HAVING lived in Canada for nearly 30 years, Chinese novelist Zhang Ling says she feels closer and closer to her native soil with each and every book she writes.
“The further I go away from my hometown, the more I want to write about it,” she said, “There are too many memories in my mind, and I feel it my responsibility to write them down before all are lost and buried in oblivion.”
Growing up in a small town in Wenzhou, eastern China’s Zhejiang Province, Zhang quit school at 16 to avoid being sent to a rural re-education camp during the “cultural revolution” (1966-76). In 1979, she resumed her studies, pursuing English literature at Fudan University in Shanghai.
After graduation, she worked as an English translator for the Ministry of Coal Industry in Beijing before moving in 1986 to Toronto to work as an audiologist. Her dream was to be a writer.
However, it wasn’t until 1998 that her first book “Looking Into The Moon,” was published. By that time she was already 41, a late blooming writer in the eyes of many critics.
“I had never doubted I would become a writer, though I didn’t expect it would take such a long time,” Zhang told Shanghai Daily in a recent interview in Shanghai.
“When I first arrived in Canada, life was hard. With bills to pay, I decided to train and work as an audiologist first.”
Zhang regarded writing as a sacred path, which she said she could not fully devote to until she had solved the problem of “making a living.” She said this opinion was influenced by Virginia Woolf’s discussion about women in careers. In “A Room of One’s Own,” Woolf pointed out that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”
“It took me almost a decade to finally find a ‘room of my own’. But when I look back, I feel I became more mature during that time. I can now observe the whole world with a more objective point of view. I am not as impatient in expressing my feelings as when I was young, which I think is a good trait for a writer,” Zhang said.
In 2010, Zhang became a full-time writer.
“Contractions” is Zhang’s most recent novel. It tells the stories of three generations of women giving birth at extremely difficult times: during the War of Resistance against Japan, the “cultural revolution” and the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States. These women’s courageous and spectacular birthing stories coincide with the pain and unrest being suffered in the world during war and revolution.
Zhang said many years ago she came to like Alexander Pope’s poems, as one of the lines gave her a lot of encouragement. It read: “Hope springs eternal in the human breast: Man never is, but always to be blessed.”
She said she feels this line of the poem really captures the essence of her novel “Contractions.”
“In tumultuous times, men were often absent from their families for various reasons. As a result, the women became pillars of their families and for them to survive and raise their families, they had to be tenacious and courageous,” she said.
Zhang has written 10 fiction books, all of them about China. They include the bestseller “Aftershock,” about the 1976 earthquake in Tangshan, China’s Hebei Province. The book was adapted into an award-winning movie in 2010 by famed filmmaker Feng Xiaogang.
Q: What’s the inspiration behind the “Contractions?”
My maternal grandmother gave birth to 11 children, out of which 10 survived. My mother and her five sisters, just like my grandmother, also gave birth to their children in some equally difficult times.
The most shocking and heartbreaking birth story took place in the summer of 1967, at the heart of the “cultural revolution.” When the contractions started, it was the day that the street fights got most intense and crazy. Hospitals were closed. So my aunt had no choice but to try to deliver the baby herself with the help of her elderly mother at home. This courageous birth story inspired me so much that it later became one of the major story elements in the novel “Contractions.”
Q: What’s the message of the book?
Through those courageous birth stories, I try to bring to life a group of women who are not only brave but also patient, who know when to labor and when to wait. Those brave and courageous women in the novel do not survive on their past experiences. Instead they all live on their hope, which is why they would bring up their children safely and their children would give birth to their children in a more peaceful time. So “Contractions” is a story about pain and suffering, about courage and patience, and it’s about bravery in the form of humanity.
Q: What’s the beauty of writing in Chinese after so many years of living abroad?
I guess it’s the subtlety, the variety and the vagueness in the Chinese language. Since my readership is mostly Chinese, I don’t have to go into all the details to explain the historical background when it comes to a certain Chinese tradition, custom or affair. Nothing of what is not written cannot be understood with the absence of words. I can probably write a story that flows smoothly in English, but it would not be with the wanton rampage and absolute freedom that I feel writing in my mother tongue.
Q: What’s coming next in 2015?
I am presently working on a new novel about a Wenzhou family. The story portrays the life of common people in a constantly changing society, narrating their pursuit, bewilderment, disappointment and disillusion. Three fourths of the novel has been finished, and it is temporarily named “Fleeting Time and Its Tale.”
I hope I at least have tried something new in the way the story is told.
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