Aditi Malhotra: How do you feel about this early onset of spring? How is it situated in your life as a writer?
AM:Thanks for sharing that. Let’s talk about your novel, . How do you define historical fiction as a genre in the context of a standing discussion and the little consensus on what history is and how it can be narrated?
AM:I kind of imagined that too: The present in which you were writing was shifting moment by moment. Tell us more about recapturing the past in these different present moments, and your perception, as you said, guiding this process of recapturing.
This is the best that I was able to do at this point in this time.
AM: In your novel, you’ve reconstructed a lot from the past. Themes and settings reconstructed are of a different nature—they are political, social, they are artistic. I want to know more about how you approached reconstruction. How did you treat historical materials—things you may have pulled out that documented the past from that time?
Speaking of my character, the whole point was to pick someone who would not only be a footnote; she wouldn’t exist at all in historical records. Understanding that it had to be more complicated than what the records had to say was important. A fiction writer can really delve into complication and conflict.
AM:Thank you for writing and introducing us to Mei’s character. There are many attributes of her character that have stuck with me, and there is one that struck me particularly strongly: the depiction of this young girl’s aspiration for honor, dignity, and respect in an oppressive, limiting patriarchal culture. But what this does, interestingly, is it triggers a certain kind of jealousy. Mei feels and shows envy toward some of the other recruits. At some point, I thought this envy became a guidepost for her calibration of her own self-worth. Can you talk a little bit about this character attribute in the context of the larger human condition and how jealousy is felt and perceived? It might be an unpopular emotion, not largely accepted, but is something that we can all experience.
VH:That’s a really interesting question. In thinking about Mei and the other young women who were in these troops, I was just struck by the fact that they were teenagers. Ultimately, even though they were entrusted with this “duty,” they would still be struck by the usual range of adolescent emotion. One can only imagine the rivalry and competition that would exist in this situation. Even as we see her envy of others or her tracking of others—what they have and what she wants—does that continue when people are adults or to the end of their lives? I do remember reading about how during the Cultural Revolution, the Communist Party had all these sort of noble explanations for why they did what they did. But a lot of the violence that occurred was a result of people settling scores. Like, neighbors complaining they didn’t like what a person did, or someone saying they got in trouble with their teacher. There was a lot of lashing back on these things. In this way, Mei’s interactions within the troop are a mirror to what will be unleashed in the country writ large. During any historical event, we see larger, patriotic, noble goals stated publicly. But what’s happening on the street? What’s happening to someone like Mei personally? That’s something I wanted to explore with Mei’s character.
AM: What would you say about poverty and inequality hurting a young person’s self-worth in this environment, where settling scores becomes the norm? What are some of the sociocultural forces that guide this human condition?
VH: People outside China might think about the Cultural Revolution as this image of teenagers running wild, waving little red books. We see and understand those images, but we may not understand the root causes. I think to understand why the Cultural Revolution happened at all is to understand the horrors of the Great Leap Forward a few years earlier. During this time, my character and millions across China suffered. Chairman Mao was hoping to rapidly industrialize, and that resulted in widespread famine. Not only is it about understanding the norm shaped by the revolution, but what did it mean to have gone through the Great Leap Forward? In fact, Mao lost face during the Great Leap Forward. The Cultural Revolution is also an outcome of his bid to reclaim power. So, how is Mei shaped not only by the norms of the society she was living in, but also by the overall turmoil that preceded the Cultural Revolution? As a writing exercise, I tell my students to actually do a timeline of events. Maybe it doesn’t all show up in your fiction, but understanding, say, for example, if a character was born during 9/11 or if they were a teenager when 9/11 happened . . . how does that shape a character’s worldview? Whether you’re writing fiction set in the present day, the future or past, we all come from a context. We’re not in a vacuum.
AM:Let’s move on from Mei’s character to Mao’s character. We know Mao’s character even before Forbidden City. To me, this is a character that takes up a lot of space. How did you craft vulnerability in the sketch of an otherwise really powerful alpha character?
VH:You’re right; Mao is iconic in the true sense of the word. His image is endlessly reproduced in propaganda posters . . . that large portrait on Tiananmen Square. He’s instantly recognizable. While reading his memoir written by Li Zhisui, it was really interesting to see how very alone he was. He kept company with his bodyguards or with young women, some of whom became his secretaries or nurses or “confidential clerks,” as they called it. The experience of living through the pandemic is showing us what happens to people who are socially isolated. The paradox was what really interested me—the fact that he was so revered, well-known, and well-recognized, yet he was very isolated. This [isolation] shaped some of his decisions. Some of this is also understanding how you write about historical figures; they inhabit a body just like we do. There’s something in the visceral and the bodily that allows me to understand what it means to be a Homo sapiens on this planet, [just] like him, even though we may not have lived the same lives. I’ve also learned and done some of the things he did—that was really interesting to me. Like, I took ballroom dancing in college . . . . I also love swimming. Mao used swimming powerfully to symbolize his vigor and return to power. That was another sort of bodily way in which I might imagine his character.
AM:Yeah, a handful of a character. Vanessa, the attention to detail in your writing is compelling, especially toward the end of the novel, where there is a sense of cinematic recreation of the sequence of events. Tell us about writing with details based on your decades-long journalistic training and your experience honing your eyes to catch something small, but no less important.
VH:I was listening to some historical novelists talking about research and incorporating it in your writing, saying it’s not just a matter of including details like, women wore corsets. There’s always an unusual detail that is important. For example, they said some research had shown that babies wore corsets!
To your point, sometimes one unexpected detail can bring the scene or moment alive. For this book, I traveled in China, I interviewed people, took copious notes—full notebooks, scrawled notes, dictations on my phone. I worked with a sense of curiosity. Like, you just go out and maybe you’re having drinks, and then you hear someone say something. That makes this imaginary antenna go up. You think this could be a story, or a column, or it could inspire fiction. You write it down. Maybe to just remember it, or to use it later. It’s a fun way to engage with the world. To your question, it’s also about what details can convey place and character through the sensory. It’s not only a matter of a neutral camera panning over the landscape; it should feel filtered through a character’s sensibility. In fact, setting is yet another opportunity for developing character. Whatever a character notices or how she sees the world is a reflection of her interiority.
AM:I’m curious about how you managed the notes, materials, and memory during the process of writing this novel, which ran over a decade. There are chapters, parts, sections, dialogues, scenes—you mentioned timelines. These are perhaps only some among the many details you’d have kept track of. Give us a peek into your method for maintenance and tell us how these knots and tangles in the plot found a place in the narrative.
VH:I wish I could say I had some sort of boxed-up system that could be replicated. My system was quite messy. Sure, I would take notes. I had all these folders with a bunch of files with different names. Not all files existed so I could go back into them; often, it was the act of typing the notes that was important to place my thoughts in my consciousness. I don’t outline beforehand; I do afterward. Throughout the revision process, and after I finished writing the draft, I did a breakdown by scene and character and wrote what was at stake. I let inspiration drive the draft, but during the revision, I took a more schematic approach. I asked questions like, “What do I need to put in here?” and “What do I need to research?” I also taped up maps. I printed out pictures of model revolutionaries, [put] photos from the Cultural Revolution in my office to be reminded that there was some person on the other end of all these historical movements. The photos helped me look them in the eye. At one point, I read all the China articles I could find from 1955 and 1966 in The New York Times. Not all the headlines ended up in the novel, but they helped establish the timeline. Oh, another thing I do is print out blank calendar sheets for the months that the novel covered. That helps me understand how much time is passing between scenes and chapters.
AM: I’ve wondered about words and language used to describe Mei and her relationship with Mao and other male members in his party sleeping with young female teenage recruits throughout the novel. The word bedded is used in a few instances to describe some acts and actions. Were these acts not rape?
VH: Consent wasn’t a word that Mei would have used, and the novel is told through her perspective. In the context of the historical time frame, she wouldn’t have had an understanding of that term. The notion of consent—and the language for it—would have been anachronistic to 1960s China. Even in 1960s America, for that matter. The shaming and subsequent reframing of Monica Lewinsky in the mid-1990s, and the reckoning of the Me Too movement, was still decades away.
AM:I want readers to be able to take away some of your recommendations on historical fiction novels from China at the same time that your novel is set. Could you share suggestions for readers interested in a deeper dive into this piece of history?
VH:I can recommend Brothers by Yu Hua. I really enjoyed that. There’s the memoir of Chairman Mao titled The Private Life of Chairman Mao, written by Li Zhisui. There’s a lot of literature from the Cultural Revolution. It’s actually called “scar literature,” reflecting on the wounded psyche of people from that time period.
Aditi Malhotra is a writer, freelance journalist, and educator in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is a professional juggler of many editorial hats. Currently, she’s writing a book on epilepsy from a public health perspective at Hesperian Health Guides. Her news writing and narrative nonfiction has appeared in Huffington Post, PBS Newshour, theAtlantic.com, Hechinger Report and Wall Street Journal, among others. She also writes poetry, fictional prose, and performs spoken word. Her work spans intersections of gender and migration, mental health and education, food and identity, and books!