Interview by Hillary Moses Mohaupt
Qin Sun Stubis grew up a Shanghai shantytown during the Great Chinese Famine, her childhood a reflection of the Cultural Revolution around her. Her once-prestigious family was shunned as political pariahs, and she and her parents and sisters were forced to endure chronic poverty, torture, treacherous political shifts, and even an assassination attempt. Throughout these tumultuous years, Qin’s mother told her daughters the daring stories of their family’s past, filled with pirates and prophecies, fortunes won and lost, glorious lives and gruesome deaths.
These stories form the basis of Once Our Lives (Guernica Editions, June 2023), Qin’s multi-generational memoir of growing up in China in the 1950s and 1960s, before studying to receive degrees in English and English Literature. Now a long-time columnist for The Santa Monica Star, Qin lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
I spoke with Qin by phone just before Mother’s Day during Asian American History Month, both of which seemed fitting timing to discuss a book that owes so much to Qin’s mother.
Hillary Moses Mohaupt: First, congratulations on this book. It was really engrossing and engaging, and I found myself thinking about your family between the times when I picked the book up. I think I saw you mention in an Instagram post that this book was a twenty-year journey. Can you tell me about that journey?
Qin Sun Stubis: It’s the type of life you live and then try to forget. But today is the perfect day to discuss it—I discovered this morning that my book is the number one historical Chinese biographies on Amazon. And I have an op/ed piece running today in USA Today on Asian American Pacific Islander Month.
The book is a labor of love, but it has been a long journey, as long as I have been living my life. My ancestors, all those characters, my mother told me about, described to me, span 100 years. So this journey spans that whole long time as well. They say that when you write a memoir you experience your life three times – the first time when you live it, when you start to know things and grow up, which was a lot, living in a shantytown in Shanghai. My first toys were pebbles and sticks, and my first companions were chickens. But I never really understood that I was poor. I felt my life was colorful and rich because my mother told us exciting stories about pirates and the old days. Gradually as I grew, the stories grew, building with details that fit the age I was in. In a way, I grew up with the stories.
When I grew up enough, I felt my life story became an extension of the stories. Some were hard and painful. So painful, I kept them in a jar in my chest. My mother always encouraged us to move on, to avoid her and my father’s life. I moved to America and got a graduate degree and everything was good. And then my parents died about 20 years ago. And that was when the flood came out of me. The memory jar popped open. I missed them so much, and I think it was a way of coping with grief. I thought of their lives, my lives, the stories my mother told me. In order to cope, I wanted to write those stories down.
And from those little stories to turning it into a book, finding an agent, finding a publisher, it took about twenty years. But that time felt necessary to do justice to their lives. I felt I was their history – somehow they gave me so much, and made me into a history keeper for those people. In writing it I shocked myself – did I go through so much? How can anyone go through so much? But sometimes you don’t have choice.
HMM: This is sort of an unusual memoir, in that at the beginning you say that the family stories in it are, as far as you know, true—they were told to you over and over again. But I found myself marveling at the sheer expansiveness of it. How did you approach the actual writing of this book?
QSS: Few writers would write the way I did. I spent 29 years in China. Even though I studied English and English literature, it was more an appreciation of the language. I never thought I would write. I loved Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, Thomas Hardy, Louisa May Alcott. I saw myself as Jo. She was so strong and she helped her mother. But I never really thought about writing, until I had this urge to I had to write these down.
My husband is American and my kids don’t speak Chinese, so I was forced into English. The first thing I learned was that I couldn’t think and type at the same time. So I used spiral notebooks that my kids were using in elementary school. They were too big to fit in my purse so I cut them in two. I would take my kids to their lessons, and while I waited for them I would be thinking and writing. Eventually I had a pile of notebooks filled with random stories. Those were like a pile of swatches, random fabric, waiting to become a quilt. So then I started the process of sorting through those stories. I typed them up onto the computer and started to figure out the arc—which stories fit into the jigsaw puzzle, the overall theme. It was a long process to figure out how to maximize the stories, and some of the stories were so dear to me that I wanted to find a way to include them.
“Eventually I had a pile of notebooks filled with random stories. Those were like a pile of swatches, random fabric, waiting to become a quilt.” —Qin Sun Stubis
I often could hear my mother’s voice. I felt as if she was there with me, encouraging me. We were such close friends—I never felt she was my mother. I looked up to her like she was my hero, my everything, my closest friend in struggling through that life.
HMM: That really comes through in the book—that admiration for your mother. You recount how she had to leave you alone in your crib at home all day when you were a baby, in order for her to work to make ends meet for your family. And I really admire the way that you handled that story, because there was so much compassion for your mother’s position, I almost forgot that you’re the baby in the story. Can you talk a little bit about how you managed point of view in this book?
QSS: I was an infant, just lying there all day while my mother went to work, and the fact that I survived it was the most important thing. And I never would have learned about this story except for my mother. I have so much admiration and respect for her because she was the one who told me the story many, many times, when I was a teenager. When I was younger I only knew that I was different, that she treated me differently because of what had happened when I was a baby. For example, my mother tied a string from her bed to turn on her light, so she could take me to the bathroom. My mother never criticized me when accidents happened. I think that was the reason she told me the story. She told me she regretted leaving me alone. She was very angry about my father’s family, because they were a wall away that whole time.
There was always someone next door when I was a baby, but nobody ever came and took care of me. They acted as if I did not exist at all. My mother thought she had to work to feed her children, but she didn’t know it would come at such a cost—I had trouble sitting up and walking when I was a toddler. She traded her last gold watch for fish oil and calcium pills, she was worried that I would never be able to walk or sit or stand. So she used her last most valuable thing for me.
Now that I’ve grown up, I wanted to take her perspective and understand how it happened. I don’t want to blame her for anything. But growing up I was upset and angry at my grandparents and aunts, because nobody wanted to take care of me and my sister while my mother was at work.
HMM: Did your feelings about your parents and grandparents change over the course of writing this book?
QSS: Definitely. You live life, and that is more coping with it day to day. And when I write about it, I’m living my life a second time. I’m streaming not just my life, but everyone’s life together and I start to see everything much better. For instance, my grandmother: I never liked her, or understood her, but when I wrote the book I started to see how she became who she was. She was not an unloving, critical, selfish woman. She was actually loving, sensitive, and that was the reason she fed a beggar when she was pregnant with my father. And then because of all the hardship she suffered, she changed. She felt the encounters she had with the beggar caused the family fortune to change. She did not view things in a compassionate way anymore. She was guarding herself more than anything. She saw my sisters and I, the four of us girls, as the product of the unluckiness brought on by the beggar. She didn’t want us. I understood. I didn’t forgive her, but I understood why she was who she was.
My mother and my father fought so much during the political turbulence. I was always on my mother’s side. Why couldn’t my father try to not say things that hurt my mother? But when I wrote the book I started to see how any honest man he was, what a kind man he was. When he gave eggs to his coworkers, I could really see now that he was a wonderful generous man, who would give the shirt on his back to anyone even though he didn’t have much. And I respect and love him now more as a human being.
As a child you always felt that whatever happened, you always look at your mother like she’s a goddess. She will find a way. But when you write your story, you discover that was not the case. She didn’t know what she was doing. But she had this desperation to do anything to keep the family afloat. She found a way—it was impossible, and yet she got my sisters and me out of it. I was in awe. Now that I’m a grown human being myself and have walked through six decades of my own life, I have so much awe and admiration for my parents.
It was quite a journey to relive the second life. But I am really glad that I did it.
HMM: Reading about the Cultural Revolution right now, in this time when the US political landscape is in a different kind of turmoil, made me think a lot about how the political impacts the personal realms—often in very devastating ways and often especially for women. What do you hope readers will take away from Once Our Lives?
QSS: The rest of the world did not know what was going in China, and now we kind of know everything. Somewhere there’s always war, revolution, chaos, violence. As long as there are humans, these things are not avoidable. Yet we also have happiness, love, cohesion–it’s a spectrum. Our lives can always go up and then down. But love is what can always help us overcome anything. It’s like a floating island where we know we will not be drowned. It’s hard. But I want my readers to find love and to understand that you can do anything
I think it’s important for women to come together; that’s another way to overcome a bad situation. My family was my mother and us four—if we were not united and seated together, especially when my father was in prison, we would not have succeeded. Strength comes from not one person, but from a leader, and from helping each other out. It doesn’t matter what’s happening. No one knows us better than our selves – we know our bodies, minds, our needs. People are stronger than they think.
If you told me to read this story, and ask me if I want to live such a life, I’d say why would I choose such a life? And yet we are capable of living through really, really hard times. Yet we live. And when you’re done with it, you’ll look back and say to yourself Wow! We might not choose those extraordinary moments, but when faced with such a situation, be strong. I want to give people who are suffering some hope. They can do it. We are stronger than we think.
And I’m thinking of the Asian angle now. There have been so many Asian hate crimes, but I hope that my book will help the American people understand that Asian people struggle, too. They work hard, they go through injustice. I hope this book helps to humanize Asian populations for Western readers.
“There have been so many Asian hate crimes, but I hope that my book will help the American people understand that Asian people struggle, too.” —Qin Sun Stubi
HMM: How or where do you find support for writing? Who are your first readers?
QSS: I’ve been lucky to have supportive editors and publishers. I’ve been a newspaper columnist for 15 years. I became a columnist after I started writing this book, and it has definitely helped me to pull my thoughts together. I’m grateful to the published of The Santa Monica Star. She gave me my platform, and I have a lot of people in Santa Monica who write to me and tell me how much they love certain columns.
I also got a short story published in England, in a magazine for immigrants and refugees. The publisher has been very supportive of me, and I’ve also had my writing published by Grand magazine, for grandparents, and they have been very supportive of my career.
Last and not least, family, friends, and most outstanding, my husband, Mark Stubis. He has been so supportive, encouraging me, and I’ve really felt he is my friend and my beacon and my love. And my children! My son Keaton Stubis, who is getting his PhD. in mathematics, and my daughter Halley, who was named after the comet, and is currently galley director at the oldest artist’s coop in Washington, D.C. She did all my posters and ads – she designed a bookmark to go with the book, which is beautiful. Through my children I gained a childhood – it made me very happy. And my shelter dog, Banjo! When there was no one else around, I would tell him stories.
We have a fun family, and we’re really happy. After what I went through as a child, I feel that happiness is the most important thing in the world. Life is so precious. We have very little time here. You yourself should not be the thing that brings yourself unhappiness. You yourself should not be against yourself. You are your own guardian.
About the Author: Qin Sun Stubis was born in the squalor of a Shanghai shantytown during the Great Chinese Famine. Growing up during the Cultural Revolution, she quickly learned that words could thrill – and even kill. For the past 15 years, Qin has been a newspaper columnist and writes poems, essays, short stories, and original Chinese tall tales inspired by traditional Asian themes. Her writing is inflected with both Eastern and Western flavors in ways that transcend geography to touch hearts and reveal universal truths. Learn more: www.QinSunStubis.com.