Belinda Huijuan Tang, A MAP FOR THE MISSING

Belinda Huijuan Tang, A MAP FOR THE MISSING

Zibby interviews debut author Belinda Huijuan Tang about A Map for the Missing, a mesmerizing and propulsive intergenerational mystery about a math professor who, after ten years in America, returns to rural China to search for his missing father. Belinda reveals that the novel is based on her own great-grandfather’s disappearance and explains how each element of the story draws on her own family’s history. She also talks about the publishing process and how she became a writer in the first place (it involved quitting a very boring cubicle job, studying in China, and attending the Iowa Writer’s Workshop!). You can meet Belinda in person on February 19 at 12 pm ET at Zibby’s Bookshop, where she will be signing books!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Belinda. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Belinda Huijuan Tang: I’m so glad to be here. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. Tell listeners, please, about A Map for the Missing.

Belinda: A Map for the Missing begins when Tang Yitian receives a call from his mother back home in China that tells him that his estranged father has gone missing. Yitian is currently a professor in the United States. He and his father have not spoken in over fifteen years. The story follows Yitian as he travels back to China and looks for his father. It also unfolds the story of their original estrangement, which happened back when Tang was growing up in a village in rural China at the very end of the Cultural Revolution.

Zibby: Why did you write this story?

Belinda: The story is based on something that happened to my own father when he was growing up. A lot of the elements from A Map for the Missing are drawing on my own family’s history. It’s based in the village that my family is from in Anhui Province. My father grew up there. He was the first in his family to leave the village to go to college. When he got into the college, the summer before he was supposed to go to the city to start, his own grandfather went missing. His grandfather, like Yitian’s grandfather in the book, had been the one who had really raised him and inculcated this love for education and learning in him. My dad spent that summer riding trains around the province trying to find his grandfather. They never actually were able to find him. That was a story that I had grown up with hearing a lot about. Obviously, I knew it was something that was really difficult for my dad to touch and talk about. For me, writing the book was a way of exploring a story that always weighed heavily on me and I could tell weighed heavily on my family.

Zibby: Do they have any guesses as to what happened to your grandfather? Were there any clues?

Belinda: Not really. My great-grandfather, my dad’s grandfather, was —

Zibby: — I’m sorry. Your dad’s grandfather.

Belinda: He was older at this point. For me to say what happened to him in real life might spoil some of the book, so I won’t say much about it. They really never found out much information. It was a different time. It was 1981 or ’82. There just wasn’t a set-up system for looking for people.

Zibby: How does your dad feel about the book and even the fact that you are writing the book about his family? Is it something he was okay talking about or something he preferred to keep sort of shoved down?

Belinda: It was interesting because I also had trouble talking about it with him. Our relationship in real life is mirroring aspects of the book because the book is, in a lot of ways, dealing with a family’s failure to be able to communicate and be able to talk about their love for one another. I also really struggled to talk to my dad about this book when I was writing it. I wrote it really, actually, without asking him much about his own story. I wrote it based on my memory of things he had told me. It was only really at the very end after the book had sold and after I’d finished a revision with my editor that I felt like, I have to show this book to my dad because it’s based so much on him. It was very emotional to finally have that moment. He told me he cried. He wrote me a letter based on what had actually happened. We still haven’t talked about it very much after that, but we did have tat major moment around it, which felt important.

Zibby: Wow, crazy. What if he had said no? What if after you went through all the edits and you showed it to him, he was like, “I don’t want this out there”?

Belinda: That would’ve been interesting. I never thought about that.

Zibby: I know it’s fiction. It’s not like you need permission.

Belinda: I felt confident I’d fictionalized enough that it wouldn’t feel like Tang Yitian is my dad. Then the other thing is that I really tried hard through the course of the book to give Tang Yitian moments where we could see his closeness with his family and, at the end of the book, to make this feel like a story of growth for Tang Yitian, that he can realize something at the end of the book that this journey has put him through that allows him to realize that he didn’t start the book with at the beginning. Through my love for that character, I would hope my dad would not have said something like that. I don’t know what I would’ve done had he been like, give the money back. The book is not coming out.

Zibby: I saw you went to Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Did you work on this there? Tell me about when this started and how you got into writing to begin with.

Belinda: I started the book probably about half a year before I got to Iowa. I finished the draft in Iowa. It was a really important time because I was in a workshop that was all people that were working on novels. I got a tremendous amount of really great feedback. That was when I finished the book and revised it and sent it to an agent. At Iowa, I did the biggest chunk of work on this book, I would say. I had started thinking about this story maybe four or five years before I started actually writing it. I knew when I started writing creatively at all that I wanted this to be the very first novel that I wrote. For a long time, I felt like, this story is so important to me, and I know I’m not ready yet. I don’t have the skills to write this story. Even when I actually did start, I wasn’t sure I’m ready to write this yet. It just felt like, okay, this is time to start. I didn’t start writing until after I graduated from college. I’d never written creatively until my very last semester in college. I took a class on a whim because I was about to graduate. I just loved it. Because for me, I felt like I’d started later compared with everyone else, I had a lot of hang-ups of feeling like, I’m not ready. I’m not good enough yet. That’s why it took me a long time. I was writing alone in my room. I was really practicing before I felt ready to start writing this novel.

Zibby: What was your plan? What were you going to do had you not taken that class, after college?

Belinda: I had majored in economics. I worked in economics research for a couple years, actually, right after graduating. I wasn’t, at that point, sure at all, I’m going to become a writer. I didn’t actually really even think about it until I was at my first job. I was experiencing what a lot of people feel when they start working, which is, wow, this is really not for me. This is awful. I was just sitting in my cubicle every day. I can’t believe I majored in this and thought that I was going to do my life in this field. That was when I was like, what else do I like? I really enjoyed that writing class. I started writing more on my own and kind of staking a little piece of land for myself there.

Zibby: You started writing a little bit on your own. Were there intermediate steps, or did you just apply to Iowa? I’m always interested of how people ended up there.

Belinda: There were intermediate steps. Like I said, I had this really big feeling like, I’m not good. I’m not ready. I was like, I need to get skills. I took a couple community writing classes, both in San Francisco and at Stanford through continuing education. I really recommend that for people who are like, I’m interested in writing. It was a nice way to explore and not feel like I’m blowing my life up. I still have my job. I still am doing all the other things that I could do if this doesn’t work out and I don’t really like it as much as I thought. After I’d taken a couple of those classes, I felt more certain. It was at that point that I left my job. I went and moved to China for a couple years. I went there to do a master’s degree. I had an opportunity to do a fully funded master’s degree, so I thought, let’s do it, but also because I felt like I was writing so much about China, and I really wanted to spend time there. For me, that felt like the first time that I really made a decision to say, I want to be a full-time writer. I’m going to actively change up my life so that I could pursue that.

Zibby: Where did you go in China?

Belinda: I was in Beijing for two years.

Zibby: Amazing. That must have colored how you wrote about everything, soaking up all the culture and everything. That’s a stupid observation. Must have really changed the tenor and the depth of the narrative.

Belinda: It was so important to how I wrote and how I saw the world. Definitely for this book, I think the biggest thing I left China with was a sense of — this is corny to say. I felt a strong sense of belonging to my family there. I’d grown up in an immigrant family in the US. My dad was the first in all his family, on both sides of my family, that ever moved to the US, so we really didn’t have any relatives. I kind of grew up accustomed to one way of life. When I went to China, it was just amazing. I had so many relatives. I just felt this sense of, wow, this is what it feels like to have family around. This is what it feels like to have a strong sense of belonging and to feel like there are people always looking out for you. I thought, it’s incredible that people grow up with this sense and have this feeling. Not to say my family life was impoverished or anything, but we really didn’t have a sense of community in that way. It really made me think how amazing it was that my parents decided to leave this when they decided to immigrate to the US, that they decided to leave this place where they had all this community and belonging. What a weighted decision that must have been. That really influenced the story in the book very strongly.

Zibby: Where did your mom fit into all this?

Belinda: My mom’s story is a little different because she didn’t grow up in rural China. The book is really about rural China. My mom does have a little — a part of her life has been written into the book. That was around China’s college entrance exam, which plays a huge part in the book. The college entrance exam in China, it’s a huge deal. I describe it as the SAT on steroids. It’s only offered once a year. It’s at the end of everyone’s senior year of high school. If you get a good score, you’re into college. If not, you’re kind of screwed. So much is riding on this one exam. When my mom was in high school back in the eighties when my parents were in school, it was even harder to pass. Now, I don’t know, I think maybe seventy percent of people are able to pass. Then, it was in the single digits. There’s so much pressure on this exam. My mom failed it year after year after year for three years. It just got harder and harder for her to take because — I’m an anxious person. Anxiety around it kind of snowballed. That story in the book makes it to Hanwen’s character because she’s someone also who, she has all the tools. She’s smart. She just, for some reason, cannot pass this exam. Then it really comes to reverberate throughout her life.

Zibby: That’s how I feel about my driving test. I just kept failing over and over again.

Belinda: Did you pass eventually?

Zibby: Yes, now I drive, but it took a little bit. I was like, what’s wrong with me? Why can everybody else do this? Planning, I’m going to drive out of here. Oh, no, I’m not. I’m not going to drive out of here at all. I’m going to have to go back and practice in the parking lot again. Totally different scale. Can barely be compared. Life-changing failures, always fun. What was it like having the book finally come out and all of that and being a debut novelist and everything?

Belinda: It was a really exciting time. Being a debut novelist is so hard. It’s not hard in comparison to other things that are much harder. In a way, when it is something you care about a lot, it does feel hard because you really have no idea what to expect. You feel a little bit like the process is very opaque. You don’t really know what’s going on. My publicist sometimes sends me stuff. Then other times, you don’t hear anything for a week or two. You’re like, what’s happening? I have spoken to a lot of people who had their first books come out the past year. I think we all experienced some version of that, of just feeling anxious and nervous and kind of in the dark. In the midst of that, I would also say it’s been really rewarding. Once again, a cliché to say, but the most rewarding thing has been to meet readers and to have people tell me what the book means to them because it was such a personal story for me. It was so rooted in my own family’s history. Because of that, I was obviously nervous about writing it, in a way. I was worried, are people going to think this is supposed to represent all of Chinese history? Are people going to be mad when they feel like I’m not representing their family’s story or their own version of events? Instead, it has been really, really meaningful for me to have Chinese immigrants and the children of Chinese immigrants, like I am, come to me and say, I felt so much about the story of this novel reflected a life that I knew or the life that my parents told me about, and it helped me think about those things. It’s amazing to be able to connect with people that way. I don’t know any other way that I could’ve done that besides writing a book. That feels really special to me.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Are you working on anything now?

Belinda: I am working on something now. It’s really different. It’s set contemporaneously. It’s about a rogue scientist. It feels really different. I’m drawing a lot less on personal family histories and doing much more research into historical figures. It’s putting me in a much different skill set. It’s a new set of challenges.

Zibby: Are you ever going to weave your economic background into one of the narratives, do you think?

Belinda: Yeah, I think I might one day. When I quit economics, I was like, this field is so boring. I don’t know how people do this for their whole lives. Now that I’m a few years out, I think there’s a lot of interesting ways that — I find it really interesting how people really rely on economists to tell them truths about the world. It’s so interesting to me that we — in the White House, there are so many economic advisors. We really trust them. Having been in that field, I think that trust is kind of misplaced. I know how much guesswork is involved in all the advice that they give and all the theories and predictions that they run. I would be interested in writing a character that explores that. That would be fascinating to me. I hope that everything in my life will eventually make it into my writing and serve it in some way.

Zibby: Now I have a whole new bucket of things to worry about, which is the reliability of all economic projections and data in the entire country, but that’s okay. Great. It’s okay. I needed something new to worry about. My old worries were getting really boring, so I’ll throw this one in the mix.

Belinda: Why worry about your personal life when you can worry about the entire country?

Zibby: I already worried about the country, but this is just a particular slice I hadn’t worried about, I had taken for granted. Oh, well. Tell me about what you like to read and what you’re hoping for the next year and all of that.

Belinda: It’s so interesting. Historically, I love to read short story writers. I love to read really quiet and understated stories. Some of my favorite writers are Alice Munro. I love Edward P. Jones and William Trevor and these kinds of writers. Right now, I am in — I do a part-time job where I lead book clubs.

Zibby: No way.

Belinda: Yeah, it’s really interesting. Obviously, they are always reading contemporary fiction, so I’m reading much more contemporary than any point in my life. I enjoy it. I find it really readable. Then I’m also seeing a new value to reading really contemporary things because all of these books are commenting — many of these books, I should say, are trying to comment on some moment in our contemporary society. I find it really interesting to be engaging through fiction in authors’ ideas of, what are the problems in our society? How do we write about them in a fictionalized manner? It’s also really helping me grow my own writing because I’m interested in engaging with those questions as well. I wrote this first book that is very much historical fiction. I had one agent ask me, “What is the relevance of this to the world now?” I was like, “I don’t know. This is a family story. Maybe it’s irrelevant. I don’t know if that’s the role of this story.” Now I’m very much trying to write a book that comments in some way on contemporary life. It’s really interesting for me to be also engaging with all this fiction that is doing the same.

Zibby: What book clubs do you work for? How did they hire you? Tell me more about that.

Belinda: It’s through an organization actually in LA, a company called Literary Affairs.

Zibby: Oh, yeah.

Belinda: You know Julie Robinson. She’s my boss.

Zibby: No way. That’s so cool.

Belinda: She’s been doing this in LA for almost a couple decades now. I’ve been here in some groups that have been meeting for twenty-plus years every month, which is crazy to me. I have clubs through that.

Zibby: Wow, that’s great. I’m opening a bookstore in LA in a couple of weeks.

Belinda: You are?

Zibby: Yeah, you should come by.

Belinda: Where is it?

Zibby: In Santa Monica.

Belinda: Cool. What’s it going to be called?

Zibby: It’s called Zibby’s Bookshop.

Belinda: Awesome. Do you know what street in Santa Monica?

Zibby: Eleventh and Montana.

Belinda: I would love to stop by. Do you have an opening?

Zibby: Yes, we’re having opening weekend February 18th and 19th. If you’re around, you should come. I’m trying to organize a bunch of author signings and stuff, if you have any interest.

Belinda: I would love to come. That sounds amazing.

Zibby: Awesome. After this, just send me what time slot because I’m making a whole schedule. We want to make a sign. It would be like a mini festival in this tiny little store, which is the size of this room, but that’s okay. We’ll see if we can do it.

Belinda: I’m so excited to come see it. Do you have a store in New York already?

Zibby: No, this is the first one.

Belinda: Cool. Why did you choose LA?

Zibby: We have a place in the Palisades. My husband is a producer. His company is based out there, so we go back and forth. When my kids are with my ex here, I go out with my husband there. My nieces and nephews are all there. It’s our happy place. I thought people would really appreciate it there, which they are already doing. If I open one here, nobody would even care. I looked at spaces here first. The rent was so crazy. I don’t know how any store stays in business in New York City, honestly. I got a much better situation in Santa Monica.

Belinda: That sounds great. There is just a low density of bookstores in LA compared with New York, so that’s really exciting.

Zibby: I can’t wait. I’ll see you in three weeks. Congratulations on your book. I’m sorry again that this was so delayed, for you and me and both and whatever. It’s been really interesting to chat. I was just wondering before we go, what advice you would have for aspiring authors.

Belinda: I would say something I try to tell myself a lot of time, is just to be comfortable taking your time with writing and with the work. Writing, it’s so different from a lot of other practices in modern life that we try to speed up and try to force. I find my writing really resists that in a lot of ways. I have to, a lot of times, fail through multiple drafts in order to get to the right thing. That can feel really frustrating when you’re used to operating at a different pace and everything else. Something I’ve been trying to tell myself lately is just to trust the writing and trust the process of that and not rush things.

Zibby: I love it. I love that. Thank you for coming on. Hope your cat continues to do well.

Belinda: Thank you for that.

Zibby: I’ll see you soon.

Belinda: Yes, thank you. Bye, Zibby.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Belinda Huijuan Tang, A MAP FOR THE MISSING

A MAP FOR THE MISSING by Belinda Huijuan Tang

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