Bingham Prize Winner Jack Livings on Imagining China
There’s a growing interest in contemporary Chinese literature, with titles-in-translation occupying growing space on the shelves of European and North American booksellers.
But the award-winning short story collection The Dog marks a different type of literature about China. It’s a series of fictional short stories set in China but written by American author Jack Livings.
The collection has received high praise, and it’s not misplaced. The stories are finely crafted, and engage with tough issues: oppression of China’s minorities; the clash between China’s Maoist past and capitalist present; exclusion and alienation in a rapidly changing society.
Livings – a prize-winning short story writer whose work has been published in Guernica, The Paris Review, Best American Short Stories, and elsewhere – spent several months in China as a college student in 1994, and has returned to visit since. He avidly follows developments in the country, and maintains close relationships with Chinese journalists. Many of the stories were inspired by personal experience, and shaped by research and news-gathering on the part of Livings and others in the intervening years.
As an American one wonders, how authentic can short stories featuring Chinese protagonists really be? It’s an issue that concerned Livings as the collection neared print.
“Frankly, I have been shocked that no one has come after me,” he admits.
“When the book came out I was very concerned about that. But I also think that’s part of it. That’s part of the conversation. Can a white guy from a first world country accurately convey anything other than their own experience? You know, I hope so. That’s the empathy that fuels fiction, and that’s what literature exists for. That’s why readers have to have empathy when they read, in order to identify with the characters—and writers have to have it, as well. I’d rather try it than not.”
As we speak, it becomes clear that he reflected deeply about the implications of writing Chinese characters. While all of the stories feature Chinese protagonists, only one, ‘An Event at Horizon Trading Company’, is written from the first-person. A satirical piece about Chinese investment bankers, Livings felt the first-person perspective was necessary to achieve the humorous effect; he’s also familiar with investment banks and so felt he could deploy the first-person in that story.
“That was the only story where I felt like I could fully inhabit—in the way that you need to for a first person story—the character’s consciousness. In all of the rest of them, for that very reason that you’re pointing out—how much can I possibly know, really?—there is a degree of distance between the narrator and the characters in the stories… I tried to be very careful of that.”
However, Livings argues, the point of writing fiction is not merely to express personal experience, but to use the imagination to try to inhabit worlds and identities beyond that of the author’s own.
“I pretty firmly believe that I don’t think we should have any restrictions on what we write fiction about. There is a little risk in that, which I felt was worth the project. If I got it horribly wrong, people would call me out on it, and say, you know – ‘You western imperialist! What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ I hope it kept me on my toes. So far no one has attacked me for that.”
On the contrary, he’s received awards for his work. In June of this year the literary human rights organization PEN America awarded him the $25,000 Bingham Prize for debut fiction. Judges praised The Dog for its portrayal of “the vagaries and vanities of human nature, the brutish demands of collective endeavor and the austerity of freedom, and the strange occasions for compassion in societies where corruption and betrayal are the norm.”
In Search of Fiction About China
While the non-fiction English-language market for books about China is booming, Livings points out there’s a dearth of contemporary western fiction that engages with China. “You know there’s so much non-fiction, I feel that two books come out about China’s economy or political stance every day. It’s just this flood of non-fiction about China.”
It’s the very fear of writing from and about different cultural perspectives that he says might have stifled western fiction about China.
“I wonder if the contemporary thought process would warn a writer away from doing what I did, right? There’s a current of thought, that says not only is it risky, it ought to be forbidden. I wonder if that scares people away. Maybe rightly so. Maybe I should have been scared away from it, too. But I’m not ashamed of these stories. I feel like they’re accurate depictions of my understanding of China.”
While there may be only a small cohort of western authors writing fiction about China, he’s not the only one. He especially recommends British novelist Susan Barker for her 2014 novel The Incarnations and American author Jess Rowe for his 2005 collection The Train to Lo Wu.
Although Livings’ work hasn’t been translated into Chinese – it only appeared in English-language Hong Kong bookstores in July – it’s received tentative praise. In a review in the Asian Review of Books, Melanie Ho wrote that “One thing Livings doesn’t do is write like an expatriate living in China.” I asked him how he accomplished that.
“I don’t know, man. What do expatriates write like?” he laughs, pointing out that no matter who or what you’re writing about, or where your stories are set, the most important thing is to understand your characters. He grows serious again as he reflects on the voice that he found himself assuming in order to write the Chinese stories.
“I don’t know quite how to describe the voice the way it comes to me, but it’s almost like Chinese in translation. What that means to me is that it takes away the right to write certain phrases. Like I would never have a Chinese character say ‘Oh my god.’ Because that strikes me as a distinctly English-speaking exclamation. You know, Chinese would say ‘Aiya,’ which means ‘Oh my gosh,’ but not ‘Oh my god.’ You know it’s little things like that, that I kind of worried over in every line. I feel like the stories might feel a little bit constricted because of that linguistically, but I think it’s worth it for the overall effect.”
While accuracy was important for him in depicting the setting, he acknowledges that the roots of characters are more complex, particularly given his American identity and background.
“I was very, very worried about factual accuracy when I started. I wanted to make sure that if somebody got on a bus, it was an actual bus line in Beijing that took them from point A to point B. But the emotional heart of the stories—the characters themselves—are not usually anyone that I knew or met when I was in China. So those are constructions, but they’re built out of material that I collected living my life in the US.
Then I sort of put it through a filter. I don’t know if I adhere to the idea that there is a universal experience. Everybody falls in love and everybody feels grief when a loved one dies, and you can say that that’s universal, but I think for a fiction writer that’s a very dangerous assumption. So I try to remain very specific in my dealings with my characters. I don’t try to make generalizations or assume anything about them. Nonetheless, the people that I know are largely American. So maybe there’s a weird tension in the book that’s created out of that.”
Writing-in China’s Minorities
A recurring focus of the book is China’s minority populations, and particularly the Uyghur Muslim minority. When he lived in China, Livings spent a lot of time in an area of Beijing known as Uyghurville where he witnessed incidents of violence and discrimination against minorities committed by the Han ethnic majority. The experience had a profound impact on him. One story in particular, ‘The Heir’, depicts in graphic and complex detail the Uyghur experience of discrimination.
“I wrote that very much out of anger at what is clearly a carefully coordinated strategy on the part of the Chinese government to eradicate Uyghurs. I don’t know how else to put it. When I was in college in Beijing I went to Uyghurville probably four or five days a week. I was either cutting through there to go somewhere, or I would go over there to eat, or just to hang out. I saw firsthand how they were treated, saw the harassment, saw the conditions that these people were allowed to live in, and it was atrocious.”
Years later, the outrage inspired him to write.
“I think I just read one news story too many about what the government had done to the Uyghur population… I thought I really ought to try to write something that has a purpose, as opposed to just kind of sitting back and musing about contemporary life in China. So yeah, these things came from anger.”
It’s here, he suggests, that an outsider’s perspective can be helpful. When an experience becomes normalized and part of everyday reality – even racism – it can sometimes be more difficult for insiders to recognize it for what it is, or to be affected by it in the same way.
“When I was there, you know I think I, and the other kids I was there with, were all sort of attuned to the treatment of non-Han Chinese, just because we hadn’t grown up in the culture, and so we had a fresh perspective. It doesn’t mean it was the right perspective, it doesn’t mean it was the wrong perspective, it’s just that we were like big eyeballs. Everything was new to us, so we were absorbing all this information.
I saw the disparity in the way the Hui or the way any Muslim group there was treated. You know it’s a standard storyline about the Chinese government—and I think when things get standardized it gets a little bit dangerous—but I do think there’s a lot of stuff that goes on under the watch of the Chinese government that is just atrocious. I mean the treatment of lawyers, the treatment of anyone who goes against the party line, tends to be pretty harsh. I feel that that is a part of life if you are living in China. Whether you are on the top of the pyramid or the bottom, you are affected by that. Just as you are affected by the things that our government does here, and the same in Canada, Germany, everywhere. Larger forces move through our lives in ways that aren’t always apparent, which is why I think it’s easier for me to see it from abroad in China.”
During his travels in China, Livings witnessed other examples of state violence that also left an impact.
“I saw a lot of things there, I saw acts of violence on the street that I had never seen anywhere in the US. A lot of [these stories] was just me trying to explain to myself… things that I had seen there.”
He recalled one incident, when he went to see the famous Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an.
“Okay, so I go to the Terracotta Warriors with my friend, and it was cool and everything, and we get on the bus to leave. As the bus is pulling out of the parking lot, our driver—who was just a Chinese guy, a bus driver—the police stop the bus, they jump on the bus, they grab him by the collar, and drag him off the bus, and beat him by the side of the bus. Another guy gets on, closes the doors, and we drive away. You know, I don’t have any context for why that happened. It might have been completely obvious to every Chinese on the bus what was going on, but to me it was just a strange, baffling and horrifying experience.”
It’s dissonant experiences like this that inspire the writing of fiction in an effort to explain them, he says.
“I’ll start with something like that, that I just don’t understand, because it’s just pure ignorance on my part, and then write a story to try to explain that to myself. So more than trying to get a political point across to a reader or anything, it’s very much just me trying to explain things to myself and then hoping it makes sense to a reader as well.”
The Politics of Fiction
What is the role of a writer in contexts such as these? Is it to expose and draw attention to injustice? To reveal hidden and marginalized experiences? To incite and inspire change? Or simply to explore the world of the inner heart and mind? Livings, like many writers, struggles with these questions.
“I get in a lot of trouble when I sit down to write fiction and I try to force the fiction to say something, as opposed to slowly building characters and trying to build characters who work independently of me. It’s a little bit of a trick I have to play on myself but I try not to look at overarching themes.”
At the same time, he feels adamantly that it’s incumbent on writers to write with what he calls “moral purpose”.
“I think you should have the right to create fiction for the reasons that you want to do it. If you want to do it for purely entertainment purposes, that’s fine. If you have political motivations, that’s fine. I think most of the writers I know don’t have as much control over what they write as they would like. If we did, we would all write amazing great works of literature that would all sell millions of copies. But we don’t have that much control.
It’s kind of a subconscious process, and what comes out of you is not always what you want to come out. Because of that you can intend to write with political purpose, but I certainly think it’s the writer’s duty to write with moral purpose. That’s probably an easier generalization to make. Good writers write with moral purpose, and they are more or less looking around at what’s going on, and attempting to ask questions of the world around them. In that way it’s possible for fiction to have an effect on the way a culture views itself. It’s not as direct as holding up a placard at a protest. It works in much more subtle ways.”
Effecting change, however, is easier said than done.
“The thing about fiction is we all know we’ll put a book down pretty quickly if we don’t like it. People tend to read things that affirm their own views of the world. So you have to be very sneaky if you’re going to try to change someone’s mind. I don’t know if fiction is about changing people’s minds. I think it’s about promoting maybe squishier concepts of empathy and understanding.
If you’re in high school and there’s a kid who’s a bully, you might hate that kid, but the duty of writing a piece of fiction about that kid would be to go home with him and try to understand why he’s a bully. Maybe his life’s not that great, maybe he gets wailed on by his dad at home, and that’s why. You know that kind of softer power is what fiction has got going for it.”
His bully example isn’t incidental: many of the characters Livings develops are self-centered, mean and unlikeable. One example is the old, curmudgeonly journalist in ‘Mountain of Swords, Sea of Fire’.
“I like characters who are kind of irascible and hard to get along with. Those characters are interesting to me. I don’t know why, it’s just how I’m built. I like reading about them and I guess that comes out when I’m creating characters. I don’t want to bore anybody.
In my mind it’s easier to populate a story with characters who defy convention a little bit, in the sense that it’s more interesting to me to write a character who’s kind of unlikable and see if I can figure out a way to get a reader to follow that unlikable character. Same thing as the bully. I don’t think that people start out unlikable, but there are reasons that they become that way and I like the process of trying to unearth why the complete bastard in the newsroom became the complete bastard that he is today. He used to like painting pictures of flowers, and now look at him. How did he get that way?”
Livings’ current project is a novel set in New York in the late ‘70s. It’s clear, however, that China still exerts a hold on him. “The place really got under my skin,” he admits. While debate around the role of cross-cultural engagement in fiction and literature will undoubtedly continue, it’s a conversation that he feels is an important one.
“I know for sure I got things wrong, of course, but I think that’s part of the human enterprise of trying to write. It’s [about] trying to be as honest as you can and creating a world that holds together, a fictional universe that holds together. Whether that’s the actual universe of China? Probably not. You know, it’s my view. That’s all it is.
Because ultimately, there’s a book. It can be entertaining, it can unsettle you, whatever. Then you’re finished with it. Then what have you got? Hopefully it’s the basis for conversation. Whether it’s conversation with yourself, or with someone else.”