Fan Wu grew up on a state-run farm in southern China. After college, she received a scholarship from Stanford University to come to the United States. Her two novels are February Flowers, translated into eight languages, and Beautiful as Yesterday, praised by Amy Tan as “a story with intelligence, insight, and heart.” For more, please visit www.fanwuwrites.com
I wrote a blog for Ploughshares, a literary magazine, years ago. The other day, someone contacted me about one of the posts I did ( thanks to the omnipotent Internet), which concerns the post-publication process.
Many things have changed since I wrote that post five years ago: DIY (self-publishing) has gained huge popularity, e-books are more prominent, the roles of the author, agent, and editor are changing, social media are now becoming an essential communication channel…
Nowadays, the vanity publishing no longer carries the stigma it did before. No doubt, the Big Six are still what most writers crave, but many talented writers have decided to take the matter to their own hands and have had success.
DIY is not for every writer, but at the same time, it’s not wise to rely on your publisher, if you have one, to do everything for you. You need to be more engaged than ever in promoting and marketing your book.
Below is an excerpt from my Ploughshare post, which sheds a light on the post-publication process for traditionally published writers who are no Amy Tan or Stephen King.
Nowadays, it’s absolutely vital for writers, self-published and also traditionally-published, to engage readers. So while you work hard on your writing, don’t forget to build a platform to open conversations with readers.
Fan Wu (for Ploughshares)
We’re all familiar with Anna Karenina’s famous opening: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
It applies to authorship, too. All unpublished writers are alike–wanting to be published; each published writer is unhappy in his or her own way.
Before I was published I envied published writers as if “being published” were a decorative medal indicating elite status (in some way it’s true, I guess). I had many questions for them, though I had no chance to ask: Which literary magazines do you submit to? How long does it take to hear back? What are the odds of acceptance? How did you find your agent and how do you work with him or her? How do you like your editor? What advance did you get for your first book?
Since I met few real writers then, I turned to Writers’ Market. The book helped but not until I had accumulated a list of publications myself did I begin to understand why each published writer is uniquely unhappy.
Writers have many concerns. If you want to be self-published, you have many ways to do it. But if you want to be “traditionally published,” you need an agent, in an era in which few publishers accept direct submissions. Finding an honest, understanding, capable, experienced, devoted, and supportive agent is as hard as finding a “perfect” spouse.
Assuming that you now have a wonderful agent who has sold your first book to a major publisher for a good price (lucky you, but “a good price” rarely means that you can live on it for two years), the next step is to work with your editor to polish the manuscript. The editor has strong opinions about the book but your opinions are stronger–after all, you’ve spent probably thousands of hours on the book and it’s like your own baby. So after months (hopefully not years) of debate, discussion, negociation and sleepless nights, the book is finalized, proofed by a copy editor and ready to print.
As a writer, you’ve done your job, but in reality the job is far from done. How about the book covers and blurbs? Also, your editor will likely send you a standard long questionnaire, which includes questions such as “Are there groups to which your book would have particular appeal?” and “Which organizations or institutions might be interested in either selling or publicising your book?” To non-fiction writers, these questions may be easy to answer; to fiction writers, especially literary fiction writers, they’re beyond puzzling–meanwhile it seems arrogant, or even wrong, to say simply that your potential readership is “everyone who loves a good book.”
Finally, the book hits the bookstores. You pray for good reviews, but you should feel happy if your book is reviewed at all. Print media have been cutting down on book reviews, some cancelling them entirely. Readings and events? Your beloved independent bookstores are shutting down one by one due to competition from the chain book stories and on-line rivals. What about the promised advertisements and 10-city tour from your publisher when you signed the contract? Sorry, they’re no longer applicable. And you can hardly count on your publicist, who is busy with more stellar clients and who lives in New York City, far from Billings, Montana, where you live, whose 100k population isn’t too small a group in your definition.
So despite all your efforts to promote the book yourself (most likely marketing is not your strength), your book doesn’t sell. When you deliver your second book, years later if you are determined and passionate enough, your publisher rejects it. They tell your agent, “It’s not what we expected.” What did they expect? They don’t say. But you know that their rejection has much to do with your first book’s lackluster sales numbers.
Since this July, I’ve been volunteering at the London-based Mothers’ Bridge of Love (MBL), leading its website team. Our team is growing fast, and now we have more than 15 members from Europe, the U.S., and China. It’s wonderful to work with so many talented and passionate people to make a difference. 🙂
This belated post is from Thanksgiving, with messages from some volunteers in our team. Though Thanksgiving is an American holiday, I feel that it’s always important to remind ourselves to care for each other and be grateful for what we have.
Thank you, my dear MBL friends!
I’ve been with MBL for 13 years. It’s precious when we work together and support each other. I will keep all the beautiful memory in my heart forever. I’m so proud to be one of the volunteers for MBL and I’m grateful to everyone I’ve met in my life. I feel happy because knowing YOU is the most beautiful thing! Many thanks to you for supporting MBL charity. Happy Thanksgiving!
Happy Thanksgiving! This is my first year to be an official MBLer. It feels wonderful to be in such a warm family where sharing and helping each other are deeply valued. I’m moved by the many stories about adoptive families and adopted children, and every project MBL has done for underprivileged children in China inspires me. Thank you, MBL, and thank you, our hardworking and talented volunteers all over the world! Thank you, all the friends and supporters of MBL. Thinking of you makes me smile.
Some friendships become more beautiful over time. Thank you for the color you add to my life! I wish you a heartfelt Thanksgiving.
I am blessed to be part of MBL. MBL teaches me to bridge gaps and connect hearts. It seems difficult, but is worth an effort and certainly achievable for anyone who holds such a wish. Wish MBLers around the world can bridge more gaps and unite more hearts and souls. Love you all!
Thanks for those people who inspire me and challenge me to grow. We met in our life for a reason, which is that we all learn from each other.
A lot of things happened to me this year, some are good some are bad. I am so blessed that every time when I am happy or sad, I have the MBL family to share with. This warm family teaches me love and how to embrace frustrations with hope and peace. Thank you MBL family~! I love you all~!
Thanks to the MBL – the big family, who has brought us together for a good cause, through which I have met many wonderful people and spent my time meaningfully. Here is to a harvest of blessing to the MBL, you are the epitome of loving people and for that we are eternally grateful. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!
A big thank you to MBL’s volunteer Gloria in China, who recently joined MBL, for the beautiful poster. If you want to read more about MBL, please visit www.mothersbridge.org
Nov. 12, 2016 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Dr. Sun Yat-sen (Sun Zhongshan 孙中山), the founding father of the Republic of China, one of the most important leaders of modern China. To celebrate, China issued commemorative coins and held events across the country. President Xi Jinping paid tribute to Dr. Sun Yat-sen in a speech.
Growing up in China, I, of course, have read a lot about Dr. Sun Yat-sen. I even attended the university he founded in 1924, which has a beautiful campus and stunning architecture. The university’s motto contains five elements: study broadly, enquire accurately, reflect carefully, analyze wisely, and pursue earnestly.
When my Canadian friend Jules Nadeau sent me his recent piece about Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s brief stay in Denver, I read it with great interest. To be honest, I didn’t know that Dr. Sun Yat-sen spent time in Denver in 1911 when the Xinhai Revolution, the revolution that overthrew China’s last imperial dynasty, took place.
Thank you, Jules, for writing this interesting article. Thank you, Nelson Ho, for translating it from English to Chinese, and thank you to Annick Nadeau for the photos.
Room 321 at the Brown Palace
I (ALMOST) SLEPT IN THE SAME ROOM AS SUN YAT-SEN
“Do you know that Dr. Sun Yat-sen was here in Denver when the Revolution of 1911 broke out in China?” The first Chinese friends I questioned with this shred of history were taken aback. “Really?” Others Denverites replied they had vaguely heard about that. But nothing else!
Initially, my first surprise, I heard about Sun Yat-sen visiting Colorado from Diana Lary, a professor of Chinese history at the University of British Columbia. After reading a book of this old friend, I received this confirmation: “In 1911 Sun Yat-sen was not expecting revolution to break out in China. He was in Denver raising money from the local Chinese community.” But nothing else!
Soon afterward, at West Side bookstore, my favorite hangout on 32nd avenue (Highland), proprietor Lois Harvey kindly offered me the large character book The Man who Changed China. I was excited to read the short sentence Pearl Buck wrote in 1953: “He planned to stay for a few days… in Denver”.
No more possible doubt in my mind: The revolutionary hero really transited through the Mile-High City, but what else? My first intention was to locate a local history buff for more details: Perhaps in early 20th century newspapers?
Persisting in my inquiry, I repeated the same question to Mrs. Sherry Chao, the teacher of one of my grand-daughters at Denver Language School. Listening to her instant reply, it was my turn to be taken aback. “Of course, I know. He was here in 1911 and spent the night at the Brown Palace. You know that old place downtown?” (Was that the “cheap hotel room” Pearl Buck referred to?)
Brown Palace Hotel
Subsequently, the person in the know I found–not Asian at all–was Debra Faulkner, the “hotel historian” at the Brown Palace. The author of The Ladies of the Brown quickly acknowledged everything about the well-respected Father of the Chinese Republic. “When you come at the hotel, I will show you the original register with his signature on the October 10th page”, said the PR lady on the phone.
During my first stop at the Brown, I was given an introduction tour of the venerable edifice built in 1892. I went from one significant spot to another with a small group of new employees. “Let me show you the suite of President Theodor Roosevelt”, mentioned the petite Debra Faulkner in a black costume. Twelve American presidents stayed at this hotel and the triangular-shaped building is full of memorabilia. The Beatles, Joan Baez, Helen Keller, Sarah Bernhardt, John Wayne and Boris Yeltsin all left their indelible mark at the celebrated landmark of Henry C. Brown.
That winter day I came back home in Highland with more books. In The Brown Palace, Denver’s Grande Dame, Sun Yat-sen figured well among the long list of celebrities. Author Corinne Hunt specified: “A small, dark, bespectacled man stood on the stage of the old Chinese Theatre on Market Street and made an impassioned plea for funds to help free his countrymen”, wrote the earlier historian (during two long decades) of the hotel.
The bleak room 321
My next visit to the four star hotel was the strategic one. I was accompanied by Vincent, a Chinese friend who knows a lot about Double Tenth (i.e. October 10th). As promised, Debra Faulkner carried the pièce de résistance under her arm and guided us directly to room 321. I had the feeling of entering a sacred temple. Vincent courteously elbowed me in. Some natural light filled the place that had no bed. Absolutely nothing fancy compared to any of the presidential suites. In it’s present condition, only a desolate “meeting room” with plenty of discarded tables and chairs. Nothing to honour the one and only statesman who is venerated both in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and in the Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan.
“You can see the souvenir frame on the wall”, indicated Debra Faulkner while showing the only item of explanation. A small cameo photo of Sun Yat-sen. Four characters (wei gong tian xia) meaning “Brotherhood of all Nations”. A hundred words about the presence of the “founding father of the Republic of China”. Plus the signature of two men. Then Debra Faulkner opened her old black ledger and exhibited the original handwriting. “Y S Sun: 321”, and on the following line, “W S Wong: 323” (i. e. Wong Wun Soo). Residence for both of them: “San Francisco”. The last two guests to check in on the red-letter day.
I did not find it useful to photograph the 321 because there was nothing there about history. The word overlooked came to my mind. The room was as anonymous as Sun Yat-sen himself wanted to remain on that day in Denver. As a “revolutionist leader”, he was afraid to be assassinated and chose to circulate incognito in the United States.
Overnighting in the 321?
We were happy about this successful peek, yet I wanted to do better about the locushistoricus. So I worked out the idea of spending one night alone in the three-digit room. “How about this, I told Debra Faulkner on the phone, you set up a sofa or a simple mattress or I can even bring my own sleeping bag. I wanna stay there one night. Then I can write my narrative on the spot. I will not mention one single word about the special accommodation. My word of honor.” I repeated the same request on a third visit to the Brown. Mrs Faulkner smiled and qualified the whole idea as “unusual”. Nevertheless she promised to transmit my demand to the responsiblecomrade–as they say in the PRC.
Days of waiting started and I was getting increasingly impatient because I was soon going to leave the Rockies. Anyway, I remained optimistic. The historian-PR lady certainly processed my request. Besides, she went ahead and made a reservation for a party of five for the very popular Sunday afternoon tea in the lobby. “I hope that’s OK”, she added. Needless to say, in my mind, the tea ritual and the 321 night both had to be narrated from a concrete “I was there” journalistic perspective.
Terse negative reply
Meanwhile, I was informed that both media requests had to be approved by the Director of Sales Mark Shine. “I will raise [it] with him and with our Rooms Director Ryan Pratt, being sure to mention your impressive media credentials. So stay tuned!” wrote Debra Faulkner (while admitting that the former guy tended to “ignore” her).
Finally, the terse answer went solely to her. “We will not be able to accommodate this request. Thanks”, wrote Mark Shine. Subsequently, Debra Faulkner added to my attention: “I am so sorry, but that appears to be the end of it… I emphasized repeatedly that you had no expectations of a typical overnight “luxury” experience in Room 321. I apologize sincerely for my ineffective advocacy.” No effort was made to offer any kind of alternative to my plan.
The journalist I am was disappointed. As a person very close to Chinese communities I still don’t understand how a director at the Brown can have so little consideration for a historical event that could bring a lot of attention to the hotel. I am sure Chinese visitors to the Mile High City would be ready to pay handsome amounts of money to book in at the 321. It’s not too late for a change of mind but…
Denver contributed $500
The inexplicable indifference of the Brown made me read more about Sun Yat-sen and the first Double-Ten. Vincent helped me with some old newspaper clippings. In a round up, the Daily News (Denver) had a front-page photo of the future president showing his “black mustache, his closely clipped hair and a derby hat”. His stay was “brief though momentous”. The “liberator of his people” and Wong Wun Soo lectured in the old Chinese theater at 2021 Market Street (near Twentieth) where they were hailed by the Chee Kung Tong secret society (later the Chinese Freemasons).
“Compatriots, the time has now come for the people of China to rise against the imperial government. It is ordained that the emperor be driven from his throne and killed”, proclaimed the “Americanized Chinaman of the most advanced type”, according to the Rocky Mountain News. “Loyal followers closely guarded” [the rebel physician] who had a price of $100,00 on his head.” A reward promised to the Chinaman who would “decapitate him and send his head to Peking as proof of his death”, added the article.
Actually two teams of anti-Manchu detractors traveled across America to speak and raise funds. Sun Yat-sen and his companion took the northern route while another team traversed the south. The 44 years old man collected more than $500 in Denver–a small part of the handsome sum of more than $140,000 totally amassed (which is equivalent to $3,540,600 today) by the year’s end, according to San Francisco historian Him Mark Lai.
However the success of the Wuchang uprising was much more crucial than the garnered funds. The collapse of the imperial regime on October 10th led to the establishment of the Republic of China. After his arrival in Colorado, Sun Yat-sen learned of the big news from press reports. Professor Diana Lary e-mailed me: “A group of young officers, imbued with anti-Manchu ideology, accidentally caused a small explosion [in Wuchang], and everything unraveled from there. Sun Yat-sen was probably as surprised as anyone else, including the Manchus. When I used to teach this I stressed how accidental the process of revolutionary change could be.”
In his memoirs, Sun estimated that the “diplomatic front” was for him of utmost significance and instead of returning home, he hastened to leave alone for the East coast and sailed from New York to the European continent. After some time spent in London and Paris (where he met ex-President Georges Clemenceau), plus other meetings with financiers in Singapore and Hong Kong, he arrived in Shanghai in time for Christmas. On January 1st, 1912, the traveling insurgent was inaugurated as the Provisional President of the newly established Republic of China.
The long-time barefoot Sinophile Jules Nadeau is a freelance writer living in Montreal who spent 10 years in Greater China. He is the author of 20 Million Chinese Made in Taiwan and also 1997: In the Mouth of the Red Dragon. In 1979, Jules Nadeau was a full-time journalist at La Presse, a French language daily in the province of Québec.
As someone who’s been writing for 14 years, I know very well that rejections are part of the life of a writer. It doesn’t mean that I take them lightly but I’ve come to realize that they’re the much-dreaded yet much-needed ingredients for me to become a better writer.
When I completed my first novel in 2005, it took me nine months, after 30 plus rejections from agents, to find someone to represent me. I was luckier with my first short story, which Granta accepted on first submission. Two years later, I “almost” had a story published by The New Yorker. I had dreamed big so I was quite disappointed when my agent told me that it was a “no” at the end. However, I received an encouraging email from Deborah Treisman herself, which I still have in my yahoo mailbox.
I’ve since had more success with my short stories, but I have received even more rejections. Once I sent a story to The Paris Review, only to receive, 14 months later, a hand-written note, “We liked it but please send a shorter one.” I sent a shorter story but got no reply this time. Did the story end up in a slush pile? To this day, I still wonder.
Last week, I received a rejection letter from One Story. It says, “Thank you so much for sending us ‘The Night is Younger Than We Are.’ There was a lot to admire in this piece. The characters, especially the narrator and Ling, were rich and fully formed, and your decision to switch between the past and the present lent a tension to the story that kept us turning the pages. This particular piece isn’t quite right for One Story, but we sincerely hope that you will send us more of your writing in the future.”
Given that reputable journals like One Story receive hundreds of submissions a day and have extremely low acceptance rate, I’m deeply grateful for such a thoughtful and encouraging personal note.
What to do after being rejected? There’s only one answer if writing is who you are. Continue to write, to edit, and continue to submit.
Leonard Cohen, one of my favorite songwriters who just passed away, once described his writing process as something “like a bear stumbling into a beehive or a honey cache: I’m stumbling right into it and getting stuck, and it’s delicious and it’s horrible and I’m in it and it’s not very graceful and it’s very awkward and it’s very painful and yet there’s something inevitable about it.”
Yes, there’s something inevitable about it. You must have faith.
And remember what Churchill once said, “Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.”
Jules Nadeau, a freelance writer living in Montreal, shared with me several posters of the Cultural Revolution from his collection. I didn’t grow up with these posters, but have seen them many times in news, books and movies where the Cultural Revolution was concerned.
I asked Jules if if he could write something about these posters, and was extremely grateful that he said yes. Here are his words.
By Jules Nadeau
I spent a fabulous time in the PRC in 1979 as a consultant for a film crew. We were shooting an in-depth three hours documentary on the railroad network and this was the year I acquired my collection of political posters. In retrospect, I find the most interesting artifact is the one showing Chairman Mao Zedong saying in a paternalistic way to his protégé Hua Guofeng: “With you in charge, I’m at ease.” Other drawings eulogize the Canadian doctor Norman Bethune and the Communist Party.
However Hua Guofeng (1921-2008), the “designated successor”, was himself about to be excommunicated by the paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and that iconic poster was about to be withdrawn from all Xinhua State stores. A Wuhan university student purchased the whole set in 1978 and offered it to me as a token of friendship. It’s only now that I revel in the possession of these red archives.
The National Film Board
The affiches were obtained in Wuhan because this is where our Montreal crew of five was based for an unforgettable six weeks in the antiquated Shengli (Victory) hotel, sort of five-star establishment of the late 70’s. So we spent a lot of time in the European style train station of Hukou. We interviewed numerous employees during their working hours and their leisure time at home. We were also interested in young and old passengers boarding the socialist green wagons. George Dufaux, a reputed film director at the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), saw these travelers as genuine representives of the one billion inhabitants of the vast land. Just weeks before the “one couple one child” policy was introduced.
We were only three years away from the passing over of the Great Helmsman and the official invalidation of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Party cadres were still trying to outsmart the visiting medias. They were thus trying to show us the best side of the socialist Motherland. But Georges Dufaux was clever enough to concentrate on railroad people because that gave us the opportunity to interview all kinds of hiking people, in other words common folks who were not selected, “briefed” in advance or instructed to make politically correct declarations.
Surprise, spontaneity and frankness was our hush-hush motto. I acted as consultant for this purpose: discern the genuine speech from the Orwellian “doublespeak”. It was my fourth foray across the bamboo curtain in four years. (With the provison that we did not want to be ideologically attacked as the Italian director Michelagelo Antonioni was vilified following his 1972 film Chung Kuo (Zhongguo.)
No matter what the NFB was well considered by the Chinese authorities partly because of the fame of Norman Bethune. I often underlined to our hosts that the revolutionary doctor practiced for a few years in Montréal before leaving for China. “The father of my former magazine editor in Montréal was a patient of Bethune. In 1975 while visiting Shijiazhuang hospital I shook hand with a venerable veteran who had personally known Bethune”, I repeated. Such statements from the “foreign expert” were music to the ears of our railway blue collars. Ottawa established diplomatic relations with Beijing long time before Washington did.
The Junior Brother of Deng Xiaoping
Personalities? I saluted the brother of Deng Xiaoping. How come? I knew that Deng Ken was the deputy governor of Hubei. The evening of the National day, October 1st, we saw several high cadres parading through the lobby of Victory hotel. One of them bore a striking ressemblance with Deng Xiaoping. “Is this the younger brother of…”, I asked one of the staff. Following the positive answer from a shy waitress, I went straight to him and offered him a blue fleur de lys pin Made in Québec. Deng Ken seemed surprised for a few seconds but he smiled and gave me a polite xiexie nin! Thank you! (My teamates did not believe me when I reported the coup d’éclat!
In 1979 there was a huge Railway Ministry in the PRC with some 2,400,00 staff. Workers plus all their relatives. The “iron rice bowl” for all. In Beijing, I was granted an exclusive interview with Minister Guo Weicheng (a former PLA General of Manchu origin). Quite an honor! In Wuhan, in an effort to get closer to the local cadres, genial Georges Dufaux had a wonderful idea. Instead of offering maple syrup or traditional handicraft to our hosts, he imagined to carry over a miniature locomotive with colorful wagons. The kind of toy that would drive any kid crazy. Needless to say, the responsible leaders were amazed to see the mini-train circle and circle around in the dining room. More clinking glasses! Touché!
Our Online Documentary
Thanks to Bethune, the interview at the top and the magic electric train, people-to-people rapports were warming up. A senior comrade we learned to trust, the guy who like to chit chat with laowai (foreigners), went as far as inviting our Gang of Five to his home for dinner. “This is unique!” I told my NFB friends. Mr. Zhang and his gentle wife (a physician) prepared some delicious dumplings (jiaozi) in gargantuan quantities. Georges Dufaux, Serge Lafortune, Richard Besse and the interpreter Elizabeth Lowe (Canadian student in Beijing) really savored the meal. That was gold to us: an informal visit in a private home. Unrehearsed and impromptu!
Shopping for dictionaries and art books was a lot of fun. We went for haircuts just for smelling the atmosphere of a post-cultural revolution barber shop. I also guided the crew to the Liberation photography studio. This is where we had our corporate pix taken. In my case, with a proletariat cap and a working class vest, I tried to look like a bona fide member of the popular masses. When I look at this shot nowadays, I think I almost succeeded. Except for my high nose and the thick moustache that betray me… No Chineseness at that level!
Dufaux was not able to edit the film down to less than three hours. The personal testimonies about the day to day life in China and the canonical statements coexist side by side. “We will show the viewers what the authorities want them to see. Let the spectators judge by themselves” confided the experienced director to me. The three-part documentary called Guidao: On the Way can now be seen online on the web site of the National Film Board. The vintage posters can also be admired on this blog. Quite a different planet… almost 40 years ago! Wuhan now has a grandiose train station. The Victory hotel is a mere paper souvenir. People are also different. And trains move much faster between Wuhan, the ground zero of the Wuchang Uprising of October 10th 1911 Revolution and the post-1949 capital city of Beijing.
The long-time barefoot Sinophile Jules Nadeau is a freelance writer living in Montreal who spent 10 years in Greater China. He is the author of 20 Million Chinese Made in Taiwan and also 1997: In the Mouth of the Red Dragon. In 1979, Jules Nadeau was a full-time journalist at La Presse, a French language daily in the province of Québec.
Work, work, work…kids, kids, kids…finally my husband and I got to go out a bit with close friends to watch the Bridge School Benefit Concert last Sunday. (Thanks to our fantastic babysitter who was my daughter’s preschool teacher.) This is an all-acoustic, non-profit charity held every October Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View. The lineup list was impressive: Neil Young, Metallica, Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds, Willie Nelson, Norah Jones, Cage the Elephant, Nils Lofgren, and Roger Waters.
The place was packed, both expected and exciting as all the money would go to the charity. We arrived late and missed Neil Young. Cage the Elephant was new to me and I liked their songs and energy. Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” was always great to hum along, which I first heard when I was at college in China.
Norah Jones, though I like her, seemed a bit boring for this occasion. The location and the crowd with their beer, cigarettes and who-knows-what just weren’t right for her music.
Dave Matthews was wonderful but also predicable. When I first watched his show, I had been in the U.S. for fewer than 3 years, was working at Yahoo!. At that time, the company was the Wall Street’s darling and we, as employees, enjoyed perks, fancy parties and a lot of good food. One of the perks was free tickets to cool events. That was how one day I got to see Dave Matthews from the first row. Honestly, I didn’t know who he was and had to ask my American coworker, who seemed appalled by my ignorance.
As I was watching the show, I thought of Cui Jian, the father of Chinese rock. When I first listened to his music, I was not yet in college, and I was dreaming big and wild. With his guitar and hoarse voice, Cui Jian conquered me and my friends, physically and psychologically, making us stomp on the chairs and cry. He made us realize for the first time that we, the Chinese, could be freed from the burdens that our tumultuous history had inflicted on us. At the top of our lungs, with feigned melancholy, my friends and I sang “Nothing to My Name,” “A Piece of Red Cloth” and “Greenhouse girl.” We thought how true it was that the Party blinded us by covering our eyes with a piece of red cloth, pelting us with propaganda and forced political learning.
I still listen to Cui Jian from time to time, and am still moved by many of his songs, mostly old ones.
At the Sunday concert, when Willie Nelson was singing, four old men in front of me stood up and, with their hands on each other’s shoulders, they sang along and danced along, completely mesmerized. I watched them, and I, too, was happy, because of them, because of my memory.
So here is Part Two. Since Maya, my illustrator, has been so busy with gymnastics, tennis, her pokemon collection, and her many other interests, she hasn’t had much time to illustrate for the book. But she’s promised that she’ll do several more drawings in the next two or three weeks. Let’s see.
The pig family, Pig Papa, Pig Mama, and their four piglets, live a happy life on a farm at a bend of a river. One day, the Littlest, the youngest of the piglets and the only girl, realizes that they’re going to be sent to a slaughterhouse. Despite her family’s objection, she plans her escape. Will she succeed? Will her family be on her side eventually? Here is a story of defying odds and overcoming obstacles, of love for freedom, and of what it means to be a family.
Littlest’s Adventure – Yet Another Bedtime Story (Part 2)
Littlest stood still, alone and lonely. But she’d made up her mind. No matter what, she would get out of here and never return. No, she didn’t have to accept her fate. There was no such a thing called fate. She was her own boss and she would prove that.
That night, while her parents and brothers were sleeping soundly in the shed, Littlest began to cut the chain link with her teeth. She chose the back of the pen, so the farmer’s wife wouldn’t see. Every bite hurt her teeth and the loose wires slashed her skin. But the fence was well built and the iron wires were sturdier than she had thought. Even though she tried her hardest, the hole she made was no bigger than a cantaloupe by the time the sun rose.
When Pig Papa, Pig Mama, and their four sons got up, Littlest was still working on the fence. Seeing her daughter’s bloody face, Pig Mama cried and was about to dress her wounds with the herb medicine she had made.
But Pig Papa stopped her. “This is a lesson she has to learn,” Pig Papa said. “Now she knows she must listen to us.”
“I won’t stop. I’ll continue tonight,” said Littlest defiantly despite her pain and exhaustion.
When the farmer’s wife came to feed the pigs in the morning she discovered the hole. She thought it was done by a raccoon. “Stupid pigs,” she said angrily, without looking at the pigs. “They didn’t even make a noise when they saw a raccoon.” She called her husband and he blocked the hole with a thick wooden board.
It took Littlest three days to recover. The fourth night, as soon as her parents and brothers fell asleep, Littlest started to dig underneath the fence. It was cold and windy. Since it hadn’t rained for days, the soil was hard. Soon, Littlest’s nails were broken. But she didn’t stop. She dug, dug, and dug, dreaming of the days when she could roam in the forest or on the grassland, when she could pick wild flowers and drink from a waterfall.
By daybreak, she had made a hole as big as a basketball. But it still wasn’t big enough for her. After all, she was a pig, not a rabbit. When her parents and brothers got up she was so tired that she fainted. Pig Mama and her brothers carried her to the shed.
Pig Papa, though worrying about his daughter, refused to help. “Being stubborn and ambitious doesn’t help, does it?” he said, more to himself than to anyone else.
He once had dreamed of being free too, and had even contemplated to escape when he wasn’t much older than Littlest. But he never carried out his plan. He was afraid of failure, of being laughed at by his parents and siblings, and of being caught by the farmer and his wife. Now, at his age, he felt he had seen the world. Though he might appear to be optimistic in his wife’s and children’s eyes, he was really a pessimist.
“We’re all in the gutter,” he said to himself, quoting Oscar Wilde, as a fallen leaf hit his face. But since he didn’t like to be sad, he immediately cheered himself up by reciting a Chinese saying, “Those who’re satisfied are the happiest.” Maybe there was indeed a heaven or afterlife, where he and his family could live happily forever, he further comforted himself.
Though Littlest had covered the hole with straws, grass and leaves, the farmer’s wife still saw the hole when she came to feed the pigs. “These stupid pigs,” she said with contempt. “I bet they can still snore inside a wolf’s stomach.” She called her husband and he filled the hole with a big rock.
This time, it took Littlest five days to recover—she had a fever and diarrhea. She had been small to begin with and now she was even smaller, barely half of the size of Little First. With her skinny body and glistening eyes, she looked more like a starving wild beast than a farm animal.
Suspecting that the pigs wanted to escape, the farmer—much smarter than his wife—began to check on the pen every morning and evening. He noticed how bony Littlest was and began to feed her separately, often with sweet corns and the mix of wheat and barley. Sometimes he even put vitamins and minerals into the food to make sure Littlest was healthy.
His effort soon paid off. Littlest, though still the smallest among the piglets, gained fifteen pounds in a week. It brought smiles to the farmer’s face. More meat meant more money. Even a fool knew that.
With the slaughter day approaching, Littlest grew more and more silent and withdrawn. She rarely joined her family in the mud war, which her siblings loved. She didn’t laugh at jokes, she stayed away from games. Her siblings by now had learned to ignore her. She was a joy killer, a mood destroyer, that was what she was. What did she want anyway? She got extra attention from the farmer, she got better food, she got more love from their mother, who often gave Littlest extra hugs at bedtime. Wasn’t that enough?
Behind her back, they called her a “hypocrite.” Wasn’t she? Look how vigorously she ate now! Not long ago, she had pretended that she didn’t care about food.
If Littlest’s brothers envied her for the special treatment she was getting, her parents were now relieved, assured that their daughter had given up her crazy escape plan. She was eating a lot—proof in itself. As for her silence and aloofness, they weren’t concerned. On the contrary, they saw that as something good—obviously, their daughter needed time to reflect on her naivety and stupidity after her two miserable failures.
(To be continued. Do you think Littlest has given up? Or is she going to try something new? The next installment will be posted in a week.)
He laughed. “No. It’s eleven.” Then he asked again, “How much is 1 plus 1?”
“Eleven,” I replied.
“No, no, no,” he shook his head wildly. “It’s two! Mom, how much is 1 plus 1 again?” He could barely hold back his victorious smile.
“Two or eleven,” I said with a grin.
“No! It’s ten!” He showed me his math by lifting his right foot, then his left one, then counting his toes. Yes, he was right. Ten toes. Not one more, not one less.
“Now, what’s 1 plus 1?” he asked after I agreed that 1 plus 1 could equal ten.
Before I could figure out a smart answer, he shouted. “It’s ten again, but in Chinese! See,” he was eager to demonstrate his genius by drawing on a piece of paper. “Here is one stick, here is the second stick. You put them together. It’s ‘十.’ Mommy is s-i-l-l-y.”
My 8-year-old, who had been organizing her Pokemon cards, chimed in. “1 plus 1 also equals 4. There’re mommy and daddy first, then there’re me and Luca. But for Andrew’s family, 1 plus 1 equals 7.” Andrew is her classmate and his family just had their 5th kid.
What’s your equation of 1+1 as a writer?
A professor from the University of Nebraska has recently announced that there are only six basic fiction plots, a finding based on his computer-generated analysis. But if you’ve ever written a novel or are working on one, you know that possibilities of plots, characterization, and of choices of voice are endless. It can be confusing and overwhelming.
Be original. Your individuality is what makes your story unique. Your memory and your interpretation are the best ingredients for your book. Yes, indeed, everyone has a book in them.
Follow the inner logic of your characters. The more you understand your characters, the more convincing you are with your writing. Be straightforward or take detours or do whatever you desire. In some cases, 1+1 equals 2, in some other cases, the sum is 10 or even “十” in Chinese.
And be creative and enjoy the ride (you have to admit that even if you complain to all your friends about how difficult it is to write, you love to do it anyway).
An image I found on the Internet inspired me to write my new novel, “Song of the Daisies.” The artist who created the image is Tian Taiquan, whose best known themes are “Lost” and “Totem Recollection,” about the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. If you Google him, you’ll see many of his works.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution which lasted from 1966 to 1976. Though I didn’t experience this devastating political movement directly, I’ve been interested in it and its impact on today’s China and Chinese people since high school. I suppose that was why I chose Chinese Literature and Language as my college major, despite that I was smitten with Western literature at that time–I wanted to learn more about the so-called “scar literature” or “wound literature” (Shanghen wen xue 伤痕文学), and “search-for-roots literature”(xungeng wen due 寻根文学).
I belong to a post-Cultural Revolution generation, and none of my four older brothers were old enough to be Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. Yet Tian Taiquan’s art touches me in a very personal way and reminds me of my days as a naive and passionate teenager, as someone with many dreams and questions.
Some of Tian’s most controversial art, (his most impressive in my opinion) are those of the Red Guards who died during the 1966-1968 Chongqing Riot, victims of politics, of their times, and of their unbridled yet distorted love and passion.
“Song of the Daisies” is about the historical and psychological impact of a tumultuous past on ordinary people. Yes, we all say the past is the past, let’s move on, yet we all know that the past is in our blood, in our heartbeat, in the air we breathe.
For my generation growing up in the “Reform and Opening Up” China, our most urgent issue is not how to survive in deprivation and despair, but how to escape the shadow that seems to loom perpetually in the near distance.
To understand today’s China, the economic boom, the corruption, the urbanization, the guanerdai/fuerdai (second generation of government officials and the rich 官二代／富二代) phenomenon, the mingongchao (tidal wave of migrant laborers 民工潮), the rising nationalism, the growing conflicts between the haves and have-nots, and many other social and cultural matters, you must look back at what China has gone through in the past few decades and further beyond.
The New York Times’s Chris Buckley has written about the cemetery that often appears in Tian Taiquan’s art. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/05/world/asia/china-cultural-revolution-chongqing.html
As he puts it, “…the cemetery embodies China’s evasive reckoning with its legacy. Here the tension between official silence and grass-roots remembrance is palpable.”
The Cultural Revolution caused the death of tens of millions, crippled the economy, and almost paralyzed the country. Yet, to this day, not a single official museum records and commemorates this catastrophic decade. In 2005, one Peng Qian created “The Cultural Revolution Museum” in Shantou, Guangdong Province, with money from private donors, to honor the victims of the Cultural Revolution, but the museum is not supported and promoted by the government. Earlier this year, the government shut the museum partially, its exhibitions forced to close.
Last September, China’s CCTV aired a series of programs called “The History That You Cannot forget” to commemorate “the 70th anniversary of Chinese people’s Anti-Japanese War and the World Anti-Fascist War Victory.” This event was widely celebrated with the Victory Day military parade along Changan Street in Beijing, the publication of a list of 300 “Anti-Japanese heroes, and the declaration of Sept 3 being a national holiday. One can only wonder when the Chinese will begin to become more open and transparent about the Cultural Revolution.
I think about the many innocent-looking young people in Tian Taiquan’s art, who seem to be saying, “Don’t stare at me as if I were crazy. I’m just like you. I’m young, a dreamer. I want to be happy, want to be pretty, want to love, but I live in a world where I have no control.”
More than 400 people were buried in Chongqing’s “The Cultural Revolution Cemetery,” today a forgotten ruin. Many were students, the youngest 14 or 15 years old. Most of them died in the violent battles between two rival Red Guard factions, The 815 and The Smackers (反到底／砸派）. A character in my book “Song of the Daisies,” who once belonged to The Smackers describes such battles. “Not just tanks. Later, we even seized a military vessel with a gun combat system from the army. We bombarded a lot of neighborhoods and flattened some of them. One evening, we fired more than five thousand rounds.”
In the book, a previous 815 leader, now in his late 40s, says,” I suppose many of the people I knew in Chongqing died a bit like those sparrows my friends and I had killed so casually. They were innocent but they died for a wrong cause.”
The protagonist Moli Yang, who lives in the United States, travels to this Chongqing cemetery to visit her first boyfriend’s tomb. An aspiring poet, he died during the Chongqing Riot.
“Early one morning I arrive at the graveyard where Hao’s grave is supposedly located. Compared to the one I saw in 1968 the graveyard is bigger and better organized, fenced by a grey stone wall and shaped like a boat, yet quieter and more deserted because I’m the only visitor, a forgotten world more inviting to ghosts than humans.
“A narrow road divides the site. Trees, bushes and weeds claim ownership of the ground as much as the moss-covered gravestones, all of different dimensions. Most of the graves contain several bodies, one as many as seventeen. I stop in front of each, reading the headstones: their names and ages, propaganda slogans and eulogies. Visitors, however few, have left carvings and chalk writings on some of the headstones—all have suffered varying degrees of damage, from weather or sabotage. Several headstones are missing, with only the grave mound visible.
“I find Jinyu’s grave quickly. The headstone is tall and the small oak tree that other members of The 815 and I planted at his funeral is a giant now. On the headstone is a poem Yong had written, carved flamboyantly and painted in red, barely legible from heavy weathering. Surrounded by tall grass growing through thick layers of half-rotten leaves that no longer crunch underfoot, the headstone sits dangerously on a base that could collapse in the next storm.
“I place on the base a bouquet of colorful lilies I bought at the flower shop outside my hotel the night before, glad that the flowers are fresh and beautiful. I sit for a while, thinking of Jinyu’s chubby face and his dream of becoming a photographer. I haven’t thought of him for many years. I really didn’t know him well yet I now remember him vividly, as if we had once been close—his smile, our every conversation, even his girlfriend’s face in the photo he had shown me the night he was killed.
“Recalling those days in Chongqing, I walk slowly from one grave to another. Some bear flowers or wreaths but most do not. I keep bumping into tree branches that have grown too low. Several times I almost trip on ivy vines that have invaded the road. It is a warm day yet I feel cold. Constant wind coming from nowhere penetrates my clothes, making me shiver.
“Though I have come here to visit Hao’s grave because I missed his funeral many years ago, I am less eager to see it now, overwhelmed by the quiet and the formidable forest of gravestones. A romantic boy like him must feel lonely in such an abandoned place, I think. I worry about what his grave looks like. Covered by weeds? With a defaced headstone, or with no headstone at all?
“I circle the graveyard twice, not seeing Hao’s name, but I find a headstone with only the bottom half left, bearing the date he died, and the genders of the two buried there—a boy and a girl—and their ages: seventeen and sixteen. The missing part of the headstone must have included the names. One, I suppose, must be Zhang Hao.
“Below it reads, ‘Let’s give our heroes our greatest respect and biggest salute! Let’s carry on their revolutionary spirit and fight our enemies to our last drop of blood!’ A wreath stands against the headstone, a recent placement, maybe as recent as yesterday, because the petals are still fresh, no doubt left by Hao’s or the girl’s families or friends. I put another bundle of lilies next to the wreath. I make a whistle from a blade of grass, holding it between my thumbs. I blow, mimicking the cuckoo’s song as Hao and I loved to do—he had been an excellent bird whistler. The sound is bright and clear. Soon a bird, then two more, reply with the same melody. Eyes closed, I hear Hao’s voice and see us embracing naked in the moonlight.”
I haven’t visited the cemetery myself, and would like to go there someday. I wonder what this cemetery looks like in the moonlight. Will those long-buried but restless souls roam, singularly or in group, pondering the love and loss in their prematurely frozen youth?
A new short stories of mine, “Tickets to Disneyland,” was just published by The Margins, a literary journal of the NYC-based Asian American Writers’s Workshop (AAWW). The magazine is dedicated “to inventing the Asian American creative culture of tomorrow.”
My inspiration for “Tickets to Disneyland” comes from my years working at an Internet powerhouse in the Silicon Valley. It was my first job in the U.S. For quite a few years when I was there, I worked long hours, sometimes from 8am till 9 or 10 in the evening. Like me, many of my coworkers were young, single, hardworking and ambitious. “They wore faded jeans and the tee-shirts bearing the company logo, ” as Yong Chen, the protagonist in the story, a janitor, observes.
Here is a passage about how Yong does his cleaning:
“Yong began to clean the conference room ‘Australia’ at the end of the building. He liked how the company named its conference rooms after countries. It was like being on a global tour free of charge—actually, better, since he was paid to be on the tour. ‘China’ was on the second floor near the kitchen, a big space three times the size of his apartment, with a computer, a whiteboard, and a purple-surfaced round table at which he sometimes sat to take a break. Other rooms were called ‘India,’ ‘Germany,’ ‘Brazil,’ and many other countries, all but ‘United States.’ At first, he was puzzled. Later it made perfect sense—why name a conference room the ‘United States’ when the whole company and all of Silicon Valley were in the United States?”
In my years working at the Internet company, I got to know several janitors by name, and one of them, a bright-eyed and cheerful young man from Mexico, liked to chat with me with his broken English. He told me that he had two daughters back home living with their mother, and said that he’d like to bring them to the U.S. someday. When I was writing “Tickets to Disneyland,” I thought about this man and his daughters back in Mexico.
“Disneyland” is a specific physical location, but, to Yong Chen, is also a symbol of family reunion, and of freedom and establishment. When the economy plummets, his hope evaporates, too. Disneyland is just an unachievable illusion to him.
The tense shifts at the end from the past to the present. It’s a deliberate decision. By doing so, I wanted the reader to see the leap from illusion to reality, and to add more psychological depth to the story.
I completed the first draft of the story three or four years ago, but didn’t think it strong enough to be published. Over the years, I rewrote the story several times, including new endings.
Thanks to my editor Anelise and The Margin for giving the story a beautiful home.