Every novelist must tune out certain voices in order to write: withering critiques from weary instructors, rejection letters from unmoved editors, eager inquiries from airplane seatmates about how one compares to Dan Brown or Stephenie Meyer. For me, during the writing of my first novel, my grandmother’s voice was the loudest. It came to represent hundreds of voices questioning my identity, my agenda, my right to say anything at all about the country where my story took place: that oft-analyzed land of my ancestors, China. 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. 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. I was aware that certain images of China—foot-binding, famine, abandoned baby girls, tanks in Tienanmen Square—seem to lodge in the Western imagination and crowd out much that is new and nuanced. And I was aware that Chinese censorship is real and crushing. But I’d never expected it to manifest itself in the voice of my own grandmother—who, if she chose, could certainly tell her own negative tales about China. 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. Meanwhile, I was gradually becoming accustomed to a strange clicking on my phone line, parcels failing to arrive, the occasional email 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. In order to write, I needed to tune her out. I needed to remind myself that it’s the duty of novelists to write past polemics, to show complexity and humanity everywhere we look. That the crucial voices were those of my characters: six strong-willed women struggling to reconnect with one another while exploring China through the lens of their histories and personalities, their conflicts and secrets—the way any of us view any country we travel. My novel was about the landscapes of their lives as much as it was about China, and as my characters guided me, chapter after chapter began falling into place. Then, to my surprise, I found myself calling up my grandmother’s voice. At the heart of my characters’ journey, at crucial moments, I realized I needed to tune her in. Not her words, but the feeling behind them. My grandmother spoke not as a mouthpiece of the People’s Republic of China, but as someone who carried some essence of her homeland in her bones. And while China was a vast, ever-shifting, and, to some degree, foreign entity to my characters, it also spoke to something within, to a deep sense of what it means to be Chinese, even in exile, even American-born—a sense that is sometimes contradictory and often charged, a sense that transcends regime changes, geographical borders, and generations. This was the sense that each of my characters was, in her own way, discovering—as was I, along with them—and my grandmother’s voice helped illuminate the path. And so I navigated the three years I researched and wrote my book in China and the next three years of revising and publishing it, all while managing to call my grandmother every Chinese New Year, every Mother’s Day, every occasion when I would’ve been wracked with guilt if I didn’t, even if it was just to face the same interrogation followed by the same admonition. This seemed, in my mind, to constitute some kind of treaty. Then, a few days before my book launch, my grandmother flew into town. She hadn’t said that she was coming for my book launch, only that she would be present at it. I took this to mean that the purpose of her visit was not support, but supervision. When we spoke on the phone, she sounded benevolent, like a prison guard offering a cigarette on the eve of an execution. She said that she was eager to see me and that the book cover was pretty. “I won't be able to read your book. The English is too difficult," she said. "So tell me the conclusion." “What do you mean?” “What did you conclude? What is the outcome?” I feigned a sudden inability to speak Chinese and got off the phone. In a panic, I scanned the excerpt I’d selected for my first reading. It described ragged beggars and worldly entrepreneurs and earnest students, a sandstorm and drifting catkins and starless nights, desperate peasants and gleeful swindlers, the click-clacking of mahjong tiles in a teahouse and the serpentine stretch of the Great Wall, elderly calligraphists in Tiantan Park and young prostitutes in a karaoke club. I imagined my grandmother jumping up in the middle of my reading with a pointed finger to denounce me: "You wrote bad things about China!" On the night of my launch, I arrived at the bookstore and heard a familiar voice calling my name. My grandmother sat across the street, waving. I waved back and ducked inside, where I hid in the stockroom until I was called to the microphone. The familiar faces melded into a hushed audience. I opened my book and began reading. All I could hear was my own voice, and through it, the voices of my characters, and through them, the infinite complexity of China. When I finished, there was clapping and congratulating and a long line of smiling people bearing copies of my book for me to sign. My grandmother stepped out of the crowd. For a moment, for the first time in my life, she seemed speechless. At last, she said she hadn't understood much, but she knew I’d done well, and she was very proud. We hugged. I basked. She pulled back. “What are you writing next?” she asked.
When I first moved to China to research and write my first novel, I never knew what to say when people asked how I was doing. The truth seemed weak and unwriterly: I was lonely and I wanted to go home. Instead, I’d ramble about the strangeness of being Chinese American in China, the shocking intensity of Shanghai crowds even to a New Yorker, the absence of family, friends, schoolmates, colleagues. Once, I was rambling in this manner to a new acquaintance, a Shanghai native, when he shrugged and said, “You’re a linglei”—literally translated, a different species. It was a matter-of-fact statement, one that seemed, in two syllables, to sum up my existence. Four years before, I’d moved to Beijing for a year of postgraduate study with some notions of mastering my mother tongue and reclaiming my heritage. I hadn’t expected to feel at home, but I hadn’t anticipated feeling quite so alien. Like most Asian Americans, I’d always been asked the question, “Where are you from?” with the expected answer being China, or someplace equally foreign. Now, this question was asked even more relentlessly of me by Chinese people in China, but the answer never satisfied them. But you don’t look American, they might say—or, You don’t sound Chinese. They’d assure me that I wasn’t really American, even as their suspicious expressions made clear that I certainly wasn’t really Chinese. At the end of the year, I joined my mother, my sisters, my aunt, and my grandmother for a tour of the mainland: Six strong, complicated women, with very different ideas about what China meant to us, if it meant anything at all, herded together for two weeks on a guided package tour. We had a few moments of sudden connection and transporting wonder, but overall, the trip was frustrating and tense. When it ended, I was relieved to leave China. I thought I’d never return. Four years later, I hadn’t stopped thinking about that tour. It seemed a perfect window into my entire China experience. I scribbled a few notes and soon I was writing a novel, one that gave equal voice to all six women on the tour, one that took those very paradoxes and frustrations as its premise and then went further than I’d ever gone in shedding light on the vast complexity of China itself, of what it means to be Chinese American, of the very concept of returning to one’s roots. Facing my last months as an MFA student and short of options, I applied for a Fulbright Grant to research and write my novel in China. When I learned I’d received a grant, I was thrown. I didn’t want to go back to China, but my novel had taken hold over me, and I knew that immersing myself in its setting might be the only way I could write it. All through my post-MFA summer, which I spent back home in Queens waitressing at a sports bar, partying with high school friends, and hardly writing a word, I dreaded my departure. In previous years, I’d moved without hesitation to Auckland and Iowa, but on the day of my flight back to China, I turned from the security checkpoint and implored my bewildered parents to let me stay. This time, I landed in Shanghai without an academic program, a workplace, a residence, or an acquaintance. There were a few other Fulbrighters scattered throughout the city, but their research projects, on such topics as public health and urban planning, seemed utterly pragmatic and clear-cut compared to mine. Without a thesis, I didn’t feel like I had much to contribute to the conversation. I moved into a studio apartment in a traditional alley where my neighbors’ vigilance in watching me seemed matched only their vigilance in not speaking to me. The locals I met seemed less interested in getting acquainted than in handing out their business cards—according to which, no one ranked below Managing Director. Amid this modern Chinese version of capitalism, with its frenzied self-invention and incessant deal-making, my pursuit seemed inexplicable. Some people demanded to know how much money I would earn off my book. Others wondered why anyone in America would care to read about my characters. A few had heard of Fulbright—and concluded that I must be a spy. I was, at first, relieved to join the booming scene of Western expats, only to realize that, when I was among them, I was often assumed by locals to be a tour guide, a hanger-on, or a hooker. I found a circle of Chinese Americans, but they were also entrepreneurial types, incredulous that anyone would pay me simply to research and write a novel, a novel that might never get published, a novel I couldn’t satisfactorily sum up. For as long as I’d been writing, I’d fervently believed in never explaining what I was writing about. But I no longer knew how else to introduce myself, how else to justify my presence. When people asked, I would mumble lame descriptions of my novel—which was barely seeming existent—until they mercifully changed the subject. Once, I met a friend of a friend who wouldn’t stop asking not only what my book was about, but what overarching argument it would make about China. I politely declined to answer. He insisted that he really wanted to know, that he wasn’t just a business guy, that he had a soul, that he listened to jazz. (He was extremely drunk.) At last, I tried to articulate that novels generally don’t come to life that way. This friend of a friend declared that I was “the most pretentious person in Shanghai.” The worst part was, my novel wasn’t coming to life. I’d learned self-discipline in grad school, to structure my life around my work, but most days, I was too busy trying to escape my isolation. I’d spend my writing hours checking email, waiting for phone calls, chatting online with family and friends in the States, feeling justified by the half-day time difference. By the time I turned back to my novel, I’d feel too sorry for myself to muster much emotion for my characters. I’d type sentences without conviction until it was time to go out and meet people again. When that new acquaintance called me a linglei, he didn’t intend to address any of this. All he meant to assert—in the same self-assured manner that many Chinese people will state that, say, every American lives in luxury, or that Tibetans are uncivilized, or that someone is fat (to that person’s face)—was that I was a creative type. In the last few years, the term linglei has come to connote a rebel/slacker lifestyle, a tattooed and long-haired alternative to both the rampant materialism of the new China and the regimented grimness of the Mao decades, but its original meaning refers simply to those who live a life in the arts: By definition, we don’t fit in. Writing is lonely work—not only, of course, as a Chinese American in China. To feel at home is to risk complacency, to tend toward generalization and away from what is there. Marilynne Robinson, a former teacher of mine, talks of both “alienating the familiar” and “reimagining the familiar into the exotic” simply in order to perceive reality. It’s our duty as writers to challenge ourselves on every image, on every word. It’s our duty to sit alone at our desks describing, as James Baldwin said, “things which other people are too busy to describe.” It’s our duty to discover everything for ourselves. Of course I didn’t feel at home: That was the point. That was the premise of my novel; that was the predicament of my characters; that was the reason I’d returned. My time in China was supposed to be about those six women in my novel, not about me. And as I began to fully attend to them—immersing myself in their passions and their weaknesses, their secrets and their regrets, their hopes and their histories—they became more real than anyone around me. Not only did they take on lives of their own, completely apart from their real-life counterparts, but they gradually assumed central place in my existence. I stopped seeking a sense of belonging. I stopped mumbling about my novel. I was too busy writing. Touring the cities on my characters’ itinerary, I viewed the sights through their eyes, experienced the atmosphere of each setting through their moods, filtered the lore of each landmark through their personalities. Even my daily life in Shanghai became my daily inspiration, whether I was riding the bus, ordering breakfast, hanging my laundry out on bamboo poles, going to a gallery opening. Back at my desk, I wasn’t sitting alone in my studio apartment; I was, by turns, recently widowed, suddenly betrayed, turning eighty, struggling with bulimia, reliving a long-ago war, facing an unwanted pregnancy, hiking the Great Wall, having sex for the first time, and pursuing an old and doomed flame. When my grant expired, I applied for an extension, and when that expired, I chose to stay for another two years. My new friends, the city of Shanghai, and China itself simply were what they were: my surroundings for a time. My characters had become my constant companions, and my writing had become my home. Now, almost seven years after I landed in Shanghai, my novel has just been published. I know I’m supposed to celebrate, but the truth is that in letting go of it, I feel lost, even more lost than I felt in those first days in Shanghai. My primary consolation is that I’ve started writing a new novel. I’m still learning my way around, still learning the people who live there, but I’m all in. That, I’ve come to see, is the only way to write. Each story is where we live, unconditionally, as if for good—even knowing that, eventually, we’ll pack up and start again.