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Literature: Dancing with the (Red) Stars

by Paul Wilner

Vanessa Hua. | Photo courtesy of Andria Lo.

Vanessa Hua’s new novel traces the unlikely connection between a Chinese girl and the leader of her country.

“I believe that fiction can really flourish where the official record ends,” says Vanessa Hua, whose ambitious new novel, Forbidden City, tells the story of a teenage girl who escapes a life of drudgery in the provinces of China when she joins a ballroom dancing troupe that entertains Chairman Mao. After becoming his lover, she is caught up in the political intrigues surrounding his inner circle.

“Maybe a decade ago, I was watching a documentary about World War II and China, when up flashes this black-and-white photo of Mao surrounded by giggling teenage girls — they looked like bobby-soxers, wearing plaid shirts and Peter Pan collars,” explains Hua, whose previous works include the short story collection Deceit and Other Possibilities and the novel A River of Stars, the tale of a Chinese woman shipped off to California after she becomes pregnant by her boss.

Researching the new book, Hua found out that Mao “was a fan of ballroom dancing. … The Chairman’s personal physician wrote a memoir saying, ‘Oh, for these women, it was the highest honor of their lives.’”

“It fascinated me,” she adds. “What did it mean for someone so young to sleep with a man she’d been raised to believe was God?”

Forbidden City
(Ballantine Books)
In May, the San Francisco author publishes the first book she ever wrote — 13 years on.

Hua’s fictionalized heroine, Mei Xiang, strikes a compelling figure as she navigates the machinations of Mao’s understandably displeased spouse and even helps launch the Cultural Revolution. As she witnesses the violence wrecking those accused of being too bourgeois, she ultimately takes a public anti-Mao stance that forces her on the run.

While the initial kudos for Forbidden City — a Publishers Weekly review calls it “magnificent” — have been gratifying, the book also represents a return to roots. “This is the first book I wrote,” Hua says. “It’s been greatly revised since it first went out for sale in 2009, at the height of the recession and the rise of e-books. It came close to selling at that time, but close only matters, of course, for horseshoes and hand grenades.”

The quietly unstoppable author somehow manages to balance her fiction with her journalistic duties — she’s a columnist and former reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. She left her day gig in 2007 to enroll in UC Riverside’s MFA creative writing program. But the creative urge struck long before grad school. “I’d been writing stories since I was a kid,” she recalls. “Even during my time at the Chronicle, I remember printing out my stories and running to the printer to grab them. …

“Writers are either plotters or ‘pantsers’: You plot everything out or fly by the seat of your pants,” she says. “I’m a pantser — I don’t know the characters well enough until I write them out. Once I finish the first draft, I figure out what’s missing. But you never know how your characters are going to surprise you — I don’t want to close anything off.”

On May 11, Hua will discuss Forbidden City with ZYZZYVA Managing Editor Oscar Villalon at 7 p.m. at Booksmith in San Francisco.

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