Former Viking assistant editor Ann Mah left New York for Beijing, took a job as the dining editor for the English-language magazine That’s Beijing, and wrote a novel about a young Chinese-American woman who moves to Beijing in the midst of an identity crisis. Mah spoke to PW from Paris, where she now lives, about Kitchen Chinese: A Novel about Food, Family, and Finding Yourself, which Avon will publish as a paperback original.
PW: What surprised you most when you moved to Beijing?
AM: I’m ethnically Chinese; I was born in the States and grew up in the States [in Huntingdon Beach, Calif.]. I thought I knew everything about Chinese food because I grew up eating it every single day. But one of the things that surprised me the most when I moved to Beijing was how different [the food] was. I realized I grew up eating a type of Chinese food from a specific region of China, and there was a whole country of regions of cuisine to discover. That’s what inspired me to start the book.
PW: Why did you write fiction instead of a memoir?
AM: From my perspective, my life in Beijing was very sheltered. I went there through my husband’s work [he is a diplomat] and had the great luck of having a lot of help getting settled. My daily life wasn’t that interesting. By writing fiction, I was able to explore a lot of different paths that I would not have been able to explore. For instance, romantic relationships are very interesting from a cross-cultural perspective, and the main character in the book has an identity crisis and a realization of her identity through her romantic relationships.
PW: What’s it like to have worked in publishing and now write a book?
AM: It’s thrilling to come from having been an editorial assistant [where Mah started at Viking] to writing a novel, but it’s also really terrifying. I try to appreciate the fact that I wrote this book, that I had the time to write it and I have this wonderful opportunity to have it published.
PW: How does food in fiction inspire you?
AM: Every time I read a novel and they talk about food, I hone in on that, those descriptions. I’m always so interested to know what people are eating, what characters are eating. I think people reveal a lot about characters that way, and authors reveal a lot about themselves that way. I can sense if they themselves are cooks or are interested in food or not.
PW: Can you compare writing and cooking as creative pursuits?
AM: No matter if I’m making dinner for friends, writing an essay, posting on my blog or writing this book—if it’s food or writing, I feel in both situations nervous about the outcome and how people are going to react to it. At the end of the day, with writing or cooking, you have something that you offer to people that comes from you. It’s a personal gift, or offering, from yourself.
PW: What are you doing in Paris?
AM: I’m working at the American Library in Paris. I set up cultural events and author speaking engagements. We focus on English-speaking authors and have authors from the U.K. and the States, and French authors who speak English. It’s helped me become more a part of the community here.
This story originally appeared in Cooking the Books, PW's e-newsletter for cookbooks.