After the 2001 publication of her first book, the short story collection Troublemaker and Other Saints, author Christina Chiu set to work on a novel. The more she worked on it, though, the less she enjoyed it. In search of other creative outlets, she wrote another short story, “Bootman.” “Sometimes something you write grabs you and doesn’t let go,” she says. “Bootman” did what her novel couldn’t do: It kept her interested. 

For years she felt guilty. She knew she should work on the novel she’d promised the publisher, but all she wanted to do was keep following the protagonist of “Bootman,” Amy Wong. Chiu wrote another story about her. Eventually she realized that these weren’t stories—they were, in fact, episodes in an ongoing narrative. They belonged to a new novel. The realization granted her the freedom to pursue the project completely. “What’s important here is I follow the karmic trail,” Chiu recalls telling herself. That karmic trail led to two main subjects of research—fashion, primarily, but also trauma.

1Beauty is the result; “Bootman” became the second chapter in the novel about Amy Wong. In its review, Kirkus calls Amy “a memorably intricate character” and commends the book for capturing the world of fashion with “luminous specificity.” More significantly, though, the novel details a world and an industry “in which complex layers of race, gender, access, and propriety can complicate a woman’s every action.” The book was named to Kirkus Reviews' Best Books of 2020 and won the 2020 James Alan McPherson Award.

In Beauty, Amy is an aspiring designer trying to find her footing in the world of fashion and struggling to square her sexual desire with her attraction to manipulative men. Amy attends Parsons School of Design, where she flourishes despite the backbiting and casual racism she faces. When Jeff Jones, a member of fashion-world royalty, takes a liking to her, Amy gets involved with him even though she’s well aware that Jeff sees her as an exotic object—an Asian woman.

They get married soon after and have a son together. But the marriage is doomed. Amy tries to raise her son, keep her career afloat, and find the sexual outlets she craves even though that desire is often violently used against her. In talking about the intersection of sex and power, Chiu says, “This is one of those taboos that we need to take apart. At this point, we just can’t afford to not talk about certain things. And so I went after it. And I didn’t talk about sex just in the erotic sense.”

Amy makes career compromises to accommodate the egos of men in her life. But her creativity never leaves her; it simply goes dormant for a time. In these passages, she’s ensconced in Jeff’s life of status and suburban wealth, wondering how she got here:

There’s something inside me, something important I need to say right now, if only I could figure out what it is. Only three years ago, I was an aspiring designer fresh out of grad school. I combed through fashion collections, reading up on various designers and working straight through the night, testing fabrics, cutting, pinning, and sewing.

Amy misses working, but she also misses the camaraderie and friendship she shared with other aspiring designers. They used to stay up late, “savoring delicious cups of coffee,” she recalls:

[W]e took turns commenting on each other’s work. We gossiped about lovers and partners, talked about books and movies, and discussed life—what it was, and what it possibly could be—as if we were at the beginning and it would last forever. 

But then, Jeff and I moved to a house in the suburbs.

“A boy needs space enough to throw a football,” Jeff said.

“You don’t even like football.”

Years ago, Chiu took a class with the writer Jessica Hagedorn, who told her writing could be about anything. Chiu has taken that advice to heart. In Beauty, she’s made the world of fashion and the ongoing battle with trauma the subjects of her focus.

“There’s a tendency to call things hobbies when women are doing them,” says Chiu. “And I felt that it would be a really good challenge for me to write about something that seems superficial and trivial. First of all, [fashion] is not superficial or trivial. But secondly, I wanted to bring fields that women are in, or associated with, into the realm of literature, where I feel they belong.”

Chiu is a meticulous researcher: To write Beauty, she took a class on shoemaking. “You have no idea about the layers of things until you are in that realm,” she says. She delights in such processes of discovery, and fashion has proved a worthy subject of study. “It’s given me a different avenue to explore,” she says. “Life is really just this constant path of exploration.”

Beauty also demonstrates Chiu’s interest in and intent to explore trauma. She cites The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. as a seminal text on the subject and a huge influence on Beauty. In the character of Amy, Chiu says she wanted to investigate “the reason why things get perpetuated again and again.”

“You see people making the same mistakes over and over,” she says. “It’s because they’re still in that trauma, whatever it is, whatever they held on to. They just can’t get out of that cycle.” In Beauty, Amy learns a lack of self-worth from her father, who abandoned the family. A pattern of self-loathing forms.

Chiu says her next book will be another novel. In fact, she’s revisiting the very book she set aside to write Beauty. Chiu doesn’t think of it as a return to an old project, though; she says she’s “reconstructing” it from memory and finding an energy in the writing that proved so elusive all those years ago.

An active member of the literary scene, Chiu is a founding member of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, hosts the virtual Let’s Talk Books series, and curates and co-hosts the Pen Parentis Literary Salon in New York City. Winning the James Alan McPherson Award reinforced her commitment to being a nurturing and generous member of the writing community.

“From what I gather, [McPherson] was a very wonderful person who helped a lot of people of color,” Chiu says. “He made such a huge difference in so many people’s lives. That’s the kind of person I want to be: in a position to help others.”

Walker Rutter-Bowman is a writer and teacher living in Washington, D.C.