When Kathryn Ma visited China in 1999, she was traveling with her mother and her father. Ma’s father was returning to his home country and hometown for the first time in 50 years. That experience, so steeped in emotion and familial and national connection, stayed with her long after she returned to her home in San Francisco, planting seeds in her psyche that are still yielding fruit decades later.
During the trip, Ma’s father’s family hosted a large dinner in her grandfather’s honor. In the courtyard of the family home, her attention was drawn to a gentleman seated at the head of her table. No one was talking to him. When Ma asked her mother about the man, the response was brief: she was told he was the son of a concubine wife. She was immediately intrigued.
“I don’t know why people ostracized him,” Ma, 66, recounts, speaking via Zoom from a family room lined with bookshelves in her San Francisco house. “I don’t know whether it was because of his family line, or whether he had done something to other members of the family. I never got to the bottom of that mystery.” But his presence, his seeming “double identity” of being both with and apart from the family, stuck with Ma and would become central to her second novel, The Chinese Groove, which publishes in January from Counterpoint.
The novel’s protagonist, Shelley, yearns for a connection that is constantly out of reach. As the descendant of a bastard son in a long line of bastard sons, he, like the mystery man at the Ma family dinner, is part of a family but also outside of it—tolerated but not genuinely included. So, when his father sends him to San Francisco for a better life, he’s hoping he’ll find belonging there, in a new city, surrounded by new family members. It stirs in Shelley the sense of a mythical place recounted in a Chinese myth: “a Peach Blossom land,” Ma writes, “where strangers were welcomed and loved... and everybody high or low, clever or stupid, rickety-boned or ox-like, everybody got along.”
Ma spent her formative years surrounded by her extended Chinese American family in a Philadelphia suburb. College took her to the West Coast. After earning a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in history from Stanford University, she studied law at the University of California, Berkeley, and then worked in civil and criminal litigation for 13 years. Though she left the legal career behind to write full-time at 39, she says she never quite let go of the law. “My identity as a lawyer is still part of who I am as a writer,” she explains.
With a mind that “still likes to turn over legal issues,” Ma fills her fiction with complex questions about political and legal matters. In The Chinese Groove, the subject of housing insecurity, which plagues so many Americans (and San Franciscans in particular), is a central theme. At different points of the novel, Shelley is sleeping on people’s couches, is homeless, and is staying in single-room-occupancy hotels or crowded boarding houses.
Just as important to Ma’s fiction as those legal and cultural dimensions is the exploration of family. Ma believes her books all examine “how families fall apart and change and put themselves back together again.” And within that, her greatest theme, the one she keeps returning to, is “displacement and loss and separation.” Shelley is a hero dealing with, and learning to move on from, loss. He lost his mother, which we learn very early in the story. And he’s also displaced from his home and his family.
Ma’s debut novel, 2014’s The Year She Left Us, was also inspired by something she saw on that 1999 trip to China. In the hotel where she was staying, Ma witnessed American families meeting their adopted children for the first time. She was struck by the contrast between her father’s journey home and the journeys of these families. “In this hotel,” she says, “at the same time that my father was finally being reunited with his family, there were all these babies who were about to leave their homeland and go with this large group of American families to start a new life in the United States.”
Both The Chinese Groove and The Year She Left Us explore markers of belonging. Shelley’s deep longing for community is driven and fostered by his lack of connection with his own family. He has a loving father, but within his broader Chinese family, he’s rejected. Shelley’s thinking in the book, Ma explains, is that “there’s a better family out there that’s going to love me and hold me.” Beyond the ties that come from an individual’s blood family, the “Chinese groove” is a concept Shelley holds on to—that belonging will come to him from a national and cultural connection with his fellow countrymen. Shelley’s notion that these people, simply by dint of their shared identity, will embrace him is something Ma says he clings to “sometimes to his detriment.”
Shelley’s idea of a “Chinese groove” is based on a phenomenon that Ma has observed. “It’s sort of in the back of my mind,” she says. “I have noticed myself in situations where I feel like there is some sort of cultural understanding that I have not been explicitly taught by my parents or my family, but I sense it, and it turns out to be something real.” These ideas are consequential and yet largely unspoken: “Norms are passed down between generations without explicit instruction, from mother and father to child. We learn things by being in a family, and in a community. We just learned things by osmosis, by observation, by modeling.”
In Shelley’s narrative, the yearning and rebuilding are fascinating and heartbreaking, but also humorous. Like the authors whose work she most admires—including Shakespeare and Edith Wharton—Ma is adept at mingling poignancy with irony. When Shelley arrives in California, he thinks, “Here in San Francisco was a utopia of the races, the best of all possible worlds and I the Traveler by dint of mother’s desires had landed in a Peach Blossom Land.” What could be more perfectly, gently double edged or misguided?
While Ma doesn’t see herself as a satirist, the comic elements of her new novel have a subtle satirical edge. She writes about San Francisco in the mode of Wharton, critiquing the city’s customs and class structure through the story of a bright-eyed new arrival. And, ultimately, Shelley’s journey is a window onto the fiction that Ma believes moves us the most affectively: stories that “have some sadness, that have some understanding of how difficult life is at its core, but don’t deny that we can still have joy.”
Carole V. Bell is a Jamaican-born writer, researcher, and critic who studies the intersections of media, politics, and social identity.