Author Zhang Lijia, author of the bestseller Lotus: A Novel, wrote a short story, the Silk Road, for Discovery the magazine of Cathay Pacific and tells in an interview about her preferences while traveling and a new book project on China’s left-behind children.
One evening in July 1986, a puzzling incident took place at the chemistry laboratory at Beijing’s Tsinghua University. Lin, a freshman from the chemical engineering department, was found lying unconscious on the floor, next to an open bottle of chloroform. The classmate who had discovered him and called for help wasn’t sure if Lin, who had been strangely quiet lately, had accidentally sniffed too much of the sweet-smelling yet toxic solvent, or was experimenting to attain a hallucinatory thrill, or had simply attempted suicide. After emergency treatment, Lin, still in a coma, was placed on a breathing machine in an intensive care unit. He lay motionless in his bed, separated by curtains from other patients, oblivious to the coming and going of the nurses and doctors. What occupied his cloudy mind were vivid scenes from another hospital stay two months earlier.
In the interview for the magazine Zhang Lijia tells how it works to write in English, while keeping a Chinese mindset:
Your stories are usually based in China. How would you describe your relationship with the country?
Intense, I would say. I am one of the few Chinese writers based in China while writing in English for international publications. Even though English has been my working language for years now, my sensibility remains Chinese. And compared with my Western colleagues, I have something different to offer: my insights into the Chinese society.
Silkroad is a travel magazine, but we’re trying something a bit different by publishing an issue of original fiction. How do you feel fiction can inspire travel in a way non-fiction or travel articles don’t?
I think the project is wonderful and exciting. Good fiction can entertain and educate the readers. My fictional works can be read as non-fiction as it is rooted in reality.
What do you read when you’re on holiday?
I read what I must read for my two book groups in Beijing. I also have my personal project: to re-read classics, such as all the works by Tolstoy, which I read in Chinese in my youth.
What do you do when you’re on a flight? Are you reader, worker, film watcher?
I work when I must. Then I read. When I am too tired to read, I watch films. I finished the short story for Silkroad while flying from Beijing to London. I was so obsessed with getting the story right that I couldn’t sleep a wink or watch any films.
What do you think about fiction in an inflight magazine?
I think it’s absolutely cool!
Finally, what are you working on at the moment?
I’ve started a literary non-fiction book project on China’s left-behind children, a term for the children of migrant workers. Right now, 61 million children are living in China’s villages without one or both parents. Focusing on one village in southwestern China’s Guizhou province, the book exposes the heavy human cost behind China’s so-called economic miracle.
Are you looking for more experts on cultural change in China? Do check out this list.