Da Chen’s late father was supportive of every endeavor his son attempted. Except for becoming a writer. “Writers were always the first to be blamed and punished for any upheavals in the political climate in China because they were deemed the ‘sources of all evils,’” says Chen, referring to his homeland during and after the difficult era of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Ironically, when Chen wrote his first book decades later as a transplanted American, last year’s bestselling memoir Colors of the Mountain, he did so as a testament to his father’s memory. On book tour, Chen held on to two rituals: he played his bamboo flute, a skill his father had taught him, and he signed his name using the Chinese brush calligraphy his grandfather instilled in him. “My writing is about remembering them, my father, my family,” says Chen.
After chronicling one of the most difficult childhoods in literary history in Colors, Chen returns to take readers through his young adulthood in Sounds of the River (HarperCollins). The sequel opens with 16-year-old Chen leaving his native rural village of Yellow Stone to begin a new life as a university student at a prestigious Beijing university, and closes with his imminent departure for the promises of faraway America. Sounds, like Colors, is another testament to human survival: from the poverty and near-starvation of his childhood, Chen must face emotional deprivation and blatant corruption, all the while achieving unsurpassed academic success.
How did Sounds of the River come about?
I was watching an Oprah episode, “Why You Came to America,” in which a group of people with devastating backgrounds was assembled to talk about how they landed in this country. It was one of the most empowering shows I had ever seen. One woman survived the killing fields of Cambodia, walking over a hundred miles to get out. This woman talked about how we must defend America, the way it is, because this is one last place that if you are tossed up, beaten, and tortured, you can still come here to relax, to seek comfort, to find peace. This is the world’s last safe harbor. We must not let America be dented in any way, because there will never be another America. Sounds of the River is my own story of how why I came to America.
How did you get from Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska to Columbia University and New York City?
Lincoln turned out to be another tiny town much like my own hometown of Yellow Stone. It is my American home. I loved it there. It was so beautiful. One day, I met a local lawyer who told me that if I could get my Chinese undergraduate degree certified, then I could apply to law school. So after one year at Lincoln, I decided to apply. I studied for the LSATs and I applied to 50 schools. I didn’t want to miss a single school – everyone told me that law school was an impossible dream, that I should go into engineering or computer science. “Well,” I thought, “give me the complete list and I’ll just start from the top down.” I fared pretty well – I got into about 12 law schools. Frankly, I think it was because I was odd. I sent pictures of myself and I told them this story: I wanted to study law because one day in China, a high-ranking official was told that his son had killed someone. Instead of sending his son away, the official ordered his son to come home and the next day, the son was dead. The official said, “I was so mad, I shot him” – and that was the beginning of my essay. When I got into Columbia, I found out that a Beijing classmate was there already. When I was talking with her on the phone, she told me she had to take a subway train to Chinatown. That did it. I had to go to New York, because I had to get to Chinatown.
With whom in China are still in contact? What are they doing?
My four special friends – the four “brothers” – are all scattered. Siang married the dentist’s daughter who was the number-one beauty in Yellow Stone and is working for his brother-in-law, selling shoes in South Africa. Mo Gong is also in shoes – he runs a shoe factory in Yellow Stone, still gambles too much, and is famous for being Yellow Stone’s first divorcé. Sen is still in banking, is very successful and growing wealthy by taking little stakes in each loan. And Yi is still holding onto his grandfather’s job; he’s the only conservative one, not as flexible as the others, but he’s doing fine, too. Once in awhile, we all talk on the phone, we all laugh and say, “How did we do it, how did we survive?” We find it amazing that we’re fathers with decent jobs. I imagine going back and getting drunk with these guys; we would break through the wallpaper of adulthood and talk about what we like to talk about most – that amazing childhood.
Did any other family members get out of China? Where are they now?
My middle sister went to Union College, and became a clothing designer in Queens. Our mother came to attend my wedding after Father passed away and she stayed on. She stayed with my sister at first but now lives with us, helping us with our kids, Michael who is 4 and Victoria who is 7. We are all very happy to have her with us. We recently sent a family photo back to China with all of us wearing western clothes, and my mother was not recognizable because she looked so much younger.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
I feel like I’m writing all the time. It’s all my life – even when I’m not physically writing, I talk about writing, I dream about writing, I live with the books I’m writing and those I haven’t written yet. But I spend as much time as possible with my kids, because playing with them is the most fun part of life.
Are you working on another book?
I have a young adult title, Wandering Warrior, which has just been sold. It’s about a 19th-century boy in China who is taught kung fu by a monk. It sounds and reads like a Chinese Harry Potter. Warner Brothers Hong Kong just optioned it and is making it into a film for 2003. Now I’m working on continuing this Wandering Warrior chronicles.
Will there be a sequel to Sounds?
I’m putting that off for a little bit, although not for too long. I want see how Sounds does. I would like to develop a series of adult fiction – these are all ambitions, and until I put the words down, it doesn’t mean anything. But this writing is a dream come true. I can’t believe what I do every day. I have to pinch myself.
Author interview: “Family Devotions,” aMagazine: Inside Asian America, February/March 2002