Mao’s lover speaks in Vanessa Hua’s novel “Dancing with the (Red) Stars”

By Paul Wilner

Special for examiner

“I believe fiction can really flourish where the official record ends,” says Vanessa Hua, whose ambitious new novel, “The Forbidden City,” tells the story of a teenage girl who escapes a life drudgery in the Chinese provinces when she joined a ballroom dance troupe that entertained Chairman Mao. After becoming his lover, she becomes caught up in the political intrigue surrounding those around her.

“Maybe a decade ago I was watching a documentary about World War II and China, when this black and white photo of Mao came up surrounded by giggling teenage girls – they looked like bobby-soxers, wearing checkered shirts and Peter Pan collars,” says Hua, whose previous works include the short story collection “Deceit and Other Possibilities” and the novel “A River of Stars,” the story of a Chinese woman sent to California after getting pregnant by her boss.

While researching the new book, Hua discovered that Mao “was a fan of ballroom dancing. … The president’s personal physician wrote a memoir saying, “Oh, for these women, it was the greatest honor of their life.”

“It fascinated me,” she adds. “What did it mean for someone so young to sleep with a man she had been raised to believe was God?”

Hua’s fictional heroine Mei Xiang strikes a compelling figure as she navigates the machinations of Mao’s naturally disgruntled wife and even helps start the Cultural Revolution. As she witnesses the violence that destroys those accused of being too bourgeois, she ends up adopting a public anti-Mao stance that forces her to flee.

While the initial accolades for “Forbidden City” – a weekly editors review calls it “magnificent” – were gratifying, the book also represents a homecoming. “It’s the first book I’ve written,” Hua says. “It has been revised significantly since it first went on sale in 2009, at the height of the recession and the e-book boom. It was about to sell out at the time, but that, of course, only counts for horseshoes and hand grenades.

The quietly unstoppable author somehow manages to balance her fiction with her journalism duties — she’s a columnist and former reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. She quit her daytime gig in 2007 to enroll in UC Riverside’s MFA creative writing program. But the creative urge hit long before graduate school. “I had been writing stories since I was little,” she recalls. “Even while I was at the Chronicle, I remember printing my stories out and running to the printer to pick them up. …

“Writers are either plotters or ‘pants’: you plot everything or fly by the seat of your pants,” she says. “I’m pants – I don’t know the characters well enough until I write them. Once I finish the first draft, I understand what is missing. But you never know how your characters are going to surprise you – I don’t want to close anything.

On Wednesday, May 11, Hua will discuss “The Forbidden City” with ZYZZYVA editor Oscar Villalon at 7 p.m. at the Booksmith in San Francisco.

(Photo by Andria Lo)

Irene B. Bowles