Memoir Interview with Matthew Polly Author of “American Shaolin”

by Jerry Waxler

Matthew Polly’s memoir, “American Shaolin” chronicles the two years he learned Kung Fu in an ancient temple in China. The trip took place in the 90s when the giant nation was moving rapidly out of isolation and into the global economy. In this interview, I ask Polly questions about writing his memoir, about Coming of Age, and about seeking Truth.

Jerry Waxler: In your childhood you moved from one home to another, creating a radical shift in your self-image and your need to fit in. Then you moved from the Midwest to a top Ivy League school, a huge cultural change. Then again, you made the transition to China. I’m fascinated by these major transitions, because transitions always contain power, as we try to reclaim our center in the new place. My question, though relates to you as the memoir writer. How did writing the book help you make sense of the transitions?

Matthew Polly: It forced me to re-experience my time in China. Also because the book was written 10 years after I’d gone, I was able to look back at my younger self from a certain distance.

JW: Did writing help you gather all these disparate parts into a unified whole?

MP: I don’t know. I’m not sure we are ever really a unified whole. What it did more than anything was to put that part of my life to rest. I stopped thinking about China as much.

JW: What were some of the issues, if any, of going from a private person, known mainly by your friends, to a public one, known by strangers? Of course as an author, you now want to be known by as many strangers as possible. Help us understand this shift out of privacy.

MP: It didn’t bother me at all, strangely enough. As you said, I wish more strangers knew about me, provided they actually bought the book. I don’t get stopped on the street, but I do receive a fairly large amount of email from people wanting to compliment the book or talk about the book or ask for advice. On the one hand, this is highly flattering; on the other, it is a new burden, because I try to reply to everyone in detail. The other big difference is that it gave me a huge increase in credibility as I was researching my next book about the sport of mixed martial arts, which was nice.

JW: The years at the Shaolin Temple represent remarkable self-sacrifices. You gave up so much. You invested years to learn a new language. You became a foreigner in a foreign land, a celibate monk who worked hard every day to learn to fight. You immersed yourself voluntarily in the third world poverty of rural China. And yet, you never ask the reader for sympathy or admiration. How did you achieve your “this is just the way it was” style of writing? Did you workshop to weed out self-consciousness? What steps did you go through to generate the sincere, revealing tone of the book?

MP: It’s the old saying: “tragedy plus time equals comedy.” It was ten years later. And it was hard to feel sorry for myself when so many good things came out of the sacrifice. For one, I was a stronger and more interesting person. For two, I won the Rhodes scholarship almost solely on the strength of the trip. (My grades weren’t that great.) If I had written the book right after my return as I tried and failed to do, there probably would have been much more “feel sorry for me” to it.

JW: At first you were peaceful, almost a wimp. But later, you hit people in the face until they bled, and got so fired up with adrenaline you were screaming with rage. This raised some weird moral questions for me. This wasn’t an action movie. You were really hurting people. I started to worry, “hey, maybe he’s not such a nice guy after all.” When you portrayed yourself as an aspiring “bad ass” did it make you cringe, and ask “was I really that crazy?” Or did you appreciate discovering that side of yourself? Do you like to think of yourself that way now?

MP: I often ask myself: “Did I really do all those things? Was I that crazy?” But I am happy I integrated my shadow self. It wasn’t that I didn’t have that anger inside me; it’s just that it was terribly repressed. But as you suggest, as the anger came out it started to worry me that I was becoming a bad person, a bully. It didn’t bother me to reveal that. I thought there was a great moral lesson in it. What really bothered me was writing that first chapter where I revealed that I had been a wimpy kid who had been bullied. I wrote that chapter last. I still had strong feelings of shame over my cowardice as a child.

JW: I really loved your comments about visionary experience and other direct experiences of transcendent presence. It was fascinating that you found a surprising number who had such experiences themselves. How did you feel about turning such private experiences into a public statement? Does it make you feel vulnerable? Did anyone ever accuse you of being weird for expressing this interest?

MP: I was concerned about revealing it in the Lao-tzu sense: “The knowers do not say, and the sayers do not know.” But I felt an obligation to reveal it and let people know that Shaolin wasn’t just about learning how to fight, it was also a spiritual center. That kung fu is a form of spiritual practice and that I knew that for a fact because I had directly experienced it.

No one ever accused me of being weird. Quite the opposite. I received a number of emails early on from people who have had their own spiritual experiences. Some were very interesting, some were slightly disturbed. I think it is the Upanishads that says something to the effect, “the line between divinity and insanity is as thin and sharp as a razor’s edge.” But I may have that quote wrong.

JW: You were apparently on a spiritual search and yet after three years of studying religion and philosophy, your memoir contains hardly anything about your belief system. I consider this absence of preaching to be an impressive feat. You stuck to your story rather than reported your belief systems. Please comment on your choice to hold back so completely on ideas, belief, theology, and so on.

MP: That is very astute of you to notice and kind of you to say. The grandiose answer would be: Jesus taught through parables. The truth is I’m very uncomfortable when people evangelize, so I didn’t want to do that to readers of my book. I felt that the moral thing to do was simply recount my experiences as best I could and let the readers draw their own conclusions.

JW: Are you tempted to write more about what you believe? Why or why not.

MP: No, I’m opposed to it. I think of myself primarily as a colorful storyteller, not a preacher or a missionary. It strikes me as dangerously arrogant to believe that “I know the truth and you should believe as I do, because I tell you so.” It’s the sin of pride. It’s a short step between writing about what you believe and expecting others to do the same.

JW: I was delighted with the way you end the book. I don’t like to discuss endings in detail, because I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say that the last section of the book and especially the last line created an excellent effect, wrapping up the whole thing in one fell swoop. The end is an important part of any book, because that’s when readers are trying to make sense of what they just read, and the writer must guide them from his life back to theirs. You performed this part of your task beautifully. Was it hard for you to come up with the ending? What went in to creating it? Did you know where the book was going to end when you started it?

MP: Thank you. The story goes: I had finished the manuscript. My book editor read it and suggested that I should really go back to the Temple and see how it had changed for the closing chapter. I pitched the idea to Slate, so I could cover the cost of the trip. (Your readers can find the article here.)

The final two paragraphs of the book just flowed out of me. I didn’t know what I was going to write until I reread what I had just written. When that happens, it is almost always great material.

JW: How did this brainstorm about the ending work in with the overall structure of the rest of the book? Did finding the right ending make you rethink the beginning?

MP: I liked how the ending had turned out so much that I went back and rewrote the entire manuscript. It wasn’t the structure so much as the quality of the work. I’d reached a new level with the epilogue and I needed to improve the rest of the book to match it.

JW: What are you working on next?

MP: I’ve been researching a book about mixed martial arts (MMA). It has involved getting hit in the head frequently. Probably not the best thing for a writer.


Click here for the Amazon Page for “American Shaolin” by Matthew Polly.

To read my essays about the memoir “American Shaolin,” click the links below:
Princeton Student transfers to the School of Hard Knocks or Learning Kung Fu at the Shaolin Temple

Flawed heroes and mechanical body parts: Shaolin Memoir Part 2

Seeking Truth in a far off land, “American Shaolin” Part 3

For more background about the modern history of China, see my essay about the memoir, “The Man on Mao’s Right.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Princeton Student transfers to the School of Hard Knocks or Learning Kung Fu at the Shaolin Temple

by Jerry Waxler

Every week, the television show “Kung Fu,” opened the doors of a magic kingdom in which the hero, a peaceful warrior named Kwai Chang Caine, avoided violence except when he needed to save innocent people from persecution. Then, he crushed his opponents. Dreamy flashbacks showed Caine with his teacher, Master Po, in an exotic oriental temple. When the student was ready to go into the world, he lifted a kettle of red hot embers between his forearms, forever burning the Shaolin Temple into his skin and my mind.

Recently, I saw a memoir “American Shaolin” by Matthew Polly, a young man who dropped out of Princeton to study Kung Fu at the Shaolin Temple in China. I was stunned to learn the place was real and even more astonished that it still existed. At first I resisted reading the book, afraid the real world might ruin my fantasies. Finally curiosity won. I jumped in to “American Shaolin” and kept turning pages to the end.

Matthew Polly left his Ivy League school, and traveled to a small town in China, where he moved into a small sparsely furnished room, took a vow of celibacy, and began his studies. The memoir contained many interesting themes: a search for identity, for spiritual meaning, for the soul of China, and it was a book about men and fighting.

What are men really like?

I’ve never understood girly-girls. Their world view seemed as inaccessible as say, inhabitants of the planet Venus. That was before I started reading memoirs. Now I can see into the mind of anyone who takes the time to write about themselves, expanding my insight across gender lines in a way I never considered possible.

It turns out, I don’t know much about gender-drenched men, either, having lived a watered-down version of masculinity. I never played sports, never was in a fight, never served in the military, never hung out in bars. Matthew Polly’s book has taken me inside a more masculine world than the one I inhabit, and now I know more about that half of the world, too.

From Polly, I learned that some things about men remain consistent across drastically different cultures. For example, after a hard day of strength, agility, and fight exercises, Shaolin monks went out drinking. Talking shop about their day’s practice, their conversations also included that favorite male topic, women, demonstrating the influence of lust across cultural lines.

Writing Prompt
Write a scene when you were attracted to or repelled by a stereotyped male or female trait, such as “too macho” or “too cute.” In the same scene, or another one, write how you felt about your own gender traits?

Wooing and Other Bargaining

Despite his vow of celibacy, Matt Polly did occasionally try to woo a Chinese girl. His attempted liaisons were complicated by four decades of Communist party propaganda that taught Chinese citizens to beware of westerners. The girls were suspicious of Matt and at the same time attracted to him, providing a weird, intriguing mix of politics and sexuality.

On one occasion, he had a hot date the night before an important fight. During dinner, his coach created such an embarrassing scene the girl walked out in frustration. Afterwards, the coach said to Matt, “It’s just as well. If she stayed it would have made your legs weak.” When Polly did finally sleep with a Chinese woman he described the scene with lyrical tenderness. But then she expected him to marry and he fell back to another famous male stance, fear of commitment.

Trying to get a girl into bed was not the only maneuvering going on. One-upsmanship occurred in a variety of situations. Of course, in fighting, the opponents must constantly try to get the upper hand. The focus on strategy set the stage for all sorts of situations of bargaining and maneuvering. For example, he had evidence he was overpaying for rent and tuition, and he tried to negotiate with the temple managers to lower the price. The maneuvering on both sides demonstrated the business-like mentality of the place.

Forty years of hatred for capitalism did not stamp out the Chinese instinct for bargaining any more than it stamped out sexual attraction. Polly’s description of Chinese bargaining strategies helped me understand the expression “inscrutable oriental.” The men were employing a technique known in the west as a “poker face.” To beat your opponent, you must hide your feelings.

I used to think it was tacky to write about money, but I have since come to realize the stuff keeps showing up in real life as well as in good stories. In “American Shaolin,” Polly uses money to show the power struggles among people, to offer insights into his own circumstance, and to provide another window into the Chinese culture. Strangely enough, the tense negotiations between Polly and the managers of the Temple did not ruin my impression of Polly or the Temple. It simply helped me fill in additional aspects of their world, proving once again that the mundane side of human nature, when told well, can breathe authenticity and tension into ordinary situations.

Writing Prompt
Bargaining is a common activity, when we try to get what we want through arguing, or pleading, or strategy. Write a scene when you had to get something from someone, whether for love, or money, or power. Show your plan. Or show how you acted impulsively, without a plan. How did it work? How well did the other person defend their own needs? What did they do to resist your request? Who was the better strategist?

Click here for the Amazon Page: “American Shaolin: Flying Kicks, Buddhist Monks, and the Legend of Iron Crotch: An Odyssey in the New China by Matthew Polly”

Matthew Polly’s Home Page

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Seeing History Through The Eyes of One Man

by Jerry Waxler

Note: Read more about the cultural passion for memoirs, and reasons you should write your own “Memoir Revolution: A Social Shift that Uses Your Story to Heal, Connect, and Inspire.”

Ji Chaozhu’s memoir “The Man on Mao’s Right: From Harvard Yard to Tiananmen Square, Life Inside China’s Foreign Ministry” let me enter the modern history of China, a country so vast and so important on the world stage, it seems like I ought to be talking about it in hushed tones. This planet cannot be understood without understanding this nation of a billion people, and yet, just a few decades ago, China was an ancient dragon, trapped in what looked like an unshakable slumber, set upon by the British and then the Japanese, and creaky in its old ways. Then came Mao Zedong who shook the dragon awake. But he did it behind an impenetrable curtain erected by mutual distrust. Western journalists were excluded and few westerners had inside information.

To visit the Amazon page for Man on Mao’s Right, click here

In the early 70’s, the walls between the U.S. and China became porous and news and diplomats began to speak. Now in our time, the walls are collapsing and the cultures growing towards each other in ways I couldn’t have imagined. So how do I catch up on all that history?

Ji Chaozhu’s memoir offers a crash course in the history of modern China, provided through the eyes of a man who was in the thick of it. Ji was an English translator for the two main characters of Communist China, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. Ji Chaozhu was present during some of the most powerful diplomatic exchanges in the twentieth century.

History this large teaches me about the human race
Chairman Mao believed that China was being held back by their culture’s strong emphasis on worshipping authority and ancestors. He was afraid these backward-looking tendencies had made his country weak. To bring China into modernity he felt it was crucial to undermine respect for the past.

Mao stirred up distrust for what he called “The Four Olds,” Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas. The strategy went too far, and this disrespect for the past plunged the country into chaos. In what Ji Chaozhu calls the dark ages of modern China, from 1966 to 1976, mobs of teenagers publicly humiliated and beat people who had attained the very things that make a civilization successful. Like everything that happens in China, the proportions were staggering. Ji estimates that a million people were beaten to death or forced into suicide for their educational, artistic, and social achievements.

Ji Chaozhu compares the period known as the Cultural Revolution with the book “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding in which a group of boys stranded on an island lose all civilized values and revert to the behavior of animals. By outlawing respect for the past, Mao transformed China into a gigantic real-life “Lord of the Flies.”

What does this have to do with the memoir you might wish to write? In my opinion – everything. Memoir writers are the keepers of our culture’s pas. We maintain the long view. By remembering and passing along our stories, we link the past with the present. Ji Chaozhu’s life provides a wonderful motivation to capture and share the story of your life. One person at a time, we memoir writers recount life across decades and help people young and old develop their own best understanding of how to live.

Lessons about ghost writing
Fleeing the invading Japanese armies in the late 30’s, Ji’s family moved to the United States. As a young boy, Ji grew up in America, an outsider intent on blending in. As a student at Harvard, he made many American friends, and enjoyed the bourgeois perquisites of western life. When he left Harvard and moved back to China to support Mao’s new government, he was an outsider again. His years in the U.S. cast a shadow over his authentic Chinese identity.

I love stories about mixing cultures, perhaps because of my own grandparents’ immigration to the United States and my experience of growing up Jewish, a minority religion in a Christian dominated country. Like me, Ji’s two cultures made him feel like an outsider and kept him under constant pressure to unify his two identities. These contrasts and tensions between cultures provide a rich layer that holds my interest.

Ji Chaozhu spent his entire adult life translating back and forth between the two cultures. But when it came time to translate his own long life into a story that could be appreciated by the west, he turned to an accomplished memoir writer and biographer, Foster Winans. Foster brings his all-American past to the table, as well as his skill at converting the events of a lifetime into compelling prose.

Long Span of Time, some good things about a long life
Ji experienced many setbacks in his life. When his family was forced by the invading Japanese army to flee their ancestral lands, his father told him that the Chinese people are like ants who continue to strive and climb, finally reaching their destination, not on wings, but by great and powerful persistence.

His father’s advice to be patient helped Ji cope when, during the Cultural Revolution, he was repeatedly transferred from his diplomatic mission to work on pig farms, supposedly to scrub away his “bourgeois tendencies.” In reality this punishment was regularly imposed by the paranoid regime to maintain absolute obedience.

Memoir Writers Bring the World Together
When Mao won control over the government of China, United States leaders were so disappointed they behaved like small children. At an important diplomatic meeting between the two countries in1954, Zhou En Lai extended his hand in friendship to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. Dulles turned and walked away. His insulting gesture made front page news all over China and poisoned the relationship between the two countries for 20 years. As Theodore White later wrote, “It was probably the most expensive display of rudeness by any diplomat anywhere, ever.”

Throughout the Cold War, when the U.S. and China seemed so far apart they would never see eye to eye, Ji stayed focused on his father’s advice, believing in the power of persistence. Over time, he witnessed a much greater understanding between the two nations. And still, Ji keeps applying his passionate belief in harmony across the cultural divide. When thanking the people who had helped him bring his story to the west he says,

“I am indebted to all these good people for taking such care with my legacy and helping me open a window into the soul of modern China in a way that I hope will bring us all closer together.”

In Stephen King’s memoir “On Writing” he says that writing is like magic. It allows people to communicate across space and time. When reading a memoir like Ji Chaozhu’s “Man on Mao’s Right” I feel this magic multiplied by a thousand-fold, or perhaps a billion. By sharing his own world, Ji Chaozhu has opened up a channel through which I can feel the connections of entire nations. And that’s true for all memoir writers. Through our individual story, we help communicate the entire experience of a lifetime, break down the barriers of difference, and create deeper mutual understanding.

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

Exclusive Interview with Xujun Eberlein Part 2

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

I recently read “Apologies Forthcoming,” a book of short stories by Xujun Eberlein, who grew up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. (Amazon Page, Xujun’s Home Page, Longer Introduction to this Interview) 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.

This is part two of the interview. For Part 1, click here.
Jerry Waxler: You write so beautifully in English. What special challenges did you have to overcome?

Xujun Eberlein: Well, I have always loved to write. My first short story, written in Chinese, was published a year before I entered college in China in 1978. In 1982, one of my short stories caused me big political trouble, while in 1985 a novella won a literary prize. After I came to America in the summer of 1988, my writing was suspended for 13 years.

When I write in English, the biggest obstacle for me is vocabulary. You grow up with your native expressions for things, feelings, actions, even simple gestures, and when you try to find homologous terminology in the second language, you are tongue-tied, that is extremely frustrating.

When I was young, whenever I read a new expression or adage in a newspaper or book, I hand-copied it into a notebook and made my own customized lexicon. That was how I acquired a large Chinese vocabulary. It is kind of ironical that at mid-age I’m repeating the same painstaking process for English now. I envision doing this for the rest of my life.

While the disadvantage of writing in a second language is obvious, there is an advantage as well: you bring “new” expressions to the second language from your native tongue, and when you are doing it right you can create a “third” language with freshness. To do it right requires practice and a sensitive eye. One thing I learned from years of writing in English is that, if a “foreign” expression flows well with your prose, use it; otherwise it is better to go with an idiom.

JW: You have won awards for your writing, and have been published in literary journals. Please comment on what drives you as a writer.

XE: I want my writing to be both entertaining and have depth, and I write to raise questions rather than give answers. I also crave beautiful language, for which I know I have a long way to go. Like the ancient Chinese poet Du Fu said, “I won’t rest in death if my words haven’t astounded readers.”

I want to strive for quality, not quantity. There are too many books out there already; no one needs to read your book. That is, unless it’s good. The word “prolific” is not as attractive to me as “superb,” I guess. Or perhaps it is just an excuse for allowing myself to write slowly. (Laughs)

JW: I know it’s difficult to describe the creative process, but I ask anyway, in case you might reveal some secret. How would you explain the process of transforming a memory into a story?

XE: When I write a story that is memory-based, one technique I use is to first work up individual scenes. In this case there must be something deeply disturbing or unforgettable that makes one want to write about it years later, and the memory of details is usually pictorial or impressionistic. That is, the memory naturally provides you scenes. To make a good story you need several scenes. At first the scenes are disconnected. I just write down the scenes separately, then figure out how to connect them. This process includes shuffling the scenes to settle on a more intriguing order.

JW: I feel so comfortable inside your stories, and find there is an almost hypnotic rhythm that pulls me in. Is this a quality you have thought consciously about?

XE: For me this is really a trial and error process. I aim to maintain a story flow that is captivating and keeps the story progressing, but usually the first draft is far away from that goal. After I finish a draft I would put it aside for a while, then rearrange it with a fresher eye, cutting or adding material to accomplish the goal. So, unfortunately, it is not something that simply emerges from my pen (or keyboard) but the result of substantial adjustment. I find that, more often than not, reordering paragraphs results in a better rhythm.

JW: There is some sort of innocent intensity about your friendships that calls out to me. I’m curious to know if you worked particularly to achieve this effect.

XE: In China, we have the tradition of valuing friendship higher than even our own family. An old Chinese adage goes, “Wife is clothing, friends are limbs.” It is kind of sexist (as the old times were), but you get a feeling for the importance of friendship. Traditional Chinese literature is full of friendship stories. The most popular classic novel “Three Kingdoms,” epic of an entire dynasty, is centered around three sworn blood brothers. When I wrote my stories I wasn’t very conscious of depicting friendship, but since that was part of life and culture, a realism writer who is loyal to reality would naturally reflect that aspect. Those things are just in my blood. On the other hand, Americans don’t have the same culture. From my perspective the role of friendship here is not as strongly important as it is in Chinese life. This may have something to do with individualism, I suppose.

JW: What favorite memoirs or other books have informed your style or voice or approach to telling about your past?

XE: Hmm. I liked the writing of a lot of the contemporary memoirs published in the United States, such as The Liar’s Club, Wild Swans, Fierce Attachments, Angela’s Ashes, etc., however I rarely finished reading every one of them. On the other hand, some less critically acclaimed memoirs, for example The Man Who Stayed Behind, glued me from cover to cover. I guess good language is not a sufficient factor to sustain my reading interest. A memoir has to tell good real stories as well as raise a lasting question. So it is my goal to have all those elements in the book-length memoir I’m working on now.

To read the 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 brief descriptions and links to other posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

Interview with story writer Xujun Eberlein

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

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.