Jiuzhaigou Valley, a dream shattered by earthquake

A week ago, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake erupted in Sichuan, where the scenic Jiuzhaigou Natural Reserve is located. 25 people vanished in the earthquake and more than 500 people were injured.

Other than the tragic loss of life, the earthquake also caused widespread damage to the landscape, which used to be famous for its luxuriant forests, colorful lakes, and beautiful waterfalls.

Here are some photos of Jiuzhaigou before the earthquake. jiuzhaigou photos

Here are some before and after shots.  http://news.ifeng.com/a/20170814/51629684_0.shtml#p=1

When I was in China in August, I had planned to visit Jiuzhaigou with my family and parents. I’d been wanting to visit it since I was a child, fascinated by the documentaries and books about it. But in the end, we decided to go to Guilin in Guangxi province instead as my mother, still recovering from her recent hospitalization, didn’t want to travel far. While I was appreciating the mountains and rivers in Guilin and Yangshuo, I somehow was also thinking about Jiuzhaigou, wishing I could visit there as well.

Now, as I’m mourning the tragedy in Jiuzhaigou, I cannot help but imagine what it would be like if we did visit Jiuzhaigou, and if we happened to visit while the earthquake struck……

Now, Jiuzhaigou is gone, and it can take a long long time before it’ll recover if it ever recovers. Nature is vulnerable, so is life.

(Featured image: Longji Terraces, 龙脊梯田,Guangxi Province.)

 

Meet my Mongolian translator, Aanjii

Since its first publication in Australia, my first novel, February Flowers, has been translated into nine languages (I did the Chinese translation myself). Two months ago, I received an email from a Mongolian girl named Altan erdene Sodnomragchaa and she said she was translating the book into Mongolian. She is currently studying Chinese in Taiwan.

Thus my correspondence with Aanjii began. I asked her about the naming culture in Mongolia, and she told me that Mongolians only call strangers by their full names, and they reserve special names for their family and friends. For her, she’s Altka for her family, Aanjii for her friends, Altan for her teachers,  啊薾妲 for her Taiwanese friends, and she has an English name too, Alice. Her Mongolian name means Golden Treasure.

In her letters to me, Aanjii talked about her loving family, her innocent, carefree childhood, where she was allowed to be just a child, and her study in Taiwan. Her family lives in Ulaanbaatar, a modern city where locals have access to movies and books from all over the world.

Ulaanbaatar

She told me that she resonated with Cheng Min, the younger one of the two main heroines in February Flowers, which made her want to introduce the book to the young people in her homeland.

I’ve had only a glimpse of the Mongolian culture through reading and other resources, including watching a BBC program about eagle hunting and training in the Western Altai Mountains in Mongolia. Mongolians seem such people with strength, warmth and a strong spirit.

Unlike February Flowers‘ other translators who have been commissioned by local publishers for their work, Aanjii is going to translate the book first, and then find a publisher in Mongolia. I admire her courage and hope that she’ll get a grant to help her.

Aanjii’s translating “February Flowers” into Mongolian

Aanjii wrote again last week and said that she would love to invite me to Mongolia for a book tour when the Mongolian version of February Flowers is released.

Aanjii, thank you for your hard work, and I so much look forward to seeing you in Mongolia someday. 😀

 

 

 

 

Nostalgia — bittersweet, like your favorite dark chocolates

The SF bay area, where I live, throngs with immigrants and transplants. Once I had dinner with friends, and we realized, with a bit amusement, that the twelve of us were from eleven countries.

So here comes nostalgia for me and many of my friends.

Nostalgia is a blend of memory and imagination. Nostalgia cannot be measured by logic. If it has a taste, it’s bittersweet, like your favorite dark chocolates.

An evening. A little before midnight. You taking a walk, alone, in your hometown which you haven’t visited for many years.

You walk in a mist that has made the city cold and foggy. A bus passes carrying only a few passengers, its wheels splashing through puddles. The air is unusually fresh—a treat, one may say. The thick daytime smoke from the giant chimneys of the chemical factories is temporarily dormant, so are the loud motorcycles and scooters that infest the city like locusts. Without the distraction of noises and crowds you begin to appreciate the low-slung, mustard-brick houses covered by overgrown ivy, wedged between newer condos, the pebble-surfaced alleys without streetlamps, and the thousand-year-old Clouds Pavilion that had been burned down and been rebuilt twenty or more times over the years.

A young night-shift worker in blue uniform is biking towards you, one hand holding an umbrella, the other inside his jacket. When you were a teenager you would ride hands-off, letting the bike snake through narrow, bumpy streets like a drunkard; it was considered cool. After passing you the man rings his bell—a ripple of crystal sounds: maybe a belated hello or merely for fun.

Just like that, your eyes are moist.

Featured image: Zhang Ailing (Eileen Chang), one of my favorite Chinese writers. I’ll write about her in a future post.

 

Happy Mother’s Day!

I didn’t know what being a mother means until I became a mother myself. When my daughter was born prematurely and had to be in the NICU for three weeks, my mother called me from China and told me to take care of myself. “You need to be happy, healthy and strong for your newborn and your family,” she said.

Now I’m a mother of two children. Whenever I feel stressed, frustrated or exhausted, I think of my mother. How she raised five children on a remote state-run farm, where she, as a biologist, had to endure family tragedy, physical labor as well as political persecution. How she made clothes and shoes for my brothers and me after a long day of work, and how she brightened our shabby apartment with beautiful songs on her four-string lute (月琴), which she had played since a young age.

Later my mother returned to the city to be a librarian. In the evenings, when my brothers and I were doing homework, she would teach herself English. “If you keep learning, you will never grow old,” she once said to me. After retirement, she took up Chinese water-and-ink painting (水墨画) and, with passion and devotion, transformed herself into an artist. She still paints several hours every day.

My mother has taught me about industriousness, integrity, perseverance, and most importantly, love. The love of who you are. The love of learning. The love of life. Thank you, Mama.

Happy Mother’s Day!

 

Featured image: “Mom and Me,” Maya Cedergren, 8

Chai Jing (柴静) and her “Seeing” (看见)– China’s Conscience

Several years ago I visited China with my agent Toby Eady, and I had a chance to meet one of the most respected Chinese journalists, Chai Jing. After the meeting, I read her book “Seeing” (看见), a collection of investigative journalism reports and was deeply impressed. Several months later, she wowed me again with her self-financed documentary, “Under the Dome,” which tackles China’s severe environmental problems.

Chai Jing’s Kai Jian (Seeing) has sold well more than one million copies in China since its publication in 2012. It’s a charming blend of personal anecdotes, journalistic reports, social and cultural commentaries, and light philosophical meditation.

Until recent years, Chai had been a celebrity anchor at the Chinese Central Television (CCTV), the predominant state broadcaster in China which Chai first joined in 2001, and had hosted popular news-heavy programs such as “Horizon Connection,” “Journalistic Investigation,” “24 Hours,” and “One on One.” She was famous for her dedication to her subject matters, sharp and outspoken interview techniques, and also her unadorned beauty and gentle smiles. In a way, you can say she was China’s Barbara Walters.

“Seeing” is about people, the author declares in the preface. She says, “I didn’t choose purposely landmark events, nor did I have the ambition to depict the history. From the myriad of the journalistic work I have done, I only chose those about the people who had profoundly impressed me with their vitality.”

You meet these people chapter after chapter, each of the 12 chapters a standalone story. During the 2003 SARS outburst, desperate SARS patients were squeezed into the make-shift treatment areas, cared by unprepared but devoted medical staff, some of whom would later die from this pandemic while performing their duties.

In the story entitled “Shuang Cheng City’s Wounds,” five elementary school students from the same class attempted to committed suicide by taking poison within a week, and one died. Chai’s investigation takes her to meet the survivors and their families and friends to find out what is behind the tragedies.

You meet Yao Jiaxin, a talented college student who stabbed a peasant woman to death after a traffic accident. Also a taciturn German young man who lives in a poor village in Guangxi Province for years to be with liu shou er tong, children left behind by their parents because they have to work in the city to earning the living.

In the book, Chai intertwines her own stories with her news reporting. Through her interviews and investigation, through her traveling all over the country, you see how she has progressed from a promising yet naive college graduate to someone deeply humbled by what she’s heard and seen, someone asking provocative and penetrating questions without fear.

While chronicling her growth, Chai touches many corners of the Chinese lives in the past decade. In this sense, the book is also a journal of what China has gone through in this period, its historical baggage, its economic boom and social changes, and the huge price it often has to pay.

Featured image: me at a 荣宝斋 bookstore in Beijing

The Hen and Her Eggs – About balance, also who you are.

In my recent conversations with other writers, the topic of self marketing and promotion frequently came up. I’m no expert in this area, but I’ve been published long enough to know how important it is for writers to be actively involved in marketing and selling their books even if they are signed by a Big 5 publisher.

There has been gazillions of articles about how writers and artists can embrace social media and establish an effective commutation channel with their followers or potential audience. I’ve read some and found them helpful. On the other hand, I think it’s a mistake for writers to put all their energy into marketing themselves. Your time and energy is limited, and your creativity needs to be nurtured. You’re respected because of your work, not because how well you can promote yourself.

It’s about balance. Also about who you are.

Here is something I wrote for Ploughshares years ago entitled “The Hen and Her Eggs.” Though the digital space is increasingly crowded in the past several years,  this piece is still very much relevant.


Ploughshares magazine

The Hen and Her Eggs 

An acquaintance recently e-mailed me to announce her upcoming book launch party, to be held in an expensive restaurant, with free food and drinks and a near-celebrity’s attendance. Each guest will pay a small entrance fee and receive a signed copy of the book. Other than the e-mail announcement, this acquaintance has promoted her book diligently through Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites, has blogged about the book, and distributed newsletters. For a while, her e-mails flooded my inbox. As far as I know, she’s contacted many media for possible interviews, features, or reviews.

Several writers I know have invested much time and effort in marketing their books. Other than social media presences, traditional bookstores and library readings, they arranged book signings in the homes of friends and relatives, mailed postcards and bookmarks featuring their books, and offered their books as prizes at parties.

When my first book came out, a colleague at the company I worked for, a former Hollywood PR consultant, said I should wear a funky hat or sunglasses at signings to give people a strong first impression. “It’s not about the book, but about getting the buzz going for you,” she said. (Luckily or unluckily, I didn’t follow her advice.) Her words reminded me of the late Chinese poet, Gu Cheng, who often wore a leg cut from a pair of jeans as a hat. I don’t think Gu wore the hat to get attention; it was probably just because he was eccentric (he later killed himself and his wife in New Zealand). I also thought of Dali’s flamboyant moustache and Truman Capote’s seductive photo on the dustjacket of Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948).

Writers today are expected to promote their own books whether working with a big or small publisher, but how much self-promotion is enough? After all, you’re a writer, not a salesperson. Of course, you’d be foolish to think you can sell your book without publicity. Qian Zhongshu (1910-1998), a recluse and a favorite writer of mine, once said that it is unnecessary for one to meet the hen if one loves the eggs she lays. It’s only half true: The hen must first tell people that the eggs are available.

Little- or lesser-known writers need publicity. So do well-known writers. It matters if your book sells or not and it’s certainly important for you to talk about it and to hear feedback–not to mention the satisfaction of contributing to world literature and inspiring others. In his 1992 interview with The Washington Post, novelist Don Delillo said, “I’ve been called ‘reclusive’ a hundred times and I’m not even remotely in that category. But people want to believe this because it satisfies some romantic conception of what a dedicated writer is and how he ought to live. ‘I know you never do interviews.’ They say that to me all the time. ‘But here I am’ is my stock reply.”

Ideally, your publisher or publicist will arrange all the nice events for you. Ideally, Michiko Kakutani will eagerly write you a stellar review. And Ideally, Oprah’s Book Club will welcome you as their latest favorite. But in reality, you probably have to do a lot yourself to market your book. So is there a limit to self-promotion? I guess not. Do what you feel comfortable with. If you are like Capote, enjoy parties and talk shows (but don’t forget that he maintained a rigid writing schedule most of his life); if you are like William Trevor, you probably prefer gardening and afternoon tea to a reading at Shakespeare and Company. It’s your judgment. If your book sells because of your hard work in self-promotion, give yourself a big congratulation.

(Featured image: a noodle restaurant in a Beijing 胡同hutong.)

Pure and intense – an insightful review on FEBRUARY FLOWERS

A friend shared with me a review on FEBRUARY FLOWERS by an Amazon reader named “Pacific Wave.” I was impressed by it as it describes exactly what was going through my mind when I was writing the book.

Here is Pacific Wave’s review. I hope he or she doesn’t mind my including it here.

‘Set in a quiet university in the early 90s when China was in the midst of transitioning from communism to “capitalism” and reopening itself to the world, “February Flowers” is a poem about our youth, our innocence, our wonder to the world, our budding yearning to romance. Somewhere sometime in our lives, we all might have been drawn to something beautiful, pure, intense, romantic, just like the February flowers, nothing really to do with anything physical, beyond intimacy, gender, convention, social boundaries; and only have lost it in the reality forced on us, maybe alone in a raining February night, suddenly the memories rushing back, nostalgia, melancholy.’

Yes, my memories did rush back, with nostalgia, with melancholy, one evening after I’d had a long work day at Yahoo!. It was 2002, the year when I began to write.

FEBRUARY FLOWERS is my first attempt at fiction of any kind. It was supposedly to be a short story, a start for me to learn how to write fiction, and how to write creatively in English. I had no idea when I started that it would expand into a novel, and eventually found its way to publication.

Pure and intense, that’s what FEBRUARY FLOWERS is.

(Featured image: these brilliant flowers caught my attention when I was passing by an antique store on my way to beach in Santa Cruz.)

Slow down…and read a book

Heard about Slow Television in Norway? Basically it features hours and hours of train rides, knitting, fishing, etc. The first broadcast debuted in 2009 and was a 7.5-hour train ride from Bergen to Oslo. The train just went on and on. In the knitting show, a group of people discussed knitting for hours then knitted for 7.5 hours. These slow shows are wildly popular in their home country, and some of them became available on Netflix last year.

I haven’t watched any of these shows yet, but I totally understand why people like them. In today’s fast-paced digital era, aren’t we all overwhelmed with information and our digital lives and we long for “slowing down” and returning to “real life”?

Though I like the concept of slow TV shows, I have to admit that I have no desire to watch one. But I would certainly want to read more books.  Before I became a mother, I used to read 2-3 books a week, but now it’s more like 2-3 a month.

Time is a key factor here, of course, but age may have played a role too. I find myself getting pickier and more impatient nowadays when I choose what to read. In the past several months, I abandoned several books, all with rave reviews, before I was even one third through them, deciding that I had given them a fair chance and enough time had been wasted.

Another change in my reading behavior is that if I love a book, I would reread it, at lease a good potion of it, over and again. Sometimes, I would reread a book two or three times within the same month, savoring my favorite pages as if an addict on drugs. ( It’s like I’m watching a variation of “slow TV.” )

Such books are rare. But in the past several months, I did score twice. John Williams “Stoner” and Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front.” I’ve read Stoners three times, and am about to reread Remarque’s masterpiece as I cannot seem to let it go off my mind.

Here are two brief passages from the above mentioned books. The first one one of the most insightful interpretations of love I have read. The second one…it simply makes you want to cry. Sad yet grateful tears.

“In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.”

– “Stoner” by John Williams

“We sit opposite one another, Kat and I, two soldiers in shabby coats, cooking a goose in the middle of the night. We don’t talk much, but I believe we have a more complete communion with one another than even lovers have.

We are two men, two minute sparks of life; outside is the night and the circle of death. We sit on the edge of it crouching in danger, the grease drips from our hands, in our hearts we are close to one another, and the hour is like the room: flecked over with the lights and shadows of our feelings cast by a quiet fire. What does he know of me or I of him? Formerly we should not have had a single thought in common — now we sit with a goose between us and feel in unison, are so intimate that we do not even speak.”

– “All Quiet on The Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque

If you don’t find the excerpts impressive, then you’ll have to get these two books and read them from cover to cover. Believe me, you won’t be disappointed.

(Featured image: morning exercise in a park in my hometown, Nanchang. The second woman from left on the first row is my mother, who’s a better writer than I am, but has decided not to write.) 

 

 

 

Repetition – The Holy Grail of persuasive selling

I’ve been working on a nonfiction book (not a memoir) for a while. When it comes to submission, nonfiction works differently from fiction. For fiction, agents and publishers typically want to see the full manuscript before they make a decision about it. But for nonfiction, a proposal with a summary, chapter outlines and a sample chapter sometimes can land you a deal.

Usually I read more fiction than nonfiction, but because of this nonfiction project I’m working on, I read more nonfiction these days, if only to be inspired in my new endeavor. After reading several bestsellers, I’ve found a pattern, which is that they’re very repetitive in making a point. They say something on, say, page 11, then on page 13, they remind you of what they’ve said on page 11, and on page 15, the end of the chapter, they say something to the effect of “I hope you remember that on page 11 and page 13 I’ve said something similar.”

To some readers, maybe it’s nice to be reminded again and again, but to me, I just want to skip pages and even put down the book.

After talking to a writer friend I realized that this repetitive style has its roots in rhetoric and is considered the Holy Grail of presentation training and persuasive selling.

When it comes to winning an audience, supposedly, Aristotle, or Dale Carnegie, or Winston Churchill has said, “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.”

Considering that our attention span, thanks to all the portable devices, is now less than that of a goldfish, considering that the average person spends five hours/day surfing the web and using apps, I guess what I deem as unnecessary repetition is not all that annoying to some people after all.

I have to admit that I even welcomed such “memory reinforcement” from time to time. Life is busy, work, kids, house chores, friends, endless errands…..and all the worries and anxieties caused by President Trump. The last time I had the luxury of finishing a book at one setting (or maybe two settings) was probably before I had become a mother.

So, dear authors, please do remind me in Chapter 2 what you’ve said in Chapter 1.

(Featured image: I took the photo several years ago when I visited the Beijing 798 Art Zone, a landmark of urban art and culture in Beijing. It reminds me of when I was little, slurping the soup noodles my grandma made for me.) 

‘Know’ or ‘Don’t Know’

Here is another blog post I wrote for Ploughshares years ago, which is still a hot topic that writers debate about. I’m currently working on a new novel set in the present-day San Francisco Bay Area, about three women at crossroads in life. There’s a lot I don’t know about these women, yet I feel I’m growing with them and learning about them every day. One of them just made a decision that surprised me. This morning I found myself awake around 5am thinking about it.
——————————————————
Ploughshares magazine I once overheard a discussion between two MFA students. I was at a café in Palo Alto–near Stanford–and they were sitting at a nearby table.
One said the best writing advice he’d gotten was to “write what you know.” He said that having lived through the events and known the people and locations would allow one to write with authority and credibility. He used the examples of writing by Hemingway and V.S. Naipaul to back his claim.
The other disagreed, embracing “write what you don’t know” as the ultimate writing rule, because, he said, “That’s how you can let your imagination fly, let your subconscious and unconscious take charge.” The examples he gave were the more imaginative works of Haruki Murakami and Cormac McCarthy.
I don’t have an MFA, but I assume this kind of debate happens frequently in those classrooms.
I don’t see these two rules as contradictory. The difference between ‘what you know’ or ‘what you don’t know’ shouldn’t be about specific plot, setting or characters; it should be about understanding life and the human condition. In that sense, if you write ‘what you don’t know,’ your writing will likely be false and evasive.


I recently read two books: The Things We Carried by Tim O’Brien and Dangerous Laughter: Thirteen Storiesby Steven Millhauser. They could not be more different in theme, style, setting, or characterization–but they are equally powerful and thought-provoking.

The power of The Things We Carried has a lot to do with the author’s first-hand experience and knowledge of the Vietnam War, but has even more to do with his profound grasp of the human heart and emotions: love, longing, fear, grief, terror, sympathy, compassion, etc.
Dangerous Laughter is allegorical, surreal, and labyrinthine–like a strange dream where you cannot see anyone’s face clearly. But the book’s fantastic element is firmly rooted in reality, in Millhauser’s acute observation of history and human civilization.
When Raymond Carver talked about his own writing with the French journalist Claude Grimal, he said, “Yes, there’s a little autobiography and, I hope, a lot of imagination.” I believe his ‘imagination’ doesn’t equate to ‘what you don’t know,’ but to mean to transcend the constraints of the writer’s own life, helped by deep comprehension of human emotions and behaviors.
(Feature image: I saw this flower outside Prison Street Pizza, Lahaina, HI.)