Interview with Cara Chow, Author of Bitter Melon

Cara Chow’s debut novel is a moving account of a girl and her stormy relationship with her demanding mother.  I found Bitter Melon a very compelling read, and I was thrilled when Cara Chow stopped by the virtual offices to discuss her book. 

  Describe yourself in 140 characters or less.

[CC] I am the author of Bitter Melon, the story of a 17 year old who rebels against her Tiger Mother. Originally from San Francisco, I now live in the Los Angeles area with my husband and 20 month old son.

Can you tell us about your book, Bitter Melon?

[CC] Bitter Melon is a Chinese-American, coming of age, love-hate, mother-daughter story. 17 year old Frances Ching lives with her iron-fisted, struggling, single mom, who expects her to become a wealthy doctor so she can support the family. In order to do this, Frances must focus on school at the expense of socializing and extra-curricular activities. Frances goes along with her mother’s plans for her until she one day ends up, accidentally, in a speech course, which is taught by an inspiring teacher who becomes Frances’s mentor and role model. As Frances becomes more involved in speech behind her mother’s back, she begins to question her mother’s values and goals for her. This leads a ruthless power struggle between mother and daughter. Who will win, and at what cost?

How did you come up with the concept and the characters for the story?

[CC] Though my relationship with my mother is very positive now, it was not so positive when I was a teen. My mother wanted me to be the best, and her way of motivating me was by being very hard on me. Unfortunately, her parenting strategy did not have the effect on me that she had intended. I was a pretty sensitive kid, so I was tormented by the belief that I was a disappointment to her.

Around that time, my mother’s youngest brother’s family immigrated from Hong Kong to the US. As the primary caretaker of his mother, he brought her with him. As a practicing doctor, he was also her physician. Though my grandmother was very loving and loyal to her family, she could at times be difficult to live with. Yet everyone always accommodated her and no one ever dared disagree with her.

This brought up an interesting moral dilemma for me. I really respected and admired the Confucian ethic of caring for one’s family, especially its vulnerable aging members. But what if the aging parent was difficult, dysfunctional, or even abusive? Should the adult child be obligated to care for this parent, even at the expense of her own well-being? This became the crux of Frances’s dilemma. My experience with my mom as a teen provided the emotional brush strokes for Frances’s canvas, and my experience with my grandmother provided the plot strokes.

What have you learned about yourself through your characters?

[CC] The biggest lesson I learned from my characters is that people are three-dimensional. No one is all-good or all-bad. Before I understood this, I created a protagonist that was a passive victim and an antagonist that was a villain with no redeeming qualities. As I began to appreciate the complexity of human beings, my protagonist became more selfish, which made her more interesting. Frances’s selfishness became her first step to recovery from the influences of her mom, but she also needed to evolve beyond that in order to earn her freedom and self-respect. Likewise, my antagonist, Frances’s mom, became more sympathetic. Her selfishness was a survival skill she learned from living a hard life. The more I understood myself and others, the better I became at writing, but the reverse was also true: the process of writing pushed me to be a more compassionate person.

Why did you decide to set the story in 1980s?

[CC] 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.

How closely does Frances’ upbringing mirror your own?

[CC] Some of the similarities I already talked about. In addition to those, I was also raised in the Richmond District of San Francisco in the 80’s. I also had an inspiring speech coach who was also my English teacher.

One of the things I like about Frances is that she isn’t always a likable character.   How did you balance her good qualities with her less than admirable traits?

[CC] As I mentioned in an earlier answer, I didn’t always balance these two things well. Initially, Frances was too “good.” She was a passive victim to Gracie’s abuse. In subsequent drafts, I swung the pendulum too far the other way and made her a too selfish, to the point where readers had difficulty sympathizing with and rooting for her. Then I figured out how to balance her selfishness with her good qualities: I made her selfishness into a survival mechanism for dealing with Gracie’s treatment of her. Then I allowed her to learn from her mistakes and atone for them. She has to earn back Theresa’s friendship, which earns her her freedom the end.

Is there a book that turned you onto reading?

[CC] I can’t point to one book that turned me onto reading because I was always an avid reader and read so many books. In grade school, I loved classic fantasy novels like Alice in Wonderland and The Phantom Tollbooth. In junior high, I loved the Sherlock Holmes series. I bought a used copy of The Complete Sherlock Holmes that was published in the 1930’s, and I read every story. In high school, I read every book written by Robert Cormier.


[CC] You’re welcome!

Bitter Melon is in stores now!  You can purchase a copy at your favorite bookseller, or by clicking the widget below.