Oct/Nov 2008  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Xujun Eberlein

Interview by Donna George Storey

Wei Dong's hands sweat cold, moistening the steering wheel. The killing, all of it, was done in the name of God, or one revered as God, for whom his blood once boiled. It's frightening to relate those feverish fanatics to his remote self of thirty-three years ago. What was heroic, just, and glorious then, is ignorant, criminal, and shameful now. It seems only those who survive the waste can understand, dooming new generations to repeat it in different places, for different causes.

He still is unsure if he killed anyone in those "armed fights" in Chongqing, though he knew he had opened fire in battles. "Bullets don't grow eyes," his father often had said.

Xujun Eberlein grew up in Chongqing, China, during the Cultural Revolution and moved to the United States in the summer of 1988. After receiving a Ph.D. from MIT in the spring of 1995 and winning an award for her dissertation, she joined a small but ambitious high tech company. On Thanksgiving 2003, she gave up tech for writing. Her stories and personal essays have been published in the United States, Canada, England, Kenya, and Hong Kong, in magazines such as AGNI, Walrus, PRISM International, StoryQuarterly, Stand and Kwani. Her debut story collection Apologies Forthcoming won the 2007 Tartt Fiction Award and was published in May 2008.

Donna George Storey interviews Xujun about her new short story collection, the Cultural Revolution, and the challenge of writing across cultures.


DGS     The first work of fiction I read about the Cultural Revolution was back in my grad school days—Wang Anyi's A Lapse of Time. This author wrote from the perspective of a privileged member of the generation who had already reached young adulthood in 1968. Thus, this ten-year period was like a long night of insanity sandwiched between two periods of "normal" life. Some of your older characters have similar experiences, like the father in "Men Don't Apologize." But many of the protagonists in Apologies Forthcoming were children and thus barely remembered any different life. Later they have to struggle with the death of the ideals they were taught. One narrator asks herself, "Which is better: to have a false belief and be content or to break the false belief and feel empty?" Do you have an answer to her question?

XE     I'm so glad to hear that you've read Wang Anyi! She is one of the best. I have been reading her novels and stories since college. You can get a particularly refined and exquisite picture of life in Shanghai from her writing. More importantly, you can avoid the problems of reading agenda-filled literature on China originally published in the US. She is also one of the few apolitical and realistic writers in today's China.

And you asked a very good question. It is interesting that the line you quoted from my book is one most often noticed. It has come up frequently in interviews and conversation. This seems to indicate that this particular dilemma, though presented by a Chinese character, reflects a human commonality across cultures. I have to say I don't have a satisfactory answer to the character's question. As I mentioned in another interview, I write to raise questions rather than give answers. And the questions I like to raise are those that bother me the most and don't have easy answers. This is one of them.

DGS     I think that is part of the cross-cultural appeal of your stories—answers tend to be individual and specific, while the important questions are universal. Speaking of universal dilemmas, several characters in the stories are accomplished, intelligent young women who intimidate the men around them. "She is too high to reach," was a man's first impression of the narrator in "Pivot Point." In spite of Mao's assertion that "women hold up half the sky," sexism seems very much a part of the world of these stories. Of course, intelligent women face the same obstacles in the West. What is your take on the difference between the two cultures? Do you think American men seem more comfortable with intelligent women?

XE     (Laugh) Oh yes, that's why I married an American instead of a Chinese.

My general impression of American men is that they care much less about a woman's background than the Chinese do. It is the person, not her history or background, that matters. Still, many American men also seem intimidated by intelligent woman.

DGS     I couldn't help noticing that many of your characters were artists. Of course the talented poet, Shiao Su, in "Snow Line" is the most obvious example. But in "Feathers," a young girl becomes a creative writer in a round-about way, by writing letters to her grandmother in the voice of her dead sister. Wang Jian in "Watch the Thrill," is a fine dramatic storyteller. Do you think artistic expression served a different purpose in China during the Cultural Revolution than in our culture of market-driven publication?

XE     A very interesting question. Of course nowadays publication in China is as much market-driven as in the US. But traditionally, oral storytelling played a much more predominate role in Chinese life than in (my perception of) American life. So it was only natural that, during the Cultural Revolution, when no real artistic work could be published, oral literature became the outlet of artistic expression. Sometimes such expression might be unconscious, but exactly because of this, with no material gain intended, those artists without title are more appealing to me. They make you ponder the origin of the arts rather than their purpose.

DGS     I felt these stories were very accessible to a Western audience, but occasionally certain phrases struck me as pleasingly exotic. For example, in "Pivot Point," the narrator's married lover just confesses that he hoped, for an instant, that his wife would die. "His words emptied a bottle of five spices in my stomach." I'd like to steal that sometime if I might?

XE     You are welcome to use that saying—it was not my invention, and nobody knows who invented it, all I did was a direct translation. I do find in my writing that direct translation, rather than using an equivalent English cliché, can often add flavor and freshness. I believe a main reason for this effect is that, much like the Chinese language's pictographic nature, Chinese adages are especially rich in image as well as metaphor.

DGS     I'll try to find a place for it in a future story then! Now, I know you wrote fiction and essays before you came to the US. Was it a major shift for you to write in English? Are there themes/characters you find easier to capture in English than Chinese and vice versa?

XE     Of course writing in English has been a great challenge to me, given how far apart the two languages are. But sometimes a writer's choice of language is not the language alone. When I made the decision to write in English, I had the impulse to add an objective voice that is lacking in the existing English literature about China. Americans tended to view China and Chinese life in black-and-white, but the reality is not, and never was, like that.

I don't think it is easier to capture any theme or characterization in one language above another, but writers do have a higher freedom in America in terms of subject choice. And that is a definitive plus.

DGS     Speaking of subject choice, could you have published any of these stories in China today? Or would they be too controversial?

XE     It's hard to say. Though the Cultural Revolution remains a sensitive topic, China is a big country, and it is not one, uncracked iron board. There almost always are some editors and publishers that are more daring and open-minded than others. During recent years I've seen controversial stories get published here and there. Sometimes a story gets people into trouble, other times another one slides by. It is important to keep in mind that today's China is very different from the one I lived in. The political situation has been improving. On the other hand, the publishing world has become even more commercially oriented than in the US. Simply because of this, publishing a short story collection would be extremely difficult there.

DGS     Which writers have influenced your work? Could you recommend other writers you admire who deal with the Cultural Revolution?

XE     I honestly can't pinpoint which writers have influenced my work. I have read so many good books in Chinese and English, and also lots of translations in both languages. In translation particularly, it's hard to tell how much is the original writer's style, and how much the translator's. Perhaps the influence is from world literature as a whole, and it seeps into my brain in a subtle and subconscious way.

DGS     What would you like an American reader to take away from this collection in terms of an understanding of the Cultural Revolution?

XE     Great question. I'd like the reader, especially if she thinks she knows about China, to read the book without presumption, without taking sides, and see each character as human being like herself. This is the only way one can approach an understanding into the complexity and human mindset of that period.

DGS     I think the variety of sympathetic characters who've played many different roles in that historical upheaval definitely encourages a broader perspective.

One more thing that struck me about the world of Apologies Forthcoming is that it is not especially friendly to the erotic spirit, but this particular scene from "The Randomness of Love" struck me as breathtakingly sad and sexy all at once. The narrator and her married lover, known as The Fortuneteller, have finally consummated their relationship after months of longing and confusion:

I woke up before dawn. Gray moonlight shed a long thin wedge through the slightly cracked curtains. I pulled the cool sheet up to cover my naked body and turned aside to look at his rough profile. He was soundly asleep. An immense satisfaction filled my heart.

"I love you," I whispered, wanting to say these unspeakable words before he woke.

"I love you, too." He replied with such clarity, without opening his eyes, that it startled me. It was the first—and also the last—time we said this to one another. In our dialect the word "love" has an embarrassing sound, and no sane person would speak it in daylight.

I know that in Japan saying "I love you" is also much less common than it is in our culture. Your stories suggest that erotic expression of every kind was suppressed in Mao's China. Do you think this has influenced your writing? Was this scene difficult to write?

XE     It's true that the word "love" in its private sense was especially taboo during the Cultural Revolution, however it is also true that Chinese tradition shies away from explicit expressions of love. This seems to be the case in many other Asian countries as well. Now the younger generation of Chinese are very westernized and no longer shy in expressing private emotions in public, but people in my generation are as old fashioned as ever. :-)

On the other hand, it is always much easier to express love in writing than in speaking. There is no shortage of love poems in Chinese literature, or moving love letters from historical figures. Still, writing an erotic scene wasn't easy, I was as shy as if I was speaking in public, but eventually the artistic spirit prevailed. I only hope readers don't take the female character as the writer. You might have noticed that I always shy away from any sex topics on Zoetrope. And, as much as I love your writing, I preferred to have my husband, not me, write a review for you book. I just don't feel comfortable talking about sex in public.

DGS     What's your next writing project?

XE     I'm working on a memoir right now, but am also planning on a war novel that should be very Chinese, very different from Western war stories.

DGS     We're all looking forward to it! Thanks so much, Xujun.


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