Among its other qualities,
Ursula, Under is a tour de force of historical detail. How did you
amass the knowledge that enabled you to write so richly of Chinese, Finnish,
and immigrant experiences?
When I was left a single mom with eleven children, I had to get a career
to support them, so I went back to graduate school to be able to teach
literature and writing at the college level. I needed two foreign languages
as part of this program, and I was feeling a bit heady with both the
impossibility and the necessity of this, so I asked for Swedish first. My
father was Swedish-American, a sea captain, and I'd always wanted to study
Swedish but never had a chance. As part of my program, I got to study in
Sweden, and the Swedish history and culture classes really intrigued me,
especially the era of Gustavus Adolphus.
I met my second husband in a writers' group here and we became friends.
He went to China for a year to teach English teachers at a university there,
and he invited me to visit. I was hooked. I had no explanation for my
immediate and unexpected love for China, but in retrospect I think it was
the enforced simplicity (which verged over into deprivation) of people's
lives there under communism, which led to more intensity of friendships and
concern for family rather than for possessions and distractions. I imagine
this has changed a lot in fifteen years as China has lurched unevenly toward
capitalism. I was moved by their fascination with my large family, which
they told me again and again was like the traditional Chinese family, by
contrast with which their government mandated a one-child policy that was
very unevenly and sometimes horrendously enforced. Then I marveled at the
fact that the Cultural Revolution had in a senseby banning classical
literature and artpretty effectively wiped out their collective cultural
memory. Finally, I decided that the ceremonial quality of so much of Chinese
life probably felt familiar to me because of my having grown up in
Catholicism, as odd as that may seem. It made emotional, visceral sense to
Finally, I guess I'm an "immigrant," having moved from New Orleans's
unique combination of voodoo Catholicism and party-down Mardi Gras les bon
temps rouler (let the good times roll) attitude to a very different
Midwestern culture that felt alien and ate less red-beans-and-rice. A
sociologist here at the University of Iowa, Jennifer Glass, did a study on
immigrant family size and found that in the first generation, immigrants
tend to retain the family-size expectations of their homeland, while the
second generation, born in the new culture, takes on that culture's model.
That's true for my children and me. I have lot of friends from other
cultures and have always been interested in their experiences as immigrants.
I began thinking about what the nineteenth and early twentieth century
immigrants' lives were like and tried to put myself inside them. I do my
historical research like a child: books piled all around me, and me
absorbing the facts, drawings, photographs, anecdotes, ambiances like a
sponge . . . till I can squeeze myself like that sponge and out leaks . . .
Ursula, Under expresses Ursula Wong's genealogy as somehow both random
and teleological. On the one hand, the novel is constructed on a series of
improbable events, yet, on the other hand, none of these events can fail to
take place if Ursula is ever to exist at all. Your book seems to happen at
the intersection of blind chance and inescapable destiny. By the same token,
of course, each one of us is a laughable improbability; the odds against all
those particular sperm and eggs coming together were incalculable, and yet,
here we are. What are your thoughts about the relationships among
randomness, fate, and the things we choose to call miracles?
Chaos science says that in any phenomenon that appears chaoticsay, a
weather systemthere is in fact an intricate implicate order. I have found
that to be true in all kinds of situations that at first seem to make no
sense: indeed, there is order, we just have to "dig"and/or sit patientlyto
find it. When Justin tells Annie that he believes that there are two kinds
of people in the world, people who like mysteries and people who believe
that life itself is a mystery, and he belongs to the latter group, I'm with
him. The most intriguing things (people, events, trends) in life have a
hidden order and simultaneously pulse with mystery: sometimes they give up
their secrets to us and sometimes they don't.
Augustine of Hippo said that a miracle is not contrary to nature, only to
what we know of nature, and I like that a lot. I've had enough experiences
in my life that are beyond the pale that I'd be a dunderhead not to believe
in miracles. By the way, teleology is a word I seldom hear, and this is the
first time it's come up in an interview. Kudos to you. I think our culture
prefers to lie back and believe simultaneously that life is an
uncontrollable juggernaut running us down and flattening us like a Wile E.
Coyote cartoon and that, at the same time, we are gods who control our own
destiniesor should be. Neither of these positions is subtle or true to
experience. I think people who aren't willing to entertain complexity and
ambiguityand suspend judgment in hope of a bigger or subtler or more
complex "revelation"miss a lot of the fun of life. Those people probably
think I'm a dodo for not thinking that "winning" a bowl game or a world war
is the be-all and end-all. Obviously that's the way I treated wars in the
novel: nothing good in 'em, and nothing solved by them. But lots of regular
people have been socialized to think that life is binary that way. Win/lose.
Ursula Wong is not merely the meeting point of a number of great
individual stories. She is also a symbolic confluence of East and West. What
were your thoughts about this coming together when you were working on this
Well, Ursula as a character is a composite of two little faces in photos
in my family stash: my daughter Maria, who looks as if she is 100 percent
her daddy's, Finnish blue-eyed and blond, and my godchild Tian-Tian, the
same age, who is 100 percent Chinese. Her mom is my dear friend since my
first trip to China. Those two faces blended in my mind's eye and I thought,
wow, what a beautiful child. I thought Ursula would be a great emblem for
all the good aspects of the blending of western and Asian cultures. I do
think that blending of eastern and western cultures is happening, and not
only in good ways. As wealth comes to the third world, so too do aspirations
to be "like America" in all the worst ways. Greed comes onstage, families
shatter, diversion replaces substance. I think it's a difficult period in
history, but, hey, what period wasn't? That's one thing a study of history
Your last name, Hill, is a translation of the Finnish word "maki,"
which enters the novel as Annie's surname. Are there other subtle ways in
which you have written yourself into the novel?
Okay, let's be clear that this is not about me but about the process of
an author creating a character. And thanks for calling that "subtle," hah.
Actually, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan the names Hill and Maki are as
common as can be, take up whole pages in the telephone directories, so it's
not so much about us as about the whole Finn-immigrant culture.
Finns were often named after features of the natural landscape, so their
surname might signify that they were "from the back hill," "from the
judgment hill" (where the civil authority resided), "from the fire hill," "from the church hill" (Kyrkomaki, which would be Churchhill in English). A
man in one audience on my first book tour told me that in the UP town where
he went to school the guys referred to "dating the local Makis," as if Maki
were a generic name for a Finn. I wanted that resonance.
The students I met in my time in China said of their teachers that "a
good teacher is like a silkworm, spinning silk out of the very core of his
or her being." I think that all good authors do this too. Flaubert said, "Madame Bovary, c'est moi." So when I tell you about parts of me that are in
various characters, let's be clear that that observation is about the
process, which also operates in other authors, not specifically about me.
Justin was the first character to develop, several years before Ursula
came along. I have always had music as a central part of my life, couldn't
live without it. Justin's adrenalin scrappiness, c'est moi. That's my Inner
Goalie, eh. Annie's need-to-know, all of the trivial facts that add up to
reality, i.e., how they get the holes in Lorraine Swiss cheese, and how it's
different from SWISS Swiss . . . c'est moi. Mindy Ji's younger hippie self
at Woodstock, that's me, but in Berkeley, California; her mature
cookie-batter-flinging multitasking self that might not watch the speed
limits if she's heading for the scene of Ursula's accident, that's me too.
Liz Maki having parades and dancing to "My Sharona," that's me with my kids
when they were littler.
As for the historical characters: Qin Lao's sober perseverance and
determination to get his experiments right, c'est moi. Kyllikki's early
determination not to marry, c'est moi also: I used to think I'd wind up a
nun: no, seriously, folks. Olavi's way of attaching a story to every
material object: yeah, I plead guilty. Ming Tao's tongue-in-cheek but also
unrelenting logic, that's mine, and Josserand's delight in the "earthier
exegesis" of his Parisian Protestant mentors, that's mine toonot to mention
his resistance to doctrinal foolishness bred of human laws. Violeta's status
as an orphan: in some ways that feels like my life, as I was an outsider in
my family-of-origin, like a freaking space alien. Chen Bing's looking for
"signs" in everything, for Chinese characters flung out in seaweedthat
would be yours truly. Alabaster Wong's peculiarity as a "spelling snob," uff
da, that's me as well. Oh, yeah, and my name in China, given to me by a
communist police chief, was Tian Hu, a name that appears at the end of
World literature contains a number of works that might be classified
as national epics: the Italians have The Aeneid, the French have The Song of
Roland, and so on. Do you think it might be fruitful to think of Ursula,
Under as a revision of the epic genre, such that the subject of the epic is
no longer the birth of a nation, but the making of an individual?
Oy. The epic, bound up as it is in conquest and force of might, is not my
native genre. I studied the Scandinavian and Icelandic and Old English sagas
years ago and picked up (and enjoyed) their broody quality, pagan culture,
life and death served up like steak tartare. Even in those sagas, though, it
is the individual who holds our interest. Nation-building is such a guy
thing, come on, and the cobbling-up of national epics is a part of that. The
Kalevala is the Finnish "national epic" but it is really a very late
creation, a collection of existing folk tales in the oral tradition, put
together by Elias Lonnrot in the first half of the nineteenth century.
Finland's historyand we see only the tip of it in Ursula, Underis one of sisu or determination, a culture caught between a rock and a hard place
again and again, its "nationhood" a dicey proposition. Rather than seeing
Ursula, Under as a revision of the epic genrevery maleI'd like to see it
as a female take on culture-building, not reacting against or developing
from the dominant model but simply its own way of seeing things. Traditional
American history tends to privilege the British element and arrange all
other cultures around that, in marginal fashion. I don't think that makes
much sense, but we are so accustomed to seeing things the way we've been
taught that it's hard to rearrange "reality" in our heads.
For instance, we tend to see America as being built from the east coast:
coming to this continent across the Atlantic, moving westward in a wave (the
frontier), filling the continent and subduing it. Maybe even mowing it down.
That's a culturally male way of looking at things.
I wrote a story here that has a different shape, more circular, more
feminine: cultures from the east coming across the western sea and
vice-versa, and our particular family epic pulling together like a
drawstring at the center of the continent, at Lake Superior. The making of
an individual is certainly more than the sum of culture, nation, and family,
but these give us a ground upon which to build, to see the person who is
like no other person.
One of the central premises of your book seems to be that every life
is precious because of the incredible struggles that people have endured
across the millennia so that each of us might exist. You have chosen to make
this claim, however, on behalf of a person who is already powerfully
sympathetic; one would hope that only a monster like Jinx would fail to be
moved by a beautiful, blameless toddler who falls down a mine shaft. Do you
think that your argument that life is made priceless by heredity would hold
equally true for a harder case, for instance, a death-row inmate or, indeed,
Let's start with Jinx. I surely did everything I could to redeem her, but
her own choices undid her. Early readers of the novel commented on the fact
that I had been able to show Jinx so compassionatelyand I hope that is
trueby suggesting that something in her own background predisposed her to
Once upon a time years ago I met a woman this mean, meaner than I knew a
human being could be, and she hovered in my mind malignly. I thought for a
long time: why is she that way? I never came to an answer, but I made an
assumption that it came from something way back, and deep. I don't excuse
Jinx but I try to say: there's a reason she's this way, and there but for
the grace of God go we all. Jinx is a meditation on the question that woman
raised for me.
To argue the preciousness of any individual's life, Ursula is a great
place to start because she is, as you say, both beautiful and blameless. But
beauty comes in many forms, and yes, I believe it holds true for even the
hardest cases. I have been an activist against capital punishment, not
because I am soft on crime but because it makes no sense to take a life to
show that taking a life is wrong, not to mention that studies have shown
that when there is an execution, violent crime rates immediately skyrocket
in response. It breeds violence. And so many criminals executed for their
crimes have later been proven innocent. Oopsy.
For years I had wanted to write fiction featuring a character with a
serious disability, but today all the "hardware" attending a physical
limitation tends to draw attention to itself, as well as to mitigate the
disability itself. So I wanted to write about these individualswho are also
blamelessin a way that would foreground their humanity.
Thus, Qin Lao's mute servant Zhou in Sichuan province (or, if you will, Qin Lao himself in his near-sterility), or Kyllikki a millennium later in
the Village of the Sled Dogs, deaf from a fever, or noble Ming Tao born with
"useless legs," or "white trash" Annie Maki crippled by Jinxthese are all
people who are in one way or another broken, imperfect, and I hope it's
clear that they are also priceless. There are many more half-hidden in the
text, along the lines of those puzzle-pictures: find the hidden giraffe in
In my so-called "real" life" I have worked as an aide to people confined
to wheelchairs by cerebral palsy. I have served at the local free lunch
program for people of limited meanslots of whom are in that position
because of mental illness (real or imputed) or addictions, which are partly
physical in origin. I am thinking in particular of Vietnam veterans, for
whom my heart has ached for years. And now we have Gulf War veterans and
Iraq is making its own. I have friends among these people, because I like
them. I have been an advocate/supporter for women with unplanned
pregnancies, and for their babies when they're born. I have been a peer
counselor for abuse survivors. My husband has a kind heart for the elderly
and has volunteered at the senior center for yearsand we'll all get there
As for old Jinx, she gave me the story, really: it was her remark, heard
clearly in my head, which gave me the trigger for chapter one, so thank you,
Ursula, Under is interwoven with unexpected musical
references, many of which have an almost miraculous feel to them. The deaf Kyllikki is able
to "hear" a Bach cello sonata that will not be written for another thousand
years. The dying Violeta is eerily aware of a motif from Beethoven's Sixth
Symphony, also as yet unwritten. Unspecified music also accompanies the
closing tableau of Ursula's ancestors on the novel's last page. Why does
music play such a strong, mystical role in the novel?
Thanks for noting that. My reason for doing that was that I heard these
myself, in my head, and I thought, why not share them with my readers in
this way? The reason for my being unspecific in the "cloud of witnesses"
finale was that I felt by this point my reader should have been brought to
the point where he or she could become a co-imaginer with me, filling in
more than is on the page, and deserving of having his or her name in the
credits that roll at the end of the film.
And of course, since this is not a film, I ought to say that I wrote it
as if it in fact were a film, as if I were responsible for scenery and
effects and background music and even olfactory
enhancementsmell-o-visionwhich wouldn't be a factor if the book were a
film. Readers of today read differently from those of a century ago, because
they are so strongly influenced by film, film, film everywhere, and that is
the audience for whom I write. Film has extended the parameters of our
individual experience in ways never before imagined, and filmgoers will be
reading this book with all the antennae they developed watching filmwhich I
guess may no longer be literally film, if everything goes digital. O brave
new world that has such cool stuff in it.
Reporting on Ursula's accident, Brandi Chandler-Greene wonders, "How
can we tie this to the World Trade Center?" How was your writing of this
novel influenced by 9/11, and what effect do you think 9/11 is having on the
course of American fiction?
The World Trade Center disaster occurred in the middle of my writing of
the novel. I spent a day or so glued to the television and a lot of hours
reading the New York Times individual biographies of all the people who died
that day. Then I went back to writing my novel.
I tried to portray Brandi Chandler-Greene sympathetically but as a
newscaster in the mold of many today, always looking for a "hook" and
sometimes reaching too much. She has had a sheltered life, and that is why
9/11 is the only disaster that comes to her mind. In the classroom, I find
that to most students Vietnam might as well be the Peloponnesian Warsand
when was that Persian Gulf dealie again?and World War II and World War I
all blur together. The Spanish-American war, the Civil War, the American
Revolution, the French and Indian Wars . . . aiiiee. Many people seem to
think those were clean conflicts, sanitized and heroic deaths. We have
little sense of history (that's from the department of understatement) and
that's not a great thing.
As for natural disasters, as I write this, the world has just survived
the Christmas earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia and Thailand: would anyone
have conceived of something like that, even the day before? Likely not, but
last year's movie The Day After Tomorrow eerily presaged it nonetheless. The
power of nature continues to astound us: see Storm Stories on the Weather
Channel and Twister (which was shot in part on a farm adjacent to the camp
my children attended, here in Iowa).
Just yesterday as I was having my coffee I looked up and there on the TV
was Pierce Brosnan in Dante's Peak, a volcano erupting in the middle of
everyone's "normal" lives. I think disaster stories serve as a kind of
catharsis as well as a form of dress rehearsal in our minds for something
that might be just around the corner.
I saw a great list on Amazon, a guy's favorite disaster movies: Nature
Hates You was the title. Itty-bitty humans fighting the forces of nature
always makes a story. We win for a bit, but then we die, and Mother Nature
goes on high-fiving Father Timeand there comes the Disney cartoon version
of Zeus with those thunderbolts.
Ursula, Under contains a host of bad fathers and husbands. Joe Cimmer
abandons Justin and his mother. Annie Maki's father is an alcoholic. Daisy
Chen, the omniscient narrator tells us, would have been sexually mistreated
by her father Chen Bing if he had not drowned. Isak Karajamaki is incapable
of sexual expression that is not a form of degradation. Why in a novel that
so enthusiastically celebrates procreation does the narrative voice seem so
suspicious of one half of the procreative equation?
Gimme a break. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that fathers
leave their families more often than mothers leave their families. As Bill
Clinton said when asked why he did what he did"Because I could"similarly
the prevalence of father-abandonment is because more men can leave. It's as
if we make a mental note, oh, well, another one bites the dust, and hardly a
ripple on the radar. Cinderella keeps sweeping while she composes a symphony
in her headand more women are busy handling the nitty-gritty business of
life which is not so easy to walk out on.
But really, now, you can't mean that you think I condemn these guys you
named, do you? I want my reader to have compassion for them, too. Joe is
impacted by his own father's abandonment"Because he could"and I think we
get quite a good view into his tortured psyche, which cannot comprehend
Mindy Ji's forgiveness, but that's okay. Win-win situation.
Garrett Maki is such a lost soul because his mind was shattered by what
he was forced to do in Vietnam, in the name of "manliness," and Liz
consistently defends him to Annie as a person who was not this way before.
Chen Bing is a tad like Jinx, though far less malevolent: he is just an
unredeemed screw-up. Still I hope my readers can identify with that screw-up
part of themselves, because we all have it in us.
And I think you're taking Isak somewhere I never meant for him to go. We
can identify with Marjatta's chagrin at his insensitivity, but, hey, he
didn't invent it, and he's trying, and it's sad that Marjatta can never love
him as she loved Emil, even though Isak tries his darnedest.
Point B would be: the biggest villains, the nastiest people, in this book
are female: Jinx Muehlenberg?check. Vappu-Loviisa?check. Christina of
Sweden?hardly a redeeming quality to her, right? Feminism is not about
female superiority but about equality and inclusion and cooperation, none of
which these gals believe in. These women have power, but they seem to have
sold out their humanity in the process of gaining ita characteristic which
is not gender-bound.
Good writers tend to know a few things about the art of reading. What
words of advice do you have for readers seeking to get the most out of
reading your fiction and, indeed from their reading experiences in general?
I would hope they'd bring to my book the same hunger for experience that
they bring to the movies: in literature, language is the medium, and it
demands more of the reader than film in some respectsthe reader must be in
charge of casting, and location, and scenes, and special effects, and so
onbut I think my readers are up to that. I would hope that some of my love
of language and image might be contagious, and that others might say, hey, I
didn't know language could do that, and then do it themselves, in their
speaking and e-mailing and maybe even writing. I think this applies to all
writing worth reading.
Your biography mentions that you are the mother of twelve children.
Are there qualities in a successful parent that also go toward making a fine
Mmmmmaybe. For instance, in the Odyssey, while Odysseus is away, Penelope
keeps weaving and undoing and reweaving a funeral shroud for her
father-in-law, Laertes; she is doing this to postpone a task she does not
want, that of giving up on Odysseus and choosing from among her pesky
suitors. I think that that is a wonderful metaphor for a lot of things we
do, where we seem to have to start over a fresh every dayand no, I do not
think that the myth of Sisyphus and his rock that keeps rolling back down is
as good for my purposes, because Penelope's task is a more complex one. I
think that the task of a parent and the task of a writer are much like
Penelope's: new every day, and only more demanding, not less, though also
I cannot imagine parenting a child without paying a great deal of
attention to nurturing his or her imagination and faculty of questioning,
and that is something that good writing does for its readers too.
I was once told (when I had eleven children) that Virginia Woolf said a
writer could not have eleven children because her brain would have turned to
mush. I replied that that simply showed the limitations of Virginia Woolf's
perspectives, which made sense in her sheltered and aristocratic life but
don't work as well everywhere else. Not to mention that today we have so
many more practical helps (more ease of food preparation, cars, appliances,
film and video, the Internet) in raising and educating children. Yes, I know
the Internet is a jungle, but as the writer above puts it, life continues to
be a "ceaseless struggle to extract moments of goodness and purity from a
world of tragedy." So the Internet is also a miracle.
Parenting takes perseverance: so does writing. Parenting demands
creativity: so does writing. Parenting pays back great emotional and
spiritual rewardsand also gives us grief. So does writing. Both are
manifestations of the great spirit of life itself.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher.
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