Taken from The Straits Times, Life! Teo Pau Lin
Aimee Liu (pict left) showed not a shred of unease when asked if she was riding on the shimmering coat-tails of another Chinese-American writer, Amy Tan.
The latter, author of The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife, is undoubtedly the one who started it all - a Chinese-American who could write, and made the American publishing world sit up and listen.
Aimee Liu, 44, a quarter Chinese, is also making an impact. First, with Face, her first novel set in New York's Chinatown. And now, Cloud Mountain, her latest work which is based on the love story between her Chinese grandfather and American grandmother.
"I think the comparison is realistic," she told Straits Times recently. She was in town for a short stay, en route from India to Los Angeles, where she lives. "Because if not for Amy Tan's success, there wouldn't be interest in publishing Asian stories. But our focuses are different. Hers is the Asian-American experience, and mine is intermarriage."
The hint of Chinese-ness in Liu is unmistakable but born and bred in Connecticut, her facination with her mixed ancestry started late. For as a child, being part Chinese was not an easy cup of tea.
Growing up, she was an "oddball who wouldn't fit in". Her method of rebellion was through anorexia. The slimming disorder afflicted from 13 to 21, and at her lowest point, she sustained herself with just six raisins a day.
Writing served as a catharsis of sorts. Her first book, Solitare, written at 23, recounts her passage through anorexia.
She had just graduated from Yale University with a degree in painting, but gave it up when she realised that painting "didnít prepare you to earn a living".
She worked as a flight attendant with United Airlines and subsequently wrote books on childcare and self-help.
In 1979, a trip to China changed her life. Firstly, she met her husband, film producer Martin Fink who is of Russian-Jewish descent, there. And secondly, visits to her father's old homes in Shanghai sparked off the passion for her ancestry. And it gave her the first impulse to write a book about her grandparents' remarkable love story.
The mission, she said, was to "understand my grandparents and the world that they lived in".
Her grandmother, Jennie Ella Trecott, an English teacher to foreign students in turn-of-the-century San Francisco, met her grandfather Liu Cheng-yu, when he went to her for lessons. He was a Chinese scholar-revolutionary and a protégé of Dr Sun Yat Sen.
"The more history I learnt, the more I realised how extraordinary their story was. At the turn of the century, it was against the law for Caucasians to marry Chinese in California. Chinese people were chased down the streets, chained to fences with their pigtails and murdered," she said.
"My grandmother was incredibly courageous to have married him. And there were many others like them who were not reflected in the history books."
Research for the book started almost immediately in 1979. Liu, who manages only a little Mandarin, spoke to her father and aunt about their family history.
The novel's portrayal of her grandfather was as close as possible, she said. But she had to jazz up her grandmother's literary counterpart, because her grandmother, in real life, "lost a lot of courage when she got back to China. The character in the book had a lot more finesse," she added.
Her next novel will be set in India, but she does not expect that all her works will be Asian-based. "I will soon work on a book about raising my sons, and the backdrop is California," she said with a smile.