On April 18, 1906, an earthquake of tremendous magnitude – hitting the scales at 7.8 – struck San Francisco, leaving some 3,000 residents dead. Using her family history and her own voice, Stacey Lee was able to weave together historically accurate accounts of not only what it means to survive a disaster, but what it means to be Chinese in America, and relied heavily on oral history, Cantonese translators journals, texts, and museum to craft her newest novel Outrun the Moon.
In Outrun the Moon, Mercy Wong goes up against incredible odds to get into the school of her dreams, and with the help of newfound friends completely changes her community after the tragedy strikes.
This isn’t the first time that Lee has written about Chinese-American culture. Her first novel, Under a Painted Sky also featured a Chinese-American protagonist. Samantha dreams of becoming a musician, but is forced to flee for her life after a tragic accident. Disguising herself as a boy, she and a runaway slave Annamae take the Oregon trail headed for California.
Both novels focus on two very important aspects of Chinese-American culture: the first waves of immigration and the initial reactions to the rooting of Chinese culture in America, specifically on the West Coast.
“My mother was a native San Franciscan whose family grew up in SF Chinatown. She knew people who were displaced after the earthquake, and I always thought it would be interesting to learn what life would’ve been like for a Chinese girl during this calamity, when the rules that governed the unofficial division of people into distinct neighborhoods, no longer applied.”
In both Under a Painted Sky and Outrun the Moon, her characters experience racism against their heritage and culture. Chinese oppression is something historically ignored in American history books, skated over during discussions of the Gold Rush and the Transcontinental Railroad. The Chinese were considered to be barbaric, with heathen customs and unfamiliar foods. Chinese immigrants had to pay head-taxes, and were barred from being recognized as citizens, testifying in court, or owning property. The overwhelming number of Chinese on the West Coast – and the zenophobia stemming from the influx – prompted an outright exclusion of immigration in 1882.
However, Lee confronts these challenges head on. In both of her novels, she writes protagonists who, despite the odds being stacked against them, are unafraid of their opponents and prove them wrong at every step of the way.
“I never write with an agenda. I try to focus on an individual’s story, which, if I’ve done my job right, shows the complexity of the human condition in the context of a particular time period. I try to let the reader arrive at their conclusions about justice/bias based on the narrative I’ve drawn. As far as advice; remember that you have a voice and that you have a say.”
Using her own voice comes with its own difficulties and triumphs, anxieties and reliefs.
“Every time I sit down to write a new project, I’m forced to confront the very real fear that I can’t write another book, and that my first book was just a fluke. It happens every time I return to the drafting process. I compare it to the initial fear of getting into the water, even though you know how to swim. It’s scary going in, because you anticipate how cold and uncomfortable you will be, and the best remedy is to simply jump in and get it over with. Then you warm up, and everything is fine. The second novel comes with more time constraints – deadlines – for sure. But, just like anything, the more you practice, the easier it becomes. That’s not to say that generating ideas become easier, just the mechanics of laying down plot, writing dialogue, identifying weak story structure, etc.”
As many in the YA world know, writing is not an easy process. It involves long nights, messy drafts, and several heavily caffeinated beverages.
“The triumphs are definitely when you’ve created a scene that people want to read again and again. A story is simply a collection of great scenes. The trials for me come with plotting, tying all the scenes together into a cohesive whole. The research aspect of historical fiction is also trying, in particular when you’re reading documents that are two hundred years old and the ink is now fuzzy. My secret weapon against writer’s block is to walk. That always gets ideas flowing for me. Most writers measure their books by word count, but I measure mine by step count”