MEMOIRS OF A EURASIAN and SHANGHAI GIRL both tell unusual stories set in Shanghai and cities outside China. What are they each about?
Both are about a strong heroine with roots in Shanghai’s former French Concession overcoming extraordinary odds in pursuit of a dream. MEMOIRS OF A EURASIAN is set in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Tokyo, with snippets of St. Petersburg and Warsaw. It is about the vicissitudes of three generations of a Eurasian family beginning with the Russian branch fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution to the 1930s Shanghai, the fate of its descendants during the radical Cultural Revolution and finally the economic boom of more recent times. SHANGHAI GIRL is set in Shanghai and New York in the 1980s and early 1990s. It’s a story of love, ambition, intrigue, interracial relations, and the American Dream that is narrated by a post-adolescent girl from Shanghai, a Shanghai-born American businessman, and a young American Asia-aficionado.
The political nature of the Cultural Revolution features prominently especially in MEMOIRS OF A EURASIAN. Can the novel be seen as yet another book about that period in China?
I wouldn’t say so. MEMOIRS OF A EURASIANis a historical novel about the vicissitudes of three generations of a Eurasian family in the Far East. The Cultural Revolution is just an anchoring point and it certainly was a very political time. But the novel is really about unique individual experiences of the characters that are not familiar to a Western reader. And I want to evoke a sense time, place, and culture – a kind of unique reading experience, if you will.
Both novels have murders in them and involve the Chinese, Japanese, and Caucasians in some way. How did this come about?
Interracial relations is one of the multifaceted themes in both books. In a way, MEMOIRS OF A EURASIAN is an exploration of the Asian male psyche when it comes to the Caucasian female and SHANGHAI GIRL is the opposite – that of the Caucasian obsession with the Asian female. I wanted to examine the universality of humanity and the complexity of the world without sacrificing the novels’ entertainment value.
Are you suggesting that Asian ideas about eroticism differ from Western ones?
I’m suggesting nothing of that sort. Ideas about beauty, sensuality, romantic engagements, and sexuality can be highly personal and individualistic. A novelist is neither a moralist nor a social scientist. Her role as a literary artist is to create a world which the readers can be transported to and experience it vicariously.
MEMOIRS OF A EURASIAN describes racially motivated cannibalism in the contemporary developed world. Is it pure fiction?
Unfortunately, the incident that is fictionalized in the book was based on true crimes committed in Asia and in Europe. Richard Lloyd Parry’s book People Who Eat Darkness and Mick Jagger’s song Too Much Blood, for instance, deal with this matter. While a novelist is not subject to the same stringent requirements for accuracy as a historian, she has no business perpetuating falsehoods.
A conversation with Vivian Yang, author of "Memoirs of a Eurasian" and "Shanghai Girl"
Both protagonists in MEMOIRS OF A EURASIAN and SHANGHAI GIRL are young Shanghai girls who go to the West, at least for a sojourn – just as you did. Can they be seen as your alter-egos?
The writer James Baldwin said that all first novels are autobiographical to a certain extent. So SHANGHAI GIRL’s Sha-fei Hong, who was named after the famous the French Concession’s Avenue Joffre, shares some of my emotional growth experiences, as I was born in the former International Settlement and grew up in the French Concession. I am also the only child of parents who were university professors, and I later came to America for graduate school, just like Sha-fei. But the story proper is fictional. Mo Mo in MEMOIRS OF A EURASIAN, by contrast, bears little biographical resemblance to me.
You have created original characters one seldom comes across in existing literature – including the principled and helplessly romantic “Renaissance Shanghainese” flâneur, the Eurasian orphan with pianist Van Cliburn as her unlikely hero who debases herself to survive the Communist regime in MEMOIRS OF A EURASIAN, and the pre-Communist mission-schooled Chinese-American businessman Gordon Lou in SHANGHAI GIRL. How did those unique fictional people come to you? Who is your favorite character in each?
My characters are composites of people I knew growing up in the 1970s and 80s in Shanghai’s former European quarters. Many were disenfranchised former elites who had gone to Western mission schools, like the “Renaissance Shanghainese” and Gordon Lou. Others were working-class Christian converts who had to survive and adapt to the new Communist regime. Still others – the few but memorable ones I knew – were Eurasians who continued to live in Shanghai after the 1949 Liberation. Most Westerners, of course, had long been “shanghaied” out of China by the time I was born, and anything not regarded as proletariat was banned during that period - particularly English and Western culture. “Renaissance Shanghainese” is my personal favorite in MEMOIRS OF A EURASIAN, and Sha-fei Hong, the first-person female narrator of SHANGHAI GIRL, is the character I feel most attached to. The other two narrators of that novel are men, although Gordon Lou and Ed Cook are both distinctive and strong characters in their own right.
Is the Shanghai you write about consistent with the West’s image of this Chinese city?
While I don’t believe that there exists one codified image of Shanghai even among the Chinese, I imagine that some Western readers may think of China as being culturally and ethnically homogeneous. By setting my novels partly in its former French Concession, Shanghai’s unique position in China can be fleshed out and its less-known but fascinating stories can be told in an entertaining way. I’ll leave it to my readers to judge whether or not my Shanghai matches their own vision of it but I certainly hope they’ll enjoy the stories no matter what their notion of the city is, glamorous or otherwise.