Q&A with Grace Loh Prasad, Author of The Translator’s Daughter

Grace Loh Prasad is the author of The Translator’s Daughter (The Ohio State University Press, March 2024). Her essay “The Orca and the Spider: On Motherhood, Loss, and Community” was previously published in The Offing. Q&A conducted by Vonetta Young, Insight Editor.

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Vonetta Young: Thank you so much for joining us today, Grace. I’ve gotten to edit your work, and I was a fan of your work before I got to edit it, so it’s just such an honor to get to speak with you.

Grace Loh Prasad: Thank you so much, Vonetta, and I appreciate your support and the support of The Offing.

VY: So, I really enjoyed your memoir, The Translator’s Daughter. I thought it was so beautifully crafted, and it made me feel a range of emotions, which I think is always what an author wants to hear. I laughed and I cried. I love the way that you captured me at the very beginning with this incredibly suspenseful story, which really took me by surprise. (I will not spoil it!) And the ending actually had me in tears; the way you close the book was just so beautiful.

I heard you say that this book was twenty years in the making. I think that makes emerging writers feel really nervous. What took you twenty years to bring this book to completion? I guess another way of saying that could be: can you tell me more about your journey as a writer?

GLP: Sure! So, I first started writing in the late ‘90s, and it was a process of questioning my place in the world. At the time I had a serious boyfriend, and I felt like we might get married. Spoiler: we did not. But I was thinking, if I have a child, what am I going to pass on to them about their heritage? So, I was thinking about my life choices and where I was going, and I think that’s what prompted my writing journey. And, so, I just started writing these pieces. At the beginning, it was just exploration. It was diary entries, and they started to form into essays. But I wasn’t thinking of it as a book at the very, very beginning.

Then, I got really serious about my writing around 2000 or 2001. I started an MFA program at Mills College, which was wonderful. I developed a community and relationships with some writers here in the Bay Area and that’s when I started to really dedicate myself. I continued writing individual essays, then thought, “Yeah, eventually, this could be a book.”

The first iteration of it was my MFA thesis. When I look back at what I turned in and compare it to what is actually the printed bound book, The Translator’s Daughter, it’s pretty different. And that’s because so much has happened since then. This is a classic problem in memoir, where your life continues, so where do you end the project? What is the container you put it in? For me, the project, when I started it, was all about, how do I reconnect to my Taiwanese heritage? How do I make sense of the fact that I live far away from my parents? At the time, I was seeing them once a year or every other year, and occasionally they would visit me here in the States when they were in better health. I was starting to understand that my life was pretty different from that of my friends who grew up with their parents here and had an intact community, whereas I did not. That was where it started. There are some pieces in the book, three or four chapters from that early time period that are pretty much untouched.

Now, what happened in the middle kind of slowed me down. Being enrolled in an MFA program is a great way to dedicate yourself to your writing and avoid people’s judgment because you’re not working. But at the beginning of my MFA program, I met the person who would become my husband and we got married after I graduated. And then, you know, my life just kind of changed. I was focused on the transition to being a married couple, and then we had our child a few years later. Meanwhile, my parents were going through aging and illness, and there were all these crises that were calling me back to Taiwan. So, life happened, and it became very hard for me to write. I was experiencing all these intense things: my mom had Alzheimer’s, my dad was 100% absorbed in taking care of her, which was very difficult, and I was observing this difficulty from afar. I was writing a lot of raw and emotional diary entries, but I couldn’t focus on writing for publication or thinking about what would happen with that. And then, sadly, my family members passed away. It was my brother first, and then my mom, then my dad, in the space of just a few years. I wrote a lot during that period but not all of that is in the book.

The last third of my book is more standalone essays, and that’s where I’m making sense of everything that’s happened. So, the book completely changed over the course of writing it, and that’s why it took me so long. And then, of course, there was the process of submitting individual pieces and trying to get published, and all that good stuff.

VY: That takes years in itself. I think it is also—to say the word refreshing feels weird, but true for writers to hear that life happens, and when you’re writing while life is happening, that writing doesn’t have to be for consumption. That writing can be for you, to help you make it through what you’re going through, and that writing is also part of your maturity. Like you said, you’re not the person you were when you started this book, even by virtue of time passing, and none of us are who we were twenty years ago. But that is a wonderful thing. And I think that has, as you intimated, made your writing better, too.

GLP: Absolutely. There’s definitely a learning process. I didn’t start with the goal of being published; it was a process of self-exploration. I was trying to understand myself. And so in some ways it’s a dialogue with my history. It was very, very private.

VY: I think there’s something to be said about intentionality; obviously, intentionality in terms of the craft of writing, but intentionality behind why we write to begin with. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with writing to be published, but I think the most authentic writing is writing that comes from a place of wanting to understand the self and wanting to understand others, so I totally agree with that. You just mentioned that the last third of your book is essays. The initial part of your book does read more like a traditional memoir to me, whereas the latter part does feel more like essays, like you said. So, how did you think about the book’s structure?

GLP: Structure was a huge problem for me. I found it very difficult to write in a single voice. They say you can’t keep a whole book in your head; you have to write it little by little. And I felt that way with this book. My writing has a natural shape. I tend to write about 3,000 to 4,000 words at a time, and it’s self-contained. The opening of the book is focused on action—I am immediately getting myself into trouble. The earlier and middle sections of the book are more focused on that, so they’re more like narrative chapters, although there are some essay-like pieces interspersed in there, that are self-contained have very different styles.

I found that I was re-engaging with the same themes and the same motifs from different perspectives and using different techniques. I was experimenting with all these different ways to get into the story because I couldn’t hold the whole story in my head. I didn’t know how to sum it up like one of those easy little Publishers’ Marketplace blurbs when people say “this book is like X meets Y.” I’ve always been annoyed by and envious of those people. My life is not like that at all. It’s very hard to summarize.

I got some feedback along the way from agents saying, “You just need to rewrite this as a traditional, straightforward memoir; this is too disjointed.” I worried about that for a long time, but I didn’t know how to go back and do that. I realized that this is my true voice, which is writing the same things from different perspectives. That is part of my sense making. And it’s also an illustration of what the book is about, which is that I don’t have this singular identity that is fixed or that is easily defined. So, a lot of the themes I explore in my book are about these kinds of gaps and overlaps and in-between spaces or “third spaces” because I’m living in a diaspora, away from my parents. I’m also a third-culture kid who has spent a significant portion of childhood in another country that wasn’t my parents’ country nor the place where I ended up living long term.

I write about what it’s like to be in this in-between space, to not have these things in common with my friends, and to be looking for more of a community and sense of belonging. It reflects what my life has been like. My catch-all term to describe it is that it’s hybrid. There are hybrid identities, and therefore there’s a hybrid approach to my memoir. When I finally embraced that and realized this is the only way I can write it, it became very freeing. I realized this is actually what makes me different. This is what will make this an interesting project. It exists on multiple levels at once, and that is part of what I am trying to illustrate.

VY: That is so powerful, this idea of accepting the way you write. And frankly, you know we can make this more philosophical by saying accepting yourself and the fact that you’re not like everyone else and your writing is not going to be like everyone else’s, was actually freeing for you rather than feeling constricting or binding or limiting in some way. That is really, really powerful.

GLP: Thank you.

VY: I have two questions that are related. Somewhat related to structure and thinking about approaching the same thing from different perspectives, how did you decide what to include and what not to include in the book? Like you said, time went by. You changed, your family changed, and I love the note that you have at the beginning of the book, just talking about what changed in Taiwanese politics over the course of your writing this book. But there’s so much that happened. So how did you decide what you would include and what you would not include, knowing that?

GLP: There are some essays that are not included. And as I became a better writer, I think my essays got stronger in the last few years. And that’s partly as a result of immersion in the literary community and being in writing groups and all that stuff.

But also I would say I have so much extra material. I literally have a file called Odds and Ends that is 60,000 words. Yeah, it’s like a whole ‘nother book. There are a lot of diary entries for all of the trips I took to Taiwan. There’s a lot of travel, and there’s a lot of me documenting what happens when I’m in Taiwan, and of course, my perceptions are very intensified because I’m immersed in the environment that I’m writing about and I’m with my parents.

There was a lot of repetition in the manuscript. There’s a lot in that middle section about my parents being ill and me visiting them, and having a lot of feelings about being unable to help them. I spent a lot of time in hospitals, and my mom was in a nursing home for a few years. The key feeling I had about all of these visits was they were stifling and I felt stuck in an environment where I couldn’t do much, but it was important for me to be there, to be present and witnessing.

What’s ironic is I write so much about missing Taiwan and missing my parents and thinking about them during my life here in the United States, but then I would go to Taiwan, and I would immediately get restless. But I didn’t want to include too much of that.

VY: And yet it makes perfect sense. I appreciated and felt conflicted by the feeling that your boyfriend or husband expressed, that ‘why am I here’ kind of thing. I was like, “Well, that’s kind of a jerk thing to say. You’re supposed to be there for her,” but then I realized, “Well, that’s how Grace felt, too,” the sense that being there was literally the only thing you could do. I think that speaks to this desire that we have as human beings to want to do something, to feel that there should be action when sometimes the action is literally just being.

In terms of what you’ve included and what you’ve not included, one thing I thought was so interesting was that your parents seemed to be very deeply religious. They were very Christian, and I didn’t get the sense in reading the book that you, as the narrator, really share their belief system or didn’t share their belief system. Why not delve into your own beliefs more deeply, particularly just to create that comparison or contrast to your parents?

GLP: I think that’s a fair question, and it is something I’ve thought about. So, you’re correct that religion was a big part of my family’s identity. Both my mom’s family and my dad’s family were deeply religious. In fact, an interesting little-known fact is that we are descended from the first Christian convert in Taiwan. My mom’s younger brother put together this family history. It’s referenced in the last chapter in the book, the letter to my son. But it’s this huge, heavy tome, and it includes the stories of all of the branches of the family from this ancestor. There is a chapter on my grandmother and her family and going down through my generation and even below that. There’s all these photographs in it. It’s completely fascinating, but it’s all in Chinese, so I can’t actually read it. And so that’s, of course, another big theme that I write about. There’s so much I don’t have access to.

But yes, Christianity was a big part of my upbringing, and I grew up going to church. I definitely have feelings and impressions about the Taiwanese American church in New Jersey, and then the international church we went to in Hong Kong. I’m a lapsed churchgoer. I’ve had episodes of churchgoing during my adulthood in the United States but I don’t currently go, and I don’t consider myself religious with a capital R. I think partly it’s because of the unfortunate direction that organized religion has taken in the U.S. It’s sadly become aligned with some very, very retrograde ideas that I do not agree with, but I also never found a sense of belonging in churches here, and I feel like my identity and spirituality is simply what I inherited from my parents. It’s an idea that I would like to explore more, but I don’t feel like I’m quite qualified to do that yet. It’s a really big topic.

The other thing is I think my parents also would not have fit in the churches here because their religious outlook was fairly liberal and evolved, kind of academic, in a way. My dad had a Ph.D. in biblical studies, and my mom was a professor at the seminary, where she taught Christian art and feminist theology. You don’t see feminist theology being talked about a lot or even being compatible with some of the leading strains of what we consider to be American religious practice and identity. The kind of Christianity I was brought up with is not what is prevalent in the culture here.

Another interesting aspect of it is that the Church in Taiwan was inherently political, and specifically the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan was historically aligned with Taiwanese self-determination and Taiwan independence, so the church in Taiwan has a history of activism. That’s another reason why I don’t think I could do it justice in, like, one or two essays. It could be a whole book on its own.

VY: It sounds like it. Please write it, because I would totally read it. I think that is just incredibly profound to say that your parents, who I grew to love through this book, they had such a beautiful relationship, and the fact that they were people of very deep faith, who at least as you portray it didn’t have the kind of, you know, hierarchical, gender-roled relationships that stereotypical people of faith have in the U.S. I thought that was so awesome. That, and the fact that your mother was a professor in feminist theology. I can see how coming from a place where the faith is actually the faith, and it’s not about white Western nationalism, I can understand feeling like you don’t belong.

GLP: Yeah, exactly. It’s fascinating to think about. There’s a lot of diversity within Christianity. You just wouldn’t know it from looking at, you know, American culture and American media. Right?

VY: What do you think is the obligation or opportunity for folks who do have belief systems to explore these things?

GLP: Any belief system, just like any political system, has to hold up to criticism and allow discussion. I feel like American, white, heteropatriarchal religion is focused on an ethos of judgment, of deciding who is excluded and who is unworthy. And I just don’t think that is a worldview that is valuable or humanistic. To me, it feels like the opposite of what I was told and my religious upbringing, which is that faith should be an open tent where everyone has a way to belong. It is very much about community, care, and charity, caring about those who are less fortunate. I feel like American organized religion has come to represent oppression and exclusion and discrimination, and this polarization that has been disastrous for our country. This is another reason why it’s such a huge topic that I don’t know ifI could ever write about successfully because it is a lot to unpack.

VY: Thank you so much for giving me your take, because even that idea is just so profound, that at the very core of this belief system is supposed to be—I love the way you phrased it—community, care, and charity, and how that seems to have been lost at some point. In thinking about the idea of community, we put a lot of emphasis on the need to belong. One thing that you’ve shown us so beautifully in your book is that, sometimes, we just don’t, because we don’t look or speak or act like everyone else around us. But I want to turn this idea on its head a little bit and ask you: what is the power in not belonging? What is the advantage, the good, the positive of not belonging?

GLP: The advantage of not belonging means that you can stand outside and be more objective. You can be more critical of the way systems and communities and organizations don’t work or are not serving everyone. I went to high school in Hong Kong, and I lived there for ten years. So, even though Hong Kong obviously is in Asia, and we were immersed in a different language, I was going to an American school, and in fact, my education was entirely in English, and my friends were all English-speaking. So, even though I could blend in visually in the sense that I looked like everyone else around me, I could not speak the local language. I learned a few phrases here and there, but quickly I would have to resort to English, and people would be surprised by that.

When I went to college at UC Berkeley, I thought, “This is a good place for me because there are a lot of different kinds of people here.” There are foreign students, people from overseas. It’s a huge university, and I felt like it was more diverse, even though at the time that I was there we weren’t even using words like diversity. I thought, “This is great, because a misfit like me can fit in because I have a different background.” I grew up overseas, and I don’t have family that I’m visiting on weekends. My cultural references are different. My experiences are different.

It took me a while to appreciate what that meant, because obviously it was lonely. It was hard. I talked about the fact that I didn’t attend my own graduation from UC Berkeley, because there was no one coming to see me graduate, and I just kind of accepted it. I was like, “Well, this is the way my life is and that’s okay. I’m not going to be super upset.” So yes, not belonging can be lonely and isolating.

On the other hand, I think living or at least traveling abroad is a very important experience. I would recommend it to everyone. It makes me sad to think that something like only 30% of Americans have a passport. I think exposure to different cultures is such a great way to learn not only about the other cultures, but about yourself. Many, many years ago, this idea came to me that still is very dear to my heart: culture shock is the best education. You are challenged in your ideas and conceptions of the world, you start to see and understand that not everyone has the same worldview and that there are different ways to do things. There are different ways to be in community. There are different approaches to art and literature and music. And politics. I think it’s important to be a global citizen, being an American especially, because of America’s power in the world, because of our foreign policy. It impacts people overseas. It is not just an abstract idea; it is very tangible. I would advocate for an education that seeks to understand more broadly.

It blows my mind when I meet people who have never left California. Or who think their zip code is the whole world. And like, they’re happy to eat Korean food or Indian food, but that they’re not curious any further. That, to me, is in some ways the biggest failure. My biggest disappointment with people is when they are not curious. Because there’s no reason not to be, especially with the Internet and smartphones and everything. We all have access to all kinds of culture and literature, all of this soft power. So, it just disappoints me when people aren’t interested in that, because the world is a fascinating place. And, again, when you look outward, you understand yourself better.

VY: That idea that “culture shock is the best education” encapsulates a lot of what makes your book powerful, and a lot of what makes this idea of belonging something worth questioning. I’m so glad that you wrote an entire book about it. Obviously, we want to belong with people because we want to feel safe. We want to feel loved. But at the same time, the opportunity to learn the self apart from everyone else comes from being extricated from everything that is familiar.

If I can dig into one more thing—what do you enjoy most about writing memoir and personal essays?

GLP: I think what I enjoy the most is the process of understanding. Maybe it’s kind of cliché, because “essay,” as we all know, means “to try,” but often so much of my writing is just that: it’s an attempt to understand and make sense of something. Often I’ll write something, show it to my writing group, and they’ll say, “Hm! There’s an interesting theme here. Or what about this?” And it’ll start to take shape. And even now, I’ll reread certain things I wrote in the past, or I’ll think about two different pieces, and how they’re in conversation with each other. I’ll still be making new connections and be like, “Oh, I never realized it was doing that. That’s kind of cool.”

So, whether it’s the correspondence of themes or images, there’s always new things to be learned through writing. I started with the impulse of wanting to know myself better and, over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the process and not just the output. As you mentioned earlier, it isn’t just about publishing, and it isn’t always for other people. But that doesn’t make it less important. There is some writing that I do just for myself. There is some writing that will never see the light of day, but all of it is contributing to my understanding of myself, my family, my history, Taiwan, and my place in the world, and I think that’s valuable for anybody.

VY: Absolutely. I think we should all think of that as the takeaway for memoir writers: If there is nothing else that you’re trying to do, it is understanding your place in the world. It invites other people to do the same, and it feeds that curiosity about the world. Not to sound too grand, but I believe it makes the world a better place.

So, thank you so much for your writing and for your book, because I genuinely believe that you have made the world a better place by offering us this inside look into yourself, your family, and Taiwan, and into grief, loss, and the future and what you want that to look like. It was just such a beautiful journey. So, thank you so much for taking us on this journey.

GLP: You’re welcome, and thank you so much, Vonetta, for asking such great expansive questions, and for your support and close reading. I’m so glad it resonated with you, and I hope it resonates with others.

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