How I (Sort Of) Turned My Life Into A Novel
When I describe my novel to someone new and they hear it’s the story of a Chinese-Hawaiian family, while simultaneously seeing my Chinese-Hawaiian face, I inevitably get the same question: So, is this book about you? Is Diamond Head based on a true story? It becomes even harder to deflect when they see the cover — a girl with the same coloring as me, who could easily be my blood relation. It’s difficult not to draw conclusions, and while I always searched for a satisfying response, I answered this question incorrectly for months.
Writing stories based in personal experience, in family lore, is nothing new. Neither is the presumption from readers that the main character is the author, or that the mother figure is modeled after an actual mother. I’m extremely guilty of this, drawing tenuous parallels between fact and fiction. In This Is How You Lose Her, I googled endlessly trying to figure out if Junot Díaz actually lost his fiancée by cheating with fifty women. While reading Cutting Teeth , I entered “Julia Fierro young children” into the search bar and worried that my wording was creepy, that I would be added to a neighborhood watch list in the nicest part of Brooklyn.
Tayari Jones said it perfectly: "When it comes to memoir, we want to catch the author in a lie. When we read fiction, we want to catch the author telling the truth." At times, I feel like I set a trap for myself by writing my novel the way I did. I named characters after real family members, but made them entirely different people. I used real facts from real family history, but dropped them into a fictional plot. My answer, when people ask about the book’s veracity, has been crafted by trial and error.
Early on, because of the book’s Hawaiian inception, and because people seemed excited by the idea of knowing real family secrets, I said I was indeed writing a book about my family, not knowing how the flood gates would open. I was hit with a deluge of family stories, many of which were helpful and fascinating — but these stories also came with the expectation that they would be used, that somewhere in our family’s saga, some piece of them would appear. From friends and strangers, there was almost morbid interest in how things connected. Was someone in my family a murderer? Who was the sexy brother?
I was forced to take a step back. Was I really writing a story about my family? Were the characters actually modeled after my relatives? The answer, I found, was no, and beneath that no were the ambiguities of fact and fiction I’d yet to tackle. Sure, my family was from Hawaii and my grandparents live in the towns that appear in my novel and the pages are filled with my family’s favorite foods — but the meat of the story, the heart of the plot and the characters had very little to do with my family. I’d transferred emotions to the page, feelings that were important to my loved ones, feelings that came out in conversations and interviews, but these feelings did not translate to a true story about my family. I had gotten lost in the romanticism of telling people what I thought they wanted to hear: that this tragic story was my life, that I am a sad and ill-fated member of an illustrious billionaire shipping family.
I used real facts from real family history, but dropped them into a fictional plot. My answer, when people ask about the book’s veracity, has been crafted by trial and error.
Next, I began to use the word based. The novel was based in family stories, in real life history. This approach garnered different responses. Mainly, how nice it must be to have Hawaii as a personal backdrop, how advantageous to have such an interesting story in which to base my writing. I became aware of the feeling that people thought I was given a shortcut to a novel, like a niece given a dubious job by her powerful uncle. I was uncomfortable with my answer; it still wasn’t true and it showed.
As my book releases, I’ve settled on using percentages. Eighty percent fiction, 20 percent family stories. This percentage is correct; after four years of bumbling through my response to a question I’d never fully considered, I have an answer that satiates a wide spectrum of question-askers, because it rings true. It’s remarkable how much this matters, how reactions can be quelled when there’s authenticity and thought in the response. It’s clear to me that readers are not trying to poke holes in stories or catch authors in lies. It’s about a desire for deeper understanding, because looking for meaning and truth is how a lot of us make sense of stories.
Readers are not trying to poke holes in stories or catch authors in lies. It’s about a desire for deeper understanding, because looking for meaning and truth is how a lot of us make sense of stories.
As a first time novelist, the process of building characters into real people can be confusing because they feel real, they feel like family, and because of the strong correlation between my heritage and my story, it took some time to untangle reality from its fictional counterparts. I battled with an insecurity that my fiction could stand alone, that fiction itself can be just as brave and exciting without alluding to a foundation of painful truth. There is a learning curve to this, at least there was for me, and at the eleventh hour, I’m finally coming to terms with the long, convoluted process of distilling experiences both real and imagined, and understanding the myriad, cacophonous forces that bring a book to life.
Images: nanpalmero/flickr; Getty Images