“I also wanted to write the Chinese American heroine that I’ve always wanted to see on the page: someone who is really flawed and vulnerable and desirous and selfish and full of contradictions. And I wanted to have a character of color, specifically an Asian American woman, who gets to be a mess.” Author Jessamine Chan discusses The School for Good Mothers with Alka Joshi on NPT’s A Word on Words.
Jessamine Chan: Hi, I’m Jessamine Chan and this is A School For Good Mothers. My debut novel is about a Chinese American single mom who loses custody of her toddler daughter after having one very bad day.
Alka Joshi: Thanks so much, Jessamine. What exactly does Frida do on this bad day?
Chan: I think I left it a little bit open for interpretation in the book. She leaves her daughter home alone for several hours and the neighbors call the police. So I wrote it as her being overwhelmed, exhausted, sleep deprived, thinking that she was going to leave the house for 10 minutes and losing track of time.
Joshi: So what’s the price that Frida pays for her momentary lack of attention to her daughter?
Chan: She gets sent to an imaginary government-run reform school. So in the world of the book, the transgressions of parents are punished by being reeducated by the government. So it’s taking an idea that actually exists in the real world, which is parenting classes and monitoring and having court ordered intervention and taking that to a wild extreme.
Joshi: What inspired you to create this dystopian world?
Chan: There were a couple of different threads of inspiration. One is that I was in my mid-thirties and trying to decide with my partner, whether or not we were going to have a baby. So the joke I like to tell, and my daughter will forgive me for this one day, is that I was so nervous about becoming a mom that I ended up starting a dystopian novel about motherhood. Not everyone responds to anxiety in that way, but that is where things went in my brain.
And one of the other threads of inspiration was that around the time that I was ruminating on the question of motherhood and generally freaking out about it, I happened to read an article in The New Yorker by Rachel Aviv called, Where is Your Mother? And that nonfiction piece was about a single mom who lost custody after leaving her son home alone, and then she never got him back after that one day. And something about that article just lodged in my brain. I was enraged on the mother’s behalf and I definitely didn’t have the article next to me when I ended up starting this project, but something just lingered in my memory. And I remember that the way that Child Protective Services and family court and the social worker spoke to that mother reminded me of science fiction in a way, because it felt so clinical, even though what they were describing were things like love and affection and attention that are impossible to quantify.
So I don’t know that I was completely conscious of this while writing, but now that the book is done, I can tell you, I was trying to play with the idea that it is possible to measure love and that it is possible to have a set of universal standards by which to judge something as subjective as parenting. And so I wanted to call attention to what’s problematic in the idea of one person saying that they know better.
Joshi: And how did Frida win over Emmanuelle, this robotic doll that she’s been given in order to practice being a good mother?
Chan: I think what I’m trying to call into question is partly the idea of the authentic feelings you have as a mother and also the performance of it. And here I have to give credit to a wonderful writer who interviewed me for a blog post that’s coming out soon. Because I think she articulated it almost better than I could because she was talking about how in the book there is the measurement of maternal feelings and then there’s also the performance of it. So what’s most important is that you have the right feelings, but also that you are performing what people want to see of motherhood. I think Frida both bonds with Emmanuelle and learns how to make the right moves.
Joshi: Are there any games that you have played with your own daughter that made it into the book?
Chan: You know, I have to admit that even though I do not have my daughter’s baby memory album from year one done and she’s about to turn five in a few weeks, I sort of wove a baby memory book into this dystopian novel. So again, she’s going to have to be a very open-minded child as she grows up because probably this is not the average childhood experience to be growing up alongside this kind of dark book. But I think I wove so much of her infancy and toddlerhood into the book itself, like there’s so many developmental milestones and I really stole so much dialogue from her and her little friends. So if the children in the book sound real it’s because the dialogue was taken from actual children. But, let me see, what actual games did we play?
I’m not sure that I actually was as deliberate in game playing with my daughter as the mothers are in this book. But I definitely looked at how my friends play games with their kids. Honestly, I probably should admit that a lot of my daughter’s infancy and toddlerhood was me running off to work on the book so I probably could have played with her more, actually. We did a lot of reading aloud, so I’m not the best at game playing, but we definitely spent a lot of time with her doll house and tea parties and stuffed animals. So some of those things made into the book, but it was more the tiny interactions that made it into the book than actual game playing. But that is a wonderful question.
Joshi: Frida is the daughter of Chinese immigrants and that plays pretty heavily into the book, as it progresses. Tell us a little bit about why that was important for you.
Chan: I always envisioned Frida being Chinese American. And one thing that I wanted to explore in the book is whether or not Frida can live up to a very Western American view of parenting. And one way that I was exploring that in fiction is, for instance, I’m a first generation Chinese American. I see it in a lot of Asian families… my family, when I was younger, was not very huggy. It’s not a constant hugs and kisses and, “I love you,” kind of demonstrative culture. And so my parents have learned to do those things as my sister and I have gotten older because we demanded it of them, but that’s just not how they were raised.
People in the Chinese cultures I’ve experienced don’t touch each other as much. And it’s just not as openly affectionate. It’s much more reserved. And so I wanted to build those conflicts into the book too, but I also wanted to write the Chinese American heroin that I’ve always wanted to see on the page. Someone who’s really flawed and vulnerable and desirous and selfish and full of contradictions. And I wanted to have a character of color, specifically, an Asian American woman who gets to be a mess. So often in the books that I read, the characters of color are required to be noble at the expense of being interesting and compelling. And I wanted Frida to have the full range of possibilities open to her, including the possibilities of frustrating and enraging readers and not necessarily being the most automatically sympathetic heroin because I think, in a lot of ways, her vulnerability and her yearning to belong makes her more relatable.
Joshi: At this School for Good Mothers, there is a man’s portion and there’s a woman’s portion, but it’s so much harder on women than on men. Why is that?
Chan: Even though this is a social satire in a lot of ways, I wanted to reflect the real world and reckon with it. And certainly there are so many controversial takes on what American motherhood is like now, but I think we can all agree that societal and cultural expectations for mothers are just different. And I wanted to really play with that so that the father’s school has simply a different curriculum and a different set of pressures. And that they’re given so many more chances. Because my view of things is that I just feel like mothers are really punished by our society and not treated as full human beings. And I wanted to play with that in the book.
Joshi: Frida has an unfaithful husband who has gone off to live with his girlfriend and that is an untenable situation for anybody, much less a new mother. Why did you put Frida in such a compromised situation?
Chan: In the article that provided some of the creative spark, that one was about losing your child to the foster care system, which was a reality that I didn’t necessarily feel equipped to represent in fiction, it would’ve been a very different story. Whereas I felt like I could access the feelings of being in a broken relationship and heartbreak in that way, as opposed to a more societally generated heartbreak of losing your child to total strangers. So I felt I could access the narrative of losing her child to another woman, which is heartbreaking, but felt like something that I could touch in my imagination.
And so I put her in this untenable situation, but one thing that I was careful to do was to make Gust and Susanna really nice, and one writing teacher was saying that this hippie couple can nice you to death. And so I wanted to play with the idea that they’re such do-gooders and they see themselves as such moral people. And I wanted to just push on that. My agent described it as Gust doing this really beautiful form of gas lighting so that Frida has no room to feel angry because he’s so nice and he’s basically just always talking over her.
Joshi: There were so many times I just wanted to slap Gust and I wanted to wipe that smile off of Susanna’s face. Because I just thought, “What is wrong with these people? Why are they so nice?” I wanted to hate them. And I do hate them for being nice, actually. So I think you accomplished that. It was such a nice twist to see them being that way.
Chan: I think Gust and Susanna were fun to write because I didn’t want them to be villains. They’re actually really good parents, and they’re really attentive, and they’re very forgiving of Frida. Like, Gust is never trying to take over and prevent her from reuniting with Harriet. He’s always on her side. So I wanted him to have done this horrible thing that is in a lot of ways, worse than what Frida does, in terms of their family life, but to have such good intentions throughout and have that tension.
Joshi: Your world building is being compared to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which is very flattering. So I want to know how you feel about that and how does it compare?
Chan: It is beyond comprehension to be compared to The Handmaid’s Tale in any way, especially because I think any dystopian, feminist novel that talks about government oppression of women is really indebted to The Handmaid’s Tale, which is in so many ways a perfect book. I actually probably have only read it twice in the past 15 years or so because it’s one of those books that as a writer makes you feel like, oh, why do I bother? Because it’s so good. So it both inspires me, but makes me feel like, oh, can I ever write again? So I tended not to look at it too much. What I think is testament to what Margaret Atwood did, and what I have not yet learned to do in my own writing, is she did much more world building in The Handmaid’s Tale.
So mine is what I’ve been calling dystopian minimalism, which is just giving readers like the hint of what’s different and leaving them to fill in the rest. I wish that I was capable of inventing an entirely new system of government. I would like to think I’ll get there one day, but I’m not there yet. So what I especially admire is that she built an entirely different society. And that’s what I love so much about the book and that she has a very universal story at the core, which is a mother who has lost her child and a woman trying to hang onto her integrity. And so I think there is some similarity there in terms of an individual fighting against state oppression. And I think, in my book, there is the universal threat of a mom trying to get back to her child. But the comparisons are really wild and really exciting, and I… Yeah, I really can’t believe it. It’s hugely thrilling.
Joshi: In your own life, do you try to be a good mother or just a good enough mother?
Chan: Oh, I definitely try to just be a good enough mother. I mean, my husband and I are both artists and so we’re constantly struggling to schedule enough family time because we’re always trading off on the weekends, like, “Okay, you take the morning, I take the afternoon.” And we’re always trying to manage our projects versus our family time. So we’re definitely of the mindset of doing the best that we can is probably the only philosophy that we’re following. We’re surrounded by friends who’ve done much more research than we have. So we understand that there’s parenting philosophies out there but, for instance, I bought the book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, which is like a parenting classic. I bought it probably a year ago. I still haven’t had time to read it yet. So I’m definitely just doing the best I can.
Joshi: How did you get started writing in the first place?
Chan: I can tell you exactly when I started writing. I started in spring semester of my freshman year at Brown University because I was hoping to become a book editor one day. As a child of immigrants, as a Chinese American woman, I never conceived of writing books myself. It just didn’t seem possible. Like the only path towards that was Amy Tan. And we cannot all be Amy Tan. So The Joy Luck Club was very formative in my life, but I definitely didn’t even think it was possible to write fiction myself, and I applied for the beginning fiction workshops by a lottery system. This was 1997. We applied by filling out actual slips of paper and dropping them at the registrar’s office and I received a little green index card that gave me a spot in beginning fiction. So I started writing fiction in January, 1997 in that workshop. And my teacher Jane really changed my life because without that class, I don’t know that I would have ever started.
Joshi: Certain instructors just really make it for us, don’t they? They just give us that encouragement. They tell us all the right things we need in order to keep going. It’s so wonderful.
Chan: I didn’t even turn in anything particularly good in that class. So it’s just very special that teachers can spot talent when you, the person who’s writing, don’t necessarily know what you’re doing or that there’s any potential there. And she saw potential in what I was doing and how I progressed over the semester and my openness to learning, and that’s really been a gift that’s changed my life.
Joshi: I hear you, by the way, about Asian families. And I was, of course, raised in an Indian family. And I also remember asking my parents, “Hey, how come all the other parents hug their kids? How come you don’t hug us?” Then dad really tried to make an effort to sort of be more American dad for us. I think everything you put in the book about Frida and her relationship with her parents, I totally get it. I totally understand how hard they have to work and how she’s had it a lot easier, but she’s still struggling.
Chan: I think in some ways the book has many different elements that don’t necessarily typically appear all in one book. So there’s this dystopian speculative element, but there’s also a coming of age story and a first generation immigrant story threaded throughout, so Frida’s not just a mother, she’s also a daughter. And I think that’s part of what makes the book accessible to and interesting to people who aren’t parents is that it’s not entirely about motherhood.
Joshi: Thank you so much, Jessamine, for being with us today.
Chan: Thanks so much for this opportunity.
Joshi: And thank you for watching A Word on Words. I’m Alka Joshi. Keep reading!
Jessamine Chan Recommends
Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, by Cathy Park Hong
Mrs. Caliban, by Rachel Ingalls
Temporary, by Hilary Leichter