Ken Liu: Giving a Chinese-American voice an international audience

  • Books
  • Saturday, 18 Apr 2015

Author Ken Liu is a product of two cultures. While he was born in Lanzhou, China, he immigrated to the US with his parents when he was 11, first living in Palo Alto, California, and later moving to Waterford, Connecticut.

Some people would have difficulties, living in between two such different cultures. Yet in an e-mail interview, the author makes it clear that this is not the case with him. “I never had to ‘come to terms’ with my Chinese heritage. I don’t know if I’m unusual in that way or not,” says Liu, who now resides in Massachusetts with his artist wife and two daughters.

“It always seemed perfectly normal to me to cross boundaries and live with multiple labels. Don’t most people in the world have to do this? It’s only the very privileged – or perhaps they’re the unfortunate ones! – who can live with a single ‘identity’.”

Many of Liu’s works – including the award-winning short story The Paper Menagerie and his first full-length novel, The Grace Of Kings – are influenced by or explore facets of Chinese culture. And many of them have found success internationally. Did Liu feel a responsibility to take these cultural elements to mainstream audiences, or was it something that arose naturally?


“I don’t think of ‘responsible’ and ‘natural’ as two different things. I think it’s perfectly normal for writers to write through the lens of their individual experience, and also perfectly normal if they want to deliberately try another lens. And I consider myself very much in the mainstream – after all, the stream is made up by all of us,” Liu says.

The author stresses that he is American, and writes from and against the Anglo-American literary tradition, with his cultural identity reflective of the diverse nature of the American experience.

“As an immigrant like millions of others, I’m endowed with a cultural and literary heritage from my ancestral homeland that has become an indelible part of the American fabric,” Liu says.

“I also share with every American the enterprise of perfecting our union by giving voice and expression to the marginalised segments of our rich cultural diversity against the historically dominant voices.”

Liu adds, however, that he feels very blessed to have inherited a cultural treasure trove like the Chinese literary tradition, and that he has the linguistic and cultural understanding to appreciate works from both China’s past and present.

“I think my cross-cultural perspective has enriched my own understanding and given me tools that perhaps other American writers lack, allowing me to engage with a comparatively fuller range of issues in human diversity and globalisation,” he says.

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