Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Q&A with Peter Rupert Lighte




Peter Rupert Lighte is the author of the new memoir Straight Through the Labyrinth: Becoming a Gay Father in China. He also has written the book Host of Memories. He is the founding chairman of J.P. Morgan Chase Bank China, and he lives in Princeton, New Jersey.


Q: What inspired you to write Straight Through the Labyrinth, and what impact did it have on you to write the book?


A: It dawned on me that as our daughters were growing up, the delightful ordinariness of our family—a product of the velocity of new times—not only spoke volumes about social progress, but was diluting the power of our daunting saga; and the girls need to know about how our family was created.


Then unexpectedly, the story of our hard-won family only grew all the more important as social progress began to look fragile.


It was the very writing of the book which ambushed me with insights, propelling this author in both unexpected and enlightening directions. Had I not written it, I might never have understood my very own story. Time well spent, indeed.  


Q: The writer Shai Oster called the book a “tale highly specific but also universal, about the search for love and family and redemption, told with candidness and sharp wit.” What do you think of that description?


A: In a most tidy fashion, his words do capture the book. Mr. Oster not only recognizes that there is nothing provincial about love, but grasps the power of my quest to become a father.

The word “redemption” intrigues me. In fact, I had no desire to relive my imperfect childhood through my children. Rather, I wanted to retrieve it by living alongside them as I was hoping to get things right for our family; and without rewriting my own early history, I was able to write a better one because of my daughters.


When one canny editor read an early draft, she took me to task for leaving myself out of my own story; thus, I gingerly introduced myself into the narrative, realizing that I needed to give of myself as it pertained to our story. My girls—and readers—needed to know how I got this way; Hattie and Tillie will now also know more about themselves.


As for wit, I am pleased that my own insistence upon having a good time writing the book morphed into a good time for Mr. Oster.    


Q: Did you need to do much research to write the book, or was most of it written from memory?


A: Sometimes I feel like Trollope. Words just pour forth from my propelling pencil into my notebook!


But unlike my other books which simply recounted memories, I wanted this good read to be a narrative of record, as well; thus, I dug out some accounts written along the way to help me fill in the blanks without burdening the story with the details of a beancounter.


By the way, my daughters, who are now 24 and 26, have absolutely no interest in the book. One glibly commented that she will read it when she turns 80. Can’t think of a better reason to have written it.


Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: I am a big fan of the oxymoron; thus, zooming through a maze—an apt description of my handling of Chinese bureaucracy—delighted me. Furthermore, the word “gay,” appearing in the subtitle, just got better with “straight” appearing above.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Over the course of the pandemic, I wrote another book of vignettes, very much in the style of Host of Memories: Tales of Inevitable Happenstance.


There’s more to me than memory lane, though. I am a sinologist and am preparing a series of lectures on China. I am fortunate in having studied Chinese history and philosophy and having lived in Beijing over the years.


By the way, at Princeton it was said that “Everything after the Ming was journalism.” It was my good fortune to have lived on both sides of that divide.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Of all things, study of the I Ching, Jung’s synchronicity and a current obsession with quantum mechanics has made life a lot simpler. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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