Beijing-based author, Lijia Zhang has a forthcoming book, Lotus, which if you, like us, have read her autobiography Socialism Is Great! should be aniticipating with great excitement. Her first book tells the story of her tumultuous journey from disillusioned factory worker to organizer in support of the Tiananmen Square demonstrators, to eventually becoming a writer and a journalist. Her second book, a fictional story set in the very real and alive world of prostitution in Shenzen, will be published this month.
In the spirit of her new book, Lijia will be having a talk at the Bookworm in the near future. Stay tuned for news on the talk, in the meantime Bookworm manager Olivia conducted an interview with the author in which they discuss the story behind Lotus, and its unique subject matter.
- Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your career? What first inspired you to write and share your stories?
Well, I am a rocket-factory-girl-turned writer (gather you don’t meet one of those every day!) I was dragged out of school at 16 and worked at a rocket factory in Nanjing for ten years. As an escape route, I taught myself English, which effectively changed my life. In some ways, learning English furthered my interest in writing. After leaving the factory, I pursued a career in journalism. Co-authoring a history whetted my appetite for book-writing. I went on to pen my autobiography “Socialism Is Great”, which did surprisingly well.
Why did I launch a fiction project? I’ve always thought that fiction is the finer form of literacy. So I decided to give it a try.
Now why did I pick this rather unusual topic? It was inspired by a deathbed revelation that my grandma was a prostitute in her youth. And I think prostitution touches upon some serious social issues such as the urban rural divide and the growing gender inequality between men and women, and the tug of war between tradition and modernity.Also I think that a brothel is a good stage for a novel because moral dilemma often lies at the heart of a human drama.
- Did you find that the writing process for your memoir, Socialism is great!, differed with your approach to writing Lotus?
I found writing the memoir much harder. In memoir writing, I didn’t have to worry about the plot line: the structure was based on a truthful story. In fiction, you have the freedom to create anything you like. I found that freedom extremely intimidating, even though it was also exhilarating.
Another challenge was the literary style, something I battled with in the earlier drafts of the novel. Coming from a journalist background, the writing was too journalistic with too much explaining, which didn’t quite work in a literary fiction. The fiction writers have to learn to let the story itself to make the subtle point.
- Your writing provides the reader with a true insight into some of China’s challenging social issues. Was this always your goal? Why is it important to offer these insights?
In an essay entitled Why I Write, George Orwell gave four reasons: sheer egoism; aesthetic enthusiasm; historical impulse and political purpose. I would say that these four reasons apply to my case as well. I wanted to produce a literary fiction and I’d like to tell western readers what’s happening in China. It’s important to reflect the reality of modern China. For example, many people outside China know China’s rise and its economic miracle but few understand the human cost of this miracle.
- You dedicate Lotus to your maternal grandmother who was a ‘flower girl’ in the 1930s. Was it her own experiences that inspired you to write Lotus and therefore give a voice to the many women who suffered during this era?
Yes, my grandma inspired me to write Lotus. Ever since I learnt the long-kept family secret, I’ve been wondering how she had coped with her life in her brothel and what kept her going. I do believe that being a devout Buddhist helped my grandma a great deal. It’s a little wonder that the main character in Lotus is a prostitute devoted to Buddha!
Sex workers are the most valuable group of people in the society. In writing this book, I do hope to give voice to this group of women who have no voice. The authorities always look at them through the lens of crime and they are generally stigmatized by the public. Yet, the treatment of those struggling in the bottom of the society offers the real insight of a society.
- Lotus is already receiving amazing reviews for its expert pacing and description. Do you have any plans for future novels or other projects?
The novel took me 12 years to write. As admitted, I find book-length fiction perhaps too challenging for me. I am trying to write short stories, something I had first tried my hand years ago when I was still working at the missile factory. In several stories, I made use some of the material/writings chopped off from the novel!
I’ve started my next book project, a literary non-fiction on China’s left-behind children. The sheer number of them – more than 61 million of them – is just mind-blowing. I think it is a very important story to tell. In a sense, China’s future depends on how well this generation of left-behind children will prosper.