Ma’s new novel, The Year She Left Us, is about an international adoption. The book takes a hard look at the ways we create family.
Your protagonist, Ari, was adopted from China by a Chinese-American mother—meaning that, more than other Chinese adoptees, she appears to belong to her new family. Do appearances matter, even though Ari has no sense of belonging?
In writing this story, I imagined that adoption, while joyful, brings with it the anxiety to protect a child from the pain of being given up at birth. Ari’s adoptive family tell themselves, “She looks the same as us, which will make things easier for her.” They want to believe that her trauma will be eased by their “match” of race and culture. The irony is that being of the same race can’t erase Ari’s early loss. There’s no emotional E-ZPass lane, even for a Chinese girl adopted into a Chinese-American family. She still has to come to terms, in her own time and way, with the sad truth of having been left by her birth parents.
One of the novel’s recurring themes is that love and caring can become a real burden for the recipient. Was it a challenge to write characters who refuse to be grateful?
Loss and hurt can stir up complicated feelings, including anger and pride. Above all, Ari doesn’t want to be pitied. The challenge was to show her anger, and her shockingly bad behavior toward her loving and well-intentioned mother, in a way that evokes our compassion for her. It’s a delicate balancing act. Too much anger, and we can’t relate. Too little, and the story loses its nerve. You don’t get at the truth as a writer by playing it safe. You have to let your characters struggle before they find release—in Ari’s case, before she learns that compassion doesn’t always lead to pity, and that feeling grateful is not weakness of character, but a state of grace.
At points, Ari’s disconnection from her family and herself is scary and extreme. Why do travel and writing become crucial for her?
While writing the book, I thought that it was about Ari forming her own identity. After the book was finished, I realized that it’s a story of how to separate from your family with love. In traveling far from home, and writing her story down, Ari is able to make her own path. Her mother’s courageous act is in letting her daughter go.
You present several ways in which people choose to bring strangers into their families, and none of them looks easy. Why are your smartest characters so driven to keep trying?
The characters have different views of what constitutes a family. For Gran [Ari’s adoptive grandmother], family means blood. For others, one’s family can be chosen, as in adopting a child, or taking in strangers. For Ari, since her birth parents gave her up, she wonders if she can find a different family to join. The notion of family contracts and expands, but for all the characters, the need for family is constant. They seek a balance between connection and independence—a balance impossible to make perfect, but necessary for them to thrive.