Interview with Laila Ibrahim, Author of Paper Wife

As soon as I read the description for Paper Wife, I knew it was exactly the kind of book I would love to read. It isn’t going to be released until the end of October, but author Laila Ibrahim was kind enough to do an author interview with me now. Read what she had to say below, and don’t forget to preorder your copy of Paper Wife!

From the bestselling author of Yellow Crocus comes a heart-wrenching story about finding strength in a new world.

Southern China, 1923. Desperate to secure her future, Mei Ling’s parents arrange a marriage to a widower in California. To enter the country, she must pretend to be her husband’s first wife—a paper wife.

On the perilous voyage, Mei Ling takes an orphan girl named Siew under her wing. Dreams of a better life in America give Mei Ling the strength to endure the treacherous journey and detainment on Angel Island. But when she finally reaches San Francisco, she’s met with a surprise. Her husband, Chinn Kai Li, is a houseboy, not the successful merchant he led her to believe.

Mei Ling is penniless, pregnant, and bound to a man she doesn’t know. Her fragile marriage is tested further when she discovers that Siew will likely be forced into prostitution. Desperate to rescue Siew, she must convince her husband that an orphan’s life is worth fighting for. Can Mei Ling find a way to make a real family—even if it’s built on a paper foundation?


Interview with Laila Ibrahim

1) Tell me a little about yourself, personally and as a writer.
My education and career have mostly been centered around families–as a religious educator, a preschool educator and as a birth doula.  I’m still getting used to the idea that I am a professional writer. I’m thrilled that my stories resonate in people’s hearts and souls.  I started writing in 2005 and haven’t looked back–though there were many bumps on the road at the beginning.
I live in Berkeley California in a small co-housing community.  My wife is a public school educator, and it looks like our young adult daughters are following in her footsteps.
2) How did Paper Wife come about?
I have a family friend who once casually mentioned that she was in her mom’s uterus on Angel Island.  I imagined there was an amazing story there but didn’t know I was the one to tell it.  A few years later I visited the immigration detention center museum on Angel Island and I decided I had to tell that story someday. I stored that idea in the background. When I got a two-book deal from Lake Union for a companion to my first novel and then a second novel on anything I wanted I immediately knew Paper Wife would be the second book in that deal.
3) What kind of research was involved in bringing this book to life?
I’m fortunate to live so close to Angel Island and San Francisco Chinatown.  I got to do a lot of research on location which really brought the feel of the experience alive. There are wonderful books that are first-hand accounts from the generation that went through Angel Island.  I’m deeply indebted to the historians who did those interviews before that generation left this planet.  The end of the book has a bibliography of the books and documentaries that I used.
4) What scene was the most difficult to write?
The beginning, when Mai Ling is leaving her family forever, is the most painful.  I can’t fathom saying a forever goodbye to my family. I cried when I wrote it, and a cried each time I edited it.
5) What are you working on next?
I’ve just started a companion to Yellow Crocus and Mustard Seed.  This third novel will follow the lives of characters introduced in those novels as they emigrate to California via the railroads in 1894.  I’m researching the Pullman Porters, the PullmanStrike (which led to the establishment of Labor Day), and the suffrage movement in California. I like to show how historical events affect the lives of specific families.