I recently read “Apologies Forthcoming,” a book of short stories by Xujun Eberlein, who grew up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. ( Short Story Fact or Fiction) I highly recommend her book for anyone interested in that period, or interested in converting life into story, or simply looking for a good read. In this exclusive interview, I ask her about the project of converting her memories into stories. Her answers offer insights that could help anyone who is interested in the relationship between memory and story.
Jerry Waxler: When did you first start thinking about writing your memories of growing up in the period of the Chinese Cultural Revolution?
Xujun Eberlein: If ever I had a mid-age crisis, I think it started in the fall of 2001, after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. As I wrote in a personal essay, “The Camphor Suitcase,” which won an award from Literal Latte recently, several things came to my attention in that fall triggering the desire to write about my sister’s death and those days. (This essay will be available on line in the near future, at Literal Latte‘s site.)
JW: When did you actually start writing?
XE: Checking my computer, I see the earliest file is dated December 16, 2001. That was an attempt to translate one of my old stories into English, trying to warm up with the idea of writing in a second language.
In the spring of 2002, I took an unpaid leave from work and revisited my hometown, Chongqing. During that visit two things hit me hard: my big sister’s tomb could no longer be found, and my mother had lost all my diaries from age 12 to late 20s. On the other hand, I retrieved my sister’s diary, which contains entries from her final three years of life. Upon returning home I began to write a memoir piece about my sister’s death from memory. It took many reincarnations to become what you see today. In the summer of 2004 I attended the Mid-Atlantic Creative Nonfiction Summer Writers Conference, and workshopped the piece there. It was my instructor, Bill Roorbach, who suggested the title to “Swimming with Mao.” In late 2005, I submitted a modified, longer version to Walrus and it was accepted and subsequently published in the magazine’s 2006 summer issue. (You can read this article by clicking here.)
JW: During those initial attempts, when you were deciding between fiction and non-fiction, what criteria pulled you one way or the other?
XE: I started to write nonfiction mainly because I thought this genre would better preserve my work’s historical value. However I soon realized the limitation of nonfiction on the range of subjects I would like to write about. I guess I write fiction also because I’ve had my heart set in that genre for much longer time. The two genres use different craft techniques; both interest me. It is a challenge to do both well and I like challenges.
JW: In your fiction, was it hard to steer between facts and imagination? Did you worry that fictionalizing might disturb the memories?
XE: It never occurred to me in writing fiction there exists a choice between facts and imagination, nor have I ever worried that fictionalization might perturb my memory. If I had any worry, it was that I might limit my imagination to personal experience. For some writers, it takes a big leap to transcend experience-based stories. I think I am like that. In my collection, about half of the stories can be said to be based on my own experience. The other half came from attempts to transcend and broaden that experience.
JW: When writing fiction, do you draw mainly on life experience or do you branch off into pure imagination?
XE: To continue from the previous answer, it is often a stage in writing maturity to unleash oneself from one’s own memory. This said, even writing with pure imagination one can’t avoid using elements from memory. It’s like in a science fiction movie, an object as a whole may look completely alien, however if you dismantle it you’ll find that every component has its origin from an earthly object.
JW: The non-fiction piece, “Swimming with Mao,” contains an account of your search for your sister’s truth. And yet it also conveys a sense of intimacy and sorrow. What sorts of dramatic devices did you apply to achieve the emotional effects?
XE: I wasn’t consciously applying any fiction techniques. Partly because this was my first attempt in English writing (if you don’t count my scientific dissertation at MIT); at the time I hadn’t written any fiction since my maiden days in China. Even after I began to write fiction in English, I found my mindset would switch with the change of genre, as if a button were being automatically pressed. My non-fiction pieces are more of the essay style, even though my storyteller’s nature tends to head for entertaining anecdotes.
JW: Reading about the loss of your sister I am overwhelmed by the complex grief one little individual had to endure. How did you feel about writing such a painful memory?
XE: It was very difficult emotionally. My big sister was my idol and mentor in my childhood. Our parents were always either busy at work or being denounced or detained; whatever problems I had, I took to my sister and she was always able to help. Her death created a big hole in my mind and life, even after I grew up it still wasn’t easy to look back. That was partly why it took me so long before attempting to write about it. I constantly cried when I was writing.
Adding to the emotional difficulty was the desire to give myself a conclusion about her death. Was it an accident? If so, could it have been avoided? If not, was her action meaningful? Was it a wasted sacrifice? For several drafts I really did not know what the conclusion was. In this sense this time-consuming writing did help me sort out feelings and thoughts. As to whether it gets easier, I don’t really know. It is still hard for me to reread what I’ve written without being teary again.
JW: How has the passage of time helped or hindered your understanding of those disturbing events?
XE: I think at the time a significant personal event happens to us, we are living in it and we are not spectators. We are either overwhelmed by it or unable to see its significance. To sort out feelings and find meaning we need distance, both in time and in space. Sometimes it takes a recurrence in history for us to understand better. In my case, if I hadn’t left China and lived in the United States, I might not have dug open this old wound. Even if I did, I might have different thoughts about it.
In Part 2 of this interview, I ask Xujun more questions about the creative process, of turning memories into written words.
For my blog entry about what I learned about fact and fiction from reading Xujun’s two different representations of the events surrounding her sister’s death, click here.
For more details about Xujun’s life and writing, including more information about her book, awards, and other publications, see her website. http://www.xujuneberlein.com.