Back in 2005, The Paris Review published a story called “The Dog” by Jack Livings. Now, it’s the title story of a collection featuring eight pieces all set in China, and which marks a stunning debut for Livings. In fact, I was so impressed with The Dog—its tightly packed language, the realness and vibrancy of life in contemporary China, the humorous way of exploring disturbing social issues—that I had to ask Livings about the ideas behind the book.
Tweed’s: All the stories in The Dog take place in China. Can you fill us in on your relationship with China, and how you came to know enough about the country in order to write about it so well?
Jack Livings: This will probably sound strange, but I haven’t been to China in about twenty years. I had a semester of college in Beijing in 1994 and then went back to travel around in 1997. But that’s all it took—the place had its hooks in me, and for many years after that second trip I had an intense longing to return, but I wanted to go only if I could stay for a year or more—I wanted to settle down, see old friends and make new friends, get into a rhythm, hang out at night with the old guys playing chess in the alley, watch the seasons change. I could never make it work. To fill the gap, I read everything I could get my hands on, from scholarly papers to oral histories to classical literature. I talked about it with anyone who would listen—I was the guy who didn’t say much at parties until someone said, “Oh, Marsha’s going to Dalian next week,” and then you couldn’t shut me up. Of course, I probably wouldn’t have needed to write these stories had I been able to go back, and what I realize now is that I was longing for a specific time as much as a place and the people who were there.
Tweed’s: That’s very surprising, especially since many of your stories seem to reflect what’s going on in contemporary China. For example, in “The Heir” and “The Pocketbook” you write about Uyghurs and the oppression they face in Chinese society. This topic is particularly relevant, considering the recent bombing by Uyghur separatists in Xinjiang and the Chinese reaction of declaring their own “war on terror” on Islamic fundamentalists. I know you’re a writer and not a political analyst, but can you explain a bit more about your understanding of the situation of Uyghurs and the increase in terrorism in China? Looking back, for example, can you see the seeds of the present situation?
Jack Livings: You know, I’m not entirely sure there’s been an increase in Uyghur separatist activity in recent years. It certainly would benefit the Chinese government’s case if there were an Islamist terrorist group operating out of Xinjiang, dispatching bombers to Tiananmen and perpetrating mass knife attacks in train stations, but because the government controls the information coming out of investigations of these events, I’m skeptical. No doubt, there are Uyghurs who are in the fight, and for good reason—for decades the government has been engaged in strategies designed to wipe out Uyghurs, to wipe out the ethnicity as a whole. One of the most obvious tactics is to encourage intermarriage between Uyghurs and Han Chinese by offering money, better jobs, better apartments to these couples. There are reports of forced abortions and sterilizations among indigenous Uyghurs. Every imaginable injustice has been visited upon these people. They have plenty to be angry about, and there have been plenty of riots and bombings, but they’ve been going on at least since the 1990s. I think we’re just hearing more about it today, possibly because the internet does make it harder for the government to suppress news. And, again, it works in the government’s favor to show the world how terrible Uyghurs are.
When I was there, Uyghurs were permitted to live in one of two neighborhoods in Beijing. One was near my college, and was pretty much as I describe it in the story. The living conditions were sub-human. When I finally sat down to write about it, I tried to be as honest as I possibly could; unrelenting suffering demeans both the victim and the perpetrator. Noble behavior goes out the window. Survival is what matters. Though I didn’t think about quite this way when I was working on the story, that neighborhood was really a sustained form of torture, and in the story I imagine that it takes a terrible toll on everyone who sets foot in the place, including the Chinese officers. I remember when I finished a draft I sent it to my friend Antoine Wilson, who’s a great writer and is the first reader of everything I write. He called me the next day and said, “Another crowd pleaser, huh?” It’s not a story of human triumph over evil.
Tweed’s: There’s seems to be a lot of similarity in Xinjiang with what’s been going on in Tibet—the Han ethnic invasion, the Tibetans being treated as second class citizens, and even violent protests due to the understandable anger at the on-going cultural extermination.
On a different, perhaps lighter note, a few of your stories—”Mountain of Swords,” “Donate,” and “An Event at Horizon Trading Company”—are about the inside workings of a Chinese business, what with it’s cliques and rivalries, and the constant pressure of conformity. Did you work in any company like those in the stories, or did your friends? How accurate do you think the depiction of Chinese working environment is?
Jack Livings: I’m glad to hear you think it seems authentic. I’ve worked with journalists for about the last ten years and was in somewhat familiar territory when I was writing “Mountain of Swords,” which takes place at a newspaper, albeit one in Guangzhou. I do rely on the notion that work translates—whether you’re a reporter or an astronaut or a field hand, if you spend your day working in the company of other human beings, you’ll feel camaraderie one day and you’ll be gnashing your teeth the next, and you’re probably going to think you ought to be paid more, and at times you’re going to bridle under the authority of your boss. So those stories might have some quasi-universal truths going for them that make it easier to buy the settings. But I also did a lot of reading about state owned enterprises, the history of the work week in China, the current function of the work unit, stuff like that, though very little made it into the stories. Research is sometimes just a way of establishing in my mind what’s acceptable in a given fictional world. Once those boundaries are up, I can invent details. Accuracy is important to me, but I’m not fervid about it.
Tweed’s: Makes sense, Jack, and indeed your stories are probably all the better for being universally appealing rather than specific. My last question could have been a follow up to the first: what is it about China that so attracts you to write about it and put its “hooks” in you? With all the problems you present as China having, it still seems to be a very seductive allure. Also, and this might be related, what do you hope for readers of The Dog to come away with, in regard to either their understanding of China or your writing in general?
Jack Livings: When I’m writing, I tend to be attracted to absurd situations and China abounds in those. But I could find absurdity almost anywhere. I’m from South Carolina, where there’s plenty of weird to go around. So there’s more to it than that. I do think China was the first place I ever felt nakedly responsible for my own well-being—the experience of being illiterate, able to speak the language about as well as a four-year-old, not understanding the rules of interaction, occasionally finding myself in somewhat dangerous situations—many days held spans of intense stress and confusion and I’d go to bed at night and sleep like the dead. It was not an immigrant experience by any stretch of the imagination, but I caught glimpses—an unusual experience for a white American male in the late 20th century. To some degree, it reshaped who I was. And I had a lot of fun.
I also love the language. I love that written Chinese has been an art form for centuries, and on the other end of the spectrum, I love the way government phraseology translates into English. I read a Chinese news report recently that referred to the United States as a “mincing rascal.” Who talks like that? Even though they’re making an effort to smooth their communications with the world, the CCP is still spewing this formalistic, nearly incomprehensible blather. It’s a language the government owns and therefore defines, a form of idioglossia, which is, by turn, a means of controlling their environment. But translating it into English—or Dutch or Japanese, for that matter—inevitably unwinds some of those meanings and adds unintended ones. This stuff is, to me, endlessly fascinating.
As to what I want readers to come away with, I only hope that folks will read the stories. And I thank them if they do.