Can Two Chinese American Orphans Find Home in the Wild West?
C Pam Zhang, author of "How Much of These Hills Is Gold," on how immigrant stories have the right to stand as large as Greek myth
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
At the opening of C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills Is Gold, we meet Lucy and Sam, newly orphaned siblings who must find a way to survive after their father’s death.
On a stolen horse, and with Ba’s body secured in a chest, the two leave their small mining town for the open, wild, and often brutal landscape of the American West. They’re looking for a proper place to bury Ba. They’re looking for a new place to call home.
What follows is an incredibly moving immigrant epic. At its center is a Chinese American family whose desires, pains, dreams, and joys are so alive on the page that I’ve thought about them again and again after reading (and rereading) this gorgeous book.
C Pam Zhang and I had the chance to speak over the phone about the novel’s family and much more, from the Western landscape to language’s role in the book to writing from a child’s perspective.
Alexandra Chang: The setting—the American West—and the time period—Gold Rush era—are so important to the novel. It’s imbued with such a mythic quality, and it’s romanticized in the American imagination as this place of possibility, where anyone could strike it rich. (Which in many ways still exists today.) What drew you to writing about the American West? Were there particular westerns that you were inspired by or riffing off of or writing against?
C Pam Zhang: I remember moving to this part of the world as a kid. There was something about the sky and the horizon that struck me. I also grew up loving books like East of Eden, Lonesome Dove, and Little House on the Prairie. One thing that all of these books do is cast a small group of people against the epic backdrop of this landscape. In doing so, they make these people seem grander and their aspirations loftier. That's always been one power of literature that I admire—it reminds us that our lives can be epic.
But then, of course, I had several moments in which I realized that these books that I loved were all about white people, suggesting that only white families could be epic, which is not true. Especially when I think of the struggles that so many immigrant families go through. The fact that they're crossing new land, trading one life for a completely different life, gaining new names, even. Those stories should have the right to stand as large as Greek myth.
AC: How would you describe the characters’ relationships to the land around them, especially Lucy, who we get most of the book through?
CPZ: Conflicted is probably the simplest answer that I can give. They feel very attached to the land because it is where some of them were born. They see it as their own in a way. But they are also being told at every turn that they don't belong there, that the land isn't theirs. And finally, there’s the uneasy legacy of knowing that the land was stolen from indigenous tribes. That's one of the great tensions at the heart of the book—how can you feel so deeply about a place and then be told at every turn that it is not yours to inhabit?
AC: Language also plays a critical role in this family, the family of the novel. They speak to one another in this mixture of English and Mandarin, and we see them depend on code-switching when dealing with people of the town and other people they encounter. Their access and facility with language, though, causes some big misunderstandings between them. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I was wondering if you could talk about how you see language affecting the way these characters perceive one another, as well as the decisions they make throughout the book.
CPZ: I speak very broken, elementary Mandarin. In Mandarin, I have a completely different personality to when I speak English. I have a different sense of humor. I have a different capacity for depth and nuance. And I actually don't feel like myself at all.
You say code-switching, but for the characters in this book, it runs even deeper than that, especially when a character like Ma has come to a language much later, at an inflection point when she's about to trade one life for another. I think when the family speaks this mixed Mandarin and English, it joins them because it sort of glues those parts of their lives together. But when Ma switches back to Mandarin, she is harkening back to this whole different life she has and this whole different set of secrets. She's accessing this different part of herself which is one reason that language creates this turning point in the book.
AC: The two siblings, Lucy and Sam, diverged in their willingness and ability to assimilate into the dominant culture around them. For example, with Lucy, we see from the beginning her wanting to fit in laughing when people are laughing, learning etiquette from her teacher, diminishing herself and those she senses she has the power to diminish. Sam, however, fights against society's norms and finds ways to exist outside of other people's expectations. Why was it important to depict these different modes of defense and survival, especially from the perspective of immigrants and outsiders?
CPZ: It was important to me to depict both because I think many immigrants play with different modes of existence on this spectrum. When I was younger, I was probably more in the Lucy vein, where I tried to diminish myself. I directed a mixture of envy and judgment towards people who operated in the more Sam-like, open vein. It can seem obvious from the outside that, Sure, of course, you should stand up for yourself and be exactly who you are and fight against these like tiny boxes that society tries to cram you into. But there's also an inherent danger in it.
You can see in the novel that Sam has lived this much more dangerous lifestyle, and part of the great tragedy of Sam’s life is that Sam has given up so much in order to live more honestly. There is no right way to live. Unfortunately, both ways are always going to be fraught.
AC: I know you started this novel as a short story, and now that story is the opening. I was wondering if you always knew that you were going to expand that story into a novel? Did you have a sense of the novel’s arc after writing the story?
CPZ: No, not at all. I really did not want this to become a novel. And honestly, what person wants to be writing a novel? They are very arduous and soul-crushing projects that take over your life. So when I finished the short story, I thought it was done. For many months afterwards, I tried to do other things, but the characters and their lives would keep popping into my head. When I took a shower, I would have an idea about them, or I’d have a question about what happened next. And I fought this for many months so that the entire arc of the book had crystallized in my head and the characters had taken on a more fully fleshed form by the time I finally gave in and sat down to write the novel draft.
I keep reminding myself of this now, as I'm working on my next book, that the time spent not writing is just as important as the time spent writing.
AC: Structurally, with this novel, we begin at the middle. Did you ever consider another opening? How did you land on the structure of the book?
CPZ: I did not consider another opening. For me, the book always did have to start with this huge emotional question. It starts off as a very traditional quest novel. A terrible event happens and it sets these two characters literally running off to fulfill this quest.
When I thought about the rest of the structure of the novel, I was pretty inspired by Michael Ondaatje’s novel Divisadero, which in many ways is nothing like this book at all. But what I really admire about that book is it completely puts aside the need for a linear chronological plot, and doesn't even follow characters in any sort of patterned way. There are characters who you meet in the first pages of Divisadero who are not mentioned at all in the last hundred pages, for example. The extreme structure of that novel is an emotional arc rather than a plot arc. Every subsequent section reaches deeper emotionally.
One thing I was trying to depict structurally is that the children of immigrants often proceed with their lives completely unaware of these vast foundations that their parents have lived through. It was this tension where I couldn't have Lucy or Sam notice, because that wouldn't be realistic or true to them, but I needed some way to go deeper. That was something that the novel on the structural level could provide.
AC: Yeah, and I totally love that section where we go into the voice of the father who seems to speak from the dead. It’s this critical moment where the reader gets access to the story beyond Lucy or Sam's perspective. You speak to its purpose in the novel, but how did that section come to be?
CPZ: The father's death really haunts the entire book, and Lucy and Sam, from the beginning of this quest narrative. After the first section, they have to push that death aside and get back to the question of survival. But that doesn't actually mean that they're done with it. I wanted a way to spend time on and honor that loss.
From a craft perspective, by that point in the book, I was starting to feel constrained by the close perspective on Lucy. I needed a way for the book to open out. I've also been thinking a lot about the presence of joy in writing. I just heard Garth Greenwell speak a little bit about that. I do think that I have this tendency to write about topics that are very “serious” or “heavy,”—which is not to say that those aren't important to write about—but in most people's lives, there is a whole spectrum of emotion and it felt like Ba’s story was a way to access additional joy and beauty, to give texture to the novel.
AC: There’s a lot of storytelling in this book. I wanted to bring up one instance where Lucy shares one of her father’s stories with her white teacher, who then shows her the “truth” in a history book. In showing her, the teacher takes the life out of Ba’s story and calls it “pure sentiment and just a pretty little folk tale.” Speaking, a bit more on the joy of fiction—do you see fiction as a way also give back life to some of these stories?
CPZ: Yeah, I think there is a lot of joy in that. And specifically in that encounter with the teacher, they're talking about written, recorded history. History is white. It is largely by and about white men. But beneath that official history is this other history of people deemed unimportant at the time, whether that's women or people of color or queer folk or domestic help and so on. I think that it is the job of historians, of course, to try to unearth more of those histories that have been lost to time, but some of them are just lost forever. I do think it is the simultaneous job of artists and writers to, through an act of empathy and craft, imagine those stories and to imagine that joy into being. Sometimes fiction can tell an emotional truth that strikes harder than fact.
AC: Was there anything that you found especially challenging in the writing of this book?
CPZ: Oh, definitely. I alluded it a little bit earlier when you asked that question about structure. The hard part about writing any novel is that each novel is flawed and comes with its own set of constraints, which are also its strengths. In the case of this novel, it's told for the most part in this very close third person, in the present tense, of this young and traumatized child. I had to inhabit the mind space of this child who feels everything incredibly deeply, much more deeply than I or most adults, who have learned to compartmentalize or quiet our emotions in some way. After every single draft of this book, I would find myself crying, not necessarily because of the book, but just because I had been flayed open by inhabiting the child.