a conversation with Annie Wang      


Bold Type: Lili is your first novel written in English. How was writing it different from work you had previously published?

Annie Wang: Very different. The reason I chose writing it in English is because I couldn't write the "bad girl" Lili in Chinese. It's interesting that words are always associated with their cultural context. Some attractive concepts become undesirable in Chinese. For example, privacy refers to something that one doesn't want others to know about, something almost evil. Individualism means selfishness. The direct translation of ambition is a wild heart, again a negative expression in China. These negative connotations of words contradicted what I believed, blocking the free flow of my thoughts. Moreover, I wanted to explore subjects like female sexuality and class differences, which were taboo in China. Lili is a disaffected girl who lives a life of violence, sex, betrayal, distrust, self-loathing, shamelessness and cynicism. Her character was too much for the Chinese principle of sobriety and decorum, especially in early 1990s. Furthermore, when I wrote in Chinese, I couldn't free myself from the burden of the adulation and expectations of my previous readers. How to find a way to let the self-consciousness go and make Lili's voice heard? I found English, the language that enables me to enjoy the freedom of creativity, to write without political or self-censorship, and not to worry about cultural land mines. In this brand-new language environment, there are no expectations from my old fans, nor any negative cultural associations or political pressure. The 26 English letters make me a child again, naive, bold, fearless, primal. I could profane, question, and break the stranglehold of traditional Chinese culture. Lili, is the manifesto of my youthful revolt. Writing it in English was indeed my rite of passage. However, the change of language wasn't an easy one. It often brings "confusion" and "uncertainty" as Ha Jin, author of Waiting, said. I am not lucky like some female Chinese authors who have English-speaking husbands to support them or Asian-American authors like Amy Tan whose primary language is English, I wrote Lili with all sorts of dictionaries around me. When I started writing Lili, I was still in China and my English was limited. Sometimes I spent three days or a week just to search for a proper word or try to find the difference between "start" and "begin." It could be very frustrating. At the same time, it's rewarding because my English has improved so much since I started writing the book. In writing Lili, the challenge I face is that my Chinese characters in Lili speak Chinese and I need to translate their conversations into English. Lili and her gangster friends all use slang, whereas Roy, the American journalist, whose first language is English, speaks Chinese more bookishly. However, since the book is written in English, it becomes Lili the Chinese woman and her Chinese friends, but not Roy, who uses vernacular words like buddies, fat cat, busted. It's Roy who sounds bookish. I didn't find the best solution to this dilemma. Writing in a second language was frustrating at first. Yet as it continued, it became an experimental, adventurous, even hilarious experience. Right after I came to the United States, I fell in love with two books: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov and the Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Later I learned neither of my two heroes was a native English speaker. No wonder Ha Jin comments that English has a long tradition of embracing foreign authors. In an on-line interview, my Chinese readers asked me if I would continue to write in Chinese. I think I will. Just like I eat burgers as well as rice, listening to rock and roll as well as meditative Chinese music I live with both Chinese and English.

BT: Did your writing process differ with Lili? How?

AW: Doesn't matter writing in English or in Chinese, my writing process is always the same. I wait to be enlightened and inspired. As I write, I often feel like being directed by some higher being to the unknown. It's adventurous. I am a curious person, totally enjoys this hide-and-seek game.

BT: Lili paints a broad picture of China— from the hustle of cosmopolitan Beijing to the quiet, raw nature of Mongolia, to the peasants' country villages. How much research did this involve?

AW: Yes, I did a lot of research, but mainly first-hand research. I became a student journalist at the age of 14. From then on, every summer and winter vacations, I went to different parts of China to do interviews and write stories. Beijing a journalist really helps a lot. Plus, I have many friends from all walks from life, that really is a blessing for an author.

BT: In your acknowledgements you mention that this book was ten years in the making. How did the novel, and the character of Lili, change over that time?

AW: Not so much change with Lili over the ten years because I always knew that what she should be like. But there were some changes made over time on the character Roy, the American guy. I added more of his idealism after I came to the States and hang out with people in Berkeley. I found a link between their idealism and that of Chinese intellectuals. When Lili's father was young, he must be like Roy too, somewhat idealistic, but those Chinese political movements flattened him, and turned him into a timid man.

BT: How much of this book, characterization, plot, etc, is modeled after events and people from your own life?

AW: The parents are made up by me. My parents aren't like Lili's at all. But the Grandma is modeled after my own. She is a devout Buddhist and very intellectual, and has had many affairs in her life. She is open-minded and Buddhist at the same time.

The trips Lili and Roy took around China and what happened in Tiananmen before the night of the massacre were basically from my own experiences.

BT: You do an excellent job of illustrating both the differences and similarities between Eastern and Western attitudes, approaches to life, ideas on beauty and family.

AW: I was a misfit in China because I was too independent-thinking and opinionated as a girl. Since I was very little, I grew up with an intense feeling of deviation and alienation, sometimes even rejection in my own culture. My voice isn't Chinese. I have a low-pitched voice, but "Chinese girls normally have high-pitched girly voices" according to the music teacher at my elementary school. "Your voice is as thick as that of a Black man!" But in my junior high, I was chosen to be a student anchorwoman for a Beijing youngsters' international broadcasting station because of my "Black man's" voice. "You see, your voice doesn't sound Chinese. It's perfect for speaking English. We'll train you to mimic ABC's anchors to make news announcement in English." Not only my voice, but my laugh is foreign, too. "Your mouth opens too wide, almost from ear to ear. It's not a Chinese laugh. Chinese girls should smile without showing their teeth." A boy from my 8th grade said to me. Besides my voice and my laugh, I also never learned to have good Chinese manners. When I was young, every time I visited other people's homes, if they asked me if I wanted to have tea or candies, I always said yes. I knew a good polite girl should say no. It was the Chinese way: you wanted something, but you still had to say no and wait to be served voluntarily. But I just didn't see any point in these little white lies, so I always spoke my mind. My neighbors often said that I lacked the good traditional manners expected of a Chinese girl. Since my girlhood, my Beijing neighbors often said I was too wild, too direct, too rebellious, too uncouth. They often called me "a girl from the Wild West," referring to my birthplace Xi'an as backward and wild. Compared to those proper, tidy, quiet, docile little "ladies" in my neighborhood and schools, I was like a barefoot primitive, totally lacking in Confucian delicacy and subtlety. It made me constantly feel inferior. I was ashamed of my difference. Being an outcast in the Chinese culture makes me naturally feel closer to Western culture. In early 1980s when most Chinese had never heard of the Swan songs, or the Nutcracker, my father took me and my sisters to see ballet, modern dance by foreign troupes, opera. I was totally fascinated with the bourgeois. I became more familiar with Beatles songs than revolutionary songs. Our idols were James Bond and John Lennon instead of Chinese revolutionary martyrs Dong Cuirui or Lei Feng. I traded newly available translations of On the Road, The Birth of Tragedy, Catcher in the Rye, and The Diary of Anne Frank's, and Michael Jackson and Madonna tapes with my friends. My dream was to get a college degree from a famous American school.

By the time I came to United States, I spent all my time reading philosophy, sociology, anthropology and psychology books by Western authors. Although I become very Westernized in thinking, my mother's influence of Chinese culture is also very strong. She is a devout Buddhist like her mother and sister. She plays very meditative Chinese traditional music and does Chinese painting. She reads me Buddhist script too. Perhaps I felt so passionate writing about similarities and difference between the East and the West in Lili was because I have both cultures in me.

BT: Where were you during the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrations?

AW: I was in Beijing and went to the Square every day.

BT: What else are you working on?

AW: I am working on a novel called "People's Republic of Desire." A comedy of China's nouveau riche, relationships, fashions, city women, cyber love, and the political future as China rushes headlong into modernity and materialism.

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    Photo credit: Steve Dahlgren