The life of a 30-something Chinese immigrant, haunted by her past and determined never to marry, creates a powerful portrait of courage in the new novel Spinster Kang by Zoe Roy.
Set in Toronto, Canada, the novel follows the titular character Kang, as she strives to build a new life for herself in her adopted country while grappling with her own past and, later, the past of another fellow immigrant she befriends in the story. The book explores women’s issues across cultures, from dating and marriage to sexual assault and divorce, as well as cross-cultural relationships (through two parallel love stories). Spinster Kang strikes a more positive note throughout its pages, despite some of the heavy topics, so readers will find it easy to settle into the story, even when it touches on the shadows of life.
It’s my pleasure to introduce Spinster Kang to you through this interview with the author Zoe S. Roy.
Here’s Zoe Roy’s bio from Goodreads:
Born in China, Zoë S. Roy, an avid reader even during the Cultural Revolution, writes literary fiction with a focus on women’s cross-cultural experiences. She holds an MEd in Adult Education and an MA in Atlantic Canada Studies from the University of New Brunswick and Saint Mary’s University. She currently lives in Toronto and taught for the Toronto Public School Board for years.
Tell us about what inspired you to write this novel.
In 2011, I made a comment on the website entitled “What is Toronto?’ by the writer, Susan Screan, at http://www.whatistoronto.ca/susan-on-toronto/lets-all-fillintheblank-toronto#comments. Her website was the initial inspiration for the setting of Spinster Kang. Here’s a part of my comment: “Toronto is where I resumed my career and also a place that I call home now. As a non-Toronto-born Torontonian, I’m thinking about having my next novel set in Toronto as a contribution to this great city.”
How did you conceive of the main character in Spinster Kang?
There’s a long story behind my main character. In 1993, Gu Cheng, A Chinese poet who was exiled in New Zealand, killed his wife, Xie Ye, before he hung himself. The death of Xie Ye haunted me, and her acceptance of her husband’s lover in sharing their lives together perplexed me, too. I imagined that if Xie Ye had survived, she would’ve been terrified by men. Several years later, I wrote a short story of a confirmed spinster who distrusts and fears men because of her sister being a rape victim in China. After coming to Canada, she tells a gay friend about her sister’s story that not only releases her from dismay in the past, but also gradually helps build up her trust in men. The story was written in a series of dialogue without a good storyline since I was at the stage of learning how to create plots. Dissatisfied, I put the story on the back burner. However, that story didn’t die out but grew stronger in my head over the years. Then I continually made cross-cultural comparisons about the different social conditions for women and their love affairs or relationships; I also imagined how a woman who distrusted men would change in a different culture. Nearly two decades later after Xie Ye’s death, I wrote about Spinster Kang as a novel. So to speak, Xie Ye’s tragedy has inspired me to write my protagonist, Kang.
Through Kang’s experiences, you explore a number of women’s issues, including rape and sexual assault as well as stigmatizing women at certain ages, and consider them through a cross-cultural lens. Why did you choose to look at these issues in Spinster Kang?
I’ve been interested in women’s issues since I was young through reading and observation in life. In addition, I’ve been making some comparisons between China and North America in my writing. For example, about rape, many families in China prefer hiding the fact from the public to protect the victim from feeling humiliated and protect themselves from feeling humiliated or being humiliated. The raped women would have trouble getting married as if being sexually assaulted is their own fault instead of being seen as victims. However, in North America victims and their families are more encouraged to report it. The issue is more open in public. The rape victims wouldn’t be discriminated against when they choose to have a relationship or get married.
Women’s preference for getting married or staying single in China is a main issue in Spinster Kang. According to Chinese tradition, grown-up women must get married; otherwise, people would treat you as an abnormal woman or even as if you were an alien. In contemporary China, many women receive higher education and have a career, but these women spend more years on education and career development so that they may not get married until around 25 or even 30. They are called “leftover women” — “剩女” in Chinese. According to a Chinese adage, “A man by the age of thirty should have accomplished his goals,” but this milestone age for unmarried women implies that “you’re at a doomed age and become undesirable.” “Leftover women” is a name tag for these women while “spinster” is a particular nickname for Kang. In this novel, I also touch a taboo subject in China since homosexual people are not accepted. Many Chinese are not aware of their existence. Kang is no exception so that there is an amusing story to go with her based on her misunderstanding the culture as a newcomer.
Your story features two cross-cultural, interracial relationships, one set in Canada and other in Soviet Russia. Why did you juxtapose these two relationships in your story?
These two relationships in the novel are juxtaposed to show that different cultural and social environments can make different impacts on women’s personal lives and their choices. It also shows a linear comparison about the personal life of Kang and her father. Tania and Kang both experience cross-cultural, interracial relationships, but the former ends sorrowfully; the latter has a happy ending, because of the different eras and places. In the early 1950s, China regarded the former Soviet Union as a fraternal country because of the Stalin-Mao Alliance; Students at high schools or at universities all over China were encouraged to learn Russian. Sending Chinese students to study at Soviet universities was put in practice. Kang’s father’s love story reflects this historic period, and his interracial relationship with a Soviet citizen without the Communist Party’s permission was not allowed. Not only was he forced to leave his lover in the Soviet Union, but he was also branded a rightist after returning to China because of his love affair with a foreigner. Kang’s interracial relationship with Brian happens in Canada where people have the freedom to choose what they want.
What do you hope people come away with after reading your novel?
I hope readers, especially those women readers who have cross-cultural experience or interracial relationships or both, would feel emotionally connected to one or more of these characters. I expect, after reading this novel, readers would recognize something or someone familiar or they can identify something new or something old related to their own experiences that could help them get rid of any unpleasant feelings in their past and appreciate more what they have in life or feel happier about their relationships.