Ms. Q&A: Authors Aimee Liu and Cai Emmons Talk Motherhood, Shame and Releasing Books Mid-Pandemic

Ms. Q&A: Authors Aimee Liu and Cai Emmons Talk Motherhood, Shame and Releasing Books Mid-Pandemic
“Both Aimee Liu and I now find ourselves sheltering at home and woefully contemplating a social and commercial landscape that is forcing booksellers, publishers and authors to reinvent the very definition of a book launch,” writes Emmons.

Some 30 years ago, an established nonfiction writer and a screenwriter decided to write their first novels. They met in a fiction writing class, and have been friends ever since, with eight books of fiction now between them.

Those two writers are Aimee Liu and me.

What we never anticipated was that we would both have books coming out in the midst of a global pandemic.

Aimee’s new novel, Glorious Boy, will be released on May 12.  My short story collection, Vanishing, came out in March.

Both of us now find ourselves sheltering at home and woefully contemplating a social and commercial landscape that is forcing booksellers, publishers and authors to reinvent the very definition of a book launch.

Since Aimee is still in the process of planning her book launch, I wanted to chat with her (virtually, of course) about her book and what’s changed in the month since my tour simply—well—vanished.

Cai Emmons: First, Aimee, let me say how much I enjoyed and admired your new novel, Glorious Boy. It is a gripping story of a woman seeking to find her way in a very tumultuous world, and the amount of research you had to have done to tell this story effectively boggles my mind.

But before we pursue that, I’d like to discuss what it’s like to have a new book coming out in the middle of the pandemic, a situation we’re both facing. We’ve known each other a long time, since we were both setting out as fiction writers in the 90s, and while we could certainly see, back then, a number of obstacles to completing novels and getting published, it would have felt like a bizarre fantasy to imagine this. Can you talk a bit about what it’s been like for you? 

Aimee Liu: Thanks, Cai! To tell you the truth, it feels a bit like heading straight into a buzz saw.

I started working on this novel seventeen years ago, switching into high gear in 2010. While I’ve also been teaching and working on other projects, Glorious Boy has been my baby for a long time, and I was ecstatic when the glowing advance reviews started to appear. We had readings and other events booked across the country. Many of them were shared events with other authors, so the pain of these cancellations has been amplified through their losses.

The uncertainty we all share—when will life ever return to even a semblance of normalcy?—is what feels most like the approaching buzz saw.

At the same time, I’m reminded every day how lucky I am. Everyone in my extended family, so far, is healthy. I still have my teaching job, and since my MFA program is low-residency, my daily routine is relatively unchanged.

Also, this is not my first book, which means that my writing career is not hanging in the balance. I truly feel for authors who are launching for the first time and, even more, for independent booksellers who have had to shutter their stores. The entire book business could look radically and distressingly different when we finally come out of this.

That said, I’ve been gobsmacked by the innovativeness and grit shown by authors, publicists and publishers. I’m eternally grateful for their generosity and technical savvy! Every day, it seems, there are more virtual readings and literary panels, online interviews and book groups, Instagram book campaigns and Facebook pages working to connect authors with readers. Some of these digital innovations were already underway, but the pandemic has given them a turbo-boost.

If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.

CE: Yes, it has been very grim for writers, and as you point out, especially writers whose first books are coming out. As with other cataclysmic events, one always wonders whether writing really matters at all in the face of such widespread suffering. I certainly remember feeling that after 9/11 when my first novel was about to go out for submission and I was thinking no one would ever have the concentration to read again!

I feel a little more sanguine now that books, reading, writing and publishing will all survive—though they may be altered in the post-pandemic world. 

But two positive things have come out of this for me already. One is the slowing down of life in general which forces me to pay attention to things that might have earlier escaped my notice. I’m taking more ambling walks than before, chatting with my neighbors—from afar—which I didn’t used to do very often, giving myself more time to read.

The other thing is that, in terms of promoting my new book, I feel that I’m being forced to think outside the box, and in particular think about how I can promote my book creatively online. I’m learning a lot in this regard. 

We share a lot in terms of our backgrounds and educations, and yet, reading our recent books, most people would say we are very different writers. Your novel is a sweeping historical story that takes place during World War II on the Andaman Islands—a place few people in the U.S. know much about, if they know of them at all.

The purview of my story collection is much more narrow: the lives of five women, all living on the East Coast, all of whom are having difficulty finding traction in their lives and are feeling unseen.

So, I am interested in learning more about the genesis of your epic work. What drew you to writing about something that was, at the outset, so unknown even to you? 

AL: Both of our books deal with women writhing against the expectations that confine them. Your contemporary characters defy those expectations by slyly subverting them, perhaps not always consciously. My female characters are more overtly headstrong but also deeply conflicted.

My primary protagonist, Claire, embraces Margaret Mead as her role model—though her initial admiration of Mead is amateurish. Claire impulsively marries a man who promises to take her to an island where she can study indigenous tribes, but she becomes pregnant before her first field trip into the forest.

When she finds it easier to bond with the tribe than with her own mysteriously mute baby, she wrestles with guilt—even as her son forms a natural attachment to the servant girl Naila, who speaks to him in their own silent language. But Naila, too, has a rebellious streak. She is jealous of her charge and not so innocent in luring little Ty away from his mother. 

Although the story is set on a remote island nearly a century ago, these family dynamics reflect my own experience as a working mother who depended on trusted nannies when my son was little. There was always that niggling jealousy and fear that he’d like his nanny best, coupled with the fear of missing important moments with him and uncertainty about the relative value of my other work. And yet I plunged ahead, as Claire does, compelled not to be limited by motherhood. Had I been tested as profoundly as Claire and Naila are in this story, though, I’m not sure that I would have found half the courage that they both ultimately demonstrate.

How far will we go out of love for our children? That’s a universal and haunting question, I think, and one we’ve seen playing out recently in countless families separated by Trump’s inhumane border policies and, around the world, by war.

CE: Absolutely. Also, how do we, as mothers, negotiate the conflicting desires toward nurturing and supporting a child on the one hand, and actualizing ourselves on the other hand? As a character Claire raises that question so pointedly for the reader. It seems to me like a question that has no answer—it is always a difficult see-sawing. Complete self-sacrifice to a child doesn’t benefit the child in the end, but nor does abandoning a child to raise herself. In the end of your novel, Claire’s adult son does not seem as damaged as she has worried he might become. 

My stories deal less directly with motherhood and its choices, but the characters are dealing with their own difficult mothers. For most women motherhood becomes central in our lives. Even if we don’t become mothers, we all have mothers, and who our mothers are determines so much about who we become.

In one of my five stories there is a mother shown with her young babies, but in the other four stories mothers are in the background—usually as annoying presences, people to be reckoned with.

I am interested in the way we as women often find mother surrogates, or daughter surrogates, as a way of repairing the things that might have gone wrong in that early mother/daughter dyad. In my collection there are two stories, “Fat” and “Redhead” that play around with that idea of mother surrogates.

In fact, I am interested in all kinds of relationships between women.

The title story in the collection, “Vanishing,” probably the story that borrows the most from my own life, is about a lifelong friendship between two women in which one of the women develops early onset dementia and the other woman faces not only the loss of shared memories, but also the challenge of negotiating a new relationship with her fading friend. One tends to think of friendship as a permanent state, but the reality is friendships are always in flux. 

It is hard for me to think about mothers without thinking of bodies, as becoming a mother usually involves childbirth which is an undeniably body-centered experience. I have had it pointed out to me that I often write about bodies in my work. My characters observe other people’s bodies and their own. They reflect on how it feels to be inside their bodies and wonder about how the outside world perceives their bodies. They try to read the language being communicated by other bodies. I have seen a similar strain in your work.

Am I right that you also think a lot about bodies? Can you talk about that? 

AL: Ah, the female body! Yes indeed, that brings together mothers, daughters, femininity, sexuality, self-consciousness, agency—all of it, doesn’t it?

I have written a great deal about these intersections through my nonfiction work on eating disorders over the years. Our cultural obsession with physical “perfection” of the female body has screwed up more than our physical health, more even than our mental health. It’s also wreaked havoc on many family relationships, perhaps the mother-daughter relationship most of all.

My own mother was very beautiful, obsessed with weight and relentlessly ashamed of her body—yet when I developed an eating disorder as a girl, she couldn’t fathom why. Many other factors led to my eating disorder, and I’m not suggesting that she’s to blame, only that she was so locked into the notion of beauty as a “virtue” that she could not see the damage it was doing to her and me and our whole family. I think that’s one reason why my fiction tends to revolve around women who are simply too busy doing more important things to give much thought to their looks!

In Glorious Boy, Claire’s work centers on an indigenous tribe who have no mirrors, no self-consciousness and hardly any clothes! What a relief!

They also live deep in the rainforest, in sync with nature, which provides abundant and diverse forms of physical beauty without judgment or competition. The “civilized” western and Indian characters cannot fully understand or accept the freedom and wisdom that come with such organic synchronicity. Shame is too deeply embedded in modern cultures, especially for women. 

I think shame plays a key role in your stories, too, especially those mother surrogate tales.

Would you say that one seductive trait of the surrogate mothers is their success (or perceived success?) in throwing off the shackles of shame?

CE: Shame! Yes indeed. That’s an interesting idea that surrogate mothers provide an end-run around shame. I like that—I think it’s true. Surrogate mothers usually entail a less complicated relationship than “regular” mothers do. (Though as soon as I said that, I thought about my last novel Weather Woman, which features a surrogate mother/daughter relationship which becomes very complicated!)

Shame is definitely central in my work. Shame is present for my characters not only in terms of the body, but shame in terms of desire. I think almost all my characters in this collection feel, to varying degrees, shame at having overreached. They’ve wanted things from the world that they come to feel they had no right to go after.

A bit like: Well, it didn’t work out? What did you expect? It was never going to be yours in the first place.

One woman wants to make partner in her law firm, but decides she isn’t suited to be a lawyer in the first place. Another woman wants to be an artist, but comes to feel she has no talent. They all come to second-guess what they desire from the world, even if it’s only some sense of belonging. 

AL: That need for belonging and encouragement is universally fundamental—yet you’re right that many women have been made to feel such need itself is shameful. I wonder if the current crisis will level that particular playing field to some extent. The pandemic brutally exposes the degree to which we depend on and, in a sense, belong to each other. Sudden isolation, unemployment and quarantine are rough on men and women alike. And phenomena like the 8pm howls that are echoing across the nation prove how urgently we need to connect and honor each other during this crisis. Having spent years now studying WWII, I’m struck every day by the parallels between global war and global pandemic, and one of them is that women are serving in heroic roles, holding their communities and families together, and assuming many more leadership positions than in “peacetime.”

Sadly, the highest positions in our government are still held by men who attempt to shame these very women for daring to assert themselves—but the 75 years since WWII have taught us a great many lessons, and one of them is that such men tend to be liars and thieves. The women who lead us out of this crisis will not be intimidated.

CE: Yes. We, like our characters, refuse to be intimidated. If we survive this pandemic I think we will all feel more resilient and resourceful in certain ways.

And, while it’s hard to see much that is positive about the current situation, it is making us appreciative of our connections to one another, and reminding us of what matters most. 

The coronavirus pandemic and the response by federal, state and local authorities is fast-movingDuring this time, Ms. is keeping a focus on aspects of the crisis—especially as it impacts women and their families—often not reported by mainstream media. If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.


Cai Emmons is the author of five books of fiction, including the recently released story collection, Vanishing, and the novel Sinking Islands, forthcoming in 2021.