01 Mar / Author Interview: Ruthanne Lum McCunn [in Bookslut]
Through the decades, Ruthanne Lum McCunn has built a lauded career giving voice to spirited, groundbreaking heroes of Asian descent. Growing up in a large, extended family in Hong Kong, McCunn, who is half Chinese and half Scottish American, was surrounded by strong, independent women to inspire her. Her titles include Sole Survivor (1985), about a Chinese sailor who miraculously survived 133 days adrift in the Atlantic Ocean after his ship was sunk during World War II; Wooden Fish Songs (1995), in which three very different women present the life of a Chinese American immigrant to whom they are somehow related; The Moon Pearl (2000), about a group of brave young women in 1830s China who refused to accept arranged marriages and vowed to live independent lives as spinsters; and her latest God of Luck (2007), which tells the story of one Chinese man among thousands who were kidnapped and sold into slavery in the mid-19th century to work in the deadly guano mines in faraway Peru.
More than merely appreciating McCunn’s many titles, I also owe her an unrepayable debt of literary gratitude. Decades ago, her children’s classic, Pie-Biter, was the book that sparked my initial interest in Asian American literature. I can’t emphasize enough just how important finding Pie-Biter was to my literary development. As the first bona fide children’s picture book by an Asian American author that celebrates the Asian American experience, Pie-Biter is based on a real-life Chinese immigrant boy who arrives in the American West in the late 1800s to work on the transcontinental railroads and, as tall tales go, gets his strength from eating pies.
Even though I’m not Chinese American (although the Hong side of my family originated in China 46 generations ago), and even though I don’t have direct ancestors who built the transcontinental railroad, Pie-Biter offers a collective historical past with which I can identify as an Asian American today. Stories like Pie-Biter allowed me to voice my discomfort about growing up without books that spoke to my own experience. Contrast McCunn’s book – her very many books, actually! – to something like the still-popular The Five Chinese Brothers which is all about the exotic and foreign. Instead, Pie-Biter is a piece of genuine history with none of the cloying made-up exoticism seen through someone else’s eyes.
Of all of McCunn’s many books, her debut novel Thousand Pieces of Gold (1981) remains her signature work. Based on the life of a 19th-century Chinese American pioneer woman, Thousand Pieces of Gold is almost three decades old, has had countless printings, has never been out of print, is available in eight languages, is ubiquitous on high school and college reading lists, and has even been made into a PBS film of the same name.
So when a galley arrived late last year which seemed to be about Polly Bemis, said Chinese American pioneer woman, I immediately thought of McCunn’s now-classic. I ended up reviewing Christopher Corbett’s The Poker Bride: The First Chinese in the Wild West for a major newspaper, and will admit reading it to be a frustrating experience. And so I contacted McCunn, and we started chatting about history, authenticity, writing, and so much more…
You’re hapa, Scottish on one side, Chinese on the other; why the focus only on your Chinese side in your writing?
I grew up in Hong Kong in my mother’s Chinese family and didn’t come to America until I started college. Even now, after decades in the U.S.A., I feel like an immigrant. Maybe I always will. As a little blond girl growing up in Hong Kong, though, I was very much an outsider, including within my family. Not just because of color, but interests – my love of books, to name just one. Similarly, the people I’ve written about – whether Chinese, White, Black, or Latino – have been outsiders because of characteristics beyond color and ethnicity. Just as the people I’m closest to in my life are outsiders. … [click here for more]
Tidbits: Ruthanne Lum McCunn was a delightful guest, together with Jeannie Pfaelzer and Jack Tchen, for the Smithsonian APA Program’s literary event, “The Chinese American Experience – and Those Who Survived and Thrived to Tell the Tales,” on October 12, 2007.