Heather Diamond is an American writer living in Hong Kong. She is the author of American Aloha: Cultural Tourism and the Negotiation of Tradition (2011) and Rabbit in the Moon: A Memoir (May, 2021). Rabbit in the Moon describes the author’s multiple mid-life reinventions; moving to Hawaii to complete a Ph.D. program, marrying a Hong Kong professor, and the deep immersion of life on the Hong Kong island of Cheung Chau.
Can you explain the title Rabbit in the Moon?
The title was inspired by a scene early in the book where my future husband points out the rabbit he sees in the full moon, and when I can’t see it, he says maybe you have to have Chinese eyes. The title then becomes a metaphor in the bigger story of my learning to see with Chinese eyes.
Why did you decide to write the memoir? (And did you ever think about doing it as fictionalized autobiography?)
When I left my museum job, I took a writing class on a whim and discovered creative non-fiction. That I could tell the truth and be creative was a revelation. What I thought might be a few essays expanded into a cultural coming of age story, which then became a sort of love letter to my Chinese family and a reckoning with my family of origin.
I’m trained in anthropology and folklore, so much as I love fiction, I never considered writing it. Either I am too fascinated by real life, or I just don’t have that kind of imagination. As a reader, I love the honesty and rawness of memoir. As a writer, I love the process, even when it is hard. It’s like internal archeology—you have to dig through the dirt to find treasure.
Did any books serve as models/inspiration?
I don’t think I had read any stories like mine when I started the book, but I am a huge fan of anything by memoirists Abigail Thomas and Dani Shapiro who both write about midlife issues with deep honesty and attention to detail. While I was writing, I found Susan Blumberg-Kason’s Good Chinese Wife, Tracy Slater’s Good Shufu, and Elizabeth Enslin’s While the Gods Were Sleeping. Each of our intercultural stories is unique, and that inspired me to get my story into the world.
What raw material did you draw upon – was it mostly memory, or did you have diaries, research notes, and blog posts?
I wish I was a journal keeper, but I’ve never been consistent or kept what I wrote. Fortunately for this book, I kept a private blog of sorts for the time we lived on Cheung Chau. That and photos helped with the facts, but much of the story was reconstructed from memory and conversations with my husband. Even though I can’t remember passwords or my phone number, I have an excellent memory for details and dialogue. Moving to Hong Kong while I was editing was also helpful because in some cases, I could check my memory against reality.
The memoir takes place in two main locations – Honolulu and Hong Kong. Coincidence or you have a thing for sub-tropical islands?
I am definitely not at home in the tropics, so it’s ironic that I have ended up—mostly through happenstance—in Houston, Hawaii, and Hong Kong, none of which have real seasons. My daughter and I joke that we have reverse seasonal affective disorder. We get crabby when there is too much sun and are happiest in the rain, gray skies, and cool weather of the Pacific Northwest where I was born. The island thing is another story because my husband and I now have acreage on an island across from my hometown. He’s the one who is at home in the tropics, so he’ll need to adjust when we move there.
Can you tell us something about the when, where, and how nuts and bolts of the writing; was it done at home in the mornings, straight into WORD, in a home office etc.?
I always write on my laptop, from messy drafts to final versions. The early chapters were written in the corner of our bedroom and coffee shops in Hawaii. The final ones were written in our flat in Hong Kong—a move that came up, unexpectedly, mid-way through and disrupted the writing for a few months. Initially, I thought I was only going to tell the center portion of the book, but that story grew wings. Some chapters were ditched along the way, some wrote themselves, and others required many revisions. I kept asking myself Is that true? and starting over if I hit a false note.
What messages would you like readers to come away with after finishing Rabbit in the Moon?
Travel can crack you open and make you see yourself in the world in a new way. More than that, seeing yourself and your own culture as relative and not the center of the universe is the starting point for learning to appreciate people different from ourselves. And once we can do that, with humor and humility, we can find our common humanity. It’s a tall order for a memoir, but if my personal story can shed even a tiny beam of light on these truths, it will have done its work.
Please tell us about your first book: American Aloha: Cultural Tourism and the Negotiation of Tradition.
My first book is a study of Hawaii multiculturalism at the 1989 Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington D.C. Festival organizers tried to portray Hawaii’s uniquely fluid ethnic heritages through standardly accepted American racial categories, but the traditional arts practitioners from Hawaii resisted and changed the way the Smithsonian looked at future festivals.
What kind of feedback have you been getting for Rabbit in the Moon from early readers?
The words honest, funny, and enlightening have come up in early reviews. My most enthusiastic readers so far have been people in cross-cultural relationships, children of those relationships, and ABC Chinese, especially in Hawaii. My Chinese readers appreciate the perspectives on Chinese families and my descriptions of traditions that they may not understand or no longer practice in their families. Readers in cross-cultural relationships say the accounts of culture shock and conflict resonate for them. Offspring of mixed marriages seem to appreciate a chance to hear about the kinds of cultural differences their parents navigated.
What advice do you have for others embarking on cross-cultural relationships, especially when it means moving to your partner’s hometown?
I can’t speak for all cross-cultural relationships, but if I were advising someone like me heading for a partner’s hometown in Asia, I’d say make room for family, keep your sense of humor, and get over your Western notions of independence. Seriously, I think the best thing anyone can do in a new culture is try to think like an anthropologist and open yourself to learning why people think and act the way they do. Culture shock will throw you up against edges you never knew you had, and that’s a good thing for really seeing your own cultural conditioning. And if you need some creature comforts like a bottle of wine and a decent mattress, find them!
In your memoir you describe yourself as someone who likes peace and quiet, an introvert, and yet your life seems full of bold choices, no shortage of pluck, and your memoir is a brutally honest self-examination. Is there any contradiction there?
As I say in the book, I’m intimidated by intrepid travelers who fearlessly go everywhere and anywhere, usually alone. What they seek out, I’ve fallen into, mostly because I was following my heart over a cliff. I’m my own worst critic at all times, and that along with being stuck in my head, like introverts are, seems to be good fodder for memoir. I wouldn’t have learned anything if I’d stayed in my comfort zones, and in my life, love has made sure that wasn’t an option. Maybe it takes friction and juxtaposition to wake some of us up and teach us what we need to know to be better humans.
What are you working on now?
I continue to write creative non-fiction essays, and I’m now working on a second memoir. This one will be about my first cross-cultural experience, which happened when I moved from my suburban home in the Pacific Northwest to a small town in the American South.
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To learn more about Heather and her books, you can visit her blog.