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?