Writing a book is often a long, lonely process. When you finally ‘finish’ (whatever that means), you have this strange amnesia about how much work actually went into it (much like the experience of birthing a child—or so I’m told).
Recently, I reopened my files from the year I spent in China as a Fulbright scholar from 2006-2007, back when I had no idea I would become a fiction writer (I was conducting ethnographic research, with the intention of writing a creative non-fiction book—that work now undergirds the stories in my forthcoming novel, Empire of Glass). At the time, I was simply curious about the stories of my Chinese family (for more on my relationship with my Chinese family, read this post). I sat with my Chinese father (“Baba”) for hours on end each day, even traveled with him to his hometown in the countryside of Zhejiang.
In the record of my research, I wrote this brief note:
February 3, 2007
We’re trying to write someone else’s life as if it were our own. Baba picks up the thumbnail-sized pictures, scrutinizing them with the magnifying glass, his pupils growing larger with each view.
“There she is with the pigs,” he says, pointing proudly to the image of his long-dead wife, much alive some 40 years earlier, holding a small piglet in her arms, her own signature pigtails snaking down her shoulders.
“It would be a lot easier if she were here,” he sighs.
I nod, but am not really sure I understand: Would it be easier to understand the pictures or to know the history? Or would so much more be easier that all of life would be more buoyant, less arduous?
I sift through the piles of black and white photos of mismatched sizes; the larger ones were those she deemed good enough to develop. He told me she spent many nights each week at the makeshift photo studio at their danwei (work unit). She is there—bathed in a red glow, meditatively scanning the last drop of developing liquids as it rolls off the paper, carefully securing the photo to a clothespin to dry. I’m holding the same photo now, though it is faded and we’re sitting under a harsh fluorescent light, the ceiling’s flaky paint bubbling up in a strange sort of defiance. As if to say: we all age, we all decay.