Vanessa Hua tells immigrants’ stories in debut novel

With two pregnant Chinese women on the run as her first novel’s protagonists, East Bay writer Vanessa Hua laughs when she calls “A River of Stars” an “Asian ‘Thelma & Louise.’”

Both are unwed mothers-to-be: Scarlett is a thirtysomething woman who came to California from China so her child would be American-born; Daisy is a Taiwanese teen whose Chinese-American boyfriend is missing in action.

At the book’s outset, they escape in a stolen van from a so-called maternity center, where they were waiting to give birth.

Such places, which Hua describes as “like a brothel in reverse,” are real.

The seasoned journalist (a San Francisco Chronicle columnist and former reporter for the paper) first noticed these underground residences east of downtown Los Angeles while she was attending graduate school for creative writing, pregnant herself at the time and feeling vulnerable.

Her characters’ exciting plight — the book is a page turner — reflects the longtime focus of Hua’s stories, be they fact or fiction.

“I’m interested in immigration back and forth between ancestral and adopted homelands,” says Hua, who’s been busy promoting her second book (her decade-in-the-making 2016 short-story collection “Deceit and Other Possibilities” featured characters of varied ethnic backgrounds) across the Bay Area.

Despite the current political climate and national spotlight on immigration issues, Hua doesn’t measure her themes in terms of a news cycle. She says, “Immigration is the origin of our country, continually renewed and complicated by newcomers. It’s always going to be timely.”

In “A River of Stars,” Scarlett and Daisy make their way to San Francisco’s Chinatown, which Hua describes with loving detail, having visited it as a child and as a working journalist.

“It’s such a beacon for Chinese-Americans both inside and outside of San Francisco,” she says, mentioning she was honored to gain access to the community that’s not the tourist attraction.

The City’s LGBT community also plays an important role in the book. Hua was back living in the Bay Area and feeling stuck in the writing process when same-sex marriage in the news led to an “a ha moment,” she says: “San Francisco gave me the ending.”

Hua, who as a child liked Louisa May Alcott and Laura Ingalls Wilder because they wrote “feisty girl” main characters who wanted to be writers, has long been an active member of the Bay Area literary community: “I love it. The joke is that in New York, writers read each other’s reviews, and in San Francisco, they read each other’s books.” She adds, “What I put in, I get back 10 times more. “

Finding benefits in working in both fiction and non-fiction, Hua says, “Journalism helped me learn how to write on deadline, not be too precious and follow my curiosity in the world. Fiction helped me go deeper. I believe in the power of fiction to foster empathy, to put a reader in someone else’s heart and mind at this time when immigrants are reduced to stereotypes.”

BOOK NOTES
A River of Stars
Written by: Vanessa Hua
Published by: Ballantine Books
Pages: 304
Price: $27

UPCOMING APPEARANCES
Aug. 27 – Orinda Books, 276 Village Square, Orinda, 11:30 a.m.; $12 luncheon
Aug. 29 – Book Passage, 1 Ferry Building, S.F., 6 p.m.
Aug. 30 – Road to Publication panel, The Ruby, 6:30 p.m. 23rd and Bryant streets, $10 to register
Sept. 6 – City Lights, 261 Columbus Ave., S.F., 7 p.m.
Sept. 21 – BAMPFA, 2155 Center St., Berkeley, 6 p.m., $13 museum admission
Sept. 27 – Mechanic’s Institute, 57 Post St., S.F., 12:30 p.m., $15

Leslie Katz
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Leslie Katz

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