terms of American parenting culture as a whole, moral judgments of whether a mother is good or bad are inherent in pretty much everything. . . .Every decision you make as a parent (whether to give your baby formula, how soon to introduce solids, and so forth) is fraught and open to intense scrutiny, most of all from other parents.”
9. What is the last book you read? What are you reading next?
I just finished Mercy Street by Jennifer Haigh (her seventh book!), which is urgent reading for anyone concerned about the erosion of reproductive rights in America (a category of readership which should really be everyone). Next, I’ll read Fiona and Jane by Jean Chen Ho and Joan is Okay by Weike Wang. Jean, Weike, and I are doing an event together for Asian American Writers’ Workshop in February and I’m so excited to read their books in preparation.
10. Which writer, living or dead, would you most like to meet? What would you like to discuss?
I actually had a chance to meet my idol Anne Carson a few years ago after an event in Philly, but during the few minutes when I asked her to sign my book, I babbled at her incoherently about how I’ve been obsessed with her work for two decades, so if I ever get to meet her again, I’d like to be a slightly more lucid, articulate fangirl.
Jessamine Chan’s short stories have appeared in Tin House and Epoch. A former reviews editor at Publishers Weekly, she holds an MFA from Columbia University and a BA from Brown University. Her work has received support from the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Wurlitzer Foundation, Jentel, the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center, the Anderson Center, VCCA, and Ragdale. She lives in Chicago with her husband and daughter.