With Dreams of Joy, I wanted to write about a mother-daughter relationship. I also wanted to create two women who would have their own unique voices. Joy is nineteen, stubborn, naïve, and has run away to China. Pearl, Joy’s mother, chases after her daughter, hoping to bring her home. Joy follows her Tiger personality and often leaps blindly into situations she shouldn’t, while Pearl has had a lifetime of heartbreak and knows from experience that whatever she does will be tempered by fate, destiny, and the vicissitudes of luck. Joy is absolutely sure of herself, while Pearl questions everything.
Joy makes some terrible mistakes, which, as a mother and her writer, I sometimes found hard to watch. Like Pearl, I often felt great pity for Joy but also great impatience. Did these things make her difficult to write? Not really. All I had to do was put myself back in time. I, too, was pretty stubborn and naïve at her age. (What nineteen-year-old isn’t?) With Joy, I think in particular of a scene in the novel where she’s been caught secretly visiting a boy in a village. She keeps insisting “Nothing happened,” when of course it did. Been there, done that—and other dumb things— myself. In fact, this really hit home for me recently when my step-sister brought out a bunch of letters I wrote to her when we were between the ages of sixteen and nineteen. We laughed very hard as we read the letters aloud to each other, but I also couldn’t help feeling real sympathy and compassion for the earnest, but totally idiotic, girl I was back then.
I’m now closer in age to Pearl, and I was already familiar with her strengths and weaknesses from Shanghai Girls. Her words and sentiments flowed very easily, because I’ve now lived with her every day for over four years. But even if I didn’t know Pearl as well as I do, I could relate to her purely as one mother to another. After all, what mother on earth hasn’t had moments when she’s thought to herself, as Pearl does at one point, It’s just so hard to be a mother? What mother hasn’t worried when she’s seen her child making a life-changing mistake? What mother hasn’t tried to “fix” things for her child, only to make things worse? (But we make things better most of the time, right?) What mother hasn’t at some point had to hide her sadness, anger, and grief, as Pearl does? I could write about those aspects of motherhood, because I’ve experienced them myself.
I drew on all of my experiences as a mother to write Pearl, just as I drew on all my experiences of being a daughter to write Joy. What a “joy” it was, as Joy’s literary mother and as a mother myself, to watch her go through all the terrible things she experiences and see her grow into a wonderful artist and courageous mother. And how happy I was that Pearl, who has been through so much, finally got to have a happy ending.
You don’t need to be a mother to enjoy Dreams of Joy. (Although if you are, it may make you think about the emotions you’ve felt or the experiences you’d had with your own children.) But one thing I can say for certain: we were all young and daughters once upon a time. I hope that as you read Dreams of Joy, you will remember yourself at age nineteen. Be kind, laugh ruefully, and try to have a little sympathy and compassion for the girl you were back then.
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