Abbigail N. Rosewood was born in Vietnam, where she lived until the age of twelve. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University. An excerpt from her first novel won first place in the Writers Workshop of Asheville Literary Fiction Contest. She lives in New York City.
What was it like growing up in Vietnam? Can you tell us more about the incident that changed your life overnight when you were seven years old?
A childhood spent in Vietnam is a special, unspeakable thing. It nurtured my sense of wonder, imagination, creativity, as well as formed an early armor against the elements. Vietnam is wonderful preparations for life.
Memory is only approximation, but I remember my first taste of acute fear. Psychologists now might call it fear of abandonment. It was primal, overwhelming; my whole being was reduced to a single goal to reach my mother. That experience taught me about love and need. As an adult, I still haven’t fully overcome this tendency to catastrophize the temporary absence of a loved one. When my fiancé travels, I would imagine his sudden disappearance, his not returning. My mother left in the night. It wasn’t her fault, but for many years she couldn’t come back. I learn a lot about loving her from a distance, loving absences.
When did you come to the United States? What was your experience or impression of U.S./New York as an immigrant and young adult living in NYC?
I’ve moved around a lot. My first landing spot in the U.S was actually Houston when I was thirteen. Two years later, we moved to San Diego. I made a few miraculous friendships in Houston, friends who despite the geographical distance today, are close to my heart. Such was the blessing of being a teenager and I adapted quickly. I fell in love with the English language immediately. I’d gone to an all-French school in Singapore, but French never had that effect on me, whereas English punctured my veins and saturated my blood. American schools had its own ridiculous hierarchies, but it was mild compared to the Lycée Francais I’d gone to.
The first friends I made were immigrants themselves. Or they were first generation with parents who were immigrants. That came about naturally, I think, because we all had an unspoken understanding that we didn’t quite belong there, or anywhere else. I didn’t know then that this feeling would continue to haunt me and become a crucial part of my identity.
It can often feel like both a blessing and a burden to be an immigrant, part of two worlds and cultures but also owning a distinct identity from both. What was it like forming your identity in New York? Did you feel like you had to reconcile your immigrant selves?
I think you said it perfectly, a blessing and a burden. A blessing for many reasons, one of which is having an outsider’s perspective and clarity. A burden for many reasons as well, one always has to explain, for example, why one wasn’t familiar with certain TV shows, music, other cultural references that American children who grew up here would know. I know that seems minor, but frustration builds on minor misunderstandings.
As a writer, there is a privilege and burden of representation. I cannot just be an author because my society will insist on classifying me as an Asian American author. What comes next is the question of what an Asian American author should be writing about. The job of an artist is in many ways to defy categories, generalizations. Apples as depicted by Vincent van Gogh isn’t special because they belong to a group of fruit, but because they have been regarded by the artist. I don’t know if I’ve reconciled my several selves, or if I ever will. But lately, I’ve been feeling more free to correct people’s assumptions. A simple reminder, I don’t know it, I didn’t grow up here is a telling and powerful claim.
Congratulations on publishing your debut novel, If I Had Two Lives. Please tell us more about the book!
Thank you so much. If I Had Two Lives is a tale of friendships, the haunting of memories, the gift of isolation, and namelessness.
When did you first have the idea for the book and what was the process like writing/revising the novel and getting it published?
I don’t think I had ideas as much as I was possessed. I was at a point when I was finally ready to use words as a means to construct emotional truths, difficult truths. The novel, as challenging as it was to write, is to me like a wish: a coherent, metaphorically consistent, emotionally logical narrative with a beginning, middle, and ending. A wish because life isn’t so neatly packaged and perhaps more metaphorically messy.
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when I attempted to write this book. For a long time, I was telling people that I began the first chapter it in my last year of graduate school, but recently I found a piece I wrote in 2011, in which fragments of the same story were already manifesting. So technically I finished the first draft in one year, but I’d been trying to write it for much longer, almost a decade. I never really come up with ideas the way, I believe, ideas occur to people, instead I chase a feeling. Sometimes it takes only a word or two to get there, other times it takes dissolutions of relationships, friendships, crisis of faith, multiple failures to utter the unutterable.
I imagine parts of the book must have been painful to write, but many positive things came out of it. How did writing the book help to heal your complicated relationship with your mother?
This is a little hard to admit, but as a writer, I thrive on pain. It is the source of my creativity, the lifeline to all of my writing. I don’t think I would have written if I’d not been hurt. I’ve heard of writers finding certain experiences too difficult to approach, to fictionalize and draw from, but that has never been the case for me. Because I don’t express myself often outside of writing, it is a joy to sit down and confront myself and to realize I’d felt pain or anything at all is wonderful, because the opposite is numbness, indifference.
My relationship with my mother will always be painful. Part of the healing process is accepting this truth.
What was it like earning an MFA from Columbia? What did you enjoy most about the experience and what did you find most challenging?
It was an immense gift. There was so much talent among my professors and my peers. I grew more in my two years in the program than all the time I’ve previously tried to write. The most challenging thing was probably having to read four to five books each week, while also being expected to submit a ten to twenty-page story to workshop, etc. I never was able to complete my reading assignments.
What advice would you give someone who is thinking about getting an MFA? How can someone who has already been accepted into an MFA program make the most of it?
My advice would be to not try to impress anyone with your writing, but try to grow, experiment. Because I was afraid of judgment, I would try to submit stories that are as polished as possible. It would have been better to make a mess of things, toss words around on the page, write from the perspective of a vagina or a bonsai. Play.
What’s the most valuable piece of advice you’ve received as a writer and what advice would you give new writers?
Write for yourself. The rest will come.
What are you currently reading? What book has been most influential on your life or on you as a writer?
Right now, I’m reading Dracula by Bram Stoker. The structure is amazing. I don’t think contemporary publishers would have the courage to publish such a book now.
So many books have influenced me, but one of the first was Wuthering Heights. I’m always seeking that degree of passion, darkness, despair, and attempting it in my own work.
What’s next for you on the horizon? Anything else you’d like to share?
My second novel Constellations of Eve will be going on submission to publishers in the new year. I’m excited to see what the world will make of her.