Recently, InTheFray Literary Editor Laura Madeline Wiseman spoke with Irene Kai about her recently published memoir, The Golden Mountain. Their conversation — and Kai’s thoughts on the American Dream — follow:

The interviewer: Laura Madeline Wiseman, InTheFray Literary Editor

The interviewee: Irene Kai, author of The Golden Mountain

In The Golden Mountain while visiting your old school in Hong Kong as an adult it seemed like you came to a moment where you decided you were done with being a seven-year-old girl and were ready to be an adult woman. After coming to the realization that you were no longer going to let certain people treat you as a child, what motivated you to begin the journey of writing your memoir?

When I was living in Los Angeles, at the pinnacle of success, I realized that I have achieved the American Dream as I understood it. I was [on] the brink of exhaustion, emotionally and physically. I started to question what my life [was] about, [since I had] spent most of my life [trying] to get to where my family and society claimed would provide respect [from family and the United States] and found out things had never changed. I was still the person who lived under everyone’s thumb. So I went on the journey of deep remembrance, to understand where I came from and where I wanted to go from there with clarity and understanding.

And that motivated you to begin the memoir?

Yes, it took three years, seven hours a day between crying and writing. An extremely healing process.

In The Golden Mountain the sections on your great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother flow smoothly. How were you able to create the cohesiveness apparent in the text? Did you speak to living family members to fill in the gaps during those three years of writing or is The Golden Mountain simply a compilation of all the stories you were told?

I lived with all of these women. Since my great grandmother and I were the outcasts, we spent a lot of time together and she told me many stories. I have been practicing meditation for many years. When I started to write, I would go into deep meditation and the memories came back like a movie and I just recorded them.

You only write in the first person in one section, the section on you. Yet the sections on your great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother are written in third person. Why did you choose to organize the book this way? And did you experiment with other ways to tell this story?

To tell you the truth, I was trained as a visual artist. I came to the [United States] when I was 15, so I missed out on all the lessons on grammar and learning how to speak. I have no training as a writer. Believe it or not, it just fell into place as I wrote. It is pure GRACE.

In the book, there’s a clear sense that women in your family always knew their place and acted in such a way to encourage others to follow that same axiom. What seemed to be the turning point for you to break from that cultural tradition?

For thousands of years, women in China [have] only [been able to] survive through marriage. They are owned by the husband’s family … where would they go if they got kicked out of the family? [I had timing] on my side and location, the United States. I survived by getting a job, building a career, which … in China … was impossible.

Do you think that is still true for women in China today, particularly under the current regime?

China is changing rapidly. For the first time in the history of China, women now have jobs, they don’t have to be married to survive. But the old tradition is hard to [get rid of]. Amazingly only a few months ago, I read in a Chinese newspaper that the government just changed the law claiming that employees no long require their employers’ permission to get married. I couldn’t believe it. They also still have to get the government’s permission to travel and to relocate. The first sentence of my book says it all, “I am sorry, it’s another girl.” In the 1970s China imposed the one child policy. Routinely, family disposed of daughters because it was against the law to have more than one child. Traditionally, the Chinese needed to keep boys to help out the family and when the parents got old, the son and daughter-in-law [would] take care of them. If they only have a daughter, who is going to take care of them when they get old? The daughter belongs to her husband’s family and it is her obligation to take care of her in-laws.

In The Golden Mountain you do a very good job of conveying that telling family secrets is a Chinese taboo, particularly in your family. How has your family reacted to The Golden Mountain?

My sisters didn’t take it too well. Teresa still doesn’t talk to me. I asked their permission before I wrote, but after they read the book, they were disgusted. No one talks about the book. They just pretend it didn’t happen. My children have gone through a lot.
They were caught between their loyalty to me and to their aunts and cousins. Teresa’s daughter wrote me a nasty email and sent it to all the members of my family including my children. She asked if I [know] what love means. Family is all we have, it doesn’t matter who hits who when we should just love each other. Meanwhile, her father is an alcoholic and so is her husband. The chain of abuse just goes on and on. My children stayed out of everyone’s way and kept quiet but I know they are proud of me. Bob, their father really surprised me. After he read the book, he called and said, I was a schmuck.” I nearly fainted.

Are you planning on writing another book and if so, what will be the topic?

I have another book coming [out] in 2006. It is a book of photography. The title is: What Do You See? They are photographs of my hands but [they] look like genitals. It is a challenge for readers to face their assumptions and ask deeper questions about their judgments.

To read Laura Madeline Wiseman’s review of The Golden Mountain, click here.“

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