By Jessalyn Johnson
Yunte Huang grew up in southeastern China, moving to Alabama in 1991. He is the author of Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and this Rendezvous with American History (W.W. Norton 2010), a previous finalist in biography for the NBCC Awards. His most recent book, Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous with American History delves into the lives of Chang and Eng Bunker, exploring the complexities, adventures, and hardships they experienced as they lived full lives, traveling and eventually settling down in North Carolina with their families. Huang answered some of the questions I had about the book over email.
Jessalyn Johnson (JJ): The story of Chang and Eng is intriguing from beginning to end. As you mention in the epilogue, the twins were indeed “abnormal, exotic, and extraordinary”—what lessons can be learned from the extraordinary ways in which they made the absolute most out of their lives?
Yunte Huang (YH): To live life with grit and gusto. Their story goes beyond the proverbial wisdom of “When life gives you a lemon, you make lemonade.” Their version would be “When life gives you a lemon, you sell lemonade and go on to make even bigger sales.”
JJ: On multiple occasions, you explore instances in which the twins were “poked and prodded” for few reasons other than pure curiosity by the public. What sort of lines are we as humans unafraid to cross when it comes to things we don’t understand or are atypical?
YH: From Eve’s temptation by the forbidden fruit to Pandora’s peeking into the box, curiosity has often been regarded as a sign of impiety, a mark of discontent. Vladimir Nabokov called curiosity “the purest form of insubordination.” There is this guarded notion about curiosity as the lust of the eyes, but there is also the long-regarded understanding of curiosity as the intellectual urge to inquire, as the love of truth. In either case, humans have demonstrated little appetite for stopping at any artificially drawn line. As Charles Chan says, “Curiosity is the reason why a cat has nine lives.”
JJ: Despite their unique situation, the twins still made a decent living. They established their own families, performed around the world, and even owned slaves in North Carolina. How different do you believe their lives would have been if they were medically separated, or even if they were born completely unconnected?
YH: If they were medically separated, there would have been no story of Chang and Eng.
JJ: Throughout the book the word “freak” is often used to describe the twins. What sort of weight does this word hold when it is used to describe people, especially in the case of the twins, where they were seen as “freaks of nature” and used for the profit of others?
YH: The word is used to demonize the other, or, on a deeper psychological level, to exorcise the freakish inside our secret selves ordinarily hidden from view. That’s the raison d’etre of the freak show, which makes money from displaying “freaks of nature” and by projecting the viewers’ own fear about their secret selves onto these “objects.” The spectacle of the freak show merely disguises the most freakish in what often lies in plain view but has been normalized. For instance, Donald J. Trump is a total freak. But his behavior has been normalized to the extent that he can mock almost anyone else, no matter how respectable or decent they are, for being abnormal. In some sense, the use of the word “freak” has turned our world upside down. And that is the weight the word holds.
JJ: Chang and Eng experienced a permanent togetherness in life, save the brief period of time in which Eng outlived his brother. Despite the “freakish” qualities of the Siamese Twins, what, in your opinion, does this unusual connection provide that the majority of humans will never experience?
YH: I wouldn’t say “never experience.” Without discounting the uniqueness of Chang and Eng’s experience, we should also recognize that in own lives, there are people, if we are fortunate enough, to whom we are psychologically or even psychosomatically tied. Or, in a broader sense, the species of the homo sapiens is defined by its sociality, the reliance on each other for living a meaningful life. What’s so great about being a lonely genius on Mars? Even someone as great and self-reliant as Matt Damon wants to come back to the Earth to be part of the humanity. The importance of the Emersonian “self-reliant man” is overblown. The unusual connection of the Siamese Twins brings into sharp relief what defines humanity.
JJ: “Inseparable” is a perfect word to describe this story. The last couple of chapters were my favorite—I was captivated by the emotional state of Eng and how it must have felt to lose the one and only thing outside of his own consciousness that was never absent from his life. Do you think the nature of their connection and the loss of it made the twins more “human” in a sense?
YH: I would say yes, because their conjoined life foregrounds the fact that being human means being more than one, inseparable from others—never alone in life, death, happiness, pain, love, sex, and so on.
JJ: As you did the research for this book, what was the most interesting thing you learned that stuck with you, about the twins themselves, human nature, or otherwise?
YH: I would name two things. One is that fact that the story of the Siamese Twins coexists with the legend of Andy Griffith in the same town of Mount Airy. Such a cultural symbiosis of the “freakish” and the “normal” in an Appalachian holler says a lot about the enormous capacity, complexity, and richness of American culture. The other interesting thing would be what we Chinese would call fengshui, the spirit of the place. As I describe in the Epilogue, when I camped out on the farm that used to belong to the twins, I found some ducks that, I was told, had been abandoned by some other campers. I even found duck eggs in the bushes. That reminded me of the twins’ early years in Siam, where they were duck farmers and sold duck eggs to make a living. Call it serendipity, if you will, but that haunting sense of real or unreal, something Henry James and other great writers are obsessed with, ties everything together for me as a writer and a sentient being, turning fact-finding research into a spiritual quest.
Yunte Huang grew up in a small town in southeastern China, where at age eleven he began to learn English by secretly listening to Voice of America programs on a battered transistor radio. After receiving his B.A. in English from Peking University, Yunte came to the United States in 1991, landing in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. As a struggling Chinese restaurateur in the Deep South, he continued to study American literature, reading William Faulkner, Ezra Pound, and Emily Dickinson on the greasy kitchen floor. After receiving his Ph.D. in English from the State University of New York at Buffalo, Yunte taught as an assistant professor of English at Harvard University from 1999 to 2003. A Guggenheim Fellow, Yunte is currently a professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Jessalyn Johnson is a writer from Central Florida currently living in Brooklyn, New York. She has a BA in English Literature from Grand Canyon University and is currently attending The New School’s MFA Creative Writing Program for fiction. She can be found online at jessalynjohnson.com.