Growing up in Edgemont and Scarsdale (class of ’87) Christina Chiu said she “didn’t fit the Asian nerd stereotype at all.”
“I’m a Generation X-er who grew up as a latchkey kid, watched MTV 24/7, went to concerts, and slacked when it came to academics,” she said in an interview on Medium, a blogging platform. “I didn’t get straight A’s or a perfect SAT score. I drank and partied, waitressed three or four nights a week, and I wanted to go into fashion or be a writer.”
With her new, award-winning novel “Beauty” (published in May by 2040 Books/The Santa Fe Writers Project), Chiu gets to do both. The story follows decades in the life of Amy Wong, an aspiring fashion designer navigating complicated and sometimes toxic perceptions about race, gender and sexuality while questioning her own power as a woman, a professional, a wife and a mother. Amy’s choices fall short of her traditional family’s expectations, starting with a disturbing underage sexual encounter that Chiu describes in graphic detail and for which she makes no apologies.
“The only inappropriate thing about the scene is that it actually happens to girls in real life,” Chiu told the Inquirer. “Many male authors write about sex from the point of view of a woman and, more often than not, they don’t write them well.”
Chiu is the recipient of the James Alan McPherson Award for fiction honoring the literary accomplishments of minority writers. She graduated from Bates College where she majored in East Asian Studies, and in 2000 earned her MFA in writing at Columbia University.
The daughter of a textiles merchant and an aesthetician, Chiu chose fashion and design as the backdrop for “Beauty” — expanding on a short story from her earlier book, “Troublemaker and Other Saints” because, she said, the concept appears simple but is actually complex.
“Physical beauty is a kind of currency, but what is the flip side of that?” she said in an interview with Columbia School of the Arts alumni news. “When does beauty cause suffering? What happens when someone who identifies as beautiful gets stripped of it?”
“Focusing on the way one looks can make one seem superficial and vain. But what one wears is an expression of who they are, not just what they look like,” said Chiu. “The knee-jerk reaction people have when they find out “Beauty” is about fashion is to think, ‘I’m not interested in fashion,’ therefore it’s ‘not worth reading.’”
But Chiu challenges that assumption. “Good writing is not about the subject, it’s about the writing and the way it is written. “The Old Man and the Sea” is about a fisherman on a quest to capture a great blue marlin. It would be ludicrous for anyone to say, ‘That book is not worth reading because I’m not interested in fishing.’ It’s so much more than fishing.”
In her novel, Amy has a passion for shoes and boots. To sharpen her perspective on the industry, Chiu enrolled in a shoemaking class, and experienced firsthand the painstaking process of creating something unique and wearable.
“It was supposed to be an easy project, but I learned that a ‘simple’ shoe may take 200 steps,” she said. “It was hard work because I had to sew sequins through leather. It took a lot of strength to push the needle through and often the back of the needle pierced my middle finger or thumb.”
Chiu said shoemaking can be a lot like life. “You think a project is going to be smooth and easy; you’ll move along like everyone else. Then, you hit a complication. A problem arises. Maybe it’s the material, or the design, and it doesn’t end up the way you had envisioned. You fall behind while others are excelling. And all you can think is, ‘It’s so unfair!’”
A married mother of two sons, Chiu lived in Scarsdale and taught fiction writing at the Scarsdale PT Council’s Young Writers’ Workshop. She later moved to New York City with her family to better manage the medical needs of her younger son. She is currently working on a memoir about that experience and is launching the “Let’s Talk Books” group in September.
Chiu said she would like women who read her book to consider that beauty is a feeling and an emotion. “If you close your eyes and imagine something beautiful that makes you smile, or do something creative in which you lose yourself, it may make you feel infinitely more beautiful than all the products in the world.”