What was the spark that set you to writing “The Mao Ghost”? What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
The initial inspiration came from reading Ken Liu’s “The Paper Menagerie.” I wanted to write something about family relationships, Chinese style: Sometimes you feel they’re the closest people to you in the world, but a lot of times you treat them with extreme cruelty (or vice versa).
My father had liver cancer (fortunately, he survived); many of my female friends have difficult relationships with their mothers (this seems to be fairly common); I wanted to put these pieces together and tell a story about love and lies using the tropes of science fiction.
The biggest challenge for me was that I rarely write stories from a female point of view, let alone a young girl’s point of view. I tried to make the story plausible and to make the characters emotionally real. I consulted with and sought feedback from some of my female friends, and hopefully the result doesn’t feel too awkward to readers.
You wrote: “Who knows what’s the truth now? All the books have been carefully filtered, and all we can read are reports from newspapers that are refreshed daily at the designated time. Without these ghost stories, I’m afraid no one will remember anything.” Censorship of the larger world seems to be a theme in this story. Can you tell us more about censorship and how you see it in relation to “The Mao Ghost”?
There are several layers of deception in the story: The father hides the truth of his illness from the daughter; the state falsifies and tampers with history; and finally, the daughter, taught by everything around her, begins to view the world through a distorted lens, following unspoken rules.
This is, of course, like the reality of today’s China. The most visible aspect of the censorship apparatus is its control of public speech and tampering with media. But the censorship apparatus itself is undergoing change, adopting more intelligent techniques for managing opinions and ideas: to tell a beautiful story, to construct a national myth, even if it’s not true, as long as it can substitute for people’s understanding of reality.
The end of this strand of development is that everyone, almost imperceptibly, is guided into engaging in self-censorship, or self-deception, to distort their own thoughts to fit society’s mainstream values. This is what ought to be feared.
I hope members of the younger generation in China can have their own independent thoughts, to understand themselves, their nation, and the world truly.
I was really caught up in the complicated relationship between Qian and her mother. Can you tell us more about bringing this relationship to the story?
The well-known story of the “Tiger Mother” is an extreme example of the stereotype of Chinese mothers. In reality, this has to do with the generational experiences of Chinese society.
For those of us born in the 1970s and 1980s, our parents went through some of the most tumultuous times in Chinese history as they grew up: the Great Famines of 1959 through 1961, the Cultural Revolution of 1966 through 1976, the mass layoff of state-owned enterprise workers during the 1990s, etc. Too much was missing from their lives, and they had always been taught to live as only a component in a larger whole, to do everything for the benefit of the collective.
Thus, many of them placed their dreams, deeply buried in their hearts, onto the next generation. They used their own values to guide and measure the lives of their children, and so the intergenerational conflict between us is especially severe.
But as members of our generation become parents, the situation is improving. Many younger parents treat their children with a more open attitude and respect their children’s own dreams and lives, hoping that their children can pick paths in life that suit themselves.
Why do you think Qian’s father stuck with the ruse of being Chosen?
My mother went through the Great Famines when she was seven or eight, and she was always hungry. My grandmother would tell her stories filled with all kinds of delicious foods. She would describe in detail the shapes, textures, tastes, and smells. The effect was like the ancient Chinese general who told his soldiers, as they were marching through a desert and parched with thirst, that there would be a stand of plum trees ahead. The soldiers, salivating at the thought of the plums, marched faster and survived the desert.
In extreme conditions, people would try to manufacture beautiful illusions to deceive, numb, or encourage themselves to survive. This wasn’t a phenomenon limited to China—it also occurred in Nazi concentration camps.
In my story, the father created a lovely lie to maintain the daughter’s innocence and faith, so that she could live, as much as was possible, in a fairy tale in the midst of a cruel world, even if it was a very fragile and cheap fairy tale.
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