SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
"How Much Of These Hills Is Gold" is C Pam Zhang's debut novel. And it belongs on a shelf all its own, an epic about a family that did not come West for the gold rush, but came East from China. Sam and Lucy, sisters, are soon orphaned and strike out on their own into a West that's not only wild but tough, tempting, cruel and yet still glitters. C Pam Zhang, who was born in China but now lives in the U.S., joins us from the Bay Area. Thanks so much for being with us.
C PAM ZHANG: Thank you so much for having me.
SIMON: Your powers of lyrical description are stunning. And I want to give people a taste of that immediately, if I can. Ba, the father of the daughters, dies in the first two words of the book, so we give nothing away. Their mother, Ma, is already gone. Could I ask you to read a paragraph early in the story?
ZHANG: Of course. If I may, I'll start with the dedication of the book.
To my father, Zhang Hongjian, loved but slenderly known. What could almost make a girl laugh is how Ba came to these hills to be a prospector. Like thousands of others, he thought the yellow grass of this land, its coined bright gleam in the sun promised even brighter rewards. But none of those who came to dig the West reckoned on the land's parched thirst, on how it drank their sweat and strength. None of them reckoned on its stinginess. Most came too late. The riches had been dug up, dried out. The streams bore no gold. The soil bore no crops. Instead, they found a far duller prize locked within the hills - coal. A man couldn't grow rich on coal or use it to feed his eyes and imagination, though it could feed his family. What could almost make a girl laugh is that Ba brought them here to strike it rich. And now they'd kill for two silver dollars.
SIMON: Boy, that's powerful. What made you want to tell the story of the gold rush and of Chinese people in it?
ZHANG: Looking back, I think what I wanted to do with this book was skewer the myth of the American dream, which states that there is equal and ample opportunity for everyone. And as a young person and as an immigrant myself, I believed very deeply in this idea, as my parents believed in it. And it was only as I got older that I realized how pernicious this myth is because the dark flipside is the assumption that if you don't make it, that reflects a personal moral failure rather than the systemic failure of a country that is racist and sexist and bigoted.
SIMON: How did the characters you write about so movingly here come into your heart and soul?
ZHANG: It's hard to say because I didn't invite them there. They announced themselves one morning. I woke up, and I just had this landscape in my mind - the first sentence in this idea of two siblings. Sometimes, the way I talk about this is that this book feels like a haunting to me. My own father died when I was in my early 20s, a couple of years before I started working on this book. And I think that's always sat in my mind. And also, I think I am a little bit haunted by the landscape of Northern California, which is a place I've spent a good deal of my life in. There's just something about the way the sky stretches in this part of the world and the way the mountains and hills rise to meet it. I think that literature is set in the West has always reminded us that ordinary people can lead epic lives. And so that's part of the duality of living here. Life was hard but also beautiful.
SIMON: Yeah. I certainly know that the streets of America are not paved with gold and that the - you know, the gold and the hills that Sam, Lucy, Ma and Ba behold in the California you described so well is but a fraction. But despite all that, didn't millions of people here make better lives - and despite the racism and exploitation than they might have made in servitude back where they were born in China? I mean, there are Uighurs today who will tell you that.
ZHANG: Yeah, I agree with that. But I think my point in writing this book and any book is to try to, you know, open up the landscape a little bit and show some of the other stories in the full complexity of experiences. I think that when I grew up, I heard so many more of these kind of, like, overly simplified, almost fairy tale depictions of life as an immigrant in America, where you come here, and you just immediately sort of level up in terms of class, in terms of wealth, in terms of opportunity. And I don't think we talk enough about how hard it also is to be an immigrant.
SIMON: I want to be careful, too, in exploring this. As you may know, I speak as the father of two daughters who are from China. You know, we have discovered a lot of people meet immigrants from China and assume they all have, you know, particularly the kids - they all have Ph.D.s and play the violin. There's a kind of bigotry of enormous expectations, if I might put it that way.
ZHANG: Right. I'm sorry that your daughters experience that. Forgive me if I'm being blunt at this moment, but that is racism. And it's important to me to name it as such, especially with the rash of anti-Chinese, anti-Asian violence in America right now. I think that as Asian Americans, we often tend to brush off smaller or more subtle acts of racism and try to move on. It's sort of part of this model minority myth that we've been raised on. But it's important to recall that these small acts are the foundations upon which bigger crimes are built.
SIMON: Yeah. How were you doing in this time? Are you writing? Are you writing about this - what's going on - something other than this?
ZHANG: I'm not writing. I think we have to expand our definition of writing. I've taken to saying in recent years that walking is writing. Crying is writing. Talking to your friend is writing. All these experiences help you give a shape to what you're thinking about the world, and that will come back to the page eventually, even if you're not able to form words right now.
SIMON: C Pam Zhang - her novel "How Much Of These Hills Is Gold." Thank you so much for being with us.
ZHANG: Thank you, Scott. This was wonderful.
(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE WEDNESDAY'S SONG, "SWEET BERRY WINE")