Alec Ash is a young British writer and journalist in Beijing, who has been steadily making a name for himself after founding The Anthill (“a writers’ colony of stories from China”) and co-editing expat anthology While We’re Here. His book Wish Lanterns captures the lives and dreams of six young Chinese people and has received excellent reviews. I spoke to him about writing the book, expat literature and what it is to be young in China.
What made you choose Qinghai when you first came to China? Can you describe your time there?
This was the summer of 2007, a teaching exchange a month after I finished university. The other options were Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong – none of which I had been to either, although I visited them all on the same backpacking trip. Qinghai sounded like something different: far out in the west, barely mentioned in Lonely Planet, and a Tibetan mountain village that was my first real taste of China. Maybe it’s that desire from something different that brings us all out here, or makes us stay.
Can you describe about the blog you originally wrote about your friends and acquaintances there? What did you learn from doing it?
My first writing from China was all on this blog, called ‘Six’, that followed the lives of six people my age in and around Peking University, where I was learning Chinese from 2008. I was writing for free, of course, and no one really read it besides my family and a few watchers of the then China ‘blogosphere’. But I sharpened my writerly teeth on it, and it helped me process my thoughts as I learnt about China and young Chinese. The debt I owe to it is clear in that my book also follows six lives of the same generation, albeit different people and in a different mode.
When did you have the idea for Wish Lanterns, and was there anything that provoked it? Did you have any literary models or antecedents to draw upon?
The wealth of stories in China and the bookshelf of China literature inspired the idea, but my literary models were narrative nonfiction from all over the word. Katherine Boo’s wonderful book Behind the Beautiful Forevers was a direct model, in the literary style and her removal of herself from the story. Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy wove real stories together with all the narrative suspense of a novel, and also opened my eyes to the possibilities.
How did you choose the people you came to write about? Are they meant to be somehow representative of different experiences?
No individual in the book is representative of anything but themselves. That said, I hope that they capture a wide cross-section of the generation, coming from such different backgrounds and locations as they do, and with such various stories. The idea is that through those six individual stories, a reader can get an impression of what it means to be young in China today, as diverse as experience as that is.
What was the reaction of the people you wrote about to the finished text? Did anyone surprise you with how they felt? Did you have revise after you showed them the text, or was it an ongoing process of feedback and further writing/editing?
I was clear from the beginning with all of them that I was writing a book, and walked them all through the first draft to get their reaction. I’ve kept in touch with them all and so far there have been no nasty surprises, although as I expected I did get a few small facts wrong here and there, which I’ve corrected for the paperback and US edition (out in January and March respectively). And yes, I always revise based on feedback. Reactions can be an invaluable part of research, as well as flagging any mistakes or other things they find objectionable.
The book excels at showing rather than telling, and has many nice poetic phrases. Which writers have most influenced you and in what ways? Had you read much expat literature and do you think any particularly worthwhile?
Thanks! I’ve read a lot of expat literature, enjoyed much of it and not enjoyed some of it, but my influences were mostly the literary nonfiction I mention above.
What were the practicalities of researching the book? How long did you spend with each person, how far you could go with them in terms of their intimate memories?
I worked on the book for four years, beginning with a lot of background research and time spent with the people I write about, getting to know them without my notebook out, before I even began writing. The questions I asked were certainly intimate, but it was up to them how intimately they replied. In a sense that dictated the frame of their stories, and I think it’s important to respect that.
It seems like some of the characters like Lucifer have to create these own paths in life. There aren’t the traditional routes of progressing into the various careers we Westerners have. Do you see these people as trailblazers, or more as idiosyncrasies?
I made a promise when I began writing the book to avoid generalisations, or at least keep them down. Lucifer’s story is certainly one of an iconoclast and a trailblazer in terms of his life decisions, but for every devil there is an angel who is following the conventional path set out by society. I would venture that it’s easier to be a Lucifer in China today than it was even five years before his time, though.
The struggles of the educated young are like a metaphor for China – they have to develop so fast, and have a burden to put things right. They are very much its future. Do you see them driving any change?
Nicely put. I certainly think that the changes we’ll see in China in the next decades will be a result of how different young urban Chinese are to their parents and other generations before them. Social attitudes are one, from women’s rights and LGBT to the role of the individual in society. Work attitudes are another, with perhaps a less rick averse attitude to entrepreneurship and goals beyond the purely material. But now we’re generalising, so I’ve already broken my promise.
Did you have any purpose in writing the book, such as aiming to give a voice to young Chinese in English? Or is that sort of thing incidental?
There was no didactic purpose! If I have narrated these lives and showed their experiences in a way which is surprising and readable, funny and touching, following all of the twists and turns of the twenties, then I’m happy. Whatever any reader might learn about China in the process is a bonus.
What writing projects are up next for you?
That’s a surprise, for me as much as anyone else.
Published in Tianjin Plus
Wish Lanterns is available at the Beijing Bookworm and Garden Books in Shanghai. Find out more at alecash.net.