Ten years ago, I toured China with my mother, my sisters, my aunt, and my grandmother--a family reunion that became the seed for my debut novel, A Thread of Sky. There was so much to explore during that trip that I knew I needed to experience it again, more deeply, through fiction: the tensions that ignite when six strong, complicated women reunite for two weeks; the paradox of a Chinese American family traversing our ancestral home on a package tour; the great distances and unexpected commonalities between three generations and two nations.
But it wasn't until a few years later, when I left my family and friends in New York and moved to China to research A Thread of Sky, that I found the heart of the story: the need to reconnect. In our present way of life, we so easily become estranged from our families, our histories, and ourselves. And whether the problem is time, work, geography, pride--so often, it's only when we travel to a distant place that we rediscover the meaning of home.
In A Thread of Sky, Irene Shen is a suddenly widowed mother of three facing another night alone in her house in Queens. She decides to reunite her daughters, her sister, and her mother for a tour of China, hoping to reclaim some lost meaning: "Jia--family, house, home. In Chinese, it was all one word."
While Irene and her family may never fully recapture that tradition, all six women eventually find new and old connections, as intangible yet eternal as "a thread of sky." I hope readers will also join me on this journey and bring home a new way of seeing their loved ones and themselves.
Some discussion questions (from the Penguin Reading Group Guide):
1. One of Irene's motivations for planning this tour of China is to recapture a more traditional definition of family: "Jia—family, house, home. In Chinese, it was all one word" (p. 12). Does she come close to succeeding? Is it possible to adapt this concept to modern life? How do you define family? What cultural traditions influence your definition?
2. In A Thread of Sky, this family reunion during a tour of China exposes long-simmering tensions and old, painful secrets. How does it compare with memorable family reunions of your own? How have those occasions changed your understanding of your loved ones?
3. Lin Yulan is fixated on the importance of leaving a legacy, an expectation she has passed onto her daughters and granddaughters. Do you agree with her? Was it an appropriate choice for Irene to give up her career? What if you knew that she was on the brink of a major breakthrough, one that would have saved millions of lives, when she got pregnant with Sophie? Would that change your opinion?
4. For Kay, at least in the beginning of the novel, China is all about suffering. She chooses the less comfortable dormitory. She thrives on immersing herself in social problems. Are her efforts misguided? In what ways is her work similar or different to Lin Yulan's work earlier in her life? Is it appropriate for visitors to try and get involved in what they believe to be a cultural wrong even if the "victims" don't want help? Have you ever engaged in similar types of activism? What challenges did you face?
5. The women in this family have felt considerable pressure to define themselves as strong, independent, ambitious women. What toll has this taken on their personal lives? How do you define a strong woman? Do you think it's possible to take that identity too far?
6. All six characters in A Thread of Sky set out on this journey with a multitude of hopes and expectations: to reconnect with one another, to remember family history, to leave heartbreak behind, to be transported by China's famous sights, to find a moment to "simply be." What do you think will stay with them? What do you seek when you travel? What do you try to carry back home?