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on writing a green sun

ch cartoonOver at the Opinionator, Virginia Pye recently asked an interesting question: can you — or should you — write a book about a place you’ve never visited?

China of My Mind

In her own words:

When I tell people that I have recently published a novel set in China, one of the first questions they ask is whether I’ve been there. My response seems to be a letdown. The expectant look on their faces shifts as they wonder why I chose to write about a place I’ve never visited. Sometimes I sense incredulity. What makes me think I can write about China?

She then goes on to describe her own family’s experience with China. Her grandfather was a missionary who was kicked out of China in the 1900 Boxer Rebellion, and her father was what she calls a “China watcher,” an American professor (a political scientist, I believe) who observed China and worked with it but for years was prohibited from actually living there because westerners weren’t allowed to visit. He finally did travel there in 1972, but even then he doesn’t seem to have lived there. Virginia Pye says she never visited herself, and she’s also aware of the danger of appropriation and imperialism that she thinks characterized her grandfather’s efforts there (though she does say he developed a genuine connection with the land and culture).

Pye is very upfront with the fact that she doesn’t know China as an actual Chinese person would. She says she didn’t inherit some special connection with the place just because her grandfather had lived there and her father had visited. She grew up among relics from pre-communist China brought back to America by her grandfather and the “cheap red and gold Mao buttons, quilted jackets in workman’s blue, olive green caps and the most ubiquitous souvenir of the time, Mao’s Little Red Book” her father brought back from his research trips. As the descendant of German immigrants I appreciate this: I grew up on stories of my great-grandmother’s life in Germany under the Weimar Republic, and felt a deep kinship with the country before I ever saw it. I get that. I also get that the connection I had before seeing those places pales beside what I felt after actually standing there. I think Ms. Pye gets it too. She certainly understands there’s a gap between her experience and the experience of someone from China.

So the question becomes: is the connection Ms. Pye has enough? How much do we have to know a situation before we should write it?

Read the rest of this entry »

Originally published at Faith Seeking Understanding. You can comment here or there.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 31st, 2013 10:20 pm (UTC)
I always find that you do gather something from seeing a place in real life. Not that I'm well traveled but I've found that many places have to be seen and experienced to get any idea of what they are like.

I am a shameless fangirl of the old West and of George Armstrong Custer and his life and times in particular and a few years ago, we got the opportunity to visit the Little Big Horn Battlefield. I came away with an appreciation for the scope of the battle that I could not get from any book though I've read many, many books on the subject. I stood in the grass and saw the place where the 200 plus men of Custer's brigade died horribly and probably needlessly on that warm summer day so long ago.

Oh and they have lots and lots of sunflowers in South Dakota and Wyoming.

Having said that, I still think that with study and research, one can write very credibly about a place she's never seen. Virginia Pye seems to have a feeling for China that makes it almost a place that exists in her own head, if that makes any sense at all.

I do enjoy your thought provoking posts! Oh and Happy New Year.
Dec. 31st, 2013 11:30 pm (UTC)
"How much do we have to know about a situation before we write it?"

Well, if you are talking personal experience (which seems the gist of this) I'd say "not much".

I've never been to Middle-earth.

And what about people writing about historical eras they've never lived through? I don't think not having been to a country precludes a person writng about it,
though to be good writing about it, she/he should probably do the research, so as to avoid the sorts of boo-boos that make one end up on fanficrants.

There are all sorts of types of stories that one can have no personal knowledge of: historical eras, space travel, magic. And there are some things that some people can have knowledge of, but usually don't when they write about them: criminal investigation, war, life in show business, political intrigue--and other countries besides those where they were born and raised.

If people truly only wrote what they knew personally, it would decimate the world's libraries.

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )



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