Debut Author Snapshot: Maggie Shen King

Posted by Goodreads on September 1, 2017
The debut novel An Excess Male is set in a near-future China in the aftermath of its One-Child Policy and cultural bias for male heirs. In the book 40 million men are unable to find wives, and the government has mandated that its families demonstrate patriotism and help solve the crisis by taking on additional husbands.

An Excess Male presents a new twist on the age-old marriage plot. It's the story of one excess male, the less-than-perfect family he seeks to join, and the fight for their version of home as well as the country they have lost to a regime that aimed to control reproduction and define the boundaries of marriage in the name of the public good.

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Maggie Shen King began writing a decade ago when her youngest child started middle school. "At first I learned the craft by working on short stories. I wrote every day when my children were at school," she says. "An Excess Male is not my first novel. Like so many writers, I have a maiden attempt sitting in the depths of my hard drive, crying out from time to time for attention."

King spent the first 16 years of her life in Taiwan before moving to the United States.

Goodreads: Why were you inspired by China's One-Child Policy?

Maggie Shen King: The One-Child Policy was one of mankind's longest-lasting and largest-scaled feats of social engineering. It was enforced by Chinese officials, and at times by its citizenry, in ways that often violated widely accepted rules of ethics and human decency. Despite the cultural bias for male heirs and repeated warnings from census data, the law was allowed to continue for nearly 40 years, resulting currently in 30 million unmarriageable men and more men on their way. It was an experiment that created serious unintended consequences, a true cautionary tale against man's attempt to change the natural order.

Abolishing the policy, however, will not eradicate the problem. The fact that all these men are also the only children in their families, accustomed to the undivided attention of parents and grandparents, makes this situation doubly fascinating. China will be dealing with the fallout of this policy for many decades to come.

GR: How did you develop this idea for your debut novel?

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MSK: I first considered how China might solve its problem of 30 million unmarriageable men. Looking at the gender imbalance as a math problem, I saw three basic ways to try to balance the equation—import women, export men, or ask women to take on more than one husband. I thought the last option posed the most provocative and disturbing questions. I began to build a world in which the government implemented policy and created incentives to normalize polyandry.

Next I was curious as to the kind of people who would enter into such an arrangement. Men without adequate financial or educational resources were most likely to share a wife, and I made that the background of the "excess male" in my book. I freed my other characters from financial confinement and explored other reasons that would compel men and women to polyandry. I told the story from the point of view of every member of one marriage, giving each nearly equal weight. Even though my novel is called An Excess Male (the "excess male" has one more chapter than everyone else), it is really the story of an entire family and this arrangement made out of urgent, individual necessities.

GR: Your book has drawn comparisons to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Why did you decide to write a novel about the government's control of people's bodies and relationships?

MSK: I find it fascinating that the draconian measures in both The Handmaid's Tale and in my book were efforts to solve serious crises. The theocracy in The Handmaid's Tale was facing an eroding environment, sharply declining fertility rates, and possible extinction, while the State in An Excess Male was contending with overpopulation and mass starvation. The original intent in both cases was good, yet the practice in actuality was the legislation of what can and cannot be done to women's bodies.

One of the tasks of speculative fiction is to serve as cautionary tale. Both The Handmaid's Tale and An Excess Male are examples of societies built on the sacrifice of a select few for the greater good. Such societies are ultimately untenable. The human survival instinct dictates that until the basic needs and rights of all its citizens are protected and valued, a society cannot be at peace.

GR: You spent most of your childhood in Taiwan before moving to Seattle at age 16. How did your memories of living under martial law (which was lifted in 1987) inform this novel?

MSK: Taiwanese citizens enjoy all the freedoms of a democratic nation today, but during my entire childhood, we lived under martial law. When I was growing up, my parents often discussed politics and political leaders in hushed tones when they did not think my brother and I were listening. I remember overhearing that a distant relative was framed and jailed for political dissent. I grew up with the understanding that political discussions and open speech were dangerous activities that were best done in private.

I think my desire to tell this story by setting it in a speculative future grew out of that environment and upbringing. Speculative fiction offers a wide and somewhat safer space in which to grapple with the actions of a repressive government. It gives voice and meaning to suffering. Fiction has the power to address the unspeakable and unearth dark and deep truths.

GR: In what ways does the world of An Excess Male upend common thoughts on marriage? How does this inform the characters in the book?

MSK: I do not think my book upends the fundamental truths about marriage and family. Polyandry was, for the most part, imposed upon my characters by their government and/or family. If allowed to be true to themselves, they would not have chosen to share a spouse. In the instance where it was a conscious choice, the decision was a reaction to unbearable circumstances caused by factors outside of their control.

An Excess Male demonstrates that without a mutually satisfying emotional and physical connection between spouses, a marriage is in name only, an empty shell. In the book May-ling had two husbands. Even though XX tried, he did not possess the emotional tools to sustain a marriage, and there was no physical spark between them. Hann was May-ling's emotional harbor, but a best friend does not a marriage make when the sexual needs of both parties are not met. Finding that true partner can be the rarest and most elusive of feats. Not only does May-ling discover that ideal combination with Wei-guo, he also finds emotional connection with the rest of her family, and we are filled with hope for their future together.

The book also hammers home the notion that family does not always have to be the people we are related to by blood or marriage. Anyone we hold close to our hearts becomes our family. By placing their own safety on the line for each other before the certainty of marriage, my four main characters show that the people for whom we would sacrifice ourselves and go to the ends of the earth ultimately form our family.

GR: What writers are you influenced by, and how do those influences show themselves within An Excess Male?

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MSK: Here are a few of my favorite writers: I love Louise Erdrich's novels, their beautiful and at times overlapping stories, and the complicated characters who live and breathe in them. The way her body of work reflects the scope of her heritage inspires me.

I admire the energetic prose in Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son and the way the book seamlessly introduced the Western audience to life in another country. Like Johnson's book, An Excess Male tells the story of a citizenry made disposable by a national narrative, men whose path to self-assertion required defiance of the State, men who ultimately chose love and family over their own safety.

I also deeply admire Karen Russell's St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Her fantastical short stories are brilliantly inventive, each of them a strange yet emotionally resonant world. Each story is rooted in raw human yearnings.

I aspire to write books like theirs—mesmerizing, moving, full of heart, and true to my heritage.

GR: What are you currently reading, and what books are you recommending to your friends?

MSK: I just finished Jade Chang's The Wangs vs. the World and loved it. I'm completely jazzed by the recent show of force by debut Chinese American writers—Lisa Ko, Weike Wang, Jenny Zhang, Rachel Khong, etc. I can't wait to read them all.

Here are some books from the last few years that I loved and have been recommending to friends—We the Animals by Justin Torres, The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra, The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, Red Notice by Bill Browder, and H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald.

GR: What's next for you? Any preview you can give readers?

MSK: The more I learn about the One-Child Policy, the more I am haunted by another set of its victims—girls whose hukou, or household registration, were saved for a younger brother. These girls, called heihaizi, or shadow or ghost children, are undocumented, illegal, and nonexistent in the eyes of the law. They have no rights to health care, education, or legal protection. They cannot legally ride public transportation, marry, obtain or inherit property, or have children.

I've been exploring this subject as a possible next novel. You can read my short story here.

Read more of our exclusive author interviews on our Voice page.

Comments Showing 1-3 of 3 (3 new)

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message 1: by Alice (new)

Alice Neilson I was in China when my son married a Chinese woman. At our farewell dinner one of the young men at the table was talking about the one child policy who he said were mostly the male child. Then he said someone like my son comes, marries one of the few available women and moves her to the USA. We was sad that his chances of finding a wife were slim. And he bemoaned the fact that then President Bush didn't allow the Chinese to visit the USA.

message 2: by Randall (new)

Randall Mitchell I am an American currently teaching in China. It is all well and good to condemn and vilify the often drastic societal -tweaking that overly populous nations are constrained to make, facing certain catastrophe. But lamenting the after effects of China's policy-in-question is a bit like bemoaning chafed hands owing to bailing out the leaky life-raft. Survival is paramount, and future generations will thank those who faced hardship and loneliness in the policy's aftermath. It will be interesting to see if homosexuality spikes in China now.

message 3: by John (new)

John Leland There was a recent review in American Historical Review of a book saying that in late traditional (Qing Dynasty) China, although the elite endorsed strict Confucian values of marital fidelity for women and polygamy for men, among the poorer people sale of wives and wife-sharing were common for practical economic reasons. It sounds as if King's book is actually re-imagining the reality of a Chinese lifestyle for the lower classes as it existed as recently as the late 19th century.

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