In The Year She Left Us, Chinese-American Kathryn Ma tackles international adoption. She talks to Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore about what inspired her to write a novel about the search for identity
In 1999 the Chinese-American author 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 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, over worked mother Charlie and outspoken, 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 last 20 years. Now the oldest of these girls are becoming young women who, for the first time, are 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 of her own. ‘I wanted to imagine a young woman coming into her own maturity.’
Ari, a complex, knotted character, is in possession of a keen intelligence but also has a raw, destructive edge of emotion. She is curious about her origins, yet deeply lost. ‘[I wanted Ari] to start in crisis and a lot of anger and hurt and move towards a place of greater understanding,’ says Ma.
Underpinning this crisis is the long shadow of an absent mother and father and the deep grief that comes with the knowledge she will never meet her birth parents. ‘It’s a quest novel really,’ concludes Ma.
The Year She Left Us by Kathryn Ma is available at The Bookworm, priced 199RMB.