Karen Ma has lived a combined 20 years in China and Japan working as a writer and journalist. Born in China, she was brought up in Hong Kong and Japan and has a M.A. in Chinese language and literature from the University of Washington.
Her debut novel, Excess Baggage (2013) is the story of two Chinese sisters, one raised in China during the Cultural Revolution; the other in Japan during the freewheeling years of bubble capitalism. They reunite as adults in Tokyo in the early 1990s and must confront their vastly different expectations, dreams and value systems. She is also the author of the 1996 non-fiction book, Modern Madam Butterfly: Fantasy and Reality of Japanese Cross-cultural Relationships.
Karen Ma lives in New Delhi, where she has created a Chinese language learning curriculum for middle school students.
Why I write
I write to remember events in my life. I write to work things I’m struggling with. I started out as a “third-culture kid” before the term was popular, moving from China to Hong Kong and eventually to Japan, all before I turned 17. I had so many unanswered questions about identity, where I fit in, why I was destined to be an outsider. I found writing a soothing way to clear my head and attach some meaning to what I was experiencing.
What sort of writing habits do you keep?
No, I don’t write every day and I don’t work towards a daily word count, although I admire those who can. I write whenever I can, usually in fits and starts. When I was working on my novel, I’d sometimes write non-stop for a whole week before taking a break to catch up on my freelance writing. At other times, my manuscript would sit there for weeks. In general, I write between 9am and 2pm. I found I’m more productive earlier in the day. By late afternoon, I tend to get distracted. And being a mother means you always have that deadline of kids coming home, which gives me an incentive to focus while I can.
Describe the physical domain of your writing space…
At one point I had a study with a desk and several bookshelves. But because the room was not properly wired and had no Internet access, which I used for research, I ended up moving to our dining room. Now I work wherever I can with my laptop, just as long as there’s Internet access, on my bed, in the living room, or especially at a coffee shop where the constant flow of people is somehow conducive to my scribbling.
How often do you get writers’ block and how do you overcome it?
I don’t tend to get writer’s block a lot. When I do, I find it helpful to do something creative that’s not related to writing. Going to a museum or watching a movie helps, even taking a walk. It helps me take my mind off my writing. Sometimes I work through the plot twist or structural problem doing something mundane, such as cooking a meal or doing dishes when I’ve allowed my mind to disengage. I find even when I’m not actively “writing,” my brain continues to grapple with it behind the scenes.
Worst source of distraction and best source of inspiration?
Emails and Facebook are definitely the worst. Going to a museum, reading and exercising are inspiring.
Do you ever doubt your ability as a writer?
Yes, all the time. But I try not to let it take over. I tend to focus on the project and the bigger picture, which seems to help me overcome my doubts.
When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
When I was in fifth grade. My father was a scholarly type who didn’t get to write his books because of work and other constraints, but he channeled a lot of his aspirations my way by encouraging me to write and helping me with my Chinese homework essays. Although he was separated from the family before I turned 13, he planted the seed that kept me going. I probably wrote initially because I wanted him to be proud of me. But as I became older, I found it very powerful and therapeutic, and I kept at it.
How did you get started writing?
I was in Seattle working towards my master’s degree in literature when I saw an ad in a local Chinese-language newspaper for freelance writers. I answered the ad and started writing articles. Then I started writing and translating articles for the English edition of a Japanese paper when I returned to Japan. It took me a while to find my way writing for US-based publications such as Newsday, the International Herald Tribune and Life.
You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
“Passionate but naïve.”
Does writing change anything?
Yes, good writing definitely does. It raises questions and inspires people to do more themselves and for the world. It can also help change people’s perceptions about parts of the world they haven’t been to.
Contemporary writer you always read?
Jonathan Spence, Ian Buruma and Pico Iyer.
Cao Xueqin and Emily Bronte.
Dream of the Red Chambers and Wuthering Heights.
Favourite Chinese author?
Wang Anyi and Cao Xueqin.
Best book about China?
Cheng Nien’s Life and Death in Shanghai and Jonathan D. Spence’s The Search for Modern China.
The book you should have read but haven’t?
Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
What are you working on now and when is it out?
After spending a decade writing my novel, I’m going to take a break and try writing non-fiction again. I have a couple of book ideas that I’m working on, but I’m still at the early stage of my research, so no telling what the future holds. But I’m excited about writing again.
Posted: Thursday, February 27, 2014