16 years ago, which was, scarily, nearly half of a lifetime ago for me, I visited Datong, China, in the country’s arid Shanxi Province. Datong was not only the most coal-polluted city I’d visited in my life (it has the ominous title of one of the world’s ‘Most Polluted Cities’), but was also home to some of the most beautiful Buddhist sculptures I’d ever seen at the Yungang Grottoes (photo at bottom) and the Hanging Monastery. I must have found a friend with whom to chat in my then-burgeoning Mandarin and someone snapped the above photo of the crowd who gathered to meet the 16 year old American girl.
When I returned from that four month stay in China in the pre-Internet, pre-iPhone days, I told my then-boyfriend (keyword: ‘then‘) that I wanted to write a book about China. He said, “No one will want to read your book about China.” I suppose I am tenacious as hell because 16 years later I have finally finished that book, and although it looks much different from the writing I began after my first visit to China (mostly in journals and poetic verse), the spirit remains intact: to tell the story of a modernizing China through the lens of an American teenager invited to live with a Chinese family.
In a letter from Key West in 1934, Hemingway wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald that the most important thing is to “for Christ sake write and don’t worry about what the boys will say nor whether it will be a masterpiece nor what.”
I suppose I could have used this advice 16 years ago, but, then again, I managed to ignore the naysayers such as that (ex!)-boyfriend as well as several English teachers who found my prose too ‘florid.’ Driven by something bordering on maniacal devotion, I wrote on… (if anything, writing should be considered a psychosis, especially at the earliest, most lonely stages). I attempted a career as a media writer, then a public relations writer, then an ethnographer. None of this felt right. Finally, around 2004-2005, I began the first etchings of my first novel, Empire of Glass (then called The Soap Tree) in the form of a chronicle of my time living with a Chinese family. In 2006, some amazing (half-drunk?) fool on the committee of the U.S. Department of State’s Fulbright Association awarded me a creative grant to spend the year in China researching my Chinese family’s history.
The research formed the basis of my novel and, six years later, I eventually finished a manuscript, Empire of Glass, that will soon be sent down the birth canal and out into the harsh light of the publishing world. Like a baby freshly birthed, I expect there will be much screaming, crying, and blinking into the blinding white. Will there be more naysayers? Absolutely. But I feel exceptionally grateful that I’ve never let this fact deter my desire to tell a certain story, a story I felt was important nearly two decades ago and still do today.