Xujun Eberlein

by Susan Henderson on June 4, 2008

Today I’d like to introduce you to Xujun Eberlein, a tremendous writer and social commentator, who has just published her first book, Apologies Forthcoming. This collection of short stories features relationships that are complicated by China’s Cultural Revolution: lovers who can’t be together, a family that hides a child’s death from her grandmother, and children who have come to enjoy the thrill of brutality.

We’ll talk about these stories, this time in China’s history, as well as Xujun’s journey to publication. I hope you enjoy the interview and join the conversation!


Where were you born?

Chongqing (also known as Chungking), China. During WWII it was China’s war-time capital; now it is China’s biggest city.

Tell me about Chongqing and what it was like from a child’s eyes – before you had a larger understanding of what was happening to China.

Curiously, in my childhood memory the dominate image of Chongqing – shared with many people throughout China – is from the cover of the novel Red Crag.

I was in the second grade and Red Crag was the first novel I ever read. It is about underground communists imprisoned in SACO (Sino-America Cooperative Organization) prisons, their suffering, heroics and sacrifice. Red Crag is a highly political book combining graphic torture scenes with an upbeat heroic theme, and, I have to say, the story was gripping to a young mind. In 1960s China, even for a child, there was no way to separate politics from life. Thus the image of a lone pine tree atop a red cliff was synonymous with Chongqing for me, even though there was nothing remotely like it where I lived. In retrospect, the novel is on the borderline between historic fiction and propaganda, and it played a big role in cultivating a generation of young idealists. The character Liu Huagu in the story “Men Don’t Apologize” is typical of those.

The stories in this collection all feature the Cultural Revolution.

I guess the motivation is both historical and personal. I would like to convey to the English reading audience my experiences, common experiences, which are not properly represented in the existing English literature on this period. Personally, my big sister’s death as a Red Guard at age 16 created in my heart a “Cultural Revolution complex.” In the collection, the story “Feathers,” though in third person, is actually a story about me dealing with her death.

What aspects of the Cultural Revolution are not represented in the existing literature?

The usual “victim literature” would show people suffering from the movement. But people, a really large number of people, were also at the heart of the movement. The distinction between victims and villains is very unclear and my stories show a broader range of behavior beyond suffering.

Could you define the Cultural Revolution for any of my readers who are unfamiliar with that period in China’s history?

It is very risky to even try to define such a big and complex thing in a few words, but let me introduce it in a nutshell: The Cultural Revolution was a mass movement launched by Mao Zedong. It began in the summer of 1966 and lasted for a decade, until Mao’s death in September 1976. During that period Mao purposely broke the state apparatus with the help of the masses, thus leading the entire country into chaos. Virtually everyone in China was affected. Students, middle school through university, became the Red Guards. Books were burned or seized, libraries sealed. Schools were closed for years, and there was practically no university for an entire decade.

With all the upheaval, as you can imagine, there was little productive work going on outside of the countryside where the farmers continued to work the land. “Inserts” were city youths from middle or high school sent to the countryside to work with and be reeducated by the “poor peasants.” This is the background of the story “Disciple of the Masses.”

You’ve really blurred the lines between victim and victimizer in your stories. Can you talk about how your characters subtly move from one to the other?

In “Disciple of the Masses,” a well intentioned girl takes food away from hungry farmers. In “Second Encounter,” two idealistic boys try to shoot one another only to meet decades later and wonder at their motive. In “Men Don’t Apologize,” an ex-Red Guard still does not apologize to his victim. A great deal of human tragedy results from the confluence of social trends leading to upheaval. In this setting the identification of villains is done by the victors. A Chinese adage, “The succeeded is titled the king, and the defeated is named the bandit,” profiles thousands of years of Chinese political history. As far as political conflicts are concerned, victims and victimizers can easily switch positions.

Fun things used to happen more often on the big street, like Red Guard demonstrations, faction fights, or truck parades exposing criminals and counterrevolutionaries, with arms tied high behind their backs and heavy name boards strapped around their necks. But lately the street has been quiet as well. The whole city has been quiet. There hasn’t been much to watch. I think this is because all the young people – secondary schoolgraduates like Wang Jian – have been “inserted” to the countryside. Like fallen leaves swept away by the autumn wind, they are gone. Without them the city is like an empty castle, kept only by the very young and the very old.
– “Watch the Thrill,” Apologies Forthcoming, p. 81

Talk to me about the relationship between idealism and violence in your stories.

Idealism gives one a sense of righteousness and higher purpose. It can add spiritual strength for an individual; it also helps justify what he or she does to other individuals. Idealism does not directly lead to violence, but it dulls the other senses that help stave off violence. It is that dulled sense, very evident in “Watch the Thrill” and “Men Don’t Apologize,” that creates an environment where violence of one group against another can easily manifest.

I love this line from “The Randomness of Love,” p. 130: “Which is better: to have a false belief and be content, or to break the false belief and feel empty?” I’d love to hear you talk more about this.

For many people in China, Mao Zedong was a secular god. The belief in the man and the mission he was on was very much that of devout religious believers. As the mission went wrong, that belief was challenged in a way that religious beliefs cannot be challenged (in the sense that religious belief puts faith above evidence).

So, when faced with all the evidence what does one do? This is an especially poignant question for a person who has already rejected religious beliefs and so has nothing to fall back on.

During the Cultural Revolution, an entire generation had been sent to the countryside, and spent the best part of their youth in alien fields, determined not to marry until allowed back to the city. When they did finally return, the men went for younger girls, while their female peers were left to age alone. It was like the aftermath of war, except that the men were wed instead of dead.
– “Pivot Point,” Apologies Forthcoming, p. 21

Let’s talk about the artwork in the book. There are eight stories and four insets. That’s not something I often see in a story collection.

In China illustrations are common in literary books. I guess I did not realize this is unusual in the U.S. My opening story, “Snow Line,” alludes to an actual artwork titled “Dandelion.”

The artist, Wu Fan, is a friend of my parents, while his daughter and I are friends. The genesis of “Snow Line” actually came from the daughter; she had modeled the little girl in “Dandelion.” I thought the artwork would add a nice dimension to my story, so I asked for permission to include it from Wu Fan, and he generously agreed. I ended up using three works from Wu Fan; each fits nicely with one of the stories. His daughter did the sketch for “Men Don’t Apologize.”

My publisher, Joe Taylor, kindly accommodated my wish to include the artwork, though he could only do black-and-white. It looks great in the book and I’m very thankful to Joe.

I had recently graduated from an engineering college, and my mother had knocked on all her backdoors to secure me a job in our city. She made sure I would not leave home again, as I had done at 17. My official assignment was a technician in a local factory, a place that needed neither a college graduate nor a technician. And switching jobs was not allowed. As Chairman Mao had – before he passed – repeatedly put it, each of us is just a gear or screw on the revolution machine, and must stay fixed wherever the Party places us.
– “The Randomness of Love,” Apologies Forthcoming, p. 121

What is that hand-written slogan in your book’s cover image?

The slogan reads: “Ardent acclaim for the publication of the New Year editorial!” During the Cultural Revolution, every New Year Day people paraded on the streets to celebrate the editorial of the People’s Daily newspaper, which was often written by Mao.

If you allow me to digress, there’s something that might surprise you. Despite his historical sins, Mao was a great poet and essayist. Those editorials were very well written, often witty and fun to read, with rich adages and allusions to ancient history. As a child who dreamed to be a writer but had no school to go to, I hand-copied new and interesting expressions from those editorials to build my lexicon.

The public execution will take place tomorrow, in the Da Tianwan Stadium, immediately after the public trial. It is the biggest thrill ever. All of my playmates and I plan to go watch it. And we have to get up early in order to occupy good spots in the front, so that we won’t miss a thing. Pipi, and everyone, is excited. Whatever uneasiness I had is drowned by their enthusiasm. I have only seen executions in movies before. We want to see what Wang Qiang’s expression is like when he’s being shot. And, after that, we will have something to chat about for days, even weeks, and life will be less boring for a while.
– “Watch the Thrill,” Apologies Forthcoming, p. 89

What brought you to America?

That one is easy – my American husband. We married in China but he would not make China his home.

How does being here help you see China differently, and how did growing up in China allow you to see America differently?

To be able to experience life in two countries of opposites both geographically and politically really helped me build a balanced worldview, however there is a constant tension for me. For example, I have not been all that enthusiastic about the Olympics because they require massive investment that could be used to make a better life for poor rural people in China. At the same time I get very upset when Americans throw around terms like “genocide Olympics.”

I find myself defending America to my Chinese friends and defending China to my American friends. I am also critical of both countries. Many issues of contention arise out of a lack of understanding and I hope my writing will help a little in that respect.

What was heroic, just, and glorious then, is ignorant, criminal, and shameful now. It seems only those who survive the waste can understand, dooming new generations to repeat it in different places, for different causes.
– “Second Encounter,” Apologies Forthcoming, p. 141

You and I have been editing each other’s stories for a long, long time. Let’s hear your journey of submitting stories for publication, searching for an agent, and how you ended up publishing with Livingston Press.

I began to search for an agent after several of the stories had been published in good literary magazines, including Night Train, at a time when you were the managing editor. (Thanks again, Sue!) It took me about two years to land an agent. But she could not sell my story collection and I had to leave her. It was not her fault – it is a well-known fact that commercial publishers discriminate against story collections. I solved this by entering contests. “Apologies Forthcoming” won the 2007 Tartt Fiction Award and that is how it got published.

Is there anything you learned about navigating through this business that you could share with my readers?

I remember reading somewhere that a writing teacher keeps telling his students that no one has to read their work. That is, unless it’s good. I thought that was a very good piece of teaching, a truism. Publication is, of course, an important (though often depressing) part of a writer’s career, and it has taken lots of my time. But I find the ultimate satisfaction comes not from the business side but from our utmost exertion in pursuit of literary quality. As the Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu sang over 1200 years ago, “If my words haven’t astounded readers, I won’t rest in death.” This, at least is less depressing.

I know you’ve completed a memoir called Swimming with Mao. How about a two-sentence pitch for any agents or editors who might be reading this interview?

It is not yet complete because I keep rewriting, but: it is a family epic, from my parents’ roles in the Chinese revolution and their animosity toward America, to my marriage to an American man, to my American-born daughter’s misconception of China.

It sounds like a book I would love!

Xie xie, Xujun! And if anyone reading this interview is interested in having a look at that memoir, you can contact Xujun here. And don’t forget to check out her blog, Inside-Out China.