Xujun Eberlein Steven Wingate One on One

portrait Xujun Eberlein

interviewed by Steven Wingate

Published in Issue No. 133 ~ June, 2008

Xujun Eberlein’s debut short story collection Apologies Forthcoming won the 2007 Tartt First Fiction Award and was published in May, 2008 by Livingston Press. Its stories, first published in such venues as Agni, Meridian, and StoryQuarterly, are predominantly set in her native China during and after the Cultural Revolution, and are unified by their immersion in the moment of their unfolding. At a time when the whole world has its eyes on China as the new economic giant, Eberlein intimately examines the underbelly of cultural and personal change that–intentionally or not–led to the nation’s surge in world power. I often found myself feeling, as I read Apologies Forthcoming, the sense of a national culture in tumult breathing its last before being paved over by a newer, shinier, and no less tumultuous one.

Eberlein is also an accomplished writer of nonfiction, which is how I first encountered her several years ago. Her website is http://www.xujuneberlein.com/ and she blogs, from her Boston area home, on literature and China at http://www.insideoutchina.com/.

Steven Wingate: An author bio of yours I read says that you “gave up high-tech for writing on Thanksgiving 2003.” What exactly happened? Has your memory of that pivotal moment changed for you over time–especially now that your fiction collection book is out?

Xujun Eberlein: That decision had something to do with 9/11, and I wrote about it in a personal essay, “The Camphor Suitcase.” The piece won a Literal Latte essay prize and should be published soon. To avoid repeating, let me just say the real life version of that bio line was two torturous years. Should I quit or should I not? Such a question, neither metaphysical nor material yet touching both, is capable of making your food taste wooden and waking you up in the middle of the night. I remember discussing the idea of quitting with a Chinese friend several months before taking the action, and he said with a sincere worried look, “You should go see a psychiatrist now!” I suppose it is indeed a bit crazy to throw away a high salary and become your spouse’s dependent. On the other hand, I find solace in following John Gardner’s advice from On Becoming a Novelist: “The best way a writer can find to keep himself going is to live off his (or her) spouse.” LOL.

When I eventually made up my mind, Thanksgiving was approaching. I wrote up a resignation letter but did not hand it in right away, thought it would be inconsiderate to disturb the holiday for my president, who valued my work very much and treated me well. I was going to give him the notice Friday. However, he came to me on Wednesday to check on a new assignment that only I knew I could no longer take. This left me with no other choice, and I literally quit on Thursday, Thanksgiving 2003.

SW: The protagonist of “Snow Line,” the opening story of your collection, completely abandons the arts. You and he have different kinds of experiences, but is there a connection between his decision to go one way and yours to go another?

XE: Very interesting you should ask this–I hadn’t been conscious about a connection. But, of course there is one. Only very rarely does what one is passionate about turn out to be the “right” choice in retrospect. This is a source of fundamental tragedy in human life: a course of action begins before you can see the consequences. When you see the consequences, you can no longer reverse the course. You can only hope your subsequent actions will be “right,” but of course there is no way to know.

SW: The majority of stories in your collection take place decades ago in China, and in that sense are all equally distant from you as an author. But some are in third person and others in first, which involves an aesthetic choice of distance. What factors went into you choosing which stories to write in first person?

XE: Good question. I can think of one situation–in the case of “Feathers”–where I chose the third person to avoid being sentimental, because the story is based on a personal experience. I had first written a non-fictional account of the same incident. After that piece was published, I felt a certain depth of emotional truth had not been explored and I needed the higher freedom of fiction to achieve it. Because writing the non-fiction piece had made me cry, I did not want the raw emotion to impede my exploration in fiction. In this case, using third person really helped.

Distance is certainly a consideration, but it is not the only consideration. My stories follow either a mainly emotional/psychological plot, or a mainly action/event plot. While any POV can be good for the former, I find the third person to have more potential for the latter because it makes retrieving external elements much easier. More often than not, however, my choice of POV was intuitive and I can’t always give a definite reason.

SW: You write both fiction and nonfiction, which involve different uses of the memory and unique ways for us to re-tell the past. How is your experience of writing fiction different from that of writing nonfiction, and does the mode you write in affect the way your memory operates?

XE: Interesting that another interviewer has asked an almost identical question. I think I can only answer this one in the past tense because my experience constantly evolves. So far, I have felt a nearly unlimited power in writing fiction, but tightly constrained in nonfiction. The latter is probably because I was very conscious of the verifiability of facts. Such constraints are not necessarily a bad thing; rather because I don’t have the freedom to deploy an alluring plot that might tempt me in writing fiction, it forces a higher aesthetic standard. I think writing literary nonfiction is more challenging, and that challenge is a magnet for my interest.

As to how the memory operates, when I wrote fiction I was often unconscious about which part was from memory and which from imagination. For nonfiction, I tended to double check my memory, and I often turned to other sources to verify my memory. But if I found a conflict between a second source and my own memory, I might believe in myself more.

SW: In your fiction, do you ever feel any tension between the compulsion to bear witness to history and your authorial commitment to the emotional lives of your characters? How does this tension (if any) manifest itself, and how do you resolve it?

XE: I think when a story draws largely from my own personal experience, such a tension is almost non-existent. In this case, true to myself, honest to myself, is true to history. However, when my memory is weak about the period details where the story is set, the tension can be strong. As a fiction writer, I might be overburdened with getting history right. I’m not sure if this is a good or bad thing, but I don’t think I can change much in this. I don’t believe in universal emotions across time. I think most, if not all, human emotions do have a timestamp on them. And I think basing an historical story largely on imagination is irresponsible. The only resolution is research and more research. It is hard work, I know.

SW: The lack of familiarity with Chinese culture and custom can create great tension for the American reader. How aware are you–I’m thinking particularly of during the revision process–of this lack of familiarity and the effect it can have on a reader?

XE: I assume the reader at least has heard about the term “Cultural Revolution” and has some vague, not necessarily accurate, ideas about it. That is pretty much the only assumption I made. There is a danger with such a minimal assumption – as a writer, you might be tempted to pour out loads of background information, for fear that the reader doesn’t get it. Fortunately, my storyteller’s nature helps to reduce that risk – it is boring to dwell on providing information instead of telling a story. I’d rather err on the side of leaving readers with questions than getting them bored. Most fiction readers, after all, care more about emotional life of the characters than mere facts. And, if you are doing it right, you can convey emotions even if the cultural background is unfamiliar.

On the other hand, sometimes certainly foreignness can add interest to the reader. I think a story that largely relies on exotic factors is cheap, however I don’t shy away from an interesting element from my native culture. The key is to determine whether such an element helps or impedes the story flow, which is easy to say, hard to do.

And I do often worry about the reader getting me wrong, or getting the history wrong. I guess this is a common weakness of writers and I’m not an exception. That is why I provided a Q & A for reviewers. The Q & A might be redundant, but at least it is outside of the stories.

SW: One of the hardest things for me to get used to was the self-censorship that occurs in your book, such as when your character Shanzi thinks, “Oh! Did she just think the word drudgery? Such a bourgeois thought!” This occurs not only in relation to Maoism, but in relation to family life–what we don’t say to those we love in order to save their face. I’m not certain what my question here is, but I’d love for you to address that.

XE: This is what I referred to as the timestamp on a character’s emotions. It is also a culture-stamp. The new generation of Chinese is less like that. I do not regard self-censorship is an absolutely bad thing in itself, rather its negative or positive value depends on the societal and historical context. On one hand, ancient Chinese wisdom assesses it priceless for an individual to know his own weakness, and a certain level of self-censoring is needed to achieve that. On the other hand, the society can turn this around against an individual and thus create tragedy. Every sword is double-edged. I don’t think the western concept of “be yourself” is all-positive either–it certainly gives an individual a perfect excuse for not trying to improve himself. But I’m off topic now, am I?

SW: In your story “Randomness of Love,” a character asks, “Which is better: to have a false belief and be content, or to break the false belief and feel empty?” In the collection, this applies to more than Maoism and the Revolution; it applies especially to love, although love in your book is often highly confused by the political situation in which it unfolds. I’m not certain what my question here is, either but…

XE: I always wonder what role faith plays in human life, given that faith and fact often conflict with each other. If faith is sometimes a necessary pain killer, it also has side-effects. And the side-effects can manifest at their worst when political faith, religious faith and personal faith are all tangled together. Not sure if I answered your question but…

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Steven Wingate's short story collection Wifeshopping won the 2007 Bakeless Prize for Fiction from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and was released for publication this month by Houghton Mifflin. He spends his analog time in Colorado and his digital time at www.stevenwingate.com.