Lijia Zhang is the author of Socialism Is Great!, a caustic memoir of her experience growing up in 1980s China. She has just published Lotus, a novel about a women from Sichuan who gets caught up in the sex trade in Shenzhen yet who has ambitions to make something more of herself. Inspired by the deathbed revelation that her grandmother had been sold into a brothel, Zhang aims to give a voice to the voiceless and the powerless. I spoke to her about researching the novel and the difficulties of relating a different culture in a foreign language.
Can you tell us the story of how you researched the novel?
I interviewed many sex workers in Shenzhen, Dongguan, Beihai, Beijing and Tianjin. When you don’t know them well, they don’t always tell you the whole story. I tried to make friends with them, but it was hard to maintain a friendship with them, as their lives were often transient as they moved from one city to another, from one parlour to another, they changed their mobile or they simply vanished. What really helped me to gain insight was my experience of working for a NGO for female sex workers in a northern city in China. Lotus is a purely work of fiction (not another memoir based on personal experience) but many details, Lotus’s first handjob, for example, are real, and learned from the girls I befriended.
The character Binbing is based on the real photographer Zhao Tielin, who photographed sex workers in Hainan. Did you meet Zhao in person?
Yes, I indeed met him, quite a few times. But I never really had in-depth conversations with him, which would have allow me to find out the deeper reasons why he would live among the working girls and photographed them obsessively, beyond the grand reason of giving a voice to people with no voice. I was hoping to do so after I got to know him better. But he fell ill and passed away. I did read all of his books.
The photographer character Hu Binbing in Lotus is inspired by Zhao. What’s Hu’s motivation? I hinted – perhaps too subtly – that photographing prostitutes serves Hu as a tool to achieve success, to prove to his ex-wife that she’s wrong about him, as well as to feed his own sexual fantasies.
Did you have any literary models or inspirations in writing the book?
No, I don’t really have any literary models when writing the book. Generally speaking, I love social realism. Back in my factory days, when I tried to teach myself English, I fell in love with Dickens who used realism to portray the harsh reality of his time. Tolstoy is my most favourite novelist of all time as his books have a richly detailed but panoramic view of Russian society. And indeed, I admire Nabokov for his creative use of language.
In preparing to write this novel, I carefully read novels such as The Poison Wood Bible, The Kite Runner, Balzac and The Little Chinese Seamstress, to learn how to tell a good story to an audience from a different culture.
What was the meaning of the reference to the novel Portrait of a Lady?
For me, the novel is also about the journey of a young woman finding herself. I very much appreciated the theme in Portrait of a Lady – a young woman confronting her destiny.
Lotus’ returns to Sichuan have a heart-rending quality to them. Have you had similar experiences?
Yes, I’ve had similar experiences. I’ve travelled quite far from where I came from – if I do say so myself. I am often irritated by my parents’ bad habits such as throwing rubbish anywhere and spitting.
I’ve followed working girls returning to their home villages. I noticed that they always put on their finest outfits; and like me, they often criticized their family members ‘peasant behaviours’ of spitting and littering: they feel they are entitled to do so because their financial help to their families elevated their positions at home.
Why did the novel take 12 years to write? Did it go through many drafts?
It did take 12 years to complete, during which time I did many other things. I had to make a living as I have children to support. I did indeed go through many drafts. In the early drafts, the writing was far too journalistic. I also experimented with the point of view. At one point, I wrote entire conversations in pigeon English, for example: “Where is the toilet” would be “Toilet is where?” But I decided it didn’t work and started another draft. Of course, bear in mind, English isn’t my native tongue, which means I write slowly, very slowly.
What is your typical writing day and what is your writing environment like?
I don’t really have a typical writing day. When I can, I try to write 300 words, even though I may chop out 250 the next day. I write mostly in my study. I live in a lovely house in the outskirts of Beijing, in an area populated by migrant workers, who use the similar sort of earthy language as my characters.
Did you have a didactic aim in writing Lotus, or were you trying to simply give a voice to women like your grandmother?
Yes, I do have a didactic aim and I do want to give a voice to the women like my grandma. Having spent plenty of time with the working girls, I’ve gained much empathy and sympathy for them. Most women, those from low-middle establishments in particularly, got into the trade due to circumstances such as poverty or some tragic personal events. Almost all support their families financially. Drug abuse is uncommon.
I like the combination of poetic prose and earthy dialogue. Is it hard to convey Chinese thinking and feeling in English this way? Is this an attempt to convey the two aspects of Lotus – her grimy day-to-day existence and her dream of a better life?
I try to borrow Chinese saying and expressions. But it is often hard to translate the sayings into English directly. For example, we have a saying “A man has his face just as a tree as its bark’, implying that a man has a sense of shame. But I am not sure it works in English.
Yes, to the second question, as symbolized by the name she gives herself – Lotus, from the Chinese saying: The Lotus springs from mud but yet not imbued.
You moved from memoir to a novel. Which did you find easier or more fun to write?
I found writing fiction so much harder. The freedom to create anything you like is both exhilarating but intimidating! I enjoy writing profile stories, which I still do from time to time. It’s good fun as I love people and appreciate the opportunity of really getting to know someone.
I am trying to write some short stories, some of which I made use from materials chopped off from the novel.
What are your literary projects for the future?
I’ve already started a narrative non-fiction on China’s left-behind children, featuring one village in Guizhou, in Southwest China. Using real life material, I can apply fiction techniques to make the book more enticing and readable. I think literary non-fiction is the way to go for me – for now anyway.
Lotus is published by Henry Holt & Company and is out now.