Interviews and Reviews


Interview with BON TV’s Fergus Thompson

Published on Oct 3, 2014

Author and journalist Karen Ma was born in China, brought up in Hong Kong and Japan, and educated in the US. She recently moved back to Beijing after living in India for several years. Her most recent novel “Excess Baggage” is a semi-autobiographical work which looks at the lives of Mainland Chinese who emigrated, not to the traditional destinations of North America or Australia, but to other Asian countries. In today’s ‘On the Level’ she talks to Fergus Thompson about the difficulties of living a life between two cultures and the complex relationships with friends and relatives that remained behind in China.


Interview with The World’s Carol Hill

CAROL HILL, 08.04.14,

On how the deteriorating Japanese and Chinese relationship has a personal meaning to my family as well because my sister, a Chinese, is married to a Japanese, and fifteen years into her marriage, she and her husband still haven’t found common ground, or agreed to disagree, over their different backgrounds and viewpoints, mirroring the distrust between the two Asian powers.


Sinica Podcast Interview with Jeremy Goldkorn


This week on Sinica, Jeremy Goldkorn is pleased to be joined by two people navigating the English-language publishing industry as it involves China: Alice Xin Liu, Editor of Pathlight magazine, and Karen Ma, first-time author of the well-received book Excess Baggage. Both of our guests women, our conversation starts out by talking about gender issues in the publishing industry, but from there segues into questions of Chinese identity, life abroad, and what sort of books the market supports. We eventually settle into the China-India rivalry with our own impressions about the differences between the two countries, not only in terms of the air quality, but also how New Dehli stacks up against Beijing in the literary scene.

Why I Write

“I write to remember events in my life. I write to work things I’m struggling with. I started out as a “third-culture kid” before the term was popular, moving from China to Hong Kong and eventually to Japan, all before I turned 17. I had so many unanswered questions about identity, where I fit in, why I was destined to be an outsider. I found writing a soothing way to clear my head and attach some meaning to what I was experiencing.”


One Country, Two Sisters?: An interview with author Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang:

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang: The crux of the plot of Excess Baggage lies in the story of the two Chinese sisters separated by their mother in early childhood. Where did this idea come from? How far is the story autobiographical?

Karen Ma: The story is semi-autobiographical. I have a sister raised separately from me who, much like the character Pei, was held back in China because of the Cultural Revolution. But the setting and details about other main characters and their circumstances are all fictitious. And all the minor characters are purely my creation.


Shanghai Litfest Interview, in

Thats Mags: Your novel, Excess Baggage takes place in China and Japan during some really intense periods. How did you get the idea for the novel and what was the process like in writing it?

Karen Ma:  Actually, the novel is loosely based on my family’s experience of living in Japan as Chinese immigrants. I wanted to write this novel because I haven’t seen much literature in English that relates to the Asian immigration experience in an Asian setting, and I wanted to fill this gap.

The writing part of it wasn’t easy, and it took me ten years. One reason was that I was attempting the task of writing not one Asian culture in English, but two. Writing about an Asian culture for a Western audience in English already poses inherent challenges because unlike between two Western cultures where there is a sharing of history, tradition and religion, the East-West divide tends to be vast.


Crossing Inter-Asian Cultural Divides: An Interview with journalist Suvendrini Kakuchi

Suvendrini Kakuchi: In your book (Excess Baggage), you tackle a fascinating theme, people’s alienation and displacement in a rapidly globalizing world. How do you do this? (from Kyoto Journal)

One of the key differences between Excess Baggage and a lot of books published about the Asian immigrant experience is that the main characters in my book do not move to the West. They move to another Asian country, albeit a very modern and Westernized one. Excess Baggage is my attempt to tell a different narrative about the Chinese diaspora. I feel that most Chinese immigrant stories written in English have focused on moving to the West — Amy Tan’s books featuring Chinese living in the United States being a prominent example. Not that such narratives aren’t important, but the truth is the Chinese diaspora living in Asia is so much larger — about 70 percent of the overseas Chinese live in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and other parts of Asia — yet very little has been written about their experience. With Excess Baggage, I wanted to highlight the Asian diaspora and look at the Chinese immigrant story in a less stereotypical way.



“Depicting the quest of an immigrant family marooned in Tokyo, Karen Ma’s first novel, Excess Baggage, is a pleasing addition to Anglophone literature written by members of the Chinese diaspora. Following the footsteps of Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan, Ma examines the rootlessness and displacement experienced by transnational citizens, their unique quest for identity, belonging and their sense of home.”  From Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, March 2014 edition.


The debut novel from author Karen Ma centers on the complicated relationship between a Chinese family and an estranged sister who become reunited in Japan after three decades apart and brings into question how culture, rather than family, shapes the individual. The constant theme of the novel is the idea of “home” and the most intriguing parts of the story are how the two sisters question their own idea of it. Much of the book is based on the author’s time in Japan in the 1980s and ’90s, and the prose benefits from this authenticity. The personal insight into dysfunctional Chinese family dynamics as they deal with issues of alienation and discrimination is also worthy of mention.”   From Japan Times, November 9, 2013

This book was very hard to put down. I read the entire novel in three sittings, even with screaming kids in the background. It’s rare to see Asian American writers exhibit the depth of knowledge that Ma demonstrates in creating the world she does. As longtime readers here know, I AM a Chinese American who lived in Japan (at one point among the Chinese manual laborers whom Ma personifies through the character of Yan) and know lots of other Chinese Americans who have made the trip back to China, and every page of this novel rings true…”    From BigWOWO, a blog of reviews, news and Asian-American issues.

I particularly appreciate the fact that the novel is narrated from alternative point of view which gives the readers two different perspectives. As someone who grew up in China and witnessed the ‘chu guo re’ – the rush of going abroad and someone who also lived and worked abroad, I can relate to both sisters and their different aspirations: the poor one wants money fixatedly and the well-educated one wants love and self-fulfillment.It is a book written with energy, heart and insight. No doubt that the author’s own experience – a Chinese growing up in Hong Kong and Japan – lends the authenticity to the writing. She knows the subtle differences between oolong and jasmine tea and their indications and the difference in gift-giving in Chinese and Japanese culture.” — from the blog of Lijia Zhang, author of “Socialism is Great!”


“In her most recent book, Karen Ma mines for literary gold in a family broken apart during the Cultural Revolution, only to be reunited in Tokyo in the 1990s. But the long-awaited reunion in Excess Baggage is anything but sweet….Ma nails the tensions, miscommunications and culture clashes of a Chinese family split along geographic and generational lines. While Vivian looks down her nose at Pei’s intense greediness, Pei sees Vivian and Da Wei as spoiled and haughty. Yiwen, joined to Yan through an arranged marriage, longs to escape his familial duties, while Yan never recovers from his betrayal. A trip back to Dalian for Yan and Vivian is especially revealing in their interactions with family members.”  — from City Weekend Beijing, July 23, 2013