How a Chinese-American Novelist Wrote Herself Into the Wild West

How a Chinese-American Novelist Wrote Herself Into the Wild West

This time period — the Gold Rush and its aftermath — and Chinese-Americans’ role in it is ripe for re-examination. Until recently, the roughly 15,000 Chinese-American laborers who worked on the first Transcontinental Railroad, built in the 1860s, were all but erased from the historical record and later barred from obtaining citizenship by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

A well-known photograph from the inauguration of the Transcontinental Railroad inspired a moment in Zhang’s book. Lucy, one of the main characters, “hears the cheer that goes through the city the day the last railroad tile is hammered. A golden spike holds track to earth,” Zhang writes. “A picture is drawn for the history books, a picture that shows none of the people who look like her, who built it.”

“How Much of These Hills Is Gold” is not meant to encapsulate the Chinese-American experience of that time, but rather to portray “the loneliness of being an immigrant and not being allowed to stake a claim to the place that you live in,” Zhang said. In light of the discrimination Asian-Americans are facing as the coronavirus has disrupted life, however, she feels her book is more relevant than ever.

When she began writing it, “I actually worried that the book’s depictions of naked racism and violence would seem too extreme, too maudlin,” she said. “Now I’m reminded that these ugly attitudes toward Asian-presenting people have always lain just under the veneer of the country, and that they are erupting now.”

After growing up moving from place to place, Zhang has settled in San Francisco, where she lives with her partner and their cat and dog. She works part-time as a creative director for a skin-care start-up, and though she sometimes struggles with the stillness of domesticity, she values financial security, having grown up in a family in which money was sometimes tenuous.

“We don’t talk enough about how, especially for people who come from immigrant backgrounds, from poor backgrounds, from impoverished families, that money is a source of emotional comfort,” she said. “It’s not just money.”

Thinking about the literature of the West that she has long been drawn to, and the way it showed “that ordinary people can lead epic lives against this epic backdrop,” Zhang said, she feels similarly about immigrants’ stories. “How they’ve crossed entirely new lands and traded one life for another — those stories are epic in nature,” she said. “They deserve to be told in that way.”

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