“Don’t write anything bad about China,” says my grandmother. China was too often negatively portrayed in the West, and so I had a special responsibility…
My grandmother is ninety-two and the cherished matriarch of my family, but even before she learned that my novel was set in her homeland, before she knew anything about it other than that I was writing it, calling her had become an ordeal. Her idea of conversation is what most consider interrogation.
“How many pages have you written?”
“When will you get published?”
“Will your book make lots of money?”
“What is it about?”
To most of the world, these questions might seem reasonable. Novelists aren’t reasonable creatures.
We need to live in a state of suspended disbelief, in which our characters breathe, their stories are vital, and we were put on this earth to write them. Those questions kill that dream, and when I first started working on my novel, I’d also started training my family and friends not to ask them. Through a combination of unintelligible mumbling, awkward pauses, abrupt subject changes, and the occasional tantrum, I’d largely succeeded. Only my grandmother remained unflappable.
Deanna Fei's debut novel
Then, about six years ago, I moved from New York to China to research my novel, the story of a family of Chinese American women who reunite for a tour of their ancestral home. My grandmother deduced that China was, in some way, what I was writing about, and she added a new question to her repertoire.
“Are you writing bad things about China?”
I was surprised out of my usual sidestepping. “Why do you ask?”
My grandmother had never volunteered her thoughts on China to me. I knew only the barest outline of her life story. Based on that, she seemed an unlikely defender of mainland China. She seemed, if anything, like one of its victims. Born in a Cantonese village, she’d survived warlord feuds, bandit attacks, and the Japanese occupation to become one of China’s first female journalists. When the Communists seized power, she was one of those denounced as Nationalists, elitists, enemies of the people. Forced to flee with four children, she’d rebuilt her life in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, New York, and finally San Diego. I’d never felt I had the right to ask her about China. I could only imagine, and that imagining was partly what had led me to write my novel.
All my grandmother would say was that China was too often negatively portrayed in the West, and that I had a special responsibility:
“Don’t write anything bad about China.”
After an awkward pause, I mumbled unintelligibly and got off the phone.
It became clearer by the day that, as a Chinese American writer in China, I’d stepped into heavily contested territory. I often heard other writers getting branded as “pro-China” or “anti-China.” I heard countless shouting matches over what defined “the real China”: Communist repression or the new capitalism, the booming cities or the impoverished countryside. And never mind the long-standing impasse between the mainland and Taiwan, with both governments claiming to represent all of China.
Western expats often asked what theses I was advancing about China; Chinese locals often asked whether my loyalties lay with China or America. Many wondered how I could write about China at all, given that I had no claim on being a scholar or a pundit. All of them seemed dubious when I tried to explain that my only agenda was to explore the country through the eyes of my characters, each of whom resisted easy categorization — as did China.
Like many Westerners in China, I had to accept that I was being monitored.
Meanwhile, I was gradually becoming accustomed to a strange clicking on my phone line, parcels failing to arrive, the occasional e-mail vanishing from my inbox. Like many Westerners in China, I had to accept that I was being monitored. I almost wanted to tell the Chinese authorities not to bother.
Because every time I spoke to my grandmother, she’d issue the same decree. Her voice now represented all of the voices questioning my right to depict China at all, preempting my every sentence, shrouding me in so much self-doubt that, many days, I censored myself. I couldn’t write a word.
Deanna Fei is the author of the debut novel, A Thread of Sky (Penguin Press, 2010), a New York Times Editors’ Choice and an Indie Next Notable Book. She was born in Flushing, New York, and has lived in Beijing and Shanghai, China. A graduate of Amherst College and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she has received a Fulbright Grant, a New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship, and a Chinese Cultural Scholarship. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she teaches in public schools and is at work on a new novel. To read her blog, reviews, and more, visit https://deannafei.com.
The story was originally published on The Millions in June 2010.