The Making of a First Novel: An Interview with Lijia Zhang

By Mengfei Chen

In 2008, Lijia Zhang published a memoir that dealt with her childhood, her experiences working in a missile factory, and her participation in marches that took place in Nanjing in the spring of 1989, while protesters in Beijing were occupying Tiananmen Square.  Titled “Socialism is Great!”: A Worker’s Memoir of the New China, it garnered strong reviews and earned the author invitations to speak at literary festivals and other events around the world.  Since then, Zhang has regularly published commentaries on cultural and political events.  Then, earlier this month, she published Lotus: A Novel, her first extended work of fiction.  Mengfei Chen, co-editor of this blog, recently caught up with Zhang by email to ask her questions relating to her new novel.

MENGFEI CHEN: The book jacket blurb says the book is inspired by your grandmother’s secret life. What’s the story here? 

LIJIA ZHANG: Exactly 20 years ago, in front of my grandma’s deathbed, I learnt the long-kept family secret: grandma was a courtesan in her youth. My mother then explained her story. Grandma was orphaned at a young age and was then adopted by her aunt’s family. When she blossomed into a beautiful young woman, the uncle sold her to a brothel. She met my grandpa, a small time salt trader, on the job and became his concubine. Ever since this revelation, I became fascinated with prostitution.

This is your first novel. What has been the difference for you between writing your previous book, a non-fiction memoir and Lotus?

In writing my memoir, I had real life events to work on; in fiction writing, I found the vast freedom in creating a make-believe world extremely intimidating.

The novel is written in English, which is your second language. I am in awe of this achievement. Would you talk about the challenges and rewards of writing in a second language? Do you write in Chinese?

Perhaps I should explain why I chose to write in English. A little more than 20 years ago when I was living in Oxford, upon the invitation of a Chinese publisher, I wrote a book exploring the western image of Chairman Mao [in Chinese]. But the book failed to pass the censorship. I then made a point to write in English so that I could express myself freely.

Interestingly, writing in English frees me literally as well. It frees me from any inhibition I may have: if I had written the novel in Chinese, I am sure the sex scene would be less explicit. Without the constraints, I can also be bold as I experiment with the language. Because English is not my native tongue, I use different words and I structure my sentences differently, consciously and unconsciously. Of course, my experiment doesn’t always work. But I enjoy the adventure.

The challenges are obvious. After diligently studying English for 30 years, I have yet to command the language completely. I write slowly, too slowly, in fact; I don’t understand the subtle meanings of certain words; and I am still confused by the use of the definite and indefinite article!

I find the relationship between the writer and the chosen language fascinating. I speak Chinese with a slight Nanjing accent. [NB: In many parts of China, this accent is viewed as a fairly déclassé one, definitely inferior to that of Beijing, where Zhang has long been based.] When speaking English, I’ve tried to cultivate a refined accent. [NB: She speaks English with what Americans might describe as a BBC accent.] Maybe there’s another reason that I went for English — it makes me feel more sophisticated than I actually am. I probably have not gotten rid of a sense of inferiority because of my worker’s background!

In addition to a romance and coming-of-age story, readers will be given insights to a full range of Chinese social issues, including corruption, taxation, educational inequities, rural to urban migration among others.  How did you balance the desire and need to include explanatory information about China for readers who might not necessarily know very much about the country with the narrative and characters?

From the very beginning, I intended to use prostitution as an interesting window to observe the social tensions brought by the reforms and opening up. So I had to provide context to western readers who probably don’t know a great deal about China. In the earlier drafts, I often dumped too much information to a degree that it slowed the narrative drive. Also in earlier drafts, my writing in such parts tended to be journalistic. I cut back some background information – if a reader really wants to know more about certain aspect, he/she can easily Google it. I then sprinkled the necessary information and delivered it in a less journalistic way.

What kind of research did you do to prepare for the book? What was the most surprising thing you learned?

I interviewed many sex workers in Shenzhen and other parts of China, but knowing the outline of their lives was far from enough. So I worked as a volunteer for an NGO for sex workers in a northern city. In this way, I got to know some of them really well. It was an invaluable experience.

I read a short story entitled Yueyaer by the renowned Chinese writer Lao She, which tells a story of a prostitute in China’s 1930s. Her life is completely and utterly miserable. In reality, the profession has its ups and downs, like any job. Sure, it’s a tough life. But the working girls often enjoyed the company of their fellow workers, though there was jealousy among them, naturally. As they waited around for clients, they chatted and joked and cracked mellow seeds. Some said they had sexual pleasure they didn’t have with their husbands.

I was also struck by some girls’ burning desire for true love. Quite a few girls I know wasted their hard-earned money in keeping boyfriends. Perhaps after faking intimacy with clients all day long, they longed for true affection. Another interesting fact about the working girls in China is that almost all of them support their families financially.

In writing about sex workers, did you have concerns about the potential for coming off as exploitative or voyeuristic? I found that Bing, the male love interest and a photographer documenting the lives of sex workers including Lotus, treads and sometimes steps over this line. 

I didn’t have concerns about the potential for coming off as exploitative because I am sympathetic to the girls. Besides it is a novel after all. Voyeuristic, yes! As you rightly pointed out, Bing does step over this line. In the end of chapter 2, we see his male artist voyeuristic pleasure. In fact, in one earlier draft, he is even more voyeuristic. I held it back there, worrying that it may put the readers off. I did hint that his photographic project is also to feed his own sexual fantasy.

Writing sex scenes is notoriously difficult. Bad sex writing has its own annual awardJohn Updike was a winner. What do you think makes for good writing about sex? 

For me, a good sex scene is something both emotionally charged and juicy. Bloody hard [to write]. Generally speaking, it should be a physical and emotional description that enhances the readers’ understanding of the characters.

I won’t spoil this for readers, but I think many readers will find the ending of the book surprising. What made you choose this outcome for Lotus? (Note: Would love to hear your thoughts on feminism and sex work!)

I don’t want to portray Lotus as a weak submissive heroine often seen in romance novels. In fact, she is a much stronger character than the male lead. (By the way, the way Hu sees her is also different from what Lotus really is.) I set out the ending – an uplifting one with a feminist twist – before I worked out how to get there. For me, the book is about a young woman’s journey in finding herself.

What are you reading? Are there any books, films or other recommendations for readers of your book?

I am reading Street of Eternal Happiness by Rob Schmitz. I’ve started a new book project, a narrative non-fiction on China’s left behind children. So I am reading or re-reading outstanding literary non-fiction books on China, such as Wish Lantern by Alec Ash and Factory Girls by Leslie Chang.  Lotus is a prostitute with faith in Buddhism. I’d highly recommend Ian Johnson’s forthcoming book on religion called The Souls of China.

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