My guest author this week, Kathryn Ma, is the author of All That Work and Still No Boys, which won the Iowa Short Fiction Award. She’s the first Asian American to win in the forty-year history of the award, one of the country’s most prestigious literary awards for first time authors. Curtis Sittenfeld, author, American Wife, says of All That Work, “With subtle intelligence and wry humor, Kathryn Ma brings us characters whose lives are complicated—in all the best ways—by family, race, immigration, and quirks of personality. These wonderful stories have the resonance of truth even as they make you see the world in new ways.” – Meg
It took me ten years to write the stories in my first book, and why shouldn’t it have? After all, it took me ten years to become a good lawyer, which is what I was before I began writing, at forty, and although I wished that my apprenticeship as a writer would go faster and more easily than my last gig had, I suspected that it probably wouldn’t and so dug in for the long haul. “How’s that book coming along?” many a friend or cocktail acquaintance would ask, and I’d laugh and change the subject, not wanting to bore or prattle.
I liked being a lawyer, or parts of the job, anyway, like the teamwork and the libraries and the paycheck, and had worked hard at it until I couldn’t stand not writing anymore, and so I packed up my Bekins boxes and set up a little office a half-mile from my house where the siren call of the laundry basket wouldn’t lure me to my doom. It seems there had been another great seducer, biding her time for forty years—the Muse or the Pen Whisperer or, more accurately in my case, the Pest—who refused to sit down and be quiet. And so I turned away from my familiar life with only a yellowed computer, a particle board desk that weighed as much as a car, and a very nice halogen lamp that I lifted from my credenza on my way out of the law firm to begin my life as a writer.
The office was my security blanket. I was used to leaving for work every morning and I figured that if I had a place to go to everyday, I could pretend I was not on a fool’s errand. I had made enough money to afford childcare and knew that my children would be fine without me. I had no doubts on that score—one of the many benefits I’ve reaped from good, old-fashioned feminism. Every morning I went to the office, sat down with a pot of tea, and coaxed out stories. It was, at last, a beginning.
Once in a while, I took a class. A teacher advised me: “if you don’t do an MFA, you’ll probably get to the same place eventually, but if you do the degree, you’ll get there a lot faster.” It made perfect sense, but I couldn’t do it. I had three children and parents to care for, and guilt in abundance over having given up my income. Guilt, by the way, is no match for the Pest.
As it turned out, going slowly was the best thing for me, because it took me the decade to find out what I wanted to write. I wrote many stories and two novels, and with each page, the way opened. The stories in my book are mostly about Chinese-Americans with complicated families. As I am a Chinese-American woman from a large family, it seems crazy to admit that it took me ten years to net this material and lay it out for dissection, but it did, and I’m grateful. The oldest story in the book, “Gratitude,” began as a story about my German Jewish mother-in-law and eluded me for days until I changed her into an old Chinese lady. The newest story in the book, about a Chinese tour guide who takes an adopted Chinese girl back to her orphanage for a visit, sprang forth with a bound, Ariel the sprite released from his cloven pine, freed by me to do me service. I knew, writing it, that I had reached into the heart.
“Congratulations,” my caller told me. “You’ve won the Iowa Short Fiction Award. We are publishing your book in September.” I was overwhelmed but not astonished. I knew the work was taking me somewhere. Ten years. Ten stories. A lifetime. – Kathryn