As a friend and fellow writer, I was always fascinated by Mike Fu‘s work in Chinese-English translation. In this interview, we discussed his multicultural background and its influence on his craft and personal development.
Have you always been a creative or artistic person? Was that fostered in your childhood?
I’ve always been drawn to storytelling, character development and world-building. As a kid, I was really taken by “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings,” the world of Marvel superheroes, especially X-Men and John Bellairs’s gothic mystery novels. Of course, these came into my life after I learned to speak English. Before that, my mother used to read me bedtime stories from a compendium of Chinese parables called “365 Nights.” I also enjoyed stories told by my grandfather, who is fond of Chinese literary classics and used to perform shadow puppetry.
Some people grow up to be artists to rebel against their upbringing.
My parents are very much cut-and-dry science and engineering types, but somehow they let it slide when I chose to attend film school at USC. This was partially facilitated by their moving back to China when I was sixteen. At that point, my father was really focused on his career and my mother and sister had to deal with transplanting from suburban Ohio to eastern China. They had little time to worry about me, which granted me a considerable amount of independence. With film school, my parents were also holding onto a (typically Chinese, if outlandish) fantasy that I might somehow hit the jackpot and make tons of money.
What was your experience like at USC?
My concentration was called Cinema-Television Production. We covered the whole gamut in four years: screenwriting, directing, cinematography and sound for DV and 16mm, editing and post-production, etc. My peers were an interesting cohort and I truly enjoyed my time in college, but only towards the end did I realize that my core interests diverged drastically from the aims of the program.
I was interested in film for its dramatic and aesthetic potential. By virtue of geography, USC has a distinctively Hollywood bent and tends to the mainstream and the commercial. I found out over time that I’m much more suited to undertake the solitary endeavor of writing, rather than the nitty-gritty logistical, financial, legal and bureaucratic details that film production entails.
What do you enjoy most about writing and what’s the hardest part about writing?
[Laughs] These are two sides of the same coin. The thing I enjoy most is the hardest to come by. Writer’s block is a challenge for everyone. But on those rare occasions when you’re on a roll, there’s almost a high that comes with the feeling of creation. It’s rewarding and redeeming in the face of so much self-doubt and ennui. On the other hand, hitting road blocks in writing is a natural but nonetheless frustrating occurrence. Sometimes you just can’t figure out how to move forward after making tentative moves toward establishing a world.
Are there common things you’ve seen writers or artists struggle with?
I would say we all drink pretty heavily. [Laughs] With creative types I think there’s a proclivity to vice of all kinds.
Why do you think that is?
I remember reading something like this in Susan Shapiro’s interview. Are we inclined to be “crazy” and, to varying extents, self-destructive because we’re sensitive people by nature? Or does our sensitivity arise from being constantly hungover or in altered states of consciousness? [Laughs] I believe we are drawn to a creative medium because it affords a different, perhaps heightened, mode of expression than what we use in our day-to-day lives. There are certain ideas or feelings that may be easier to convey when mediated through storytelling or other forms.
How did you fall into translation work and how is it different from writing your own material?
Moving to Los Angeles gave me the space to nurture both academic and personal interests. I started watching a lot of contemporary Chinese cinema and reading Chinese literature in translation. Since my family had moved back to China when I was in high school, I was also going back and forth between Shanghai and L.A. every year. These visits forced me to engage with the Chinese cultural and linguistic background that I had shunned when I was in Ohio. Living in suburban Cleveland, I was very uncomfortable with identifying any part of my personhood with China or being Chinese.
You grew up in Ohio?
I went to high school in a suburb of Cleveland. Before that, I grew up in Maryland in the casually diverse metropolitan area between D.C. and Baltimore. Moving to the Midwest was a profound shock because it was so homogeneous, conservative and xenophobic. It forced a lot of reflection for me at a young age. As an adult, I’ve been able to come full circle and reclaim aspects of my identity I once rejected. Much of this has been realized through writing and translation.
So you brought many things that you cared about together with this line of work.
A lot of my life so far has been spent synthesizing things which spoke to me and making something sensible out of them. It’s really important to feel that wholeness.
Is translation as satisfying as writing your own work?
It’s satisfying in a different way. There’s a highly technical aspect to translation, of course, but there is a huge amount of room for creative interpretation, especially between languages as different as English and Chinese. I like to think about the incommensurability of language. The signified might bear this name in this language and that name in that language, but are the signifiers truly equivalent? I always love reading those articles that list words or phrases in Chinese or other languages that can’t easily be expressed in English. It’s interesting to think about the history and culture embedded in an idiom.
In terms of self-care, what’s been a struggle for you?
It’s really important to manage and navigate your emotions, especially living in a place like New York City. A common thread I’ve seen in your blog, which also resonates with me, is therapy. I saw a therapist regularly for three and a half years and found it to be a tremendously enriching experience overall.
How did therapy help you?
It allowed me to take a step back and view things from an objective distance. Therapy connects the emotional dots in your life and allows you to recognize patterns. You can trace emotional reactions to memories or amorphous feelings that bubble beneath the surface – things you might have ignored or not taken the time to consider previously. You begin to understand that you are conditioned, for better or worse, to respond to this world based on many things out of your control, such as the environment in which you grew up. The most important nuggets of wisdom I took away from therapy were the simplest things, really.
We experience a lot of universal things but it’s good to be reminded of them. You can begin to forget or take them for granted.
For me, one of those things was the impact that your family has on you. The idea that some of the burdens and prejudices you carry in life might have been imposed on you at a young age. Once you identify these influences, you can start to untangle yourself. There’s a Chinese saying: Every family has a book of unspeakable problems. No matter how glossy and perfect people might seem on the surface, everyone has a lot buried in their hearts.
One issue I had to deal with was acceptance—acceptance by my family but also accepting my family for who they are. You can hope, but you can’t expect older generations to change for you. Learning not to have expectations can also be very freeing.
How does acceptance work if things are just really crappy at the moment?
I don’t mean to make acceptance sound rigid because it’s really the opposite; it’s about managing your emotional reactions to things. Obviously, you want to strive for improvement in your relationships or in certain areas of life. But, when truly nothing can be done, it’s important to acknowledge reality and make peace with it.
Has this also affected your work as a writer?
I’ve always thought of therapy and writing as analogous endeavors. It’s easy to get caught up in the swirl of your own emotions. All those feelings might seem too intense and insurmountable. But once you put words to those feelings, whether in writing or through therapy, they become concrete and approachable. You define and give shape to them and, in turn, they become more understandable. Like Murakami’s narrator in “Norwegian Wood” says, “I have to write things down to feel I fully comprehend them.”
What are your current goals as an artist and also as a person?
I’d like my thirties to be about professional and creative development. Like many people, I spent most of my twenties preoccupied with finding, negotiating and asserting facets of my adult identity. It’s easy to get led astray by vices, or by people and careers that are not quite right. For me, turning thirty felt like a clean break and a chance to start anew.
I’ve been trying to meditate more, a practice which has coincided with the end of my therapy sessions. I’m pretty bad at meditating, to tell the truth. I have a few close friends who meditate, one of whom even has a book out about meditation! I used to do yoga more regularly than I do now. Meditation and yoga are related. They’re both about mindfulness and self-awareness. I’ve been using Headspace for meditation. There are all sorts of guided meditations that vary in length and focus.
Training your mind to meditate can also facilitate creative work, they say. I have yet to feel the full effects, but I’m working on it.
If you see someone who is struggling in life emotionally, what would you say or do?
I think therapy is hugely important. You learn a lot by facing yourself in this way. It might force you to confront many hidden aspects about yourself, some of which may be uncomfortable to reconcile with. But the more you can accept and understand yourself, the more integrated you will feel. This sense of integration is one way to find happiness in yourself and in your interactions with others.
In the long run, what would be your definition of success?
The cultivation of healthy, loving relationships. Again, it was one of those epiphanies I had during therapy that felt overly obvious when I stumbled upon it. But there you go. Your happiness is something that should be nurtured and supported by the people you surround yourself with. Everyone close to you is a reflection of yourself. The best relationships are the ones where you build each other up. I think mutual admiration is a key component to a strong friendship or romantic relationship. It’s not enough to simply appreciate this person or enjoy their company. You have to admire certain qualities about them, and vice versa, for the relationship to encourage positive growth in both parties.
And sometimes relationships run their course.
You part ways when you no longer have something to offer each other. But there is such a thing as handling the end of a relationship with grace and respect.