In C Pam Zhang's Booker Prize-longlisted debut, a buried chapter of America's immigrant history comes alive
Infused with magical realism, the haunting vastness of the California landscape and the tragic wanderings of two orphaned siblings, C Pam Zhang's debut novel — How Much of These Hills Is Gold — renders a powerful narrative of the Chinese-American immigrant experience.
C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills Is Gold is the tale of Lucy and Sam, which begins with the siblings — aged 11 and 12 — dragging their father's corpse through the rough hills of northern California in search of two silver coins and a place to bury him. Their mother is already gone and the children must now set forth on a quest for survival in a land which, as Zhang’s epigraph poignantly states, is not theirs.
For Lucy and Sam are Chinese immigrants, whose parents — like thousands of others — crossed the seas to land on the west coast during the frenzy of the Gold Rush in the United States of America. They arrived in the second half of the 19th century to strike gold, hoping for a better life than what they had left behind. But this was a period which largely refused to historicise their story. Zhang’s novel, long-listed for the 2020 Booker Prize, seeks to correct this. Infused with magical realism, the haunting vastness of the Californian landscape and the tragic wanderings of the two orphaned siblings, her book makes for a fascinating debut, whilst rendering a powerful narrative of the Chinese-American immigrant experience.
The characters of the novel and its sprawling landscape “announced themselves one morning without any connection to a particular time period,” says Zhang, “it was only as I wrote that I realised I was working with a fever-dream version of California.” She states that for her, “the first spark of inspiration can never come from research,” so the first draft of the novel was written from her memory of California. Zhang was living in Thailand when she wrote the story and what made it possible, she opines, is that very distance from the physical reality of northern California.
She notes, “My goal was an impressionist painting of the hills and shimmering heat, not a photograph.”
The ‘feeling and mythos of the landscape’ that emerged in the subsequent drafts lined up the setting (the madness of the Gold Rush), dates and events. Of significance was to give primacy to the emotional lives of her characters and the finished work produces a stark expression of grief and longing.
During her childhood, the author and her younger sister moved through 13 cities, across four countries with their parents, experiencing the alienation and instability that often arises from making a home out of a new place every few years. This element of loneliness is constant through the novel, so too the bonds of family, all of which make up the influences she grew up around.
Now, the author lives in San Francisco with her partner, their dog, and cat, but when asked if she has settled at last, she exclaims, “I’m not sure if I’ll ever settle—I just moved again!”
Notably, Westerns like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove led the author to see a bit of herself in their themes of families moving around and settling in a new place. So it is no surprise that the historical setting of her book chose her – up until then Zhang was writing short stories set in the contemporary world – and it is to these narratives that she attributes the inspiration to write this novel.
“But none of those stories featured people who looked like me, and never quite captured the nuances of my family’s experience of finding a place to fit in. My novel is a corrective to that.”
Characteristic of a debut, Zhang’s book thus encapsulates many of her experiences that explore the complexities of an immigrant identity even as her prose emerges as a thought provoking insight into a chapter of America’s buried history.
Talking about her move from holding down a full-time job to turning novelist, the author very pragmatically notes that while she always wanted write, the issue was making it a financial reality. “There are no guarantees and no health insurance, making entry into this field a desperate upward scrabble for anyone without a safety net of family wealth or property ownership, which I lack.”
But after four years of working in a tech start-up, she took a year off, using her savings to buy time to write. She continues to work part-time even now because the ‘psychological duress’ of lacking a stable income takes a toll on her writing but back then, “I told myself that if I could not write in that year and prove myself to myself, I would drop this notion. I wrote my novel in that year, and here we are.”
Now, nominated for one of the most prestigious and coveted literary awards, part of a list dominated by many debut novelists such as herself, she feels vindicated and thrilled for her novel but funnily enough it doesn’t help in her writing practice, she concedes. “Whatever happens to my book or to me as a published author is diametrically opposed to being a writer, to the life lived with the page.”
“When I write, she says, “I need to believe that no one will read my words or have an opinion about them.”
Writers such as Annie Proulx and Angela Carter are among Zhang’s constant inspirations, but Toni Morrison ranks as one of her greatest influences, Beloved being an absolute favourite. What strikes the author is Morrison’s way of drawing from a historical incident and going deeper. Zhang elaborates, “She incorporates elements of the surreal to embroider a narrative whose details are lost from the annals of history. She is not afraid to push the boundaries of the world outward and make emotional truths as vivid and electric as conventional realism.”
This device is employed in How Much of These Hills Is Gold, particularly to draw attention to broader questions around gender fluidity, poverty and the struggle for identity. An episode which stands out is Lucy's realisation of the underrepresentation of her people when she sees history being written in a photograph of white people celebrating the completion of the first Transcontinental Railroad built in California. Missing from the story are the lives of 15,000 Chinese-American labourers who worked on the construction of this route and were later barred from obtaining citizenship.
Ruefully, Zhang’s narrative has never been more prominent than the present, when the tussle between immigrants and those in power has become a global concern. She states: “When I first wrote this book in 2015, I worried that its depictions of naked racism and brutality would feel unrealistic and histrionic. Now I’m reminded, again, that these issues are systemically baked into the fabric of the United State, and that we cannot simply hope that they will disappear over time.”
Drawing attention to the rise of anti-Asian violence following the COVID-19 pandemic, she adds that while it has been troubling to see, what is more disturbing is how it “eerily mirrors some of the violence in my book.”
The fictional account of Lucy and Sam’s quest to lay down roots for themselves in a place which refuses to recognise them then sustains as a universal story which the author hopes can become a foundation for other young ones, “children of immigrants, Asian-Americans, lonely girls.”
“It is an assertion that their lived experiences of loneliness, of being made a perpetual outsider, of confusion and conflict, are real ones, and have been real for centuries. I hope that that gives them strength to be braver, bolder, push for more.”
C Pam Zhang’s How Much of these Hills is Gold has been published by Virago Press
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