Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Q&A with Lai Wen




Lai Wen, a pseudonym, is the author of the new novel Tiananmen Square.


Q: What inspired you to write Tiananmen Square, and how did you recreate the events that happened to you and your friends during the protests?   


A: As a writer, I am unfortunate in that I rarely find moments of inspiration. The idea for Tiananmen Square didn’t arrive as a bolt from the blue, it wasn’t a “eureka”-like flash of inspired creativity.  Rather it was a compulsion that had lived in the background of my life for the years following the event.   


What eventually happened at Tiananmen Square was a great injustice perpetrated by political functionaries whose dull spirits were animated by the most cynical forms of power and self-interest.  


On the other hand, the protesters represented the very best of people; kindness, solidarity, a great deal of optimism for the future, and above all, the most incredible courage.  


The repression itself was horrific, absolutely terrifying. But in its aftermath, one was left with something that was in some way worse – that is, a feeling of abject powerlessness. Despair. It’s a quiet emotion, something which creeps across your being over time like a second skin.    


In writing the novel, though – in trying to bring to life not just the pain and injustice but also some of the creative, funny, wonderful, and courageous spirits of those days – it reminded me that the struggle, even in defeat, had been so important. 


And I think memorialising it on the page made me feel a little less powerless, a little less despairing in terms of my own life. So that was a big part of why I wanted to write it. Or why I needed to.   


Q: What did you see as the right blend of fiction and history as you were writing the novel? 


A: It’s an interesting question, but one I am not sure quite how to answer. Partly because I didn’t really set out a plan in advance; I didn’t say to myself, “Well, it’s going to be 40 percent fiction and 60 percent fact.” 


And yet, Tiananmen Square is a novel above all. Which means that a lot of the characters have been changed in various ways and some never existed at all.   


From the point of view of myself as the writer, this was helpful. I liken it to a person in an art gallery who is looking at a painting. Stand too close, and all you can see is a chaotic malaise of clashing colours. Take a few steps back, and the image clarifies, and the painting comes together.  


In a similar vein, the fictitious elements of the novel allowed me to take a few steps back. It meant I could bring in characters or introduce events that allowed for the image of a greater whole to clarify. If I’d had to adhere to the facts in the strictest sense, the story would have been more narrow and limited in its scope.   


So I suppose that the point of blending history with fiction is to bring out the realities of history more vividly and more widely; to enhance that which is real by using that which isn’t in order to more better evoke the spirit of the times. I don’t know if I have achieved that, but I hope so. 


Q: The author Meg Waite Clayton called the book “a novel that reveals truths about the past, a lens through which to view the present, and a warning shot for the future.” What do you think of that description, and what do you hope readers take away from the novel? 


A: I’m not a confident person, so for the book to receive that kind of acclaim from Meg Waite Clayton – a writer with such talent and renown – meant a great deal.  


And I hope that she is right, because I strongly believe the literature on Tiananmen Square should act as “a warning shot for the future,” especially given the character of the Chinese state today.   


As an authoritarian power with vast financial and technological means, it is locked into the oppression of ethnic minorities such as the Uyghurs who are concentrated in camps, while also maintaining the sweatshop-like conditions endured by many millions of industrial workers across the big cities.     


There is, in China, no democratic system by which these abuses can be challenged.  


So short of Western military intervention (which I think is an awful prospect that could lead to a series of horrific wars), the force that can end these abuses and change the political system is the Chinese population itself.  


That is why it is so important to return to the events of Tiananmen Square – for people to understand not only how powerful the student movement was but also its limits. So we can learn what can be done better during “the fire next time” – to coin a phrase from James Baldwin.   


Q: What do you think are some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about the Tiananmen Square protests? 


A: I think a lot of people in the West have a sympathetic attitude toward the protests but they often have only the vaguest idea of them. They imagine, for example, that the protests were just about students, and that they took place only in the capital.   


But this is far from the reality. Although the epicentre of the protests was always Tiananmen Square, and though the students were at the heart of this, the movement over time pulled in vast numbers of the local population who came out to support us.  


Factory workers, street cleaners, shopkeepers, office workers, even some police officers and lower ranking government officials – the protests brought into their remit people from all walks of life. In fact, even the thieves of Beijing declared a strike to show their solidarity with the demonstrators! 


And in places across the board hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets: in Hong Kong alone 600,000 people erupted in protest, while huge demonstrations occurred in Shanghai, Wuhan, Chongqing, and many other cities and regions.   


So perhaps the most common misconception surrounding the Tiananmen Square events was that they were “just” student protests. They weren’t. What we saw was a full-blown revolution.     


I’d like to add something else. I think a lot of people imagine great historical movements to be incredibly serious affairs, often with high-minded and noble political aspirations, but events that are rather dour and joyless precisely because of their gravity and purpose.  


But one of the things I wanted to show in my novel is how this is just one aspect of it. The protests in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere were not just about politics.


They were also about people gathering together, forming new friendships and relationships, creating new forms of music and culture and poetry, new ways of self-expression and art, and dancing and debate, and anything else you might imagine. And in this way, they formed the blueprints of a new world.     


Q: What are you working on now? 


A: I am tinkering with the idea of writing a sci-fi-feminist-dystopian-fantasy loosely based on the story of Alice in Wonderland. But the first few pages have been, to put it diplomatically, less than good. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I would like to say thank you so much for such an intriguing set of questions, and for the interest in the novel more generally. It means a great deal. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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