In Kinder Than Solitude, the atmosphere of social upheaval in 1980s China is reflected in the relationship between three teenage friends whose lives are changed by a murder.
Much of the book takes place in Beijing at the time of the anti-Communist protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Were you a participant?
I was in my first year of high school in 1989. Like several characters in the novel, I was more of an observer than a participant. I was not in Tiananmen Square on the day of the shooting—my parents, like many in their generation, and like the parents in the novel, had sensed violence looming and locked my sister and me in. The turmoil in 1989 is the backdrop for the novel, though a more interesting question to me is the line between a participant and an observer: one can choose to be an observer, yet life can, against one’s wish, turn one into a participant in a drama, a tragedy, or even a murder.
The book is structured to move back and forth in time. Was this a challenge?
It took me a year of not writing to figure out the structure. The novel has to give away the murder before its end. It occurred to me that what happens is a mystery to all the key characters, as it is to the readers, and the readers and the characters should find out the solution at the same time. So I settled for the only structure that would allow it: moving back and forth in time.
The undercurrent of unexpressed love plays a big narrative role in the book. How much of this conflict stems from Chinese cultural parameters?
I’ve always liked Marianne Moore’s line, “The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence.” All complicated feelings have an undercurrent, which cannot be expressed, or well expressed, in words. I don’t think this is particular to Chinese culture, though for the three main characters, the inexplicableness of the murder captures their emotions at the most intense, raw moment in their transition from children to adults. One could say that the timing of the murder is fatal, and they have never again trusted love.
The story moves to the United States, where your American characters seem as complex and flawed as your core Chinese characters. What is the common thread between these two cultures?
I believe people coming from different cultures have similar experiences. Most of us live with imperfect yet deeply emotional relationships—between lovers, family members, and friends. We tell lies about ourselves, and hate to be lied to by others. We long for, yet also fear, real connections to other people. This is the case with the characters in China, but it is true for the American characters, too.
You’ve lived in this country since 1996, and your English is flawless. Do you still think in Chinese?
I now read and write in English. I speak to myself and dream in English. Though not my first language, English has become my creative and intellectual language.