TCR Talks with Belinda Huijuan Tang, Author of A Map for the Missing
By Betty-Jo Tilley
Belinda Huijuan Tang’s A Map for the Missing journeys back and forth from the 1970s through the ’90s in the US and China. Protagonist Tang Yitian—his surname given in honor of the author’s family—has spent fifteen years in the United States as a college math professor. In the opening pages, he receives a frantic call from his mother, begging him to return to the small rural village he has not seen since he left home, because his father has gone missing.
Outside this mystery, the book is also a tale of brotherhood, featuring Yitian’s older brother, Yishou, the ideal Maoist son, and a historical romance between Yitian and Hanwen, as they study for the 1977 gaokao, the national college entrance exam with a less than 5 percent pass rate. Tang adeptly navigates her characters’ complex, poignant relationships amidst the period of greatest social change in the history of China. The universal map designation “you are here” comes to mind, as Yitian discovers he does not understand his place in either world.
We discussed with Tang the “gift” she gave her protagonist, who struggles to belong; the importance of broader themes of guilt, shame, and regret in the immigrant experience; and how a person is altered by choosing a better life—what is risked, and sacrificed, along the way.
THE COACHELLA REVIEW: How did you come to the humanities, and to writing literary fiction, after studying and working in economics?
BELINDA HUIJUAN TANG: Well, I was working in economics after I graduated, and it was quickly apparent to me that the things I thought I wished for when I first started were not things I wanted any longer. I grew up in a familial environment that didn’t really see artistic expression as a way of making a career, so I’d never thought about that until I was unhappy at my first job and thinking about other things I’d always liked and had been interested in. My very last semester of college, I took a creative writing course for the first time, and it was really exciting. So when I was dissatisfied with my job and thinking about what I actually enjoyed, I came to the idea of making a life as a writer.
TCR: What first inspired you to write this story?
BHT: I did a lot of thinking around my ancestral history when I was living in China. The book is based on something that happened to my own dad, who, when he was sixteen, was the first person ever in his village to leave to go to college in the city, and just before that, his grandfather disappeared. He had an illness that I don’t want to say because I don’t want to spoil the book, but my dad spent that summer traveling around the province, trying to find his grandfather. I knew when I started writing that I wanted to tell that story, but it took years of thinking through it to figure out how to tell it in fictional form.
TCR: In the final version of the novel, what of your earliest envisioning remains?
BHT: The first thing that I thought of was the sense of a disappearance, and the moment of disorientation when an immigrant is thinking about going home for the first time after a long time, and for Yitian, when he received this awful news. In the first draft, Yitian is on the plane wondering why he is going back. What stayed with me from that first draft is the sense that you don’t really know where you are, you don’t feel a sense of belonging to either place. So even though I moved the first scene to Yitian’s office and him getting the news, what I wanted was that sense of shock and not really knowing how to process language, and this news that he first hears from his mom. Something about this time from the 1990s and earlier is that so much is dictated by logistics, especially around communication and the difficulty in it. There are time zones, and global communication wasn’t part of it, so logistics were a way people thought, and it felt really important for Yitian to consider that here.
TCR: When did you begin to think about the impact of immigration on belonging and identity, and to explore that in your writing?
BHT: That’s something that, growing up as the daughter of immigrants in the US, has always been on my mind, but it became even more prominent when I was living in China. The thing that amazed me most was that my parents had chosen to leave, and what that must feel like, to leave their only home. I was personally amazed by how connected and comfortable I felt in the country, with all my extended family, and that my parents chose to leave that sense of comfort and the place they had always known in order to move to an entirely new country where they would have none of those things. The weight and size of that decision was something I really wanted to capture in my writing.
TCR: From the beginning, Yitian struggles with his sense of connection; he’s perplexed by nuances of language and culture in the US, and at home, he’s considered a stranger.
BHT: I think that’s one thing that immigration can do to you. It makes you kind of unmoored and without a strong sense of home in either place, both because part of the immigrating act is that it brings you to this strange land where no matter how assimilated you are, you’ll never be someone who was born there or grew up with its customs. So there’s that first layer of alienation that you bring onto yourself, and there’s another layer in that the place that was once your home grows and changes without you, and it refuses to remain fixed in what it was for you. As a result, Yitian, and I think a lot of other immigrants, feel alienated from the place their home once was and the place and the life it has become, and I think this is a really difficult thing for anyone to process. I was really interested in the personal aspects of immigration and the things you kind of agree to by doing it.
TCR: How did your research, which must have been so immense, come to focus on the impact sweeping cultural changes have on individual lives?
BHT: I did do a lot of research, but many of the stories felt like they came naturally because I’d grown up around hearing my parents’ stories and my elders’ stories about what it felt like to live through these periods of cultural change, so the way that I received those stories felt grounded in personal experience, and then the social history came kind of naturally, not like I was reading in the broader impact of events or encountering the numbers for the first time through the history books. It was more like, Okay, how did my family live through these events, what was going through their heads as this policy came down? When I realized I’ve been kind of preparing to write this book for a lot of my life, from my familial experience, it also came to me to try to ground it in personal stories.
TCR: Yitian took an opposite academic and career path than you. When did you begin to look at the influence of privilege and class when it comes to personal longing and dreams and how they can conflict with familial duty and societal expectations?
BHT: It’s so interesting because that part of the story was actually taken from my dad’s history where he registered to major in math in college because it was considered the practical thing to do, and then he had a crisis that he wanted to be a poet. His advisor told him the rules aren’t flexible and that he was making a bad decision to choose something that has no future, and so my dad wasn’t able to switch.
I put a version of that story in, with Yitian’s dream of studying history and being forced into math instead, and my own personal story is one of studying something practical, closer to mathematics, and making a switch to humanities. I grew up under a much different set of circumstances than my dad, a less strict version where choices can be reversed, and my decision to major in something didn’t set the course of my life. I also grew up in much better financial circumstances where it didn’t feel like Okay, I need to do something practical. I had more freedom to do something different. It’s really interesting to think about the fact that class status and the privilege you have affects your ability to realize a life for yourself, which is true not just in China but everywhere else in the world. It’s a big part of why Yitian doesn’t feel the agency to change things that happen to him, because he comes from a less privileged background.
TCR: How did you first imagine the relationship of the two brothers as having both a rivalry and a bond?
BHT: I started thinking about Yishou, Yitian’s brother, at the beginning of the book, when their grandfather dies, which isn’t a spoiler because it happens in the first ten pages. Once that happens, it feels like Yitian, had he not had someone like Yishou in his life, wouldn’t have anyone in his family who’s on his side and wants some of the things that he wants for himself. And so I thought, kind of like as a gift to my character, it would be nice to have someone like that and someone who helps Yitian. I really wanted the sense that Yitian isn’t fighting against everyone, or that he has a totally different set of values from his family. I thought that felt too black-and-white a story to tell and that it felt a little bit more nuanced that Yitian does have people who support him, even if they don’t understand why he wants the things he does. And the act of departure involves not only leaving the people who don’t understand and support you but leaving the people who do. And showing that highlights the difficulty of the decision to leave.
TCR: The relationship between Yitian and his childhood friend, Hanwen, also yields surprising results. She must have required tremendous research.
BHT: Yeah, Hanwen is a member of the “sent-down youth”—which affected altogether fifteen to sixteen million middle and high school students—who were sent down, literally, from cities to work in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. Hanwen grows up with really big dreams for herself, as a city person going to college and having an academic life. When she’s forced to move to the countryside, all of her avenues to her dreams are completely cut off, and she’s displaced physically. When these students were sent down, the policies were indefinite; they had no idea they’d ever be able to return. I thought that was such an interesting thing to explore, the sense of being forced to be someone else, of having inherited all these dreams you no longer have the agency to pursue. I wanted to put her behind Yitian, who has similar dreams but doesn’t have the background of having grown up in the city where these things are possible.
TCR: Why did you choose their test results to be what they were?
BHT: I was really interested in having two characters whose lives have diverged come back together, and to examine the space that exists between them now, and where their lives differed and what were the reasons. To look at those questions, I had to have them diverge at one point, and the natural point was at the test. Aside from that, it’s a story that I see a lot in people who grew up in that generation—like my dad—who did go to college and because of that were able to either immigrate to the US or to get really good jobs and stay in China, and that really changed the trajectory of their lives. For the people who weren’t able to go to college, the options are really limited for their lives. That really highlighted the historical significance of this one test, the ability to determine the outcome of their lives, and that was something I was interested in writing about.
TCR: We’ve touched on the limitations of social position and class, but how did you come to consider the impact of learning differences and disabilities on a student’s ability to rise above manual labor?
BHT: That is something I was really interested in, to specifically write about a learning disability as the reason why Yishou wasn’t able to ascend to the heights Yitian did. I was curious more broadly about how we assign natural ability to people and how we define those things. Yitian is able to do things in the way we expect a naturally “intelligent” person to do, and for that reason, he has a lot of opportunities open to him in his life. Yishou is overlooked and isn’t really given the time or the room to develop his own skills or talent because he had difficulties learning. It’s only in recent history that we’ve begun to see more space and use for different kinds of intelligence, and it’s really sad, actually, to think about all the people who’ve been overlooked throughout history because our definitions for intelligence were so narrow. Something about Yishou that I really enjoyed writing was, actually, how he has a different set of skills than Yitian. It was interesting to bring out the contrast in the characters and to show Yitian’s deficiencies through the things that he is not able to do that Yishou is able to do.
TCR: Are you compelled to bring a character to a sense of resolution about the losses or gains they experience through conflict, and is forgiveness important?
BHT: I was interested in allowing the plot to further the characters into having a new perspective, not necessarily calm and peace around their lives because I don’t think that’s something someone can really have; there will always be what-ifs. I wanted them to have a sense of why they did those things, to create a space for the characters to think about those losses in greater detail, and to examine their impact on their lives. Yitian, when we meet him, has closed off his ability to think about his losses from early adolescence and adulthood. He’s focused on his future and not really giving himself the ability to look back and examine the reasons it happened and to offer himself or others forgiveness for that loss. In the book, what I’m interested in is giving him the ability and the space to examine and reconsider how he was assigning blame or telling the story of those losses.
TCR: You really get into the depth and nuance of belonging and identity rather than viewing assimilation from a stereotypic perspective.
BHT: Thank you; I really appreciate hearing that. For me, part of the challenge is having it not feel stereotypical. I think a lot of people have similar observations about immigration, and certainly a lot of Yitian’s thoughts are not ones that no one has had before, but it felt important for me to ground those thoughts in some very specific experience in his life.
TCR: You also shatter some stereotypical notions of women’s roles and motherhood.
BHT: Yeah, part of me writing the characters in that way was trying to reflect a reality that I know. Obviously, these are women that, by virtue of the time and the cultural expectations, aren’t able to be decision makers for their family. Yitian’s mother can’t say, I want Yitian to do this, and he’s going to, because his father was the one who was making those decisions. What I’ve observed of people who are cut off from agency in the world or people who are marginalized in some way is that it doesn’t make them any less observant. What I tried to give to Yitian’s mother and Hanwen’s mother is that sense of constantly noticing and witnessing the world around them.
TCR: Hanwen, especially, has more influence than a bureaucrat’s wife might be expected to have during that time.
BHT: She is a person of influence in terms of how class and her husband’s position have afforded her privileges. So there’s not a sense that just because she hasn’t been able to go to college and she’s had her agency stripped away, she’s left without power in her life. She is able to take Yitian to all these government agencies and able to say, You have to listen to me. So part of what is really interesting about their relationship is exploring the ways that it isn’t just black or white; it’s not that Yitian is the one who made it out of the country, so he’s the one who’s able to exert power over everything; she actually knows many things he doesn’t and has access to many things he doesn’t.
TCR: Hanwen’s husband also isn’t your stereotypical Maoist bureaucrat.
BHT: Yeah, I think part of it is thinking about what these stereotypes are, where we inherit them from, and how hard it is to challenge them. Anytime you think of a specific person and place under specific circumstances, most of the stereotypes dissolve because nobody is really acting in one certain way, in an average way that stereotypes try to capture.
TCR: How did you discover the math calculations in your book, and what do you hope we will see in them?
BHT: I was really interested in trying to incorporate different ways to express and document consciousness, and that is part of why I used the math, to think about Yitian not processing things in words, because oftentimes that is not how we receive and process stimuli from our external world and through our brains. So I was interested in experimenting with different ways of capturing that, and because Yitian is a mathematician, it made sense for me that he would try to filter the world through mathematical models and that he would think about things in this way. I really liked parts of studying economics and studying math and that older skill set that I hadn’t used in a long time, so to revisit some of the material I had learned felt really fun and really experimental and something I could play with.
TCR: You also chose Chinese letters in your writing. What purpose do they serve, and when did you determine to open the novel using them?
BHT: Yeah, that line was always there in the book, but it was a late decision that we made to have it start on those lines. I was curious about the literal translation of that phrase from Chinese, which is “your father cannot be seen,” how it was used more broadly, which is that your father is missing, because the literal translation of the phrase captured an important part of what is so disturbing about this news.
TCR: Your novel has strong elements of mystery and suspense, and it’s also a love story and family saga. How important is mixing genre to you in literary fiction?
BHT: As a first-time novel writer, incorporating some of those genre conventions was actually helpful in structuring the book and thinking about the journey that the characters would go on. Having a mystery kind of simplified things for me because it dictated what the character had to do by the end, which is to solve the mystery. To think about the romantic elements made it easier to plan out that part of the story because I could think, Okay, these characters need to meet, and they need to fall in love, and their love either has to bear fruit or they’re separated in some way. There seems to be more blending of genre and literary fiction now, and more room for a book to be multiple things.
TCR: Any hints on your next blend of genre and literary fiction?
BHT: I’m working on a contemporarily set novel about a scientist who does something that’s frowned upon by the community. That’s all I want to say because I’m superstitious!
TCR: We understand you’re also a knitter, literally! Are you usually doing something else while you’re knitting, like listening to an audiobook or watching TV?
BHT: Yes! I love to knit. I actually started in the pandemic, but it has come to take up a lot of my life. Knitting is really good because it’s so tactile; it’s a nice complement that we’re not mulling everything over five times the way writing has you do. It’s something that can kind of happen in the background. I’m catching up with a friend on the phone, and then at the end, you still feel like, Oh, you created this beautiful thing.
TCR: In revision especially, we focus so much on craft elements and structure. When does that feeling of having created this beautiful thing happen for you?
BHT: That’s a good question. To be honest, I don’t know if I always have that feeling for everything I work on. I feel really lucky if I do! I remember at times, when working on a short story, I would have that sense. For this novel, it was hard to feel that way about the book as a whole—but I would have that sensation of being able to see the words from afar for certain scenes and chapters. So I guess knitting is different for me than writing! When I’m reading and revising, the most I hope to feel is that I know I’ve done my best with what I had at the time.
Betty-Jo Tilley writes in Los Angeles and is an MFA candidate in the low-residency creative writing (fiction and nonfiction) program of UC Riverside-Palm Desert.