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Elaine Lui on the Big Love Driving Listen to the Squawking Chicken

ElaineLui_cr Dexter Chui

As a years-long devotee of Elaine Lui's world-famous gossip and entertainment blog, Lainey Gossip, I read her debut book, Listen to the Squawking Chicken, the moment I could. The book is aptly described on its jacket as "a mother-daughter memoir that will have readers laughing out loud, gasping in shock, and reconsidering the honesty and guts it takes to be a parent."

The book works on several levels—some serious, some funny, many surprising, and all dauntless—and Lui agreed to answer some of my questions about this. 

(Photo credit: Dexter Chew)


KT: Theory: Listen to the Squawking Chicken is at once a love story, a biography, a a Feng Shui 101 course, a drama, a comedy, and a memoir.

Elaine Lui: This is mostly correct, although I’d like to clarify that it’s not so much a Feng Shui 101 than it is a very selective introduction to it. Feng Shui is very complicated, very nuanced, and sometimes very secretive. And I would never want to misrepresent myself as an expert in the practice. Bad things can happen when Feng Shui is used for dark purposes or self-aggrandisement. And I’m too superstitious to bring that upon myself!

If I were to single out one description over the others, it would be that Listen to the Squawking Chicken is, more than anything else, a love letter from me to my ma, and a love story about her love for me and her love for herself.

KT: Would you say your mom is a Tiger Mom, à la Amy Chua ? Or is her parenting style more idiosyncratic, one that resists categorization?

EL: I can understand why some people would see the similarities between ma and Amy Chua. Both stress the importance of structure and both are firm, perhaps even unyielding, with their children. But Amy Chua is an academic with a very pragmatic and almost clinical approach to her parenting. Ma guided me by discipline but also by a little magic too, using ghost stories, Feng Shui and fortune telling, and her own mythology to correct and shape me. She invented her own unique style.

KT: Your audience is rabid (ahem) and incredibly hooked on your voice; your blog, Lainey Gossip, is one of the most popular pop culture gossip blogs in the world. Was this—your audience’s close association with your Lainey Gossip persona—a helpful or terrifying fact when you were writing the book? How did it inform your writing, if at all?

EL: To be honest, the “Lainey Gossip persona” wasn’t a factor in the writing of the book. The Squawking Chicken’s daughter wrote the book. My primary motivation was to honour ma’s story and to preserve that story for myself, because I need to be able to remember her when I don’t have her anymore.

KT: “Feminism” is so fraught a term these days. Some try to dodge the discussion, some stick to its first principles, some reject it entirely, and some try to redefine it. Do you consider yourself—and your mom—in relation to Big-F feminism? How so? I ask because I do think of it often in reading Lainey Gossip and I did again in reading Listen to the Squawking Chicken.

EL: Ma taught me not to be quiet, to know the best and worst parts of myself, to work on the parts of myself that were lacking, and to be my own critic. She believed that if could find that honesty, even if it hurt, I would always be able to save and protect myself and make choices that were right for me. I don’t know any other way to exist. So while she might not understand “feminism,” her encouragement is the reason I call myself a feminist.  

KT: Readers learn a ton about what it’s like to be an immigrant in North America in the book, and about Chinese culture—superstitions and all. Was this part of the motive of writing it? To highlight your Chinese roots to your core readers who are so often presented with Caucasian stars in Hollywood?

EL: I was raised by two immigrants. The immigrant experience is an integral part of who I am. It’s the reason I never say no to a job. It’s the reason why I have so many jobs. That’s the immigrant ethic—never turn down an opportunity and take as many opportunities as you can. We don’t have time to worry about “work/life balance” or whether or not technology is ruining our lives. We’re too busy hustling. My parents were hustlers. And I’m a hustler too, not only because that’s the only speed I know but also because I’d be doing their efforts a disservice if I didn’t at least try as hard as they did. This book is a tribute to their determination and drive. I want them to know what they accomplished.

KT: You make the point that we are living in a “culture of special,” where we’re telling our kids that everything from their farts to their hockey skills are destined for greatness. Yet not every kid would have reacted as positively as you have to your mom’s parenting style. What do you think it was that made you decide to thrive rather than rebel as a response?

EL: Ma never criticized me out of spite or resentment. She may have been harsh at times but I never doubted that her honesty came from the best intentions. There was never a time when she shamed me or embarrassed me that I truly questioned how she felt about me. And that’s why her lessons are permanently rooted in my soul. It’s because she planted them there with nothing but love.

Elaine_Lui with mom

KT: What was your mom’s reaction to your writing the book? Has she read it?

EL: She is very happy for herself that I’ve written a book in her honour. Ma has always thought of herself as the main character in the story of my life. The book is a testament to that fact. She is trying to read it but her English comprehension is poor. Dad has read it though and has told me that “you know your mother better than she knows herself.”

KT: Finally, let’s imagine this. You and your mom are at a restaurant, and your guests are Gwyneth, Mrs. Timberlake, Ryan Gosling, and Cate Blanchett. Who orders? Who tries to hug? Who surprises? Who pays? What happens?

EL: This would never happen. Ma does not eat with strangers. She has very specific menu demands and she wouldn’t want to waste her time on a meal with these people who’d make her go somewhere that served food that she didn’t like. Basically what I’m saying is that she would reject this guest list. These people are not good enough for her.


The Listen to the Squawking Chicken Tour launched this week. Check here for tour details. Thanks, Elaine, for the interview!

March 31, 2014
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