Authors Jessamine Chan, Emily Maloney talk systems of power


Photo courtesy of Beowulf Sheehan

Jessamine Chan, author of “The School for Good Mothers,” spoke for an online event at the the Urbana Free Library on Wednesday. Chan spoke alongside author Emily Maloney about how power systems affect families and finances.

By Kylie Corral, Summer Managing Editor for Reporting

On May 25, the Urbana Free Library hosted an online event that presented Jessamine Chan, author of “The School For Good Mothers,” and Emily Maloney, author of “The Cost of Living.” 

Both talked about how power systems affect lives, families and finances, which is a large motif in their novels as well.

Although online, the event allowed for interaction between listeners and the authors themselves, allowing for questions regarding the authors’ lives, novels and their thoughts on power systems in their work and America itself.

Preparing for the talk with Maloney:

In an interview that took place a few hours before the event, Maloney said her collection of essays is based on her life after a suicide attempt at 18 years old. She accumulated a lot of medical debt and worked in the emergency room and pharmaceutical industry to pay it off.

Get The Daily Illini in your inbox!

  • Catch the latest on University of Illinois news, sports, and more. Delivered every weekday.
  • Stay up to date on all things Illini sports. Delivered every Monday.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
Thank you for subscribing!

“My book is unusual in that it is an essay collection, and it talks about some things that I don’t often see discussed from that particular point of view,” she said. “We have a lot of books out there that are written by physicians, not very many books written by ER techs or EMTs.”

Maloney said she was excited to find readers for her novel and Chan’s novel, which would also be talked about during the event. She also said she was excited to be in conversation with a fiction writer, being a nonfiction writer herself.

“Both of our books, I think, talk specifically about issues that are (happen) on a day-to-day basis and the sort of the patriarchal structures that overlay a lot of day-to-day life,” Maloney said.

She said the most rewarding thing about discussing her work is that it allows her to connect with readers by sharing her experiences, maybe creating some change in the American health care system.

“I think that’s what makes the work powerful, is that, at least in my case, writing nonfiction,” she said. “I just hope to be able to share with readers and people who have had negative experiences in the American healthcare system — which is fundamentally broken — that they’re not alone.”

She said that in sharing her experience, she wants to help people manage on their own and maybe invoke some change when trying to fix healthcare in America, adding that she hopes the book ends up in hands that might be able to change the system.

Maloney said her advice to future writers is that writing takes a long time, and that’s OK. She also said it’s important to find a community and work hard.

“Find a community of people who share your values so you can share your work with, so that way the journey is not so lonely,” she said.

Maloney and Chan on systems of power:

Both Maloney’s nonfiction novel and Chan’s fictional one were stepping stones into the conversation of how power can affect people’s lives, including families and finances. 

During the conversation, Maloney talked about how her novel took shape and eventually took flight. Her essays were originally her thesis, which began being formed as a novel when she presented an essay called “The Cost of Suffering” to her editor.

Maloney said sharing her story and hearing similar stories about people’s experiences with the American health care system was part of her inspiration to write a novel.

“Everyone’s doing what they can to provide care, and repeatedly over and over and over again you’ll see that bureaucracy interferes with that care being delivered,” Maloney said.

Chan said she’s been writing fiction since she was a freshman in college. Her novel grew out of a short story that became too large for just 20 pages, she said.

Chan said the idea for her novel was inspired by questioning the government’s power in taking children away from their parents.

Chan also discussed the topic of childcare, comparing the costs of childcare in Berlin in relation to America, emphasizing the need to talk about money when talking about parenting.

“I think that writing on motherhood feels inherently political in a lot of ways because a lot of it is so tied into race, class and culture in terms of the choices you make,” Chan said.

There was much more to the conversation: Both read from their books, bonded over pandemic photoshoots and discussed sound in relation to writing and more.

When the online event began at 7 p.m., listeners were introduced to the authors by Heather Ross, a Literary Programming Librarian at Evanston Public Library and Programming Committee Member of Illinois Libraries Present, the organization hosting Maloney’s and Chan’s conversation.

Ross said the ILP is a newly formed group that began its pilot program in January 2022. As a committee member, she has been part of the process of selecting authors and speakers.

For this event, we wanted to highlight Illinois authors,” Ross said. “I had read ‘The School for Good Mothers’ by Jessamine Chan and was excited about the book’s ideas and the writing, so I reached out to Jessamine to see if she would be interested in doing a virtual event with us.”

Ross added that Chan suggested being in conversation with Maloney, also bringing the idea for discussing systems of power.

She said that Chan and Maloney didn’t know each other very well before the planning of the event, but now, they are closer and soon plan to meet in person.

What I most enjoyed about last night’s event, as well as all previous ILP events is that our events lead to more connection: connection between the authors, connection between the audience members and connection with the writing and ideas,” Ross said.

Ross said she’s looking forward to future events because they provide her with the chance to learn something new, feel more connected to others and feel joyful as well.

Closing the day with Chan:

Chan is the author of “The School for Good Mothers,” a story about Frida Liu, a Chinese American single mom who loses custody of her daughter after one bad day. To get her daughter back, she is sent to get reeducated with mothers around the country.

After the event finished, Chan said that the most rewarding thing about the conversation with Maloney is having the chance to speak about their books and speak about things she cares about.

“I love her book ‘The Cost of Living’ and think it’s such an important book that everyone should read,” Chan said. “It’s just such a rare opportunity to speak to people from all across the state and get to know readers in this way.”

Chan said she was introduced to Illinois Libraries Present via her friend Liz Moore, author of “Long Bright River,” and then was invited to teach a workshop, eventually getting her in contact with Ross.

When reflecting on the conversation with Maloney, she said she is with everyone in the state of panic about the world, reckoning that the main thing everyone can do is vote.

“Unfortunately, individual citizens are really dependent on the people in power to make more ethical decisions,” she said. “I think that’s part of the feeling of anger right now, is the sense of helplessness and the total lack of change from one emergency to the next.”

Chan said her advice to future writers is to keep going and stay off the internet.

“I just would encourage everyone to take care of themselves,” she said. “It’s not an easy time to be a person in the world, so whatever grace people can extend themselves, it’s worth it.” 


[email protected]