Interview: Ken Liu on “The Paper Menagerie”
- Tell us a bit about the story.
“The Paper Menagerie” is about an American boy whose mother was a mail-order bride from Hong Kong. As he grows up, he becomes conscious of the prejudices of neighbors and classmates directed against his mother and himself, and he comes to resent her for tagging him as alien. But a collection of origami animals made by his mother when he was a child come to life and give him a message.
- What is the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?
There were multiple sources for this story. One, I enjoyed making origami animals when I was a child, and they provided endless hours of imaginative play. Two, the novel Auntie Duohe, by the Chinese writer Yan Geling, moved me with its portrayal of a mother and children caught between two cultures. Three, I read several accounts written by mail-order brides about their own experiences, and I was struck by the enduring humanity of these narratives of individuals forging new identities while holding onto the old. The ideas percolated around my head for a while before they coalesced into this story.
- Most authors say their stories are personal. If that’s true for you, in what way was “The Paper Menagerie” personal to you?
My wife and I just had our first child last year, and the experience made me reflect a lot about parenthood. As a parent, one source of anxiety is how your children will come to see you, whether they’ll understand you, know you, and be able to take meaning from your life. I think all parents are fundamentally afraid to appear incomprehensibly alien to their children. That’s the theme of the story.
- What kind of research did you have to do for “The Paper Menagerie?”
I was glad to take up origami again and to learn new folds and shapes that had been too difficult for me as a child. It was a lot of fun to try to see how the paper animals would fly, walk, leap, and pounce if they were alive.
- What are you working on now?
A couple of short stories, and a novel that I’m co-writing with my wife. It’s really hard to find time to write with a baby around, but it’s also gotten us to be much more focused when we do have a few moments to write.
- Anything else you’d like to add?
I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the positive feedback I’ve gotten from readers on this story. I’m glad to see that it resonates with many.
“The Paper Menagerie” appears in the March/April 2011 issue.
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