Bitter Melon! So, without a further ado...
In your opinion, what are the top three reasons why teens or even adults should consider picking up Bitter Melon the next time they see it online or in stores?
1. It’s not paranormal, but it’s still a page-turner. Many readers have told me that once they pick up the book, then can’t put it down.
2. If you’ve read “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” and feel angry at the Tiger Mom in the story, well, now you can get your vicarious revenge through my protagonist, who rebels against her Tiger Mom.
3. If your intellectual side prefers stories with complex characters and substantive writing but your shadow side craves forbidden romance, well, now you can have both!
Bitter Melon tells the story of Frances so would you mind sharing a little about her with us? Also, if you could offer her any advice, what would you say?
Frances in many ways embodies the Asian-American stereotype of the young person who has been molded into an obedient, disciplined over-achiever by her Tiger Mom. This begins to change, however, when Frances discovers her own voice through her involvement in speech.
In terms of advice . . . Frances doesn’t really need my advice because she gets the clues she needs to make the right choices by listening to Ms. Taylor, Derek, and Theresa and by observing the actions of those around her. Frances is a smart girl, so I’d rather stay out of her way and let her figure things out for herself.
Just like Frances, you are a Chinese-American so in what ways to do you relate to her character? Are any of her experiences similar to your own?
We both grew up with fierce, demanding moms. We both went to all girls Catholic schools. We both grew up in the Richmond District of San Francisco. We are both workaholics, though I am currently in recovery (two steps forward, one step back). We are both easily swayed by the opinions of others, but once we make up our minds, God help whatever obstacle that stands in our way!
One more thing we have in common: contrary to our ethnic stereotype, we are bad at math! (Bad by Chinese standards, which means we can score an A minus if we study really hard.)
In Bitter Melon, Frances has great public speaking skills, so what inspired you to give her that talent? Did you enjoying public speaking when you were her age as well?
As a high school speech competitor, I found public speaking to be nerve-wracking and draining but also fun, even exhilarating. It was from this experience that I got the idea to make Frances a champion speaker. I saw speech as a means of empowerment for this person who, figuratively speaking, had no voice. My speech coach was a very influential figure in my life. I embellished this role for Ms. Taylor, Frances’s speech coach, and made her the alternative role model for Frances, in opposition to Gracie, Frances’s mom.
I also stole from my own experiences to enhance Frances’s plot. In real life, I competed in the Chinese American Citizens Alliance speech competition, upon which Frances’s Chinese American Association competition was loosely based. David Louie, Wendy Tokuda, and Emerald Yeh, the newscasters that judged Frances’s competition, were real newscasters that judged my competition. I don’t remember being mentioned on Channel 26 as Frances was, but my photo was featured in the Independent, the free San Francisco newspaper. It was easy to embellish and alter these real events for the purposes of the book.
In the early drafts of the book, Frances had a mom and a dad. The father figure was very important in the story. After the first two drafts, I realized that my book lacked focus because I had too many storylines. To simplify the story, I decided to focus on the mother-daughter storyline. To intensify the mother-daughter power struggle, I decided to axe the dad.
So why choose the mother-daughter story over the father-daughter story? In my own life, the person who had the most influence on me, for better or for worse, was my mom. This was the first relationship I sought to understand and heal as an adult. The mother-child relationship is the deepest, most primal relationship there is. Based on the feedback I get, my readers seem to feel this way too.
Bitter Melon takes place in the 1980s so what inspired you to have it take place in that specific time rather than current times?
During the early drafts of Bitter Melon, I didn’t set the story in 1989 intentionally, but I was imagining all the scenes in 1989 because that was when I was Frances’s age and living in her city. During the middle drafts of Bitter Melon, I experimented with incorporating a second time line, in which Frances is an adult and must decide whether or not to forgive and reconcile with her mother. Because the adult story line was set in the present, the scenes from the past, in which Frances was seventeen, had to be set during a specific time, which was 1989. Around the time that I was writing those drafts, I created an important scene that occurred during the Loma Prieta earthquake. I also created Frances’s “Asian American Whiz Kid” speech. Towards the later drafts of the book, I decided that the adult story line did not work well with the teenage story line, so I got rid of those chapters. I had contemplated setting the story in the present, but that would mean having to get rid of the earthquake and the Newsweek article, both based on real events that happened in 1989 and both important to the plot. So instead, I decided to take advantage of the time in which the story was set. 1989 was before the internet and cell phones. Without that technology, Frances is even more trapped at home and must work harder to plot her escape.
Recently Amy Chua's article titled "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior" took the Internet by storm, which leaves me to wonder what your thoughts are on that piece, as it's similar to a speech Frances gives in the book.
As you can guess from my book, I am critical of Tiger parenting. Though it can push kids to achieve high levels of academic and professional excellence, it can also push kids towards high levels of anxiety and depression. It can suppress creativity, dampen kids’ love for learning, and damage their relationship with their parents. This understanding inspired the writing of Bitter Melon, which tells the Tiger Mom story from the daughter’s point of view. Frances’s initial speech parrots the Tiger/Confucian value system, but, as she grows and changes, she revises her speech to reflect her new understanding.
Finally, what's up next for you book wise? Is there anything else you would like to add?
A second book is definitely on my agenda. Stay tuned!
Thank you for inviting me to be a guest on your blog!
No thank you for providing such great answers!
To find out more about Cara and her books, be sure to check out her website or other stops on the blog tour here. And you can find out more about buying your own copy of Bitter Melon here.