Your story “Lu, Reshaping” revolves around a character who has emigrated from Hong Kong to Canada and is now held back by racism in her professional life. What prompted you to write this story?

Photograph by Basso Cannarsa / Alamy

When I was growing up in Vancouver, the immigrant community around me was very entrepreneurial—running diners and takeout restaurants, small shops, import-and-export businesses, and so on. But my mother, for decades, worked in industry, first as clerical support in corporate offices and, later, in managerial positions. She died at the age of fifty-eight, when I was in my twenties. Even though “Lu, Reshaping” is not about her, the story was a way for me to think about the loneliness of an immigrant, a woman, trying to support her family with work for which she has a proven ability but for which she will never be promoted beyond a fixed point.

The story is set about thirty years ago. Why did you choose that time period?

It’s a funny thing, but I keep writing about the generation above me. I think it helps me see my own time and my own constraints. Lu is a forerunner. There’s no simple model for her life—she steps into a new country, a new language, new jobs, a new feminism, new forms of sexual liberation. It’s the nineteen-eighties, phone calls and flights are prohibitively expensive, and Lu’s sisters are scattered around the world. To survive, she has to have a thick skin and a kind of emotional agility. First-generation immigrants are known for the sacrifices and the hardships they undergo, but I think we, their children, also know them as fierce. The level of fight, adaptability, and sheer stubbornness my parents displayed, despite great sorrows, was something to behold.

Lu can’t control what happens at the office—or how she is perceived there. Is it in reaction to that that she takes control of her emotional and sexual life in the way that she does?

I have a feeling it’s in her nature. Lu respects her own desires. She’s also pragmatic. She’s funny. She’s a rare combination of passion and realism. She seems to see very early—and with great clarity—that she must be the ultimate judge of her own worth and of her own ethics, because this is her life and no one else’s. I think this kind of clarity is a very uncommon thing.

Lu appreciates pleasure, both sexual and material. Is that a natural part of her character or a rebellion against the stereotype of the self-sacrificing, submissive Asian immigrant? Or both?

I can almost see her folding laundry in a mad rush, looking over at us, and saying, “Should? What is ‘should’?” She is extremely no-nonsense! I think enjoyment of sexual pleasure is a part of her nature, and she doesn’t want to waste time by denying it. While writing the story, I sometimes wondered if she was seeking the kind of belonging that she found with Arduous Wu before he died. Ecstasy as a kind of transient belonging—to be fully at home in one’s senses, led there through the touch of another person.

She is, at first, surprised when she realizes that her colleagues see her as submissive and as a “natural subordinate”—it’s completely at odds with how she views herself. Their projection onto her is so strong that they can’t really see Lu outside of that framing. They find it deeply perplexing when she just goes on being Lu.

Lu seems surprisingly unruffled by her co-workers’ biased views of her—she’s comfortable in her own view of herself. Or isn’t she? What causes her debilitating panic attacks?

I wonder if the panic comes from perceiving the limitations of her place in the company, and in that particular world. I think she’s in a box, but for years she tells herself that, if she attains certain accreditations, the company will have no choice but to lift her up. I think she is deeply disoriented when she begins to realize that this is not the case. It takes her a long time to be angry, and even then the anger is not fully formed. Maybe the panic is a sense of loss, connected to the helplessness and disappointment that she does not permit herself to feel.

It’s difficult to write about racism without taking a judgmental stance. How did you approach that when creating Miranda, Sheila, and others?

I think that the proximities and intimacies of the workplace create an incoherent environment for Miranda, Sheila, Antoinette, and the group. Like Lu, they’re women rising through middle management, taking risks, trying to figure out how to belong. The jokes, camaraderie, taboo-breaking, the sexual liaisons, flirtations, jocularity, the interest in power—things that Lu identifies as bravado and dissatisfaction mixed together—form the atmosphere of this particular office. Miranda, Antoinette, and the others allow themselves to be shaped by these things. It’s their way of belonging, and of assuming centrality.

It’s not surprising that Lu is the outsider, or that she seems both threatening (i.e., foreign) and nonthreatening (i.e., subordinate). There must be many women like Lu in the workplace, barely noticed, but who notice a great deal.

Shame and belonging are two motifs in the story. How do you see them playing out in Lu’s life?

Yes, they’re the heart of this story. The world keeps changing its judgment of her, and she knows it. Arduous tells her, “Life doesn’t ask us to pay a debt of shame.” I think that this thought recurs throughout her life: Who or what is asking for my shame? Who or what needs my shame for its own continuance?

You mentioned that you’ve been working on this story for years. Why did it take so long?

I used to think it was because Lu is so reticent—years went by when she wouldn’t explain herself, and I just had to wait. Now I think that I loved reëntering the story, that I liked her company, her jokes, her rarity. I think maybe I didn’t want to send her out into the world, where she would be judged. But she’s fine with it. And I think that’s why I feel I’ve written the story’s last sentence, and it’s O.K. to let her go.


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