So you think that because you went to China twenty years ago you have license to write fiction about China?
I don’t know what right I have, but that’s what I did.
Why didn’t you just write what you know?
You’re trying to ask some question about identity and cultural appropriation, implying that I shouldn’t be writing about Chinese characters because I’m not Chinese?
Being you, I happen to know you’re worried about the repercussions of having done just that. So, yes.
I think it’s impossible to write decent fiction unless you give yourself the freedom to write absolutely anything. You have to risk something, or else there probably won’t be much life in your work. Nothing interesting ever came from trying not to cause offense. In fact, that’s probably as good a reason as any to pursue a subject—it seems to me that a good story should unsettle us a little, even while we’re writing it.
You think these stories are going to offend someone?
Probably, but I don’t actually think anyone’s going to say I shouldn’t have written them because I’m American. I just torture myself by imagining that someone will, which is why you asked me about it. More likely, the violence or the sex will offend someone.
You took an awfully long time to write this book.
I was pretty slow about it. Like ten years slow about it. I did a lot research, a lot of revision. I got sidetracked, too. At one point, I’d built up some fairly extensive knowledge of Chinese dragons, but wound up not using any of it in the stories. Still: Chinese dragons. There are hundreds of different types. They hibernate. They fly without wings. They form volcanoes. Some are deaf, and some love music. They’re friendly, they’re mercurial. They’re a wild bunch.
Did you ever figure out why you wrote these stories, and not, say, a batch of stories about people in Connecticut?
Here’s what I’ve come up with: I’m attracted to absurd situations, and there’s no shortage of absurdity in China these days. I’m fascinated by these cases where, for instance, a real estate developer buys up and demolishes an entire neighborhood that lies in the footprint of a proposed high rise complex—except for the one holdout family who won’t be coerced to leave—and excavation of the site goes ahead, leaving that lone house perched on a pedestal of dirt sixty feet high that the family needs rappelling gear to scale. Being China, the developer always wins because he has the money to pay off local officials. But there’s no end to the impossible situations that arise from the power imbalance in China.
There’s plenty of power imbalance and absurdity in the U.S. Why not write about that?
For starters, I probably wouldn’t have written these stories had I been able to visit China more often, or more recently. This book is, in a way, an act of nostalgia. I do think my distance from the place—both geographical and temporal—lends the work some clarity, just as it creates tension. I know just enough about the place to be a danger to myself, which keeps me on my toes. I can observe and record with some dispassion. Being on the outside can be a good position for a fiction writer, and I never felt like more of an outsider than when I was in China.
Are you going to keep writing about China, then?
Your guess is as good as mine. Your guess is mine. I’m working on something else now, and it’s not set in China, but after that, who knows?
JACK LIVINGS’s stories have appeared in The Paris Review, A Public Space, StoryQuarterly, Tin House, New Delta Review, and The Best American Short Stories, and have been awarded two Pushcart Prizes. Livings is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. He lives with his family in New York City.