Sasha Su-Ling Welland

About the Author

Sasha Su-Ling Welland grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. As an undergraduate at Stanford University, she began recording her grandmother's oral history and investigating her great-aunt's career as a writer. She discovered that the two sisters told widely divergent stories about their family's past. The mystery of that discrepancy lies at the heart of her first book, A Thousand Miles of Dreams: The Journeys of Two Chinese Sisters. She has continued to conduct research in China, most recently on Beijing's contemporary art world. She received a PhD in anthropology from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and is currently assistant professor of anthropology and women studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. Her writing has appeared in Chain, ColorLines: Race, Culture, Action, Flyway Literary Review, The Hedgebrook Journal, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, and Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, as well as in Pacific News Service. The Artist Trust, Blue Mountain Center, Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, Hedgebrook Retreat for Women Writers, and Millay Colony for the Arts have supported her work.

Press Kit

Sasha Su-Ling Welland's CV
Press Release for A Thousand Miles of Dreams
Author Photo
Book Cover

Q & A

Q: How did you first become interested in documenting the lives of these remarkable women?

A: My grandparents lived in Indianapolis for most of their lives in the United States, but after they retired, they moved to San Francisco. Several years later, after growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, I followed them to the Bay Area to attend college. When my grandfather died in the fall of my sophomore year, I felt a lot of remorse about not having known him better, and I began to visit my grandmother more often. I was feeling lost and unsure about what I wanted to major in. Eventually, I decided to take some time off from school. I worked in a restaurant and regularly took CalTrain to the city to see my grandmother. She began to tell me stories about her childhood and youth in China, and I was fascinated by this whole other realm of experience—her life before coming to the U.S.—about which I knew so little. I was especially drawn to her stories of struggling as a young woman to get an education and have a say in society. She came from a generation of women who, swept up by a larger social revolution, emerged as real fighters. This personal history really “undid” for me the stereotypes of weak, passive Asian women that I had grown up surrounded by in the U.S. I started taping and transcribing her stories. Having the past come alive through oral history gave me a new focus for my studies. I went back to school and pursued an individually designed major that allowed me to explore the question of how certain stories—especially those of women and minorities—get pushed to the margins of conventional history.

Shortly after, I had the opportunity to study abroad in England. This experience radically changed the family history I’d been recording. My grandmother’s sister had immigrated to London in the late 1940s. By the time I arrived, she had passed away, but I was able to meet her daughter in Scotland for the first time. She gave me a book called Ancient Melodies, an English-language memoir that her mother had published in England. This book came as a surprise in two ways. My grandmother had always told me that her sister was a painter. Her sister did paint, but she was much more significantly a writer of short fiction. In fact, Ling Shuhua was a very well known writer during her time, one of the first women to begin publishing modernist fiction in the 1920s. Peers often called her the “Chinese Katherine Mansfield.” My grandmother had hidden this fact from family in the U.S., I think, because she didn’t like what her sister wrote. Ling Shuhua wrote semi-autobiographical stories about what one critic has called the “everyday feudalism” of women in traditional households. Here was the second surprise. The family tree that my grandmother had narrated to me resembled an American nuclear family with one father and one mother. Her sister’s memoir opens with a family tree that includes one father and six mothers. The gap between the two sisters’ versions of the past initially frustrated me but eventually led me to want to understand more about why they were so different.

Q: How long did the book take to research and write?

A: If I think that I first began recording my grandmother’s stories in 1989 and the book was published in the fall of 2006, that adds up to 16 or 17 years. Of course, I didn’t work continuously over those years on the research and writing. A lot of the time it was simply in the back of mind, and I gradually ran across and filed away new pieces of the story. But carrying it with me in this way did influence the choices that I made. For example, I taught English in China from 1992-1994 because I wanted to learn Chinese in order to read my great-aunt’s stories that she had published before leaving China for England. And I began a graduate program in cultural anthropology in 1996. Working on this book and a separate dissertation project (about gender and contemporary Chinese art worlds) at the same time prolonged the time it took me to finish both, but the two projects informed each other. When I was doing my dissertation fieldwork in China from 2000-2002, I was also still interviewing people and collecting materials for the book project. I wrote off and on for years, but the story kept changing as I uncovered new details, as did my writing style as I matured. One of the challenges about biography is that just when you think you understand someone’s life, you learn some new fact about her that completely changes the picture.

Q: What was the most difficult part of the research?

A: Learning Chinese well enough to be able to read Ling Shuhua’s fiction and the emerging Chinese-language materials about her took me years. She began writing at a time when a revolution in Chinese literature was underway. In an effort to popularize literature, early twentieth-century writers started to use bai hua, or vernacular Chinese, rather than the classical form of the language that had predominated in literary writing before that moment. Ling’s stories represent a transitional moment; her writing contains dialogue that reads much as spoken Chinese sounds, but also descriptive passages that contain remnants of classical construction. It took me a long time—I still struggle—before I was able to understand some of the subtlety of her language. It was also difficult to write about family, especially when it came to things that had been covered up or considered secret by some part of the family. Because the two sisters’ versions of the past were so different, telling the two together betrayed them both to a certain degree. Trying to balance the two stories in a way that remained honest to the way they both lived their lives—the challenges they faced and the decisions they made—was tricky, particularly because I knew the two women in such different ways. I heard my grandmother’s stories from across the dinner table, but I knew her sister only through her writing. One voice was alive and spoken, the other was composed and literary. I wanted to write about them with both love and respect, but that desire included recognizing what fiercely independent women they were, and that with that determination also came a certain degree of selfishness.

Q: Was it hard to separate fiction from fact in the sisters’ accounts of their lives?

A: Yes, because they were both such good storytellers in their own ways. Ling Shuhua’s fiction was semi-autobiographical, drawing upon the lives of those around her, as most writers do, but things got more complicated when she later translated some of those early stories from Chinese into English, and from third person into first person, to include in Ancient Melodies, a memoir that purported to be straight autobiography. There were certain facts, like the schools they attended, the dates they graduated, etc. that I could corroborate through archival research, but for the details of their family history on which they differed, I’ll probably never know who was right. But finding out one single, immutable truth became less and less important or even desirable. For me, the more salient question had to do with the partial truths that they chose to tell through how they shaped and edited their stories. These partial truths spoke to how they wanted to be known, who they most hoped to be, as well as the constraints that society placed upon them, particularly once they had immigrated to Western countries and had to contend with certain stereotypes or forces of assimilation. How they dissembled has taught me something about the larger silences in our national narratives. For example, I learned that at the very moment of my grandmother’s arrival in Cleveland in 1925, a large-scale crackdown on Chinese immigrant communities across the US was underway. She didn’t tell me about this, but the infamous “Cleveland event” certainly instilled a certain fear in her that suddenly explained to me her strong desire to assimilate, to become as white as possible. Her silence about this event reflected a larger national silence about moments of racial violence in our past and its continual eruption into the present.

Q: Did you have any literary or biographical models in mind as you wrote? Any writers that particularly influenced you?

A: I actually really struggled with trying to find a model for the kind of mixed-genre book that I realized I was writing. It is deeply researched in a historical sense, has been informed by narrative theory, and has moments of literary analysis, but I didn’t want it to be a strictly academic book. I wanted to make the story accessible to a more general audience, while also showing some of the tracks of my detective-work—the kinds of mixed efforts it took to research and write this story—because I think they are techniques that many people can use to understand their own families better and to contribute to more of a people’s history made up of many, many voices. That said, I found Julia Blackburn’s Daisy Bates in the Desert a very provocative book early on in my process because in it, she struggles to tell the life of an extraordinarily independent woman who was only able to become that by being an inveterate liar. Blackburn’s writing is also very poetic and is interspersed with glimpses of her as the biographer assembling the pieces of an improbable story. Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman about the different, posthumous interpretations of Sylvia Plath’s troubling life, likewise, stuck with me because of its moving reflection on the moral contradictions of biography, and how life is always messier than it ends up on paper. And I really admired Katherine Frank’s A Passage to Egypt: The Life of Lucie Duff Gordon for how she was able to recreate a pioneering woman’s life primarily from written, archival materials, but in a way that felt very present and engaging; and for the restrained manner in which she very occasionally inserts herself as biographer into the narrative, so that she’s there but never intrudes on the story of a woman whose journey she followed in order to write about it.

Q: How does this book contribute to the body of work on feminism and women in Chinese history?

A: It was, of course, very surprising to find out that my family was much more complicated than I’d once imagined. But the surprise that has stuck with me most is that the conventional Western narrative about women in China or Asia, as well as many other parts of the world, while stubbornly persistent, is so blatantly wrong. My grandmother was actually really disappointed when she started medical school at Western Reserve. Still outraged, she told me, “There were even fewer women in my class than there had been in China. And, I thought that America was advanced.” One of my main goals in writing this book was to tell a compelling and accessible story that would show how feminism didn’t start in the West and then spread elsewhere, liberating poor, oppressed Third World women in its wake. This is a self-congratulatory story, but the truth is much more rich and complex and heartening. Feminism from the get-go has been a resolutely international phenomenon. Participants in the early women’s movement in China impressed me with their strength and daring; they sometimes transgressed in shocking ways: unbinding their feet, refusing to marry, dressing in men’s clothes, pursuing professional paths, and forming revolutionary organizations. I remember once trying to explain this history to my father. Fitting it into terms that were familiar to him, he asked my grandmother at dinner one night, “Were there suffragettes in China when you were young?” She looked at him incredulously, as if he’d asked a ridiculous question, and declared, “You’re looking at one!”

Q: How has your family reacted to this project and the re-telling of your family history?

A: Different family members have told me that the historical context I provide in the book for my grandmother’s stories helped them appreciate even more the bravery of the journey she took as a young woman when she left her family for the United States. It has also been interesting for us to compare the stories she told me and those she told other family members. She crafted her stories to fit her audience; she had specific messages to impart to each of us. While I was working on my manuscript, I sent Ling Shuhua’s daughter one of my drafts. She was quite upset at certain things that she thought I’d gotten wrong. Some were factual mistakes, easily corrected, but many were errors of emotional omission. She really wanted me to understand her mother from her perspective and the negative impact some of her mother’s decisions had had on her life. I think that she was able to relive and work through certain memories by attempting to fill in or correct what I had written, and this process helped me as I revised to understand the complexity of Ling Shuhua’s life in a more rounded way, her achievements and her flaws.

My mother, however, never wanted to read the manuscript. She always offered information about her childhood and memories of her parents when I asked, but I think she was afraid of intruding on the story that I was trying to tell. She wanted to let me follow my own path because she felt her mother had sometimes had too strong an influence on her choices in life. Perhaps it was also just too close. She’d already lived through it and didn’t necessarily need to do so again.

I was most nervous about giving the book to my grandmother, because it presents an interpretation of her life in which she is not the hero of every story, as she often was in her own narration of her life. But she knew I was working on the book (she claimed to be working on her own version!), and she wanted to know that she’d left her mark on the world. I feel extraordinarily lucky that I was able to give her a copy of the book shortly after her 102nd birthday and only several weeks before she passed away. She ran her hands over the photographs of her and her sister on the cover and said to me, “I knew you could do it!” She quickly followed with my next assignment by asking, “Now where are my great-grandchildren?”


For musings on "modern girls" and other notes about the book's journey into print, please visit my Amazon blog.


For contact information, please visit my University of Washington faculty website.

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photo by Tom Collicott