Claire Cook is the bestselling author of seven novels, including Must Love Dogs, which became a Warner Bros. movie starring Diane Lane and John Cusack, and the upcoming (in June) Seven Year Switch. I'm thrilled to feature her interview today with novelist Ann Mah, about her experiences writing her debut novel Kitchen Chinese. Ann Mah’s funny and poignant first novel about a young Chinese-American woman who travels to Beijing to discover food, family, and herself is a delight—complete with mouth-watering descriptions of Asian culinary delicacies, from Peking duck and Mongolian hot pot to the colorful, lesser known Ants in a Tree that will delight foodies everywhere. Mah’s tale of clashing cultures, rival siblings, and fine dining is an unforgettable, unexpectedly sensual reading experience—the story of one woman’s search for identity and purpose in an exotic and faraway land.
Claire Cook: It was such a thrill to write a quote for the cover of Kitchen Chinese, Ann. I absolutely adore the book, but I’d also love to share our backstory. You were the assistant editor of my second novel, Must Love Dogs! You were very sweet and unassuming, as well as a fabulous editor, but a couple of insightful comments you made outed you as an emerging writer. I was so excited when I heard you’d written your first novel and truly honored to be an early reader.
Ann Mah: Thank you so much, Claire—I’m blushing! It was delightful working on Must Love Dogs as a young assistant editor, and I’ve been cheering you on ever since. I’ve long admired your funny, heartfelt books—it’s a thrill for me to chat with you now as an author!
Claire Cook: As someone who procrastinated for decades before writing my first novel in my minivan, I love hearing reinvention stories. Okay, so fill me in on what happened between the time you left publishing and the time you re-entered wearing your author hat.
Ann Mah: About a month after I got married, my husband and I moved to Beijing, China. Suddenly, I was a trailing spouse without a job (I had to leave book publishing when we moved), adrift in a vast and monolithic city. Adding to the challenge were issues of cultural and ethnic identity—everyone I met assumed I was Chinese, whereas I felt totally American. Initially, I felt very isolated. But luckily I found my way to an expat magazine where I started to write articles about food, and restaurant reviews. Through the magazine I also made friends, both locals and expats, who sparked my interest in China’s diverse regional cuisine. Food was the bridge that linked me to China. But it was my struggles with identity, with how people perceived me versus how I perceived myself, that made me feel compelled to tell this story. I started out in China lost and aimless, unsure of where life would take me. When I left four years later, I had a better sense of my goals, a thicker skin—and a finished manuscript. That’s probably one of my proudest accomplishments.
Claire Cook: Kitchen Chinese has a lovely autobiographical feel. Was Isabelle Lee’s life based on your own life, or is that an illusion?
Ann Mah: My time in China definitely inspired the novel. But Isabelle and I are very different. Ultimately, I chose to write fiction because I wanted to explore avenues outside my own life in China, such as romantic relationships—I was happily married while writing the book, but Isabelle is single. Cross-cultural romance plays a significant role in her journey towards self discovery and acceptance.
Claire Cook: The cultural tidbits in Kitchen Chinese are among my favorite parts of the books. What was it like, as a Chinese American, to live in Beijing? Is the expat experience different when there's an ancestral link? And what did it feel like when you came back to the United States after a prolonged stay? I guess I’m wondering was there culture shock at both ends?
Ann Mah: Before I moved to Beijing, I lived in New York—which is possibly the most diverse city in the world—and I didn’t think a lot about my racial identity. But in China, my race confronted me on a daily basis. On the one hand, I was relieved to look Chinese because it allowed me to blend in so easily. As long as I kept my mouth shut, no one stared at me. But on the other hand, being a Chinese American in China forced me to question my very sense of self. Chinese people have many misconceptions of Americans, chief among them being that all Americans are white. I was told repeatedly that I couldn’t be an American because I didn’t have yellow hair or a big nose.
Moving back to the States was partly a relief—finally, I felt able to relax. I could live without having to define and defend myself every day. But there was culture shock, too. I missed the vibrant energy of Beijing—and I missed the food with an intensity that surprised me with its fierceness.
Claire Cook: Clearly you are a foodie! Do you have a food blog? What is your favorite dish to cook? Your most recent cooking fiasco?
Ann Mah: I do have a food blog! I live in Paris and writing the blog and taking photos for it has been a wonderful way to observe the city. I love to experiment with a variety of cuisines, sometimes even in the same meal. I think this craving for global flavors is particularly American. As for my most recent cooking fiasco... how much time do you have? I make mistakes in the kitchen all the time, whether it’s burning my toast every morning, or overbaking cookies until they’re tooth-chipping pucks. One thing I’ve learned: texting and cooking are a dangerous combination!