This Hard-Boiled Detective Is Also a “Tiger Mom”

From a Washington Post review by Sophia Nguyen headlined “This hard-boiled detective is also a bit of a ‘tiger mom'”:

Just over a decade ago, law professor Amy Chua — who, up until that point, had mostly written about legal matters and international relations — shook up the public with her memoir, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” It told a coming-of-age story, about Chua’s strict child-rearing philosophy and her clashes with her daughters. It was launched with a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” The term “tiger mom” permanently entered our cultural lexicon.

Chua followed it up in 2014 with another eyebrow-raiser about immigrant culture and ambition, “The Triple Package.” Co-written with her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, the book posited that a trio of specific traits (“superiority complex,” “insecurity” and “impulse control”) explained the upward social mobility of some ethnic groups. Her 2018 book, “Political Tribes,” elaborated further on the theme of society’s underestimation of the power of culture, arguing that American foreign policy has failed to adequately account for the role of ethnic identity in politics.

“The Golden Gate,” Chua’s first book since she was last in the headlines — when Yale Law School removed her from teaching a class of first-years, igniting a media frenzy in 2021 — might surprise readers in a different way. It’s a crime novel set in the 1940s: Al Sullivan, a detective of Mexican ancestry who has been passing as White, has been assigned to solve a murder at the Claremont Hotel. The case takes him inside San Francisco’s high society, into Chinese immigrant communities — and, of course, forces him to confront his own secrets.

Chua and I met for coffee while she was in Washington on book tour.

Q: What made you want to write fiction?

A: I’ve actually always wanted to write fiction. My parents were tiger parents — the original tiger parents — and we weren’t allowed to do a lot of super-crazy socializing. So I was just a huge bookworm, and I would walk to the El Cerrito Public Library and come back with all the Nancy Drew books; Agatha Christie books when I got older.

I went to this Wall Street law firm [after college and law school]. I was miserable. I sunk into this whole quasi-depression. I tried to write a novel. It was going to be a mother-daughter Chinese immigrant story. Then “The Joy Luck Club,” by Amy Tan, came out.

Q: So you didn’t have that model, when you were trying to write.

A: No! In fact, I felt so jealous of her. It was great, I loved it, but I thought: “That’s what I was trying to do! She scooped me!”
Then in 2011, as you know, I wrote the tiger mom book, which, even though it’s nonfiction, was really the beginning of this. People so misunderstand that book. My model was, like, Nabokov’s “Pale Fire.”

Q: Really? In what sense?

A: I love unreliable narrators. And the book is all about storytelling. Every chapter is a little story. And it’s got a voice and this unreliable narrator. It drove people crazy, this crazy voice. Some people got the tongue in cheek; other people took it literally. My two daughters are the heroines, and I’m the villain in it. That was really the beginning: My editors asked, “Why can’t you write all your nonfiction books like this?”

So that brings me to “The Golden Gate.” When covid hit, I just had all this time on my hands. I was visiting my parents’ house, and the idea for the plot just hit me. The idea of an unreliable narrator: the grandmother, who is told from the beginning that one of her three granddaughters is a murderer, but they don’t know which one.

It’s the most fun thing that I’ve ever done. It was difficult. But it’s not un-lawyerly. To do a thriller like this, you need a timeline, and it has to fit together logically.

Q: With “Tiger Mother,” and to a certain extent with “The Triple Package,” there was an air of, “We’re going to say things out loud that are not ordinarily said in polite society, like ‘Certain ethnic groups have certain cultural traits’ or, ‘These are the parenting techniques that get your kids certain markers of success.’” Your new book has been out for a few weeks now. Is there anything that people are responding to in it that gets under their skin?

A: No! I had really prepared myself because, you know, I’ve been controversial, right and left, unintentionally.

Q: What were you nervous about?

A: Everything. I was worried about more tiger mom stuff coming out, I was worried about “Triple Package” stuff. There was some goofy scandal three years ago, which was horrible at the time, but I feel vindicated now. I’ve tried to stay very, very uncontroversial.

Q: But there was nothing in the book that made you nervous in itself?

A: I was worried about whether it would be possible to write a character who’s not Asian American. There is a very important and interesting issue of cultural appropriation: Can a Caucasian author write a novel where the main character is Latinx or African American or Chinese, and I actually see all sides of it. But I thought that with Detective Sullivan and his ethnic background, it’s exactly my children’s background, you know? They’re half-Jewish. I thought about making an Asian American detective. Problem? It was completely historically inaccurate. On the Berkeley police force, there were no women, there were no minorities.

I was a little bit worried about that. I had very, very good agents and editors, and one of them said to me: “For nonfiction, controversy sells. But for fiction, it’s anathema.” And I was like, “Really?” I would never have thought.

Q: So that historical impossibility is what gave rise to Al as a character?

A: Yeah, and I actually see a lot of myself in him. He’s an immigrant who wants to rise. He’s White-passing, so he fits the Sam Spade [image], but underneath he’s this mutt, an outsider. On the outside, he’s this classic hard-boiled 1940s character. But on the inside, he’s like drilling vocab cards with [his young niece] Miriam, and that’s like me saying, “You’ve got to rise, you’ve got to work hard.”

Q: “You have to get into the nice school.” Why were you interested in racial passing, psychologically or socially?

A: I’ve always been interested in it. I think it’s not racial passing so much as the broader phenomenon of what your generation calls “code-switching,” or what my former colleague Kenji Yoshino calls “covering.” People who are in some way not mainstream — because of gender identification or skin color or accent — feeling like they need to suppress some aspects of their identity because that’s not what it takes to rise in America.

Sophia Nguyen is the news and features writer for the Books section at The Washington Post. She previously served as assistant editor on the National Politics desk and as an assistant editor for Outlook and PostEverything.

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