Zibby is joined by debut memoirist Anna Qu to discuss Made in China: A Memoir of Love and Labor, which is out today. The two discuss the trauma endured during Qu’s childhood, how she managed to reconcile her memory with government documents that didn’t tell her full story, and why she remains incredibly grateful for those who saw her value when her family did not.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Anna. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Made in China: A Memoir of Love and Labor.

Anna Qu: Hi, Zibby. Thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited. This is my first podcast. I’ve been looking forward to it.

Zibby: Ooh. I feel like publicists put me first for a lot of authors because it’s like a warm, gentle introduction or something.

Anna: That’s great. I like that.

Zibby: Everybody else will ask you this as well, so you might as well have a good answer ready. What is your book about?

Anna: Thank you for asking. Made in China: A Memoir of Love and Labor is my first book. It’s a memoir. It really centers around one single moment. It’s the perceived betrayal of calling child services on my family after they put me to work at their sweatshop in Queens, New York. The book opens in the factory. Then we figure out how I got there. Then the second half of the book really centers around when I write to child services for the records and what happens once I find those records.

Zibby: Wow. I love the way you write. You don’t waste words. There’s no unnecessary flourishes. Yet it’s still literary and beautiful. It really puts you right in all of these situations, whether you’re running around barefoot in your neighborhood in China before you moved or you’re in college making the phone call. All these moments are so clear. I think that’s where the best writing comes, when you can just completely put yourself in but you’re not totally distracted by the language.

Anna: Thank you. That’s actually been a huge goal of mine, to really allow the language to tell the story. I also spent a lot of time working on it, so it wasn’t as sentimental as it maybe originally started out to be.

Zibby: Interesting. I just wanted to read an example. There were a couple passages that were — they were all really great. Let me read this one. It says, “It is not my rage, but my mother’s that hits me sometimes, an inheritance that the women in my family bear each day. We swallow parts of ourselves, instinctively neutralizing ourselves to fit the mold society has put us in. We are working women, women whose stories hold little value, women whose stories are not believed, women whose stories do not matter. All three generations of my family starting with my grandmother, and probably going back further than that, were taught to be daughters, child bearers, caregivers, and laborers, women born to carry more than their weight. Untethered anger stirs in all of us and eventually becomes a tight ball of bitterness and resentment handed down generation after generation, a rage that hides the fear of being forgotten, of being less than, of being obsolete. I can tell the weight isn’t solely mine the way I can tell when someone having a bad day suddenly snaps and transfers their mood to me. When it comes, it’s a tidal wave, and the impact takes out everything in its path.” Wow, so great, oh, my gosh. Also, your mother’s rage and your mother’s moods and her parenting, that’s something that, as you admit in the book, you have to wrestle with every day. That has affected all of your relationships going forward, especially the fact that you had these two half-siblings who got completely different treatment. Tell me more about that.

Anna: One of the hardest things for me as a child was really witnessing how much they were treated differently, better. I couldn’t do better than them in school. They had an allowance when I didn’t. Then it also became very complex. When my stepfather had business meetings where the entire family was invited, I was often left out. What that meant was everything around it, so obviously, my mom going shopping and buying them outfits for the said event and then the preparation and then them leaving in the car. I’m just kind of hanging out alone in the house. It was really hard to watch that, to know that there was this other side of my family that I just could not access. As a young child, luckily, I was raised by my grandparents. I knew that I deserved love. I knew what love was. Part of the reason I fought so hard when I was young, and maybe in a lot of ways escalating the situation myself, was because I wanted something that just did not belong to me. I just didn’t understand why.

Zibby: I’m so sorry that this happened. I wanted to go back in your story and have you just stay with your grandparents. Even the moment with this one particularly intimate moment with your stepfather and what happened when you tried to talk about it and the reaction of your whole extended family, and then he’s still your stepfather. What do you do with something like that?

Anna: Actually, my perspective on my stepfather has really changed since I started writing this book. As a child, I didn’t see any cruelty from him in any way. All I wanted was his love. All I pined for was his attention. Again, that was something my mother made very clear was not mine. In my child’s eye, he could do no wrong. If I had a savior, it would’ve been him. Really, writing, spending so much time working on this book and really thinking about — this conversation is so relevant — just complacency of a parent who allows their partner to abuse their child and also questioning how good that person really is and what their responsibilities are, the way I write his character really changed. I’m sure no one who knows him would be happy with how I wrote him. From my perspective, I think a lot of this book is about responsibility, so I felt like I had to also point to that as well.

Zibby: When you look back on those conversations you had with Mrs. V, I think that’s what you called her, who’s the one who eventually interfered — that’s the wrong word — intervened on your behalf and helped call child services and all of that, what do you make of that whole situation? It so easily could’ve not happened. You could’ve just stayed and all of that. Are you in touch? What’s the ending of the story? What do you think about it, all the time you’ve had to process for writing this book and everything?

Anna: I actually tried to find her as I was writing the book to thank her. I actually called the school a couple of times. I sent a couple of emails. From what I understand, she’s no longer working. I think she’s retired. It was really funny because I think the person on the phone or email was just kind of like, I’m sure she knows that you’re grateful. I was like, okay. I guess, thanks. I would’ve loved to have spoken to her as an adult to get a sense of what she remembered and how she remembers it.

Zibby: Maybe she’ll find this book in a bookstore and have this big connection.

Anna: That would be amazing.

Zibby: If that happens, you have to post it. Then tag me so I know or something. I would really love to hear if that happens.

Anna: Maybe she’s listening to this podcast.

Zibby: Maybe she’s listening. Wow, that would be amazing.

Anna: That would be amazing. She and the bilingual social worker, Mary, in this book really changed my life. It’s so funny because perhaps it was just another day for both of them, but it was such a colossal, massive change for me. Even the person that helped me become financially independent in college so that I could go to college, I remember him. I remember crying hysterically after because I was just so happy that this was happening. Even in that moment, I knew that I was able to get Mary to sign this letter and I was going to college because I called child services on my family. Even that, it just got really complicated. I had a sense of what I had done for myself. I always believed that one of the bravest things I ever did was call child services on my family because it really changed my life. That also meant when I received the records from child services, I was so devastated. It just felt like a truck hit me and I had been living a lie for the last, I think at that point it was over fifteen years.

Zibby: Wow. Are you in touch with — the grandparents are your mom’s parents, right?

Anna: Yeah. I’m not in touch with really anyone from my father’s side. That gets also pretty complicated. My mother was really angry with them because after my father died, they didn’t really help her very much. When she remarried, she just cut us off from them. I actually found them again relatively recent through 23andMe, of all things. There’s some sort of relationship now, but I don’t even have a relationship with my mother right now.

Zibby: Do you have family ties? Do you feel good about anyone in your family? I know you had gone back — well, you tell me. Do you have support? Are you okay? Where’s your emotional support coming from?

Anna: I am okay. I don’t have family support. I don’t have emotional support from my family in pretty much any way. I don’t have financial support from my family in any way. That’s been a really hard, really devastating part of the process for me. Writing this book has — I can’t say that it’s made it worse, but I think it’s allowed them to have a reason not to be in touch with me or not to be more understanding about where I’m coming from. I’ve lived this life for thirty-seven years now, so I also know that if I didn’t write this book, nothing would change. The book doesn’t change anything. I haven’t seen my mother since before 2015. I often wonder how she’s doing and how she’s aging. She’s actually really close. I’m in Brooklyn. I’m in Park Slope. She’s in Whitestone, Queens. There’s just something we can’t bridge with one another. If I had to point to it and say what it was, I would say it’s that she never put me as a priority in her life. She continues to be firm about where that is, where my placement is in her life. That’s very difficult for me to consistently be treated so differently from my other siblings. Luckily, I’m in a place in my life where I’m so very fortunate to have grown up here, to have been able to get an education, go to college, go to grad school. Without it, I would’ve been dependent on her.

If I didn’t call child services, I don’t know what my life would’ve been like. It’s possible that I would’ve kept working at the factory. It’s possible that I would never have gotten to where I am today. A lot of the freedom at that time when I was fifteen, sixteen — I wasn’t allowed to go over at a friend’s house. My friends weren’t able to visit me. I could never go out. All I did was home, factory, school. After Mary got involved, she loosened her very tight hold on me. That was great. I stopped working at the factory. Mary also knew a lot more. It was also really difficult to navigate. I am an immigrant, but my parents are also immigrants. I’m the first child, so they really didn’t know a lot of things. For example, I didn’t even know I could get a part-time job or that there was a part-time job posting at my high school. It was Mary who told me to go and look. That’s how I found my first job in the real world. That allowed me freedom. Mary convinced my mother to allow me to keep the money I earned for the very first time. She encouraged her to come with me to a local bank and open up an account so that I could start saving that money. Those were huge milestones that I could not have been able to just get out of my mother on my own. It had to be a third person. Because of all of that, I am where I am today.

Zibby: What about your relationship with your half-siblings, Gilly and Henry?

Anna: I don’t have much of a relationship with them. Actually, I was very, very — I’ve been thinking about writing about it, but I haven’t. My brother got married a couple of years ago. I wasn’t invited to the wedding. That was really devastating to find out from not my immediate family. Then I tried to send gifts. I texted my brother. Both my siblings don’t really respond to me. He ended up responding. I said I wanted to send him a gift. Could he send me his address? He wouldn’t even give me his address. He gave me my parents’ address. I was like, “Are you still living at home?” He said yes, but I know that that’s not true. He didn’t even want to give me his address so I could send a gift for his wedding. Then they got pregnant, had a kid. Again, I asked a very simple question. “Is it a boy or a girl?” It was like, “It’s a boy.” I’m like, “What’s his name?” They wouldn’t tell me his name.

Zibby: Anna, I am so sorry. I don’t know in what planet they feel like this is okay or how they rationalize to themselves. It is so cruel and terrible. I am just so sorry that this is the family you were born into. I am glad you’ve been able to find some way to process and that you’re sharing your story with the rest of the world. It’s just really heartbreaking.

Anna: Yeah, it is. There’s so much that was left out of the book. I’m so conscious of the cycle of the trauma that it was really important to me that I didn’t relay that trauma to the readers as well. I really thought about what needs to go in the book. There’s a lot of things that didn’t go into the book because I didn’t think it served the story. I didn’t want to overwhelm the book with the abuse that I had to deal with. That wasn’t why I wrote the book.

Zibby: Was there something particularly awful that you didn’t want to put in that you want to tell me? You don’t have to.

Anna: No. Actually, I read the forward for Autobiography of a Face, which is one of my favorite books, and I remember Lucy Grealy, who is the author —

Zibby: — That was so good, by the way, oh, my god.

Anna: Yeah, so good. She talks about protecting the reader and not having to share the worst thing that happened to you to be able to tell a story. I’m a firm believer in that. A lot of the choices to keep this book balanced was an effort. The tender moments in this book took me a long time to find and flesh out. I think the two key moments are when my mother comes to my first graduation. It happens to be grad school. She had never come to a single graduation before, but she came. It was like she was standing up for me. This was her fighting the world for me. There’s just so much distance between us. It’s really, really difficult. I know she feels like the victim in a lot of ways. I think they feel like they’re protecting themselves from me in a lot of ways. There’s not really any way around that. I don’t really have any other family, so this is sort of what I’ve got.

Zibby: Wow. It’s just amazing. There must have been someone, or maybe not, who was some sort of external mentor to you. I know you went to grad school and got an MFA and all that. When did you know that the writing would be some sort of salvation to you? Did you have some teacher or somebody who was like, “You’re really good at this. Keep going,” or anyone who you were like, “Thank you so much. Here’s the book”? Is there anyone like that, or are you just totally renegade, on your own, doing it?

Anna: I actually have never thought I was a very good writer. No instructor, no professor has ever told me that, actually.

Zibby: What?

Anna: The story and writing this has always felt like a vocation. I did try to run away from it. I didn’t really want to be a writer just because I needed financial support. It’s something that I really struggle with having left home at seventeen, eighteen. My sense of stability was really so centered around being able to provide for myself, which is also why I thought it really works to have labor in this book and how our identities are so close to our place in our family and then our place in where we end up with work as well and the dynamics there. I went to Binghamton for undergrad because it was the best school for the cheapest price that I could go. Grad school was a huge gift to myself. I wanted to be confident. I wanted to know about craft. I wanted to learn. I wanted to become a writer. I’ve always struggled with it. English isn’t my first language. I still make grammatical mistakes all the time. I don’t know why, but I do. Unless something really affects me and I can’t let it go, I don’t usually write about it. Now with the book coming out, I’m really hoping that I could change the way I work. I’m trying to get into teaching full time. We’ll see, but I’m really excited about this new path. I think it’s going to be much better for me than being an office manager at some startup where I break down twenty-five boxes in a day and put out snacks. I’m like, oh, I think a monkey could do this.

Zibby: Have you been in touch at all or do you have any events planned with Jean Kwok who wrote Searching for Sylvie Lee?

Anna: No.

Zibby: I’m going to introduce you after this.

Anna: Yes, please.

Zibby: She’s amazing. She’s a best-selling author. She actually lives in the Netherlands right now because she married somebody from there. Her book is set in Queens. It’s an immigrant story. Her parents worked at the dry cleaner. It’s fiction, but it’s based on her life. She’s a little bit older. I think you guys should talk. I think she should moderate an event for you or something if you have something coming up.

Anna: That would be cool.

Zibby: Maybe through your publicist, you could send me your email or something like that. I’ll connect the two of you. She contributed to my anthology. I just adore her. I feel like you need a role model. I feel like I want to give you a guide or somebody to help. Not that you need it. Maybe it’s too mothering of an instinct of me, but I want to give you a hug and have somebody tell you that you’re not alone. It’s amazing what you’ve been able to do. This book is fantastic. I really hope that tons of people read it and learn your story and that you feel the outpouring of affection and goodwill and all of that that comes from what the readers will undoubtedly feel after reading.

Anna: I hope so. When I was working on this book, I held it so close to my chest. Before I sent it out to agents, maybe two of my friends had read it. No one had read it. I worked on it for almost ten years. I just wanted it to be mine. I didn’t want to think about the readers. I didn’t want to think about editing it to anybody else’s feedback. Now it’s really exciting to see it reach the world. This is a story that not a lot of people know about. I don’t talk about it. I think it’s part of the assimilation. I think there’s some shame around it as well. I’ve never felt like I could really talk about what was happening at home even with other Asian friends. That was always difficult for me. When you’re young and you’re in college, the kids didn’t know what to do. They couldn’t really help me. They didn’t know how to deal with it.

Zibby: What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Anna: Ooh, that’s a great question. I would say keep working on what you’re working on until you get it right. It’s a very long process. It takes years. Also, know that that’s part of the best process, when you’re working on it alone before other people get involved in your book, before readers get to read it too.

Zibby: Excellent. Anna, thank you so much. We’ll stay in touch. I’ll put you guys together. I’m really so rooting for you here when this book comes out.

Anna: Thank you so much. This has been so great. Bye, Zibby.

Zibby: Bye. Congrats on doing your first interview. See, not so bad, right?

Anna: It went great. I didn’t cry. Excellent.

Zibby: Excellent. Check plus. Bye.



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