Francie Lin may have never visited the Taiwanese criminal underworld or sang in a seedy karaoke bar, but she has written an acclaimed debut novel, The Foreigner, set in the hidden alleys of Taipei.
Emerson Chang is a 40-year-old Taiwanese American virgin who has met his mother for dinner every Friday night for fifteen years. But after her unexpected death, long-buried secrets and family loyalty will take him on an unpredictable journey back to Taiwan—and to the rebellious younger brother lost to him for almost a decade.
“[A] stunning debut…. Taut, smart and often funny.”
—Publishers Weekly *starred review*
“Emerson is a fascinating character …[Lin] is capable of writing both marvelous humor and scenes of utter darkness in her tale of a naive man at a complete loss for dealing with the world.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“You won’t find any of the cardboard characters, clunky writing or clichéd conventions that too often mar suspense fiction. Lin is equally attentive to description and plot.”
—Los Angeles Times
“The Foreigner announces the arrival of the very talented Francie Lin. Brilliantly observed and written with a scalpel, this violent plunge into the abyss of identity runs on the hot rails of the ambitious thriller. A flat-out page-turner.”
—Colin Harrison, author of The Havana Room and The Finder
“This is a daring original novel, permeated with cynical characters and skillfully mixing genres and subjects into a fast-paced journey of self-discovery. How a Taiwanese-American can uphold tradition and ancestral respect against his own cultural and personal dualities, and especially against his own criminal brother, this is what Francie Lin proceeds to keenly accomplish in this sinister yet uplifting story.”
—Marie du Vaure, Vroman’s Bookstore
A Conversation with Francie Lin:
Q: Congratulations on your debut novel and the great reviews! What was the inspiration behind The Foreigner?
It was kind of a combination of things. I had Emerson’s voice in my head for quite a while, this very timid yet determined male voice, and I wanted to give him a whole book. His dilemma—being somewhat squashed under the thumb of his mother, and feeling frustrated by this—is unfortunately one that I saw a lot of among my Asian guy friends, so I suppose that was something of an inspiration as well.
Probably the other major inspiration was Taipei itself. I had such an emotional time of it during the year I spent living there that I wanted to capture some of my initial impressions of the city before they faded away. But at the same time, I didn’t want to write the stock memoir piece about going back and finding your roots. A novel seemed like a good way to cram in lots of details about the streets and shops, etc. without having to say anything too personal about them.
Q: It’s interesting that you found fiction the best form to communicate your experiences. I think The Foreigner might be one of the first American novels set in Taiwan. One sees a lot of non-fiction about Taiwan, but not so much fiction.
How long did it take you to write The Foreigner? And what were your writing experiences before it?
Hmm, that depends on when you start counting. I started trying to write a novel when I was in Taiwan (2001), but nothing much came of that. A couple of years later when I was back living in Berkeley, things finally clicked, and I spent a couple of years writing a first draft, and then there were about 2 years of revisions after I’d sold the book. So I’d say 4 years altogether.
Before writing The Foreigner, I worked for a literary magazine in Berkeley calledThe Threepenny Review and wrote short pieces and sometimes longer essays and reviews for it. I also reviewed books for the SF Chronicle and the LA Times. So I was more of a nonfiction writer. Actually, with the exception of a couple of short stories, I hadn’t written any fiction since college until I attempted The Foreigner.
Q: How was your time as a Fulbright Fellow in Taiwan in 2001-2002? Was it your first time in Taiwan (at least, in awhile), and was it what you expected? And I hope you did not have to explore too much the alleyways of the Taipei underworld to research the novel …
Oh, I had a great time that year! It was indeed my first time in Taipei/Taiwan except for a week or so in 2000 to visit a friend, and it was absolutely not what I was expecting. My parents didn’t really go back to Taiwan much when we were growing up, so their memories of Taipei are a little outdated, and I was struck by how futuristic the Taipei I lived in seemed. Something about the crowdedness and the heat and the architecture and department stores mixed with the little alleys and nightmarkets made it seem very exciting. And then my first month there we were hit with a major typhoon. After that I was robbed, and then, back in the States, 9/11 happened. So all that might have contributed to my impression of Taipei as being a rather dark place. (And no, I didn’t have to go to a lot of seedy karaoke bars for research, though I would have liked to!) It wasn’t an impression that lasted all year, though; once I’d made some friends and become more familiar with the city, it became just a nice, convenient place to live.
Q: You were robbed!! What happened?
I was living temporarily with a friend of my aunt’s, an older retired teacher, near Da An Senlin Park. One night I came back from dinner and then went out again to get a cup of coffee, and when I came back the front door was open. I went inside, and the whole apartment had just been ransacked: all the drawers were torn out of the dresser, and everyone’s clothes were all over the floor. You know how everyone keeps cash rather than putting the money in the bank? My poor landlady lost an astronomical amount of money; I lost some cash, but not too much. I freaked out anyway, though, because I thought I remembered locking the door when I left. In the end, it turned out that I HAD locked the door; whoever it was had gotten in by climbing up the balcony and cutting through the iron bars. Thank god. I think my aunt would have disowned me if I’d been responsible. Of course I’m still very sorry for my landlady.
Do I have to pick just one? I guess I’d have to say naiyou bing–I used to eat those constantly, but only the ones that look like hockey pucks, not the other kind. I was also a big fan of guabao, though those were kind of hard to get–had to go all the way to the Tonghua nightmarket, which wasn’t too near where I was living.
Q: Poor Emerson, the main character in “The Foreigner,” doesn’t do so well with his Mandarin. How is yours? 😉
Ugh, that’s a sore point! My Mandarin was decent by the time I left Taiwan, but now, of course, it’s awful again. My husband teaches Chinese history, and spent several years in China and a year at ICLP during grad school, but his Chinese is now fading too, and we keep trying to figure out how to get a language partner! Anyone out there in the Boston area willing to do a language exchange?
Q: The Foreigner has a refreshingly diverse cast of Asian or Asian-related characters with strong needs: Angel Guo with her army fatigues and distaste of men seeking meek Oriental women; A, the troubled white American, and Grace, his sweet Taiwanese girlfriend who may or may not love him; and Atticus, the well-educated and complex former engineer involved in the politics of Taiwan. Are some of these perspectives ones that interest you as an Asian or Taiwanese American? Or are these characters representative of some of the people you have encountered in the Asian or Taiwanese American communities?
Well, Atticus’s politics are pretty much my father’s views, though I don’t think he’d go so far as to attempt assassination. I’m on and off interested in the issue of Taiwan independence. Before I went to Taiwan I was pretty pro-independence; now I think that, ideologically, independence would be noble, but practically speaking unfeasible, and probably unlikely. But who knows?
A interests me as a character that probably every expat in Asia has encountered: the aging Caucasian guy who doesn’t speak any of the language but continues to live in Asia because it’s convenient for escaping personal problems at home, and because he commands more attention there than in the States or in England or wherever. Grace, too, is modeled on a few Taiwanese women I met, who were going out with these really terrible foreigner guys, out of boredom, maybe, or a sense of adventure. (I never asked.)
Angel is pure fiction, though her indignation about the power imbalance between Taiwanese women and men is something I share.
Q: Emerson Chang has a strong relationship with his mother—to say the least. Was there a reason you chose to portray this kind of parent-child relationship? I suppose family relationships play an important role for all 2nd generation Asian Americans …
I guess some of the reason is autobiographical, though of course I’m not a 40-year-old man. I do think that a lot of 2nd generation Asian Americans have to struggle a lot if they want some independence from their parents—it’s just not in the Asian family model to let your kids go off and “have a life of their own.” Emerson is just my exploration of the consequences—for one particular personality—of being a good Chinese son in action but feeling emotionally torn between your own individuality and the demands of family loyalty.
Q: Again, congratulations on a finely written novel. How does it feel to finish your first book and finally see it in print? I hope you’re enjoying the good feedback!
Thank you! It’s wonderful to see the book finally out, and I hope people are enjoying it. The good reviews make me very happy, but then they also make me nervous, as I’m working on my second book right now, and some writing days are better than others. We’ll see!
For more information on The Foreigner or to purchase a copy of the book, visit http://us.macmillan.com/theforeigner.
TaiwaneseAmerican.org would like to offer a copy of The Foreigner to readers of this website. To be entered in the raffle, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “The Foreigner” and on July 30th, the winner will be chosen at random.
*EDIT* Congratulations to Michael L. of Chicago, IL for winning the raffle!
D. Lin works in the publishing industry in NYC.