Tracing roots in China

American-Chinese author Kathryn Ma on her latest novel

Tracing roots in China
Tracing roots in China Image #2

Kathryn Ma delves into the murky world of international adoption in her latest book.

In 1999, the Chinese-American author and winner of the 2009 Iowa Short Fiction Prize, Kathryn Ma, visited Kunming in southwest China with her parents – the first time that her father was able to return to his hometown in more than half a century. But for Ma the trip became the birth of something very different: a novel about the emotional intricacies and complications involved in the process of international adoption.

In Kunming, Ma, now 57, noticed that the hotel was filled with Western parents in the process of adopting Chinese children. ‘I began to think of international adopting as a lens through which I could explore issues of immigration, identity and feelings of family,’ she says. The result, more than a decade later, is Ma’s debut novel, The Year She Left Us.

In the book, the main protagonist Ari is plucked from an orphanage as a baby and taken to the United States. As a teenager she returns to China in a bid to find her roots. An incident there proves deeply traumatic and Ari comes back to her loving family home only to conduct a dramatic act of self-harm. The Year She Left Us follows her road to recovery as Ari, along with the other women in her family – her caring, overworked mother Charlie and strong-willed grandmother, ‘Gran’ – must work to find their own places in the world.

Ma was inspired, in part, by her own family history: one of criss-crossing ties between the US and China. Her parents met in the 1940s at university in America and Ma – who won the coveted 2009 Iowa Short Fiction Award for her short story collection All That Work and Still No Boys – was brought up in the east coast state of Pennsylvania.

But dig further back and her background becomes even more colourful. Ma’s mother left China, in part because of her Western background that might have proved tricky in the 1940s – an era of huge upheaval.

Ma’s great grandfather, a Chinese minister, had moved to California in the 1860s where he met and married a Dutch-American women. Her grandmother, one of nine children, was born in the US and moved back to China after marrying her Chinese grandfather in New York.

Identity is a major theme of the book. Gran has a history similar to Ma’s own mother: she leaves China in the 1940s to get an education in the US and then stays. Gran carries with her a secret that she has harboured for years – a secret she can only confront when her granddaughter Ari’s life begins to unravel. Ma describes Gran as, ‘a character who is a gift to a writer – she arrived almost fully formed with a lot of opinions; a source of humour.’

Ma was also fascinated by the sub-culture of adoption in the States. Tens of thousands of Chinese children, the majority girls, have been adopted by American parents over the past 20 years. Now the oldest of these girls are becoming young women who are now able to speak for themselves.

‘There are plenty of memoirs and blogs written by adoptive parents but we haven’t heard from the girls yet for the most part,’ says Ma, who has three daughters herself. ‘I wanted to imagine a young woman coming into her own maturity.’
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