It's safe to say that Lydia Netzer, author of the 2012 New York Times Notable Book Shine, Shine, Shine, is a real fan of Julie Wu's debut novel The Third Son -- the tale of a Taiwanese young man, Saburo, working against the odds of familial tradition and national politics to achieve his own dreams.
Of the protaginist Netzer says, "For me a defining moment was when he climbed mountains in South Dakota in dress shoes without complaint, so he would not appear incapable in front of his oblivious American colleagues."
Netzer spoke with Wu about The Third Son: the multiple stories being told, the real history of Taiwan, and defying conventional endings.
Lydia Netzer: The Third Son is an epic love story set against a violent chunk of history. How did the two play off each other?
Julie Wu: To me, it is all one story. The book is primarily Saburo's individual journey, but this journey is fundamentally linked to the political and historical events occurring around him. The development of his struggles with insecurity, identity, and loyalty to his abusive parents--these are in my mind both specific to Saburo and representative, on a larger scale, of a certain segment of his people at the time.
Netzer: Most Americans know very little about Taiwanese history. What do you want your book to say about Taiwan?
Wu: Most Americans are unaware even that the Taiwanese did not choose their current government. I wanted to give voice to the Taiwanese people and show that they have their own points of view that have been suppressed or ignored for hundreds of years.
Netzer: Who is Saburo, for you?
Wu: Saburo is inspired by my father, and this moment is based on a real episode in his life, when he was invited to go on a hike in the Smoky Mountains. He did, indeed, show up in dress clothes and dress shoes. To me this story epitomizes a certain kind of immigrant experience--a willingness to persist, despite ill-preparedness and humiliation, and a grasping at any offer of inclusion, no matter how halfhearted.
Netzer: The love story between Saburo and Yoshiko is complicated by circumstances, but at its heart it is the sweetest, simplest love. Did you use a model for this relationship? Do you believe that you can love your childhood sweetheart forever?
Wu: The characters are both inspired by my parents, and the lovely relationship between Saburo and Yoshiko is similar to my parents' relationship. My parents, however, met as adults and had a very quick, easy courtship that would be totally boring in a novel. Having Saburo and Yoshiko meet as children, lose sight of each other, and have various obstacles and people keeping them apart was a means I used to drive the novel forward and deepen the significance of their relationship. I do hope there are relationships in real life like this!
Netzer: I think you exploded the choice between "a happy ending" and "a tragic ending"--does this perhaps reflect the historical themes of your book?
Wu: I am so thrilled, because that is exactly the reaction I was trying to elicit! I do believe that in any hard-won victory, either on the personal or on the state level, there are notes of mourning for all that was lost and all that could have been. Saburo's journey is a triumph because he has had such tragedy in his life. Pure, unadulterated happiness, the way an innocent child feels it, is wonderful. But it's the mixture of deep happiness and deep sadness that moves us the most.